Interview with Ruta Popika


Interview with Ruta Popika


Ruta Popika was born near the river Nemunas, in what was Lithuania before the war. She remembers her family being forced to move eastwards and westwards from Lithuania according to the changing tides of war. Remembers the occupation of the Baltic States by the Russians. Mentions various episodes of her life as a refugee: German women baking bread and handing it out to the refugees fleeing from the Russians; the hanging of Jews; Russian soldiers raping women and being spared because she was Lithuanian. Tells of her 16-year-old brother being taken into the army by the Germans. Tells of American soldiers raping women and being spared because she spoke English. She spent many years in a German transit camp and then moved to Hamburg, where she attended a Lithuanian grammar school. Her parents spent the rest of their lives in German transit camps. Explains how she never had a settled life before she moved to England for work in 1947.




Temporal Coverage





00:25:18 audio recording


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SC: So, this is Steve Cooke uhm, interviewing Mrs Ruta Popika for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive. We're at Chaddesden, Derby and the time is 10.45 on the 6th of August 2018. So Ruta if I can ask you to start telling us your memories from that early time and just tell me everything that you want to tell me.
RP: Now the memories really start I think from, I was born in what then was Lithuania the, on the banks of the river Nemunas. Now the river Nemunas is the major river between what then was Germany and Lithuania and it starts in Russia somewhere, I never remember where it starts and it goes into the Curonian, they call it now I think the Curonian Bay or something
SC: Aha
RP: Anyway I lived, we lived there until I was seven. My father's work was customs officer and he did that all the time we were in Lithuania and from there we sort of, it's a long story, we were all born, there were six children, at that time we were only five children when we left there. From there we moved to several places and the first place we went to was Nida and that is on the Curonian Spit, I think they call it now and it's an absolutely gorgeous place, it's on a peninsula that starts from what is Russia now but then was Germany, half of it was German half of it was Lithuanian. So since my father was a customs officer we always lived on the border. We stayed there for three years and we moved to a place called Panemune, now that is again on the river Nemunas and on the other side of the river was a town called Tilsit in German, Tilze in Lithuanian and I can't remember what it is in Russian now, they've changed it completely and we lived there for a couple of years until Hitler started being a little bit greedy, I think, he wanted to take Poland so he said to Stalin now if you don't mind us occupying Poland you can have Lithuania, not Lithuania but the Baltic states and just overnight. First of all Hitler, Hitler also wanted a part of Lithuania minor that is where we lived. This was actually before I think I don't suppose we can go back
SC: Okay it's okay, you come back
RP: It is, that is, what happened first of all when we lived in Panemune, the Germans decided they wanted to have that part of Lithuania, Lithuania minor, so they just moved in overnight and we just saw our father disappear. And what had happened is: because he was a customs officer he had to move straight away to the new border which was now Lithuania and Germany it became, so of course a few days later he sent for the family and we all moved, he had to find somewhere for us to live there so we all moved to Lithuania major and we lived there until the war started actually. shortly and before the war that was when the Russians decided, decided they wanted access to the Baltic sea and they, they just marched in and took it all because the three Baltic states were not prepared for a war or anything like that, which is whether there was any, what happened politically I don't know. And uhm all at once we were under the Russians and the Lithuanian no longer, our ruler was, the president was Smetona at that time, I can't really remember what happened but he I think he'd gone, he left because he must have known that something was happening. We lived there under the Russians which meant we had to go to uhm we, had to learn Russian at school, so I learned some Russian for a while but then the Russians started deporting a lot of Lithuanians into Siberia and with the sort of job my father had, we would have been in line for it as well. So at that time then anybody, any of the Lith, Germans living in Lithuania and because we were born in a part that had gone from Lithuania to Germany and it sort of altered even the French had occupied it at one time years ago, many years ago
SC: Yeah
RP: And the Germans said we want the Germans to come out of Lithuania and into Germany so with my father having six children, six children by then, they felt it would be much safer for us to be in Germany so we registered as Germans because we were entitled, we could do that because that part of where we were born we could be either
SC: Yeah
RP: So we emigrated into Germany and when the war started and the Russians were moved out of Rus, out of the Baltic states and as you know the, the Germans went a lot further than just through the Lithu, through the Baltic states then after, because in Germany we were in a sort of a transit camp, spent a lot of my years in camps
SC: Yeah
RP: Because my father had bought a farm in the way when the Russians came and he had to move away from the border, he bought a farm so we could go back when the Germans chased the Russians out, they sent us back to Lithuania. But they sent us back then as Germans so when the war started actually, no it hadn't started but when the war started going badly for the Russians and the Russians of, badly for the Germans not the Russians and the Russians were sort of oppressing the Germans and the Ger, they were winning over the Germans because the Germans they’d spread themselves a little bit too, too wide
SC: Yeah
RP: And they started losing so of course as the Russians were coming nearer, we felt it was, well my parents felt it was safer for them to pack everything up and move into Germany
SC: Yeah
RP: And we were in a wagon and we travelled in, stopped in several places where we could sort of stay for a few nights. We stayed in Poland in one place for a few months I think even
SC: Yeah
RP: And I can remember while we were there, this is something that I seem to keep on remembering, and there were Jews there in a camp and I know a lot of people went to have a look they were hanging, they were hanging 10 Jews. I don't know what they were supposed to have done but if one did something, they just would hang them
SC: Yeah
RP: But no way would I go so, so many people went to watch it and I thought no. I was, what was I at that age? About 4, 13, 14 I think, maybe a little bit older but I just couldn't do that
SC: Yeah
RP: And from, when the, as the Russians, as you know the Russians kept coming further and further so we kept fleeing further and further from the Russians all the time because we knew what our fate would be if the Russians overtook us, we end up in Siberia. So we gradually moved from one place to another place every time the Russians came nearer and we settled in one place when the war started getting, the Russians and English, they were getting closer to each other and where we were, on one side the Russians were about thirty kilometres, the Americans and English or English and Americans were about five kilometres, so we thought well we are safer to stay where we are because they are nearer. But now this, the English stayed there and allowed the Russians to move on
SC: Yeah
RP: So we were overtaken by the Russians again. Now as far as any, the war itself, the bombardment and that, we avoided most of that because we were always in villages somewhere you could hear bombardment going in the distance, but never sort of very close. So of course, once the Russians and the English and Americans got together, we were under the Russians. So we, my father still, I don't know how it happened that he'd still got a wagon and horses and our belongings, we didn't have that many belongings by then because how much can you, you've got six children and
SC: Yeah
RP: So I don't think we had any furniture but we had clothes and whatever we needed mostly
SC: Yeah
RP: Uh we dec, my father decided that we can't stay under the Russians so we started to travel a bit walked a lot and the wagon, not very far but until we came, we stayed overnight underneath the wagon sleeping there and the Russia, there are some Russian soldiers came there and my father could speak Russian and he sort of started saying we are trying to find our way back to Lithuania, well we were not, we were trying to go the other way
SC: Yeah
RP: And fortunately they believed us, but what was happening a lot at that time as the Russian soldiers were raping women left, right, left, right and centre and my sister and myself we were sleeping under the wagon and they started sort of looking around and the man in charge says, leave them alone they're Lithuanians. So, once they left instead of going, they told us which way to go, well we knew which, which way Russia was. Uhm we went the other way and there was a field there which I think there were American soldiers there and I’d already, I went to grammar school and I had learned some English so my mother said to me go and talk to them. I couldn't speak a lot, but I could speak a bit of English and they let us go in, they let us through the border and that is of course how we got to be on the English side then. How my, my, how my parents arranged all these I don't know, it's really when I think about it I can't imagine how they coped, they found somewhere for us to live they, they found food when we could but while, I found while we were fleeing from the Russians there was this one place where we stayed there were some German women there. Well, we went through Germany that time and there were women there baking bread night and day so that all, because there was a line of nothing but wagons refugees and they were baking night and day to give to the people who were fleeing from the Russians instead of them fleeing from them. They just stayed there and baked, and we found, well, the Germans they were very good to us. I can't, can't say anything really bad but the only thing that they did is they kept my uhm, first of all they kept my oldest brother because he was 16 they took him in the army whether they liked it or not then when we were fleeing from Lithuania, they had stopped my father and my second brother but because my father had got rheumatism they allowed him to go but they kept my other brother and we've never seen them since
SC: Gosh!
RP: So once we were in the British zone they were just my father and mother, my sister, myself and my youngest brother. Yes, only my youngest brother, the other one had, the second youngest he had been killed by a, in a road accident by a bus. It was about a bus going about every week I think but he was killed by one of them
SC: Gosh!
RP: Because they were, they were hanging on to a wagon, you know how children do, they hang on
SC: Yeah
RP: And he jump, one jumped towards the ditch and my brother jumped the other way and there just happened to be a bus coming
SC: Gosh!
RP: On an empty road there's a bus coming. Anyway, this is why we sort of, our family we were just my youngest brother, my sister, myself, my father and and myself. And once we were on the British zone then, uhm this is something we were sort of in account, we kept on sleeping wherever there was any uhm space and this one night I know we were sleeping in a school room with straw, used to be straw just covered up with blankets and we slept there and some American soldiers came in and they were as bad as the Russians raping women and they raped several women there and one of them came up to me that age I don't know whether I was 15 yet, I was about 15. But I started talking in a little bit in English, all at once I became human to him and you know he, we just stood there and talked until some military policemen came in and he just jumped out through the window but he had not, if I hadn't been able to speak English it would have been the most traumatic thing for me
SC: Yeah
RP: I mean at that age
SC: Yeah
RP: And from there on we, oh we were overrun by the Russians again. Because the English and the, well the Allies really, they allowed the Russians to go further so we were under the Russians again and from there we said we got relatives, we got an address in West Germany that we wanted to go there and we were allowed through we had to go on to delousing and all sorts of things but eventually we ended up in a camp not very far from Hamburg. From there I went to a school, there was a Lithuanian grammar school that had opened so I’d rather had to go through Hamburg to the Lithuanian school. During the holidays they started recruiting people to work in England, first just in England my sister came to England then to work in a hospital. Then the following year they were recruiting again, I was too young at that time to go anywhere I was also at school, but the following year they recruited people who wanted to go to Australia, America, England and this, the grammar school I was on we were I think five pupils and everybody was at that age, the men they were about 32 then and I was about 17, 18. And a lot of them were going abroad, the teachers were leaving so the school was closing and I decided I was just old enough, I was 18 by then I’d come to England to work for one year, stretched a bit and that was in 1947
SC: Gosh!
RP: And of course, since then I’ve settled here, got married, married a Lithuanian
SC: Yep
RP: Brought up two children, got a granddaughter
SC: Ah, yeah
RP: And I’ve got, I’m happy here. Sometimes people say, would you like to go back to live in Lithuania? I’ve always said no because my family by then I was married, when Lithuania became independent, my husband had already died by the time Lithuania became independent
SC: Yes
RP: He would have loved to know it to be
SC: Cause that wasn't until 1990
RP: 93
SC: 93
RP: yes
SC: Yeah
RP: 92-93, yes
SC: Yeah
RP: And I know I went as soon as Lithuania became independent, I decided I’d love to meet my in-laws because my husband had got three sisters in Lithuania. His sis and all them, there were three brothers and three sisters and the brothers got away, the sisters were overrun by the Russians. So they were there and I wanted to meet them. So I went to Lithuania but it's just a pity my husband,
SC: Yeah
RP: Couldn't live to see that
SC: Yes
RP: Because my husband died in ‘86.
SC: Yeah, gosh!
RP: So I mean, several years after he died Lithuania became independent
SC: Yes. What about your father?
RP: Oh, my father stayed, my mother died, she, they both stayed in a camp in Hamburg
SC: Yeah
RP: And they spent their life in in a camp because they got nowhere that they were I think getting a little bit too old to work, no they weren't really because my mother was 53 when she died. She got cancer
SC: Yes
RP: We wanted them to come to England and they were in a transit camp actually to come to England and it was discovered that my mother got cancer
SC: Yes, you said
RP: And they wouldn't let them in and she eventually died in hospital there and my father he stayed in a, I think the camps would have had reduced to but it was still in sort of camp conditions until he died, he died 75
SC: Gosh! So, he was there all of that time?
RP: Yes, and my father was nine years older than my mother, so you'd have to work it out
SC: Yeah, yeah
RP: And I’ve settled in England and I’ve got a family
SC: Yeah. But from really quite an early age you were travelling
RP: Yes
SC: All the time
RP: From really I was, where I was born on the banks of the river, oh, that was beautiful for children that was ideal because the house was on the banks
SC: Yeah
RP: And we used to just go down the, down to the river and play and used to be steamships going past with passengers and used to wave to them. I had a lovely childhood there and then even when we went to Nida which still is the border town now between Germany, between Russia and Lithuania and there used to be a lot of holiday makers coming there because this was a lovely holiday resort. But from the age of seven, three years in Nida, then we got to Panemune and then we were there only about six months when the Germans decided they wanted it, we fled into Lithuania and that is
SC: Yeah
RP: Never sort of had settled life till I came to England.
SC: Yes
RP: And then I lived in the hospital for one year, one and a half years I think at the isolate, was the Isolation hospital then and turned to the Derwent Hospital then I worked at the Manor Hospital as in nursing there
SC: Yeah
RP: And worked at the co-op, got married [laughs] and that is how life carried on
SC: Yeah. Well, that's wonderful, thank you so much. I’ll pause this now for a moment.



Steve Cooke, “Interview with Ruta Popika,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 15, 2024,

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