by Motiejus Martišius
Whenever I drive from Skaudvilė to Batakiai I almost always turn off the road at Šilas, stopping at the location of the mass grave of the people who were shot there in 1941. Here, the sky is always dark. The sunlight over the graves is blocked out by a forest of unruly spruce, birches, aspen. Everything seems completely calm here. Occasionally, I catch the light scent of the forest, carried out on a breeze as the wind roars through the trees. I pause. I remove my hat. Slowly, I pull a photograph out of a notebook I carry with me always. A twelve year old girl smiles out at me from that photograph. The photograph is quite worn out. In places there are creases. That’s because I have been carrying this photograph around with me for many years now. The person who this photograph belongs to is already long gone and buried. I listen and I can almost hear her voice: “My Algis, farewell. I am leaving forever.”
In the autumn of 1939, after successfully spending my summer “studying” independently, I skipped a grade. I was moved into the third grade. I’d grown quite a bit over the summer.
My mother sewed a warm coat for me out of Father’s old jacket. It took her a long time to make the coat, four days. She sewed with a needle because where would she ever get a sewing machine? I was very proud of my coat. She redid the lining five times.
Laughing, Mama said, “Other seamstresses measure you once and sew. But look at how many times I’ve had to measure you. I will sew you such a fashionable coat that you will feel like a lord walking around the village.”
“Only lords have better fabric,” I said. “Their coats are sewn from soft black wool, but my coat is sewn from homespun.”
I was very proud of that coat. I whispered to my best friend that my mother had called me a lord. From that moment onwards the entire class nicknamed me, “The Lord.”
My father carved me a pair of clogs. They were good clogs. They had wooden soles and leather tops. (Although, to be fair, the leather came from an old pair of clogs.) My prize possession was a wooden box my father nailed together to serve as a backpack to hold my books. My father promised to buy my school books a week later, when he received his money from our neighbor for shearing his sheep.
Equipped like this, I left for the town to attend school. In the town center, on the edge of the brook, not far from the bridge, there was a shop that belonged to a Jewish man. That shop had everything from candy and notebooks to horseshoes. Whenever I passed this shop, I walked more slowly. It was not the candy or the horseshoes that slowed my pace. No. Almost every morning as I passed the store I saw a girl. She was beautiful with dark blond braids and large black eyes. She was about a year older than me. “Such a beautiful Jewess,” the people would say. I was not the only boy who had fallen in love with the shopkeeper’s daughter, Joana. Everyone in town said, “Joana is not only pretty, but she is also very good, intelligent, and hard-working.”
Joana noticed me too. Whenever I passed the store, she ran out into the street. I would blush and mumble, “Good morning.” She would smile at me and then race back into the store.
I saw her many times. Many times I said “Good morning” to her. But I did not dare start a conversation with her. But Joana was braver than I was. One day she asked, “Boy, have you come from far away?”
“It’s three kilometers,” I said and my face turned a deep shade of red.
“What’s your name?”
One day, as I was returning from school with my wooden backpack slung over my shoulder, I saw Joana standing in the doorway to the shop.
“Algis, come inside,” she said.
I stopped. I felt my cheeks grow hot.
“Come in, come in,” she said, “don’t be afraid.”
I still did not dare. I stood where I was. Only, when Joana took my hand and pulled me inside the shop, I did not resist.
“Who made your backpack?” she asked.
“It’s not bad.”
“Doesn’t your back hurt?”
“It doesn’t hurt. Only it rattles.” I wiggled my back so that my backpack shook and rattled. Even the top popped open.
“Show me your books,” she asked, surprising me.
I thought I would just shut the top of my backpack, but she began pulling the contents out herself. She looked inside my notebook and said, “Your handwriting is neat. But where are your school books?”
“My father hasn’t bought them yet. When he is paid for his work, he will buy them.”
Joana said nothing.
“Would you like something to eat?” she asked finally.
“No thank you,” I said.
Despite my protests, she pushed a handful of candy into my hands. They were the most delicious ones in the shop. I said good-bye. I forgot to thank her for the candy. I ran all the way home.
The next day, after school, Joana was waiting for me in the schoolyard. She grabbed hold of my hand and began to run. I ran along with her. Only, my backpack rattled and shook and slowed me down. But she kept on running, pulling me along behind her. We ran all the way to the shop.
She stopped to catch her breath. Between gasps she asked, “Who is faster? Me or you?”
“It’s hard to tell,” I said, shocked by my own boldness.
“When can we race?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” I said without thinking.
Joana’s elderly father appeared in the doorway.
“Oh, I see Joana has brought home a boyfriend,” he teased. “Are you here to ask her hand in marriage?”
“Father, don’t tease me,” Joana said, growing serious.
A cold and hot sweat poured over me. I felt my face turning as red as a boiled crab.
“Don’t be afraid, Algis,” her father said. “You know me, after all.”
He recognized me because he often came to my father’s farm in his horse-drawn cart to deliver the goods they bought from him. He always gave me candy. One time he gave me a knife as a gift.
“Joana tells me that your backpack is very stiff. Try this one,” he said, pulling a brand new leather backpack with wide straps from the shelf.
“Thank-you, but my parents won’t have enough money to buy it,” I said.
“I told you to try it on for size. You don’t need money. I am richer than your parents.”
I kept repeating. “I couldn’t take it, not without paying for it.”
But the old man didn’t wait for me to say anything more. He pulled my wooden backpack from my shoulders and fit the leather backpack onto my back. He adjusted the straps.
“It fits you perfectly!” he exclaimed.
“It’s not necessary, Sir,” I said.
“Don’t worry, it’s new,” Joana said. She opened up my wooden box that served as a backpack, pulled out my notebooks and other things, and placed them inside the backpack. I glanced inside my new backpack and was shocked to see that she had added the school books I needed to the pile.
“Wear it in good health,” Joana’s father said and smiled. He pat me on the shoulder and walked out.
“Don’t worry,” Joana said. “My father gave me some money, and I used it to buy you books and a backpack. It is more comfortable than the old one, isn’t it?”
When I returned home that day my parents were surprised to see the gifts I’d been given. At first they scolded me, thinking that I’d stolen those things from the shop.
After I explained everything, Father nodded his head and said: “This man is struggling with his shop just like we are. He sees little profit from the goods he sells. All his customers are as poor as we are. Only a very few of them ever pay him back. Some people never pay him at all.”
“The last time I saw him I reminded him that I would soon be paying him back our debt,” Mama said, “but he just waved his hand and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re poorer than I am.’”
My mother continued: “His little girl, Joana, is a very good girl,” she said with pride. “She cooks and keeps house, and tends the shop, and is very warm and polite with all the customers.”
Joana and I became the closest of friends. Not a day passed when I didn’t run to the shop to see her. I’d brag to her whenever I received a high mark. She also became braver with me. When lessons ended, she’d come to the schoolyard. She’d take me by the hand and together we’d run to the shop. I was so happy when she held my hand. The other boys began to tease me. They’d shout, “You have a girlfriend!”
I began to feel how my friends envied me. They would often run over to the shop themselves.
One time Joana and I ran over to the brook to toss flat stones into the water. We watched the stones skip over the surface of the water and laughed. Joana picked a few blossoms from a lily of the valley.
“Algis, what do you dream of becoming when you grow up?” she asked.
“What about you?” I asked, answering her question with a question.
“I want to study very hard,” she said firmly, “and I want to become a teacher who loves poor children and who teaches them.”
I was surprised that she had said the very thing I wished for myself.
“Me too!” I blurted out. “Only…”
“I will not be able to study. I will be leaving to work as a servant for the rich lord when I finish primary school.”
“Do you know what, Algis,” Joana said, happily bouncing from one foot to the other, “I have an idea! My father is also poor. But I have a rich aunt in Tauragė. I will go to live with her and study there.”
“You will study, but I…”
“I will help you,” Joana cut in. “I will ask my aunt for money and I will give it to you.”
And this is how we began to plan our future. We talked about everything.
That autumn my best friend left for the city to study. I was sad that she was gone. I lived for the day when I would finish school and maybe, somehow, continue my studies.
The days passed quickly. Spring arrived. I had completed four grades. Joana came home for summer vacation. She gave me her books and became my “teacher.” During that spring I learned all the material for the following grade. I dreamed that now I could be in the same grade together with Joana, and we could study together. It could work… Somehow… My parents agreed with the plan. My good teacher encouraged my parents to believe in me. She promised to help. My parents began to believe. Somehow, I would study.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June. Joana and I ran down to the brook. We breathed in the scent of the birches. A breeze carried along the scent of jasmines from a nearby orchard. A nightingale busied itself tapping away at a tree that grew alongside the brook. We could hear a coo-coo bird calling out in the distance. Everywhere we were surrounded in a blizzard of white blossoms.
“We will come here tomorrow as well?” I asked. “I’ll bring my books.”
“We will,” Joana said. “We can study our math tomorrow.”
The next morning, I was lying in bed dreaming sweet dreams, anticipating my meeting with Joana.
“Wake up! Algis! It’s war!” my father shouted.
I leaped up from bed. War? Why? I dressed quickly. We heard the sound of bombs falling to the West of us. It sounded as though a hundred thunderclouds were booming all at once.
“They’re destroying Tauragė! It’s the Germans!” my father shouted. His face was pale with terror.
What about my studies? I thought.
When the sun rose, I ran into town. I found Joana’s father crouched in the corner of his shop crying. Joana sat beside him. She too was crying.
“Maybe the Germans won’t make it here,” I said, desperate to convince her that it could be true.
“They will come, my child,” Joana’s father said.
We saw the first refugees out in the street. We heard their talk: “There is only rubble and ash left in Tauragė. We didn’t even have the time to get our clothes on.”
Joana grabbed onto her father’s hand. “Father, we must run too. And you, Algis. Run to your parents and make them come with us.”
“Where will we run to?” Joana’s father said. “I’m old and you are still a child. And after all, we have done nothing wrong.”
All that day people dragging sacks over their backs kept going and going. All the roads were full of people running somewhere.
A few days passed. The fires and the cloud of smoke blew to the East. A sickening silence fell over the town. Only the Germans were out on the streets. They would march down the streets with their boot heels clacking and their shirt sleeves rolled up. Tanks rolled down the road, followed by motorcycles.
My father and I went to see Joana and her father. We asked them to come live with us. We told them it would be safer for them with us. We lived close to the forest. We could hide in the bushes if we needed to. We sensed that something bad was coming.
“I will not leave my home,” Joana’s father said. “If God wants to punish me, so be it.”
We tried as hard as we could, but we could not convince him to come with us. We returned home feeling terribly sad and worried. The poor man still believed that somehow Hitler’s soldiers would have mercy and would spare him.
One morning my mother and I went to see Joana. She was hugging her pillow and crying. She said that the Germans had come and had taken her father away. They had robbed the store of the best goods. She was all alone.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“Come with us. You can teach me my lessons,” I said.
Mama asked her to come. She begged her to come and live with us.
“I cannot go,” Joana said. “My father told me to stay here and wait for him. He might still come home. If God wants to punish me…” her voice trailed off.
My mother and I returned to Joana a few more times and asked her to leave the town and come to us. But Joana was determined to stay and wait for her father. She kept repeating his phrase, ‘If God wants to punish me…’”
We could not bring ourselves to tell her that he may never come home.
We went back again a few days later. Joana was no longer there. No one opened the door for us. We pushed it open. Among trash strewn about the floor, I found Joana’s photograph.
I asked around town and I found out that armed men had come and had rounded up all the town’s Jewish women and girls. They had brought them to a camp. Joana was gone. Only her photograph remained.
A few more days passed. I went out into the forest to gather berries. Mama boiled eggs, put together a bundle with butter and bread. I walked through the forest. I reached Lomius… Antagluosnis…
I stood for a long time at the barbed wire fence. I anxiously listened to the cries of the women, the grandmothers, the children. I did not see Joana anywhere. Only when the sun was setting, did I see the silhouette of a figure moving towards me. Her dress was torn. She was barefoot. Her face was thin. She had been crying. Only her eyes were the same… Those beautiful eyes filled with love and warmth… The eyes of a girl with a good heart.
“Joana!” I began to shout, unable to control myself.
“My dear brother,” she cried out. She lifted her arms. She wanted to come closer, but the barbed wire between us scratched her elbow. She began to cry. I cried along with her. When I finally came to my senses, I remembered the bundle and pushed it through the fence to her.
“Thank-you, my brother,” she said.
I showed her the photograph.
“Algis, give me a photograph of yourself.”
I was furious with myself that I hadn’t thought of bringing my class photograph with me that day (I didn’t have any other). I would have given it to Joana. I promised to bring the photograph next time. I wanted to talk with her some more, but an armed guard separated us. He was heavy and had a wide face. He was burning with anger. He shouted something in German—most likely a curse. Then he growled: “Are you a Jew-lover?”
“No,” I stammered and stepped back from the fence.
Joana turned away.
Many years have passed now. That “no” still burns in my heart to this day.
I remember Joana and I think of how she picked lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots to give to her father. Now lilies of the valley grow on her grave, and the graves of the others who were tortured and killed along with her in this place.
I have picked a bouquet of lilies of the valley for you, Joana. You have not died. To me you have remained forever young, forever beautiful. And your little house stands in the same place still, on the edge of the brook, not far from the bridge, in the center of town. Your house is empty now. Lonesome. Hunched over, your house waits for you, like a grandmother waits always for her children to come home.