You don’t get to choose the stories you tell. They choose you. They are there, in plain sight. Like Poe’s Purloined Letter, you don’t see them. Then, little by little, as an imperceptible destiny, your eyes meet them more and more frequently. You think this happens by chance. But the memory of the places you have seen and the books you have read becomes less fortuitous. Finally you realize that those places, those pages actually chose you. As a sailor in uncharted seas, you trust the current to guide you. And you begin to tell of the landings, the storms, of the hopeful and hopeless sunrises it takes you through.
Lithuania became part of the European Union in 2004. Its name brought me back to distant, foggy memories from school: Eastern Prussia, Baltic barons, Thomas Mann. But it also reminded me of hopes and tragedies that were quite near: the student Romas Kalanta, who set himself on fire and died in front of the Kaunas Theatre on May 14th 1972; the Baltic Way, a human chain 16 kilometres long which connected the three Baltic capitals asking for freedom; Vilnius’ “bloody Sunday”, January 13th 1991 and the fourteen Lithuanians who died while defending the radio tower and the Parliament.
Eager to peek inside this black hole of history produced by the Soviet occupation, we left for Vilnius in 2005. There were no direct flights from Milan back then. We had to do a triangulation and sleep on the hard benches of the airport in Copenhagen. The next morning we arrived at a tiny airport which resembled one of our train stations from the Thirties: Vilnius.
It was a trip without any set destinations. Inevitably, we wanted to see the famous tourist sights. The magnificent baroque churches, often still in need of restoration; the Hill of the Crosses close to Šiauliai, where religious and secular faiths become one. And the Rumšiškės theme park, near Kaunas. A condensed version of ancient Lithuania, kept as it would have been years ago. Here, tucked away in a small clearing among the birches, we saw a strange sight: a Siberian yurt together with a train car on a few metres of rail. A stock car.
For us Southern Europeans, that kind of car reminds us of only one destination: Auschwitz. At a closer inspection, we couldn’t see any German writing on its walls. What we could see instead were cyrillic letters and an unmistakable Sickle and Hammer symbol. We didn’t know it yet, but that train car was our Purloined Letter.
In the following years we made regular trips to Lithuania. Then the direct flights arrived, and the airport became bigger and better; each time we found a new church or a new restored palace. We saw that train car other times. Then, a forgotten Italian edition of a journal fell in our laps, as they say. It was a journal kept by a girl named Dalia Grinkevičiūtė. She was deported by the Soviet regime on June 14th 1941 together with her family. She was taken to Siberia, to those lands beyond the Polar Arctic Circle, where the river Lena meets the Laptev Sea, in a deserted and uncertain labyrinth of islands. We had found our Purloined Letter and we are here to tell its story.