“Interweaving coincidences and reversals with historical precision in a narrative that layers, folds, zags and spikes, Julija Šukys wanders the ghost-filled streets of the present, mingling with kin, real and imagined, and corresponding with multiple unspeakable pasts. I can’t recall the last time I read so gripping and so delicate a documentary of atrocity, complicity, dispossession and survival. Siberian Exile is remarkable, daunting, and disarmingly real.” — Mary Cappello, author of Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack
“All families harbor secrets. What if, in blithe innocence, you set out to research your family history, only to discover that your grandfather was guilty of the most heinous of crimes? Šukys pursues her tragic family memoir with courage and self-examination, often propelled to her painful discoveries by what she believes is a bizarre synchronicity. This is not a book written at a safe distance.”—Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
“Riveting. . . . Beyond the historical and familial narrative, Julija Šukys ponders her own exile and her own complicity, allowing readers to do the same, comparing versions of selves and asking which version is truest, an impossible question, but one readers will find as enthralling as these pages.”—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana
About the Book
When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.
Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.
In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.
I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.
Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.
But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.
Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)
Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.
My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.
The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.
When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.
“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.
And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.
I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.
I’ll let you know what I find.
I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.
Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.
So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.
For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.
My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.
The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.
My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.
So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.
His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.
I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.
I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?
(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)
I’ve been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back.
I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I’m interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters — how, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events.
But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but mine may be the last generation to be able to say this.
And as I embark on the writing of my third book — my second to use letters as a primary resource — I realize that it’s time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are.
I’ve never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it’s all the same to me. It’s why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me has little to do with money, or physical uniqueness.
But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously on their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or in some ways resembles the way we communicate today.
National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It’s currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called “Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters.”
The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. Its tagline: “Finally, a letter from mom.”
It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I’m honoured to have it used as part of the piece. You can see the exhibit here.
I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories with me through in the comments section. I’m interested to know about your writing life.
[Photo: Sea Dream Studio]
Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.
Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.
The back of the postcard reads:
My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],
It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.
The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.
Write to me, all. I await your letters.
After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.
My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.
While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.
Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.
All is well with the world in this regard.
[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]
Two cousins and I spent fourteen days travelling from Lithuania to Siberia’s Tomsk region, in search of the neighbouring villages of Brovka and Bialystok where my grandmother lived in forced exile and worked on a collective farm for seventeen years (for a time she lived in one village, then in the other).
We found both villages (Bialystok still very much alive; Brovka now defunct), plus so much more along the way.
Siberia surprised me at every turn. It was both gentler and at times more desperate than I’d imagined. The journey was worth every minute and every kopeck.
In Tomsk we marvelled at stilettoed women strolling through the city with their babies, and were awed by the beauty of Tomsk’s Catholic Church perched up on the city’s one hill. The nearby Sisters of Charity welcomed us warmly and glowed with joy, all the while telling harrowing drunk tank tales. Six nuns minister to the city’s alcoholics.
We had many local companions and guides without whom the journey from Tomsk north to Bialystok would have been impossible: there was Vasily, the museum director, born and raised in the village; Svetlana, our guardian angel, daughter of a Lithuanian exile, and generally the coolest Siberian you’ll ever meet; 79-year-old Anton who took us into his house and fed us from his kitchen garden; Dusya, Anna and Nina, who shared their memories of our grandmother; and Maria who showed us hospitality with a potato and egg fry that we ate straight out of the skillet plonked down in the centre of the table, Siberian-style.
All this, plus my impressions of Moscow suffocated by wildfire smoke, our deportation from Belarus and resulting mad-dash through Copenhagen’s airport in a race to catch up to our train, and of the still Siberian landscape under the blue shutters and fences of Russian villages, will unpack and reformulate itself into a book over the next year or so.
I’ll share what I can as I work.
To all those who helped along the way: Spasibo bolshoe. Ačiū.
This is only the beginning.
[Photo: M. Angel Herrero]
A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.
One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.
Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)
For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.
Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.
The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.
Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.
Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?
Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?
What is home to the exiled?
[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]
True story: A researcher at the archives at Kent State University stumbles on the transcript of an interview with her grandmother. This is what happened to me in 2001, when I made the trip from Chicago to Kent, Ohio to look at two boxes of uncatalogued Šimaitė papers. Inside one of the cartons was a black notebook labelled “Father Juozas Vailokaitis (1880-1953) in Siberia.” A note fixed to its cover read: “This Lithuanian material was found on a shelf in the Archive, unidentified, on January 2, 1994. It has been placed with these other materials in hope that the next researcher can identify it for us.” I almost fell out of my chair when I saw what was inside. It was a seventy-two-page interview with my grandmother.
I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique when I was a teenager, and I remember loving it, but not understanding it. What was the connection between the two women who shared a name? How did their mirrored lives interact? Why did one live and the other die? These were questions I couldn’t answer.
Recently, this film has come back to mind with each new mirroring I find in the lives of my two Onas, who shared not only a first name, but second initial. Ona Šimaitė and my grandmother, Ona Šukienė, were born in Lithuanian villages within five years of one another. For both, 1941 was a pivotal year that changed their lives forever: this was the year the Nazis invaded Vilnius, and the year the Red Army deported my grandmother to Siberia. Fragments of both life stories ended up in one box in an American archive to which neither had any connection.
But when I visited my aunt a few weeks ago to talk about family history, I discovered yet another shared biographical detail: both Onas had unofficially adopted daughters named Tanya. Šimaitė’s Tanya was a young Warsaw woman whom she smuggled out of the ghetto; my grandmother’s, a Russian girl in Brovka who reminded her of her own daughters.
I’m not yet sure what to do with this constant doubling. What does it tell us about life? Are we to understand, perhaps, that there are only handful of “starter lives” handed out every generation, and then each individual must do what s/he can with a given template? Have I stumbled upon two variations on the theme of “the Ona Š. life”? Does this mean that I am living “the Julija Š. life,” and that, if I leave enough behind, someone will find my double in an archive after I’m gone?
I’ve written about the find at Kent State in more detail in an article called “Brovka: Reconstructing a Life in Tatters (My Grandmother’s Journey).” You can read it via this link. (No subscription required)
[Ex libris plate by Žibuntas Mikšys; Photo by Julija Šukys]