The latest novel by celebrated Lithuanian writer, Saulius Šaltenis, dealing with Soviet and Nazi oppression of Lithuania has been published in English translation by the UK based publishing house Noir Press.
Šaltenis is one of Lithuania’s most prominent writers. Famed during the Soviet period for his novels and screenplays, particularly his novella Nutbread which was turned into an iconic film, Šaltenis became a key figure in Lithuania’s independence movement.
‘I plunged head first into the Sajudis movement,’ Šaltenis commented in a recent interview, ‘but I don’t call that politics; the ‘Baltic Chain’ consistedof tens of thousands of awakened, proud citizens - they were not politicians.’
His novel, Diary of a Jewish Girl is set in the dark period of war-time Lithuania, when the country was occupied in turns by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
The central character is a young Jewish girl, Esther Levinson, who emerges naked and bloody, having dug herself from a mass grave. She drags herself to the house of a Lithuanian couple on their wedding night; the two teachers take the girl in, sheltering her through the war.
Speaking of the pained subject of the annihilation of Lithuania’s Jewish community during the Second World War, Šaltenis noted ‘There is a huge pain – it aches like an arm amputated a long time ago. The Jews were citizens of Lithuania, they are its historic past.’
Šaltenis was born in 1945, just after the war had ended, but his early, post-war memories haunted him, inspiring the novel he wrote in his seventies.
‘When I was a child I used to see a Jewish woman sitting on a step on Kaunas Street in Utena,’ Šaltenis explained. ‘She was blind, bony and as dried up as death itself. She had miraculously survived the war. I imagined how she had crawled blindly out of the pit and walked to safety through the woods.’
Noir Press specialises in publishing fiction from Lithuania and in 2020 its English translation of the Grigory Kanovich novel Devilspel won the prestigious €20,000 European Bank of Regional Development Literature Award.