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)

The surreal reality called Putin’s Russia

Why call it ‘surreal’ when it is very real and even dear to millions of people? It continues to look and feel surreal to me ‘on the outside looking in’ or ‘looking over the neighbor’s fence’. Metaphorically speaking.

This week I watched a documentary “Putin’s witnesses” by an exiled Ukrainian/Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky who now lives in Latvia (which actually makes me very proud that Latvia now is a haven for Russian dissidents but also makes me very sad that people are forced to leave their true home).  The story focuses on what happens right after Boris Yelcin, the president of Russia, on December 31, 1999 in a televised address to the Russian nation announces that he is stepping down as the president and has chosen a successor – Vladimir Putin. Putin then started as the interim president but already three months later won the official presidential elections and has been ruling Russia ever since.

It is also surreal to think back on that New Year’s Eve. The grandiose 2000! The world was celebrating the start of the millennium as turning some page in a magic book. Some were scared, especially many of my American friends expecting the infamous Y2K with stockpiled shelves, but most were euphoric to be a part of this history. (Actually I don’t remember much from that night.) Meanwhile in Moscow, Boris Yelcin and subsequently Vladimir Putin were making their own history.

Mansky has made a very personal film and things are seen through the lenses of his family. I guess I should not be surprised by the family’s reaction on that New Year’s Eve because they had a much clearer picture on the tragedy of this political decision. Still I was struck by Mansky’s wife Natalya commenting on camera: “I am horrified. We got the strong hand now which so many people want. Will see how the screws will start tightening! This is horrible. What will happen to us now. (…) The world is shaken. It will be afraid of us again.”

Another powerful scene is Mansky’s youngest daughter in the bathtub, holding her breath under the water. She is a shy kid who does not want to be filmed but more importantly – she has picked up the stress and anxiety of her family. And she tries to defy or push it away. But you cannot hold your breath for very long.

Of course, the world reacted with suspicion and shock that a KGB officer could become the president of newly democratic Russia. I remember my own shock was the return of the Soviet anthem. Yes, the lyrics were changed to reflect Russian patriotism but the melody was the same. For everyone still remembering this song about the might and eternal glory of Soviet Union, the real message behind the change was not lost.

The documentary reminded of another surreal aspect of bringing back this Soviet past through the national anthem. How it gets blended with more enduring symbol – the church bells! The choir was obviously made to sound like a church choir and the church bells were to give the whole thing a sense of “sacredness” and “eternity”. How in the world do you glorify the Soviet regime side by side with the traditions of the Russian orthodox church which the Soviet regime tried to completely annihilate!

I pulled off my shelf some books on contemporary Russia, realizing how tragically relevant are Mansky’s personal reflections in the film. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was assassinated in 2006, wrote in her book “Putin’s Russia” (2004): “We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. (…) This is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate. To wait for another thaw to drift our way from the Kremlin, as happened under Gorbachev, is foolish and unrealistic, and neither is the West going to help.”

Another very insightful book is Peter Pomerantsev’sNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” (2014) about his time working in Russian media. “It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom, but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

Doing it step by step while well-meaning filmmakers film for history’s sake, while technocrats drink champagne after a successful campaign for someone who will later remove or even kill them, while people are dancing in the streets because they are recovering some national pride. These kind of modern ‘chimera’ states mutate incompatible truths and make you believe that it is desirable and that you are seeing more clearly than before.

So the “normal” in Russia continues but to me it looks like holding breath underwater. And one day you have to come up from this “reality” to start breathing normally again.

Ask Latvians about the Corner House and take time to listen

This museum  – the former KGB headquarters in Rīga – is not for the disinterested or the deeply traumatized by Latvia’s totalitarian past. In the first group, you quickly realize that this is a very somber space. Every room has soaked up fears, tears and witnessed intimidation, humiliation, broken lives and tortured consciences… For the second group, it is still too difficult and painful to be inside these walls.

The building is a nice example of Art Nouveau architecture, built in 1911 and has served many purposes, but for most of the people in Latvia, it is simply The Corner House. If there was any address that people feared being taken to during the Soviet regime, it was this street corner! The Corner!

Now the otherwise beautiful building has been repainted but the face-lift is on the outside. For many years it stood empty and ignored (and it is still an open question what to do with it). I first visited the Corner House and the KGB prison cells in 2014 when it opened its heavy and intimidating doors to the visitors – local and foreign. First I joined a tour guide speaking in English and got to hear the story as if I was an ‘outsider’. It is a very interesting and revealing experience to try to see your own story with ‘outsider’s’ eyes. At times I wanted to correct the guide if I felt she was not telling the story “correctly” but I resisted this temptation. There is no “correct” way of telling the story but it is important to get the facts as straight as possible and let the people draw conclusions by themselves.

Second time I went to the Corner House together with my grandmother. She was never arrested or imprisoned but she knew people who had been held and tortured by the KGB in these prison cells. This time it was a Latvian speaking group and completely different experience. I could see lots of emotions in my grandmother’s face and those from the older generations. They politely listened to the guide’s stories even though it was difficult to avoid some interruptions and comments. The older generation has lots and lots of stories for anyone who is willing to listen.

The younger visitors were at times visibly shocked. They walked through the cellar as this was a movie. When we went to the upper floors where the KGB operatives and interrogators had their nice and sunny offices, our attention was drawn to the window bars. Installed to make sure that nobody jumps out the window from the 4th or 5th floor! It speaks for itself what kind of place this was where people would try to jump and rather kill themselves.

The English and Latvian speaking tours were very different but both had to do with memories and remembering. How to remember rightly? What do we tell the foreigners and what do we want them to know and to reflect upon? What do we tell Latvians and how do we want to remember this period? How to address and heal the pain of those who suffered from the KGB? How to bring peace to those who ‘broke’ and became KGB informants?  What brings redemption to those who worked for the KGB?

The Corner House does not intimidate anymore but somehow it still casts a dark shadow. And it stands there as a big question mark, “what are we going to do with this KGB past?” My answer? It is more than time for Latvia to turn this particular corner!

The truth shall set us free and it will help us to heal. And I am happy that the process has begun…

Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.

Borders check more than our passports: Story about fault lines

On May 1, I woke up and felt like going to the cinema. Latvian cinema. This year we have many new movies – fiction, documentary, animation, TV, etc. – since 2018 celebrates 100 years of national statehood. Since these movies are also a gift to me as a Latvian citizen, I better go and support and enjoy.

I have seen a few but the documentary film D is for Division” (Wall) by director Dāvis Sīmanis impacted the most. The story of physical and mental boundaries or fault lines between present day Latvia, its Soviet past and its neighbor Russia as in ‘Putin’s Russia’. It hit emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Because this story focuses on ‘today’. We cannot live in the past or the future. I have only the ‘now’ and what impact is my life having on the present and how does the present impact my future.

The film was very open and honest. The director talking about personal fears, anxieties, questions, observations, hopes… about personal and collective memories that divide… about injustices in the past and the present… about us.

In teaching and studies I often use the same symbols because they are so clear and visual – wall, bridge, wall, bridge. What are we building? What do we need most? What are we becoming? Walls separate into ‘us’ and ‘them’, divide, protect and exclude. Bridges connect two sides, provide meeting place, cross over and include. The documentary portrayed many walls and some bridges. Visible and invisible walls between Latvia and Russia, between ‘Homo soveticus’ and people who have shed the Soviet mindset and past (or at least try to shed it), between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between different ways of practicing faith.

Even tough the film in Latvian is called the “Wall”, I see it as a bridge. For sure an attempt to build a bridge from ignorance to awareness, from indifference to responsibility and involvement.

Just a few observations about the different levels of fault lines. First, Latvia (as independent nation, as a member of European Union and NATO) and Russia (Putin’s version of it). The ‘wall’ has gone up high and it keeps going. Latvia would say that we have withdrawn our bridges for the time being. The movie also has great reflections about the life of ordinary people on both sides of the border.

The divisions between those who have moved on from our Soviet past and those who still live in it, miss it and maybe even dream about the return to ‘those glorious days’. There is one guy in the story, Beness Aijo, who dreams of Latvia becoming communist republic again and now fights in eastern Ukraine to see this ‘Soviet’ dream fulfilled there. Obviously these two groups live in different past, present and future. Both have their sacred memories as bonfires to gather around, to tell stories and to feel united. The clear message to the other side  – Do not dare to touch our bonfire!

Today on May 4, people in Latvia are gathering to celebrate our independence from the USSR/Soviet Union. Others, not as many but still a large group, will gather on May 9 to celebrate the victory in WWII but also to celebrate the former Soviet Union. Our collective memories clash and our visions of the present and the future diverge. The film obviously raises the questions and seeks the answers of how to live side by side and how to remember in a way that unites, not divides.

Last but not least. There are scenes from a Russian Orthodox monastery inside Russia where the paintings on the wall depict soldiers as heroes of the past and the present. During the film you see Jesus face on military flags. It is our Christian never ending story and shame that we ‘recruit’ God to be on our side  or that we ‘elect’ Jesus as our leader into the battle. I am glad nobody was sitting next to me as I was fidgeting in my seat and silently praying, “Jesus, forgive us! Forgives us all for we don’t know what we are doing.”

Go and see this film if they show it anywhere near you (with English subtitles, of course) and if you are interested in questions that are relevant not just to Eastern Europeans.

Thank you, Dāvis Sīmanis and the crew, for building this bridge through the camera lens!

Latvian:

Brīvdienā pamodos noskaņojumā, ka gribas aiziet uz kino. Uz latviešu kino. Galu galā jānovērtē tās Latvijas simtgades radošās dāvanas, kas domātas arī man. Un tā diena iesākās ar režisores Ināras Kolmanes “Billi” un beidzās ar Dāvja Sīmaņa dokumentālo stāstu “Mūris.

Un šoreiz mērķī trāpīja Mūris. Trāpīja emocijās, domās, aktualitātē un vispār. Daudzu iemeslu dēļ, bet viens no galvenajiem, ka filma stāsta par šodienu, par mums, par mani. “Latvija 100” ietvaros liels uzsvars likts uz notikumiem pagātnē, kad manis vēl nebija (protams, protams, ka tas ir svarīgi, un no pagātnes mēs gan iedvesmojamies, gan mācāmies). Nākotne man vēl nepieder, taču tagadne ir tepat, un tā ir manējā. Tikpat daudz cik tavējā, jūsējā, mūsējā.

Patika, ka stāsts ir atklāts un personīgs. Par to, ko redz neapbruņota acs, par bailēm, par neziņu, par satraukumu, par bezspēcības sajūtu, par sarežģītiem jautājumiem, par spriedzi un aizspriedumiem, par vientulību, par netaisnīgumu, par pagātnes un šodienas plaisām.

Darbā un studijās man tuva ir izlīguma un kolektīvo atmiņu tēma. Lasot lekcijas ir tik viegli un uzskatāmi izmantot šos simbolus – mūris, tilts, mūris, tilts. Ko mēs ceļam? Kas mums šobrīd vajadzīgs? Kas mēs esam? Mūris, kas atdala ‘savējos’ un ‘svešos’, norobežo, nelaiž iekšā, pasargā no reālām vai iedomātām briesmām, vai tilts, kas savieno divas puses, iekļauj, ļauj satikties, iet vienam pie otra, pat pāriet ‘otrā pusē’. Mūris var būt arī plaisa jeb dziļa aiza, ko nevar tik vienkārši pārlēkt, kā stāstā par Ronju, laupītāja meitu.

Filmā ir gan mūri un plaisas, gan tilti. Mentāli atķeksēju dažus redzamos un jūtamos ‘mūrus’ – starp Latviju un Putina Krieviju, starp Rīgu un pierobežu, starp Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Latvijas sabiedrību, starp Benesu Aijo un Latvijas valsti, starp kolektīvām atmiņām, starp ‘Homo soveticus’ un ‘ne-padomju’ cilvēkiem, starp manu kristietības izpratni un filmā dzirdēto un redzēto. Arī tilti tur bija vairāki. Pati filma, lai gan saucas “Mūris”, manuprāt, ir izcils tilts. Kaut vai no nezināšanas uz zināšanu, no vienaldzības uz iedziļināšanos.

Īsumā par dažiem attiecību līmeņiem.

Latvija un Krievija. Ko tur vēl teikt?! ‘Neredzamais’, bet draudīgais mūris ir izaudzis pamatīgs. Kā zinām, Latvijā teiktu, ka tas uzcelts vienpusīgi no Krievijas puses, un mēs tikai pacēlām jeb atvilkām savus tiltus uz doto brīdi. Un tagad esam spiesti celt nostiprinājumus savā mūra pusē.

Rīga un pierobeža. Varētu teikt arī Rīga un lauki. Latvija ir tik maza, bet tik viegli dzīvot savā ‘burbulī’ un nezināt, kas notiek citur. Kā tur izskatās, ko tur dara, ko tur jūt, kā tur vispār dzīvo. Es tagad rādu ar pirkstu pati uz sevi. Latgalē neesmu bijusi daudzus gadus (labi, man ir neliels attaisnojums, ka pēdējos 10 gadus dzīvoju ārpus Latvijas). Uz Krievijas vai Baltkrievijas robežas neesmu bijusi nekad. Jo parasti lidoju pāri robežām, nevis šķērsoju pa zemes ceļiem.

Filmas epizodes par Draudzības Kurgānu uz triju valstu robežas (Latvija, Krievija, Baltkrievija), un tur rīkotajām 4. maija un 9. maijā svinībām, bija izglītojošas. Cik tur daudz simbolikas! Abpus robežai tiek dejots un dziedāts, karogi vicināti, foto uzņemti, bet svētku saturs tik strīdīgs. Katrai pusei ir savs ‘svētais atmiņu ugunskurs’, ap kuru pulcēties, un viens otram atgādina – Pat nedomā aiztikt vai jaukt manu ugunskuru!

To pašu var attiecināt uz 9. maija svinībām Daugavpilī. Ja godīgi, bija grūti skatīties. Pamatīgi dīdījos krēslā. Visa tā nostalģija pēc ‘padomju’ laikiem, slavas dziesmas un  mazie bērni padomju karavīru formas tērpos. Cik tas viss ir pazīstams no bērnības, un cik ļoti gribas to visu aizmirst! Atceros, ka mans brālis arī saņēma dāvanā padomju jūrnieka formas tērpu, un cik viņš bija lepns. It sevišķi par savu plastmasas duncīti pie sāniem!

Par diviem filmas varoņiem Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Benesu Aijo (nē, es šeit nelieku vienlīdzības zīmi) es nevaru komentēt. Abi ir aktīvisti un patrioti, bet absolūti pretēji mērķi un līdzekļi. Atzīstos, neesmu padziļināti sekojusi viņu stāstiem, tikai no mediju virsrakstiem. Arī 2009. gada notikumu laikā biju tālu tālu prom no Latvijas. Galvenā sajūta, klausoties un skatoties viņu pieredzi un pārdomas, bija dziļas skumjas. Gan par vienu, gan par otru. Tāda vientulība. Pirms 10-15 gadiem mēs staigātu pa vienām un tām pašām ielām, varbūt sēdētu vienās kafejnīcās…

Šķiet, ka filmas viszīmīgākā epizode ir Adwards apbalvošanas ceremonija “Splendid Palace” zālē. Tie kadri vispār likās kā no citas realitātes. Mēģināju saprast, ko tas atgādina, un vienīgais, kas nāca prātā, bija filma “Bada spēles”. Par sabiedrības eliti, kas izklaidējas ar līdzpilsoņu ciešanām. Zāle pilna ar jauniem, enerģiskiem, radošiem, izglītotiem cilvēkiem, kuri bauda sava smagā darba augļus ar vīna glāzi rokās. Varētu teikt, te sēž Latvijas nākotne. Un uz skatuves tiek būvēts virtuālais tilts ar A.A.Bērziņu ar tehnoloģiju palīdzību, bet paliek sajūta, ka starp abām pusēm ir augsts mūris. Gan Ansis, gan Rīgas publika joko un smaida, bet kas notiek patiesībā? Kadra tuvplānā ieraudzīju kādu paziņu, un tagad gribas uzrakstīt un pajautāt, vai viņa atceras to momentu un savas izjūtas un domas. Izskatījās tāda apjukusi.

Tālāk… Ukrainā filmētos kadrus skatīties vienmēr ir grūti. Tās šāviņu un ložu rētas logos, ēkās, rotaļu laukumos. It kā viss jau reportāžās neskaitāmas reizes redzēts, bet šoreiz sāpināja vairāk. Un separātistu štābiņi viesnīcās, kurās vajadzētu gulēt tūristiem, nevis kaujiniekiem. Arī te vairs nav ko piebilst. Smagi.

Un vēl komentārs par reliģiju. Kristietībai pēc manas sapratnes un pārliecības vajadzētu būt visstiprākajam un drosmīgākajam tiltam, bet realitātē tas var būt vislielākais mūris. Kurā pusē ir Dievs? Uz kura karoga ir Jēzus? Ir viegli reaģēt uz sienas zīmējumiem krievu pareizticīgo klosterī Krievijā, kur attēloti pagātnes un mūsdienu karavīri gluži kā svētie mocekļi, kuriem Dievs dāvā īpašu aizsardzību un labvēlību. Var sašutumā grozīt galvu, ko es arī darīju (un atkal pamatīgi dīdījos). Klusībā teicu: “Jēzu, piedod! Piedod mums visiem! Mēs nezinām, ko mēs darām.” Jo mēs visi spējam tikpat pārliecināti likt Dievu savos kara karogos, kara saucienos. Saviem karavīriem ‘piezīmējam’ eņģeļu sargājošos spārnus.

Skatoties filmu, varētu domāt, ka folkloristi ir vislabākie tiltu būvētāji. Tur bija vērtīga un, manuprāt, patiesa doma, ka tikai pazīstot un cienot savu kultūru, mēs varam cienīt citas kultūras.

‘Soveticus’ nostalģijā dzīvojošie arī nejuta nekādas robežas starp valstīm. Viņi īpaši uzsvēra to, ka ir vienoti savā identitātē, ka ir internacionālisti. Tur bija tā simboliska tikšanās uz robežtiltiņa Draudzības Kurgānā. Ļoti gribējās ielīst Latvijas robežsargu ādā un uzzināt, ko viņi tajā brīdī jūt un domā?!

Un visam pa vidu vēl apcietinātie patvēruma meklētāji, no kuriem daudzi Latvijas valsts un sabiedrības acīs ir “nelegālie imigranti”, un bilde top jau pavisam skumīga.

Kā jau minēju, šī filma man liekas spēcīga ar savu aktualitāti. Par tagadni, kuru joprojām ietekmē pagātne, un kura veido mūsu nākotni. Kādu mēs vēlamies šo nākotni? Latvijā un Eiropā! Kā zemi ar dziļām plaisām pēc zemestrīces? Kā mazas feodālas karaļvalstis ar bieziem aizsargmūriem un paceļamiem tiltiem?

Ja pareizi sapratu filmas veidotājus, viņi izvēlas būt tiltu būvētāji. Ar kameru plecā un mikrofonu rokā. Bet, galvenais, ar acīm un ausīm vaļā. Gan fiziski šķērsojot robežas starp valstīm un cilvēkiem, gan savelkot kopā dažādus skatupunktus. Izklausās tik klišejiski, bet nekā gudrāka un vienkāršāka jau nav. Ja gribi saprast, ej, skaties un klausies! Ja negribi dzīvot mūros, ej, meklē patiesību, ceļu uz piedošanu un izlīgumu!

Paldies Dāvim Sīmanim un visai komandai par ieguldīto darbu, laiku un mums visiem uzdotajiem jautājumiem caur kameras aci! Atbildes jāmeklē kopīgi…

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)