In sending deportees such as Lina’s family to the labor camps, the Soviets desire to not only break them physically but also mentally and spiritually – to transform them from resisting Lithuanians (and people of other nationalities) into conforming Soviets. The excruciating work in brutal conditions are obvious means of weakening the deportees’ physical strength and spirit, and the deportation to the isolated camps so far from their homes is in itself part of an effort to strip the deportees of their national identities. However, Lina and her fellow deportees from Lithuania resist Soviet assimilation by holding fast to their shared past, and their shared identity as Lithuanians. They share photos and stories of their families, keep holiday traditions alive, and remind one another about who they are and where they have come from. Lina derives strength from the memories of her life in Lithuania, shown throughout the text in italicized flashbacks from her previously comfortable life. Though the memories of warm baths and sumptuous meals are sometimes painful given the cold of the Siberian tundra and meager bread rations, they remind Lina that there is good in the world, and that she may one day return to such happiness. And through those memories and the collective effort of the Lithuanians to remain Lithuanians, the novel shows how maintaining an identity, as an individual and as part of a group, can give a person strength.
More broadly, the novel shows how the brutal conditions of the camps also threaten to strip away prisoners’ basic humanity by forcing them into constant zero-sum decisions, where they must act to save themselves by disregarding others or else put themselves at risk by helping others. It is an act of resistance, then, when Lina and the other deportees actively attempt to identify with one another and show kindness to those who are weak or ill. Lina’s mother, Elena, is one character who is exemplary in her compassion for others, as she regularly deprives herself of food and clothing to assist younger or weaker people, ultimately at the cost of her own life. And yet, the novel presents such actions not just as acts of resistance but as sources of strength. Strength in the novel is ultimately derived through the power of identity with fellow human beings, and so such acts of kindness and unity are personal affirmations of humanity – of a shared humanity beyond even shared nationality – which even the horrors of the labor camp cannot break.
Strength and Identity ThemeTracker
Strength and Identity Quotes in Between Shades of Gray
“Promise me that if anyone tries to help you, you will ignore them. We will resolve this ourselves. We must not pull family or friends into this confusion, do you understand? Even if someone calls out to you, you must not respond.”
Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat. I knew that watch. It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back. The officer snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.
“You’re very brave to have come. You must all stay together. I know you’ll take good care of your sister and mother while I am away.”
“I will, Papa, I promise,” said Jonas. “When will we see you?”
Papa paused. “I don’t know. Hopefully soon.”
I clutched the bundle of clothes. Tears began dropping down my cheeks.
“Don’t cry, Lina. Courage,” said Papa. “You can help me.”
“Do you understand?” My father looked at Andrius, hesitant. “You can help me find you,” he whispered. “I’ll know it’s you…just like you know Munch. But you must be very careful.”
“Hey, there was blond hair under all that dirt,” said Andrius, reaching out and grabbing a strand of my hair. I shrank back and looked away. Mother put her arm around me.
“Jonas,” said Mother, stroking my brother’s face. “I can’t trust them. Stalin has told the NKVD that Lithuanians are the enemy. The commander and the guards look at us as beneath them. Do you understand?”
We began to laugh. It was such a ridiculous sight, grabbing our knees in a circle. We actually laughed.... “Our sense of humor,” said Mother, her eyes pooled with laughing tears. “They can’t take that away from us, right?”
“Because they threatened to kill me unless she slept with them. And if they get tired of her, they still might kill me. So how would you feel, Lina, if your mother felt she had to prostitute herself to save your life?
My art teacher had said that if you breathed deeply and imagined something, you could be there. You could see it, feel it. During our standoffs with the NKVD, I learned to do that. I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength here.
Jonas was learning Russian much quicker than I was. He could understand a fair amount of conversation and could even use slang. I constantly asked him to translate. I hated the sound of the Russian language.
I grabbed our family photo and stuffed it up my dress. I would hide it on the way to the kolkhoz office. Kretszky didn’t notice. He stood motionless, holding his rifle, staring at all the photographs.
“The Jews are the scapegoat for all of Germany’s problems,” said the bald man. “Hitler’s convinced racial purity is the answer. It’s too complicated for children to understand.”
Mother grabbed my arm. Pain shot up into my shoulder. She spoke through clenched teeth. “We don’t know. Do you hear me? We don’t know what he is. He’s a boy. He’s just a boy.” Mother let go of my arm. “And I’m not lying with him,” she spat at Jonas. “How dare you imply such a thing.”
“I can’t do this! I won’t die here. I will not let a fox eat us!” Suddenly the woman grabbed Janina by the throat. A thick gurgle came from Janina’s windpipe.
Mother threw herself on Janina’s mother and pried her fingers from her daughter’s neck. Janina caught her breath and began to sob.
I closed my eyes. I felt Andrius moving close. “I’ll see you,” he said.
“Yes, I will see you,” I whispered. “I will.”
I reached into my pocket and squeezed the stone.
It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.