Russian list revives grim memories Images all too vivid for former captives

August 07, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

LANHAM -- Aldona Marshall Simanavichus lay asleep in her bed early Saturday morning when her husband, Pranas, came rushing into their bedroom waving a newspaper.

Look at this, he said, look at this.

There, to her befuddlement, she found her name -- and those of her deceased parents -- on a list of 39 Americans who the Russian government says disappeared into Soviet labor camps at the end of World War II. Now, Russian officials say, they are trying to find out what happened to those missing Americans.

Forty years ago, when she believed herself doomed and beyond help, Mrs. Simanavichus would have wanted nothing more than to have her existence trumpeted in the United States, her homeland through birth.

Now she looks at the list and wonders what kind of cruel joke is being played on her.

"How can I be missing when they have always known exactly where I am?" Mrs. Simanavichus, now 70, asked during an interview in her home yesterday.

The KGB, she said, certainly knew the various labor camps where it sent her between 1945 and 1955. It knew where it sentenced her to exile during the next five years.

And it knew where she and her family were going when they boarded a plane bound for New York in 1960.

"As far as they're concerned, I have never been missing," she said.

Publication of the list has raised hopes of redoubled efforts to locate Americans believed to be missing in what was the Soviet Union. Several of those on the list already have been found there.

Others, like Mrs. Simanavichus, have turned up in the United States.

The missing American citizens, all of Slavic or East European extraction, were sent to labor camps on trumped-up espionage charges after World War II. Their names were compiled by the Soviet secret police in 1954, and the list recently was handed over to a commission searching for U.S. POWs in the former Soviet Union.

Since the publication of the list, Mrs. Simanavichus, a slight, cheerful woman in a flowing, royal blue dress, has been fielding interviews from media in the United States and Europe.

By the end of yesterday, she began to wilt.

"It's good to let it all out," she said, "but it's also sad, so sad."

She was born to Joseph Michael Marshall, a one-time pilot of Lithuanian descent who was born in 1897 in Utica, N.Y.

Her father joined the French military to fight against the Germans early in World War I. After the German surrender, he wandered to Lithuania, where he settled and became a prosperous importer of Model-T Fords, Zenith radios and buses. He also married a young nurse, Paulina Stacas, who, in 1922, gave birth to their only child, Aldona.

The young girl grew up happily in the town of Kaunas and was studying medicine and ballet when World War II brought vicious, destructive invaders into her her country. First the Russians came, then the Nazis, then the Russians again.

"The Germans, they would execute people," she said. "The Russians would send them away forever."

She joined the nationalist underground movement, writing newsletters and helping to transport arms and food for the soldiers in their guerrilla campaign against the Red Army.

Then, one day in 1945, came a knock at the door. Outside stood two grim-faced Soviet officers. Inside, two members of the resistance, including her fiance, scrambled for a hiding place.

She later would learn that two partisans had told the Soviets that her home was a way station for the underground. The Soviet soldiers began a search of the house and soon found the partisans. Shots were fired. Both partisans were wounded. One of the Soviet soldiers lay dead. Within an hour, tanks were pointing their guns at the house, and the entire family was arrested.

Over the next months, Mrs. Simanavichus said, she was kept in a dark, isolated room where she was tortured and beaten. She was forbidden from communicating with other prisoners. That didn't prevent her from hearing the screams of her parents. "You cannot imagine the sounds of hearing your parents tortured," she said.

After eight months, she was tried for espionage. She had no illusions, but was nevertheless relieved.

"I thought the torture would stop." She was wrong.

She was sentenced to 10 years in Soviet labor camps and five years of exile. Her fiance fared worse. He was sentenced to death and executed. About her parents, she knew nothing.

For the next decade, she moved from one labor camp to the next, each grimmer than the one before. The bitter climate, hard labor, lack of nutrition and the cruelty of guards cost hundreds of lives every month.

She recalled walking across a snowy field one day and hearing her feet crunch against something on the surface.

To her horror, she discovered she was walking on the skeletons of prisoners.

She also recalled some of the non-political prisoners -- thieves and murderers -- playing cards for the lives of the others.

If one of them lost a hand, his penance was to slit the throat of a political prisoner.

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