Curtain Call for Love
A postwar resistance Fighter was divided between the struggle in the East and love in the West
While you are reading this you may very well be in the air over the Baltic Sea, on your way to or from Lithuania. This route has been followed by many people over the last few decades, and some of these are more than worth mentioning.
On the night of 3 and 4 October 1950, three Lithuanians, trained by the CIA, were on their way to Lithuania in an unmarked C-47 Dakota from Germany. Their task was to parachute into the country they loved.
The Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union, and the three men’s objective was to join and reinforce the armed resistance hiding in the forests.
The name of the leader of the group was Juozas Lukša, though he was seldom referred to by his real name. Several times over the preceding years he had changed his code name, in order to confuse and deceive the Soviet authorities who wanted his head on a plate.
One can only imagine his thoughts and feelings that night, disturbed only by the humming noise of the engines over the dark and quiet sea. He would have been thinking of the gruesome tasks ahead of him, but also of Nijolė, who he had just left behind. After their wedding they had had one week together. Soon afterwards, the inevitable trip back to the struggle against Soviet tyranny had to take place.
The story of Juozas and Nijolė, which contains features from the ancient sagas, will touch the heart of anyone. At the same time, it is a tale of the struggle by Lithuania and other countries in Eastern Europe to get rid of the iron paw that was brutally pressing their freedom into the dirt.
Nijolė Paronetto, formerly Bražėnaitė-Lukšienė, recalls how as a refugee in Paris she met a mysterious and good-looking man, accompanied by a friend, who was involved in the resistance.
She had a long and difficult journey behind her. After her medical studies in Germany and Austria during the war, she had ended up in Paris working in a laboratory. Later she became involved with the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania.
She was fascinated by the man, who was somewhat oddly introduced to her as “Skrajūnas” (the flying man). Little did she know that this was one of his covers.
“I felt immediately the aura of secrecy around him and decided not to ask further questions.”
Lukša was certainly a man of secrets. A few months before their encounter he had broken through the Iron Curtain, between the postwar Russian Kaliningrad enclave and Poland.
He had been appointed a special representative for the armed resistance in Lithuania and was now to meet with contacts in Western Europe to elaborate the efforts to shake off Soviet oppression and to awaken the conscience of the democratic world. For this reason, he brought a number of documents and testimonials, including a message in French to the United Nations. The document that received the most attention, however, was a letter to Pope Pius XII, written in Latin and asking for the support of the Catholic Church. Alas, strong reactions were received neither from Western public opinion nor from Rome.
The two were to meet on several occasions in Paris, but it was not until Nijolė contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium near Switzerland that they started to write to each other and their love began to evolve.
“Through his letters, I realised what a courageous, idealistic and intelligent man was writing to me. He often mentioned the hellish fighting in Lithuania and expressed his desire to go back and join his comrades in the forests.”
Indeed, Lukša knew what he was writing about when he wrote about the guerrilla war that was being waged by thousands of men and women against the Soviet Union.
The Soviet empire was then at the height of its power under Joseph Stalin, one of the most ruthless dictators the world has ever seen.
The cruelties of the dark new lords, and the devastating communist “reforms” of society, spurred people like Lukša to take up arms and to try to end the occupation by all means necessary. This in turn was met by ruthless countermeasures by the Soviet security forces, like the NKVD (later renamed several times and finally known as the KGB) and other organisations.
In addition to the fighting, and in order to break the opposition, tens of thousands of civilians, of which a majority were women and children, were sent into exile in the eastern parts of the huge territories, mainly to Siberia.
Against overwhelming odds, the Forest Brothers, as they were called, caused severe trouble for the Soviet authorities, sometimes paralysing the administration of parts of the country and spreading fear in the ranks of the oppressors. However, they had to pay a dear price. Many friends and comrades of Lukša had already been killed, and the methods used in suppressing the partisan movement were getting harsher and more sophisticated every year.
Over time, Lukša had become one of the most important figures in the resistance. During his years in the forests he had been involved in publishing newspapers and flyers and arranging the well-coordinated opposition to the Soviet elections. He had even set up a special regiment for the struggle in Kaunas, and twice breached the Soviet Union’s border.
When Nijolė recovered, Juozas came to see her, and without further ado they decided to get married. They were both more than aware of the difficulties their love would encounter, but nevertheless decided to go ahead as quickly as possible.
They were married on 23 June 1950. After the wedding they had one week for a short honeymoon in a hotel in the village of Treifelberg near Tübingen in Germany.
Even during this very brief moment of happiness, reality was always present. On several occasions friends and associates from the Liberation Committee came to see them and to wish Lukša luck. The moment that he was to return to the struggle was drawing closer, and they all knew that it might be the last time they saw each other.
During the stay, contact had been established with Western military intelligence structures, and Lukša and others had been trained in France and Germany in order to be able to return to Lithuania.
At the time of their marriage, the departure was a few months ahead, and lots of preparations had to be made. There was no doubt that Juozas would go back again.
He often mentioned his comrades back home and the difficulties they faced every day. Nijolė had accepted this from the beginning, fearing that this would be the end of it all.
Juozas talked about the possibility of breaking through the Iron Curtain once more to return to her, but this was merely a vain hope.
Return to the fray
When the three resistance fighters landed in Lithuania, their struggle to develop and support the hard-pressed partisan movement resumed at once. Lukša was given responsibility for the intelligence department at the general staff, and in early 1951 he was promoted to the rank of major.
Soviet counterintelligence soon realised that he had returned, and launched a large-scale operation to find and eliminate him. On one occasion in 1951, 1,500 Soviet troops and security officers searched for him in a forest, but the agreed radio call “5-5-5” in the event of their finding his bunker hideout was never broadcast.
Destiny, however, worked against the resistance. After a sophisticated operation, on the night of 3 and 4 September 1951 Soviet counterintelligence managed to lure Lukša into an ambush, where he was killed after a short struggle. This can be seen as the beginning of the end of the resistance.
It was five years before Nijolė learnt of Juozas’ fate. She found out through an American congressman, Charles Kersten, who had an interest in the Baltic states and other oppressed countries in Eastern Europe and was chairman of the Select Committee on Communist Aggression. Her life went on, but the wounds from the experience will probably never completely heal. She is now remarried and lives in the USA with her husband Fiorenzo Paronetto. They have two daughters and five grandchildren.
“In one of his last letters, Juozas told me to find a happy life if something happened to him, and so I did.”
During his stay in Paris, Lukša wrote an account of his and others’ experiences in the guerilla war against the Soviet Union. Under the pseudonym Daumantas, one of his cover names, he wrote down horrifying stories about the Soviet occupation. It was published for the first time in Lithuanian in 1951 in the USA, under the name Partizanai.
Later, through the efforts of Nijolė, it was translated and published in English under the name Fighters for Freedom. Lithuanian partisans versus the USSR.
At the time, interest in the book and the events it depicted was rather limited. It is only now that attention has started to grow abroad, almost 60 years after the events it describes. It will be published in translation in Sweden in 2005, the first West European country to publish the book.
One might ask if the efforts taken and the price paid by Lukša and others, including his wife Nijolė, were really worth it. In this respect, she does not express the slightest doubt. Not even when it comes to herself.
“I am very grateful that I have had such an unusual experience, which enriched me and deepened my love for Lithuania, a rival against which I could not fight.”
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