ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2009 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 55, No.3 - Fall 2009
Editor of this issue: Gražina Slavėnas.

Book Review

Powerful story about a camp for street children

Vanda Juknaitė. My Voice Betrays Me. Translated and edited by Laima Sruoginis. East European Monographs, Boulder, Colorado, 2007. Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York. Hardcover, 139 pages.

Reviewed by Romualdas Kriaučiūnas

As with all volumes in this series, the cover is uniformly navy blue without titles or graphics. In no way does it indicate the heartbreaking subject inside. This publisher is known for its monographs devoted exclusively to East European politics, history, economics, society, culture, and civilization by scholars from all parts of the world. What we get here, however, is a monograph with “trimmings,” which may or may not have added much to the subject.

Laima Sruoginis, as editor and translator of this publication, provides informative background for the main story in the Preface. This is followed by a Foreword by Vanda Juknaitė, the author, and finally an Interview with Juknaitė conducted by Sruoginis in 2004. From all this, the reader learns about Lithuania’s reestablishment of independence in 1990 and the harsh economic times that followed the retaliation from the Soviet Union and later from Russia. When the Soviet Union fell apart, its social infrastructure collapsed along with it: “The shock of change and its results could be compared to the post-war devastation Europe experienced after World WarII” (p. viii). It would take time to develop a new social infrastructure.

One of the major problems post-Soviet Lithuania faced was literally reprogramming its citizenry to live and function as members of a democracy rather than as subjects of a totalitarian state. Because it was against the law under the Soviet system to show personal initiative and to openly demonstrate self-awareness, during the post-Soviet decade of transition, in addition to the radical political and social changes that the citizenry had to adjust to, people had to do battle with themselves to overcome their own sense of learned helplessness and their inability to take the initiative, and had to learn how to take responsibility by their own choices” (p. viii).

The reader also learns the circumstances that led the author to her interest in and work with homeless street children. Part I (46 pages) is the main story titled My Voice Betrays Me, a Memoir. It is Sruoginis’s translation of Vanda Juknaitė’s book in Lithuanian (unnamed), describing a few years in the early nineties that Juknaitė spent working with homeless children from Vilnius.

Alarmed by the number of homeless children living in the Vilnius Railway Station, the parks, and the city dump, Vanda Juknaitė, then an associate professor of Lithuanian Literature at the Vilnius Pedagogical University, organized a group of volunteers into a new organization named Verus (Latin for Truth). In 1994, she started the summer camps for homeless children. Her project, also called Verus, was successful in helping to establish an orphanage that cared for the street children and provided them with schooling.

The reader gets to experience the sweat and tears of this monumental undertaking. The summer camps took place on the grounds of a parsonage in the countryside. There was no running water, no flush toilets. The children slept in a large tent. By an amazing coincidence, I realized that this place was at Inkūnai (called Inkūnija in the book), on the shores of the Šventoji River, not far from Anykščiai. Nearby, there was a country church that was built on property donated by my maternal grandmother. Any remaining doubts about the specific location evaporated when I ran across the name of Anelė Šukienė, who sold milk to the campers. Anelė is the widow of my late uncle Juozas Šukys, who had spent a number of years in Siberian exile, one of the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians that the Soviets deported to the labor camps.

Asked to look back and evaluate her work with the street children, the author responded:

In many ways we failed. We didn’t know what we were doing. We knew and they knew that we were not social workers; what we did for them, we did out of love. Genuine love. That was the difference between social workers and us. But times were so hard and it was difficult to work against the tide, to survive the attacks against us that came in the late ‘90s (p. xxv).

Juknaitė’s critical self-assessment of her efforts seems too harsh to this reader.

The attacks that Vanda Juknaitė referred to were from both the government and the mafia. An example of government harassment: an education commission found her guilty because each child’s cot in the tent was not allotted the required five square meters of space, there was no running hot water at the camp, the number of children on the camp roster was incorrect, etc. She was fined three thousand litai. At that time, her university teaching salary was 1,000 litai a month. The mafia was also interested in closing down the camp, and because of its close ties to the government, it was able to do so. The street children were a source of income for the mafia, which sold them into prostitution and used them to commit crimes. “There was money to be made from these children and we were interfering” (p. xvi). From 1992 to 1998, the Lithuanian police were not reorganized yet, and it was difficult to get police to respond to a crime. Crime was rampant. Fledgling businesses were bombed every day.

Part II (over 70 pages) titled “Burn all Philosophies,” presents translations of twelve personal essays by Vanda Juknaitė written between 1991 and 1998 and previously published in various Lithuanian periodicals. These essays describe the social, political, and economic hardships suffered during the post-Soviet decade. As Sruoginis points out, these essays were written in the heat of the moment, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and unrest. They document the nation’s instability, poverty, and the desire to be independent and free.

Part III (20 pages) is called “We Find Ourselves at the Edge” and consists of interviews with survivors of the Gulag and of the Nazi genocide, and finally a joint interview with two young scholars representing the new generation of democratic Lithuania.

The second and third parts of the book enlarge the political and cultural perspective and depict the political climate and the conditions under which the summer camp program was born, flourished, and died.

Juknaitė’s book is a powerful and very moving story that should be made into a movie. We learn belatedly in one interview that filmmaker Edmundas Zubavičius had made a documentary about the camp in 1998. It was shown on Lithuania’s national television. Sadly, this attempt to gain national attention was used to speed up the liquidation of the summer camp program.

My last comment pertains to the translation. Some translations accommodate themselves to the original so well that they can make the reader “forget” he or she is reading a translated work. This was not my experience with this book. A number of times it left me wondering what the original text was really like. Also, I have my doubts about the addition of so much supplementary material. However, there is no question that the main story itself is very powerful and well worth sharing with a wider audience.

Romualdas Kriaučiūnas