On a sunny August afternoon, proactive members of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union and other organizations, students, and patriotic volunteers gathered in Merkinė, in the homestead of Juozas Jakavonis-Tigras, a Freedom Fighter of the Dainava district. They were invited to the spontaneous event by the organizers of the civic initiative „Hawk Road“. During the event, the territory of the homestead was cleaned up and the thickets, which have been obscuring the view of the curve of the Merkys River, which, according to Juozas Jakavonis, is very dear to him, were pruned.
After the cleanup, the forthcoming book by Ernestas Kuckailis, Commander of the Land Force of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, was uniquely presented. It was followed by a Freedom Fighter-themed evening gathering. At night, the „Freedom Fighter Alley“ began to be planted at the initiative of the „Centennial Forests“ project. As singer Agnė Sabulytė sang songs of the Freedom Fighters, all the participants planted trees together, symbolically assigning meaning to the memory of those who died in the Lithuanian resistance movement.
Angelė Jakavonytė, the daughter of Juozas Jakavonis-Tigras (Tiger) tells of how every year more than a thousand people come to the village of Kasčiūnai to visit the command post of Freedom Fighter commanders of the Dainava district Juozas Vitkus-Kazimieraitis and Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Hawk) and to meet Juozas Jakavonis–Tigras (Tiger). „My dad, who is 94 years old, tells of the Freedom Fights, his arrest, the torture that he endured and about working in the Magadan and Kolyma labour camps to those who come not only from Lithuania, but from all over the world – the US, Australia, Canada, France, Ukraine, and other countries,“ she says.
Despite the fact that he is of respectable age himself, J. Jakavonis not only lovingly cares for his sick wife, Zosė, but also devotes a great deal of time to visitors. „My dad does not receive any money from the state for the patriotic education of the youth and the message to the world about the Soviet repression against Lithuanian people,“ says A. Jakavonytė. „That’s why we are very grateful that one of the organizers of the „Hawk Road „initiative, Alkas Paltarokas, along with a nice group of scouts, Riflemen, and other proactive people, came to help clean up the surroundings of the bunker.“
A. Jakavonytė expressed her sincere gratitude to all the contributors and was glad that the view of the curve of the river Merkys and its tall shores had re-opened not only to the residents, but also to visitors of the bunker. According to her, such get-togethers really help people connect. “At dusk, with the moon and stars shining, the lovely song about Freedom Fights by Agnė Sabulytė moved me to tears. And I believe I wasn’t alone – for example, one student told me how he was very fascinated by the Freedom struggle and how being there touched his soul,” shared the Freedom Fighter’s daughter.
To Commander of the Land Force of the Lithuanian Armed Forces Ernestas Kuckailis, the visit to the homestead of Juozas Jakavonis was not a first. He says that from the very first day of their acquaintance, a very warm and friendly relationship was established. „This is a wonderful, open-hearted man who has long forgiven his wrongdoers,“ says Kuckailis. – „Juozas calls me „brother“ and I come as if to my „grandpa“ which I no longer have. I am delighted to have contributed to the event, bringing joy to the „Tiger“, who is always finding the strength to meet a large number of visitors at his homestead. Unfortunately, his health doesn’t allow him to take care of a large farm alone anymore, so help from others is truly needed.“
„As the sun went down, the songs under the pine wreaths sounded amazing,“ says E. Kuckailis. – „It is a great civic education event. Not only is history told, but by tidying memorial sites, it is preserved as well. This is a good example of how to love your homeland – not just in words, but in good deeds, too.“
Singer Agnė Sabulytė says that the visit to J. Jakavonis-Tigras’s homestead will remain etched in her memory for a long time: “While I was preparing lunch for the helpers, Juozas sang unheard, painfully sensitive songs of Freedom Fighters to me. All that was left was just to do my best to sing along and try to remember everything. I truly feel that I will come back to learn and preserve this musical message, with which our homeland’s protectors marched through the bloody fights.”
„When you drink water from the same well from which the commander of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters A. Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Hawk) drank, even though only by a tiny piece, as romantic as it may sound, you touch the history of your country – so real, so close and so, so painful,“ – says A. Sabulytė. She says the planting of the Freedom Fighter Alley on an August night was a very emotionally powerful event: “I sang and the woods carried my voice. From heart to heart, songs of Freedom Fighters rang through the forests of Dzūkija. I felt the communality of all those planting together – such force resonated there, that it made you realize again and again that we are only powerful when together. It is only when we work together, led by courage and faith, that we can preserve and defend freedom.”
Vytautas Stagniūnas, a spokesman for the Arizona Lithuanian community in the United States, is glad to have met J. Jakavonis-Tigras (Tiger): “Juozas, along with other Freedom Fighters, are heroes who were not afraid to put their lives and energy on the line in order to defend the nation’s independence. They deserve great respect from those for which they fought. The bunker in Kasčiūnai is a unique historical symbol, a reminder of efforts to break free from oppression, thus I think it should be preserved for future generations by all means.”
Kostas Ivanauskas, commander of the 1st Rifle squad of the Vilnius Riflemen’s Company, says that by helping at the event members of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union contributed to the living history of the Lithuanian post-war battles for freedom: „Helping our freedom fighters who sacrificed their youth is always honourable and beautiful.“ This idea was also supported by the participating businessmen, representatives of PLLC “ Baltic Drains „, who actively contribute to similar patriotic initiatives.
Juozas Jakavonis-Tigras (Tiger), who is now 94 years old, is the last surviving Freedom Fighter of the Dainava County in Varėna. At the young age of 19, he became actively involved in the Lithuanian Freedom Fighter resistance movement and fought against the NKVD and the stribai (local armed units established by the Communist party) of Merkinė.
In 1945, he, along with other Freedom Fighters, installed a bunker in the backyard of his parents’ home. The bunker served as the command post of the Lithuanian Freedom Fighter commanders in 1945-1946. The commanders Juozas Vitkus-Kazimieraitis and Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Hawk) lived and worked in the bunker, J. Jakavonis worked as their liaison officer. In the same bunker, the newspaper “Bell of Freedom” was being published. J. Jakavonis was a distributor of the underground press, but after two years of active resistance, on the 8th of December, 1946, he was arrested in his hometown by NKVD officers for carrying Freedom Fighter press. Following his arrest, he was being interrogated and tortured in the basements of the Merkinė militia, in Varėna, and finally in the basements of the KGB in Vilnius. Despite having to endure terrible torture, Jakavonis did not betray any of his brothers-in-arms. He was convicted by Bolshevik authorities and sent to serve in Siberian prisons from 1946. He returned to Lithuania from exile with his family in 1959.