Watching the tides go by - Petronelė Matilda Berženskienė
Text: Ray Vysniauskas
“Life is always changing,” says Petronelė Matilda Berženskienė over a table of cucumber, salami and salad sandwiches. “My father said the first half of his life was stable, but then it just kept on changing quickly.”
We meet at the house where Petronelė now lives, which is just in front of the house she was born in, halfway between Palanga and Šventoji. “My father was a fisherman, a knygnešis (book smuggler in the time of Tsarist occupation), and I have to admit he was a smuggler as well. He spoke six languages, and was well respected in Palanga. I remember when I was a girl and I had an accident and had to be rushed to the doctor. My brother took me on his bicycle and when we got there I told the doctor my surname was Raudys, and he said he would not charge me for the treatment.”
Petronelė surprises me in telling me that her father was friends with the intelligentsia of Palanga, and they would in fact order the types of books they wanted in advance. I always assumed that the knygnešai simply brought over any books they could get their hands on, but the system seems much more advanced than that.
“They were tough times,” she continued. “He would often bring back salt as well as books from his trips to Prussia, Poland and Germany.
“Sometimes he smuggled spirits by sea as well. They would meet with Scandinavian fishermen way out at sea, and they would exchange contraband. It was a time of honour as sometimes they would give over goods on one trip, and expect payment the next. But if you didn’t pay or tried to swindle them, then you would end up washed up on the shore sometime soon.
“We have always lived just a few minutes from the beach and the life of a fisherman was hard. I eventually married a fisherman myself and I can tell you that in those days a fisherman was nothing without his family. While he went out to sea, it was the wife and family that would bring the horses to the shore, which were needed for mooring and launching the boat, as well as taking the produce to market.
“They left at five or six in the evening and returned at five or six in the morning and we had to be there to help. If I got home and heard a storm brewing I would have to unhitch the horse and run back to the beach in case the boats came in early. If the boats didn’t return, sometimes other storms would brew through the night, and I might have had to make a number of trips to the shore to see if they were in.
“Once the boat was moored we had to take the fish from the hooks. Each net had up to 3,000 hooks, so it was time-consuming and prickly work. Then we would have to store and maintain the nets and ropes, and look after the boat. All this was on top of the usual housework and cleaning needed in any home.
“Wives were not registered as workers so we got no social security benefits. If your husband died at sea you just got a one-off payment and that was it. Widows would have to remarry quickly to ensure the support of themselves and their children.”
Petronelė was born in Lithuania’s pre-war independence years, and stayed in the same place as the world around her continued to change. In her lifetime she has seen Lithuania independent, overrun by the Soviets, conquered by the Germans, recaptured by the Soviets and annexed for fifty years, and finally turning full circle as Lithuania became independent once more.
The one constant in her life has been the beach, but one that sadly has proved a melancholy friend. “While the Germans patrolled the beaches they allowed us to use them, but the Soviets had it protected by barbed wire for almost 20 years after the war and we were strictly forbidden from going there on threat of being shot. In the 1960s they started letting us go there during daylight hours, but still there were regular patrols. Now I can go there all I like, but my health doesn’t let me.”
I asked Petronelė what it was like living here and watching the tide of World War II ebb and flow each way: “The Russians came in and started building bunkers not far from here. It came suddenly, but we are away from Klaipėda and Palanga where there was a lot more action.
“The German years were relatively calm. All property owners had to provide a certain amount of produce and payment to the authorities which was based around the amount of property you owned. I think the Russians just required food from us, but we had to pay the Germans some money as well I think.
“The war started again for us just as suddenly. We didn’t realise there was an airfield not far from us and they started bombing it out of nowhere. There was no expectation, no warning, just war. We had always had soldiers nearby because of the beach, but that was a big shock.
“We were warned that the Russians were coming but they came so quickly. We heard they were 15km away, but they got here in a couple of hours. There was a lot of confusion because they were here, but Palanga and Šventoji were still under the control of the Germans. We thought of running, but we only had a few potatoes at the time, and we needed to dig them up.
“There was a lot of confusion then. You have to remember that we didn’t have any radio or newspapers in the country, just people running around and telling different stories. People were running to the woods to bury their valuables, but most of the fighting was around Palanga.”
I asked if there was any difference between the Russian and German occupiers: “I didn’t believe either of them, you always knew they were just saying whatever suited them best. It was the same routine whenever the regimes changed, you would have to go and register and they would announce what sort of taxes you were allocated. The Germans were more efficient though.
“When the Germans came through the first time there were a lot of Prussian troops and we found we could communicate with them quite easily, even though the Lithuanian dialects we spoke were different.”
When all the fighting finished Petronelė explained that they had 6.17 hectares of land and a guest house, but the Soviets took it from them and they were left with just 28 ares on which to grow a little food.
“My father continued as a fisherman, but that changed a lot as well. Every boat had two fishermen and a Soviet customs guard. The guard was always the first one to get in, and wives and children were strictly forbidden from even getting into a boat, as they would fish in international waters and had some chance of escaping. Even so, they would still sometimes meet up with Scandinavian fishermen and manage to exchange a few odds and ends.
“The fishermen were searched before and after getting on the boats so nothing major could take place, and even so some of them still had their licences taken away sometimes. It was the government that decided which fishermen would work together, and this was changed every now and then to prevent them from colluding. They kept quite a close eye on the fishermen.
“Our fishing was primitive. As the older fishers started dying out the young people didn’t want to replace them, preferring to look for better jobs elsewhere. It was inefficient and we still needed to work half the year at sea, and survive off the land for the other half of the year.
“They stopped launching boats locally in 1974 and everything had to go through Klaipėda, so that was when we really moved away from being a fishing village.”
Up to the mid 1960s life was quite isolated for Petronelė who was married by then and she went on to have one daughter. “We had a guest house but it was not much good without the beach, so we didn’t have any guests until the 1960s when they started letting us use the beach again. At first it was just in the daylight hours, and still guarded, and even then some groups would be taken to Palanga for questioning. It was usually no great problem and they mostly just got a fine or had to pay a bribe, but it was still very unpleasant. From around 1966 it started to become more relaxed.
“Somehow we became popular with holiday makers from Leningrad. They were cultured people and then a writer started coming here a lot, and then we had the Science Academy of Moscow taking their holidays here from about 1968. We had 14 in our house, and three groups of 45 would come for 25 days each, sharing the various guest houses around the region. They liked it because it was quiet and relaxed, and we worked hard to keep it that way.
“I think we helped them as well, because they would come here and see what life was like – and it was better than in Moscow – and they took back some of the ideas they saw here and initiated the same in Moscow.”
And what about life today? How has Petronelė found life now that Lithuania was free again: “Fishing has changed a lot. My husband had retired, but after independence he started his own private fishing company, more as a hobby, and it really gave him a second youth. Then they started introducing more and more regulations and requirements and taxes, and soon it was not worthwhile continuing with it. It cost too much for just a hobby. Now it is a business. We had to provide detailed information of our catch every month, and now it is required daily. There are less fish now too.
“Now they have modern boats and modern equipment and it is totally different. The last fishing family here, the son just returned from Sweden with a new boat, and he works out of Klaipėda and doesn’t need the family support that was once so necessary.”
And what about everyday life? Does Petronelė think that has changed for the better since independence: “We didn’t start locking our doors until around 1970. It seems like we got into the habit of stealing in the Soviet years and we never quite managed to kick the habit.
“Otherwise I have to say that life kept changing quickly. In every age, every occupation, there is something to complain about. Our biggest burden now is the gross misconduct of the government in the repatriation of land. We were the poorest area in Lithuania, and now the land has become more valuable and everything has changed. Legislators change the law to suit themselves and have no care for us ordinary people.”