Publisher:Thomas Allen Publishers
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
Don’t pity little Lithuania. She’s a small European country long batted about by her larger and more powerful neighbors, Russia, Poland and Germany. Napoleon called her capital, Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of the north” because of her large, vibrant Jewish community. That same community was decimated by the Nazis and their local collaborators during World War II. Even Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, though born in what is now Lithuania, is known to the world as a Polish writer. Today though she is an independent state and a member of NATO, westerners often lump Lithuania together with her neighbors Latvia and Estonia, referring to them as simply “the Baltics.”
Through all the years and struggles, though, Lithuanian language and culture have survived. One of the almost unknown struggles of recent memory took place as World War II was coming to a close and the Iron Curtain came down, trapping Lithuania on the Soviet side. Tens of thousands of men and women went into the forests and fought a nine-year guerrilla war against the occupying powers and their local allies.
Antanas Sileika’s novel, Underground, tells the story of two people caught up in that struggle. Lukas has left college and joined the partisans in the forest. He describes his fellow fighters this way:
“Field Partisans… consisted of foxes that ran along the roadsides, among the brambles and through woodlots to dart into fields and granaries when opportunities presented themselves. Visiting farmhouses at night, they knocked on shutters to ask for food and news of slayer squads and Cheka interior army forces. If their luck was bad, the field partisans found their enemies on the other side of the shutters.”
Elena is a Town Partisan helping to produce and distribute an underground newspaper. She moves back and forth between the forest and her day-to-day life in a provincial capital. Though they are in love, their duties keep Lukas and Elena apart. When they finally become engaged, they volunteer to use their engagement party to assassinate several Lithuanian officials who are collaborating with the Soviets. Once the deed is done, Elena must join him in the forest where they can now be together, fighting for their country.
Before long Elena is killed in action and the authorities are searching for Lukas. The partisans arrange for him to escape through Sweden, and he eventually makes his way to Paris. His new work is to secure support from western nations for a struggle Lithuania is slowly losing. He tours refugee camps in Europe, meeting with Lithuanian expatriates, raising money for the fight. But for the most part, he finds the rest of the world has accepted Lithuania’s place in the Soviet Union and moved on.
Demoralized, Lukas, too, moves on. He remarries and settles in to the life of an expatriate. But when he hears a rumor his beloved Elena might be alive, he risks everything to return home to learn the truth.
In the late 1940s there were as many as 30,000 partisans fighting in the Lithuanian forests and many others who quietly supported them. By the early 1950s their numbers were down to a few thousand. The focus of the Cold War was on bigger powers, like the Soviet Union and East Germany. Sileika, a Canadian writer and critic of Lithuanian descent, has said Underground is based on the true story of partisan fighter Juozas Luksa, whose story was published under the title Partizanai and published in 1950.
The cover of Underground promotes the novel as a love story between a man and a woman. It is that, but it’s also a love story between a man and his country. The people of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine and others did not go quietly into Soviet control, but their guerrilla wars are almost unknown in the west.
Ultimately, Lithuania would go on to fight a “Singing Revolution” in the 1980s, another type of struggle that was deeply rooted in her national language and culture. She would become the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence from the USSR in 1990. Lithuanian partisans like Lukas and Elena may not have won the war, but their fight helped keep a nation alive.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.