LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 62, No.3 - Fall 2016
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavièius
Felicia Prekeris Brown. God Gave Us Wings. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2013. 240 pages. ISBN 978-1484189122.
Brown details her family’s history of the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Lithuania during World War II and its flight west at the end of the war. Her memoir serves more than a personal or family narrative. It details the physical, social, and emotional traumas of the adults enveloping her childhood. As a scholar of the humanities, her research incorporates the experiences of many people during those tumultuous times. Her family history, thus, weaves the memoir of a milieu. She writes an easy to read, fluid narrative. Many émigrés lack their own family histories of the war or may have only limited clues from the period. Brown provides a comprehensive account of the era, with a focus on her family. The Prekeris family represents struggles similar to those of thousands.
Brown writes in the first person “I” narrative, occasionally identifying herself by her childhood name, Dalia. Her father’s name is Felicius and her mother’s, Stasë, but Brown consistently refers to them as Father and Mother, capitalized. This reflects the Lithuanian colloquial usage of “tëtë” and “mama,” although a more accurate translation would have been “Daddy” and “Mommy.” Felicius is a grade school principal in the town of Smalininkai. Stasë is a housewife who took on domestic, factory, and janitorial work during the war and its aftermath. Brown’s sister is Milda, her elder by 8 years. The author’s narrative quickly and smoothly transitions between a child’s perspective and adult reflections of the times.
Brown begins on 1939 March 23, the day that Hitler arrives in Klaipëda to celebrate the Nazi Anschluss of the region. She is 2 years old at the time, and so she has reconstructed the events from a family memoir combined with background information. Local Lithuanians are forced to flee. Her family temporarily ends up in the capital city Kaunas, but soon settles in Vilnius for most of the war. The USSR invaded Poland and returned Polish-occupied Vilnius to Lithuania in the fall of 1939. The Lithuanian government needed personnel to administer the region, including school officials. The exiled Felicius is one such person. His expertise and apparent lack of political affiliation allows him to serve as a school inspector for the Lithuanians, Soviets, and Nazis.
Brown provides a history lesson in describing the Soviet and Nazi invasions. Her approach humanizes the situation by describing the struggles for housing, clothing, work, and food that her family experienced, as did many. Milda’s memories reveal how schools interrogated children to find out what radio programs their parents listened to or what they discussed at home. Little Dalia fears the threat of the “Red Dragon” as a nightmarish ghoul, not realizing it is a metaphor for the Soviets. Against all odds, Felicius somehow manages to avoid enlistment as a Soviet informant. He learns of his family’s impending deportation to Siberia and flees.
Life assumes a faux veneer of normality under the Nazis. Felicius continues as school inspector. The endless shortage of food forces the family, like many others, to find shelter on a farm for their own survival. Malnutrition leads to diphtheria and near death for Dalia. Without medicine, many die from disease. Stasë hesitates to save a Jewish child, but resolves to do so if the opportunity presents itself (it doesn’t). With children in tow, Stasë ends up as a farm laborer in the border town of Kybartai: she literally works for food. Half the book focuses on the family’s flight west, ahead of the Soviet advance. Brown provides a detailed account of her family’s trek with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. At this point, she sometimes digresses with an occasional abundance of seemingly distracting details: collecting luggage, transporting possessions, finding one cart after another, harnessing a steed, struggling with the steed, etc. Clearly such childhood memories have left a big impression on her. Such unique personal details maintain the human focus of the memoir. Countless Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, and Prussian or Volksdeutsche families cross over a thousand kilometers of war-torn Prussia, Poland, and Germany during the inclement fall, winter, and spring of 1944–1945. They travel mostly on foot, with the Soviets in close pursuit. Finding boots and treating blisters, becomes part of the daily woes. An occasional train ride accelerates the refugees’ escape, only to face new setbacks further down the road. Nearby explosions rattle and illuminate the nights.
Many memoirs of the period finish with the end of the war. Brown continues with her family’s experiences in various DP camps, and their struggles for immigration. By now, Dalia is of school age, and retelling her own experiences. Again, Brown has supplemented her family’s and other refugees experiences with archival research. She presents a comprehensive and vivid picture of camp life. The refugees face an uncertain future, as they hope to emigrate to England, the United States, or Brazil. Their struggle for housing, food, and illness continues, now also confounded by a growing criminality in their midst. The local Germans have no tolerance for the unwanted Ausländer (foreigners), with whom they are forced to share their meager resources.
Refugee authorities are overwhelmed, as their apathy grows for the plight of the refugees. The refugees refuse to repatriate home, now occupied by the Soviet Union. This confounds the authorities, as the Soviets were their allies in defeating the Nazis. Hope prevails, as the refugees establish schools, churches, scouts, choirs, folk dance groups, and other cultural activities. They begin to bring life back to normal. Stasë and Milda find work in England, followed some time later by Felicius with Dalia. Language, culture, and economics divide the English from the refugees, who are treated as Nazi sympathizers. The Prekeris history comes to a conclusion with emigration to the United States.
Several reasons make Brown’s family memoir a unique and worthwhile read. A professional author has written it in a talented, narrative style. She sets the detailed experiences of her family in context, giving a personal face to a tragic history. Finally, the specifics of her memoir reflect the experiences of many families during World War II . For those without a history, it provides a template for life and struggle during war.