My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II. Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.
I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend. I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions. Sure, understanding the words is a plus. But it’s often not needed.
I recently heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away. Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman. But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania. She, too, is the daughter of immigrants. She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war. And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.
After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it. It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania. But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.
Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.