At the Spektropia conference, I am introduced to Aija Druvaskalne-Urdze, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Liepaja University. Liepaja is on the west coast of Latvia and is where my mother and her family boarded a ship in October 1944 and headed for Gdansk. When Aija hears that I’m planning to go there, she offers me a lift in the University mini bus and I happily accept. We leave on Wednesday 22 October and the trip takes about three hours. The other passengers are a local Liepajan and two students – Agnese and Elvis, who have been in Riga for the Spektropia conference. I sit next to Agnese in the bus and we talk a bit about art and other things. She is extremely well travelled and has been all over Europe. She has also been to America and tells me she arrived in New York on 10 September 2001.
When I ask my mother what it was like to pack a few things and leave, she says it was not really very traumatic or out of the ordinary. Her family had never had very much in the way of possessions, so there was not very much to pack – and they had also moved from one place to another as a matter of course, going wherever my grandfather could get work. So the concept of gathering belongings and leaving for another location was nothing new to my mother and she says that at the age of seventeen, the idea of leaving the country was also accompanied by an odd sense of excitement and adventure. I can understand this – at that age, the world is just beginning to open its doors to you, and now it presents a completely unknown future. A friend, whose mother is also Latvian and left Riga around the same time, relates a similar story. His mother was a nurse, a few years older than my mother, and for her the war offered the opportunity to leave behind what was a difficult family situation and, despite the obvious danger, swap it for something new and exciting. So while the war was so very horrific in so many and countless ways for millions of people, for some it actually offered the possibility of a new beginning.
The train trip from Riga in 1944 took three days, arriving in Liepaja on 13 October, the day that Riga fell to the Soviets. Today the same journey takes about three and a half hours. During the war the train had to keep stopping and starting, presumably to let military trains through. It was on this trip that my mother met the unknown young man travelling with the sack of books who gave her the copy of Pedejais Pagrieziens, (The Last Bend in the Road) which was translated by her male namesake, M Berzins. On the train there are many wounded soldiers sleeping on bunks behind net curtains - the few civilians that include my mother’s family are not permitted to go near them and stay in their carriage, the floor lined with straw. At Liepaja everyone boards a ship and this is where my mother sees just how badly injured the soldiers are. The ship is bombed several times and some people die from schrapnel wounds, but it manages to set off into the Baltic sea for the port of Gdansk.
There were two streams of refugees heading to sea from Liepaja around this time. One group boarded fishing boats and tried to make it to Sweden, the other went on ships to Poland, following the German retreat.
As we drive into Liepaja, I sit on the edge of my seat, looking out for views of the port. It’s there, on the right, as we cross the bridge into the main part of town. I ask where the railway station is and Aija points to the opposite side of the port. The train runs once a day now, but I imagine that back in the 1930s the timetable would have been more frequent.
I stay in a modern hotel just opposite the main university building and in the morning begin a tight schedule of appointments. Elvis meets me at 9.30 and we head for the Faculty of Arts main building where I give a one hour presentation to a group of multi-media students. I’m not sure what they think of my work or my project, because they are fairly quiet and don’t ask many questions, but they seem interested and Aija tells me that they have a long discussion about the presentation the next day. Both Angese and Elvis tell me that studying fine art in Liepaja is much more exciting and offers more possibilities for experimentation and self-directed projects than at Riga’s Academy of Fine Art (Agnese did a first degree in Riga’s Academy). They have specifically chosen to study in this smaller town, rather than in the capital city, because of the more progressive teaching system.
After my talk, Agnese takes me to another part of town to the Art School. We walk through the market and pop our heads inside a fantastic old building where the stairwell is painted with superb but crumbling art nouveau images. The art school itself has been impressively renovated from the outside but inside, shows obvious signs of its age. As I step into the main office, a photographer starts snapping his camera, recording my first stunned moments as I’m greeted by the head of the school, Inta Klasone. She is delighted to see me and very excited that an artist from Australia is visiting the school. Apparently there will be an article in the local newspaper about my brief stay.
I am taken on a tour, and get to see many of the studios and meet students in the midst of their classes. While the school is progressive, the basics of teaching still hinge on the principles of the Academy, and in most rooms I visit, the emphasis seems to be on realism with a group of students behind their easels, drawing or painting a still life arrangement. But there is also a computer lab where they have the latest Macs and a printing studio with large scale digital printers. Everyone is incredibly friendly and I am invited to speak to a class in the afternoon, but it’s just not possible to fit it into my schedule. Aina invites me to return next year to give a presentation at the school’s annual conference, which will be on the theme of the portrait. The topic links in perfectly with my project about my mother and I plan to return in 2009 to take part.
Agnese then walks me to the Liepaja Occupation Museum where an appointment has been made for me with the manager, Aina Burija, who gives me a personal and very generous tour of the museum’s collection. There is a lot to absorb and I take photographs of many of the displays. There are objects, maps, documents, photographs, lists of names and places, a small installation of a mother living in the gulags, a recreation of the office from which Liepaja’s involvement in Latvia’s independence in 1991 was organised… I am particularly taken by a striking red ballot box from 1940, the year the Soviets invaded Latvia and staged supposedly democratic elections which only listed candidates from one party. The museum also houses a superb collection of cameras and film equipment that belongs to a local resident. I am particularly anxious to see the displays about refugees and displaced persons’ camps on the next floor, but time runs out and I have to leave for my next appointment. I will return to the museum later in the day but Agnese is waiting to drive me to the suburb of Karostas in her car.
The building itself is extremely stark, dank and cold and is only livened by the displays in some of the rooms. I can’t help drawing similarities to Port Arthur, even though the two prisons are a century apart. My guide shows me one particular cell, the size of a modest bedroom, where 50 prisoners were housed simultaneously. He explains that the only way they could all fit into the room is by standing, but he points out two places near the door where it is possible to sit. I wonder if the prisoners devised a rotation system so that each person could get the chance to sit for at least a few minutes. There is a small window close to the ceiling at least 3 metres up, and the walls are painted concrete covered in thousands of markings made by the prisoners. Next door is the bathroom. There are two holes in the floor in one corner, a big flat area nearby with drains which is probably the urinal, and a long trough with a few taps along another wall. All 50 prisoners were given a total of 1.5 minutes twice per day to do whatever they had to do and be back in the standing-room-only prison cell - failure to maintain cleanliness was punished. My guide also tells me that meals had to be consumed within 1.5 minutes and apparently the food, which was usually a gruel of some sort, was served at a very high temperature in metal bowls. The solitary confinement cell is a black hole with a tiny window in the door. The prisoner was permitted to sit for four hours per day – no bed, no blankets - and the other twenty had to be spent standing to attention on a specific spot on the floor. The other cells in the prison had wooden plank beds but there were no blankets and no heating. It seems inconceivable that anyone could survive the winter here, which can get to minus 20 or more in Latvia, and the standing-room-only cell, probably stinking because of the body heat, suddenly seems an attractive option.
I catch a minibus back into Leipaja and return to the Occupation Museum, where Aina shows me the rest of the collection which is all about Latvian refugees and their life in displaced persons’ camps. The display focuses on how Latvians maintained their culture in the camps, establishing choirs, folk dancing and theatre groups, as well as schools, sports groups and guides and scouts. There is even a picture of Latvia’s sixth president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, in a DP camp in Lubeck. Vike-Freiberga was born in Latvia in 1937, ten years after my mother, and also fled the country in 1944 with her family. In 1949 they moved to French Morocco, and in 1954, to Toronto, Canada, where Vike-Freiberga established an academic career of international significance in clinical psychology (she also happens to be fluent in English, French, Latvian, Spanish and German) before taking on the role of steering Latvia back into democracy when she became President in 1999. I take more photos and wish I had more time in Liepaja.
The day has vanished. I say goodbye to the museum staff, pick up my bags from the hotel, take the tram to the bus station, catch final glimpses of the port, and board the bus back to Riga in the dark. It’s along journey and I get back after 10pm. The next day is my last in Riga, otherwise I would have stayed longer in Liepaja. I like the city – it has a very relaxed, easy-going feel - and all the people I encountered were incredibly open, friendly and generous. In fact, I think I love Liepaja. I just feel very guilty that I did not get to the beach, to see the Baltic sea.