This powerful collection compiles the memoirs of Lithuanian children deported to Siberia.
I begin with a brief excerpt from one of the stories. Igarka is a saw milling and timber export town, situated on the Yenisei River in Siberia, 160km north of the Arctic Circle. In 1948, only 19 years after Igarka was established, Nijole Ambrazaityte was exiled with her grandparents and her aunt from their Lithuanian home. On arrival in the new town (really little more than an untidy collection of houses and barracks), everyone was required to work.
In Nijole’s own words:
“As soon as I reached my tenth birthday, I had to report to the labour exchange… I gave (a supervisor) a note that said I was twelve years old, for that was the minimum working age… Tomorrow I would be called to work at 6:00 am by the mill’s siren.
“Our brigade followed a leader to rows of wood piles… which seemed to merge with the clouds. (The leader) pointing to the roof and to me (indicated that) I would have to get to the top of the very highest stack, lift boards from its roof and throw them down to other members of our brigade… I stood there figuring how I could reach the roof, for I had no rope or ladder… My hands and feet suddenly transformed into a centipede… and (I) finally found myself on the roof. Great. The fortress surrendered to me.”
Thus did a ten-year-old become part of a poorly kept, poorly paid workforce in the Arctic wilds of Russia. The work she did was exposed, the boards wet and icy. After three hours, she sat down long enough to eat two slices of bread joined by a fatty paste of doubtful origin, allowing it “…to melt in my mouth. I savoured it like a delicious pastry”.
Every story is different, coming as it does from the experiences of the individual who wrote it, and yet there are similarities in many of them. Every story is a tale of privation and yet told with rarely a complaint.
We learn of journeys, icy cold, in railway carriages with barred windows, a hole crudely cut in the floor for use as a toilet; kilometre after kilometre cooped up in carts drawn slowly by old horses and, sometimes, having to alight and trudge through the snow because the horse was unable to bear the human load; earthen floored houses (zemlyankas) six metres by three and up to two metres high built of turf, with pole-supported roof of branches, dung and clay; creating fire bricks from saved dung and straw, kneaded by their bare feet and then moulded into rectangles, “… it burnt hot and long.” ; two little boys lost eight days in a blizzard while out in the forest collecting nuts, one freezing to death and the other requiring bilateral amputation due to frost bite.
Sixteen individual stories make up Children Of Siberia, all written by people who were exiled as children but who survived the dreadful privations thrust on them by a merciless state. We who live in an antipodean world, we who, since white settlement, have been neither invaded nor overrun by a totalitarian society placing its ‘protective’ umbrella over us, can have no true understanding of tyranny. That these people do, from direct experience, that they survived and are able to tell their tales from that terrible time with surprisingly little rancour, is a tribute to their moral strength.
There is probably a limited appeal in a book such as this, which is a pity. It behoves us to read and to understand the background of those less fortunate – by dint of geographical accident – than us, especially when many of their countrymen are resident here, our friends, our neighbours, our workmates. I recommend it to anyone with a conscience. It is well written and, like another book recently reviewed, sensitively translated.
My copy of Children Of Siberia came from the Co-op Bookshop at the University of Tasmania. UTAS has a Lithuanian Studies Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness of Lithuania and its heritage.
Children of Siberia, translated by Zivile Gimbutas, is published by Naujasis Lankas, Kaunas, Lithuania (2013)
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