This year the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are celebrating 100 years of independence with new translations of Baltic Books coming to the UK for the first time and a series of cultural events happening across the UK. The Baltics are also being honoured as the Market Focus at London Book Fair (LBF), the biggest book trade event in the UK.
Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute
| Synopsis |
An extraordinary piece of international survival literature, joining the likes of Primo Levi and Anne Frank. In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried. The immediacy of her writing bears witness not only to the suffering she endured but also the hope that sustained her. It is a Lithuanian tale that, like its author, beats the odds to survive. ‘There is only one word to describe this book: Extraordinary. It blew me away when I first read it in German translation. Dalia’s account goes far beyond a memoir. This is an outstanding piece of literature which should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the Soviet repression.’ Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press Publisher
| Excerpt |
I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back… How beautiful… the sunlight… and the shadow.
I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep? Who knows? Each of them has their own thoughts. Each is leaving behind a life that ended yesterday. Each has a family, relatives, friends. They’re all saying goodbye to their loved ones. Suddenly, the train jolts. Something falls from the upper bunk. No one is asleep now. Silence. I dress hurriedly – I have to say goodbye to Kaunas. We are all at the windows. Everything is in the past now, gone for ever. One more jolt and the train lurches forward. I can see the steeples of the Carmelite church gleaming in the sun. It’s half past four. Kaunas is asleep. A train with sixty-three covered wagons glides silently into the vast unknown. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading towards an uncer- tain future. Our eyes fill with tears. The children cry as if they understand – they stare silently at the receding city and the approaching fields. Look, children, have a good look and fix this image, this moment, in your memory for ever. I wonder how many pairs of eyes are taking in their native city for the last time…
‘I have a feeling I will never see Kaunas again,’ my mother says to me. Her words cut me like a knife. The fight of your life has begun, Dalia. Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.
A tunnel. The train is moving at full speed now. The Nemunas. Petrašiūnai. Where’s Dad? Goodbye Vilnius. We’re at the freight station. Someone is shout- ing to a relative, a railway worker; he’s asking him to tell his mother, to say goodbye, to advise her to pack warm things. To hell with warm things. Advise her to run, to hide. Vilnius recedes. People line the tracks, watching, as though we’re being carried off to die. They raise their hands in blessing over us. The Poles are a pious people. Are we really being transported to our deaths?
Hell, no, not on your life. We will not die, we will not give the Devil the satisfaction. And damn the elements. We will live, we will survive. We will fight and we will triumph – hear that?
Naujoji Vilnia. Trains filled with men are lined up at the station. I walk the length of the sealed wagons and enquire about Dad.
No, no, no. The answer is always the same: we’re from Vilnius.
We are herded back into our train. The wagons are bolted shut and we begin to move. I had the opportunity to run away back at the station, and I did want to. There were piles of logs nearby, but I remembered that I had a mother who was helpless waiting for me on the train. I was fourteen going on twenty.
‘Border, border. We are approaching the border.’ The last of Lithuania – the last of her forests, her trees, her flowers. There’s a crack in the door about five centimetres wide.
I breathe in the smell of Lithuania’s fields. I don’t ever want to forget it. Someone starts to sing in one of the wagons – ‘How Beautiful Thou Art, Beloved Land of Our Fathers’. Soon the entire train joins in.
Now we are flying across the fields of Belarus. No visa required… Orsha, Minsk, Smolensk. I am thirsty. It is hot and they don’t give us much water.
At a station we all slip under the wagons to relieve ourselves. No one feels the least bit embarrassed. When the train next to us pulls out, the view is captivating. In the stations of Belarus we see passenger trains, mostly going to Lithuania. And why not? There will be lots of room soon. Bon voyage to the locusts!
Kirov. We pull in to the station in parade formation: the train from Kaunas is flanked on one side by the train from Riga, on the other by the train from Tallinn. Greetings, Baltic states! Conversations strike up between trains.
Two by two, we queue to collect lunch for our group. Somewhere behind me I see my history teacher. Suddenly – silence. Then a blast from the radio. War! War!
This is an extract from Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, published by Pierene Press. The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April).
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