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Academic Writing

Vanished lands

Memory and Postmemory in Norh American Lithuanian Diaspora Literature

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At the end of World War II, thousands of Lithuanian and Litvak survivors fled the terror of Soviet-occupied Lithuania and found shelter in the displaced persons camps of the Allied territories. By 1949, most had emigrated to North America. They brought with them opposing narratives about the Nazi occupation (1941-1944) when 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish community was annihilated. In the diaspora, historical trauma narratives were passed down to the second and third generations born in the United States and Canada, forming collective memory. Meanwhile, historical analysis of the Holocaust was obfuscated by the Soviet occupation of Lithuania (1944-1991) where censorship and isolation sealed off the historical record, preventing any serious examination outside of officially sanctioned communist propaganda narratives that deprived Jews of their identity, claiming them as “Soviet citizens,” erasing the memory of the Holocaust.


All that changed when the KGB archives were opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Lithuania became an independent democratic nation in 1991. Nonetheless, gaps in the archives left more questions unanswered. Literature has the power to fill in silences and speak the impossible. Vanished Lands analyzes memoirs written by three generations of North American Litvak and Lithuanian émigré writers. Their voices speak over the silences of decades, seeking answers.

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About Me as an Academic

A brief summary of my research

I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in German and Secondary School Education from Rutgers University in 1990.

I received my training in Writing and Nonfiction, earning a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University School of the Arts (1994) and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire (2013).

My PhD dissertation is titled “Memory and Postmemory in the Writing of North American Writers of Lithuanian Descent.”

I am an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Southern Maine and I teach undergraduate courses in Creative Writing (more about it here)


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Since Lithuania’s period of national rebirth in the late 1980s, approximately 77 works of
literature written in English by North American writers of Lithuanian descent have been
published by commercial and university publishers in the United States and Canada in the
following genres: fiction, memoir, literary nonfiction, essays, collections of poetry, and drama.
Thematically these works of literature are predominantly concerned with cultural and historical trauma that has affected Lithuania, ranging from events such as the 19 th Century efforts of Tsarist authorities to Russify the Lithuanian population, the first and second Soviet occupations (1940 – 1941 and 1944 – 1991), and related violence, deportations, and resistance, the plight of the displaced persons, and the Nazi occupation and Holocaust in Lithuania (1941 - 1944). These essays, memoirs, historical novels, autobiographical novels, literary fiction, short stories, and drama mostly engage with and reflect collective, public, shared cultural memory events, such as, the reinstatement of Lithuania’s independence in 1990, immigration, the culture of the North American Lithuanian diaspora communities, and rite of return journeys to Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuania. This group’s writing explores familial and individual trauma, silence, secrets, rite of return, cultural memory, haunt memory.

Tsarist oppression, the Stalin-era mass deportations of Baltic people to Siberia, the Nazi
and Soviet occupations, the Holocaust, the armed postwar resistance, the Soviet occupation, the independence movement, are topics that are an ocean away and almost a century in the past. The struggles of DPs immigrants in Canada or the United States is closer to home, but also more than half a century old. Yet these topics are discussed in these writers’ work. Thus, cultural and historical trauma experienced by Lithuanian émigrés and their descendants is documented in this growing body of literary work. I argue that the majority of these works of literature are postmemory narratives.

Although nine works of literature written by North American writers of Lithuanian
descent have been translated into Lithuanian and published in Lithuania, because this body of literary work is written in English and published abroad, it remains largely inaccessible to
readers in Lithuania. I argue that these works of literature are manifestations of American

I read and considered the collective body of literary fiction, historical fiction, poetry,
literary nonfiction, and memoir written by twenty writers identified as North American writers of Lithuanian descent. Five memoirs out of this body of work were selected for inclusion in my dissertation. These five memoirs are written in English by North American writers of Lithuanian descent and published in the United States and Canada between 2000 and 2017. The selected memoirs are: Painted in Words—A Memoir (2001) by Samuel Bak, The Barefoot Bingo Caller (2017) by Antanas Sileika, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life (2010) by Daiva Markelis, A Guest At the Shooters’ Banquet (2015) by Rita Gabis, Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning (2017) by Julija Šukys. These five memoirs include stylistic elements of life-writing, journalism, and literary nonfiction. Two of these works are preoccupied with reflection on one’s individual life within the context of shared cultural memory in the Lithuanian diaspora (The Barefoot Bingo Caller and White Field, Black Sheep), and three (Painted in Words, A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet, and Siberian Exile) are reflections on individual, familial, cultural, and historical trauma, within the context of Lithuania’s cultural and historical experience of twentieth and twenty-first century Lithuania.

The selected memoirists represent three generations, ranging from Samuel Bak, born in 1933 in Vilnius, Lithuania, himself a displaced person, to Julija Šukys, born to parents displaced by the Soviet occupation in 1972 in Toronto, Canada. Four of the five authors of these memoirs are the children and grandchildren of Lithuanians who fled the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1944 (Antanas Sileika, Daiva Markelis, Rita Gabis, Julija Šukys). The fifth (Samuel Bak) fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania in 1945 at the age of twelve. Three of the writers from this group of memoirists are North American writers of ethnic Christian Lithuanian heritage, one is of Litvak heritage, and one is of mixed Jewish and Lithuanian heritage. This dissertation defines people of Lithuanian descent as people who have ancestral roots and heritage in Lithuania, whether their religious faith is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pagan, or agnostic.


Four of the five writers of these memoirs came of age in North America during the postwar or Cold War periods when travel to Soviet-occupied Lithuania was controlled by the Soviet totalitarian regime. Therefore, their experience of Lithuania was formed predominantly through participation in the social, cultural, and educational activities of the Lithuanian émigré diaspora communities, and by reading literature written by Lithuanian diaspora writers, rather than by direct experience through travel to Lithuania.

Manifestations of individual trauma, family trauma, and cultural and historical trauma are
dominant themes in these memoirs’ narratives. After Lithuania regained independence in 1990, all five memoirists embarked on rite of return journeys to Lithuania. They write about the emotional and cultural aspects of their return in their memoirs. The dissertation employs the theoretical tools of cultural memory, postmemory, trauma theory, historical trauma, cultural trauma to analyze the memoir. These five memoirs studied together function as a cross-section of the greater body of literature written in English on Lithuanian topics by North American writers of Lithuanian descent.

The memoirs are both memory and postmemory narratives. They serve as memory narratives because the memoirists narrate their own life stories and individual and familial trauma experiences. Additionally, they research the impact of Lithuanian historical trauma (the Holocaust) and Lithuanian cultural trauma (deportations to Siberia, World War II, the postwar experience, the refugee experience, immigration) and reflect upon the impact of those historical events on their ancestors, themselves, and their descendants through their writing.

vanished lands

Dissertation Grant Report from Laima Vince

Laima Vincė

2022 05 24

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Postmemory as historical reckoning: coming to terms with a grandfather’s complicity in the holocaust in lithuania – Rita Gabis, A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet, and Julija Šukys, Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

Laima Vincė

Taylor & Francis Online

2022 06 16

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Two interpretations – two continents: a reading of Algirdas Landsbergis’s play Five Posts in a Market Place

Laima Vincė

Journal of Baltic Studies

2021 10 21

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Catharsis Through Memory: Samuel Bak: Painted in Words—A Memoir

Essay by Laima Vince


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Catharsis Through Memory: Samuel Bak: Painted in Words—A Memoir analyzes the painter Samuel Bak’s Holocaust memoir, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana University Press, 2004) through the theoretical lenses of trauma theory and historical trauma. The work of Cathy Caruth, Gabriele Schwab, Judith Herman and Eva Hoffman are woven into the theoretical discussion of Bak’s memoir. In his memoir, Bak delves into the landscape of memory and postmemory to reconstruct fragments of his experience as a child Holocaust survivor in his native Vilna (Vilnius). The memoir’s narrative is constructed from associative memories that shift across the span of the artist’s life. Significant realizations, impressions, moments of epiphany, unfold through associations in the writer’s mind, linking disparate events through meaningful symbols. The process of writing the memoir enables Bak to work through trauma and survivor’s guilt to a place of catharsis and post-traumatic growth. He embarks on a rite of return journey to his native Vilna, fifty-six years after he fled the city at the end of World War II. There he finds healing and closure.

Painted in Words is the single work of literature written by the world-renowned painter Samuel Bak. However, Bak’s artistic work has been the subject of hundreds of articles, scholarly works, and books. Bak’s first painting exhibition took place in the Vilna ghetto when he was nine. Over the span of half a century, Bak has participated in numerous exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout Israel, Europe, and the United States. Bak began his career as an abstract painter, but over the decades his work shifted to represent symbolic imagery, memories of the Holocaust, biblical scenes, sometimes within a post-apocalyptic landscape. When considering Bak as a writer, it is vital to also consider his body of work as a painter, and in particular his Holocaust paintings, as part of his language of expression. In an interview with Laima Vincė, Bak admits: “My memoir is closely related to my paintings. I did not write with the self-consciousness that the professional writer has. I desired to bring back to life something I knew existed in my memory.” (Interview with Samuel Bak, December 27, 2019). As one of his motivations for writing the memoir, Bak shared: “I wanted to recreate my family before all the memories are gone. I wanted to bring back to life to some degree people who would have been otherwise forgotten.” (Interview with Samuel Bak, December 27, 2019).


Painting: Samuel Bak, The Family, 1973, Pucker Galley, Boston, U.S.A.

The Microcosm Within the Macrocosm: How the Literature of a Small Diaspora Fits Within the Context of Global Literature

iafor Research Archive

2021 10 21

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Candy as Memory Catalyst

Lituanus, Volume 60, No. 1 - Spring 2014

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