A tragic Lithuanian partisan story

Lithuanian Partisan Bronius Balašaitis-Benius. Photo Tauragė museum

In the 24th issue of our newsletter “Mūsų laikas“, Mlaikas.lt published a photograph together with a request by the historian Dalius Žygelis to identify one of two uniformed Lithuanian partisans, captured in the photo, sitting in the forest.

One, sitting in the right side of the photo, is one of the most famous Kęstutis constituency partisans, Vladas Mišeikis-Tarzanas. Leonora Mickūnienė, who lives in Raudonė, not only recognized the other partisan but has also told the shocking history of two partisans – one of them recognized as Bronius Balašaitis-Benius together with Pranas Valaitis-Kazys (Bičiulis) hid in an equipped bunker in her parents homestead of Butkaičiai for two years. They were some of the last victims of the partisan war.

“I was still a child, but I remember the events of that time very well. There were five children in our family and my mother was expecting a sixth. We lived in a homestead in Butkaičiai right next to the Vidauja river. My father, Izidorius Klimaitis, was the deputy chairman of the collective farm. He’s the one who installed the bunker for the partisans. I don’t know the details of whether they asked my father or if my father suggested it himself. I only remember how they lived with us.”- are memories that Leonora shared with us. In her opinion, her mother’s, Petronėlė Klimaitienė’s memories should be recorded and preserved in the Lithuanian genocide victims Museum.

“They were very impressive and handsome men. We didn’t know any others. The bunker was there in the yard where the stables stood. The path from the stable doors led straight into the garden, so my father installed the bunker right at the doorstep. It’s already 65 years later, but I’ll forget it. There are many written recollections about Bronius Balašaitis-Benius but not much about Pranas Valaitis-Kazys because there weren’t any relatives who took care of commemorating his memory after Lithuania recovered Independence after 1990. He had one sister who returned from exile and visited my mother, but my mother was disappointed because the sister took little interest in her brother’s fate. His remains, like those of Benius, lay in the market in the square on Kaunas Street in Jurbarkas, as did other desecrated partisan bodies.

He was betrayed by his liaison, Adelė Kundrotaitė, who also lived in our village. I saw how she would come to us; she may have been Benius’ romantic interest… Once in the autumn of 1952, I woke up during the night – mom was crying terribly, I was most likely woken up by that crying. It still makes me sad. Kaziukas was sitting on the bed, having returned to us (our family called him by his code name Kazys and Balašaitis by the code name Benius). He is sitting there, smoking, it was nighttime, in autumn. The moonlight fell through the window. He said that Benius had disappeared, that he was probably shot. They had agreed to meet at the “Dubysa” collective farm but there was an ambush, he was betrayed by someone. He said that Kaziukas fled and that he ran into a field of oats. There he lay for a while and then slipped into the woods. When they shot Benius, they arrested Adelė. Kaziukas then said that the bunker should be overturned, because they will find it out anyway. He went to break it up together with my father and they destroyed it”- said Leonora.

Partisan Pranas Valaitis-Kazys then left the Klimaitis home, hiding elsewhere, but no one wanted to shelter him, they were all afraid. The Partisan War was already ending, because the promised help from America didn’t arrive, the awaited War between the West and the Soviet Union also did not start, but a great many Soviet forces, helping the local stribai (translator’s note: soviet exterminator squads), finished killing the remaining resistance troops, a fast collectivization took place, and deportations thinned the ranks of the freedom fighters.

Winter came on, so Izidorius Klimaitis decided to install another bunker and to hide P. Valaitis in it. “I didn’t see how the bunker was built. There was a potato cellar in the middle of the courtyard, and sideboards lined three sides of it, there was also an annexe and an icebox. The entrance to the potato cellar was invisible. He again made a second bunker at the doorstep. There hid Pranas Valaitis, “- said the woman.

Events evolved very fast at that time. “I woke up one morning – the house is full of stribai, stabbing under the bed, pulling the bed out and looking under it. And Daddy is already in the barn. The stribai are everywhere, looking, and father says that the partisans were there, but left. They asked why he didn’t report it. Dad says that he was afraid because he has family and many children. They brought him into the house with a gash on his face an awful scar. They found the broken up old bunker. Maybe they would have quickly left but one club-footed man saw the threshold.

Apparently, Kaziukas was not holding the lid of the bunker from the underside and the stribas, stumbling on it, felt that the threshold wobbled. They understood everything. I heard as they started shooting. Our great-grandmother, our father’s grandmother, lived with us. That elderly woman laid us down behind the stove. The stribas came into the room and my mother ran to tell Kaziukas to give himself up. He apologized to my mother for having put us at such risk and said that he would shoot himself in case he could not withstand the torture and then betray others. I can’t stay alive, he said, thank Adelė for me. Leonora tells us that as her mother went into the house, she heard a shot.

The stribai started shooting; at the same time, Leonora sprung out into the field and heard as bullets whistled above and around her head. Mom, seeing her, rushed out screaming and covered her body on the ground with her own. I still can’t imagine how the two of them stayed alive. “When Kaziukas himself and fell, she said to drag him out by his feet; the threshold had chop marks on it because the feed for the animals was prepared on it. Mom sees that he is still alive, eyes still moving, she wanted to raise his head so that it didn’t bang on the threshold, and received such a kick, starting with a terrible curse, that it ruptured the muscle in her leg. All her life, my mother had a terrible scar on that spot”- remembers Leonora.

The woman told us that the stribai then threw not only the still living partisan body of P. Valaitis but also forced in both parents. They drove the partisan to Giriai , and showed him to the doctor, but his life extinguished along the way. Isidorius and Petronėlė Klimaitis were arrested – the Soviets considered it an unbelievable crime – and at the end of the Partisan War, the bunkers were found with partisans hiding in them. There were only such units remaining.

The liaison who betrayed these two partisans, Adelė Kundrotaitė, sat throughout the court hearing together with Leonora’s mom because they had a common court case. ” Adelė cried the entire time. Mom told her that Kaziukas had asked to thank her. She only cried and said that while they beat her, she remained silent but when the started poking heated needles under her fingernails, she could no longer suffer it. She told where they were hiding. She could hardly endure the feelings”- said L. Mickūnienė.

The woman remembers how frightened the children were when they were left by themselves: “The stribai gathered everything up – meat, bacon, shoes, dad’s suit, other clothes – they took everything. We were left complete beggars, hungry and ragged. They lived with us for a few days, waiting for partisans. They ate everything. One day they gave us some potato porridge, but added so many bacon strips, that it was so salty, that I couldn’t eat it.

All of that out of greed. They left us naked and shoeless. They gathered up all the grain. We owned one cow, a few pigs, the horses were already taken away, our older brother Leonas cried over the horses. He saw the horses driving our white cart, but the horses didn’t recognize my brother and turned away – they were exhausted from hunger. Horses were not fed and they dropped dead en masse,”- remembers Leonara and tells that she recently met Jonas Bastis from the town of Pavidaujas. He remembered how at the time, he and the residents of surrounding villages heard them shooting.

Izidorius Klimaitis was sentenced to 25 years for concealing partisans, Petronėlė received 15. “That happened after 1953, shortly after the court case and Stalin’s death. Echelons were no longer formed, there was nowhere to put the prisoners.” – says the witness to the events. The Klimaitis couple spent some time more in prison. Then, the leaders of “law enforcement” invented a plan and released both parents. Nothing was proven during the trial that someone was shot, there were no other witnesses, and the parents denied everything.

“Mom wasn’t beaten because she was pregnant, but she wept all the time. They were released and someone came to us at the farmstead every day – to ask directions, to buy a cow, looking for someone. Our neighbor, the Tamošaitis family, lived close by, the stribai equipped their staff headquarters there, they watched us with binoculars day and night, believing that someone would show up” – remembers the witness. There was no second court case, but I. Klimaitis was nevertheless taken off to the Commission. And although they didn’t touch P. Klimaitienė, they threatened her the entire time – there will come a time, they will deport you, such refuse isn’t needed. “We hid for three years. Then the message arrived – we will now be deported. When the parents were arrested, the children were divided up. My mother’s brother, Izidorius Giedraitis, hid in Butkaičiai. There was a trunk in the room and if the dogs barked, I was immediately put into the trunk. I was afraid to cry, but it was so scary. The worst was when the mice scratched around me. My 2-year-old brother Algimantas was sheltered by my mom’s other brother, Domas Giedraitis; Leonas was taken in by friends of my parents. My 14-year-old brother, Domas, who was a student in Girdžiai at the time, and my 4-year-old younger brother, Stasys, were left at home with my great grandmother. Stasys stubbornly insisted that he would go nowhere outside the house. When Mom came back, the danger nevertheless had not passed. We hid for a long time, maybe three years. When we heard about new arrests or deportations, mom would run to her sister, Veronika Naudulaitienė, who had returned from exile and lived in Girdžiai. And we – ran wherever. What was most painful, that the Soviet designated government did not even allow us firewood, hoping that we would die from hunger. Daddy returned when I was in, maybe grade 4, and we were worried during the entire year before his return – look, someone is saying something again, maybe on purpose. There was a diversity of terror and it is psychological – as well. We hauled firewood at nighttime when it was wet outside with my father’s brother so that the tracks would not be seen. We all trembled for our own hides; it was clear that there would be no freedom. Daddy spent about 5 years in the Commissariat, and when he was released, he couldn’t return for some time”- relates Leonora about the difficult post-war years.

According to the witness, returning home from exile, having suffered from what he didn’t even want to talk about, Izidorius Klimaitis could not even look at some of the people around him. He wanted to move away, and no longer see the painful shadows of the past. He suggested to the entire family that they live in Sovetsk (translator’s note: a town in Kaliningrad).”My mother did not go, she said that she won’t sweep streets. She stayed here with the children. Daddy wouldn’t stay here for any amount of money; he knew more than we did and couldn’t watch it. They beat him inhumanly during interrogation, they tortured him, they simply fried people alive. The partisan liaisons were blue after interrogations, the medics pulled blackened blood from their faces and let them go.” – said the witness.

She understands that her dad suffered very much and does not condemn his moving away. In her opinion, no one can know where the limit of pain lies, especially of an overwhelmed soul. The family stayed to live in the village of Butkaičiai.  Leonora finished primary school, then seven years of the school In Butkaičiai, then finished a degree in agriculture in the Belvederis technical school. All of her brothers completed their education.

“The farmstead has been gone for a long time. It was near the general store, having driven across the Vidauja river, on the left. Buried documents were left there. Our partisans found a shell casing with a top to screw on it in the forest and brought it back. Documents, photos were sorted and buried near the willow tree in the homestead. After many years, Lithuania had already recovered Independence, the eldest brother Domas searched with helpers, but found none. Maybe the land drainage project dug it up, threw it away, it’s unclear. Maybe someone found it and stayed silent. Such were the times. Neither the tree nor the well remains in the homestead – nothing is left”- remembers the witness.

Pranas Valaitis-Kazys was her first teacher. “It was like a coffin for him in the bunker. There was only room for one in there. In the bunker, there was a sieve on top of a bucket in the potato cellar. I would visit him with a notebook, and he taught me calligraphy. I remember the teacher in the primary school, holding up my notebook and saying, look, kids, how well Klimaitytė writes, – I can’t do as well. And he taught me to read very well. Both he and Benius were cultured, handsome, I never heard any swearing. I carried him food during the day so that I wouldn’t look suspicious. First, I would stoop down and talk with the puppy, then I would push the little pail through the door. While Benius was still there, I remember how he would play with us, tossing my little brother up to the ceiling, he was happy. They were locked up like wolves in the barn, or in that coffin – the bunker, so they were very happy to socialize with others. I remember how he shaved his beard in front of a mirror, after all, they were young. Smiles when a small gisft was brought to him, or a pile of apples. I remember that I very much wanted to run over to the neighbors, their daughter Vitalija Tamošaitytė watched the cows while they grazed. And she embroidered beautifully. But while I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to visit her. My parents feared that I would talk about the partisans. I remember my parents would talk about the partisans. When I grew up, I listened – who they were. Mom said – they are the same as our men. But don’t tell anyone because the Russians will shoot them. Neighbors later said that they suspected something but did not imagine that it could be the truth. We appeared to live a normal life. Mom with children at home, father working at the collective farm.”

And although more than 60 years have passed since the events that Leonora relates, even now many Lithuanians, with such heavy fates, come forward from the past. After all, no one passes through without footsteps – the memory of the nation and the endured emotions remain.

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