In September 1944, Rimvydas Silbajoris was a high school student in Lithuania when news came to his little border town that the Soviet army was advancing for a second time. At that time, he was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis, distributing leaflets and news bulletins.
In the meantime, the Germans proclaimed a general mobilisation and began recruiting Lithuanians for a Lithuanian SS unit to fight in the East. Silbajoris managed to escape forced recruitment by the Nazis, claiming he already belonged to a unit of Lithuanian defence forces.
Heading for eastern Prussia with his brother and several school friends, Silbajoris' group was stopped by German patrols and taken into custody. He was taken to the city of Posen (today Poznan), where he was made to join the German cavalry as an auxiliary, feeding and grooming horses.
At the end of the war, Silbajoris found himself on the eastern front of Austria. He spent a brief time in an American prison camp, and subsequently a displaced persons camp near Augsburg, Germany. He recalls, "They were isolated islands in a German sea, much resented by the natives, and sometimes with reason. For instance, our camp was established by driving out all the Messerschmidt factory workers, for whom the area was developed to begin with."
Silbajoris then moved to the United States, where he taught himself English while washing dishes in a restaurant. He received a scholarship from Antioch College, Yellow Spring, Ohio, and went on to do a doctorate at Columbia University.
He says of his exile experience, "I learned that the civilised world was a great deal larger than my native corner, that, having been driven out of it, it acquired breathless new spaces for learning ... altogether new horizons which I could not have possibly perceived back home in the little seaside town. Exile was also a liberation from petrified old value systems and I could search for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I was among those who ate the apple and did not regret it, for mortality has its own splendours. Driven from Paradise, I learned what a ghetto it really was."
Throughout his exile, Silbajoris helped maintain Lithuanian culture abroad. He was one of the founders of Santara, a discussion club that advocated dialogue with Lithuania even while it was still under Soviet rule. He co-edited its journal in exile, Metmenys (Outlines).
Today, Silbajoris is Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Literature at Ohio State University. He has written extensively on literary criticism and on Lithuanian and Russian literature.