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
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
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 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, 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 shouting 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!
We glance at each other before hurrying back to our wagons with lunch and newspapers.
There is joy on the trains from the three Baltic capitals. Can we be turning round? Going home? But why would we? The front is already behind us. We’re also anxious. What is happening in Lithuania? Is there much devastation? Have any relatives been killed during the bombing? Our journey goes on. And on and on. Day five, day ten. We don’t eat everything we have; we give some bread to the local children with their outstretched hands and ravenous eyes, pleading in Russian, ‘Khleba, tyotenki…’ – ‘Bread, aunties…’ It was a refrain we started to hear as soon as we crossed the border and left Lithuania.
The Urals. Greetings, Mother Asia… Tired, dirty, pale, we sleep on top of each other. We have only one question and are interested in only one topic of conversation: where are they taking us? We had thought the Urals, but we’ve already passed them. Andriukaitis, formerly a merchant, and a practical man, is drying his ration of bread and trying to convince the rest of us that we’ll be buying it from him soon. A salesman by nature, he plies his trade even here: buying, selling, swindling. ‘You’ll be living in mud huts and lynching each other,’ he says, as he chews, his mouth full. As if that possibility applied only to us and not to him too.
Every serving of millet porridge that we get, he’s the only one to eat it. He says, ‘So don’t eat it, see if I care. You’ll regret it soon enough.’ There are whole buckets of the stuff. We pour it down the hole onto the tracks. But the wheeler-dealer Andriukaitis had spoken the truth, for we often remembered that porridge, and not that long afterwards either.
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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