Monday, November 24, 2008

I love Liepaja

Aija Druvaskalne-Urdze, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Leipaja University

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.

Agnese in the entrance to the Faculty of Arts building, Liepaja University

When my mother’s family decide to leave Riga and head for Liepaja, it’s a very sudden decision. They hear that the Soviet army is invading Latvia from the west and is making its way towards the capital city. It’s 9 October 1944, and a relative asks if they can be ready in two hours. The family pack one suitcase and a box of food and are picked up by truck from Ganibu Dambi 40 and are taken to the railway station.

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.

The port of Liepaja in 2008

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.

Art Nouveau images on the walls of an old building in Liepaja

Inta Klasone, Head of the School of Art, Liepaja University

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.

Studios in the School of Art, Liepaja University

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.

Aina Burija, Manager of the Occupation Museum in Liepaja

The Karostas area of Liepaja has an interesting history and a very distinct character of its own, which is associated with its military past and the architecture. My reason for coming here is to visit the military prison, which was originally built as a hospital but was never used for that purpose. On the way, Agnese takes me to a huge, recently renovated Russian Orthodox church right in the midst of an extensive Soviet housing block area. Its golden cupolas look surreal against a backdrop of rows and rows of apartment buildings. Just inside the entrance are baskets of scarves – we each select one, cover our heads, and go inside. The space is vast and open – no seating as is the way in Russian Orthodox churches – but the architecture is lavishly decorated. A team of old ladies scurry around the edges of the space with mops and other cleaning items. I buy a candle and place it at the central altar, near a huge icon of the Madonna.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Karostas. The housing blocks are obscured by the trees.

We then drive to the military prison, which is much smaller than I had expected. Since the prison opened in the early 1900s, it has been used by the Soviets, the Latvians and the Germans, shifting hands many times, but most of its history is associated with the communist era. It became a museum in 1997 and I am met by one of the founders, who is dressed in a Soviet uniform and gives me a private tour.

The entrance to the Karostas Prison

My guide at the Karostas Prison

Soviet Officer quarters in the Karostas Prison

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.

Karostas Prison Bathroom

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.

Latvia's President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, in a DP camp in Lubeck
front row, second from right

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.

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.

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.