The role of women partisans is often ignored when discussing the history of Lithuania’s Forest Brothers, the anti-Soviet resistance fighters. While some women took part in the fighting, the secrecy of an underground movement allowed some men to have several lovers at once.
Out of the 50,000 people who took part in the armed resistance, around 250 – or 0.5 percent – were women, according to Enrika Kripienė, a historian at Lithuania’s state-funded Genocide and Resistance Research Centre.
But even though many women were not officially recognised as partisans, they provided crucial assistance to the freedom fighters.
They cooked, sewed and washed uniforms, according to Kripienė. Some were armed and participated in military operations, while some published newspapers, wrote articles, documents, and orders. Women also took care of sick and injured partisans.
Tension and jealousy
Marius Ėmužis, a historian at Vilnius University and author of a book about women in the resistance movement, said there were many people – men and women – who did not want to be directly involved in the fighting but contributed to the cause in other ways.
Women, who lived in the bunkers, were mostly relatives, sisters, or mothers of the partisans. They were hiding from the Soviet secret services that punished everyone who had a connection with the freedom fighters.
According to Kripienė, the partisans often tried to find other safe places for women to live. Not having them in bunkers was not only more practical and safer but also reduced tensions, the historian said.
“We have to remember that one or a few women among many men in the bunker was a sort of irritant. They made it more difficult to concentrate, and were a cause for jealousy and conflicts,” Kripienė said, adding that partisans could not avoid human problems.
Ėmužis also said that many commanders avoided sending women to active operations and tried to use them for other tasks. Firstly, women could not serve in the interwar Lithuanian army, so they had no military experience. Also, men sometimes had to help women carry their guns, so it was impractical, according to the historian.
It was also safer for females if they were not seen with partisans. According to Ėmužis, the Soviet officers rarely stopped and searched women because they could not be mobilised to serve in the Red Army. Male partisans knew this and often dressed in women’s clothes when they travelled.
In the words of Kripienė, the Lithuanian society was much more conservative at the time of the freedom fights. If women lived in bunkers together with men, such behaviour was deemed unacceptable.
Partisans tried to legitimise their relationships by proposing to or marrying their girlfriends. Kripienė said that weddings happened in secrecy, most often at night. But sometimes partisans had more than one lover.
“The boys could be in a relationship with multiple girls at once. They were living in secrecy, travelling in between several villages, so the girls did not know about each other,” the historian said.
Kripienė also said that many girls’ parents were in favour of their relationship with partisans. If the family supported the freedom fights, they even approved of the marriage.
But by involving in relationships with the partisans, the women put their entire families in danger.
“Relationships with partisans were incriminating to anyone,” Ėmužis said. If the Soviets found out about the family’s relation to partisans, they could have been sentenced.
The freedom fighters also often started relationships with partisan messengers or close supporters because they were more resilient and rarely betrayed partisans to the Soviets. But if a girl was from outside the movement, the relationship was risky.
The Soviet secret services knew how to put pressure on people, and there were precedents of women betraying their boyfriends, Kripienė said.
Grim life in the bunkers
According to Kripienė, partisans spent most of their time in the bunkers, where their life was very poor, grim, and boring.
“The bunkers were very small, dark, and damp. Partisans were using candles or oil lamps as a source of light, but they hardly burned because of the lack of oxygen. The partisans’ clothes were getting dirty very quickly, they often got ill with arthritis or various infections, and suffered from lice,” the historian said.
“They often ate poor quality food, so they lacked vitamins, their teeth went bad,” she added.
However, the partisans tried to brighten their lives with celebrations whenever they could. According to Kripienė, they also read books, wrote diaries and letters to their relatives, or drew.