Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter's Reckoning

Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter's Reckoning

Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter's Reckoning

Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter's Reckoning

Synopsis

When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.

Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.

In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.

Excerpt

Saint Catharines, Canada, 1979.

Anthony is tall, broad, with large feet. He has huge hairy hands and shaves his head bald with an ivory-handled straight razor. On Sundays he and his wife pile into the backseat of their daughter’s family car. the two aging bodies rise gently over bumps in the road and then slump to one side in unison when the sedan turns a corner.

Though he shuffles from Parkinson’s disease when he walks and his hands tremble, Anthony’s mind is sharp. It will never betray him. His wife’s is another story. After his death six years from now, Ona will leave Saint Catharines and spend her final days in a nursing home more than a hundred kilometers away, close to her elder daughter. There, she will walk the halls, gesture to nurses and other residents, and say, “Tell them I was in Siberia.”

Whenever my brother and I come to visit, Anthony teases us. He tells old-fashioned jokes we don’t understand.

“How do you recognize a Russian spy?” opens one of his favorites.

“He speaks Russian?” I try. I am seven.

“No, he drinks his tea like this!” Anthony takes a cup and closes his right eye as he sips. “You see? He’s removed the spoon, but he can’t break the habit of closing his eye to avoid its getting poked. That’s how you know he’s Russian. Russians never take the spoon out.”

Bewildered, I force a laugh. Truth be told, I am afraid of my grandfather. Anthony retains a hardness that served him well as a . . .

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