Why do we read? For pleasure and entertainment of course. To expand our horizons when we can’t travel anywhere. And to learn about other lives and experiences.
Shadows On The Tundra falls in the second and third of these categories. It is not a ‘pleasure and entertainment’ book in any way. It is a serious and direct first-hand account of a horrific chapter in the history of the mid-twentieth century and is therefore, in my view, an essential read.
Publisher Peirene Press summarises it as follows:
“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.”
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, Dalia Grinkevičiutė’s childhood and early adult experiences are extremely tough to read about. I felt compelled to keep my eyes glued to the page out of respect for her and her determination to surpass such terrible treatment. But even more than this, the writing is remarkably lyrical. It clearly makes a difference that Dalia wrote these pages retrospectively. Nevertheless, despite, or perhaps even because of, the harrowing subject matter, the reader is gripped throughout.
Right from the opening few words, we are with Dalia in a place of apprehension about what lies ahead:
“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…[..]..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 [her home town] is asleep. A train with sixty-three covered wagons glides silently into the vast unknown. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading towards an uncertain 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, Childre, have a good look and fix this image, this moment, in your memory for ever. I wonder how many pairs of eyes are takin in their native city for the last time…..”
We journey with Dalia, her family and her fellow travellers across the vast Russian landscape over the course of many months until they arrive on the island of Trofimovsk in the Arctic. The reader’s heart lurches at frequent suggestions along the way that they might be bound for ‘the utopia called America. Some don’t believe it but most want to.’ And who can blame them for trying to think the best?
Eventually, they arrive at their destination. Not a port from where they will sail to America of course:
“We are on the shore, or rather at the foot of the riverbank. We drag our things up the high, crumbling slope. The sand pulls us backwards, we slip and fall with our belongings. No one feels like talking, we are all depressed. Four hundred and fifty Lithuanians are standing on polar tundra, looking for the city….[..]…I look around and am chilled to the bone. Far and wide, tundra and more tundra, naked tundra, not a sprig of vegetation, just moss as far as the eye can see. In the distance, I notice something that looks like a small hill of crosses….Suddenly, I’m gripped by fear.”
It has been said that this book deserves its place in history alongside Anne Frank’s diary and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As the Afterword notes, ‘The Twentieth century is with good reason called the century of the concentration camp or of deportation. In this period Central and Eastern Europe experienced two totalitarian dictatorships, one under Hitler and one under Stalin. Both were intent on crushing for ever the free spirit of the individual….But through great endeavour and sacrifice a way out was found….No testimony from this time must ever be forgotten’. I completely agree and am hugely grateful to Peirene Press for making this important work available to English speakers.