On 15 August 1944, Konstancija, (Connie in English), was at church in Bartninkai, a town in the Vilkaviškis region in southwest Lithuania. During mass, a shell/bomb dropped through the roof of the church and landed near the alter.

In August 2019, we went to Lithuania as a family. These pictures show the remains of the church my grandmother was in that was destroyed during the war.

Amazingly there was no explosion, and no one was hurt.

Konstancija left the church and walked home to tell her husband Jurgis, (George in English), what had occurred. While Konstancija was on her way, Jurgis, home with their daughter Elena, listened to the sounds of the cannons getting louder. It was World War II; the Russian front was moving closer to their neighbors and their home. 

Given the circumstances, Konstancija and Jurgis decided to leave their home in the Pagernavė village in Vilkaviškis, Lithuania.  Before they left, Konstancija baked bread while Jurgis packed their wagon with clothes, food, and some personal keepsakes for a journey to a destination unknown.

On 16 August 1944, Konstancija, Jurgis, and Elena left their home with their belongings and their cow tied to their wagon for milk, never to return.

Fast forward, 75 years later, and still to this day, I am in awe when my mother tells this story. I am forever inspired.

My grandparents did not know where they were going; they just wanted to get away from the Russian front. They hoped the Americans would come in, push back the front, and save Lithuania.

My family’s journey was neither short nor uneventful. After leaving Lithuania, my family made their way into East Germany to live in camps overseen by the German military.

In November 1944, my mother was hospitalized sick with a fever. My grandmother stayed with her as she recovered. Given the Russian front was moving closer, my grandfather had to keep moving forward along with others in the camp.

After my mother recovered, my grandparents hoped to meet up in a couple of weeks at the location where my grandfather was last transferred. It wasn’t until 1947, about 3 years later, when they were reunited.

Over the years, my grandmother and mother moved further into Germany, and eventually into Denmark. My grandmother worked for local farmers, as well as in the camps where they lived.

My grandmother and mother in Denmark. My mother translates the writing to say, “Free-living – we are not going to be slaves.”

The German military oversaw these camps and took care of the displaced persons that lived there. They fed them and protected them from the dangers of war. My grandmother and mother also were the recipients of kindness of the Danish people in the community.

In one camp, my grandmother and mother met a young woman and her parents. The woman was born in the United States (US) and moved back to Lithuania with her parents only to flee back to the US because of the war.

As they got to know each other, my grandmother shared the names of her uncles that lived in the US. At that time, she didn’t know exactly where they lived but thought it might be Brooklyn, New York.

When the young woman arrived back in the US, she put a notice in a Lithuanian newspaper with the hopes of getting a message to either my grandmother’s Uncle August or Uncle Vincent.

Given the closeness of the Lithuanian community, someone saw the ad and contacted one of the uncles to tell them someone was looking for them. My grandmother and her uncles were connected; the ability to communicate with family opened other doors. They sent clothing and letters to my grandmother through postal mail.

In May 1945, the war was over. The German military fled the territories they occupied, including the camps where displaced persons, like my grandmother and mother, lived.

Once the Germans left, displaced persons were on their own without access to the resources they once had, like food. Fortunately, the local Danish people stepped in and fed the people in the camps until the International Community arrived.

The International Community aid workers separated the displaced persons according to nationality. From there, my grandmother and mother moved from one camp to another.

As the years passed, my grandmother continued to try and find my grandfather. My grandmother learned there were Lithuanians in Germany by others in her camp in Denmark.

In 1947, through word of mouth and written correspondence, my grandfather was located in Germany. My grandmother and mother traveled by train to meet him at the camp where he lived. I can’t even imagine the happiness and joy they experienced when they were reunited.

The tag on my grandfather’s coat indicates USA as the destination.

On 13 December 1950, my grandparents and mother entered the Hudson Bay Harbor in New York on the vessel, General C. H. Muir. Mom said when they entered the harbor, “it was like a fairy tale with the street lights burning bright on that night in New York that evening.”

To think I only exist because my grandparents dared to leave their country during the war to get away from the Russian front that was moving closer to their home. They were committed to getting to a better and safer place for themselves and my mother, who was almost 11 years of age when they left.

March is Women’s History Month. It’s when we celebrate women’s contributions to history, culture, and society.

I take this opportunity to honor my grandmother Konstancija for her bravery, courage, and resilience. Knowing that my grandmother kept herself and my mother together and safe for years during and after World War II, is remarkable.

She left her grandchildren and great-grandchildren a legacy that inspires and motivates us to keep moving forward when life presents challenges or hardships. It also gives me perspective on what matters and what it means not to sweat the small stuff.

My grandmother in 1983, she had a smile I will never forget.

While I never saw a resemblance, or a likeness, between my grandmother and me, I now find her within me every day.

Take this opportunity to talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles about the amazing women, and men, in your family. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, share what you know about your family.

We have inspiration all around us – among our family, friends, and the people we meet along the way.

You never know what you might learn if you ask: What’s Your Story?

Thanks for visiting us at LIFELONG. Contact us at LIFELONG if you would like to honor someone you know or share a page in your life story.