O P I N I O N
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
Following the Lithuanian parliament’s recognition of the February 16, 1949 declaration of the Council of the Union of the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom as an act with the force of law, there was a natural interest in questions about who the partisans who signed that declaration were. It would seem the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania would be the organization to present the most comprehensive biographies for these people.
Unfortunately that’s not the case.
I came to that conclusion after reading several biographies of Juozas Šibaila provided by the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania. In the short bio presented in their “Gallery of Signatories,” there is not a single word about anything that happened in 1941:
“[He] was born March 18, 1905, in Vadėnai village in Alytus district. After he graduated from the Alytus Teachers’ Seminary, he taught in the Alytus and Ukmergė districts. He was a member of the Riflemen’s Union and was awarded the order of Vytautas the Great, second degree. He joined Povilas Plechavičius’s Local Battalion in 1944. [He] was a partisan from 1944 on, was chief of staff of the B battalion of the Great Struggle [paramilitary] District and edited the battalion publication called ‘Tėvynė šaukia’ [‘The Homeland/Fatherland Beckons’]. Starting in February of 1948, he worked with the headquarters of the Eastern Lithuanian King Mindaugas partisan district. A year later he was appointed as representative of this district to the supreme command of partisans being formed. In February of 1949 he was a member of the presidium of the Council of the Union of the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom, was head of the Civilian Section of the Union of the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom and was editor of the publication ‘Prie rymančio Rūpintojėlio’ [‘Next to the Rhyming Worrier’]. By order of the presidium of the Council of the Union of the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom, he was promoted to the rank of freedom-fighting partisan colonel on May 30, 1950, and was awarded Crosses of the Freedom Struggle in all three degrees. He died February 11, 1953, when he was betrayed at Aukštadvaris village in the Ramygala rural district. The minister of national defense of the Republic of Lithuania ordered he be awarded the rank of lieutenant colonel posthumously on May 13, 1998, and the president of the Republic of Lithuania issued a decree on May 19, 1998, awarding him the Cross of Vytis, first degree, posthumously.”
In the other more extensive biography the first Soviet and Nazi occupation isn’t forgotten entirely, but details are few:
“After the Soviet occupation began, J. and O. Šibaila taught in Balninkai township in the Ukmergė district. On June 14, 1941, Šibaila’s entire family, except for him, he was not at home at the time, were deported to the Katunskoye settlement in the Smolensk district in the Altai region. J. Šibaila remained in Lithuania and during the German occupation he continued to work as a teacher at the Balninkai school.”
A compilation of biographies of people of Anykščiai [?], Lithuania, provides many heroic flourishes to Šibaila’s biography:
“…having avoided deportation, J. Šibaila a week later was the organizer of and an active participant in the 1941 June uprising in the Balninkai area. The insurgents under his command occupied the Balninkai rural district and assumed power even before the German military arrived.”
The question arises: why is the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania covering up the “patriotic” activity of J. Šibaila in 1941? Do they not know? That’s not the reason at all. In the compilation documents called “Masinės žudynės Lietuvoje 1941-1944 m.” [Mass Murders in Lithuania, 1941-1944”] published back in 1973, J. Šibaila figures in three separate documents:
“Šibaila Juozas, born 1905, teacher, member of the Geležinis vilkas [Iron Wolf] organization in Ukmergė, head of the Young Lithuanian [party?] for the Kurkliai area of the Ukmergė district, a Nationalist. Was commander of an armed LAF unit at the beginning of the occupation. After the war organized and commanded armed gangs of nationalists, had the codenames Dėdukas, Mėrainis and others. Dead.” (pp. 419-420)
From the testimony of witness Stasys Bratkauskas, born in 1897, of Dirvonai village in the Kurkliai area of the Anykščiai region [?] (pp. 296-298):
“On the second day of war a punishment unit began to operate in Balninkai which was organized by the former chief of the police department, Petras Stumbras. His primary aides were the teacher Juozas Šibaila and the bourgeoisie Povilas Juočepis. After five or six days Jonas Steikūnas, the estate owner, returned to Balninkai after escaping from the prison in Ukmergė, and he took command of the unit.
“On Petras Stumbras’s orders, the punishers [=shock troops?] began to arrest local party, Communist Youth and Soviet activists, for example, Balninkai rural district executive committee secretary Antanas Venteris, the same rural district’s Communist Youth committee secretary Stasys Latvis, his brother Antanas Latvis, Soviet agriculture director Jonas Laurinaitis, the policeman Bagdonas and others, in total about twenty people. They held them for two or three weeks in the rural district administrative building. They brutally beat the people they had arrested. They beat Venteris so hard he couldn’t breathe, they damaged his head. I was on guard then. After Stumbras allowed it, I called the doctor in to administer first aid to the victim.
“After the war began, it was Saturday or Sunday, before the German military arrived in Balninkai, I was in church during Mass. After the services Jonas Steikūnas announced there would be a meeting of ‘activists’ in the garden next to the church and [said] we all must attend. Many of the people who were in church did go to that meeting. They set up a table in the garden for the presidium of the meeting while the public stood. Jonas Steikūnas, Petras Stumbras, Juozas Šibaila and the priest Juozas Susnys sat down at the presidium table. Jonas Steikūnas spoke first. He urged the youth to join his unit and help ‘make order.’ Steikūnas called for helping the German military which had ‘liberated us from Soviet rule.’”
From the testimony of Stepas Urbonavičius, born 1897, of Antalaušis village in the Žemaitkiemis region of Ukmergė district (a former member of the Riflemen’s Union):
“In June, 1941, I was appointed alderman of the Balninkai rural district. I held that post until July, 1944, i.e., until the arrival of the Red Army. On June 23 arrests of party/Soviet activists, Communist Youth and Communists began. Balninkai rural district executive committee chairman Nikodemas Šeduikis and secretary Antanas Venteris were beaten up. The two cells in the rural district’s jail were stuffed with people. Of them, I recognized the following: the elder Kavaliauskas the agronomist, Balninkai district chairman Pranas Šeduikis, rural district executive committee secretary Antanas Venteris, Communist Youth organization secretary Stasys Latvis, Kazokiškės district chairman Antanas Latvis, Balninkai district secretary Jankelis Treibišas, the two Šapiraitė [the two Shapiro sisters?], the elder Jonas Lavtis, the estate worker Petras Vikužis and LVKJS [All-Union Leninist Union of Communist Youth] member Leizeris Bušneris.
“There was a conference at the end of June with Balninkai estate owner Jonas Steikūnas, punishment unit commander Juozas Šibaila, police department chief Petras Stumbras and the Riflemen’s Union members Povilas Juočepis and Viktoras Aukštuolis present. The conference took place in the evening, and that night all the people indicated [selected] were shot at the Valai Forest about 5 km from Balninkai.
“In August of 1941 Steikūnas and Šibaila assembled the riflemen at the Balninkai school. Šibaila said: ‘We have completed our task, we have made order, we have rounded up all Communists and Soviet workers. Now we must pursue every remaining Communist or Soviet activist and reported them to the police, but for now live at home and carry on your work calmly, but be ready.”
Today testimonies from the Soviet period have been declared null and void, but the Lithuanian Supreme Court, which rehabilitated Jonas Steikūnas in a decision on April 27, 2010 (case no. 4R-3PAsk./2010), did consider those same events in Balninkai:
“During interrogation J. Steikūnas confessed he took command of the Balninkai unit of insurgents whom P. Stumbras had set up when he [Steikūnas] returned from prison in Ukmergė at the end of June, 1941. Under Stumbras’s orders, the Balninkai insurgents’ unit captured Soviet activists, of whom thirteen were shot [executed by firing squad] in the Valai Forest, while the others were handed over to Ukmergė security. During interrogation Steikūnas indicated that on the evening of the day before the shooting of the thirteen activists, Stumbras and the priest Susnys had suggested he [Steikūnas] shoot all thirteen of those Soviet activists, but he alleged he was against shooting them and suggested taking them to Ukmergė security, and that despite that, the insurgents killed them en route [to Ukmergė] in the Valai Forest. Who precisely shot them, Steikūnas claimed not to know, but said he believed the insurgents had done this, after consulting Stumbras. Under interrogation, Steikūnas indicated a directive was received from the Ukmergė police in August of 1941 to collect the citizens of Jewish ethnicity living in the Balninkai township (about 100 people) and transport them to the Ukmergė prison (those transported were later shot in the Pivonija Forest), and said that rural district alderman S. Urbonavičius and unit commander Stumbras carried out this order. Upon their orders, [he claimed,] farmers from surrounding villages were called in with their wagons to Balninkai township and transported the Jews to Ukmergė prison, escorted by members of the unit [the partisan unit]. Under interrogation at law enforcement institutions, Steikūnas indicated he [had earlier] traveled to Ukmergė on the day when the Jews of Balninkai township were transported to the prison and had not participated, and [alleged] furthermore that he had convinced other people not to take part in the arrest of citizens of Jewish ethnicity.”
The Lithuanian Supreme Court rehabilitated Steikūnas because, in the court’s opinion,
“insufficient evidence was collected during the interrogative stage of the case to provide basis for the accusation against Steikūnas, both for crimes against humanity and war crimes as well as participating in the mass murder or torture of unarmed civilians, and neither was this done [sufficient evidence collected] after performing additional investigation in this rehabilitation case.”
Furthermore, the court presented the conclusion of the prosecutor general which stated:
“Steikūnas, opposed to the spread of Soviet ideology and the consolidation of power by this regime, a proponent of the free state of Lithuania, a Lithuanian military volunteer and a member of the Nationalists’ Party and the Riflemen’s Union, joined the unit of insurgents and was one of its commanders, struggling against characters of a pro-Soviet persuasion.”
An interesting detail is that the finding filed by the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania with the court on February 8, 2010, finding no. 37 R-16, says that of the 13 people shot, only 4 had cooperated with Soviet structures: the Communist Youth Antanas and Stasys Latvis, district chairperson Pranas Šeduikis and executive committee secretary Antanas Venteris. What about the other 9 shot? What did Jewish residents of Balninkai Jankelis Treibišas, the Šapiraitės or Leizeris Bušneris have to do with Soviet power? Was agronomist Jonas Latvis guilty merely of being the father of two Communist Youth sons? And finally, were those four civilians who had cooperated [with the Soviets] really legally subject to being executed by “proponents of the free state of Lithuania?”
Nor is it clear what crime was committed by the 100 or so Jews of Balninkai. Who was responsible for the death of one out of every six of the township’s residents? It doesn’t seem their fate was of great concern to the Soviet interrogators, but they did seem very concerned with establishing who had murdered thirteen activists in favor of their [Soviet] government. The commanders of the “insurgents” who took the Jews of Balninkai to their deaths pointed their fingers at one another in the Soviet period, while the legislators of the Republic of Lithuania declared investigations of war crimes conducted during the Soviet period null and void, but haven’t bothered to conduct any investigations of their own…
Jonas Steikūnas, Petras Stumbras, Stepas Urbonavičius and the hero of our times Juozas Šibaila were the commanders of the armed men who took the Jews of Balninkai to their deaths. So that’s why the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania is ashamed to admit that signatory to the February 16, 1949, declaration of the Council of the Union of the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom, Juozas Šibaila, was also party to the uprising in June of 1941 in Balninkai township.
Authorized translation from Lithuanian by Geoff Vasil.