My first novel, The Partisan, is a story of love and revenge set in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, with long flashbacks to the Eastern Front at the end of World War Two.
The history of Lithuania features heavily. This is largely due to chance: I happened to marry a Lithuanian woman, and I have been learning about the Baltic States ever since.
I was fairly ignorant about Lithuania before I met my wife. I was vaguely aware that the shadow of the Holocaust had fallen across that small country in the 1940s, and of course I knew that it was one of those former Soviet Republics that declared independence after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I didn’t know anything about Lithuanian partisans until I visited a museum at a place called The Ninth Fort near the second city, Kaunas. They had a temporary exhibition featuring photographs of the various kinds of freedom fighter that took to the deep forests during the tumult of the 1940s.
Some were Jews, fleeing the Nazis. Others were Lithuanian nationalists who refused to knuckle under when Stalin kicked the Germans out in 1944 and launched what he imagined would be a permanent occupation of a once-proud independent country.
As I browsed the exhibition, I learned about these “Forest Brothers”, as they are called in all three Baltic States.
The partisan movement was not a story of brave but hopeless defiance, as you might imagine. In Lithuania the guerrillas could put small armies in the field, equipped with heavy weaponry – trench mortars and Maxim and Skoda machine guns.
They made swathes of the Lithuanian countryside ungovernable for the Red Army and representatives of the Soviet state in the years that followed the official end of hostilities.
Russian officials and local people who worked with them could expect ruthless treatment from the partisans. Stalin’s response was characteristically cunning and brutal.
Infiltrators and turncoats soon weakened the resistance, and the Soviets had powerful allies. Traitors in British intelligence like Harold “Kim” Philby are believed to have passed on information to their handlers about the anti-Soviet groups that London was supposed to be arming and training.
Torture and execution awaited those who defied Stalin. Sometimes the bodies were left on display as a warning to others – and to identify the families who came out to bury their loved ones.
Wandering in the museum, lost in this dark corner of European history, I came across a photograph that stopped me in my tracks.
Three girls who could not have been older than sixteen. All brandishing guns and smiling for the camera. Jewish partisans from the war.
“Were the guns a present from the Russians,” I wondered, “dropped behind German lines?”
“No,” said my father-in-law confidently (he had served in the Red Army in Afghanistan and knew Soviet weaponry). “That’s a Schmeisser,” he said, “a German MP40 submachine gun.” The other girls had pistols even I recognised, from the patriotic nostalgia of childhood comic books: a Luger and a Mauser.
It dawned on me: the girls must have snatched these trophies in some desperate raid on a German camp, or an ambush on a patrol creeping through the forest. Showing them off was part of the message: we’re going to kill you with your own weapons.
None of the girls looked like terrified victims. In fact, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. The invulnerability of youth. The joy of living entirely in the moment.
It occurred to me that there were many snaps like this in the exhibition. Why were rebels being hunted by a pitiless foe ready to pose for the camera, to show their faces like this?
Again, the answer dawned slowly: life expectancy. They didn’t think they would last long enough out there for it to matter.
What happened to those girls? I have never managed to trace them. I have never even been able to find the exact photograph again, though there are many like it in online archives.
So I have created fictional lives for them. I am not a historian and I have used some artistic licence, but the book is coloured by many real stories I read and heard in Lithuania.
It is inspired by ordinary people who were forced to make terrible choices when the storm broke over them. Ordinary people are always braver than you think. A great many stood up to Hitler, or Stalin, and in some cases both.
As one of the characters in the book says: “Imagine what calibre of person we are talking about now.”
Patrick Worrall is the author of The Partisan, which is out now and published by Bantam Press.
Aspects of History Issue 10 is out now.