Elena Spirgevičiūtė, martyr (1924-1944)
Elena Spirgevičiūtė was born at the district of Tvirtovės in Kaunas (Lithuania) on 23 December 1924. She began attending school at the age of seven and later joined the scouts movement. After finishing her primary studies, Elena was enrolled at the “Saulė” Girls’ Gymnasium of Kaunas, directed by the Sisters of St. Casimir. In 1941, she was moved to the VIII Gymnasium and graduated there in 1943. The years spent in school formed both her Catholic consciousness and Lithuanian nationalism. One of her relatives later spoke about her: “Elenutė was clever, vigilant, and respectful to elder people. She listened carefully to advice when it concerned matters of noble living.”
A good deal of what we know about Elena’s interior life are based on entries in her diary. She began writing on 12 October 1940 and her last entry was dated 02 June 1942. It revealed not only a young woman who struggled with life’s daily ups and downs but also a determined individual with deep insights into Christian living: “Honesty, modesty, and intelligence are important. So I am trying to live these and I believe I will succeed.” Although piously disposed, Elena sought to balance her personal religiosity with the life expected of her peers. She participated in school socials but maintained her modest bearing: “It is very decent to wear a uniform (in a party)… I am not after making acquaintances. I only want to dance and have a good time… that’s all.” During one retreat, she recorded the following thoughts: “I have decided to be a good Catholic, but it is difficult without the support of the Lord and I am lost. I desire to be good, not to lead an empty life but to contribute something good, and to be useful.”
The incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union in August 1940 and its occupation by the Nazis in July 1941 brought its people in an unwanted environment of anxiety and death. In September 1941, the Nazis ordered the mass shooting of Jews living in the ghetto of Vilijampolė in Kaunas. Elena witnessed these events in horror and recorded them in her diary. In spite of the currents of despair surrounding her, she continued to write about living and loving. By February 1942, Elena began to record her attraction to religious life: “My heart is full of something. I rejoice at having understood happiness. But I am thinking seriously that greater peace could be found behind the railing. Convent. The name itself clearly speaks about solitude, silence, and peace. Lord, these are serious dreams, I want this most certainly… I would leave everything… Oh, I wish the war would end soon! I would finish school and enter there, Father, closer to You! Evening parties and dances that I sometimes go to, when considered more deeply, are true vanities, immodesties. These can be avoided only with You, Lord… I want this, not because I am not beautiful. No, there are no such thoughts in me. Beauty is dust. One grows old, stoops, and there is no sign of beauty… I want to be beautiful inside.”
There was nothing remarkably extraordinary in Elena’s day to day living. Even though she spent a good amount of time in reading, she also served as an invaluable help to her mother in domestic chores. Without needing to be asked, she was attentive to others, helping quickly and quietly wherever she was needed. Those who knew Elena remembered that although she enjoyed having a good time with her friends, she frequently talked about God, the Church, and religious matters. Men were attracted to Elena but she never had a boyfriend. This preoccupied her mother. Unawares of her daughter’s attraction to religious life, she reproved Elena for her choice of clothes, her silence, and her “bigotry”. She did not see anything extraordinary in her daughter and tormented herself with worries about Elena’s future as a homemaker.
In 1943, Elena graduated from the Gymnasium with mostly good and excellent marks. Wanting to become a pediatrician, she enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine of Kaunas State University. However, she hardly had began her studies when the Nazis closed the university. Not wanting to waste her time doing nothing, Elena decided to study German and French privately. She took some short-term courses that were organized in Kaunas for potential teachers. In autumn of 1943, she received an assignment to teach in the district of Jonava. However, bloody encounters between the Nazis and Soviet partisans have made living in Kaunas pernicious. Because of this situation, Elena decided to remain with her parents and wait the war out before fulfilling her assignment.
On 03 January 1944, at around 10:30 p.m., the Spirgevičiai family was disturbed by raucous voices outside their door. The father came out and encountered four armed men. They introduced themselves as police officers and insisted on entering his house, claiming they had to check documents. He obliged and let them in. Once inside, the four pointed their loaded guns on the residents and identified themselves as Soviet partisans. They pinned the father against the wall and demanded alcohol, food, and clothes. Elena’s aunt, Stasė Žukaitė, panicked and tried to escape, but she was shot dead by one of the partisans. They then gathered the members of the household into one room.
One of these men saw Elena and began making impudent moves on her. He then took Elena to another room and tried to persuade her to give in to his desires. When she adamantly refused, he brought her to her mother insisting that she persuade Elena to submit to him. For about half an hour, he kept dragging her and threatening to shoot her if she refused: “We are not playing games! One of you lies dead already. Her fate awaits you as well.” The reaction of Elena’s poor mother, seeing her daughter in such a precarious situation, can only be imagined. Seeing her being dragged from one room to another, her father asked her: “What do they want from you?” She replied: “Don’t you know, father, what they want from a young woman? I will not surrender… I’d rather die….” Elena knew that her aggressors, drunk and saber rattling, were determined to satisfy their lust, but she remained resolute. Her family could hardly decipher the inaudible conversations taking place in the other room except for Elena’s determined “No!”.
Although they have gathered everything they wanted, the partisans did not quickly leave. They sat around a table and talked among themselves for a long time. They then took Elena aside once more and angrily demanded: “Give in or you will die!” Without any hesitation, Elena answered firmly: “I would rather die!” She then asked to bid farewell to her family. Standing calmly with a shining face, she made a large sign of the cross on her family and told them: “I will die and you will live.” These were her last words. There was no fear or panic in her behavior. She returned to her aggressors. With the barrel of a pistol aimed at her, the four repeated their demand. Her refusal was returned with a thunderous shot. Elena’s distraught mother rushed through the door and found her dead daughter slumped on the sofa.
News of this tragedy shook the whole town. Crowds flooded the Church of St. Anthony where Elena and her aunt, both clothed in white, were laid out in open coffins. The story of Elena’s heroic resolution to die rather than to submit to the passion of her male assailants affected the mourners. She was buried with great reverence in the town cemetery. When this was closed in 1957, Elena’s remains were moved to the Eiguliai Cemetery in Kaunas. A majestic monument was erected there in her honor with the following epitaph: “Died tragically while defending her honor and left an unforgettable image of a great Lithuanian for her people. A martyr’s wreath for you and a national honor for us.”
The memory of Elena’s heroic death persisted throughout the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and beyond its independence in 1991. While preparing for the celebration of the Holy Year in 2000, the archdiocese of Kaunas, under the leadership of Archbp. Sigitas Tamkevičius, began to work for the official recognition of Elena Spirgevičiūtė’s martyrdom. The Congregation of the Causes of Saints issued the decree nihil obstat for her beatification process on 22 October 1999.