Daughter of a Lithuanian refugee revisits the past to shed light on the present

“To be forced to leave your family, country, home, and run for your life is a terrifying experience that many of us can’t imagine,” says Ruta Sepetys. Her writing seeks to remind Lithuanians of their past, and calls for compassion towards today’s refugees.

Ruta's father Jurgis Šepetys and his younger sister Ruta Biberach's camp in Germany. Photo from the Sepetys family album.

“When people find out that I’m the daughter of a refugee, they are often very surprised,” says novelist Ruta Sepetys. She believes that in today’s world, many people are unaware of the refugees – and the next generation – living next door.

“History is full of challenges, loss and pain, but it also reflects hope, courage and the miraculous nature of the human spirit. I hope that studying the past can bring awareness to the present,” she notes.

Ruta Sepetys is an award-winning New York Times best-selling author; her books have been published in over fifty countries and translated into thirty-six languages.

Her first historical fiction, inspired by the story of her family who fled Lithuania during WWII, put her on the map as an internationally acclaimed writer. She feels she has a mission: to give a voice to unheard stories, reconnect readers with history, and inspire a feeling of compassion for refugees today.

Ruta’s father, Jurgis Sepetys, was forced to flee Lithuania when he was just four years old; the Soviet Army had occupied the country, and it became too dangerous to stay. His family traveled through Poland and stayed in refugee camps in Austria and Germany. However, after nine years, Lithuania’s situation was still too dangerous to go back, so the family finally resettled in the United States in 1949.

Ruta’s father and his family went to America in 1949 on the ship General Muir. Photo from Sepetys family photo album.

 

They first set roots in Brooklyn, New York and later in Detroit, where they were warmly welcomed into the Lithuanian community. As they had limited knowledge and understanding of American culture and habits, connecting with other Lithuanian refugees was a comforting relief. Ruta’s grandfather, Jonas Sepetys, who was an engineer, was able to secure a job quickly, and Detroit soon started to feel like home.

Unpacking a traumatic past

During her childhood, Ruta had often heard about the difficult years her father and grandparents had spent in the camps, but while writing her novel ‘’Salt to the Sea”, she fused even stronger emotions this tumultuous past. During her 3-year research for the book, Sepetys travelled to six countries and interviewed refugees who had experienced the evacuations in 1945 and had very touching stories of their own.

“Many refugees explained that they’d been separated from their family and loved ones. Thousands of young, orphaned children drifted alone, simply following the steps of those in front of them,” the author recounts. She was surprised at how vivid their recollections were, even after so many years. Sepetys quotes one of the testimonies she heard during her research which particularly touched her: “When I close my eyes, I can still see the children who had been thrown overboard in life jackets, with their heads under the water, their little feet above the surface. I can still hear their mothers screaming.”

Spreading awareness and supporting integration today

Lithuania has been accepting refugees for the last 20 years, responding to the EU’s call for solidarity in refugee relocation and further developing their refugee integration support system for those trying to make a new life in Lithuania. UNHCR is also active in the country and works closely with authorities to improve refugee inclusion and empowerment. Still, many refugees leave Lithuania for various reasons, mostly due to limited integration opportunities.

Ruta Sepetys will be travelling to Lithuania in this October to attend the premiere of a film based on one of her best-selling novels. During her visit, she wants to speak with fellow Lithuanians about the suffering that many of their families experienced after the Second World War, but also—and perhaps most importantly—to remind them that there are still refugees today trying to cope with a new situation, themes that Sepetys tackles in her novels.

“People are still fleeing war and persecution around the world,” Ruta says “and even your next-door neighbor could be a refugee who needs a warm welcome to their new home.”

US novelist Ruta Sepetys with her father Jurgis Sepetys in the US, from the Sepetys family photo album.