LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 4 - Winter 2008
Editor of this issue: M. G. Salvėnas
Konstancija Bražėnienė. Just One Moment More… The Story of One Woman’s Return from Siberian Exile. The letters of Konstancija Bražėnienė and Mindaugas Bražėnienė [sic] written from Lithuania, East Germany and Siberia, 1944–1966. Translated by Laima Sruoginis. Introduction by Laima Sruoginis. East European Monographs, Boulder, CO. Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.
Reviewed by Aurelija Tamošiūnaitė
In 2004, Nijolė Bražėnaitė-Paronetto published a collection of letters written by her mother Konstancija Bražėnienė and brother Mindaugas Bražėnas in a book named ir dar valandėlė.... The letters were written between 1944 and 1966 from different places – Lithuania, East Germany, and Siberia – and present the tragedy of the Bražėnai family: oppression by the Soviets, separation of family members, deportations to Siberia and the hard struggle of Konstancija‘s children to bring their mother to the West. Thus, Just one moment more... is an English translation (translated by Laima Sruoginis) of Lithuanian ir dar valandėlė... The book was published by East European Monographs in 2007.
Nijolė Bražėnaitė-Paronetto, a widow of the most famous Lithuanian partisan, Juozas Lukša-Daumantas, had not seen her mother for twenty-two years. The years of separation are represented in the letters. However, they present not only the personal tragedy of the family, but the tragedy of the whole nation. It is not accidental that the book has the title Just One Moment More. According to Algimantas, Vida, and Nijolė – Konstancija‘s children – these were the final words their mother wrote to Nijolė in her last letter, before her trip to the United States: ”By writing these words she was telling us that she would see us in a matter of moments.”
The book consists of several parts: “A Brief Overview of Twentieth Century Lithuanian History,” “A Silent Genocide,” “Bibliography,” “Introduction,” “Remembering Mama and our Brother,” “Letters,” “Afterword,” “How Mama’s Release Really Happened,” and an “Appendix.” In my opinion, the most important parts, beside the letters, are “A Brief Overview of Twentieth Century Lithuanian History” and the appendix with documents, that show Konstancija’s long journey from Siberia to America to see her children one more time.
There may be two different ways to read this book: one is to read the letters as authentic information, to view them as documents; the other is to read it as a historic novel. This may explain the different subtitles of the English and Lithuanian versions: in English it is Just One Moment More..: The Story of One Woman’s Return form Siberian Exile and in Lithuanian, ir dar valandėlė..: Konstancijos Bražėnienės ir Mindaugo Bražėno laiškai iš Lietuvos, Rytų Vokietijos ir Sibiro 1944–1966 [just one moment more…: The letters of Konstancija Bražėnienė and Mindaugas Bražėnas written from Lithuania, East Germany and Siberia, 1944–1966]. Therefore, the subtitles underscore different things: The Lithuanian version emphasizes authenticity (the letters), whereas the English version stresses “the story.”
Konstancija Bražėnienė had a lot to struggle with during her life: her husband died early and she was left alone with four little children to raise. However, according to Konstancija’s daughter Nijolė, “Mama raised us with devotion, paying special attention to our education and to bringing us up as well-rounded individuals.” (p. 18) This may be illustrated with an excerpt from one of the letters, written on 25 February, 1944:
You should not give up your studies, even if the house collapsed and I broke down. You must continue your studies in Germany and you must finish them there, because here it will soon no longer be possible to study. You must take advantage of the opportunity to study while you have the chance. (pg. 26)
From the earliest letters Konstancija Bražėnienė focuses on others, not on herself and her own struggles. Thus, the main purpose of her life was to take care of others, to help them, to protect them. This leitmotiv repeats in all the letters.
How might this book appeal to the English speaking reader? First of all – the book represents not only the story of Konstancija Bražėnienė but also the story of Lithuania. The letters give a full picture of post- Second World War Lithuania, authentic facts about deportation to Siberia, life in the GULAG, and eventual return.
For the English-speaking reader this book may be a key to Lithuanian history, to the oppressions that the country survived during the Soviet occupation, and the absurdity of the Soviet system. On the other hand, this is an example of the broken fates of the families and the loss of the unity of the nation.
The book was translated by Laima Sruoginis, who also wrote a short historical introduction titled “Twentieth Century Lithuanian History” as well as “A silent Genocide,” the introduction to the English translation. In a brief overview Sruoginis provides the reader with the most important facts of twentieth century Lithuanian history: independence in 1918, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, the first Soviet occupation in 1940, the first deportations to Siberia, the German occupation during 1941–1944, when almost all of the Jewish population of Lithuanian was wiped out, and the second Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 until 1990.
In a short introduction to the English translation named ”A silent Genocide,” Sruoginis presents Lithuanian genocide in a broader context: how this genocide was different as well as similar to others. In this context, the translator presents Konstancija Bražėnienė and also provides her contemporaries’ memories of her. Sruoginis stresses one very important aspect of these letters – they were all written during periods of strong censorship: the early letters under the censorship of the Nazis, and the later letters written under the censorship of the Soviets. However, according to Sruoginis, “Despite the overbearing shadow of censorship, Konstancija Bražėnienė manages to speak her mind. In her letters she chronicles how the old Lithuania of the prewar era gives way to a new Soviet Lithuania – one in which religious worship is a punishable crime, one in which young people are indoctrinated to unquestioningly internalize communist ideology, one in which Lithuania is cut off from the world and the only news available is Soviet propaganda, one in which people are encouraged to veer away from introspection, especially the type of introspection that comes from religious training and to embrace instead a life of superficialities, drinking, parties” (pg. 11–12).
However, there are several inaccuracies in the book. First of all, in a subtitle of the book the last name of Mindaugas Bražėnas is spelled in the same way as Konstancija Bražėnienė’s (maybe the editor did not know that in Lithuanian the form of the last name differs for women and men?); however, later in the text it is spelled correctly (see pg. 31 and 36). Moreover, it was unusual to put the bibliography of ”A silent Genocide” separately on the next page and to list it as a separate chapter in the table of contents when one may see it as a part of ”A Silent Genocide.” Despite these inaccuracies, the book is worthwhile for anyone interested in memoirs and Soviet history.
It is promising that more and more Lithuanian books are being translated and finding their way to the English-speaking reader. According to Sruoginis, “this book is a tribute to the memory of Konstancija Bražėnienė. May her spirit of generosity and selflessness, and her example of courage in the face of tyranny live on” (pg. 12).