Williamson County Public Library Blog

Forgotten History: The WWII Novels of Ruta Sepetys

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By Howard Shirley. Teen Department

The Battle of Britain. Pearl Harbor. Stalingrad. The Holocaust. Seventy years later, the events and places of the Second World War echo in our minds, in stories we’ve told over and over, in novels, memoirs, television and film. One might think there is nothing new to discover, no secrets left unexamined. But the truth is that much of that history still remains hidden and forgotten, not because of conspiracy or government secrets, but merely because few have bothered to look— except for novelist Ruta Sepetys.

The daughter of a war refugee from Lithuania, young Ruta grew up hearing stories of her family’s escape from war-torn Europe. A Lithuanian military officer, Ruta’s grandfather found himself in the crosshairs of Stalin’s secret police, when the Soviet Union overran Lithuania and her sister Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, in the opening months of World War II. Knowing without any doubt what he and his family’s fate would be, the officer fled into Germany with his family, including Ruta’s father, a young boy. They lived out the war in a refugee camp, little more wanted by the German government than the Soviets. Eventually, the family immigrated to America; the boy grew up, married, and Ruta was born.

But as Ruta herself says, that was only ever half of the story. Because though the war had ended, Lithuania would remain in the Soviet grip for fifty years. And among those in that grip, were the other half of the Sepetys family—the aunts, uncles and cousins she never knew, who had not slipped from Stalin’s noose.

And a noose it was. From 1941 through 1944, Stalin arrested, tortured, deported and murdered Lithuania’s political and intellectual classes en masse, in a ruthless effort to crush the Lithuanian nation and erase its culture from Europe, replaced by the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Communist Party.

Ruta’s family was part of that purge. Herded into crude train cars built for cattle, with the outside labelled “Thieves and Prostitutes,” Lithuanian doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, and their families, including the elderly, children and even infants, were shipped across the breadth of Russia to Siberia, some even forced to settle in the tundra above the Arctic Circle. Denied food, medicine, winter clothing and even the most rudimentary shelter, countless numbers died from neglect and exposure. Others were killed outright by the brutal NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB of the Cold War era. And, of course, any of Lithuania’s political or military classes, not to mention college professors and journalists, were never sent to Siberia; they were carted into Soviet prisons on trumped up charges, tried, convicted and executed by Stalin for the Glory of Mother Russia.

Most in the West had no idea, or for that matter, even cared.

Until Ruta Sepetys asked what happened to her cousins.

In her curiosity, Sepetys found the forgotten story of her family and the Lithuanian people—a story she had never fully known. As she says, there was only one thing she knew to do: pick up a pen, and write.

And she did. She wrote her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, the tale of a girl very much like the Sepetys cousins, a teenager with dreams of being an artist, who is instead swept up into the nightmare of Stalin’s greed. Between Shades of Gray is her story, but it is also the story of the Lithuanian people—the forgotten history that to this day Russian strong men wish to keep hidden. It is a tale of survival, of fortitude, of hope, and of love. Now translated into over 30 languages and sold in 45 countries around the world, Between Shades of Gray has broken open the lock of history, and the story of Lithuania and her Baltic neighbors is now known around the world, and will never be forgotten.

But this blog is about novels, not just one book.

Because Ruta has found another forgotten piece of history to bring before the world. And it’s the answer to this question:

What is the greatest maritime disaster in history?

The sinking of the Titanic?

Not even close.

It is the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, a civilian liner acting as a refugee ship, and filled by Baltic and German civilians trying to escape the rape of eastern Europe by the Soviet Red Army. The Gustoff went down in the freezing Baltic Sea, in the winter of 1945, sunk not by an accidental encounter with an iceberg, but a torpedo strike from a Soviet submarine. On board were an estimated ten thousand people; almost all were civilian refugees. Barely a thousand survived.

Nine thousand souls lost. Nine thousand stories forgotten.

But not by Ruta.

With her latest novel, Salt to the Sea (February 2016) Ruta Sepetys once again takes a moment in history the world has overlooked, and restores it fresh before us. Four teens flee the Soviet onslaught, each with their secrets, their fears, and their dreams. Four stories converge on a German port, the Baltic Sea, and the Wilhelm Gustoff. Through the eyes of these teens, Sepetys explores questions of guilt, forgiveness and redemption, what is truly meant by bravery and cowardice, and what happens when the soul abandons compassion for self-deluding pride. Ruta’s writing is always captivating; the simplest sentence carries weight beyond its words. The smallest detail sparks a vivid image, sometimes stark, sometimes brilliant, but each time beautiful. With her words, Sepetys captures moments in time, like memories renewed to life. With this story, Sepetys explores the human heart. There is adventure, there is mystery, there is villainy, there is tragedy, and there is hope. In Salt to the Sea, the forgotten are forgotten no longer, and in Ruta’s pen, the sea gives up its dead.

You’ll have to wait until February to read Salt to the Sea, but Between Shades of Gray is available now on our Teen Room shelves. Pick it up, and transport yourself into a history you never knew, and a story you will never forget.

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