A Lesson in Compassion: Babulis

November 2022

article by, photo courtesy of Akvilina Rieger

A cloud of cigarette smoke from a nearby table tickles my nose, and I find myself instantly annoyed. I just wanted to enjoy a cup of coffee in the fresh air. Yet my annoyance quickly dissipates as memories of my grandma, Babulis, are triggered. 

I catch myself counting how often little things throughout the day trigger memories of her. Cigarette smoke seems to be one of them. As much as I can’t tolerate it, I feel like Babulis earned the cigarette I always remember her with. 

As a mom, I shudder as I recall why my grandmother took her first cigarette. It was 1941, and the Soviets occupied her home country- Lithuania. Soldiers came in the middle of the night to arrest anyone who was not going along with the occupier's plans. As many young or capable Lithuanian men left their homes to form resistance, the Soviets hit the most painful spot, storming homes at night, arresting women, children, and the elderly, and boarding them onto cattle trains. 

Babulis, with a 6-month-old son on her hip, was given about 20 minutes to gather their things by armed soldiers. It was an unexpected turn of occupation. Thousands of people on the dreaded lists didn’t know what they were preparing for. They didn’t know if they would be killed or imprisoned that night. As cruel as the occupants were, no one predicted the inhumane twist.  

What awaited them was nearly four weeks of the incomprehensibly dehumanizing and deadly ride to frosted Siberia. There was only standing room in the train cabins meant for animals; terrified passengers were entering the unknown. Trains were filled with Lithuania’s patriots, intellectuals who understood what occupation would do to Lithuania and fought to resist the ruin of our beautiful country. Each day, the soldiers opened the train doors to forcibly remove the ones that didn’t make it, and they were left on the sides of the path. 

Babulis protected us from the devastating details of losing her firstborn to starvation on that horrific ride to the Siberian camps that took many years of hard labor. Unfortunately, many details of that part of her life are forever left with her. I know a few small but powerful details from that ride. A fellow passenger had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and offered one to help a grief-stricken young mother heal from her loss during those incomprehensible times. 

I take a deep breath and inhale the trail of cigarette smoke from a lady next to me. Previous annoyance gone; I suddenly felt more compassionate and understanding. We all have our stories; maybe there is a story about why she is smoking, too. I smile at her as I exhale. 

Originally printed in the November 2022 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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