Interview with partisan Juozas Jakavonis – Tigras (The Tiger)
Juozas Jakavonis-Tigras “Fake identity documents saved my life”
“Freedom comes at the cost of blood” says the 94-year old Lithuanian partisan Juozas Jakavonis, adding that it is necessary to talk about history so that it is not forgotten. This year was the 30th anniversary of the restoration of Lithuania’s independence and 75 years after the end of World War II. Juozas Jakavonis-Tigras agreed to share his memories of how he fought for freedom together with Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (the Hawk) and other partisans.
The visit to Giedrius Paulauskas’ exhibition of reconstructed partisan uniforms “Warriors of Freedom” at the Design Innovation Center of the Vilnius Academy of Arts stirred a lot of memories inside the old partisan. Realizing the importance of history, J. Jakavonis-Tigras agreed to share the stories he had remembered while visiting the exhibition.
By the end of World War II, as the Eastern Front approached Lithuania, people already felt that the Soviets were preparing to occupy Lithuania. What encouraged you, a young man in your twenties, to join the partisans?
My mother was born in Klepočiai village. In 1944 the Russians came and decided to destroy all the houses and villages on the right bank of the Nemunas. On the other bank of the Nemunas, German soldiers were positioned. They had twelve machine guns and fired on all Russian soldiers who tried to cross the river. At the time, Nemunas was red with blood of soldiers.
Russian troops had to report to Moscow on the number of people killed. So they came up with the tactic of surrounding villages and shooting villagers. They killed 33 people, including my mother’s uncle, my father’s brother, and his wife. My cousin ran all the way from the village and told us what had happened. My mother fainted and almost died of grief. After these events there was a lot of anger. 150 men gathered in one place and thus a partisan war broke out in our region. On Christmas Eve of 1944, six villages were burned.
Did the partisan uniform have special meaning to you? Or did you wear it because you had to?
Under an international agreement, fighters needed uniforms in order to be distinguishable from civilians. Uniforms helped to distinguish soldiers and partisans from civilians. We were sworn fighters of the Lithuanian Freedom Army.
Where did you get your uniform from?
Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (the Hawk) had a pair of white corduroy trousers which he gave to me. I still had them on when I was brought to Magadan in the far east of Russia. Upon arrival, I had to change into prisoner’s clothes. And so, the trousers of Vanagas remained in Magadan, and we, wearing the prisoners’ clothes, no longer recognized our own.
Before that, a neighbor had given me a dark green customs uniform. He had served near the Biržai district and came back with an almost new jacket and trousers, which he passed on to me. Other partisans said I that in this uniform I looked like a foreigner. Partisan uniforms were not much different from others. They were mostly the same in all Lithuanian districts.
Who would sew in the stars? Were there many seamstresses your region who helped the partisans?
Local families were large, almost every second member of any family knew how to sew. Some were good at it, while others learned from them, so there was no shortage of tailors. Many of them were Jewish, however, later their fate turned in an awfully bad direction.
Do you know any details about the partisan tailors’ work? Where did they get materials from?
The border was nearby, and the border police had uniforms, which, over time, would become worn out and thus of no use to them, so they would give those old uniforms to the villagers. And where would villagers use such uniforms? You can’t go to church in them, can you? So they would keep the uniforms hidden under wardrobes. That’s how they were preserved. When we were forced to rise to a fight, those uniforms were given to us. That is why in the Dainava district many partisans wore jackets and even full uniforms of border police or riflemen.
Winters in Lithuania were particularly cold. How did you protect yourself against the cold? Did you have any warm clothes?
I was young then, so I was not that sensitive to the cold. We could not sleep on the ground, as then one half of the body would be freezing, increasing the risk of pneumonia. So we would gather juniper tops and sleep atop of them, just like in beds of sorts.
Women would knit us sweaters, gloves, or scarves. Villagers kept many sheep, so we had wool. Of course, we also wore greatcoats and jackets.
A volunteer who had returned from Russia’s labor camps and had been living in Valkininkai visited me and later told my wife and children, that if it wasn’t for me, they would all have frozen to death, because I kept kicking them and preventing them from falling asleep. And that’s what it was, we needed to move a lot in order to keep warm. It was incredibly hard life.
You have mentioned that you and Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (the Hawk) were very close. Were there any moments where you would think: that’s it, this is going to end badly now?
Me and Vanagas, we experienced a lot of things together. I remember, there once was an incident when I was sure I would die. We were on lookout. I walked in the front, while other partisans were about 30 meters behind. Looking around among tall grass, I noticed several heads sticking out. I realized that those were Russian soldiers, so I quickly gestured to my comrades to duck and hide behind the grass. The Russians walked very close by without noticing us. Had we reacted slower and not hidden ourselves, there would have been a shootout and I, standing in the front, would have been shot. I also remember how I was arrested. Luckily, I had fake identity documents stating that I was four years younger. According to them, I was only 16. When I was arrested, the law said that teenagers up to 16 could still be reformed and directed towards the Soviet ideology. And that’s what happened to me. Had the identity documents shown that I was, in fact, 20 years old, I would have been shot just like all the others.
You have visited Giedrius Paulauskas’ exhibition of reconstructed partisan uniforms “Warriors of Freedom”. How did you feel seeing the archival photographs of partisans and the reconstructed partisan uniform?
My goal is to help preserve my recollections and the history of war in Lithuania. Therefore, I am truly thankful to your generation for taking interest, for writing and for passing on our painful experiences. In 2011, during the 70th anniversary of the 1941 June Uprising in Kaunas, there were almost 800 partisans, and now only five of us remain. It is therefore important that history is not forgotten.