irena praitisCaption: Irena A. Praitis and her latest book. Photo by Karen Tapia

Spirit of Survival

English Professor’s Book Chronicles Her Grandmother’s Journey of Tears and Triumph

IRENA A. PRAITIS’ grandmother, Ona Kartanas, was born in Lithuania during World War I.

Like that turbulent time of destruction, devastation and death, so unfolds Kartanas’ strife-ridden life.

Orphaned at age 7, she struggled to survive through Soviet and Nazi occupations of her homeland. She was homeless, hungry and sad, but her struggle is an example of the human capacity to not merely survive but to triumph. And, her story is told in Praitis’ latest book, “One Woman’s Life.”

Based on oral history interviews conducted in 2004, the 218-page book poetically chronicles Kartanas’ life. Each page, a vignette of her experiences.

The following is an excerpt from the first page:

I fled my home on the cusp of a second Soviet invasion. I have seen hunger. I have felt hunger. I have seen the dead, torn open by bullets, dismembered by bombs. I have been displaced, left homeless by war, and I have immigrated, not once but twice. I have lived on three continents. I have journeyed to another land where I knew no one, did not speak the language, and did not know how I would survive after arriving. I have tilled the soil by hand. I have woven cloth from wool and flax threads. I have milked cows, wrung the necks of chickens, and butchered pigs. I have a third grade education. I speak six languages. I gave birth to five children, held their hands while the world exploded around them, and dried their tears when other children laughed at their language, their clothes, their difference…. I have loved. I have laughed. I have wept.

And, from the last page:

I read that 52 million people died in the Second World War. What happened leading up to the war, the millions starving to death in the Ukraine, and the war itself, the Holocaust, the firebombing, the sieges, the atom bomb, all that happened was terrible — such murder, such suffering, such death…. People ask how so many could stand by and know and not do anything. People did take actions, people did try to share food, this I know…. There were repercussions swift and final, for rebellion — death for sympathizers. Those who helped often did not last long. But there’s more than that, something about the complications of human beings I cannot understand. Even today, look at the stories. How many dead in Darfur? How many dead in Chad? How many soldiers dead in Iraq? How many Iraqis? We know. We hear the stories. We see the pictures. Then, we put down the newspapers, turn from the TVs, and wonder what to have for dinner. Such turning is monstrous, yes. But if the world is to change, out of just this monstrosity our human miracles must be forged. Who seeing the earth for the first time in winter would ever believe in the possibility of spring? Yet spring comes. As do miracles. I know. I have seen them grow from the impossible before.

In between, Praitis fills in the details. There are poignant stories about Kartanas’ childhood of hard labor, the loss of her mother and brothers and a pair of emotional interrogations — one by the Communist NKVD (precursor to the KGB) and another by the Nazis, asking about her husband, who was in hiding from the Communists or trying to escape to Switzerland.

The following is the NKVD interrogation:

One day, when I came home from work, I found a man waiting for me in the parlor. Jouzas had been gone for several weeks. I did not recognize this short, brusque man. “I have a few questions for you,” he said. “All right,” I answered. “So, where’s your husband?” he asked. “I don’t answer for my husband,” I responded, “I answer for myself.” “Where is he?” the man demanded. “I don’t know,” I said. The man looked at me a while, slapping the black leather gloves he held in one hand over the palm of the other. Then he picked up his fedora, tipped it mockingly to me, and left. He came back every few days. Sometimes he’d ask Maryte for tea or cognac while he waited. When I arrived home, he asked me again and again where Jouzas was. I told him, always, “I don’t know.” One day, casually, he took a badge out of his pocket. I saw the NKVD letters. Now I knew for certain he was an agent with the secret police. He tossed the badge on the entryway table. Then he pulled a gun from his back waistband. He pointed the gun at my chest and then walked toward me. Maryte must have been listening. In a daze, she walked into the hall doorway holding my children’s hands. They were all quiet as quiet can be, staring, frightened. “One way or another, you’re going to tell me where your husband is,” the man said in low, even tones. My body clenched together. From somewhere inside, I shouted, “I’ve told you and told you, I don’t know where my husband is. Do you want to kill me? You want to kill me now? If you’re going to shoot me, first kill my children,” I seethed, “then shoot me.” He looked me in the eyes. I looked right back at him. I held my jaw tight. I refused to blink. His shoulders unclenched. He lowered the gun and picked up his badge, shoving it hard into his pocket. He put on his hat, and walked out of the house, slamming the heavy door behind him. The air left the room as the oak door banged shut. I stood there, shaking. The children started to cry. I couldn’t move. Not yet. I was too frightened. The children held to my legs, sobbing. Maryte stood in the hallway weeping. I sank to the floor, trembling and breathing roughly. I started crying, too.

“My grandmother lost everything more than once,” said Praitis, author, poet and professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics. “She lost family to war and persecution. She lost her home, her parents and her brothers.”

Should anyone have a right to be bitter, Praitis said, her grandmother does. But, she’s not.

Instead, Kartanas “is a loving human being with a great spirit of survival,” according to her granddaughter. “I hoped to capture that spirit in writing her story.”

When people struggle or suffer difficult times, Praitis said, “they need stories of strength, perseverance and love. From the very beginning, as far back as the cave paintings, we can see that along with food and shelter, stories were and are essential to our survival.”

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