Birute Putrius was born in 1946 in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. She grew up in Chicago, where she was active in the Lithuanian community, and now lives in California.

She has published short stories and poetry in numerous literary journals and in an anthology called Bless me, Father, in which her story was highlighted by Publisher’s Weekly “for its charming magical realism.”

Two of her stories were optioned for short films by Columbia College in Chicago.

She has also translated poetry and non-fiction. Her book Lost Birds is a novel-in-stories about growing up Lithuanian American. It starts with the protagonist Irene Matas coming to America in 1950 and ends with her visit to Lithuania more than forty years later when Lithuania finally regained its independence. Those returning find Lithuania has changed – but so have they.

The Last Book Smuggler is a dual love story that takes place against the background of the book smugglers who brought books across the border into Lithuania from East Prussia during a heavy period of Russification under the Tsar.

Currently she is finishing a novel called Winter Flowers, about the same family from The Last Book Smuggler, which follows their story as they cope with World War I, Lithuania’s struggle for independence, and the Bolshevik revolution.

Book Three of the trilogy, called Dark Moon, follows the Balandis family through World War II.

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Graphic Novels

Interview by Laima Vincė



A Modern-Day Book Smuggler

In Conversation with Birutė Putrius


Laima Vincė: Tell me about your Lithuanian heritage.

Birutė Putrius: That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about for years. Even in my book Lost Birds, the very first story is called “Becoming American” because many who came from the displaced person’s camps had one foot in America and one foot in Lithuania. The Lithuanian part came from the stories my parents told, camps, conferences, and attending Lithuanian Saturday School, which I really disliked, but our everyday life was American.

My family was so poor when we came to America without a penny, and so we lived in this Black neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. The Black children and gypsy [Roma -- Vilnius Review] children were my first friends. I wish I knew where they were today so I could look them up. I have a very good memory of me coming out on the street alone, without friends, without my family, and suddenly I was surrounded by children from the neighborhood – a gypsies and blacks. They all came up to me asking me what my name was, but I had no idea what they were saying. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. Before long, we were all fast friends. I identify with being Lithuanian American. But also Lithuanian because of the stories my family told me. They talked about how difficult it was to leave family, to leave friends. It was even difficult for them to leave their ancestors’ graves.


Laima Vincė: What part of Lithuania were your parents from?

Birutė Putrius: Kretinga in Žemaitija.


Laima Vincė: Were you born in Lithuania?

Birutė Putrius: No, I was born in a displaced persons camp in Dillingen, Germany. We were put in what was formerly a stable for cavalry officers. My father said when it rained you could still smell the horses.


Laima Vincė: That is how you spent the first years of your life, the most formative years of a child’s life.

Birutė Putrius: Yes, I was born in Germany and came to America at age four. However, my parents felt more comfortable in Europe than they did in America because Dillingen was more like Lithuania. My sister swam in the Danube, while I tried to catch minnows in my small bucket. I remember my father telling a story about the advice his good friend gave them. When it came time to leave the camps, they were at a loss, wondering where they should go in America. My father’s friend said to him, “Go to Chicago. All the jobs are there. The jobs in New York have already been taken by previous exiles from Lithuania. Get on a train and go to Chicago. Besides, it looks just like Bavaria, so green and lush.” So we got on the train to Chicago and when we got off, we saw that it was so industrial, especially the parts that we lived in. That was a shock to all of us.


Laima Vincė: Let’s talk about your first book, Lost Birds, a collection of linked short stories. That book was very powerful to me. The stories in that book are stories of the lives of Lithuanian displaced persons when they first came to Chicago. I appreciate that you didn’t sugar coat anything. There’s one character, a teenage girl, who is psychologically and emotionally damaged by what she suffered during the war, but the community and the family protect her. You weren’t afraid to show damaged people.

Birutė Putrius: The damage was huge. I’m always sad that it’s not talked about more. How do you heal these wounds without talking about them?


Laima Vincė: When you were a DP child growing up in Chicago, you saw those damaged people around you.

Birutė Putrius: I was a very sensitive child. If someone else cried, I cried with them. I felt that as I walked through the community and talked to the people in the community, they were still grieving their losses from the war. They were all wounded people walking on the streets of Chicago. It was something I couldn’t explain as a young girl, something I could only feel. Of course, we heard all the stories of the parents of our friends as well as our own family stories. They all affected me very deeply. But then after I went into university, and I found that there was a whole new world out there. I pulled away from the Lithuanian community while I was a student. I moved to the north side of Chicago, which was not a Lithuanian community. At that point, I was earning my master’s degree. It was a whole other world I was entering.

But the irony is that the farther I got from Lithuanians, the more I began to miss them. I started dreaming about them, wanting to write about them. I began remembering the stories I was told. Sometimes their laughter came at the same time as their tears. I started remembering these things about my Lithuanian community and I thought, “Let me write them down.” Around the same time, I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter, and I started taking classes in screenwriting at UCLA. After two years of taking classes in screenwriting, I realized that I’d become this wooden, dull, predictable writer. The teacher made us write a long outline of our film and then write index cards of each scene. By the time I did that, it felt as though I’d wrung all the juice out of the story. I was pregnant with my first daughter, and I decided I wanted to try something easier. I took a class at UCLA on writing short stories. The professor gave us assignments, and when he asked for someone from our class to read their story, no one moved. Though I’m shy, I stood up and read. It turned out that the professor liked my story and asked me to join his writing group, which had been ongoing since 1950. He encouraged me to write more. When I started writing stories, I started thinking about writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I admire. I loved the humor he finds in ordinary people, as well as his magical realism. I also read Sholem Aleichem and thought, why doesn’t anyone write Lithuanian books in that spirit? I took that on as my task to try to write magical realism with funny Lithuanian characters. I began to remember the characters in Marquette Park where I grew up. Melding all that together is how I came up with the stories for Lost Birds.


Laima Vincė: You mention in one of your interviews about your second novel, The Last Book Smuggler, that in your family there was a book smuggler.

Birutė Putrius: Yes, my paternal grandfather, Mykolas Putrius was a book smuggler. I never knew him though because my grandparents had died during the war, before I was born. My father used to tell this story about how they smuggled books, and how he would come along once in a while, sitting on the back of the wagon. I asked him, “Wasn’t that dangerous? You have all the tsar’s secret police after you, trying to catch you, put you in prison, or deport you to Siberia, or at the very worst, kill you.” My father responded that my grandfather knew all the best routes from East Prussia. I was enchanted by these stories.


Laima Vincė: Could you explain the history of the book smugglers and why book smugglers were important?

Birutė Putrius: Unfortunately, it’s part of the never-ending Russification of the colonized countries in the Russian empire. It’s part of the Russian tendency to grab land, and incorporate these small countries that are situated up and down the East European side of Russia, starting with Estonia, including Finland, and then going all the way south to the Balkans. What happened is that Russia took over these lands and immediately they started to Russify the population. That is exactly what they are doing now in Ukraine. They have stolen thousands of Ukrainian children and now these children are going through a rigorous process of Russification. They are trying to instill in them that they are part of “the sacred Russian Empire.” They tell them they are part of this gigantic empire, and aren’t they lucky? They pound into them: “You are Russian. There is no such thing as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians -- these countries are all made up.” When in truth what’s made up is this idea of this grand Russia. That is the idea that’s made up. It’s a historical lie that’s been told over and over and over again.

At some point, the tsar made it illegal to have Lithuanian books. You had to read Cyrillic if you wanted to read a book. Nobody knew how to read Cyrillic, and nobody wanted to read Russian books. Everyone wanted Lithuanian books. Part of the problem was that the Russians never bothered to have teachers or schools for the people that they colonized. After years of book smuggling, the literacy rate in Lithuania rose tremendously.


Laima Vincė: So literacy became stronger during the era of the book smugglers?

Birutė Putrius: Yes, the literacy rate rose in Lithuania as people fell in love with books. It became a badge of honor to read Lithuanian books and build yourself a bookshelf on your farm. By the time my parents died in Chicago, every single room in their house was a library. They cherished every Lithuanian book they had. They joined every book club to get more books and newspapers from Lithuania. They were hungry for every book they could get from Lithuania, for every bit of knowledge, every bit of news. In a country that’s under occupation, everybody appreciates everything they can find about their own customs, their own writing, their own ways. In Lithuania, they even changed the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar after the Russian Revolution.


Laima Vincė: During the Soviet Russian occupation of Lithuania, books written by all the émigré writers, Bradūnas, Brazdžionis, Mekas, Landsbergis, and others, were banned in Soviet occupied Lithuania, but Lithuanian Americans managed to get copies of their books smuggled into Lithuania. They kept these books hidden and read them and passed them on. They usually hid the books inside their beds. That I know from having been a student in Lithuania in 1988-1989. People risked going to jail to have those banned books and to be able to read them. Look at the Vilnius Book Fair. At least ten thousand people attend each year. Families with children come. It’s a major cultural event for Lithuania. I’m intrigued by what you’re saying that today’s love for books in Lithuania goes back to the era of the book smugglers.

Birutė Putrius: Definitely. It became such a badge of honor for people to have a book at their house, to have a bookshelf. The more you had the better. People would come over to see each other’s books, to borrow the books. They cherished books. I remember translating the poetry of Bernardas Brazdžionis for this book Roads and Crossroads. I met him and talked with him. He was such a wonderful man. When I went to Lithuania after that, I was shocked that everyone I met in Lithuania could recite his poetry from memory. This is how much they valued Brazdžionis’s poetry. Everybody from the lowliest to the highest could recite his poetry with tears in their eyes. His poetry was calling out to Lithuania.


Laima Vincė: In both of your novels, the characters express a strong love for Lithuania and a longing for freedom, for Lithuania to be free. In The Last Book Smuggler, there is a subplot of a love story and the story of the grandfather. It’s a very readable and engaging novel. Tell me about your process as a writer. You have the family stories that first got you going, and then you did research to give you the historical context. How did the magic happen of taking that research and transforming it into fictional scenes? Did the stories from your childhood inspire you to write that book? What was the spark?

Birutė Putrius: The spark definitely came from my father’s stories. I started looking into who these book smugglers were and why they were risking their lives for books! I was so moved by their story. I thought, “Why didn’t I know about this?” I was already in my thirties when I started looking into this history. I started looking for books about book smugglers and found that there wasn’t very much written about it. It’s not a well-known subject. But I as a writer felt so moved that people who were authors would never have had any representation if it hadn’t been for the book smugglers who brought their books to people and kept them from being burned.


Laima Vincė: How did you integrate your research into the novel?

Birutė Putrius: It’s very hard, I think. After doing a lot of research, you want to share that research. But there is nothing that will kill a novel more quickly than a huge information dump onto the page. So, I tried to interpret all the information I got from my research and weave it into the emotions of the characters. I tried to imagine what it was like and to live in the shoes of those characters while thinking about the background and asking myself: how would they feel about this? But I had the background of your own parents and their own fears, and their own worries, and their own longing. They never did go back to Lithuania, neither one of my parents.


Laima Vincė: Even after independence?

Birutė Putrius: They were already too old and sick at that point. It’s just a shame to me that they never got back. That’s a sorrow I carry.


Laima Vincė: Your parents’ generation was active between the world wars and lived during Lithuania’s first independence. They worked so hard to rebuild the country after a long and abusive Russian occupation, and then they lost it all. It just makes me frightened that it could happen all over again with the threat of Russia invading Lithuania.

Birutė Putrius: Russia is certainly talking about invading the Baltics again. We should take them at their word. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. It’s very frightening to me.


Laima Vincė: You published The Last Book Smuggler in 2018. At that time, Russia had taken Crimea and had invaded Eastern Ukraine, but the world still did not see that Russia was planning another invasion into Europe. The feeling I had at that time was that now we can reminisce about the past because it is history. What’s happened with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is that the past suddenly became the present. I had just published a collection of love letters of the resistance fighters Nijolė Bražėnaitė and Juozas Lukša[1] when in February 2022, two days into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I presented this book at the Vilnius Book Fair. Actors performed a staged reading of the letters and as they read, they were crying. They had tears streaming down their faces as they read the letters out loud to the audience. Everyone realized in that moment that this story of these young lovers, who were about to be separated forever by war, was happening again, and that it would happen over and over again in Ukraine.

Birutė Putrius: I cried reading those letters as well. They are so heartbreaking.


Laima Vincė: I was with Nijolė up to the day that she died, and to the end, this story was close to her heart.

Laima Vincė: You were telling me earlier that American middle school and high school students have reached out to you about The Last Book Smuggler.

Birutė Putrius: I’ve had all sorts of people connect with me wanting more information on the story of the book smugglers. There are now all sorts of historical websites written online by middle school and high school kids about book smugglers in Lithuania. I am just stunned by this. They were so taken with book smugglers and wanted more detail. I spent days talking to them over the phone. It was a complete surprise to me when students from middle school and high school began calling me. I don’t know how they found me. They told me that they’re doing this grand project for school on history, and they chose the book smugglers. It wasn’t just one school, but a handful of schools across America. They asked for sources, but I told them that there was only one book in English on the subject called Forty Years of Darkness. It was a small thin book, and it didn’t have a lot of information. Then the parents would get on the phone and ask, “Why don’t you want to give my child the source material?” And I would say, “If they read Lithuanian I will give it to them, but if they don’t, there isn’t much else available. In the end they came to terms with that and thought it was more interesting because that meant the subject was unique. They could not find examples of book smuggling in other countries. I was so happy that this story was going out into the world. I’ve had ordinary people reach out to me and tell me they found the stories fascinating and that they’ve never heard of such a thing as a book smuggler.


Laima Vincė: What are you working on now?

Birutė Putrius: I’m writing a trilogy. The family from The Last Book Smuggler is now in my next novel, which is titled Winter Flowers. This book covers World War I. I’ve been busy gathering material, and of course there is so much material on World War I. I’m trying to finish that book, and I’ve begun the third book in the trilogy, called Dark Moon, which is about World War II and has the same characters.


Laima Vincė: Your husband was Jewish. The World War II and Holocaust history is so fraught between Lithuanians and Jews. How did you handle this topic, having half-Jewish children?

Birutė Putrius: We talked about it with our children. When I would meet other friends who are Jewish, they would say, “Lithuanians were Jew killers.” It’s such a thorny subject, but an important one that needs to be looked at. There were people who collaborated and people who saved Jews, and the truth lies somewhere in between. Had the Germans not occupied Lithuania, those killings would not have happened.


Laima Vincė: Have you been back to Lithuania, and how often do you go back?

Birutė Putrius: I’ve gone back many times. I’ve visited relatives. I’ve taken my children to Lithuania. I’ve been to the Vilnius Book Fair twice. I go as often as I can.


Laima Vincė: When you go to Lithuania, do you feel this connection as though you’ve come home?

Birutė Putrius: Absolutely. My children have this dream that we will buy their grandfather’s land back. I doubt that will happen. My daughter, as a result of having gone to Lithuania and loving it so much, has bought land in New York and is farming it with her husband.


Laima Vincė: Does your daughter speak Lithuanian?

Birutė Putrius: Neither one of my children speak more than some basic Lithuanian. I sent them to Saturday school for three years. They spoke Lithuanian when they were little, but once they started school, they no longer wanted to speak Lithuanian. Although now they are angry that I wasn’t more strict in teaching them Lithuanian.


Laima Vincė: You still have this deep connection with Lithuania, you’re writing about Lithuania, publishing books about Lithuania. It’s a deep part of you. When you think about North American Lithuanian diaspora writing about Lithuania, do you have any thoughts on any themes that unify these writers as a group?

Birutė Putrius: We all felt that same longing and that same mournful remembrance of the past. That is in all of us. We have that wonderful love for land and for the songs and the dances. I tried to get as many folk elements as possible into The Last Book Smuggler because I think it’s so important. If we lose the songs and the traditions, we lose a part of our soul. I used to go to Marija Gimbutienė’s lectures when she lived here in Topanga Canyon, and during her lectures she often talked about the pagan parts of Lithuanian culture. She talked about how the Lithuanians kept pagan customs and traditions all the way up to World War I. She was really afraid that part of the culture would be lost. I hoped the richness of the Lithuanian heritage could be saved. I made it a point to bring as much Lithuanian tradition into my writing as I can.


Laima Vincė: You’re not only a writer, but a publisher. Tell me about Birchwood Press. Why did you start your own publishing company?

Birutė Putrius: I had been writing for years, but I still couldn’t get a publisher. Writers told me that I had to start by publishing in literary magazines. I started sending my stories to literary magazines, and I was published in probably over twenty magazines over the years. One of these magazines wanted to nominate my story “Lucy in the Sky” for a Pushcart award, but I’d already given the story to another magazine, so I was disqualified. Then people told me to start going to literary conferences, so I did that as well. I got an agent at the Cape Cod Literary Conference. She passed my book on to another agent, who shopped it around New York. Nothing came of it. Then I got a Beverly Hills agent, and nothing came of that. I won a contest as the finalist with Sol Books. By then I was pregnant again. You know how it is for women. Your writing goes on the back burner as you care for your family. You write only when your child is sleeping or in school. It was very difficult. At that point, I gave up. I had sent work to many publishers. They all had the same thing to say to me: Why on earth would anybody want to read a story about Lithuania?


Laima Vincė: Why?

Birutė Putrius: They would say it’s too small of an audience. Who had ever heard of Lithuania? I got many responses like that. It made me deeply discouraged and baffled regarding what I should do. Finally, I decided, well, if they can’t publish me, I will do it myself.


Laima Vincė: Does Birchwood Press publish other writers beside yourself?

Birutė Putrius: I’ve published many writers over the years. I’ve published my books, Lost Birds and The Last Book Smuggler. I published Marriage for Love by Žemaitė, translated by Violeta Kelertas and Marytė Racys. I’ve published Missouri Days, a lovely book about growing up in Missouri. I’ve published a book about Greece and other books. All these books have sold well.


Laima Vincė: Do you earn a profit?

Birutė Putrius: The profit is minimal, but I do have worldwide distribution, so the books reach many readers. It’s a lot of hard work for very little remuneration. I just about cover costs. It’s work from the heart. You don’t do this work for money, that’s for sure.


Laima Vincė: Would it be accurate to call you a modern-day book smuggler?

Birutė Putrius: I’ll take that.


1. Nijolė Bražėnaitė (1923-2023) was a Lithuanian medical doctor who participated in the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet resistance. Juozas Lukša (1922-1951) was a leader of the anti-Soviet armed resistance who broke through the Iron Curtain to deliver documents to the League of Nations and the Vatican showing that Soviet Russia was deporting innocent Baltic people to Siberia and committing genocide. He returned to Soviet occupied Lithuania in 1950 while working for the CIA on an information-gathering mission and was killed in an ambush 11 months later.






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