Notes by Jeanne M. Carley
John Bimshas' idyllic boyhood in Lithuania came to an abrupt end on June 15, 1940 as the seven year-old youngster watched the Russian army pour into his tiny country, occupying it in a single day. In the next few years Mr. Bimshas and his family would witness bombings, deportations and executions and would themselves be involved in hair-raising escapes as the Russian, German and Allied armies struggled for control of Europe.
Mr. Bimshas, now 73 and a resident of Orleans, detailed his youthful history for members of the CCGS in November, and has also written a book focusing on his boyhood (Excerpts from John's book appeared in the Fall, 2004 Bulletin). He has now begun genealogical research into his family.
A country on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between present-day Poland and Russia, Lithuania currently has just 3.8 million residents, roughly the same as metropolitan Boston. Mr. Bimshas' father, a vocational school teacher and department head, married a Prussian lady who spoke perfect German, a fact that later might have saved the father's life. His father also learned English while working as a cabinet-maker in England for four years.
As a boy Mr. Bimshas spoke both Lithuanian and German, climbed trees, stole pears from an orchard and at Christmas helped eat the fatted goose. He and his older sister Gertruda, or Gert, had treated it like a pet and dreaded its demise, but did enjoy eating it on Christmas, he confesses.
When the Russian army rolled into the country everything changed, Mr. Bimshas says. Churches were closed, a pro-Communist propaganda campaign was launched in the schools and in newspapers and radio stations, and anyone deemed anti-Communist would be deported. The police "would roust the family out of bed in the middle of the night, give them a few minutes to dress and then truck them to the railroad station" to be sent in boxcars to Siberia, Mr. Bimshas says. In 1940, about 120,000 Lithuanians were deported and many died of starvation.
Then, on the night of June 22, 1941, the German army smashed into Russia and Lithuania, routing the Russian army. For safety, Mr. Bimshas, his mother and sister Gert had been sent out to a farmhouse near their town of Alytus, in southern Lithuania, by their father.
"The walk home was a terrifying experience," Mr. Bimshas recalls. "The battle was over, but we saw many destroyed Russian tanks... and dead Russian soldiers. When we approached our street, we could see the devastation - many houses were leveled, ruins still smoking, and the stench of burning flesh was unbearable." That night his mother hosted friends and neighbors who had lost their homes, cramming 32 people into their small house.
In the middle of the night two Nazi SS troopers broke in, ordered everyone out of the house, separated the men from wives and children, and were about to march them off. Mr. Bimshas' mother, speaking perfect German, shouted, "These men are not going anywhere" without the women and children. Startled by a Germanspeaking woman, the German troopers at first argued, then left.
The next day a family friend said the troopers had come to her house and marched her father off. Mr. Bimshas and his family joined the search for him, finally finding his dead body with half his head shot off. It was "a sight I'll never forget," he says.
Later Mr. Bimshas says his father discovered Soviet documents at the town hall indicating that because the father was considered anti-Communist, the family was scheduled to be deported to Siberia on the day after the German invasion. Ironically, he says, the German invasion may have saved their lives.
The family lived under German occupation for nearly three years, with the father continuing to teach and translating documents. (He also translated German into English for the Lithuanian Underground). The children attended local schools. At the time Lithuania had a Jewish population of about 7%, and now they became targets, forced to wear yellow stars and walk in the gutters. Near the end of the occupation young Mr. Bimshas and a boyhood friend heard gunfire in the nearby woods and went out to investigate, crawling through bushes. They saw Jewish men digging a long trench, and then saw Nazi SS troopers shooting them one by one, the victims falling into the trench.
The Russians were on the advance again, the German armies falling back. More fearful of the Russians than the Germans, many Lithuanians began to flee south towards Germany. In the summer of 1944, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Bimshas family left their home and fled toward the west. Walking through fields and forests, and avoiding roads where the German military was conscripting men to work on fortifications, they headed southward.
Bimshas' father had illegal maps and a radio with news from Zurich to help guide them on their dangerous trek. At night they stayed in abandoned farms; by day watched German and Russian planes in dogfights overhead, and saw many planes shot down. At one point, as they approached a small railway station, they were nearly killed in a bomb raid. They finally reached the German border, having taken four months to walk the 70 miles.
They, and hundreds of other nearly hysterical refugees, were able to board a train ahead of the advancing Russians, only to have the train hit by a night-time bomber attack. (It's not clear whether they were Russian or Allied planes.) One bomb cut the train in two, and Mr. Bimshas and his dad dove into a ditch.
"After the bombers left, dad and I began looking for mom and Gert in the dark, illuminated only by the burning cars. We were terrified since we saw many bodies strewn through the area and body parts hanging from trees." They finally found his mother and sister, who had been riding at the other end of the train. This was just another one of their several miraculous escapes from death.
The family finally made it to a Czech village near Dresden. In February, 1945, even though Dresden was 25 miles away, Mr. Bimshas and his family could see vast formations of British and U.S. bombers flying overhead, the "gigantic" fire storm the bombs caused in Dresden, with ashes and soot carried by the wind all the way to their village. In the famous and stillcontroversial fire-bombing of Dresden, 130,000 died.
Mr. Bimshas and his family were then placed in an "alien" camp in Selb, a small town in Germany's Bavarian region. The U.S. army was getting closer, and in April, 1945, the German army retreated from Selb.
Warned that American soldiers would kill men and rape women, the fearful Bimshas family hid in a cellar. A gum-chewing American GI crashed through the cellar door, hand grenades hanging from his belt, his submachine gun pointed at the family. "We're not Germans. Weare Lithuanian refugees. We like Americans," Mr. Bimshas' father shouted in English.
The GI broke into a big smile and threw down his helmet and gun. He was a Lithuanian-American from Chicago, and quickly handed out cigarettes to the men and candy to the children.
It took three years after the war for the family to emigrate, going from one refugee camp to another, but being taught by teachers in the camps. Gert left for Canada, and the next year, the rest of the family were sponsored by a woman in Vermont to work on her farm. Eventually they moved to the Boston area.
Mr. Bimshas got his mechanical engineering degree at Northeastern University, and then worked for most of his career at MIT's famed Draper Laboratories. He headed development of the inertial navigation system for the U.S. Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles before retiring to Cape Cod.
In 1985, Mr. Bimshas and his wife Dorothea went back to Germany to visit the places he had lived, and in 1995 his sister Gert accompanied him on a trip to Lithuania to see their home once more. It brought back many memories, he said, but he had no desire to return there as he was very happy in America.
Genealogy Web Sites & Organizations Lithuania & Germany (East Prussia) Partial List
Federation of East European Family History Societies - http://feefhs.org
Evangelical Central Archives in Berlin (in German only) - http://www.ezab.de/d/dframe.html
Archives in Vilnius, Lithuania - http://www.feefhs.org/baltic/lt/ltarchiv.html
ProGenealogist, Family History Research Group - http://www.progenealogists.com/germany/
Lithuanian American Genealogy Society, Chicago - http://feefhs.org/frg-lags.html
The JewishGen StetlSeeker - http://www.jewishgen.org/ShtetlSeeker/
Lithuanian Global Genealogy Society - http://www.lithuaniangenealogy.org
Yahoo Group Deutchland - Memelland (in German only) - http://de.groups.yahoo.com/group/memelland
The German Genealogy Internet Portal - http://www.genealogienetz.de/index_en.html
See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.