In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded the Lithuanian city of Klaipėda and occupied the Baltic Sea coast region. In June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied all of Lithuania. The following summer, beginning in the predawn hours of June 14, 1941, Soviet authorities arrested teachers, university professors, doctors, lawyers, government officials, and successful farmers in massive arrests. In total, about 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia at that time. Many thousands more were deported in the next decade. Along with Latvians and Estonians, these innocent people were brought beyond the Arctic Circle to the shores of the Laptev Sea. There they were forced to construct barracks out of ice and boards, fish for the Soviet State, and subsisted on minimal bread rations. Most of them did not survive.
Only in 1998, did the Lithuanian parliament pass a resolution that legally described the Soviet deportations as “the mass deportations of the population from an occupied country to the territory of the occupying state,” describing this act of barbarity as “one of the most serious war crimes." The Soviet Russians described these cruel deportations as a “humane action” necessary to “cleanse the nation of the exploitative class.” To this day Russia still has not accepted responsibility for this crime against humanity.
In June 1941, Birutė Mar’s parents were among the deported. They were only four and five years old when they were arrested together with their parents; however, under Soviet law, they were already considered “enemies of the State.” Why? Because their parents were schoolteachers.
Although innocent children, they survived Siberian exile under the harshest conditions and were only allowed to return home fifteen years later in 1956, after Stalin died. Once they returned to Lithuania, they could never share their story with anyone. Forced into secrecy the totalitarian police state, even their own children did not know what had happened to them. The actress only learned the details of her parents’ harsh deportation in 1991, after Lithuania regained its independence. The shock of learning what her beloved parents had lived through prompted her to write and direct this play.
This solo performance, in which Birutė Mar tells her mother’s story of exile, and the stories of other children of the ice, transforms the space of the stage into the frozen wasteland of Siberia. In this cruel landscape, together with the ice-children, we experience moments of rare incandescent joy – the first ray of sunlight appearing on the dark horizon after months and months of an arctic winter and the deaths of most of the deportees, tiny papers rolled up to look like candy on Christmas in the yurt where the exiles huddled together after their days of hard labor, the piercing bright light of stars in the ice-cold black night, a bird freezing mid-flight in the arctic night and falling to the ground, being saved by a local hunter in the middle of a blizzard and returned home on a dog sleigh, wrapped in furs.
The concept of postmemory was initially developed by Eva Hoffman and Marianne Hirsch to describe the preoccupation of the second and third generations born to Holocaust survivor with the historical trauma of the Holocaust. Postmemory thus may be considered the memory of another’s memory, so much so that these memories become memories in their own right, creating a deep personal connection of the previous generation’s memory, notwithstanding generational distance. Although postmemory was originally developed as a concept applied to memories of the Holocaust, in recent decades postmemory concept has been applied to historical and cultural trauma experienced by other nations. Birutė Mar’s solo performance, Children of the Ice, is a postmemory play. As a daughter of Siberian she does not merely re-enact her parents’ and grandparents’ stories but she lives them out on stage.
We experience this ice world through the eyes of a child. The child narrator, Birutė’s mother Jūratė, describes the frightened people crammed together in the cattle car bound for Siberia. She laments that as the family hastily grabbed a few things when they were arrested to take with them, she clutched onto a worn-out beloved teddy bear rather than taking an ornate doll an uncle had brought her from abroad. They could have sold the doll for food, just like her Mama sold her wedding ring for a bit of bread.
Inside the cattle car, little Jūratė sits down beside an older girl, a 12-year-old who was deported alone because her parents were not at home when the Russian soldiers came to arrest them. This girl wills herself to die and finally is left behind, her body laid out beside the tracks. She simply made up her mind that she could not, and would not, survive what was to come alone.
Jūratė was arrested wearing a pretty dress with a red pom pom. As the journey to Siberia stretches on, she amuses herself by playing with the pom pom. All of a sudden, she accidently tears the red pom pom from her dress. It slips to the floor of the train carriage and out onto the tracks where it is left behind. As though that pom pom represented all that she’d left behind in Lithuania, Jūratė cries her heart out. During the harsh arctic winter, she dreams of her pom pom, left behind somewhere on the train tracks, and longs to go back and find it.
At the close of the play, Birutė Mar sits down on the edge of the stage and speaks her heart to the audience. She shares that she can see, always in her mind’s eye, that red pom pom left behind on the train tracks and the train creeping towards its destiny. She feels as though that memory were hers and that she had lived it herself. In this way, her mother’s and her father’s experience has become her own, absorbed into her body, her soul, her mind, her memory. Not a single family in Lithuania was untouched by Siberian exile. Everyone lost someone. Everyone is still searching for someone or something left behind on that long train journey into the vast cruel expanses of arctic ice.
Years later, as an adult, in 1989, Jūratė was able to return to that narrow strip of land where her family was forced to survive, beside the Laptev Sea. What she brought back with her to Lithuania was not the red pom pom that fell out onto the train tracks, but her little sister, who died of starvation and disease, and whose tiny body was still encased in arctic ice.