Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Jews under Soviet occupation

I know that many Holocaust educators are leery of using historical fiction in their curriculums.  However, as a library media specialist and historian, I know that fiction often leads students to search for additional information in non-fiction sources.  Such is the case with Ruta Sepetys’ book Between Shades of Gray.  Not the Shades of Gray you were automatically thinking about, rather, a story set in Lithuania in the early 1940s!  Lithuanian intellectuals, artists, even librarians were sent to Siberia for the crime of being Lithuanian and not communist.  Their journey reads like the Holocaust.  Stalin versus Hitler.  After reading the book, I wanted to know more.  My knowledge of Stalin was limited, but I knew some 20 million or more died under his reign of terror.  But I was unaware that even when people were released from the gulags years later they returned to homes, possessions, and even names stolen by the Soviets.  They were forbidden to speak of their experiences on penalty of a return trip to Siberia or worse.  Many died still holding their secrets even after the Wall came down. 
It just so happens that I chose to read this book while on vacation in the Baltic States this summer.  In Latvia, we visited the Salaspils Concentration Camps or Kurtenhof if you’re German.  This was no simple trip either.  We walked close to five miles through thick forests and strawberry-picking Latvians, before we found the camp.  No signs, no guides, and no help from the locals until we were almost on top of it.  Right in the middle of the forest, it sat in the quiet, with singing birds and a metronome beating out a constant heartbeat for all eternity.  The huge concrete slab at the entrance read simply “Behind this gate the earth groans.”  The guide book said 100,000 Jews died here, in addition to the 4,000 to 5,000 POWS at an adjacent camp.  And these figures don’t include the 28,000 Rigan Jews that died close by in the Rumbala Forest.  There was no guide or pamphlet at the camp.  When I checked the Internet, on our return, there was very little information or resources.  What I did find is that the numbers of dead at Salaspils are still much debated.  The Soviets say 100,000, but can’t be trusted, and several sources put the number at 3,000.  This is a huge discrepancy and no one seems to know for sure.  It is clear that almost all of the Jews in Riga, then known as Reval, were murdered.  Less than 200 survived, and these people hid until the Soviet Liberation in 1945.  They came out glad to be alive and looking for freedom, but found the Soviets wondering how they had survived and assuming they’d collaborated with the Nazis.  So, all were sent to gulags in Siberia. 
I still want to learn and know more about the victims of Hitler and Stalin and this search for information all started with an historical fiction book called Between Shades of Gray. 

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