Passages from the book ...
Excerpts from “The Amber Coast”
p.26 – return to Latvia (1990)
“I see everything more clearly now that I am here, at last. The circumstances surrounding my birth were not quite as simple and harmonious as I liked to imagine, but it was one of the very few happy stories my parents told of the war years. In my adult years I learned that 1944, during the German occupation of Latvia, was a desperate, dangerous, hungry time for the people of my homeland. As Soviet troops gathered along its borders, preparing to invade and reoccupy the country, the Wermacht tried to hang on and continue its dreadful work. The Latvian nation was slated for extinction, both under the Nazis and under the previous Soviet regime. Many people, including most members of my extended family, already familiar with Soviet atrocities, had made plans to flee, first into the Latvian countryside and then out of the country. Possible escape routes were few and dangerous. Latvia trembled in fear on the shores of the Baltic, a once calm sea that had turned deadly, since it was patrolled by German U-boats and dreadnoughts as well as by Allied submarines and warships. Battles took place in the skies over the Baltic, shredding clouds and lives. Escape by sea in small fishing vessels was possible, but it was extremely dangerous, and many lives had already been lost. To head east was unthinkable; to go west, by land and sea, seemed a preferable option.
My homeland’s brief, intoxicating flirtation with independence had lasted a mere twenty years, from 1918 to 1939, but as with the foreign occupations, this experience had marked our people forever. Sovereignty and the right to choose was not something easily forgotten or lightly discarded. Spurred on by the wish to save his family from a terrible fate, Father chose freedom, as did so many other Latvians. They scattered like leaves before a storm, vulnerable, fragile, easily trod upon.”
p.107 – We are refugees in Germany (1945)
“We were assigned to Camp 224/F in Oldenburg, the British Zone. Camp Ohmstede, as it came to be called, was a collection of long, low, wooden barracks lacking the most basic comforts. Originally thrown up by the Third Reich to house its slave workers from Poland and Russia, in 1945, it was turned into a displaced person’s camp for Latvian refugees. In a final act of protest before they left, the now-free slave laborers had destroyed what they could, and had smeared the walls with their own watery feces or a paste of dirt and urine. Some, who were strong enough, had ripped apart the mattresses and had scattered the straw, so that, in places, it stuck to the walls, looking like small, fuzzy animals.
The stench in Barrack 49, to which we’d been assigned, was unbearable, and both Omite and Mama covered their faces with their scarves and tried not to breathe. In a place like that, the future looked hopeless. Did we survive the war only to end up like this, I wondered? Like a great big rumbling avalanche, the years of war had brought everyone to the same, miserable, muddied level. Mama broke down, and for the longest time, would not be comforted.
Each ramshackle building was a warren of rooms with board walls, some further divided by a dingy sheet or a tattered blanket. Bunk beds, a rough board table, a small wooden cupboard and a few nails for hanging clothes were the only furnishings. Until the UNRRA provided us with DDT powder, we shared the straw mattresses with other living things – fleas, bed bugs, lice, – although it is hard to tell what we brought with us, and what we inherited from the former occupants.”
p.168 – Sweden (1950)
The day that Father’s Grundig announced the fighting in Korea, we ate in silence. The unspeakable had happened. I scooped up meat and potatoes, but could not swallow. The silence meant that something too dreadful for words had occurred. Father’s worst fears were confirmed; the Soviets would keep right on swallowing one country after another and only a miracle could save them. Latvia would never see freedom again.
A few Latvians, among them Roland’s godfather, Arvids Klaviņš, who had already risked his life once by escaping to Sweden in a fishing boat, now became determined to reach America. They scratched together enough money to purchase a derelict and no longer seaworthy coastal vessel, with the idea of sailing across the North Atlantic. “I prefer to take my chances at sea, than be squashed on land under the boot of a Bolshevik,” Klaviņš declared, trying to convince Father to join him. Father refused. He admitted that although Arvids Klaviņš was a fine fisherman and able sailor who knew the Baltic intimately, he had no experience in the Atlantic.
“You’re crazy,” Father said, when he realized his friend was serious. “If you had children, you’d understand.” Father watched him go, doubting he would ever see him again.
This time, however, Father was wrong. Months later, news of a miracle arrived. The leaking and overcrowded ship carrying seventy Latvians had landed somewhere, south of Boston. They had been taken into custody by the US Coast Guard, and were being held on Ellis Island.
p.179 – arrival at Pier 21 Halifax, Canada (1951)
He (the immigration officer) welcomed us, but in reality, we were not all that welcome. After World War II, the Canadian Government wanted to increase immigration, but at the same time maintain the British essence of the country. We were not British, but as northern Europeans, we were considered to be a shade more desirable than the peoples of southern Europe, or elsewhere. On May 1, 1947, a date when we had attained the relative safety and comfort of Sweden, but many thousands of refugees still remained in the DP camps of Europe, Prime Minister Mackenzie King had declared in Parliament “…the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population.” When Louis St. Laurent became Prime Minister in 1948, Canada’s immigration laws eased slightly.
p.203 - Canada
One Saturday, when Mother and I were home alone, baking bread – Father attending a meeting of the Latvian Association, Peter at Boy Scouts and Roland outside playing with friends – she confided in me.
“Oh Ilzite, I feel so bad that I carried on with everything for nearly three weeks, not knowing that Papins was gone. I should’ve been aware something had changed, don’t you think?” It was not a question I could answer, so I said nothing, and Mother stroked my arm absentmindedly and continued. “Omite’s your only living grandparent now, you really should know more about her.” I guessed she was not ready to talk about Opapas, yet.
“Your Omite, Marta Alida, was not afraid of anything, not hard work or loneliness or the Bolsheviks.” I stood by the stove waiting for the milk to boil, watching intently as the first tiny bubbles broke the surface. If I looked away, even for a moment, the milk would erupt like a dormant volcano awakening, and spew droplets everywhere. I removed the pot from the element and threw in a large glob of butter that I pushed around with the spoon, and watched it grow smaller and smaller until nothing was left but an, oily, yellow film on top of the once-white milk.
“Bolsheviks. That term’s no longer used,” I said in a condescending tone. I had little interest in the Bolsheviks; they were about as real to me as the marauding Mongols centuries earlier. Along with intelligentsia, nomenclature, proletariat, the word sounded so old-fashioned, just like the people that used it. I suspected I was being too hard on Mother, and said no more, as I feared she might stop telling me her story. To be fair, Mother only rarely used such words; they fell more often from my father’s lips. I stirred the milk and butter mixture around and around, willing it to cool, so I could add the yeast.
“All right then, Soviets, Reds, if you don’t like the word Bolsheviks, but that’s what we called them.” Mother tested the temperature of the milk with the tip of her finger, before adding the yeast. “I wish you’d just listen sometimes. It’s important to know these things. Something could happen to me, just like that, and you’d never know. Like that!” Mother clapped her hands together, sending a white cloud of flour into the air. I was surprised at Mother’s actions and almost laughed, but stopped when I saw that her blue eyes were brimming with tears. She turned her back and dabbed at them with a corner of her apron, then went on. “Like you, I helped my mother bake bread, but we never had such fine, white flour as this. This is like the sand at Jurmala, sand so fine it stuck to wet skin like glue, impossible to rub off.” Mother shook her head at the memory. “Wheat flour was only for pīragi and sweet cakes; otherwise, we used a coarse, grey, rye flour to make dark brown bread.” Without bothering to measure, Mother scooped flour into the bowl of liquid. When the flour was moistened, she beat the mixture with a wooden spoon for a full minute, reddening with the effort. “Here, now it’s your turn,” she said, handing me the spoon.