Monday, November 10, 2008

The Archives

My grandfather works in the chemical factory Rutenbergs/Metils throughout the whole time the family is in Sarkandaugava. The factory building no longer stands and I go to the State Historical Archives to see what I can find. The archives are on the other side of the river, on Slokas iela, in a huge building with a spacious entrance foyer that leads to two long corridors that stretch out on either side. In public buildings in Latvia, offices usually don’t have reception areas and doors are not always labelled, so I have found myself in corridors staring at rows of closed doors, wondering which one I am supposed to enter, and what the protocol is for entering. I knock first as a matter of courtesy and on this first visit to the archives I am sent away because there is already another client in the office. I sit outside and wait. Eventually I return to the office where I fill in a form and am sent down another corridor to a small waiting area with a couch and a coffee table. From here, through double glass doors, I can see into the busy, tantalising world of the reading room.

Latvian State Historical Archives in Slokas Iela

While I wait I flip through a visitors’ book sitting on the coffee table. A few pages in, I notice that members of the International Map Collectors’ Society (IMCOS) have made comments - I turn the page and I’m overcome by a small rush of excitement to see a comment by my partner, Gerard, who was here in 1996 attending an IMCOS conference! He congratulates the archives on how well they have preserved their superb collection of maps. That particular conference was the very first international conference ever to be held in post Soviet Riga. I also attended, but while I went to many of the discussions and events, for some reason I missed the trip to the archives.

After about fifteen minutes, I meet Ira, the archivist, who becomes my personal research assistant over the next couple of weeks. There are a number of forms I have to fill in, but once the bureaucratic procedures are set in motion, I’m in the system and am able to access all kinds of material I had not imagined would be possible. Before we proceed into the reading room, I feel compelled to show Ira the comment in the visitors’ book and explain that it was made by my partner.

Ira Zaneriba, Latvian State Historical Archives

Ira explains to me that in addition searching for files on the Rutenbergs/Metils factory, I can access a number of different records that may have information about my family - passports, census records, and books that list the occupants of all houses and apartments in Riga. I am excited at the prospect of what I might uncover, fill in more forms and return three times over the next few weeks to view various records, take photographs and collect scans and photocopies.

Each time I come back to the archives, I view a new set of documents, some that are relevant, others that are not. Those that are relevant have a tremendous emotional impact on me and I struggle to convey my encounters with these seemingly insignificant envelopes, pieces of folded paper, ledger books and passports. Even though I am unable to translate all of the abbreviated, handwritten Latvian notes, the documents nevertheless speak directly to me in a language that exists beyond the written and spoken word.

The first document I view is the handwritten ‘Mājas Grāmata’, a register that lists everyone who lived in Lienas iela 8, the apartment building my father lived in. I had not originally planned to research my father’s side of the family as part of this project, but how I could resist the possibility of also viewing records about the Ozolins? In the Lienas iela book everyone in the family is listed, including when they were born, whether they are married or not, their profession, and which apartment they live in. My grandfather, Peteris Ozolins, who died of tuberculosis in 1932 when my father was seven years old, is listed as a clerk; my grandmother, Pauline, as a housekeeper and my father, a student. My father’s older sister, Irina, and his younger brother Peteris, are also registered. I turn the pages slowly and read over the entries multiple times, then take note of all the pages I would like to have copied.

My cousin Mara is from the Ozolins side of the family – her father was my father’s younger brother, Peteris. It is a family that was typically split as a result of World War II, Mara’s father staying in Soviet Latvia, my father and his older sister ending up in Australia. Peteris had a successful career as a merchant during Soviet times (this seems to me a paradox!) and he was also very popular with the ladies. His first wife, Benita, is Mara’s mother. His second wife, Taida, is good friends with Benita and we meet at Mara’s house for dinner twice during my stay in Riga. Benita had a particularly difficult life before she met my uncle - both of her parents were shot when she was 14 years old. It is Benita who tells me that when my father left high school, he worked in the famous Kuznecovs porcelain factory, hand-painting designs onto plates and other wares. When I first visited Riga in 1992, about nine months after the end of Soviet occupation, Benita presented me with a plate featuring a Latvian girl in national costume hand-painted by my father. At the time I was utterly astonished because my father had never told my family about his job in the porcelain factory, or his artistic skills.

Taida on the left of me, Benita on the right

My cousin Mara, holding her French Bulldog, Taida, Benita and Mara's husband Viktors

On the same day that I see the Mājas Grāmata, I also see a picture of my father’s mother as a young woman for the very first time in her passport. I open a thin brownish envelope and unfold a piece of thicker-than-average paper and there is the strong but gentle face of my grandmother staring back at me. I can see how similar my aunt Irina was to her mother, but I can’t really see anything of myself. Ira asks me if I have ever seen this picture before, and I say no, never. It seems so strange to be handling these very personal documents, which evoke very private and subjective reactions, in a public reading room.

Pauline Ozolina's passport, my grandmother on my father's side

On my next visit, there are more faded envelopes and this time I see pictures of Peteris Ozolins, my grandfather, for the very first time in my life. One of the passports is again a folded sheet of paper. When I open it, I am immediately drawn to the photograph in the lower left that shows Peteris from the waist up. He's smartly dressed in a suit and a shirt with one of those detachable starched collars. In one hand, he holds a newspaper or journal, giving him an air of youthful authority. The passport is dated 1920, so he must be twenty-six but he looks much younger. I give a little gasp when I see that on the right hand corner of the page is an official, smudgy blue fingerprint of his index finger. I run my own finger gently over the surface.

Peteris Ozolins, my grandfather, first passport

In another envelope there is a passport booklet and I am a little distraught when I open it and see the word ‘Anulets’ (Anulled) stamped in blue with the date 15 August 1932 hand-written beneath. The same stamp was on the previous passport too, but here it seems harsher and more final. I turn the page and here is another picture of Peteris, older than in the folded passport, and I immediately see the similarity to my father – the high forehead, the hairline, the structure of the face - he is very handsome, as my father also was. On the page opposite the photograph, it states that my grandfather had registered in the army reserve until I January 1935; on page 10, that he died on 26 July 1932. There is also a third document which is difficult to interpret because it is covered in notes in various handwritings, but it appears to have been issued in 1920 or 23 and records my grandfather as a fugitive of war. The final document I view is his baptism certificate. It is a complete surprise because it is beautifully handwritten in Russian and shows that my grandfather was baptised in the Russian Orthodox church. A friend who is an historian explains that this was very common around the late 19th century, and that many Latvians converted to Russian orthodoxy, apparently under the promise of being allocated parcels of land by the Russians.

My grandfather's second passport

My grandfather's baptism certificate

The next document I view is about my mother’s family and it’s in a large folder with hundreds of pages that are the 1935 census records of the Kandava district. The records themselves, while numbered chronologically, are in no logical order and I have to go through them one by one until I find the one that lists the Berzins family. It is number 461 and is so close to the end of the pile that by the time I get to it I have almost given up hope that it exists. But there it is, and as with the other documents I have viewed, I feel a small rush of excitement mixed with anxiety as I read the information it contains. It states that my mother’s family live at Valdeki on the property owned by Antons Benjamins in a building that has seven rooms. It also lists the following sanitary conditions: drinking water from a tap (the other options are a pump, a well, a lake, a river); lighting is electric, and the toilet is inside the house rather than outdoors. My mother told me that this was the first place she lived where there was an indoor flushing toilet, and now that small fragment of her past is confirmed in an official census document. There are twelve people listed on form 461, with the Berzins numbered 1-4. My grandfather is recorded as a farm hand, my grandmother as a worker, and my mother and her brother as workers’ children. There are four other farm hands on the list, plus a mechanic and a gardener.

Page 461 of the 1935 Kandava District Census

The final documents I view are my grandfather Alberts wages booklets from when he worked at the Rutenbergs/Metils Chemical Factory in Sarkandaugava. At first I am confused about why there are two booklets, both from the same factory, but then I see that one is recorded under Soviet rule and the other under German rule. In the latter, it shows that my grandfather worked his way up from being a labourer, to a distiller, to a shift work manager, and that he earned 140 Latts per month. In the Soviet booklet, his profession is listed as ‘Meistars’ or foreman and his wages are in roubles. He earns around 235 per month and amounts are subtracted for rent and community cultural relations. The cover and first pages of the Soviet booklet bear the statement ‘All workers of the land unite!’ followed by quotes from Lenin and Stalin.

The cover of my grandfather Alberts Berzins' wages booklet under Soviet rule

Inside my Grandfather's German occupation wages booklet

I am not sure how to react to this striking evidence of two different occupations of Latvia during World War II, occupations that shifted back and forth in a very short space of time. The history is complex and begins with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that gradually saw the Baltic States come under Soviet rule. In June 1940, Latvia was occupied by Soviet military forces and a staged election was held in which there was only one approved list of Soviet candidates. As a result of this ‘election’, on 5 August 1940 Latvia was formally announced as the 15th Soviet republic. On 14 June 1941, or day of terror, there were unannounced mass deportations of around 15,500 people, including children, who were sent to labour camps, mostly located in Siberia, for suspected anti-Soviet leanings. Shortly afterwards, on 1 July 1941, the country was occupied by Nazi German forces, who seemingly ‘liberated’ the country from Soviet terrorism and prevented plans for further mass deportations – but of course, under the horrific policies of the Nazi regime, most of the Jewish, gypsy and other ‘undesirable’ sectors of the population were exterminated or sent to concentration camps. Both the Nazis and the Soviets conscripted thousands of Latvians into their armies during the war. In 1945 Soviet occupation was reinstated, followed by another deportation of around 42,000 people, many of whom were farm workers who resisted collectivisation. My mother’s family were part of a huge wave of refugees – I believe the total is around 200,000 - who left their homes in 1944 to escape living under the Soviet regime. My mother’s family followed thousands who fled to Germany.

I sit at the desk in the archives, a little stunned and overcome by everything I have viewed. On the one hand, the documents are very ordinary, offering simple facts about everyday people; but on the other, they are super-extraordinary. They provide more than just factual information about members of my family – they offer a tangible link to the past, direct proof that this is where I am from, that this is my history. I want to bundle up everything and take it with me, but of course, this is not just my story – these little details of individual lives form part of the larger puzzle of a country that has been fragmented through occupation by one power after another, struggling between two outrageous systems of government.

I fill in many forms with Ira’s very patient assistance to request copies of all the documents. Scans are very expensive – around $20 per image – and I order three of these and collect them before discovering that it costs about half this amount per document to take photographs with my own camera. Ira is very understanding about the expense and when she asks me how many photos I will be taking, adds that she will not be standing next to me, watching while I take them.

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