Julija Šukys (PhD, University of Toronto) is the author of three books, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė, and Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning). Šukys is an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.

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Julija Sukys review 02

Silence organized our family. There was always, for example, a great hush surrounding the years between 1941, the year Ona was deported to Siberia, and 1944, when her husband, Anthony, and their three children fled westward. –Julija Šukys, Siberian Exile

In Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), author Julija Šukys reads between the lines of historical and personal documents to tell the tale of grandparents separated by deportation during the middle of the last century. She often mentions the silence that fills the blanks of their chronologies: the silence her grandmother Ona exhibited in the face of pain or sorrow related to her deportation to Siberia, the silence of the memory of grandfather Anthony, who was tracked until his death by intelligence agents for his part in various nationalist organizations, but who, more strikingly, played a role in the Holocaust. This period of history is shrouded in silence for many families and indeed, in some respects, for a nation that has yet to fully come to terms with the past.

And because silence fills the plot holes in family stories and swallows wide swathes of history, stories such as Siberian Exile become all that more important. Šukys is on a mission: she wants the tale of her grandparents to be placed into the context of events that many Western readers may not be aware of while also providing enough information that the reader has something to hold onto as they navigate unfamiliar waters.

Šukys does so first through orienting her grandfather within the context of the German occupation of Lithuania. The horrors of the Holocaust have been broadcast well in various forms, fiction and nonfiction; we cannot help but remember because the voices of survivors and their descendants, researchers, activists, and writers continue to speak—and we would do well to heed them. Šukys includes the story of her grandfather to add to these records, and she allows survivors of the mass murders from the town in which he was then working, and their descendants, to provide their side of the story. While the archival documents reveal accusations against Anthony of murder, Šukys is assured by one interviewee who knew him that her grandfather did not kill anyone. However, she struggles with guilt by association: Anthony was police chief in a small town that Šukys, for her Western readers’ sake, calls “Newtown” (Naumestis) when a group of Lithuanian Jews were killed in a forest by Lithuanian policemen, even if he was physically present for the massacre. When we dig into history’s murk, we are confronted with the complex question of whether perpetrator was also victim and vice versa, as we see in Anthony, who belonged to anti-Polish and anti-Semitic organizations and who was complicit in murder whether or not he pulled the trigger of any gun—and who also lost his wife to deportation and certainly would have faced the same, or worse, had he been present that fateful night Ona was taken. Šukys concludes that many men like her grandfather were only following orders, but that being a “part of a killing machine” remained a choice. For readers who want to add to their knowledge about WWII and the Holocaust, Anthony’s story offers a glimpse into how the “Holocaust by bullets” worked in small towns and shows how massacres and ghettoization were a part of a strategy of extinction even outside of metropolitan areas.

But the deportations to “special settlements” or the Gulag, comparatively speaking, are spoken about relatively more quietly in a public context and maybe not at all in a private one. The practice of deporting people to Siberia hardly appear in American schools’ general history curriculum, where lessons about the events of WWII take a decidedly Western focus, with American children learning about the Holocaust first through books such as The Dairy of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and then through textbooks and classroom discussion. Šukys herself discusses some of the ways that finding information about deportations has been made difficult and how, even on the soil they occurred, they “remained a Soviet State secret until the 1990s”—and then archives were only open for a brief while to Western historians. We must consider the often-arduous trek to reach the areas of the former Siberian special settlements that even today require a logistical feat to reach—if there is any evidence left there to find at all.

So, we must rely on what little information was made available by deportees who were willing to talk about their experiences, and as we can see, some were either afraid to talk about their experiences, used silence as a way to deal with their trauma, or found little reason to revisit a painful past. An interview with Ona, which turned up unexpectedly and serendipitously at a library, helps Šukys to round out her grandmother’s journey to the Tomsk Region, where Ona was sent after being caught alone by soldiers in her home the night of her deportation, shipped thousands of miles away from both husband and children. Letters, interviews, and photographs supplement Ona’s story, but Šukys must again wonder what was not said. Ona does not talk about fear for herself, worry for her children, or frustration that she will never be released from her sentence of labor. She frames her deportation as “farm work” rather than an injustice, something to simply be adapted to rather than challenged. And when she is reunited with her family, Ona only hints at her alienation from them and the difficulty she has in adapting to circumstances, geography, and culture so far removed from the hardships of her exile.

While she fills in the stories of these two people, Šukys is also careful to fill in the blanks for the reader less familiar with the time period, inserting statistics and information to create the necessary backdrop for understanding how and why such fate befell her grandparents and so many others of their generation. So, while she’s done the hard work of making a coherent whole out of the pieces she discovered about two individual people, she also offers readers an accessible entry into the wider scope of events. The book is biography, history, and personal search for meaning rolled into one readable work of research and reflection.

For English-speaking readers, books like Siberian Exile are invaluable. They cover a topic that is often overlooked or neglected, partly due to the echoing silence about the era, and partly due to other issues: translations may be difficult to parse, the intended audience may be domestic rather than international, the author’s approach may be artistic rather than educational. Such books also nudge the reader to find out more information on their own, to seek out similar books or to look up dates, people, and places. It’s through such efforts that the silence about this history can be broken, its events spoken about, discussed, and given proper consideration. Šukys admits that the book is, in part, her reckoning with a past that shocked and horrified her, but she is also asking the reader to make their own type of reckoning: to ask questions (perhaps of an elderly relative or their offspring), examine history from different angles, and learn a little about themselves in the process. She asks herself what she would have done in either her grandmother’s or grandfather’s position, but this is a question we should all ask ourselves, particularly in our current political climate, where people unite under the banner of “us vs. them” or through shared hatred of a group, culture, or religion.

Deportation stories—or the stories of those who were not deported—may share some similarities. For example, Barbara Armonas’s 1961 memoir Leave Your Tears in Moscow is reminiscent of Ona’s story. She withstands decades of separation from husband and child, employs hard work and ingenuity for the sake of survival, and gains comfort in finding loved ones or acquaintances and sharing the trials of exile with them. With enough such information to draw on, particularly individual stories, we can gain greater awareness of how the events of WWII and beyond and the actions of the Soviet Union affected a generation and their progeny, what it means for the region today, and what may be present under the surface of collective memory.
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