Who was the greater monster: Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin? This website says that Hitler was responsible for the death of about 12 million civilians while Stalin killed more than 20 million with his purges, executions, and repressive and ruinous policies. Who knows exactly? But one of the worst places to be would be caught between the two men and their armies and their insane, competitive desire for power. Lithuania in 1941, the setting for this novel, was in exactly that place: caught between the Nazis and the Stalinist Russians and crushed, co-opted, and destroyed by first one evil regime and then the other.
Fifteen year old Lina is preparing to go to art school when the NKVD comes to arrest her, her younger brother, Jonas, and her mother. Lina’s father has already disappeared, assumed to be arrested, and sent to some unknown prison. Or perhaps he’s dead, executed for the same unknown “crime” that causes the deportation of the rest of the family. What follows this beginning is a story as harrowing and cruel as any Jewish Holocaust story that you’ve read. Lina and her family starve, freeze, suffer, are mistreated, experience callous injustice, and barely survive their experience.
Author Ruta Sepetys is the American born daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She wrote this story to “give a voice to the hundred of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.” Of course, this story, even though it is written to be representative of what happened to many Lithuanians during World War II, doesn’t tell the whole story. Some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis in opposition to the Russians. Some fought against the Soviet occupation. Some Lithuanians with ties to Germany fled to Germany during the first or second Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Some Lithuanians betrayed their neighbors to the NKVD or to the Nazis. Some Lithuanians saved their Jewish neighbors form the Nazis. It was a complicated and horrific time, and the book Between Shades of Gray reflects those complications. It is an excellent look into one family’s experience. Lina’s journey is based on interviews that Ms. Sepetys had with many Lithuanian survivors and their families.
Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990.