Award-winning Lithuanian-American author explores “hidden history” in new novel

Rūta Šepetys

While not as focused on Lithuanian history as Between Shades of Gray, which chronicles the lives of Lithuanian youth exiled to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Salt to the Sea still remains closely tied to Lithuanian and regional history during WWII. Šepetys’ young-adult book focuses on the lives of three teens of different nationalities whose lives would be forever changed by those fateful events.

In an interview with the Lithuania Tribune, Šepetys spoke about the maritime disaster that inspired her work of historical fiction, about her focus on dark but important periods of Lithuanian history, and on how researching and writing historical fiction has shaped her understanding of her own Lithuanian identity.

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German cruise ship-turned-military transport that participated in the German Operation Hannibal, an effort to evacuate East Prussia and Courland before the approach of the Soviet Red Army (East Prussia and Courland are regions along the Baltic coast that are now parts of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad). When it was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet Submarine, it was carrying more than 9,000 people, the majority of which were civilians – including about 5,000 children. Only approximately 1,230 were rescued, making this the greatest maritime disaster in history.

Unfortunately, the ship’s fate is not very well known, and even Šepetys, with some experience as a historical researcher, only happened upon it by chance. After writing Between Shades of Grey, she was approached by her father’s cousin and told about the story. She should have been a passenger on the doomed ship but, as Šepetys put it, “fate intervened” and her father’s cousin remained on shore. “She stood in port as the ship was sailing away. She was certain at that point that her life was over,” the author told the Lithuania Tribune.

How does such a significant disaster remain a relatively unknown secret compared to the sinking of the Titanic, in which up to about 1,600 might have lost their lives? “At the time of the ship’s sinking, the Germans tried to conceal the story. They didn’t want people to know, first of all, that there as such a large loss of life,“ explained Šepetys. “Shortly after, the Soviet submarine commander, Marinesko, he was dishonourably discharged and sent to Siberia for a short time himself. So the Soviets weren’t talking about it, the Germans weren’t talking about it.”

Wars, death, and tragedies like the sinking of the Gustloff or the Siberian deportations written about in Between Shades of Gray are difficult for anyone to cope with and digest, let alone the young adults that her books are intended for. However, Šepetys told the Lithuania Tribune that she thought her readers were ready to approach the subject matter; “I believe that young readers are deep thinkers and deep feelers, and that books that young people when they are, lets say, 14, they have an opportunity to make a profound impression. Books we read when we were that age, they stay with us. I want these pieces of hidden history to be appreciated by that audience. Young people have such a strong sense of justice, and I want them to carry, in this case, the history of Lithuania with them. To be able to look at a map and know exactly where Lithuania is.”

It is the emotional power of these stories, in fact, that Šepetys says makes them so suitable for her work; “When we hear these stories, we put ourselves in that position, and think, ‘who survives this, what does it take to survive.’ I think it truly takes a tremendous, not only human being but human spirit, to survive these kinds of things,” she told the Lithuania Tribune. “Though history can be a bit sterile, through stories and characters we can put a face on the forgotten, and I want to do that with young people.” Many young people read her books at school, and their accessibility serves as a door into real human history. Šepetys said that the students “inevitably […] want the real story. That’s what’s most important to them.”

It’s hard to say who has learned more from her books – her readers or Šepetys herself. “As an author, when I do research, there’s something incredible that happens. I go searching for stories and somehow, the universe responds and stories come searching for me.” Those correspondences lead Šepetys to letters of survivors, photos of the ship, and even alleged artifacts taken from the ship’s wreckage by divers.

However, the research process – for both Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray – also gave Šepetys a better understanding of her own Lithuanian roots. Šepetys, who is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and an American, said, “growing up in the United States with this name, ‘Rūta Šepetys,’ it was always raising questions. People would say, ‘What are you,’ like I was from a different planet or something.”

“It was only in my adult life that I really started to search out what that meant,” the author told the Lithuania Tribune. “What I found and what inspired me to then write about these dark periods in history is that Lithuania is incredibly strong and courageous. This is a country that obviously, as you know, lost their flag and lost their freedom but didn’t lose their spirit […] Researching about these Lithuanians has made clear to me how strong they were and how fragile I am. Not many Americans have recent or direct experience with war or displacement or occupation.”

“That Lithuanian story of strength through struggle and finding wisdom in the wreckage, I just think that’s such a beautiful example, that Lithuania is such a small country that can teach the world large lessons,” she said.

It would seem that many around the world agree with her conclusions. Her work has been translated into 33 languages across 45 countries, and she has received numerous national US and Lithuanian awards and international awards. According to her, Between Shades of Gray is required reading in more than 20 US states. With the help of Lithuanian director Marius Markevičius, Between Shades of Gray is being adapted as a film.

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