Sputnik: from Oryol to Klaipeda: the Feat of the Lithuanian Soldiers who conquered the Prussian Memel

25/12/2021 13:00

Photo: © Sputnik / Sergey Baranov

On the 80th anniversary of the formation of the 16th Lithuanian Rifle Division, the Eurasian Peoples' Assembly and the International Congress of the Commonwealth of the World was held an International Public Forum.

The Forum decided to establish an association of the descendants of the Lithuanian soldiers of the Red Army, whose contribution to the common victory over Nazism in 1945 is invaluable.

16th Lithuanian Rifle Division, 4th Shock Army, 1st Baltic Front - for the modern Republic of Lithuania since 2004, after joining NATO and the EU, the memory of the heroic deeds of their ancestors becomes more and more a kind of semi-abstract story, overgrown with misinformation and myths.

The Chairman of the Society of World War II veterans of the Alytus region, Yevhen Khlebtsevich, is going to emigrate from the country where he lived all his life and the country he liberated from the Nazis in the last year of the Great Patriotic War. In today's Lithuania it is not customary to remember at the political level that the Lithuanian division, which fought as part of the 1st  Baltic Front under the command of the Army General Ivan Baghramyan in East Prussia, was awarded the honorary title of Klaipeda Infantry Division.

Heroism of the Lithuanian Red Army in the Offensive on the Heavily Fortified Prussian city of Memel

The heroism of the Lithuanian Red Army in the offensive on the heavily fortified Prussian city of Memel in October 1944 - January 1945, defended by three Wehrmacht Divisions of the  "North" Army Group composition, as it is known, became one - and far from the very last - argument for the transfer of Memel to the Lithuanian SSR. The Joseph Stalin’s decision secured for fraternal socialist Lithuania the territory of Memellend, which had belonged to Prussia since the time of the medieval Teutonic Order. This decision also affected 52 kilometers of the Nestland Spit (Curonian Spit), first mentioned in the order sources in 1258 as the "Land of Nests" as part of the German Teutonic Order.

Since 1923, Lithuania has annexed the Prussian lands, including part of the coastal area around the Memel Bay. But the international conference in Potsdam, which in addition to Stalin was also attended by US President Truman and British Prime Minister Churchill, secured the lands of the northernmost province of Germany up to almost Tilsit (today it is the Russian city of Sovetsk in the Kaliningrad region) for fraternal Lithuania at the end of the summer of 1945. It is impossible to forget about this when you are in the main Lithuanian port of Klaipeda or in the resort of Neringa on the Curonian Spit.

At the conference, Secretary General of the Eurasian Peoples' Assembly Andrei Belyaninov devoted his speech to the heroic combat path of the Lithuanians during the Great Patriotic War; he called the exploits of the soldiers of the 16th Lithuanian Division an important part of the common historical heritage. “It is our Wealth, which today, by the will of history, has become the basis of Eurasian unity. It is important not to lose it completely, but to consolidate it in the consciousness of the peoples of Eurasia. Victory was won at the cost of enormous sacrifices. The peoples of the whole world have no right to forget the feat of those who paved the way to Victory," - Belyaninov said.

The 16th Lithuanian Rifle Division, formed on December 18, 1941 on the territory of the Gorky (today - Nizhny Novgorod) region, became an example of national unity in the fight against Nazism, because in addition to the Lithuanians (in the first composition - 36.3 percent) the division included Russians and Jews (29 percent each), Belarusians, Ukrainians and representatives of other nationalities. The formation was carried out mainly at the expense of refugees and evacuees from Lithuania, as well as soldiers and officers of the former 29th Rifle Territorial Lithuanian Corps. The command and the core of the division's officers were formed by graduates of the Vilnius Infantry School, evacuated in June 1941 to Novokuznetsk, Kemerovo Region. For military exploits, 12 of the most distinguished Lithuanian soldiers and officers were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Their names are: Major Volfas Vilenskis, Lieutenant Vaclovas Bernotenas, Senior Sergeant Boleslav Gegzhna, Junior Sergeant Fedor Zatsepilov, Lieutenant Colonel Fedor Lysenko (posthumously), Sergeant Grigory Terentyev (posthumously), Sergeant Grigory Ushpolissellis, junior sergeant Vassilis Stasis Sheinauskas (posthumously), Sergeant Kalmanas Shuras, Red Army soldier Viktor Yatsenevich.

Politics and Memory

The Chairman of the Lithuanian Republican Committee of the Organization of World War II Participants Who Fought on the Side of the Anti-Hitler Coalition, Julius Deksnis, during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, miraculously escaped being sent to work in Germany, and in the fall of 1944, when the eastern part up to Siauliai of Lithuania was liberated by the Red Army, he volunteered at 16th Lithuanian Division. His combat path began in 1941 in the defense of Moscow and ran through defensive and offensive operations near Oryol and Belarusian Polotsk, through the Battle of Kursk, through a turning point of the war Kursk Battle to Memel and the Kurland cauldron in western Latvia. In Kurzeme, at the war in Vainod and Prikul, more than three and a half thousand soldiers and officers of the division died in battles and in field hospitals.

“Of course, they are remembered in Lithuania, as thousands of Lithuanians in a modern democratic republic are the descendants of Soviet soldiers who liberated eastern Latvia and Lithuania. It is very important to preserve this memory! The Eurasian Peoples' Assembly prioritizes not only keeping memory, but also the creation of a society of the descendants of the soldiers of the 16th Lithuanian Klaipeda Division of the Red Army. Many descendants of the Lithuanian Klaipeda division of the Red Army live in Lithuania and other European countries, in Russia, Belarus, in America," - says Deputy Secretary General of the Eurasian Peoples' Assembly, President of the Eurasian Academy of Television and Radio Valery Ruzin.

In October 1944, the soldiers and officers of the 16th Division of the 1st Baltic Front, of course, could not have known that three quarters of a century later, the attitude of politicians to their feat would change so dramatically that the veteran from Alytus feels his Lithuania is a foreign country, the country he wants emigrate from. As Irina Babrauskienė, who plans to create a society of descendants of the Lithuanian Klaipeda Red Banner Rifle Division soldiers in 2022, said, today people in Lithuania are intimidated - propaganda, criminal political cases, like the scandalous trial of Aleksey Greicius (in the case of espionage in favor of Russia, he was sentenced by the court to four years prisons with the wording "he could participate in espionage and could harm state security"). The defendant did not admit his guilt; his lawyers declared that the crime was not proven - but this makes ordinary Lithuanians hide in their own shadows.

Whose Klaipeda is in fairness

“We cannot blame people for this, although the case with Greicius is indicative: people are intimidated, the propaganda is very strong, and it comes not from Lithuania, but from outside - from Brussels. We can only restore the honor and respect of the soldiers of the Lithuanian division, out of any politics, pay tribute to the memory of the fallen, and restore justice. To create an association of descendants, we have to work a lot of with archives, the chairman of the Lithuanian Republican Committee of the Organization of World War II Participants who fought on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition, Julius Deksnis, a veteran of the 16th Lithuanian Red Banner Division, has lists of descendants. There is a lot of work ahead, but it is necessary to do for justice," - Irina Babrauskienė told Sputnik.

Her two grandfathers, on the maternal and paternal side, went through the Great Patriotic War until Victory Day, and all relatives from the Kharkov and Donetsk regions of the Ukrainian SSR participated in front-line battles, in supplying the front and in the underground.

“Memel was liberated in January 1945; after the Lithuanian division was transferred to Courland. The Curonian Spit was completely liberated only on February 4, 1945. Those who say and write that we took Klaipeda without losses, that the Germans did not offer resistance, that we entered an empty city are not right. They are wrong. During the assault and battles in the city, only our division had losses of the 213 soldiers and officers killed," - Julius Deksnis pointed out.

He met the surrender of the Third Reich in another battle in the Courland cauldron in western Latvia, as he recalled in his memoirs. Just now - there was a battle, seven fellow soldiers of the Red Army were killed, and suddenly white flags were thrown out of all the German trenches. A group of troops led by General Gilpert, 70 thousand Wehrmacht soldiers and officers, legionnaires of two Latvian Waffen SS divisions, Lithuanian schutzmans and even ROA collaborators threw down their weapons and raised their hands. This happened in Kurzeme only on the morning of May 10, 1945. Two days and a day before that, Jodl and Keitel twice, in Reims and Berlin, signed the surrender of Nazi Germany. The surrender finally made the war meaningless. And soon Stalin, together with Truman and Churchill, handed over to socialist Lithuania a part of East Prussia, including Memel and the harbor bay, in addition to a gorgeous gift - former Polish Kovno and Vilno.

Setting aside the myths of the new reality

“History goes in a spiral, but we are out of politics and act solely in favor of preserving the memory of soldiers and nationwide deeds. There are 269 military memorials in Lithuania today, and not all of the names are known, not all of the fallen have been found and buried. I have a list of more than three thousand surnames of the soldiers of the 16th division who died in battles near the Belarusian Polotsk. The combat path of our division in 1941-1945 was well studied by the search groups and historians from the Oryol region Natalya and Alexei Bobrovs. There, in the village of Alekseevka near Oryol, the Lithuanians entered the first the battle with the troops of the “Center” Army Group advancing on Moscow,” - says the Deputy Secretary General of the Eurasian Peoples' Assembly, Chairman of the Lithuanian society "Institute of Military Heritage" and publisher of the international project "Book of Memory" Yuriyus Trakselis.

At the 10th session of the International Public Forum "Grateful descendants in memory of the 80th anniversary of the formation of the 16th Division", according to Valery Ruzin, the success of the creation of a society of the descendants of the legendary Panfilov division, the first composition of which was formed in Alma-Ata in the south of the Kazakh SSR, was recognized as significant. Recently Moscow region, Volokolamsk, hosted a conference with the participation of this society. The words of commissar Klochkov "There is nowhere to retreat - Moscow is behind!" can probably be called the motto of the first, most difficult year of the war. The German command, in addition to the program for the complete destruction of the Jewish population in Europe and in the eastern territories, approved a plan of blockades and complete destruction by starvation not only of the population of Leningrad, but also of Moscow. There was really nowhere to retreat; both Panfilovites and the Lithuanian soldiers of the Red Army understood this. Deksnis also was awarded with the Medal “For Courage”.

"Participants in historical battles: rank-and-file soldiers, sergeants, foremen and officers who have borne the heavy burden of war on their shoulders are now people of venerable age. They have retained in their hearts the most important thing: the pain of the loss of comrades and the memory of them, the intensity of attacks and counterattacks, the tension of army intelligence, all the severity of the everyday life of ordinary soldiers, the trench truth of the war. It is this truth which can help the young generations to correctly understand the history of Lithuania at the turning point of the 20th century, to realize who people should be grateful to for the Victory that we won together with our allies in the anti-Hitler coalition, who people should be grateful to for today’s Lithuania existing as an independent state,"- said Deksnis. The feat of an ordinary soldier of the 16th Klaipeda Red Banner Rifle Division has become a part of the Lithuanian statehood and collective historical memory, no matter how the mainstream political propaganda denies it.

Andrey Tatarchuk