At bedtime under the comfort of a down duvet, my wife Eddi and I are reading to each other Ruta Sepetys' novel Between Shades of Gray. The story starts one dark night when the Soviet NKVD soldiers banged the door of a family's home in Lithuania. "You have 20 minutes to pack." Mother was alone with her two children, Lina and her younger brother. Father mysteriously hadn't come home that night. Where was he? Then mother and two children are stuffed into a railroad cattle car with a librarian, teacher, housewife and dozens of other ordinary people. Their cattle car is only one of a long train of cars stuffed with hundreds, if not thousands of people. The NKVD soldiers shoot or beat anyone who speaks out. The trip takes weeks to reach the freezing Siberian empty wasteland, which will be their new home. Each cattle car of people is allotted one bucket of water and one bucket of gruel per day.
Stalin thought these defenseless people should have been banished because they are intellectuals and land owners. Is this same theme being played out today?
I personally know the cruelty spelled out in Sepetys' book. I am of Latvian roots, so her story stabs my heart. In Latvia, at the same time period as the Lithunainian novel, my father was arrested and scheduled to be killed. With the help of neighbors, he escaped and fled the country with my mom. They buried the silverware and left everything else. Otherwise I would not be here.
During their exodus, my mom's best friend and her husband turned their horse-drawn cart back to their home. Not long after, they were arrested and shipped in cattle cars to Siberia. One of their sons froze to death there.
Years later, during the tumultuous turning point of Soviet disintegration, I returned to Latvia to reclaim our farm. The capitol city, Riga, was free. But in our rural area, the Soviets still clutched control. The local Collective director had given our farm to one of his friends. But as a brash American living free, I spoke out against his judgement. Someone behind me whispered, "this man has the power to kill you."
Just before Eddi and I laid comfortably in bed reading this Soviet era novel, that stirs my personal memories of man's savage cruelty, I was reading about the spiritual aspects of wine in Sondra Barrett's book Wine's Hidden Beauty. In a spread sheet-like list she lays out all of the pagan wine gods and goddesses through history. Wine is also very important to the Jewish religious ceremonies and not surprisingly, it followed Jesus into Christianity. During the Last Supper, the night before Jesus was crucified, he urged his disciples to drink the wine that it would become like the blood he would shed.
Somehow the juxtaposition of those two themes–savagery of man and the spirituality of wine–stretched my inner being.