On Packing for a Year-Long Academic Sabbatical

A few weeks ago, when I started packing in earnest for our family’s year at the Institute for Advanced Study, I couldn’t find an academic sabbatical packing list (for either women or men). All I found were tips for short-term trips (like a month) or nomadic year-long family trips across warm continents. So this is my (somewhat feminine, at least in terms of the clothing list) effort. Such lists remove a whole piece of mental work, and goodness knows, there’s enough to think about!

If you have the good fortune of a year away from your usual life, then CONGRATULATIONS. I hope this helps.

Happy research. Happy writing. Happy packing.

Sabbatical Prep: Basic Tips and Principles

Stowing stuff before you leave

  1. Order one or a couple of those inexpensive clothes storage closets (with cover) for items you leave behind. It’s easier for both packing & unpacking and clothes don’t get mangled. Especially good for monstrous Midwestern houses with big, dry storage rooms.
  2. In the event that you don’t have a ginormous storage room and need to store things offsite, those pod containers that come to your house and then get carted away for the year also work beautifully. We used a pod when we went away to Malta for a year and rented out our Montreal house. We had to empty our library completely for the tenants, plus clear closets and drawers. In that case, I rolled the cost of storage into rent.
  3. Take the opportunity to reduce your clutter. Donate or freecycle any clothes you’ve (ahem) outgrown or just don’t wear. Cut up old t-shirts for rags. Take part in your neighborhood’s garage sale and share the proceeds with your kid when he sells old toys. Donate the leftover toys. Honestly, there is nothing like leaving your house for a year to make you take a good hard look at the excesses of North American life…

What to take and how to pack and transport it: first, the broad strokes

  1. When choosing which clothes to bring, I found that an organic solution emerged: a unified color scheme made my decisions easier. In the end, I packed mostly blue and black garments. This means everything will go with everything. Also, there’s less to think about when you’re dealing with reduced clothing options because you have better things to do…like write a book.
  2. Two words: COMPRESSION SACS. They even work on boots rated to -30C that I managed to mush down to a fraction of their usual size! The sacs allowed me to pack our warm jackets, ski pants, gloves, hats, and neck warmers  into a very small space. And since we have our winter essentials, we’ll be able both to ski and walk our dog in the snow comfortably. WHERE TO GET COMPRESSION SACS? I bought some inexpensive sacs online. They are just rectangular plastic envelopes with a ziplock top and one-way valves at the bottom so you can squeeze the air out. You don’t need the hardcore camping ones; just the travel kind.
  3. Related to #2: resist the temptation to “just buy new ones” of everything. Good quality clothes are expensive, and it’s worth bringing staples that will protect you against the elements, like rain gear, waterproof footwear, warm hats, winter coats, gloves. I’ve learned my lesson, having wandered around with wet feet on one too many trips.
  4. Related to #3: it’s equally important to resist the impulse to TAKE everything. Living with less is also a pleasure.
  5. I suggest deciding on how many bags you plan to take and allowing that to determine what you can bring. We took 3 large suitcases, 3 carry-ons + work papers for 2 adults and one kid. Consider sending suitcases by UPS Ground, especially if you’re driving to your sabbatical destination, as we did. UPS shipping was surprisingly affordable and send bulky stuff ahead left room in the car for cat, dog, child, and cooler. You can also ship any musical instruments. We shipped a guitar and saxophone.
  6. Be sure to pack a blue-tooth speaker. You can stream radio and music from phones and laptops and get high quality sound. I packed this almost as an afterthought, but it’s already proven to be essential.
  7. Earphones and earbuds. Enough for all family members to share.
  8. Playing cards. We’ve been playing Gin as a family since we left home.
  9. If you’ve got ’em, then take some Turkish towels. These are compact and work at the pool or beach. They also double as travel blankets on cold airplanes. Plus, towels can be in short supply in rentals. I also tucked 3 dish towels into the car before leaving and I’m glad I did, since we arrived to find none in our new apartment!
  10. Be kind to the kid. Remember that his treasures matter too. Find room in the car for 2000+ Magic the Gathering cards, if need be. The kid barely has any clothes anyway, because he outgrows them so fast. Everyone needs to be allowed something special.

What I Brought: Here’s Where We Get Specific

Work

  • research materials: photocopies from archives, notebooks, a few books
  • a “working copy” of my book for readings
  • draft of an essay-in-progress (hard copy that I didn’t have time to transcribe)
  • laptop
  • phone
  • charging cords
  • wire book holder for desk
  • book light for bedtime reading
  • pens & pencils
  • wrist brace to treat/prevent carpel tunnel syndrome
  • business/book cards
  • pens
  • computer sleeve
  • camera (for work & play…)
  • backpack for conference travel
  • reading glasses

Essential documents

  • passports
  • immunization records (you can’t register your kid in school without them)
  • your child’s last report card (also needed for school registration)
  • birth certificates
  • directions & welcome packet for the new place
  • health insurance cards
  • checks
  • …plus whatever’s in your wallet (make sure your driver’s license won’t expire while you’re on sabbatical, and far away from home)

Kitchen & Food

  • pack your road-trip food in your usual tupperware or food storage containers (we brought 4 or 5 in our cooler and I’ll use these for packing my son’s school lunches)
  • thermoses that double as water bottles (also for use during the long road trip)
  • a cooler, ’cause that road food will kill you
  • picnic plates and cutlery
  • dish towels
  • lunch box for the kid (we have a soft one which makes packing easy)
  • fabric shopping totes (we used these to pack shoes, pet stuff, toiletries into the car and now use them shopping)
  • a couple laundry balls
  • laundry bags for washing delicates
  • two large laundry bags for storing dirty clothes and transport to laundry room (across the street)

Pet stuff

  • leashes
  • cat carrier
  • flea & tick meds
  • Prozac for the problematic canine
  • poo bags
  • food bowls
  • a couple toys for the pup; a couple of small balls to chase for kitty
  • pet food (enough for the trip and a few days upon arrival)
  • any skin care meds that the problematic canine might need
  • brushes & shampoo for grooming
  • litter box & scoop, double-bagged for travel
  • “kitty quilts” (made by my husband’s aunt; yes, the cat actually sleeps on them…)
  • immunization record for cross-border travel with dog

things to do before you leave home

  • set up online billing and bill payment
  • change addresses with the bank, HR, magazine subscriptions, your mother’s nursing home, etc.
  • get your mail forwarded to the new address
  • talk to your home insurance company if you’ll have a tenant or house-sitter and make sure you’re covered under these circumstances
  • suspend or reduce insurance on any vehicles you might be leaving behind
  • change your voicemail message if you’re like us and still live as if it’s 1995
  • hire someone to mow the lawn if you don’t want to ask the house-sitter or tenant to do so
  • write up a set of emergency instructions with contacts for your house-sitter, i.e., what to do if a tree falls or the roof gets blown off
  • register your kid in his new school
  • go see the doctor and dentist and get up to date on tests and cleanings; NB: your kid will need a health form signed by the doctor to register for school
  • put an auto-reply on your email accounts to buy some extra space and time for the book you’re writing

Clothes, etc.

(Written out like this, it’s a lot…I admit. But I tried to pack comfortably for 4 seasons, for skiing, yoga, running, hiking & swimming, for conferences & book festivals, for long days in the library, dog walking, cocktail receptions, holidays and parties…)

  • 2 jersey dresses (one black, one blue)
  • 6 long-sleeved jersey shirts (in varying shades of black, purple, teal & blue)
  • 6 short-sleeved jersey shirts (ditto)
  • 1 tunic (blue)
  • 1 long cardigan (black, of course)
  • 4 work-type jackets (in blue and black, of course) that can be dressed up or down, of different weights and styles (this may be excessive, but I allowed myself this folly since I love to layer and a jacket makes me feel immediately polished)
  • 2 winter/fall sweaters (one dove grey one in merino; one navy in cashmere)
  • 1 spring cardigan (black)
  • 1 spring pullover sweater (a departure: red and white stripes!)
  • 1 fleece jacket (grey)
  • 1 stretchy athletic jacket (teal)
  • 1 down jacket (turquoise for variation)
  • 1 medium-weight fall/winter coat (black); with the down jacket underneath, it should see me through the snowy season
  • 1 rain/ski shell (grey)
  • shoes: tall leather boots (no heel), leather ankle boots (slight heel), comfy walking boots, warm winter boots, sneakers, sandals, ankle-height rain boots (good for muddy hikes as well as rainy days)
  • 2 pairs of jeans (blue)
  • 1 pair wide-legged cotton pants that go across seasons (black)
  • 2 winter/fall skirts (one in a dark, very cool denim with distressed edge; one navy pencil skirt)
  • 3 summer skirts (2 navy and one crazy mint green one for fun, in a fabric printed with images of food trucks)
  • 2 light-weight summer pants (airy light blue ones and a pair of beaten up khaki hiking cropped ones)
  • 3 pairs cotton pajamas
  • light-weight dressing gown (silk; it folds down to nothing)
  • 3 pairs of tights (black & grey)
  • black beret & gloves
  • sun hat & sunglasses
  • 2 belts
  • 3 pairs of earrings; 3 necklaces
  • bras & underwear & socks
  • umbrella
  • 5 colorful scarves of varying weights (if you’re packing mostly grey, blue & black, then you need some color somewhere!)
  • 1 leather purse (teal blue), tote-style to carry all the things…
  • athletic gear: yoga pants, yoga mat, running shorts & shirts, runners, running hat, socks, sports bra, sports socks, ski googles, ski pants, ski socks, neck warmers, long johns, yoga mat
  • 2 bathing suits & goggles
  • toiletries (you know what you need…)

Best packing list ever?

Joan Didion’s.

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

Audio Interview: The Missouri Review

Not too long ago, I had a great conversation with the Missouri Review! Thanks to Sarah Beard for sitting down to talk with me. In “UNBOUND Book Festival Interview: Julija Šukys,” we talk about my book, Siberian Exile, research, digging into family history, archives, and much more. Come have a listen.

[Image: The Missouri Review]

Teaching in the Archives: Women Writing Lives

Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is. 

[Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission]

Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

NOW AVAILABLE!

“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

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

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.

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

Lions in Winter, Eastern Illinois University, Jan. 30 & 31, 2015

LionWinter

I’m heading to Charleston, Illinois, this weekend to read and to give a craft talk  at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival. Come on out if you’re in the area. I’ll be reading from and discussing the birth of Epistolophilia and what I learned about the ins and outs of archival work in the process.

The Lions in Winter 2015 featured writers are Stephen Graham Jones, 
David Tomas Martinez, Edward Kelsey Moore, Julija Šukys (yours truly), and Jessica Young.

You can find craft talk descriptions and download the program here. 

[Photo: Tambako The Jaguar]

On Research: Examining One Point in the Holy Trinity of CNF

HolyTrinity

The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.

Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.

The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.

The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?

My answer: RESEARCH

By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one,  have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.

I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.

Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.

To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.

But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but  more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.

Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.

Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.

[Photo: angelofsweetbitter2009]

New Adventures for a New Year

MissouriAutumn

Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.

Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.

Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.

Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.

Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

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.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

New Review in Lithuanian-Canadian Weekly

Thanks to Ramunė Jonaitienė for this review in Tėviškės Žiburiai, the Lithuanian-Canadian weekly newspaper. Among the phrases I’m really grateful for is her description of my tone as “calm.”

Ačiū, TŽ.

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust tells the story of Ellen Cassedy’s personal journey into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania – the land of her Jewish forebears – and then expands into an exploration of how Lithuania today is engaging with its complex 20th-century history.  Probing the terrain of memory and moral dilemmas, the book shines a spotlight on fragile efforts toward mutual understanding and carries a cautious message of hope.

Ellen Cassedy has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years.  She is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Huffington PostHaaretzJewish JournalHadassahThe Jewish ForwardJewish Telegraphic AgencyLilithBridgesUtne ReaderPolin, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. She is a frequent speaker about Jewish and Lithuanian issues, and a regular contributor to VilNews, the international web magazine based in Vilnius, Lithuania. She lives near Washington, DC.


Julija Šukys: The frame for your book is a trip to Vilnius to study Yiddish at a well-known summer program there. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Yiddish language. How much Yiddish did you speak or understand before arriving in Vilnius? How did your relationship to the language change over the summer? How much Yiddish did you encounter in Lithuania?

Ellen Cassedy: My mother used to sprinkle Yiddish words into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe! (a downpour.)” In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” On the telephone:  “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).” After she died, I missed those homey syllables. I began studying Yiddish as a kind of memorial to her, a way to hold on to my Jewish heritage.

By the time I arrived at the summer program run by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I’d progressed far enough to be placed in the second-to-highest level – where I held on by my fingernails! Spending several hours a day in class and doing hours of homework every night was a mekhaye – a great pleasure.

Within a few weeks, I became able to conduct interviews in Yiddish – with a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town of Rokiškis, with the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Šiauliai, where my family members had been imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto. And occasionally I’d encounter a Yiddish-speaker on the beautiful streets of the Old City in Vilnius.

The Yiddish scenes that I weave through the book serve as resting places for both me and the reader – places of laughter and love.

The central focus of this book is the Holocaust bystander. You seek to consider the role of the bystander in a nuanced way and struggle to understand what it meant to be a non-Jewish witness to the Holocaust.  In the end you arrive at a kind of reconciliation or entente in your understanding of the opposing forces and tragedies that were at play in Lithuania during World War II. Tell me a little bit about how you came to take this path.

On the brink of my journey to Lithuania, I learned there was an old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. In 1941, when he was 17, he watched as the Jews of the Rokiškis region were rounded up and marched off into the forest to be shot. Those memories had tormented him all his life.  He wanted to tell what he knew, and he wanted a Jew to hear his tale. Would I be that Jew?

The time I spent with this haunted witness – and with numerous other Lithuanians who shared with me their family stories of the Holocaust – showed me that “bystanders” are not an undifferentiated mass. We need to look closely enough to understand each person as an individual. And our goal must be to create the kind of society where it is easier to stand up than to stand by.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that you discover that your uncle was a member of the ghetto police force in the Shavl Ghetto. The ghetto police forces were and are, of course, extremely problematic – they are both victims and oppressors. You cite Primo Levi’s term “the gray zone” to describe the moral space that people like Efroyim Gens (head of the Shavl Ghetto Police) and his brother Jakob Gens (head of the Vilna Ghetto Police) inhabit. To what extent should we, from our perspective, suspend our judgment of those in the gray zone? What conclusions have you come to about people like your uncle and the Genses? Do your uncle and the Genses belong in the same category?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering about my uncle and the complex truths he embodies. I’m less interested than I used to be in assigning people to one category or another. Maybe, when it comes to people like my uncle and the Genses (who had more power than my uncle did, but still faced inhuman and impossible choices), the answers are less important than the questions we continue to ask ourselves. Maybe it’s the moral attention we pay that will help to prevent future genocides.

Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands caused a firestorm when it appeared in 2010, because some historians and other readers considered that he equated Nazi crimes with Stalinist ones, thereby minimizing or excusing the former. He was accused of “Holocaust obfuscation,” among other things. By contrast, you, like Snyder, seem to view Nazism and Stalinism and the ways in which those eras are remembered in Lithuania as interconnected. Wartime and postwar Lithuania itself is portrayed in your book as a kind of gray zone. Is this a fair characterization of your position? Could you expand?

I learned a great deal from Bloodlands, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cataclysms of the 20th century. To examine both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, to explore the connections – that’s a basic job for a historian.

The term “gray zone” doesn’t mean we turn away from morality. When we see things going wrong, we must speak up loud and clear. Bloodlands can help us do that.

In Lithuania, it was hard for me to open up to “the Other,” to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering alongside Jewish suffering. Hard – but essential, especially for those of us in the successor generations. Can we honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past? Can we appeal to one another not as victims, bystanders, or collaborators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice? Those are the questions I hope my readers will ask themselves.

My final question is about the Lithuanian language and the ways in which you had to use mediators to “access” Lithuanian narratives and memories of the Holocaust. With the exception of Yiddish speakers, you interviewed most of your Lithuanian contacts in English or through translators, and employed third-party intervention to collect and work through archival sources. What risks does working through mediators in this way bring with it? How do you account for or deal with what necessarily gets lost, censored or simplified in translation?

By the time I left Lithuania, I had a Lithuanian vocabulary of about 60 words – pitiful!  I don’t know Russian, German, or Hebrew, either –all of which came into play in the writing of my book. But I’ve always been intrigued by what happens when people from different cultures, using different languages, make the effort to communicate. My experiences with translators and interpreters turned out to be utterly fascinating encounters in themselves. I make sure the reader gets to meet Regina, Hirsh, Emil, Natasha, and others who helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.

When you think about it, aren’t we always mediating, always translating – no matter who we’re talking to, no matter what languages are involved? Reaching out and attempting to understand, even when it’s a challenge – in the end, that’s exactly what We Are Here is about.