I dreamt last night I was hiking across a muddy field with my comrades. We were armed and anticipating an attack. As we walked, our feet sank deeper and deeper into the mud. We reached a little house beside the forest and I saw an enormous rose bush growing alongside one of its walls. I thought to myself, “Now I’ll pick some roses for Nijolė, enough to fill three vases.” I dropped my weapon and began gathering armfuls of roses. With my arms overflowing, I followed my comrades into the forest. My mother crossed my path. “Son,” she said, “what are you doing? Drop those roses and pick up your gun.”
Juozas Lukša, February 7, 1949
I don’t think any woman could resist a man who wrote like Juozas Lukša—or forget him half a century later. Therefore, it was perfectly understandable to me why 82-year-old Nijolė Bražėnaitė kept his memory alive. Nijolė Brazėnaitė met Juozas Lukša in Paris in 1948. A few days before Christmas Eve 1947, Lukša and a few comrades had broken through the Iron Curtain in a border zone between the postwar Russian Kaliningrad enclave and Poland. From Poland they made their way to Gotland, Sweden, and from Sweden they traveled to France. That is where Juozas and Nijolė met.
Nijolė had recently completed her degree in medicine. She and her twin sister, Vida, traveled from one German city to the next, enrolling in universities and studying in them until the allied bombings forced the university to close. In this manner, Nijolė eventually earned her degree. Towards the end of the war Vida became ill with pulmonary tuberculosis. Nijolė practically carried Vida in her arms across Germany during the months of the final allied bombings, eventually reaching Austria. Nijolė left her sister at a displaced person’s camp and climbed a mountain during a snowstorm to a sanatorium she'd heard was located at the peak of the mountain. When she got there she was told every bed was occupied. She dropped to her knees and begged the head doctor to take Vida in. Impressed by her determination, he did, and Vida eventually recovered.
The leadership of the Lithuanian partisan resistance against the Soviet Union had appointed Juozas Lukša as a special representative to the West. Lukša’s mission was to meet with contacts in Western Europe in order to describe Lithuania’s armed resistance against Soviet oppression and to plead with the West to intervene and stop the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. He was given the mission of seeking the answer to two questions: Can the Lithuanian Resistance expect a conflict between the Soviet Union and the West in the near future? And, is the West committed to freeing the occupied nations behind the Iron Curtain?
Lukša carried with him a number of documents and testimonials, including a letter written in French to the United Nations, and a letter written in Latin by Lithuanian Catholics to Pope Pius XII, describing the mass deportations of Lithuanian intellectuals and rural supporters of the resistance to Siberia. The letter requested nothing more of the Catholic Church than “compassion and a soothing word.” The letter received no response from the Vatican. The answer to both Lukša’s questions, and the reaction to the documents and testimonials he brought with him, became overwhelmingly clear as his time in Paris stretched into a two-year stay. The answer came from a variety of sources, ranging from Lithuanian politicians in exile to representatives of various governments of the West. The answer was: No, the West was not preparing to come to the aid of the occupied nations left behind the Iron Curtain, nor were they planning on waging a war against the Soviet Union.
That answer flew in the face of the Lithuanian partisans’ rather literal belief in the Atlantic Charter. Signed on August 14, 1941 between the President of the United States of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mr. Winston Churchill, the second, third, and the sixth points of the Atlantic Charter stated that the President and the Prime Minister, “desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned” and that “they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and that they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” The sixth point stated that “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, they hope to see a peace established that will afford all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom, safe from fear and want.” Based on their faith in the Atlantic Charter the resistance fighters believed it was only a matter of time before the West would intervene. They could not have known that intervention from the West would never come.
When Juozas Lukša was introduced to Nijolė by Jonas Pajaujis, a mutual friend, journalist and member of the resistance, he called himself by a code name. That tipped off Nijolė that he was in the resistance. She understood to not ask questions. They became friends and Nijolė showed Lukša around Paris a few times. He was interested in the seeing the city's architecture. He had studied architecture in Kaunas during the war and had only one year of studies remaining when he'd gone underground and joined the resistance.
Perhaps Nijolė’s understanding of Lukša’s mission stemmed from her own experiences in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Lithuania in 1941. As teenagers, she and her twin sister, Vida, printed anti-Nazi proclamations on a printing press hidden along with weapons in their family’s garden shed at their house in Kaunas.
Nijolė and Juozas did not become close until a few months later, when Nijolė became ill with tuberculosis and was confined to a Paris hospital. During that time Lukša remained in Paris illegally, living in hiding in an ever-changing series of garrets and rooming houses, registering under aliases, dodging the NKVD, and Lithuanian displaced persons who might recognize him. He spent his days alternately writing his memoir, Forest Brothers, or looking for a means to return to the invisible front in Lithuania.
Because he was in hiding, Lukša could visit Nijolė in the hospital only very rarely. From 1948 through 1950 Lukša and Nijolė wrote to each other every day. Lukša’s letters kept Nijolė going during her long illness, and Nijolė’s letters helped Lukša cope with his feelings of desperation and loss. Both had lost brothers in the war and both had lost their parents. Both had seen their homes destroyed by Soviet occupying forces, and both longed to one day return to their country to the peaceful life they’d known before the war. They strongly believed in the necessity of fighting for Lithuania’s freedom and felt that their duty to their country came first, even before their duty towards each other.
In 1949 Lukša was approached by the CIA and invited to join an espionage training camp in Kaufbeuren, Germany. During the postwar era the CIA had set up the training camp as part of a CIA sponsored Cold War espionage effort. During 1950 – 1951 the CIA trained resistance fighters from Soviet-occupied countries to infiltrate the Soviet Union to gather information in the event of another war with the Soviet Union. CIA-trained Central and Eastern European operatives were flown back into the Soviet Union under the radar with C-47 Dakotas manned by former RAF Czech pilots. Several such air-drops were done in the Baltics and in the Ukraine. These operations in the end were only moderately successful, mainly because of infiltrations by Soviet counter-intelligence. Lukša and his comrades saw the CIA espionage training as an opportunity to enlist the Americans’ help in their nations’ struggle, while the Americans used the resistance fighters’ dedication to fighting for freedom in their homelands to gain access to information from behind the Iron Curtain.
When Lukša departed on his mission to Soviet-occupied Lithuania in 1950, he instructed Nijolė to burn all the letters he’d written her. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She hid them instead. Juozas told Nijolė that he would also burn the letters she’d written to him. Only, he too couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, before boarding the plane that would airdrop him behind the Iron Curtain, he tucked the letters into a brown envelope and with a crayon wrote across the front of the envelope: Noli tangere circulos meos. Juozas Lukša handed the letters and a circumference to a CIA secretary and instructed her to return them to Nijolė. Noli tangere circulos meos were Archimedes’ last words before he was killed by a Roman soldier: Do not disturb my circles. The legend goes that Archimedes was sketching circles in the sand, too busy with his calculations to notice that the enemy's army had entered his city.
Fifty-six years later Nijolė entrusted her answers to those letters to me. Juozas Lukša's letters were given to a museum in Garliava, Lithuania.
On May 10, 1949 Juozas Lukša wrote: The warmth that emanates from your letters bewitches me. I’d like it if every time you were overcome with loneliness, with longing for me, I could be with you and give you happiness, a happiness that you’ve never before known. But, what obstacles get in our way! The God of Fate is cruel. Carefully, with the patience and lovingness of an ant, you build yourself a palace in the future and He comes and knocks it all down with one sweep of his hand, leaving you only with pain and longing and with the mirage of happiness.
When read side by side, arranged chronologically, the letters reveal how the young couple’s relationship was built on a longing for their native country, but also on their mutual understanding that Lukša would return to Lithuania to continue fighting in the resistance and that Nijolė would wait for him.
In a letter dated February 19, 1949 Nijolė wrote: I believe you know the thoughts I send after you, after your visits, the thought that I so want, together with you, to kiss the land we both haven’t seen for such a long time. You’d come to me tonight thinking about how we won’t see each other again and we’d both talked about everything, but not about that which is most holy and most painful to us. Maybe it’s better that way? After all, nothing is certain either for you or for me. Only it hurts me to think that you thought that I'd placed our happiness above the fight for freedom. No, I’d never dare to ask you to change your position, and I know that you’d never change it. And for that I love you even more. I don’t think I’d change anything either if I had the fortune of being in your position.
Juozas replied to Nijolė’s letter with the humor that so many people later remembered him for: “I see that you are a woman in the style of Greek antiquity, ‘Either come home with a sword, or don’t come home at all.’” But then in a more serious tone, he wrote in the same letter, “Knowing you, the way I do, makes me proud, and gives me the strength I need to face critical situations.”
There were moments when Lukša allowed himself to dream. On March 3, 1949 he wrote to Nijolė, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if after everything were over—everything that is yet to pass—that we could drink in all our happiness.”
A few days later, on March 8, 1949, Juozas Lukša wrote to Nijolė again: You must agree that happiness doesn’t simply hang around at any one time or any one place, but that it is found only very seldom and under the most trying circumstances—that it’s hidden and only rarely shows itself. Maybe that’s why for us earthly creatures happiness is so dear—because it occurs only once and because it takes so much effort to find it.
There were also times when Juozas Lukša railed against Fate.
On June 6, 1949 he wrote to his beloved: Often, Nijolė, when I am drowning in my longing for you, I cannot understand why Fate has been so cruel to us. First it bound our spirits, and then it separated us just when our days are numbered. Maybe that is as it should be, but I worry that rather than make us stronger, the result will be that it will destroy us morally. Fate will make us despair of the existence of happiness at all.
In 1950 a friend who’d been released from the sanatorium left Nijolė a fish bowl with three goldfish. Juozas admired the gold fish on one of his rare visits. Afterwards, the couple wrote a few lines about the goldfish in each of their letters, playfully referring to the goldfish as their “children.” They gave them names, discussed their educations and upbringing. Soon, they both began writing about how it seemed inevitable that they must marry. They began planning their wedding, knowing that Juozas had resolved to return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania to carry out his mission, knowing that he might never return. Nijolė supported him in his decision. It never occurred to her to ask him to stay; in fact, had she been able, she would have volunteered to fight herself. Nijolė wrote to Juozas at the time: “I envy your opportunity to fight for our country.”
On June 10, 1950, just before their wedding, Nijolė wrote: I don’t know how to express to you how I feel now that our dreams are coming true. I know that all of it will be very different from how things usually are in life. But all the same, every minute that we are physically separated will make our spiritual bond only stronger, and together we will sacrifice everything for your (and for my) first love.
Lukša often referred to Lithuania and to his commitment to fight for Lithuania as his first wife. In a letter written in August, 1950, just a month after their wedding, Lukša wrote to Nijolė from the CIA training camp: …And, after all, the two of us have given up the insistence of “me” and have given ourselves up to the demands of my “first wife.” I know, Nijolė, that from now on, I won’t be fighting just for my own honor, but for our honor, and that you will be there with me in your prayers. I believe that the feelings we share for each other will not disappoint us and one day we will be together again in that joy we dream so much of and in which we both live.
Juozas Lukša and Nijolė Brazėnaitė were married July 23, 1950. They lived together as a married couple for only one week. After their honeymoon in the mountains of Treifelberg near Tübingen, Germany, Juozas returned to the CIA training camp in Kaufbeuren. That October Lukša was flown back into the Soviet Union just as the United States entered the Korean War. His mission was to discern whether the Soviet Union was stockpiling weapons and troops to attack Europe.
After Lukša returned to Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Nijolė’s friend, Julijonas Butėnas, a fellow paratrooper, who would soon follow after Lukša in a second fact-finding mission behind the Iron Curtain, handed Nijolė her husband’s final letter to her.
A little more than 20 days separates me from the memories of the happiness we shared in Treifelberg. Often, when I wrench myself out of my “first wife’s” grip, I drown in memories of us. I dream of you, Dear One. I feel so happy that it doesn’t seem possible that you could find anyone who could compete with my happiness. It is sad that these days, like you, I must rely on satisfying myself with the memory of that happiness I'd so dreamed of, so longed for.
When he departed for Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Lukša carried with him a letter from Monsignor Mykolas Krupavičius, the head of the Committee for the Restoration of an Independent Lithuania, addressed to the partisans of Lithuania, outlining the current political situation abroad and appealing to the partisans to desist from any form of action that might lead to justifications for further deportations and genocide. He also had with him medical supplies, printing supplies, dollars, rubles, zlotys, gold-plated Swiss watches and a radio transmitter. Each paratrooper carried with him an automatic weapon with cartridges, a pistol with cartridges, ten watches each, 2,000 US dollars, and 6,000 rubles. They were dressed in loose fitted trousers and leather jackets. Each of them had a cyanide capsule sewn into their jacket collar in case they were apprehended.
When Lukša and his team landed, they encountered their first setback. They lost one of the containers with warm clothing, rain gear, part of the radio transmitter, medicine, ammunition, food, money, and anti-Soviet literature. Lukša decided not to take the time to search for the container. He was certain that the Soviet authorities would have noticed that an unidentified plane had entered their airspace. He reasoned that they did not have much time before Soviet Interior Forces arrived. They searched for the container half an hour and then moved on, taking turns carrying the heavy radio transmitter equipment on their backs.
The night had been rainy and foggy and the pilot could not turn on his navigational equipment because it would have been detected on Soviet radars. He dropped Lukša and the radio men at the first opportune spot, which turned out to be in western Lithuania—unfamiliar terrain to Lukša and a five day’s walk from their area of operation.
They buried their parachutes and continued onwards to their first meeting place. They'd been dropped in an area that was mostly swamp. Soon they were thoroughly drenched. It continued to rain heavily during their entire trek. They stopped at a farm in the village of Dabrūpiniai and slept that night in the hay in the barn. The farmer’s wife came upon them when she went out to the barn. She invited them indoors. She quickly covered all the windows and rushed to prepare a meal. From her reaction, the paratroopers knew that she was accustomed to hiding partisans on her farm. After they ate, they set out towards the Nemunas River. They walked at night and hid in the forest during the day. They ate at farms along the way. One of the paratroopers, Benediktas Trumpys, developed bad blisters from his new boots and had to continue the trip in his socks.
After three uneventful days’ journey, they reached the Nemunas River. The river was swollen from heavy rains. They found a row boat and rowed towards the opposite bank. A strong current caught the boat and carried them too far downstream. As they cut their way back through dense undergrowth, they lost one of their submachine guns. On the evening of October 10th they reached the village of Skirkiškis, where Lukša had some close friends, the Vaitkevičius family. The family was shocked that Lukša had returned from the West. They could not believe that he would chose to return to a certain death. They told him that all the partisans who had accompanied him on his trip across the border to the West were dead.
Later, after Lukša had been apprehended and killed, during interrogations Mrs. Vaitkevičius confessed to the NKVD: In the fall of 1950 Juozas Lukša (code name Skirmantas) and two friends arrived. They were armed and were wearing foreign clothing. Each of them had a small backpack. They said they’d returned from the West, where they had received training at an espionage school. A plane had brought them back and they’d been parachuted into Lithuania to conduct reconnaissance. They were dropped in the Klaipėda region. They came to us on foot. They hid their parachutes in the forest. After dinner Lukša gave me a watch and gave my husband 30 US dollars. He asked if we were in contact with the partisans. He said he wanted to meet up with them.
After initial contact was made with partisan liaisons, Lukša and the remaining partisans in the Tauras District experienced setback after setback. Several former partisans had joined forces with the NKVD and had infiltrated partisan ranks. They confused the partisans by wearing authentic uniforms and carrying authentic weapons. Because of the work of these traitors, called Smogikai, or serpents, in a relatively short time a large number of remaining partisans were betrayed, tortured, and killed.
When Lukša returned in 1950, much of the old idealism of the resistance was gone. It was a dangerous time for the partisans. Lukša needed a place to hide for the winter. In November 1950 he was brought to the home of Vincas and Eleonora Labanauskas. Vincas Labanauskas had a brother who was friends with a partisan who went by the code name Lakštingala (Nightingale). Lakštingala and the Dzūkija Dainava District Partisan Commander Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Hawk) approached Vincas Labanauskas in 1950 and asked him if he would agree to allow the local Dzūkija Dainava District partisans to build a bunker in his home. Vanagas was one of the resistance’s most brilliant strategists and most colorful personages. He was an American-born school teacher who left the classroom to fight in the forest, bringing along with him almost his entire high school class. Vanagas was given the code name “hawk” because he’d trained a large black hawk to perch on his shoulder.
Vincas Labanauskas had not owned a lot of land during the period of independence. Vanagas reasoned that being a small farmer made him a “proletariat” in the eyes of the Bolsheviks, who thus assumed his loyalty. Vanagas advised Labanauskas to accept the position of director of the local collective farm, so that Labanauskas would be less likely to be suspected of harboring “bandits.” Eleonora and Vincas agreed to allow the partisans to dig the bunker beneath their bedroom's floorboards in the root cellar underneath.
It took two nights for three partisans—Lakštingala, Vanagas, and Tauras—to dig the bunker. They constructed an underground chamber that was two meters by two meters wide. The bunker was accessible through a trap door built into the wooden floorboards of the couple’s bedroom. The trapdoor was covered with a rug and a bed was placed on top of the rug. The bunker contained two wooden benches, a wooden cot, and a shelf built into the wall. The shelf held a typewriter, grenades, weapons, and ammunition. Eleonora gave the partisans a blanket and a pillow for the bunker.
Vanagas gave Eleonora a code name—Varna (Crow). He typed up a Certificate of Loyalty and instructed her to hold onto it until Lithuania was independent. He also gave her a gun, a dešimtukas (Tokorev SK 40) and taught her how to load it, clean it, and shoot it. He instructed her to shoot herself in the left temple if Soviet Interior forces surrounded the house. Vanagas impressed upon Eleonora that she should not allow them to take her alive. Eleonora kept the pistol in a glass canning jug buried in her flower garden. Vanagas asked Eleonora if she agreed to allow a bomb the size of a bowling ball into her home. If the bunker were surrounded by Soviet Interior forces, she would give a signal by knocking on the floor above the bunker three times, and the charge would be detonated, exploding the house and killing all its occupants. Eleonora agreed to sacrifice not only her own life and her husband’s life, but the lives of her three small daughters.
Eleonora taught her three daughters to never say a word in school about the “uncles” who visited their home and who disappeared under the floorboards. The girls kept their parents’ secret. Eleonora cooked, cleaned, and provided fresh laundry for the partisans in the bunker.
“Vanagas used to say that I would kill him with my cleanliness,” Eleonora said. “I was a stickler. I made sure every man in the bunker had fresh undergarments every other day.”
One day Vanagas told Eleonora he was bringing a man from abroad to live in the bunker. When this man arrived, he introduced himself simply as “Mikas.”
“He didn’t tell me anything about where he was from, not even his real name,” Eleonora recalled. “He was very disciplined and strict, but at the same time very warm and sincere.”
Eleonora said that Lukša gave her a watch, but instructed her “not to wear it.”
Lukša quickly melded into the daily rhythms of the Labanauskas household. He helped Eleonora peel potatoes and cook. He would read the girls bedtime stories at night or keep them entertained by playing with them during the day. At night he carried out the mission assigned to him by the American CIA.
Lukša drafted a set of espionage instructions to be carried out by the Dainava District partisans. Dated November 25, 1950, this document begins with the following statement: In the interest of an independent Lithuania and in the interest of the current international community, the Lithuanian underground is hereby asked to quickly provide answers to the following questions, pertaining to all spheres of life in Soviet Lithuania. The underground is asked to exert all of their efforts collecting the following information and to send it to the leadership.
The six-page typewritten document is broken into six sections: Politics, Economics, Administration, Transportation, Education and Religion, and Military. The Political Section is concerned with finding the number and proportion of Communist Russians sent to infiltrate Soviet Lithuanian government, education, and factories, and also with the names and numbers of Lithuanians exiled to Siberia. The Military Section covers all aspects of the Soviet Military on Lithuanian soil. Many of the instructions are quite detailed: “How much leeway does the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic have to draft laws” or “How many Lithuanians are recruited into the Soviet Army? Where are they housed? How are they armed?” or “Soviet Interior Forces control the coastline and ports; how carefully do they control fishing boats?”
Lukša became one of the most wanted men on the Kremlin’s list of spies and saboteurs. The NKVD quickly learned of Lukša’s return and initiated a series of large-scale manhunts. There are several documented instances in which men were shot on the spot because of their physical resemblance to Lukša—a handsome man with thick dark brown curly hair, large blue eyes, a ready smile, and an athletic build.
Orders were to hunt down Lukša and to take him alive. In the final stages of the manhunts some of the most prominent Soviet security senior officials, such as Leonid Ejtingon and Lavrenty Beria, were involved in the search for Lukša. According to KGB archives, between January 11, 1951 and September 5, 1951, roughly 50 manhunts were initiated and carried out by Soviet Security forces. On average 1041 troops participated in each manhunt. On one occasion, on May 8, 1951, a manhunt involving 2,316 troops took place, but, the agreed-upon radio call “5-5-5” in the event of finding Lukša was never broadcast. At the time Lukša was hiding in the bunker under the floorboards of Vincas and Eleonora Labanauskas’s home.
In the process of these manhunts 26 partisans were apprehended and killed and 10 were arrested. One Soviet Security lieutenant was killed. Although Lukša himself eluded Soviet Security forces and the NKVD for eleven months, bunkers were raided and necessary supplies and documents were confiscated. The archives provide an impressive list of confiscated items from this period: two typewriters, two radios, documents, printing supplies, two parachutes, a camera, a generator, boots, pants, topographical maps, anti-Soviet pamphlets, one submachine gun, sleeping bags, a compass, ammunition, gloves, Lukša’s watch, newspapers, chocolate, 3,600 rubles, 2,000 zlotys, a box containing 285 bullets, several pistols, one grenade.
Although Lukša managed to operate undetected for nearly one year, the intelligence that he gathered now made him suspicious to the CIA. Through reconnaissance missions Lukša found that the Soviets were not mobilizing to invade the West. In fact, he found that the opposite was true—that the Soviet Union was fortifying its defenses against a perceived attack from the West. Lukša radioed this information to his CIA contacts in Germany. The CIA’s reaction was to suspect Lukša of counter-espionage and purposefully sending misleading information. He was dropped from the program and radio contact with him ceased. A second group was parachuted into Lithuania to carry out the same mission. Lukša’s friend and comrade, Jonas Kukauskas, was sent on this second mission.
By the early fifties, after six years of warfare, the armed resistance in Lithuania was greatly diminished. By 1951 the resistance’s numbers had dwindled considerably. Most of its members had either been killed, arrested and executed, or deported to Siberia. The civilians who had provided practical and logistical support had also been mostly deported to Siberia or rounded up onto collective farms and terrorized into submission. As is typical of any prolonged war, order began to fall apart among the ranks. Occasionally, raids on innocent villagers and abuses took place, causing the resistance to lose civilian support and credibility.
At the same time the mass deportations of Lithuanians continued. Massacres, arrests, and deportations had affected more than a quarter of a million people in a country with a population of three million. Lukša quickly adapted to the situation and began working on structuring a new tactical strategy for the resistance. Since Lithuania could not expect military intervention and could look forward only to a long period of occupation, the dwindling numbers of members of the resistance would need to make the shift from armed resistance to small pockets of internal leaders of the resistance who would use their influence to preserve the Lithuanian culture by working directly with the people.6 Cells of this intellectual resistance would answer to a very strong central leadership. The central leadership would maintain strong ties with the West and would rely on the West for both moral and material support in the fight against the occupier. The cells of resistance would be made up of individuals who were well-prepared and had a firm moral ideology in place, and were prepared not only to physically defend themselves and others, but to inform the public on internal and external affairs and take care that the nation would not give up the fight for independence. These cells of the resistance would need to have a very strong communications network that could not easily be cracked from the outside. They would need to reassure the nation that there still were individuals who protected them from Russification, from communist tyranny, from colonization, from deportations, arrests, and so on. A strong and reliable flow of information between the occupied nation and the West would prove to be more dangerous than any military revolt, which only could have an impact at the appropriate time and under the appropriate circumstances. Lukša began to plead the case for a civil resistance, but no one in Lithuania at the time was ready to lead it. He argued that small pockets of the resistance embedded within civilian life could have more of an effect undermining the Soviet system from within. Once it became clear that Lukša had done all he could, he resolved to return to Nijolė and to the West.
In 1951 one of Lukša’s comrades, a partisan who went by the code name, Lakštingala (Nightingale, and not the same man who had helped build the bunker in the Labanauskas home) had a friend who had been fighting at the Eastern front for the Russians as a reconnaissance pilot. After the war he had returned home to Lithuania. Lukša talked to Lakštingala about possible alternatives for traveling to the West and Lakštingala talked to his friend about using his Antonov-2 (the Kukuruznik, or crop duster) to escape across the Baltic Sea to Gotland, Sweden. At the time Sweden was no longer returning refugees. They would have flown at night, possibly in bad weather. The men made an agreement. The only remaining problem was to procure fuel.
In the meantime, Lukša was invited to a secret meeting with Jonas Kukauskas. Kukauskas had lived together with Lukša in Paris and had trained with him at the CIA camp in Kaufbeuren. Previous to their training with the CIA, they also both trained with French intelligence and would swim together in the River Seine during breaks in their training routine. Kukauskas, nicknamed “Dzikis,” was mentioned often and with great affection in Nijolė and Lukša’s correspondance. Almost every letter from Nijolė ended with, “Pass on my regards to Dzikis…
Kukauskas had been parachuted back into Lithuania when the second air-drop was made. Kukauskas and his comrade, Julijonas Butėnas, were holed up in a bunker when they were ambushed. Butėnas was wounded in a firefight with Soviet Interior forces as they tried to exit the bunker. Butėnas and Kukauskas returned to the bunker. Butėnas reached for a grenade to commit suicide together with Kukauskas—standard procedure for partisans surrounded in an ambush. Kukauskas, however, surprised Butėnas, shooting him in the back and killing him.
Kukauskas then climbed out of the bunker and surrendered to Nachman Dushansky, the Soviet Security Officer leading the operation—one of the postwar’s most notorious criminals, known for his cruelty towards prisoners.
Dushansky used Kukauskas to lure Lukša into a rendezvous where they intended to take him alive. Kukauskas sent a series of encoded messages to Lukša with the intention of arranging a secret meeting. Over the course of several days Lukša and Kukauskas corresponded through a liaison, sending encoded messages that tested each other’s intentions. Because Kukauskas had lived together with Lukša in Paris, he was able to answer each of Lukša’s questions correctly, ensuring his identity. Although Lukša confided to others before the fated meeting that he had doubts about Kukauskas’s loyalty, he decided to go to the meeting because the resistance was in desperate need of supplies and a radio transmitter to contact the West.
Kukauskas instructed Lukša to meet him at a secret location near the village of Pabartupis. Meanwhile, Soviet Security Forces set up an extensive ambush and lay in waiting for his arrival. Kukauskas hesitated and fumbled the answer when Lukša asked the password. Lukša realized instantly he’d been lured into a trap and reached for his gun. A soldier hiding in the bushes close by panicked and shot Lukša, although orders had been to take him alive. Lukša returned fire, but he was outnumbered. Lukša was killed. Some eye witnesses claim that Lukša, realizing he was surrounded, shot himself in the head to avoid being taken alive. How Lukša died remains unclear because soon after the ambush his body disappeared and was never recovered.
Juozas Lukša died on the night of September 4, 1951. He was 29 years old.
Nijolė and Juozas were both young, and they felt invincible. Nijolė believed that her husband would find his way back to her after he had completed his mission. Lukša knew that going back to fight in the invisible war in Lithuania could end his life. In his final letter to Nijolė, dated August 1950, he wrote “If it should happen that fate dictates that I be physically destroyed, then you, my Nijolė, make me happy, wherever I am, by creating a happy life for yourself once again.”
Nijolė knew that her Juozas could not have lived with himself if he had not returned to fight for his beloved country. Nijolė often remembers this passage from a letter written by Lukša dated February 16, 1949, Lithuania’s prewar Independence Day:
I search and search and cannot find someone to blame nor can I find an answer as to why I am here today and not there where I ought to be. A year has gone by and the not-knowing eats away at my conscience. It’s been a year since my footsteps led me away from the blood-soaked soil of my homeland. It’s been a year since I’ve watched the crucifixion of my beloved country. It’s been a year since I’ve heard my people’s wails of pain. It’s been a year and so many of my friends have passed into death. It’s been a year since I’ve fought together with my fellow Lithuanians in a battle of life and death. I think of all the graves of the past five years, I think of the long lines of my friends marked for death, and I want to live, but at the same time I hunger to see my bones beside the bones of my crucified friends.