Communicative memory through three or four generations of family

I love browsing through my grandmother’s photo albums, especially, searching for visual glimpses of her life before or during World War II, before and during the Soviet, then Nazi and then again Soviet regime. There are not many photos to find.. First of all, they were a simple farming family who did not have many photographers around their village. Secondly, the war, deportation of her parents to Siberia, confiscation of their family farm, scattering of family to all corners of Latvia and Lithuania, hiding in the post-war years… I am amazed that there are any photos left at all.

This is possibly the last photo of my great-grandparents Jānis and Margaret (sitting in the middle) and their eldest son Miķelis (on the far left) enjoying life, family and friends at their farm in Butinge, Lithuania. This territory belonged to Latvia until 1921 therefore most of the local population in surrounding area were Latvians. The photo could be taken circa 1942-1943. In the autumn of 1944 their village was again taken over by the Soviet troupes. In 1944 two of my grandmother’s brothers, including Miķelis, crossed the Baltic Sea as refugees and in 1948 my great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother (who was well into her 90-ties) were arrested and deported to Irkutsk region in Russia.

They were allowed to return to Latvia only in 1957, few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. They had nowhere to go since the farm was confiscated, except move from place to place to stay with their children who themselves were struggling to find places to live. Plus, anyone, who had been deported, carried the sentence of “enemy of the state” for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to re-settle. You were discriminated and marked (as if with leprosy in Jesus times) and some avoided you for fear of the regime.

For anyone who follows the science of memory politics, social, collective and cultural memory, etc, you may be familiar with Aleida Assmann and her well-known  thesis about communicative memory which is limited to the recent past. “It evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.”

Here is my family. Almost 80 years since this photo was taken. Three to four generations that are connected with a particular memory, a particular story and this story tells of a very deep trauma. There is the first generation – my grandmother, her siblings, her parents – who experienced it first-hand. Often if the experience has been very traumatic, this generation becomes the “silent” generation, focusing on survival. In our family, this would be my grandmother’s generation. But there was an added layer of trauma – in the Soviet Union they were not allowed to talk about it. These memories were simply “erased” from public memory and official history because they did not match the ideology of the regime. When the memory is repressed, there is no chance for healing.

Then there is second generation which grows up with these “silent” parents. Even though my grandmother has never been the silent type, she was afraid to tell many details of her past to her children and grandchildren. Not until Latvia started shaking off the totalitarian Soviet regime and became an independent country again. Suddenly there was a flood of stories. Being the fourth generation in this chain of communicative memory, I now regret that I did not ask more questions before my grandmother’s memory got badly damaged by old age and before my mom passed away from cancer.

Recently I got a stark reminder how deeply this trauma still affects the older generation of Latvian society. My grandmother is the most cheerful, positive person I know but she started to complain about bad nightmares which she could never remember the next day. Only word she kept repeating was “mud” and “wading through mud”. One morning while I was staying with her few weeks ago, she woke up from another one of those nightmares. Only this time she could remember it and described it to me in vivid detail.

She dreamed of being arrested and taken from her home, loaded into an open truck together with a large group of other women (she told me there were no children and nobody had luggage) and driven through Siberian taiga. When I asked her what time of the year it was in her dream, she replied: “Oh, it was late autumn. There was no snow on the ground but there was mud everywhere. Very deep mud. The truck kept getting stuck in the mud and we had to wade through this mud. It was horrible.” And she kept repeating: “They were taking us to the death camp. They were going to kills us there and we knew that this was our last journey.”

The thing is… my grandmother herself was never deported (someone had warned her and she went into hiding). Her parents were and so were many of her neighbors and friends. This was a collective trauma which affected so many families in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In Latvia alone, on March 25, 1949, approximately 43 000 people were arrested and deported to Siberia. It took 31 train cars to transport them on the long journey across Russia.

I asked grandmother why she thinks she has these nightmares about camps in Siberia if she was never there. Her reply: “No, I was not there with my parents, but I have suffered as much. I have lived in hiding, I have slept in the forests… Those were terrible times.”

When I think I know something, I learn how much I don’t know. Only to realize that healing takes a long, long time and even at the age of 95, this repressed trauma can haunt. And to realize that these communicative memories remind me why we have to be on constant guard against any kind of totalitarian ideology and system. Left wing, right wing, atheist, religious, etc. … I don’t care. Anything that decides who is “in” and who is “out”, who lives if they obey and who dies if they disobey. (I plan to write a separate post on how I see the danger and deception of totalitarian  “seeds”)

Meanwhile my grandmother holds onto these words: “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

Evasive confessions, elusive healing

Years ago I read “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller which had become somewhat a cult classic (and later a movie) among young evangelical Christians. One of the most memorable and provocative stories from this memoir was the story of small group of Christian students setting up a sidewalk confession booth at Reed University campus in Portland, Oregon. It was during a renaissance festival called Ren Fayre, and the booth had a sign “Confess your sins”. Instead of asking people to come inside to confess their sins to the Christians, the Christians were confessing the sins of the church to people who don’t have a religious affiliation. Apologizing for horrible things done in the name of God. Apologizing for inaction toward loving things which God desires.

I am thinking about this story in the context of Lent. Ash Wednesday was not a part of my particular church experience. Neither was Lent with its contemplation and fasting. Even today I admire friends who fast for 40 days. Not only from certain foods and drink, but also from social media and other things. I am always afraid to make  such vows public since breaking too many past promises.

No doubt we need to put new ashes on our foreheads and heads… heaps and heaps. My religious beliefs teach me that it is normal and important to acknowledge brokenness, sin and to repent. It brings healing to ourselves, and it helps us to restore broken relationships with others. At the same time I am fully aware that we, Christians, don’t practice what we preach. Too often I don’t practice what I preach. And one of the most shameful experiences is to be exposed of our dark secrets and efforts to whitewash the sad reality.

We live at a time of so much public exposing. Not knowing what the next spotlight will reveal while struggling to even begin the  process of healing, justice, restoration and reconciliation. Using biblical terms, we could talk about apocalyptic times (‘apocalypses’  means ‘revelation’, not destruction as many think). So many things that were just below the surface are now in the public space and conversation. The hashtag activism  is one strong sign of it like #MeToo movement. And the religious communities are not exempt. I was talking to a Catholic friend, reflecting on the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by the priests, and he said: “I think of it as a time of healing. A chance for the healing to begin…”

I care, and I need to be reminded again and again that it is not about causes. It is about people. I think of the revelations in the documentary ” Leaving Neverland” about the sexual abuse of young boys by the King of Pop – Michael Jackson – and try to understand the backlash from hardcore fans who simply do not believe these testimonies. And the haunting questions asked again – how was it allowed to go on so long? Why do we have such a hard time facing hard truths? Like idolizing people with fame, money, power, talent and charisma and then being shocked that someone uses their status and power to manipulate and abuse.

We rage against the corruption of our elites and then we turn violent and smash things which are not ours and search for scapegoats to unleash our anger (yes, I am hinting at protest movements which have radical groups that start acting like a classic, violent mob). There is no better to say it than the words of  Martin Luther King:  ” Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

In Latvia, we are in the midst of our own public exposures. Emotionally and psychologically charged but with very few confessions. Like publishing the KGB files to look at our collective past under a totalitarian system. Learning that every answer brings more questions and there are many shades of ‘truth’. Hoping for at least some honest acknowledgement of collaboration and realizing that this wish and expectation may remain unfulfilled. So far I can think of only handful of people who in different interviews have told their stories of collaboration with KGB quite openly. Only one of those people has publicly stated “I feel very bad about it and I am sorry”. He is a well-know poet who is also a practicing Christian, and he highlighted that his Christian faith drove him to this public confession.

Starting this post I wrote about the confession booth where Christians confess their sins to non-Christians. And immediately wanted to shift or at least share the blame by adding that not only Christians and the church as religious institution have sinned, but so have all of us and all of our institutions. Which would not be a false statement but it proves my point. I am more willing to admit my fault if others start admitting theirs. I don’t want to be singled out. I don’t want to the first. I start protesting “Yes, I have been wrong about this or that. But so have you and him and her and them…”

Our experience shows that an honest confession and taking personal responsibility remains evasive, and it makes the healing and restoration process more elusive.