Recently I read Leave Your Tears in Moscow, a harrowing and ultimately triumphant account of Barbara Armonas’s time in a Soviet Siberian prison camp. Armonas, who passed away at the age of 99 in 2008, was separated from her American husband and daughter in Lithuania at the outbreak of World War II. Her husband John Armonas and daughter, both born in the United States, fled Lithuania. Barbara and her son John Jr. stayed behind. Although Barbara had lived for a time in Cleveland with her husband, she was not yet an American citizen. The thinking was if her son remained with her, reunification of the family would be easier in a few months.
The News Herald in Ohio has an excellent profile of their story published in 2009. Armonas and her son were part of the Lithuanian deportations by the Soviet Union, at least 70 percent of the deported Lithuanians were women and children. In a farce trial, Armonas was eventually convicted of espionage and sentenced to the maximum 25 years in Soviet labor camps. Armonas, who was not political, published a damning account of collectivism and the socialist Soviet state in Leave Your Tears in Moscow. During Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in 1959, Armonas’s daughter Donna pleaded to the Soviet Premier for the release of her mother. The encounter gained worldwide attention and eventually led to the release of Armonas and her son to reunite with their family in America. They had been separated for 20 years.
The book, published in 1961, raised awareness of the plight of Lithuanians under Soviet occupation. Below are a few quotes and excerpts from her memoir:
The religious songs and ceremonies helped the hopeless people so much. Maybe that is why the Soviet slave labor camps and prison administrators oppose religious holidays. The Lithuanian farmers are very devout and it was painful to see how they suffered without any religious help, especially those who were seriously ill or injured. I hadn’t attended a religious service, entered a church, or seen a priest since my deportation. (103)
We had been pushed back a thousand years in human civilization and achievement. One of the men said he didn’t think that anywhere else in the world were human beings living so poorly as we. (62)
Never had a state been given so much labor so cheaply. We were even financing the state enterprise with the little capital we had brought with us. We exchanged our dresses, earrings, picture frames, and silver spoons for food in order to work and show results. The state octopus somewhere in central Siberia or Moscow was only interested in getting the most output at the smallest possible cost. (62)
Admitting to having been in prison is no shame in Russia. Without exception the people are very helpful to former prisoners. (182)
Despite fifteen years of Communist education and careful screening, the spirit of freedom is still alive in Lithuanian students. (197)
The tragic outcome of the Hungarian revolution was a terrible disappointment to everyone. Now we felt there was no shred of hope that the West would help us to rid our countries of the hated occupation. (197)
Since I still had a little time to spend in Moscow, I decided to go to the Stalin and Lenin Mausoleum. I had an intense desire to see the body of the man who was personally responsible for so much suffering. I had passed his casket in a long line of visitors, thinking that he could have been drowned by my own tears which had been shed over the years. (210)
No one mentioned that I was going to a land of democracy and freedom or that I would live in better conditions in the future. This was too dangerous. Only one remarked that if I should find myself with nothing to eat I must write them and they would send a few pounds of bacon. This ironical comment caused long and loud laughter. (212)
For eight years I had worked like a horse, three years in deportation and five in prison, all to build Soviet power and I had not been paid enough to stay alive. Without my husband’s support I could not have survived to fulfill my “duty to socialism.” (218)
I thought of the thousands of Lithuanian deportees without permits to go home, living out their entire lives in terrible primitive poverty, powerless to give their children the education which might lift them out of these hopeless conditions, and I thought of all those who had come home without means, deprived of their property and status. All the oppressed Lithuanians, surrounded by lies, isolated from the rest of Europe – why should they suffer? Just because they belonged to a small nation which happened to be in the path of a giant? (218-219)