Julija Šukys is a Lithuanian-Canadian author, and a professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri. Her book Siberian Exile, published in 2017, tells an extraordinary and troubling story, delving deep into both her family history and Lithuania’s complex and painful past.
The book is split into two separate, but consecutive narratives: her grandmother, Ona, and her grandfather, Anthony. Šukys already knew much of her grandmother’s story: she was arrested by KGB officers in the city of Kaunas, shortly after the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1941. Although her grandmother was never accused of any crime, she was deported to Siberia, where she subsequently spent almost two decades in a remote village, barred from returning home. Eventually, in the 1960s, Šukys’s grandmother was allowed to return home to Lithuania, and thereafter to rejoin Anthony and her children, who had left for Britain during the war, and had afterwards settled in Canada.
However, while researching the book Šukys also discovered that Anthony had a dark secret of his own: after the Nazis had pushed the Soviets out of the country, he had served as police chief in the western Lithuanian town of Kaudirkos Naumiestis, at a time when mass shootings of the region’s Jews were taking place. Siberian Exile asks deep questions about memory and responsibility, as the author travels to Lithuania and Siberia to retrace her grandparents’ footsteps and pieces together the past through archive research and interviews. Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood recently interviewed Julija Šukys about the book and the questions it brought up.
The first sentence we read in the book is “Someone always pays. The question is who. And the question is how.” Could you expand upon that a little?
Over the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the question of who paid for Anthony’s crimes and how. When I discovered the war crimes indictment against my grandfather, that is, that he had overseen a massacre of Jewish women and children in 1941, I was struck by the fact that he had seemingly not paid a price for those actions and for the choices he made. His wife paid the highest price, through her deportation and loss of her children. His children paid through the loss of their mother. As I write in the book, we, his grandchildren have paid as well in certain ways. I, for example, lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was 56 and I was 18 years old. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always connected his sudden death to childhood trauma. What interests me is the way that actions have echoes and consequences that become visible slowly, over decades and to what extent those echoes and consequences remain real today.
If your grandfather had been at home in Kaunas when the KGB arrived, he would almost definitely have been deported, and so would not even have had the option to consider whether to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces when they invaded Lithuania shortly afterwards. You write how tempting it is to wish for that single change – to wish for a misfortune, but one that would have prevented him from becoming complicit in terrible events. “In this alternate and, yes, selfish history, where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim”. Do you think family tragedy is in a way less hard to deal with than guilt?
In many families, tragedy and hardship can be points of pride. An ancestor who was wrongly imprisoned, for example, might be held up as an example of resilience but an ancestor who was rightfully imprisoned for committing murder is unlikely to be celebrated. This basic difference struck me as I was writing and a question arose for me: can we take credit for our ancestors’ good deeds, talents, and triumphs if we are not willing to take some sort of responsibility for their sins as well?
You describe how your grandmother was finally given permission to join the rest of her family in Canada in 1965, but how she always remained somewhat apart – having a distant, though seemingly unfractious relationship with her husband, and finding the material abundance and different customs and language of her new home hard to adjust to. She says about the experience of being reunited, during a later interview conducted in Lithuanian: “I felt that these weren’t my kids. That these weren’t my grandkids.” Do you think this was very typical of people like her, who had been deported for long periods of time, on being reunited with their families – that it was in some way a bittersweet experience?
I imagine that my grandmother was not alone in her experience of a bittersweet reunion. As I was thinking about what Ona’s and Anthony’s reunion must have been like, I didn’t have much information to go on, even second hand, so I did bibliographical research to try and understand the range of returnees’ experiences. I read about what happened to marriages when deportees returned to the spouses they’d left behind. Many marriages, unsurprisingly, did not survive and upon their return, deportees divorced. Oftentimes if deportees remarried after returning from Siberia, they ended up marrying other deportees. I think that makes sense. Few others could have understood a returnee better than another returnee.
In my grandmother’s case, I think that her children were tie that bound her to the family. She couldn’t and didn’t blame them for having become somewhat exotic creatures in her absence. From her 1977 interview, it seems that she worked hard to adjust to her new reality in Canada. That said, she must have mourned those lost years and having missed out on watching her children grow and mature. The great gift that she received shortly after her arrival in Canada was the birth of my cousin Darius. She really co-raised him with her daughter and I think that having a new baby in her life, a child who grew to love her like no one else, was life-saving and healing.
Although the book is very much two narratives (your grandfather’s and your grandmother’s), and is presented as such, the title could be said to prioritise one of them, and the cover also features a photo of your grandmother. Why did you decide to do this?
Titles are always tricky. My original title prioritized Anthony’s narrative but the press rejected it. My press always rejects my working titles! I tend to go for imagistic or metaphorical titles, whereas university presses like clarity and simplicity, so we settled on Siberian Exile. Although this title does indeed refer first and foremost to my grandmother, though, to be fair, the subtitle (Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning) refers to my grandfather. The ‘reckoning’ of the subtitle occurred only once I’d made the unexpected discovery in the KGB files.
But you’re right. Ona appears on the cover and that certainly sends a message. What’s the message? When I began this book, it was supposed to be a gift of sorts to Ona. Then I discovered the accusations against Anthony. The discovery threw a wrench into my project and into my life and that fact made me angry. I became furious that he had hijacked her story and that he had inserted himself into this narrative in such an ugly way. Perhaps putting Ona front and centre was my way of resisting that hijacking and not allowing him to overshadow her completely. If the book is made up of light and darkness, I wanted to offer up the light first.
It must have been a very strange experience, discovering partially or completely unknown details of the lives of people close to you. How has it affected your view of your grandparents?
Reading my grandmother’s letters and listening to hours of her voice on tape was deeply moving. There were moments when I felt like I was meeting her for the first time. I know so much more about her than I ever did growing up. She’s became fleshed out into a real human being rather than just being the grandmother who cooked meals and crocheted blankets.
The experience of researching Anthony’s life was completely different. Whereas my grandmother left behind an account of her experiences in her own voice and from her own perspective, with the exception of a World War I memoir that he published, I only had third-person accounts of Anthony. There’s a sense in which he remains a mystery to me.
You write that you didn’t learn anything about the Holocaust in Lithuania in Lithuanian-language Saturday school. In the book, you say “For a community that defines itself first and foremost as a victim of illegal and repressive Soviet occupation, this is, to say the least, uncomfortable. It’s also not the kind of story that any community wants to tell its children about their grandparents’ generation.” Do you think it is this (largely justified) sense of victimhood and vulnerability that makes it difficult for some in Lithuania to accept that Lithuanians were also responsible for awful crimes? And do you think this is changing?
I was still a graduate student when I started thinking and writing about a phenomenon that I privately call “the Suffering Olympics.” When talking about the Nazi and Stalinist eras, Lithuanians (both in Lithuania and in the émigré community) often fall into a kind of one-upmanship that results in a macabre accounting of who actually killed more people and with what degree of cruelty. What’s more, in these discussions, I’ve encountered the notion that terrible suffering either justifies or absolves criminality. If, for example, a great anti-Soviet resistance fighter was tortured to death by the KGB, then (the argument goes) what does it matter if he took part in the killing of Jews? The heroism seemingly erases the crime.
In my work, I try to recognize all suffering and I try to see all actions for what they are. I avoid the Suffering Olympics and instead I try to tell the truth about the past without justifying crimes and without either comparing or minimizing pain. To do so requires nuance and it requires the ability to sit with terrible and uncomfortable truths. I can’t see the point of arguing about which form of murder is worse. It’s part of the reason that I find it helpful to work on individual lives. When you work on the life of a specific adolescent girl shot in the forest, a specific writer beaten to death in the snow, or a specific doctor buried in a shallow grave, then the question of whose suffering was worse or whose murder was more unjust reveals itself in all of its absurdity.
What role do you feel diaspora Lithuanians have in contributing to the dialogue within Lithuania itself? What kind of different perspectives can they bring? And are their contributions fully accepted? What kind of reception have you received for the book – either in Lithuania or among the diaspora Lithuanian community in North America?
I’m not sure what role diaspora Lithuanians can or should play in the country’s reckoning with its past. I, for one, don’t write first and foremost for a Lithuanian audience or with a view to changing Lithuania’s culture or politics. I’m always happy to have readers, wherever they are, and I’m thrilled when Lithuanians (or Israelis or Canadians or Algerians) read and value my work but I’m also aware of my position as the daughter of émigrés and that my authority may not be that of a native-born Lithuanian. That’s OK with me. I’ve always appreciated voices that come from the margins, so I don’t think of marginality as a problem necessarily.
In Siberian Exile, you describe a very odd coincidence that took place while you were researching the book: while on a trip to Kent State University Archives in Ohio, you found a notebook containing a transcript of a conversation with an elderly Lithuanian woman in a box of uncatalogued papers – one of many – only to then discover that your grandmother was the woman being interviewed. You mention that a statistician friend later pointed out to you that, given your pre-existing interest and connections to the subject, it perhaps isn’t quite as fantastically improbable as it initially seemed, and yet it certainly is uncanny. Did you retain the sense you described that you were somehow being pushed to write her story?
Coming across my grandmother’s misshelved interview by accident is perhaps the most uncanny thing that has ever happened to me. The find felt magical back then and it still feels magical. It’s true that I asked a statistician the question, “What are the odds?” (Whenever I told people the story of finding the interview, they would shake their heads and say, “What are the odds?”) In part, I did this because it felt like a funny thing to do: to try and answer a rhetorical question literally. I also did it because part of my essayistic method is to ask questions that others don’t and following lines of thinking that are slightly odd and unexpected. Asking unlikely questions inevitably cracks open one’s thinking and imagination. That was the case here. I had sort of hit a wall in my thinking about chance and causality but asking that statistician a preposterous question and then having him think about that question seriously turned out to be incredibly helpful.
But do I still feel like I was being pushed to write her story? Yes. Absolutely.
Do people who are the descendants of those who were responsible or complicit in terrible events have any kind of duty? You clearly seemed to feel that you do in some way – that you have a “responsibility to the dead”, as you express it in the book.
The responsibility that I feel here is first and foremost a writerly one. As a writer who is going back and sifting through the lives of people whose stories have never before been told, I feel called upon to act ethically. I take my sense of responsibility as a writer very seriously. That said, I’m not sure that I would shoulder every single descendant with the same responsibility or task every descendant in the same way. It’s not my place to tell others how to grapple with the past. Every person has to do this for themselves, in their own time, and in their own way. This is one of the reasons that I was so careful about whom I named and how in my book. I didn’t want to force anyone into a reckoning that they weren’t prepared for.
You write the name of the town that is currently Kudirkos Naumiestis in western Lithuania in English as “Newtown” throughout – was that due to a desire not to privilege the experience of one community (Lithuanians) over any of the others for whom the town was significant?
In part I simplified the town’s name for the sake of my Anglophone readers. Kudirkos Naumiestis is a mouthful and I wanted to shorten the cultural distance that separates that place from North America, where I live and write, as much as possible. I didn’t want orthography or pronunciation to be a stumbling block or a way to dismiss this history as that of a faraway, exotic, and ultimately irrelevant place. What’s more, Kudirkos Naumiestis is place that has had so many different names in a number of different languages. Most of those names simply mean “Newtown,” so it seemed appropriate to go with that as a moniker. In my notes, I make it clear what the name of the town would be on a map, so that anyone interested could find it. Finally, as you point out, this choice has a sort of neutralizing effect. The city isn’t signalled as belonging to one community more than to another.
You say at one point “silence organized our family”, referring mostly to the silence around specific periods in the past. Breaking this silence must have been a very hard thing to do – have there been any consequences?
From Day 1, my cousin Darius supported me and encouraged me to write. He read drafts along the way and was just generally a great source of strength. But even with his support, I was terrified at the prospect of sharing the book with other cousins and, above all, with my aunt. When I finally did so, my family members all surprised me in their generosity and respect for my work. I know, for example, that my aunt (now in her late 80s) has read the book numerous times. She calls me from time to time to talk about it or to make an observation. It couldn’t have been easy for her to read the book the first time, but she found the grace to make it through and to keep talking to me and even to find ways to praise my work. I’m so grateful and so impressed.
What do you think personal memories, or biographies of relatively ordinary people can teach us about this time period in this particular part of the world that more conventional histories can’t?
I’m a great believer in the richness of ordinary lives, and especially in the untold lives of women. Much of my work examines women’s writings, memories, and relationships to the past. I’m interested in tracking what happens to the smallest of people whose lives play out against dramatic backdrops of history.
Our societies are now increasingly tribalized. Take the United States as an example. Its citizens are now sorting themselves according to groups, and with those groupings come certain unquestioned allegiances. It’s a terrible situation and it’s become almost impossible to have reasonable conversations about ideas or policy because all nuance is suspect in the current climate. Nuance is often read as betrayal under these conditions.
But you can’t buy into tribalism if you do the kind of work that I do. It’s impossible. You can’t read a single life in such a totalizing way, filtered through ideology, unless you compromise and conceal certain truths. Because each life is complex and nuanced and flawed. No life is ideologically pure. Each life, even the most exemplary of lives, contains traces of betrayal, eroticism, and failure. And seemingly small, insignificant lives are often full of heroism and wisdom. This is what paying close attention to the small and the personal teaches: that everyone carries a universe within them.
No charge was ever filed against your grandmother, even though she spent almost two decades in Siberia – as you put it “she received no official account of the authorities’ decision either to deport her or to keep her in Siberia”. I didn’t pick up on any real anger on her part, though – although there certainly is distress. Do you think this kind of fatalism, and even acceptance, was characteristic of others caught up in the sweeping tragedies of this period?
It’s hard for me to speculate about how other exiles felt or if they expressed anger. I think you’re right that Ona didn’t carry any discernable rage at what happened to her. I think that this is likely simply a result of time. Twenty-four years, which is how long she was separated from her children, is a long time to be angry. I’ve noticed, if only anecdotally, that people who have gone through terrible experiences are often less angry than we might expect. Perhaps this kind of fatalism is a survival mechanism.
You’re the author of other books, one of which tells the story of Oma Šimaitė, a Lithuanian woman who smuggled food and medicine into the Vilnius ghetto, and who has been recognised as a “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem. Were you aware of your own family connection with the Holocaust at this point? Did it impact on your view of that book, whether at the time or retrospectively?
When I wrote Epistolophilia, I was completely unaware of my own family’s connection to the Holocaust. I wrote that book in response to questions that had been dogging me for some time. I wanted to know more about what had happened to this enormous and important Jewish community that nobody seemed to talk about – in the Lithuanian community, that is. The knowledge of Anthony’s actions didn’t change my relationship to Šimaitė or to that book, except that I did see a deep irony in the ways in which the universe had seemingly prepared and trained me for this discovery by turning me into an expert of sorts on the Holocaust in Lithuania. But as for my relationship to Šimaitė, no, I don’t think anything could shake the affection I have for her.
Some of the most memorable images in the book come from Siberia, which is presented as a harsh but profoundly beautiful place. You write that when preparing to make a journey to the village your grandmother was deported to, you hoped that “perhaps instead of thinking of Siberia only as a wound and a source of family trauma, I could come to see it as a real place of living people”. Did it become something more to you in the end?
The trip to Siberia affected me profoundly. It did indeed become something other than simply a wound. Though I only saw the smallest portion of its vast territory, Siberia surprised me at every turn. I can honestly say that I loved the city of Tomsk. It’s a very beautiful city famous for its wooden carved buildings, for its many universities, and for its rich culture. I was fascinated by the array of faces I saw in its streets – these included those of Central Asians, Balts, Slavs, and Indigenous people of the region. I met so many interesting and generous individuals, including a charismatic hunter whose apartment was full of taxidermied animals, a gentle geologist who had been exiled to Siberia as a small child, and a group of mostly African nuns who tirelessly ran a detox centre for the city’s alcoholics.
In my grandmother’s village, elderly women sat with me for hours on end, talking, telling me stories over tea. I certainly heard the echoes of their decades of suffering but I also encountered a deep pride of place and a love for home – for their Siberian home. I returned to my manuscript feeling comforted by that trip and by the knowledge that people still remembered Ona. They had loved and respected her. They still did. Ultimately, I came away with a better understanding of who my grandmother had been and why. I would certainly return to Siberia if the opportunity presented itself. There are many other regions I’m curious to explore.
Your book, and the general theme of dispelling silence and deliberate distortion about past events, reminded me of the debates that have taken place in all three Baltic countries about another painful historical episode, although one that’s much more recent: whether the KGB files that were left in the countries should be opened. The Latvian government has only announced in the last couple of weeks that it will do this, while previous governments had expressed concern that doing so would tear society apart. Do you think it is always helpful to reveal details about the past, or can transparency sometimes prove a barrier to moving forwards?
In Lithuania, as you know, the decision was made some time ago to open the vast majority of these files to the public. Only a small portion is still classified and these files largely concern KGB informants, it seems. I believe that it’s a positive thing to open such archives up. Nothing good comes of secrecy and I think it’s impossible to move forward in ignorance. Nothing good comes of grand narratives built on untruths. There’s no question that painful revelations will result from this kind of work, but I don’t see another way forward.
That said, the process of exploring the archives and of sorting through what’s there requires the utmost care. Such a task must be undertaken slowly and with a strong ethical compass. There’s no question that the KGB archives contain lies as well as truths. That’s a given. It’s a big job to sort out what’s what and it helps to have training in this kind of work before diving in. We’ve seen people get caught out when they take at face value everything that is compiled in a file.
You can read an extract from Siberian Exile on Deep Baltic, here
All photos credit Julija Šukys
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