Parallels of the Past

Author’s family story of fleeing Soviet attack similar to current Russian and Ukrainian conflict

“You’ve got ten minutes. They’re going to kill you, your wife, and your son in the woods”

“Wait, when are we coming back?” the little boy asked. 

“Soon! Soon! Run! Run!” his parents shouted. 

But little did the boy know, they were never coming back. 

This was the story of author Ruta Sepetys’ family history. Or to say the least, this was the only part of the story she knew.

Sepetys shared this story during a panel discussion at LibraryPalooza on Feb. 25 at Brandeis High School. 

In the past few months, the Russian invasion in Ukraine has caused many Ukrainians to flee in search of safety elsewhere, leaving behind their families, career, and the place that once held all their memories. They leave with the sound of bombs still ringing in their ears and the fear that their story will never be heard or told. 

For the author of various books, such as “Between Shades of Gray” and her most recent, “I Must Betray You,” the bombs hit a little too close to home as her grandparents and father fled from Lithuania and started a new life in the United States to avoid attacks from the Soviet Union when her father was young. However, when Sepetys was young, some of the worse details of the story were left out. 

“What I didn’t know is that in addition to an American dream, there was a nightmare that our family never told us,” Sepetys said. 

When the Soviet secret police came looking for her grandparents and father and could not find them, they arrested and deported 12 of her extended family members. Of the 12, only one survived the labor camps, death camps, and gulags of Siberia. 

With a simple family dinner revealing a whole unread chapter in her family history, Sepetys had millions of thoughts. 

“My freedom came at the expense of my relatives in Siberia. I want to write a book,” Sepetys said. 

Knowing that many other families have untold experiences like this, she wanted to make sure that more people got to share what had happened to them as her family hadn’t gotten the chance to. “One girl, her dream of freedom,” Sepetys said, “and a voice to speak for millions of victims of communism who never got to tell their story.” 

 Looking for the stories fit for her book, Sepetys met Irina Valaityte-Spakavskiene. This woman was the true inspiration for her main character. 

While Valaityte- Spakavskiene was open to having her experience inspire the book, she openly expressed her doubts that it would be a story that publishers would want to hear as she hasn’t seen these experiences commonly shared. 

“She (Valaityte- Spakavskiene) said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the story is good or not. You have to accept there are some stories that just slip through the cracks of history… You need to accept that the world has forgotten us,’” Sepetys said. 

While the idea of that being true broke her heart, Sepetys continued on. She wrote and wrote and revised a total of 17 times and soon her story was ready to be published. 

Except…..no publishing company wanted it. 

“The biggest publisher in the United States said, ‘This is really interesting, but if this happened, why hasn’t someone else written about it?’” 

With this disappointment, the voice of Valaityte- Spakavskiene was echoing in her ear. Thankfully, after eight months, a small publishing company decided to give it a chance. Now, the book “Between Shades of Gray” is published in 60 countries and 47 languages. 

“If we don’t know someone’s story we are losing the opportunity for deeper understanding,” Sepetys said. “We don’t understand what we see on the TV. Why is it so important that one country is invading another or that one country is trying to defend themselves?” 

When she asked these people, “these victims of communism, of fascism” how they survived. They told her that someone had helped them. 

“When people lose their ability to communicate, they find ways to speak even if their voices have been extinguished,” Sepetys said.