Tuesday, March 13, 2018

AMONG THE LIVING AND THE DEAD by Inara Verzemnieks (memoir)

A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

Of all the reading I have done on World War II, I had never given much thought to Latvia and its place during and after the war.   Inara Verzemnieks eloquent and poetic memoir about her search for her roots opened up an immigrant family’s story and shed light on a Baltic country I knew little about.

Inara was born in Tacoma, Washington.  Her childhood was an unhappy one until she went to live with her paternal grandparents.  Her mother was abusive and her father suffered from the effects of the war in Viet Nam and was a stranger to her.  All the love and warmth she received as a child came from her Latvian grandparents.  The ex-pat community of Latvians in Tacoma were committed to keeping up the old traditions and Inara was sent to summer camp every year where the children lived in cabins which were replicas of Latvian wooden farm houses; they sang Latvian songs, saluted the Latvian flag, ate Latvian food and learned traditional Latvian farming.  I have seen this before where immigrant groups in America keep strong traditions alive, but it is dying out as the older generation who brought these traditions die out.

After her grandparents die, the adult Inara travels to Latvia to satisfy the longing she feels to connect her to her grandparents story, a story they avoided speaking of.  She does this for a part of every year for five years.  Inara wants to find the "invisible cities, places constructed of memory.” On her first trip she says, “The road I must travel to reach my grandmother’s lost village is like tracing the progression of an equation designed to restore lost time.  Each kilometer that carries me from Riga seems to subtract five years.”  She travels to Gulbene, a rural farming community, in the northeast part of Latvia, close to the Russian border. There she meets her great aunt Ausma, the last of the old generation and the only one who can shine a light of Inara’s grandmother’s past.

It is difficult for Ausma to revisit the past and for a long time she resists it. She says, “Your grandmother’s stories aren’t my stories." Finally she relents and Inara and the reader begin to understand the complicated past of the Latvian people caught between Germany and Russia.  Inara’s grandfather never spoke of being conscripted into the German army, her grandmother never spoke about the perilous journey she took with young children across war torn Europe to land in refugee camp.  Gradually Ausma tells her the story of being sent to Siberia along with 200,000 Latvians after the war when the country became part of the Soviet Union.  There she was forced to perform hard physical labor.  Along with her family’s story Inara comes to see the thread that connects Latvia’s past to its present as a vibrant member of NATO and the European Union, a past that will never be erased, a past that contains both shame and glory.

Verzemnieks is a beautiful writer and tells a story that might be familiar to many refugee families.  Though it chronicles the past, it is connected to today’s world with its many families fleeing a torturous past, hoping for what can only be a better future. I recommend this book to all readers.

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