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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

20 August 2017
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Rūta Šepetys and Ellen Cassedy
Probably our relatives brushed shoulders in the marketplace

Rūta Šepetys and Ellen Cassedy interviewed by Jennifer Virškus

Two new books making a splash in the literary world—Between Shades of Grey by Rūta Šepetys and We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy—take place in WWII Lithuania. Though the two women's stories begin in much the same place—Sepetys's grandfather is from a village near Biržai, while Cassedy's great-grandfather hails from Rokiškis only 60km away—the books, and their stories, couldn't be more different. We Are Here is a first person memoir about Cassedy's journey to discover her Litvak heritage while studying Yiddish at Vilnius University. Between Shades of Grey is a young adult fiction novel about a 15-year-old girl who is deported to Siberia along with her mother and younger brother.

Individually, the books have met with incredible success. Between Shades of Grey, which came out in paperback this month in the US, has been translated into twenty-five languages and sold in thirty countries. Only in bookstores for a little over a month, We Are Here is racking up rave reviews at home and abroad. When speaking of the book, which will be released in Lithuania in May, former president Valdas Adamkus said, “This eloquent book can help us to reach out, open our hearts, and rediscover one another in a spirit of mutual understanding.”

Indeed, the need for understanding is a theme in both books, and together, they provide a more complete portrait of a time in history when Lithuania's identity was at its most complex—not only for their readers, but for the authors, too. “I went to Lithuania, hoping to decide who was right and who was wrong; to put people in a column, who was a victim, who was a killer. And then those lines began to blur,” says Cassedy.

Šepetys went one step further, “The intersection that I've experienced [between the ethnic Lithuanian fear of the Soviets and the Litvak fear of the Nazis] is one of regret … People that I've spoken to say that some of their greatest regrets weren't the things that they forgot to pack with them; they were human interactions with people. Something that was said or done, a suspicion or paranoia; but they also explained that those are the casualties of war.”

“I went to Lithuania, hoping to decide who was right and who was wrong; to put people in columns…. And then those lines began to blur.”
- Ellen Cassedy


“The intersection that I've experienced [between the ethnic Lithuanian fear of the Soviets and the Litvak fear of the Nazis] is one of regret … People that I've spoken to say that some of their greatest regrets weren't the things that they forgot to pack with them; they were human interactions with people. Something that was said or done, a suspicion or paranoia; but they also explained that those are the casualties of war.”

- Rūta Šepetys

Neither of the women's upbringing had been particularly “Lithuanian”—or, in Cassedy's case, particularly Jewish. They were raised in mixed-heritage American homes, sprinkled with ethnic flavor. Cassedy's mother used Yiddish words in her daily speech, “We'd be in the kitchen and she would say, 'Hand me that shissel,' meaning that bowl;” but her name comes from her Irish-protestant father. Šepetys spent her childhood explaining her name to the people around her, “Everyone sees Rūta Šepetys and they're asking, and I'm constantly responding, I'm Lithuanian.” But while her grandfather was very connected to the Lithuanian community and they had all the traditional foods and holidays, she herself had no exposure to it outside her home.

Though they did not know each other, both women took their first trip to Lithuania around the same time—in the early 2000's. Šepetys was on a trip with her brother to find out more about her father's youth, “I was meeting cousins … [My father] was in a DP camp for 9 years, so there are no photographs. I asked if they had any photos … and they told me that they had burned them all because they couldn't let anyone know that they were related.” Her grandfather was an officer in the Lithuanian army; when he fled, the rest of his family was put on the Soviet deportation list, just by association. “[My cousins] told me that some of my grandfather's extended family had been deported—I had no idea that the deportations had affected our family. And then to find out that … the freedom that I have as an American perhaps came at the expense of someone else.” She says that the character of Joana in her book represents her father's journey of fleeing Lithuania, going into the DP camp. “I think how much I take for granted on a daily basis, and when I learned that, I thought, 'Oh my gosh!' I was so ignorant. I was almost ashamed that I had no idea that this part of history had affected my family.” That was when she decided she had to tell the story.

A loyalty to Lithuania itself wasn't a part of Cassedy's upbringing. “Where exactly is Lithuania? That wasn't really how I thought about it. I thought of Eastern Europe as a whole, and where was the exact spot, I didn't know.” Her mother had passed away, and she had begun to feel she had lost contact with that part of her heritage. She wanted to study Yiddish in the region where her grandfather was from and decided to enroll at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute—though she did not have the overwhelming support of her peers. “People would say to me, 'There's no point going there, there's nothing there.' That's a very common attitude for Jews in my generation to say.” But she didn't believe that.

“I began this journey in a rather one-dimensional way. I wanted to go to Lithuania and connect to my past, only my past, I wasn't seeing outside of the Jewish past. And then I got knocked over by these two surprises.” Just before Cassedy left for Lithuania the first time, her uncle revealed a secret to her about his activities during the Holocaust while living in the ghetto in Šiauliai. When she got to Rokiškis, she was told that there was an elderly man who wanted to speak to her about the things he had witnessed during the war. “Those two things really threw everything up in the air for me and launched me on this really life-changing journey, that really changed how I thought about Lithuania, how I thought about my family, thought about all people; so it really pushed me into a very different place.”

For both women, the experience of writing their books connected them to Lithuania in a way they had not imagined before. “As I started writing this book and getting involved in this project of looking at how Lithuania has been engaging with its 20th century past and with the Holocaust … I went there and started meeting people … and that has made me feel more connected and made me feel like, 'Well yes, I am Lithuanian,'” explained Cassedy.

“My family history—definitely surprising—was that my father was not familiar with what had happened to his family until 1991 when he went back.” She says even then they didn't share the full details with him; their freedom was still fragile. “You didn't talk about what happened in Siberia.”

Both Cassedy and Šepetys express a desire to start a conversation about the events of WWII. “I think that what Ellen is doing is so important, because it's a wound, a wound on Lithuania. And it will continue to bleed until we can clot it somehow,” says Šepetys. “We're third parties, Ellen and I. We didn't loose family members (Editors note: Ellen actually did.), and I understand there's a lot of deep-seeded anger and resentment, but I hope that we can create a dialogue.” Though, she stresses that the crimes of Stalin and Hitler cannot be lumped together.

What became clear to Cassedy was a sense of competing martyrdom; every group wanted to be able to say, No WE suffered the most. “It's not about who suffered the most; everybody needs to be heard.” She believes that we have to remember the past, but to listen and acknowledge each other in order to make a common cause. “We can't just sit in our corners and hate each other generation after generation.”

“Jewish and ethnic Lithuanian cultures lived side by side for many years and absorbed something from each other,” says Cassedy. “What I would like to see is a proud Lithuania, but one that is open to a multiculturalism.” Šepetys echoes that sentiment, “Lithuania is a small country, but it can teach the world large lessons of peaceful endurance, and the miraculous nature of the human spirit.” She says that even though Lithuania is defined by its past, it must look toward the future.

Šepetys studied at Hillsdale college with Dr. Aleksandras Štromas, a prominent Jewish-Lithuanian political scientist and dissident. “He said it's hard to dissect the situation because there is so much overlapping, it's not clear-cut. You can't just point a finger.” Her goal in writing her book was to give people the opportunity to learn about something they might not otherwise learn about. Recently, she was in a school to give a talk and a student said to her, “I knew you were coming, and I looked up Lithuania last night, and you have some really great basketball players!” Šepetys adds, “I'm so happy that people look it up, and know where it is on a map.”

“I do feel a real connection to the people who are going to shape the future of Lithuania, and I feel myself to be one of those people, in a way that I didn't,” explains Cassedy. “It's not my country really. But I'm a sympathetic and interested observer.”

Šepetys says she has a sense of gratitude and patriotism to Lithuania. “I feel so proud to be Lithuanian, I have so much respect for [them], as I've said these people are so patriotic, selfless, generous, courageous, and I aspire—they're like superheroes to me. I'm so proud to be able to carry a Lithuanian name.” About her role as a Lithuanian-American author she says, “I would really hope that Lithuanian-Americans first and foremost help with a very simple thing, which is an awareness of Lithuania.”

Cassedy is hopeful that Lithuania is opening up to a part of its history, which is not only the friction of different peoples living there, but also the possibility that they can enjoy their differences and appreciate each other. I asked her if she knew that her great-grandfather and Šepetys's grandfather hailed from the same region, “I didn't know that!” She laughs, “You know, it's probably like, our relatives brushed shoulders in the marketplace.”


We Are Here is a first person memoir about Cassedy's journey to discover her Litvak heritage while studying Yiddish at Vilnius University.

Between Shades of Grey is a young adult fiction novel about a 15-year-old girl who is deported to Siberia along with her mother and younger brother.
Category : Featured black / Lithuania in the world
  • Rimantas Aukstuolis

    “Brushed shoulders in the marketplace”. I find that statement personally haunting. Anybody out there, particularly Jewish, have any connection to Kailis, a sewing factory in Vilnius specializing in fur and leather, commandeered by the Germans during the war and employing mostly Jews, skilled in working fur and leather? I’d like to communicate with you. Aciu.

    May 03 2012
    CommentsLike

    • […] Read more… Category : Featured black / Front page […]

      April 29 2012
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