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Political Pawns

This month Dominican priest and Rhode Island filmmaker, Father Ken Gumbert, screens the work-in-progress Red Terror on the Amber Coast, about Soviet occupied Lithuania.

By Scott R. Caseley

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In 1939, a secret agreement was forged between Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler of Germany called the Molotov/Ribbentroff.  They agreed that the two countries should divvy up a majority of Eastern Europe for the goal of expansion of their individual empires.  During the years that followed, Lithuanian people were deported from their homeland, forced into labor camps, forced to undergo starvation, or shot on the spot.  Many of them were separated from their families by occupying Soviet armies, more than 350,000 were imprisoned or killed under this regime. 

Providence College’s Father Ken Gumbert is hard at work on a documentary on the horrors witnessed by the people of Lithuania.  His documentary, Red Terror on the Amber Coast, also tells of the triumph of the human spirit during these difficult times, and what challenges lie ahead for this country located on the Baltic Sea. NewEnglandFilm.com was given a peek at the script of interviews with the subjects who underwent these atrocities for so many years, and an interview with Father Gumbert as he was readying his work-in-progress film for the Rhode Island Film Festival this month. 

Gumbert, a native of Framingham, MA is an alumnus of Arizona State University and went on to UC Berkeley for graduate studies in theology and philosophy.  He’s been at Providence College as a professor since 1992, where he created the film studies program.  He is also a Dominican priest.  The documentary is largely self-financed, though Gumbert and his producing partner Dave O’Rourke also received a grant from the Lithuania Foundation. 

Scott Caseley: How did this project come about?  Why the interest in doing a project about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania? 

Father Ken Gumbert: Red Terror grew out of a film I shot in 2000-2001 titled Saving Grace, about the communist plan to totally liquidate all religious practice in the former Czechoslovakia.  I first heard about the story from a Dominican priest visiting Providence College who told me he was ordained as a minister when it was illegal to be ordained there back in 1985.  This priest was ordained secretly and lived an underground existence with many others doing the same thing.  I thought this might make a good film and so I went to Eastern Europe to investigate.  While in Eastern Europe, I traveled with a therapist friend from San Francisco who was beginning a project of setting up a marriage and family institute in Vilnius, Lithuania.  I went up to visit him and I experienced the city just beginning to live under democracy.  We heard stories there about the KGB, their methods, and especially their use of terror to control, and we decided that this was also an important story.  So I went to Lithuania last summer and shot this film. 

SC:  Could you give me a brief history of what occurred during this time?  How did the Soviets assume control and when did this all go down? 

Gumbert: The Soviets came in 1940 and began the first deportations of leading citizens, anyone deemed “problematic” by the regime.  German SS forces soon made their way into Lithuania, and were seen as “liberators” from the Soviets.  Then the Germans retreated and the Russians came back in, and began the second mass deportations and full collectivization of the country. 

SC: What has been the most devastating part of making this documentary? 

Gumbert: Just listening to the stories.  I don’t know how these people survived.  A nine-year-old girl, arrested with her entire family, packed off to Siberia to work in slave labor camps. She watched her deported family die around her, and yet she survives.  And now at 80 something years old, she tells this horrific story.  How can you keep from crying with her?  This is the most devastating part of this film, the truth of it all and the horror experienced by millions and millions of people.  It is devastating to me, the cruelty that is part of human history. 

SC: Many of these prisoners were taken by force to Siberia, what kinds of work could they expect to do there? 

Gumbert: Logging, mining, building roads... 

SC: One of your interview subjects, an individual named Balys, says that sometimes they would have to do work that was entirely pointless.  What were some of these jobs? 

Gumbert: Huge state projects that never worked -- all the way down to daily digging of ditches and then filling them back in. 

SC: Another subject, Julius Cesnauskas, speaks of working for the underground, what specifically was his role in that? 

Gumbert: He was part of a group who wrote and published articles about anything pertaining to Lithuanian literature, history, culture.  All of this was against the law; the publications were called Zamisdat, the most famous being the Chronicles of the Catholic Church of Lithuania, documenting daily hassles and humiliations and illegal Soviet policies in Lithuania. 

SC: Adolphus Ramanauskas built a bunker on the farmland of one Juozas Jakavonis that became a secret underground site for the resistance against the Soviets.  What made this hideout so successful? 

Gumbert: Don’t know the details of the battles and action occurring from there.  It is famous mainly because Ramanauskas is famous.  Also, it is famous as an example of how the resistance was staged back in the 1940s and early 1950s. 

SC: In your script, there was a group of people that came up that I wasn’t quite sure what they meant to the people of Lithuania during this horrific time, the Partizans.  What sort of people were they? 

Gumbert: They were ordinary citizens who decided it was better to fight and die rather than live in constant fear and under the constant and sure threat of capture, torture, prison, exile, death.  There was no other choice for these people. 

SC: Did they stand a chance against the Soviet occupiers? 

Gumbert: They didn’t have a chance against the soviet KGB.  They were all eventually killed or captured by the late 1950s. 

SC: Julius Cesnauskas states that political prisoners were “allowed to read,” why did this change after such a long, oppressive rule and when did this start to happen? 

Gumbert: Well, Gorbachev and his “glasnost” policies provided more allowances for political prisoners.  Also, very complicated as the Soviets have historically wanted to be perceived as lawful and just, and they had signed human rights agreements, particularly Charter 77, which guaranteed basic human rights, even to dissenters.  And the whole world was watching. 

SC: Today, many of the communists who oppressed these people have positions of power in the Russian government. Have any of the people who committed these acts against the Lithuanian people been brought up on any charges? 

Gumbert: No, not to my knowledge.  They just “got away with it.”  There is resentment in these countries.  Case in point, Baranovsky, the Russian billionaire, whose oil company has been taken over by Putin.  There is a lot of resentment building against these very wealthy people who basically stole everything the “day” after the republics turned from communism to democracies.  However, I know in the former Czech/Slovak republics, the dissidents who were in prison, Vaclav Havel and other leaders, were very influenced by Christian and Catholic principles of non-violence and reconciliation.

Bishop Dominic Duka who was in prison with Havel, told me they prayed the rosary together, even though Havel was agnostic, and the movements for liberation were based on these Christian principles, as were the civil rights movements in the US under Dr. Martin Luther King. 

SC: What were the survivors' wishes from you when told them about the documentary? 

Gumbert: All the people involved are supportive as they experienced this incredible terror and injustice and they are beginning to die off.  There is hope that the story will get out there, especially the story of resistance and survival.  So in Lithuania we had lots of cooperation, getting interviews from all kinds of people who were central in the resistance.  Even the current president, Adamou, gave us an interview and told me this was the most important interview he was giving that day as the story is so important in understanding the current situation in Lithuania today.  And even in the US, there is a buzz about the film in the Lithuanian community.  Our trailer is up on You Tube and we have received messages of support. 

SC: What is the most rewarding aspect of making the film, thus far? 

Gumbert: Allowing heroic people who suffered incredible abuse and injustice an opportunity to tell their stories.  As a filmmaker, I want to work with everyday experiences and seemingly ordinary people and in a creative way, allow people to find their voice in expressing their experiences.  This film will do that.  I am very happy about this opportunity.  It is almost like a sacred trust, and these people that I interviewed gave me a wonderful gift, which now I’m able to pass that on. 

Red Terror on the Amber Coast screens as a work in progress at the Rhode Island International Film Festival this month. For details, visit www.film-festival.org.