“It was actually taboo among Lithuanians to talk about the Germans as victims of World War II, and it was forbidden to help the children under the Soviets.” [Alvydas Šlepikas]

In the Shadow of Wolves shines a light on one of the unspoken tragedies of war and it’s aftermath, the suffering of the innocents, in this case the apportioning of blame to all Germans, even the children. Šlepikas is a storyteller making readers face up to an uncomfortable past, that is why this novel has had such an impact in his homeland, Lithuania. The West may have been unable to influence the situation in the Russian territories but our authorities were fully aware of the ‘wolf children’ in the German cities under allied control. The hope always has to be that we can learn lessons from history but In the Shadow of Wolves surely references contemporary issues, the plight of children in Syria and the war in Ukraine (this must have been on Šlepikas’ mind).

If you read modern histories of the Second World War the tragedy that this story depicts is hinted at, it is beginning to be told truthfully, but it has been air brushed for decades. Hidden partly because the world was wrung dry of compassion, partly because of the vicious psychology of revenge, but also political ideology and the absolute power of the victor in the absence of law. In the West we didn’t want to see this truth, in the east they forbade it’s discussion. As Šlepikas says, it was taboo.

In the Shadow of Wolves is not a relentless tale of misery, it’s a novel that makes it point forcefully but is in awe of the indomitability of the human spirit. There is cruelty and indifference here, but also kindness, compassion and courage. The novel is set in 1946 on either side of the Nemunas river, in Kaliningrad (formerly East Prussia) and Lithuania. The Russians now occupy the territory and are bent on punishing the vanquished, those of German origin who have not been able to flee their advance.

The river Nemunas; two guards on the bridge, an Asian and a Russian are taking the mickey out of each other. The black dots approaching are German children looking to cross the frozen river, there are seven of them. The guards stop their squabbling to shout at them:

“Stop! Go back! Stop! That’s an order! Stop, you fascist pigs!”

The Russian takes a grenade and lobs it into the small group. The explosion is deafening, one child falls through a hole in the ice and scrambles to get out. Another is writhing in pain, severely injured. A third, a six-year-old boy, little Hansel, is caught half way between those two. The other four run for their lives. The soldiers shoot, the injured child is killed, Hansel finally recovers his wits and flees, the child in the water sinks to his death. The Russian smokes a cigarette and the Asian sings to himself when the fuss dies down.

This is the never ending winter, as if people didn’t have enough troubles it is -20°C. Eva is leaning against her friend Martha, for warmth and for physical support, Martha is a tower of strength. Without her, Eva doesn’t believe she would have survived this long, let alone the children; Monika, Renata, Brigitte, pampered Helmut and Heinz, who took off for Lithuania a week ago.

Two Russian soldiers, barely eighteen, emerge from a building with a pot of left overs and potato peel. The crowd of starving people surround them. They mock the fascists, spawn of the devil before throwing the scraps on to the ice. Now people dive for a handful of peel, for Eva and Martha they are for their children. Someone treads on the hand of an old woman, she screams. Martha and Eva take what they have and leave. Even a non-religious person might wonder how people have come to be so abandoned by fate. As they pass the dairy they hear movement:

“The building has been opened up like the flank of a slaughtered animal, but inside it was only bottomless darkness. These buildings so devoid of life petrified her…In this snow storm the little town where she was born now seemed alien; horrible and malignant.” [Eva]

A drunken soldier makes a grab for Eva, Martha breaks his grip, other soldiers gather around, the women manage to run, they must get to their children. Suffice to say that this is a story of brutal hardship and violence; casual murder and rape. There are incidents in this story that mercifully happen off the page, it doesn’t lessen the impact, but it does mean that the novel is not voyeuristic. The impact on the reader is total.

How do people survive? Why do they even want to? These are questions that In the Shadow of Wolves addresses. The irrepressible spirit and the sense of hope. More than I have noticed before, Šlepikas made me realise how important memory is in survival. Our understanding of the past enables us to envisage a better future. Hope.

One haunting aspect of the story of the two families is that we do not know how it ended for all of them. This is reminiscent of the situation many faced after the war with no idea what happens to their family members – loss, grief, uncertainty, even mystery. We can get a sense of this here.

This is a compassionate novel. It’s easy to condemn, much more difficult to forgive. Imagine how we would have reacted in the same situation, would we show compassion? We can’t be guilty for what happened before we were born but if we recognise it perhaps we can avoid it in the future. In the Shadow of Wolves is an important Lithuanian novel because it deals in the wrongs of the past.

Ultimately, this is an uplifting story because the violence and brutality is also met with kindness and charity, some children assume Lithuanian identities, they are taken in by locals, they survive. It’s a story of survival against the odds. This novel is all the more poignant because it is based on the memories of some of those survivors as well as documentary research.

In the Shadow of Wolves is told in simple elegant prose which heightens the impact of the story, Šlepikas is a poet and playwright. The force and poetry of the novel shine out in this translation by Romas Kinka. In the Shadow of Wolves won the Justinas Marcinkevičius prize and the Writers’ Union award in Lithuania. Also, the Georg Dehio Book Prize 2018.

Paul Burke 5/5

In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas
Oneworld Publications 9781786074683 hbk Jun 2019