Among the forgotten stories of the past century is that of the "wolf children" of Lithuania. It is the tragedy of children in East Prussia who were orphaned at the end of World War II and left to fend for themselves as the Red Army conquered the territory. On their own, they took to hiding in the forests, and many of them fled into neighboring Lithuania and adopted new identities.
"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," says Alvydas Šlepikas, whose novel Mano Vardas—Marytė (In the Shadow of Wolves) takes its inspiration from the story of one such child and recounts this painful, difficult period and its consequences.
"I met a man who told me this extraordinary story about how his mother found out that she was German, and then eventually found her sister as well," Šlepikas says. "That—and the life of another woman—was the inspiration." Šlepikas, who is a well-known actor, producer, and poet, initially planned to make a film of the story, but when funding fell through, he decided to write it as a book. "I had to cut a lot of material, but I think it is more powerful this way. The novel comes in at under 200 pages and has, I think, the compression of poetry."
Sales for the book topped 30,000 copies in Lithuania, where it won both the Justinas Marcinkevičius prize and the Writers' Union award. Šlepikas credits the book's popularity with how its subject has become important for this generation, which is dealing with a war in nearby Ukraine and a refugee crisis in Europe and Latin America. "It is timely," Šlepikas says.
And while the book doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of the period—in one scene a mother must choose between starvation and trading her child for a bag of potatoes—it doesn't linger voyeuristically on the dark side of history. "This book is less about cruelty than it is about truth," Šlepikas says. "Ultimately, I think the book is about the nature of memory."