Shadows on the TundraDalia Grinkevičiutė
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.
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
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.
Written by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas.
Home in Exile series
192pp, paperback with flaps, £12
In 2018, Peirene Press published Shadows on the Tundra, Delija Valiukenas’ translation of the story that Dalia buried. It is a truly remarkable memoir that bears witness, not only to the suffering Dalia endured, but to the hope that sustained her.
A year later, Delija Valiukenas approached us to tell us that she had been working on translating a number of additional extracts that Dalia had written, later in life, when she returned to Lithuania. With the generous permission of Dalia’s close friend, Vytene Muschick, we are so pleased to be able to share this unpublished extract with you.
From Lithuanians at the Laptev Sea [Version Two] by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė. Vilnius:
Lietuvių rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2005, 190-192.
Excerpt: Nearly a year after Dalia and her mother escape from the Siberian gulag and return illegally to Lithuania, Mrs. Grinkevičius dies and Dalia is faced with a major dilemma….
Eight months later, Mother’s health began to deteriorate. The alarming symptoms of uremia set in. By the spring of 1950, her condition was hopeless. She asked to be transported to our former home in Kaunas. That was incredibly risky, but we did as she wished.
The doctors who attended her would usually arrive after dark. Once out of the blue, she asked me, “But how will you bury me? They’ll catch you and put you in prison. Why don’t you just lower me into the Nemunas River….”
She passed into the afterlife thinking that even in death there would be no place for her in the land of her fathers. She died May 5, 1950; it was a difficult death. Her last words were a simple question: “Why didn’t they just shoot us when they had us lined up beside the train?”
I lay her out on a bed and surround her with flowers. Her face looks blissful and at peace. Her suffering at an end. I open the window for air, for a Lithuanian breeze to waft across her face one last time. My good and gentle Mum, who’d never hurt a single living thing. Why were you destined for so much suffering? You were always the first to offer help and did it quietly without fanfare. I’m glad, at least, that your last and greatest wish has been granted. You’ve died in Lithuania. Your native land will gather you into its embrace. With the last of your strength you made it home. Frail, dying, and persecuted. In the end, you triumphed.
But where is your final resting place to be? Where and how should I bury you?
I did find a priest who agreed to perform the final rites without the usual documents. We’d bury you under a different surname 18 km outside of Kaunas in a village cemetery. But how do I get a casket out of the house? Or transport it out of town? Its removal and conveyance will alert the neighbors. Should I bury you in a flower bed underneath the window? But the nights in May are bright, it’ll be impossible to dig a grave without being noticed.
My aunt’s idea was to go to the NKVD. She would tell them that her ailing sister had showed up in the middle of the night. She couldn’t very well shut the door in her face, then the next day her sister died. Meanwhile, I would remove myself from the scene. Aunt thinks that after following the usual procedure for identifying the body, they’d let us bury her. But even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to attend her funeral or visit her grave afterwards: it would be watched—they’d be lying in wait for me. Besides, they won’t believe it, and some people will end up paying a price in that scenario.
But what I couldn’t bear the most was the thought of her executioners being there looking at her in death when it should be me at the very end who is standing at her side.
So what to do? Can there really be no room for my dead Mother in her homeland? There is a small area of the cellar intended as an air raid shelter during the war. I’ll bury her there.
With hammer and chisel I begin to break up the cement floor. It’s a hard, thick layer. When he built the house, Dad hadn’t considered how difficult it would be to chisel out a grave for Mum. To avoid being seen from the outside, I work by candlelight. As hard as I try, progress is slow. At the slightest creak of the stairs leading to the second floor, I pause. Eventually, I break through the cement. Beneath is clay. I work around the clock and finish digging the following day. An enormous hole stares up at me.
Tomorrow is the first Sunday in May—Mother’s Day. Who’d have thought that this would be my last gift to you, Mama. Together with my Aunt, we saw an armoire in half lengthwise and fashion a casket. The door to the armoire will serve as a lid. At the first light, we carry the casket downstairs and lower it into the grave. We line it. Now all that remains is to carry her down. I approach the bed several times, but each time I go weak in the knees and feel woozy. I realize, I’ll never manage. I turn to someone that I know I can trust – the brother of the prominent missionary priest, Paukštis. He takes her into his arms and carries her out of the room.
I spend all next week, every single night, carrying chunks of cement and clay out of the basement. Next, I smooth out the cellar floor with a layer of fresh cement. No sign of a grave remains.
There was a water meter on the premises. The meter reader would have noticed the flowers and the lighted candle more than once, but he never uttered a word.
Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927-1987) was born in Kaunas, the former capital of Lithuania. She spent her teenage years in a Siberian gulag. At 21 she escaped and returned to her home country only to be deported to Siberia once again in 1951. She was released five years later, then studied medicine. Grinkevičiūtė’s writings are now placed firmly in the Lithuanian canon.
Born in Germany of Lithuanian parents, who fled their home in 1944 to escape the Russian occupation, Delija Valiukenas and her family emigrated to the United States and settled in Upstate New York. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Brown University and has taught World Literature for 34 years. Delija writes and translates for Baltic and Lithuanian journals; and was commissioned by the Lithuanian National Theatre of Kaunas to translate selected Lithuanian plays into English.
‘Dalia Grinkeviciute’s account of surviving starvation and hard labour deserves to become a classic.’ Anna Aslanyan, The Spectator
‘Shadows on the Tundra is a devastating portrait of human cruelty … yet Dalia’s searing tale is unexpectedly uplifting.’ Lucy Popescu, The Riveter
‘Dalia’s suffering is so breathlessly cruel that the Gulag may have been plucked from some dark early century, but her voice – angry, sulky, sarcastic – brings it hurrying into the present.’ Julie McDowall, TLS
‘A distressing historic document and a literary work of great significance.’ Neue Zürcher Zeitung
‘An incredible force of language … the story of constant indignation.’ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
For Reading Groups
Reading Shadows on the Tundra in a book group? Here’s some questions to get the conversation going:
1. Shadows on the Tundra was originally written on scraps of paper that Dalia Grinkevičiūtė buried in her garden to keep hidden from the KGB. How does this background information affect the way you read the story?
2. The book’s structure matches the way Dalia structured her original writing. What is your opinion of the lack of chapters or headings?
3. How do the occasional photographs and maps enhance your reading experience?
4. “Snowflakes pirouette gracefully onto the bellies and sightless eyes of the dead” (61). What do Dalia’s detailed descriptions tell you about life in the Gulag?
5. What role does Krikštanis play in the story?
6. What does Dalia’s behavior at her trial tell you about her character?
7. “Then comes the hill: this is Golgotha, our Calvary. The tall, steep, crumbling riverbank. We stumble, we slip and slide, we dangle from our traces; the rope presses against our chests” (86). What is the importance of this hill, and why does Dalia describe it so often?
8. What is your impression of the book’s ending?
9. How has reading this book changed your understanding of the historical period in which it was written?
10. What can a modern-day audience learn from Dalia’s story?
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