Translated by Nijole Beleske Grazulis
Although the author herself maintains she was in no way extraordinary, the traumas and deprivations she withstood clearly belie this humility. She describes in vivid detail the harrowing train journey from her beloved country to a Soviet state farm at Kasichinski, approximately 2,500 miles east of Moscow. The conditions on the farm were appalling, with the most meagre of food rations, bare boards for sleeping and no implements with which to till the fields. Labourers were expected to plant and weed the hard clay earth with their bare hands and impossibly high daily individual quotas were set by the camp commandant. Working in the fields from 7am until dusk during the harsh Siberian summer led to numerous cases of heat stroke, whereby the unfortunate victim would simply be left lying on the ground until he/she eventually regained consciousness, only to be forced to toil once more. The bitter cold of winter was even worse, creating considerable hardship for those transportees, such as Matilda, who had been unable to bring any warm clothing with them. Arduous treks were necessary to obtain fuel from woods in the area to warm the labourers primitive huts. Initially an old horse was harnessed to a makeshift plough, but after the demise of the animal, women themselves wore the yoke in order to drag firewood back to the camp.
In addition to these extreme physical hardships, was the mental torment of constant evening radio broadcasts of Soviet propaganda, espousing the merits and benefits of Communism, the ostensible cheerful willingness of those now resident on state farms to support Mother Russia and, following Operation Barbarossa and the demise of the Soviet/German alliance, the dedication of Stalin in saving Lithuania from the oppressive Nazi regime.
Throughout the fifteen years of her internment, Matilda was moved throughout Siberia to various state run farms, her health increasingly precarious due to near starvation and extreme labour conditions. On one occasion she recalled waking up some distance away from the labourers' huts, having been dragged there and deposited on some branches and leaves by her fellow prisoners. This was common practice when it appeared an individual was close to death. Once deceased, the numerous lice would immediately desert the corpse for another living specimen and the spectre of harbouring another's vermin, especially in the case of one who had just died, was both repelling and disturbing to those still alive. Incredibly, after forty-eight hours lying outside unprotected, Matilda regained enough strength for her to be sent to the farm's primitive hospital where, over five months, her health improved sufficiently for her to be sent to Kresty, on the shores of the Yana River where, although the deprivations were many, the working and living conditions were marginally improved.
Throughout these years, the deportees could neither send nor receive any communication with the outside world. Newspapers were not permitted and, for much of the time, even endeavouring to keep track of what day, month or year it was proved useless. More frustratingly, the polar night meant even recognising day from night was virtually impossible and the camp commander would exploit this situation by working the labourers more intensely.
In 1951 Matilda was transported to Yakutsk, the largest city and capital of Yakutiya (the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), where the Soviets were attempting Russify the territory of the indigenous people, the Yakut. All influential posts, those of officers, civil servants, teachers and physicians, were Russian with the Yakut granted positions of lowly status. Matilda was provided with a teaching position at the local Yakut high school by a sympathetic principal who recognised her intellectual breadth. The Yakut were taught in a rudimentary fashion with teaching of the Russian language the main priority. In quiet defiance, Matilda taught the children both Lithuanian and Russian, and in turn learnt Yakut. She taught in the school for two years and during this period slowly regained some of her health. In 1953, with the death of Stalin and a change in the Party hierarchy a number of deportees, including Matilda, were permitted to return to their native land. Upon returning, however, she was greatly dismayed to discover how arduous life had become for Lithuanians since she had been away. Shortages of every kind were endemic, fear and suspicion permeated all interactions and despondency and inertia flourished in a nation where almost all hope had evaporated that the west would assist in liberating Lithuania from the Soviet interloper.
The only flicker of hope Matilda retained was to reach her husband, Jonas Melys, who in 1941 had managed to escape the NKVD, flee across Europe and ultimately arrive in the United States. From the late 1950s, they communicated with each other, and on seven separate occasions Matilda applied for the necessary documentation to migrate to America, only to be continually denied an exit visa. This was an extremely protracted experience, and throughout this period, the health of Matilda's husband slowly deteriorated until his death in 1965. Shortly after this, Russian officials finally permitted Matilda to leave Lithuania to join two of her brothers then resident in the United States. Matilda arrived in Chicago in September 1966 to a rapturous family.
This is a stirring and poignant story of a woman's survival under tremendous hardship, her fierce determination to thwart the Stalinist system by clinging to life, and her ultimate victory in gaining her freedom in the West.