When Irena was 13 years old, she and her family were among an estimated 400,000 ethnic Lithuanians who were rounded up and deported to Siberia in 1941. Forcibly removed from their homes and sent to labour camps. Punishment for the crime of being ethnic Lithuanians.

A secret pact had been drawn up between Hitler and Stalin for dividing up the Baltics and Poland. Stalin got control of Lithuania and started to destroy many things not Russian, entire cultures included.

Most of the people that were deported didn’t even survive the journey over thousands of kilometres in packed rail cars. Starvation and disease took most of them. They may have been the lucky ones.

When they arrived at their destination, the deportees were forced to build crude sod shelters to survive because they now faced bitter cold, as well as starvation and disease. 30 to 40 people were crowded into a shelter, giving them about a half a square metre of space per person.

Not long after their arrival in Siberia, Irena watched her mother die of starvation because she refused to eat, instead, giving her food to her children.

Irena didn’t go into detail about life in the camp. She certainly could have. She spent 17 years there before she was allowed to go home to Lithuania.
One can only imagine the hardships they endured.

Now, at 82 years of age, Irena stands by at an open air display that features a small rail car and a Jurta, the name for the type of sod shelter in which she lived for many years. The display is at an open air ethnographic museum near Vilnius, Lithuania. A few survivors of the deportation asked the administration of the museum if they would house a small display.

When we arrived there, Irena, a volunteer, was standing in the late summer sunshine. The Jurta is in a clearing in the forest but it’s in the shade and quite cool there. She had been standing in the sunshine to warm up.

Given everything she had told us and all the things she had been through,
Irena didn’t look sad or sorrowful. On the contrary, she was a beautiful woman with rosy cheeks and eyes that absolutely sparkled.

Even when she spoke about returning to Lithuania at age 30 she didn’t seem angry or filled with hatred about what happened. Once she got back home, Irena studied medicine and graduated as an MD. However the Russians never allowed her to practice medicine. She may have been released from the camp but the crime of being ethnic Lithuanian still haunted her.

The only time Irena’s voice faltered throughout the telling of the story is when she talked about returning to the camp many years later to retrieve her mother’s remains. Either the dry climate or the cold ground had somewhat mummified and preserved Irena’s mother’s body.

“She still looked so young and pretty.”

Irena chose to focus on the good things about her life and chose not to dwell in the past, but she wants to make sure that their story gets told. And if that means staying at the exhibit until closing time with some North Americans who couldn’t even begin to fathom what this woman had been through, so be it.

It’s when history comes to life like this that I think travel has the power to educate more than any other teaching method. I hope I never tire of learning this way.

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