Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sarkandaugava - The Red Daugava

My mother’s family leave the Benjamin Estate at Valdeki, Kandava in 1936. My mother thinks they left in 1935 but my grandfather’s wages booklet, which is held in the National Archives, and a photograph taken in 1936 of my mother in Sunday School in Kandava, prove that it was 1936 when they move to Riga to the fairly industrial suburb of Sarkandaugava where my grandfather gets a job in a chemical factory that makes acetone from birch trees. The factory is called Rutenbergs but eventually has its name changed to Metils. I assume the name changes under Soviet occupation.

The confirmation of the beautiful Elina in Sarkandaugava, a relative of the family.
My mothers parents, Marta and Alberts, are in the front row on the right.
My mother is seated on the floor, her brother Gunars is second from left.

It takes about 20 minutes to get to Sarkandaugava on tram number 5, which has a stop very close to my apartment. It’s a drizzly grey day when I decide to go and I spend a lot of time juggling my umbrella and the camera. I want to get off on Ganibu Dambi, near the bridge, because number 40 is where my mother lived before fleeing Riga on 9 October 1944. But she also lived in three other places in Sarkandaugava – Ganibu Dambi 28, Aptiekas iela, and Tvaika iela 11. Ganibu Dambi is a very long and wide road lined with factories and large business that leads over a bridge into the centre of Sarkandaugava. I get off the tram a little too early and end up walking a couple of kilometres more than I intended. I find 28, but there is no sign of a house, just a huge building. I take photos and keep walking until I reach 40. The house is still there, behind a big metal gate and it bears the sign 'Professional Instruments'. I wonder what sort of instruments these might be.

Ganibu Dambi 40

In 1992 I came here with my partner Gerard and we knocked on the door and a friendly man let us inside to look around. The building was originally divided into 4 apartments – two above and two below – and my mother’s family lived upstairs. In 1992 it had been turned into makeshift offices and the man who let us in was operating a wholesaling business of some sort from there. I saw the building again in 2001, covered in snow and sporting a new curved roof. There were security guards watching it then, and I think I even remember guard dogs, so goodness knows what it was being used for. Now the building looks rather unkempt and insignificant. When my mother lived there, it was in the grounds of the factory, behind what I presume to be the same big iron fence. It was in this building that my mother spent the longest period of time in one place in Latvia.

The area behind Ganibu Dambi 40, presumably where the Metils Factory was located

The Sarkandaugava Bridge

The view as you cross the Sarkandaugava bridge

I take lots of photos as I cross the bridge and make my way into the centre of Sarkandaugava. It’s much more run down here than in central Riga and with the exception of the shops looks more like I remember the city when I first came here in 1992. Many of the buildings still have that grey-brown Soviet era aesthetic that I associate with film noir.

Views in Sarkandaugava

I walk down Aptieka iela, (Chemist Street) which is quite narrow but also very beautiful, lined with trees and both grand and modest buildings. My mother can’t remember the number of the house she lived in and so I take photos of any place that takes my eye. There are a few very impressive renovated buildings but I doubt that she lived there. It’s a long street and eventually curves down towards the river, stopping at Tvaika iela. About two thirds of the way down, I am struck by a big building behind a high fence that is set well back from the road. It is a medical institution of some sort and I am later told it was, and still is, Riga’s psychiatric hospital. (My relatives refer to it as the Traka Maja – the mad house.) I shudder to think about the fate of the patients during German occupation.

Views down Aptiekas Iela

The Psychiatric Hospital

Tvaika iela is a major road and is very busy with traffic. I turn left into it with the intention of following it all the way back to the bridge, but after about 500 metres or so, I turn back. There are very few houses, only one other pedestrian in the distance, some industrial buildings on one side of the road and I feel a little uneasy. Over the other side of the river is a huge huge building that must have been a factory at one point in its life, but it is hard to determine what it is used for now, if anything. It has hundreds of small glass windows and must have been incredibly grand in it heyday. I take photos and then head back up Aptieka iela.

The corner of Tvaika and Aptiekas Ielas
The huge, seemingly abandoned factory

This time I notice that Sarkandaugava Library is on the street and I decide to pay a visit – perhaps they have some photos or other information about the Rutenberg/Metils factory. As with all my visits to public institutions in Latvia, I am at first greeted with suspicion, but once I begin to explain what I am looking for and why, people are generally incredibly helpful. I think they are also struck by the way I speak and often remark on how good my Latvian is, but I am not actually convinced because I know I keep getting my endings wrong. There are also times when I get completely confused by a word and mix up all the syllables so that an embarrassing stream of pure nonsense comes out of my mouth. One taxi driver said to me, ‘Oh, you speak such a different Latvian, more like before the war, without all the Russian influences and words like ‘davai’.’ (I must write a posting about language and the use of the word davai.) In most cases I think people are simply amazed that I speak Latvian at all when I literally live on the other side of the earth where the standard language is English. Of course, there are thousands of people who speak Latvian outside Latvia, and who speak it with great competence and without all the silly grammatical errors I keep making.

The Sarkandaugava Library
The librarian takes a real interest in my story and calls her colleague over. I have to go to the National Archives for information about the factory, but they are able to direct me to the locations of some schools that were operating here in the 1930s and 40s. Although my mother went to school in central Riga, in a building at the end of the street where my apartment is located, after a few years she was sent to a local school. I head off in search of the particular school the librarians suggest is most likely to be the one my mother attended. It’s a bit of a walk down a long industrial street, but I eventually find it and it is still operating today. It’s a big brick building with huge trees growing out the front that almost completely obscure it from the street. Later, my mother tells me it’s the wrong school and I feel somewhat disappointed that I didn’t manage to find the right one.

The wrong school

Before I head back to central Riga, I stop for lunch in a local workers’ café with good and inexpensive meals that are paid for by weight. The staff here greet me with the suspicion I have now become accustomed to, and while I’m eating I sense I am being observed by the other customers. When the girl from the kitchen comes out to clear the tables, she stares straight at me with an almost shocked looked on her face. I smile at her and she’s taken aback. It’s an odd feeling, to know that I am being watched by others – but perhaps I’m just being paranoid. I have a coffee and take the tram home.

* * *

My mother first went to school in Kandava at the age of seven, which is when all children start their formal education in Latvia, even today. In Kandava there was one class for all ages of children and my mother received no formal teaching as such. She had an exercise book in which she copied what the older children were doing and also did some embroidery work, but otherwise, she was allowed to do what she liked. It was only when she moved to Riga that my mother’s teaching became more structured. When the family moved to Sarkandaugava, she was sent to Kronvalda Ata 23 Pamatskola on the advice of a neighbour who said it was an excellent school. My mother loved it there and made friends with a student whose name was also Mirzda Berzins. This second Mirdza has an older sister who was quite wealthy and had a vineyard, a wine cellar and a car – things my mother would only have been able to dream about.

Kronvald Ata Pamatskola 23, just down the road from the apartment I was staying in.
When I arrived it was being renovated; when I left the renovations were close to completion.

My mother tells me a story about Kronvald Ata school. She is about nine years old and has failed to do her homework or some other task and as a result is sent home to get her parents’ signature in her work book. Instead of doing as she is told, and possibly getting punished by her parents for her oversight, my mother decides to go and wait in Kronvald Park, which is adjacent to the school, until she thinks classes have finished for the day. She sits on a park bench for what she believes is an incredibly long time but after boredom sets in, heads home. Of course, her estimate of the time is way out and it is still quite early when she returns. When her mother asks her why she is not at school, my mother tells her that the teachers have declared a holiday – and my grandmother apparently believes this story. By chance, my mother’s grandmother is visiting at the time and my mother tricks her into signing the work book by covering the teacher’s comments with a piece of paper. The story is of a simple childhood prank, but it also reveals something about my mother, suggesting a certain sense of confidence, resourcefulness – and even defiance - that I don’t believe I have inherited. I don’t think I would have had the courage to come up with the lie about the school holiday – and then to say it with enough conviction to persuade my mother it was true.

After about three years, my mother is sent to Sarakandaugava Pamatskola 13, which is closer to home and doesn’t require tram travel. It is also where her brother, Gunars, who is five years younger than her, begins his education. My mother is not happy about the change because she loves the Kronvalda school, but she has no choice in the matter. She suspects that her parents make the decision based on saving the cost of tram travel to school six days a week, (there were classes until midday on Saturdays at that time). And I assume it may also be associated with moving to Aptiekas or Tvaika ielas, which are in the centre of Sarkandaugava, from Ganibu Damba 28 which is closer to Riga’s centre.

When she reflects back on her interrupted education, which ended before she could finish high school, my mother says she was disappointed that her parents never showed any real interest in her studies or encouraged her to pursue a good education. She was a bright student and did well and believes she could have achieved more in life had she received some direction at home. While I can understand my mother's disappointment, I also suspect that my grandparents just didn't know how to give my mother the support she wishes she had been given. As a result of this lack, my mother - and also my father - constantly reminded me and my sisters that our most important duty was to study hard at school and that if we focussed on our education, the world would open its doors to us and we could achieve anything we desired.

Sarkandaugava Pamata Skola 13. My mother is in the very back, right in the centre.

In Sarkandaugava, my mother suffers very poor health. She is extremely thin and remembers that if she pressed her fingers into her belly and sucked her breath in hard enough, she was able to feel her spine. At the age of eleven she has her appendix taken out in the Stradins Private Clinic. Ordinarily, her family would not have been able to afford private health care, but the country is under Soviet rule at the time and the general public are given access to treatment in private hospitals. The operation is performed by Dr Stradins himself, who was planning to use a local anaesthetic to remove the appendix, but because my mother makes such a big fuss, crying and yelling, she is given ether through a face mask.

Later, when she is living in Tvaika iela, my mother becomes very ill with pleurisy, which is then followed by rheumatic fever and an extended period of time in Riga’s Second Hospital in Pardaugava, on the other side of the river. The hospital’s website reveals that Dr Pauls Stradins was the key founder of this hospital and is considered Latvia’s most significant contributor to advances in medicine. As a result of her illness, my mother misses out on a year of schooling.

In May 1943, at the age of sixteen, my mother is confirmed in the Jauna Gertrudes Baznice, a Luthern church on Freedom Boulevard. (She is top left in the photo.) In the same year, she sits an exam at the Teachers Institute in Jelgava, but while she does very well, it is recommended that she attend Riga’s Valsts Komercskola instead, a high school that has more of a commercial focus. I wonder if this decision is made for my mother on the basis that her family are not well off and it would be more appropriate for her to make a career in the commercial rather than academic sector. The Komercskola is on Kronvald Boulevard, right next door to the primary school she loved so much. My mother spends only one year in this school before the family flees from Latvia.

The tram stop outside Kronvald Ata Pamatskola, which was my regular tram stop.
The building on the left was apparently Rigas Valsts Komercskola, which my mother
attended for one year before leaving Latvia.


Anonymous said...

Dear Brigita,
I have been following your adventures with great interest as I make my own, less focussed, journey through Europe. It has been a wonderful experience 'accompanying' you and at times has filled me with envy in that I know so little of my own family history, despite the fact that much of it exists in Australia for the best art of two centuries! Perhaps it will inspire me to discover they journeys of some of my own ancestors. In reading your blog I have experienced an astonishing range of sometimes quite difficult emotions that no doubt derive from wondering about one's own sense of place in the world. I think 'The Journey' is a truly remarkable project and look forward to vicariously completing it with you. Best wishes, Robert

Brigita Ozolins said...

Hello Robert - thanks so much for your comments! Gerard told me you have been following my journey and were hoping we might catch up in Paris. Alas, I've had to change my itinerary and won't be going there. Could you please send me your email address - I only have the old Christies one! best and cheers, Brigita

Mook said...

Hello Brigita - about the popular word "davai" - when I first moved to Rīga I was always greatly amused by my native Latvian friends, who would often finish telephone conversations with the following string: "Ok. Labi. Davai, Ciao!" After 7 years here it doesn't seem so strange, but back then the combination of four languages in the "signing off" part of the conversation seemed hilarious and quite exotic!
Marianna Auliciema