I grew up in a small farming village in North Lithuania. I was in the sixth grade when the Soviet tanks rolled in to “liberate” us from ourselves…. I was just given a small still camera, so I ran to the roadside to take the first photo of my life—an image of a Soviet tank rolling along a dusty country road. A farmer boy, dirty, short pants. I snapped it! Even before the sound of the click ended, a Russian soldier ran towards me, grabbed the camera out of my hands, pulled out the film, threw it into the road dust, rubbed it in with his boot, and pointed to the house: run, stupid, run before I… He didn’t have to tell it twice, I ran like I never ran before. That’s how my life in film began.
I was in High School when in l942 the German tanks rolled in and “liberated” us again, this time from the Soviets. Like many other young men of my age in Eastern Europe, I joined the underground that worked against both the Soviets and the Germans. Since I was already obsessed with writing, my job in the underground was retyping the news on German and Soviet activities in occupied countries, written down by hand from clandestine radio newscasts, from BBC and other sources. The typewriter I was using for it had to be strictly hidden since its type face could lead Germans to the source of the publication. But one night my typewriter was stolen from the wood stack where I was hiding it.
I reported this to my underground friends. The decision was made that no chances could be taken: I had to immediately disappear, and the further the better. Papers were made for myself and Adolfas, my brother, who decided to join me, to immediately leave for Vienna, which we did. Two hours after crossing the border, the German Army police raided the train and all men of working age were seized and shipped to Hamburg. There we were put in a forced labor camp together with French war prisoners. We had to work in German war factories up to 14 hours daily. In February of 1945, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape to Denmark, we ended up on a farm where the end of war found us.
After the end of war, we spent four long years in various Displaced Persons camps all over Germany. I don’t have to tell you that the D.P. camps in postwar Germany were not the same as those in Lebanon etc. today, but it wasn’t a Paradise either, I can tell you that much. You can read about it all in my diary book of those years: I Had Nowhere to Go.
In late l949 the United Nations Refugee Organization managed to find us jobs in a Chicago bakery and dumped us in New York harbor with train tickets to Chicago. But we stood there, Adolfas and myself, at the end of the 23rd Street of Manhattan, and we looked at the New York skyline, and we said, No way! We are not going to Chicago! It would be stupid to go to Chicago when you are in New York!
So said, so done: with no money, no place to live, no job, we collected our stuff, and we crashed in a corner of a friend, a displaced person who had arrived before us, and had a place in Brooklyn. Meserole Street Number One, Williamsburg. I was twenty seven. But I felt that it was on that day and right there that my life had really begun. What preceded was Hell.