Sandra Kalniete // Forced settlement and starvation. An excerpt from the book "With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows" // Latvian Literature 4. Translated by Margita Gailītis.
-Forced settlement and starvation. An excerpt from the book "With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows" // Latvian Literature 4. Translated by Margita Gailītis. Latvian Literature Centre (2003)
Three weeks after parting from Jānis Dreifelds at the Babinino station on the 20th or 21st of June, Emilija and Ligita were nearing the end of their journey. They had already crossed the Ural Mountains and passed through and left behind the cities of Chelabinsk, Kurgan, Petropavlovsk and Omsk, when an order was shouted to get ready to get off at the next station. Throughout the journey my grandmother and mother had not left their wagon. They had not washed nor put on clean clothing. Many of the other women were in precisely the same state since their belongings had remained with their menfolk. The ones, who had been separated from the men in their family already at the “loading” station in Latvia, could at least change into the clean clothes they had brought along even though they also had not been able to wash. Of course this luxury was only possible if at the moment of arrest, overcome with confusion, they had managed to regain their senses enough to take something along for the journey. That is if the Chekists had not arbitrarily forbidden them to do so. Fortunately in my mother’s wagon there were not many small children and, therefore, it was not necessary to stand by and helplessly watch the little ones suffer. The only child in the wagon was Mrs. Balodis’ three-year-old daughter Inta. The young woman was expecting another child, and her only wish was that the hour of birth would not arrive in the train. Her prayer was answered, and the baby was born in the first place of forced settlement. The mother did not have any milk to keep the baby alive due to poor nourishment and her terrible experiences. Thus the baby soon died. Inta survived and together with her mother returned to Latvia.
News of German attack on the Soviet Union reached the train on Midsummer night, June 23rd. This seemed like miraculous news, promising change and an early return to Latvia. For the first time after the dramatic night of June 14th, people’s spirits lifted and hope was again rekindled. In the light of this, even Midsummer night seemed beautiful because, after crossing the Ural Mountains, they were permitted to keep the wagon doors open except when the train passed through cities. Emilija and Ligita gazed at the dark star-filled heavens, sang along with the others Midsummer songs and for the moment forgot the stinking carriage. The songs also issued forth from the mouths of people in other wagons, and it was very pleasant to entertain the illusion that right here, beyond the dark trees, was their own seashore where people were celebrating Midsummer night and joyfully singing. They also talked about dear papa Jānis, whose nameday was the following day. About those lovely things that they would do when they returned to Latvia. There, older brother Voldemārs would take Ligita and Emilija to the Opera, and they both would be wearing the prettiest dresses in the world. Holding their breath they would watch as the lights of the magnificent crystal chandelier slowly faded. And then the music would sound … During all the interminable years in Siberia, this image – the slowly fading lights of the Opera chandelier –had been my mother’s dream symbolising a civilised life that was so unattainable. Now, every time that the both of us are at the Opera, and I gaze at the chandelier lights fading, I know that this is a sacred moment for my mamma. As it is for me.
The train stopped in Novosibirsk. Everyone was ordered to get off and go to the shore of the Ob River, where a gigantic barge lay in wait for them – so large, that it was able to accommodate all the people who had been on the train. They found it strange to walk – they had become so unaccustomed to walking. Some of the smaller children did not even know how to walk anymore. There, at the shore of the Ob River, Emilija and Ligita were able to wash themselves. Without being embarrassed by the all-knowing glances of the guards, the large crowd of deportees washed themselves. It was an almost forgotten feeling of wellbeing to sense the cold, fresh water on their skin. Dirty flesh, wilted and stale, was revived, and together with this revival, interest in their own future fate was revived as well.
The women started to question the guards about their husbands – where and how were the families to be reunited? The standard answer – just get on the barge to clear space for the arrival of the men’s train. It had not arrived yet – the guards said. Hadn’t they seen that they had been the first to leave? Just go on to the place indicated and get ready to wait for the men. The women did not understand that the guards were accustomed to lying because to tell the truth to such a large crowd was dangerous. Even totally worn out women can become uncontrollable in their anger. What the guards said seemed credible. It was true – their train had pulled away while the train the men were on had remained standing in the station. Therefore, their reunion was still to come. When I asked my mother when had she finally understood that these had been false promises and that no reunion and living together had ever been intended, my mother sadly kept silent. She no longer remembered this – she had experienced so much callousness and lies that in her memory everything had become tangled and could no longer be unwound.
After the long train trip my grandmother Emilija had become very thin and weak. She had contacted dysentery from the dirty drinking water that the guards most often drew from the ditches beside the railroad. Supported by Ligita, she somehow staggered to the large barge and there, half-sitting, collapsed. She was not the only one who was ill. Almost all deportees on the train were suffering from the same malady. Ligita soon fell prey to the illness, too, but not in as heavy a form as Emilija. She at least was able to walk. Over the edge of the barge were positioned two wood cabins, where in an unending line stood the ill. Soon after you had been in the hut, you had to stand in line once more to wait your turn again. After a few days of the journey, the first instances of typhus appeared, and the healthy panicked. There was no possibility of avoiding the disease. The deportees were so crowded, with so little space granted for each, that all of them did not even have the opportunity to stretch out to sleep, and thus, half-sitting, half-prone, the sick ones pined away side by side with those who still had managed to stay healthy. At the landing stops smaller boats pulled up beside the barge and groups of deportees were ordered to transfer to these boats. These were sad moments, when the ones who remained listened as their travelling companions departed, until the farewell song sung by the people leaving no longer could be heard. Finally Ligita’s and Emilija’s turn came to transfer to another boat.
On July 10, 1941 after a voyage of more than a week along the Ob River and its tributary Parabel, they reached the kolkhoz “Bolshoy Chigas”, which became the first forced settlement location for my grandmother and mother. At the time they did not know that Latvia was an impossible 6000 kilometres away, which Emilija was never destined to conquer, while Ligita had to cover this distance twice. The first time it would happen was in the spring of 1948, when, with high hopes, the deported children and some young people were allowed to return to Latvia. But after a year and four months the security agencies would recover from such soft heartedness toward the children of the class enemy, and many, among them my mother, were sent back to Siberia like criminals from prison to prison. Only in 1957, after a long sixteen years, the Soviet regime would recognise Ligita Kalniete, nee Dreifelda, as a worthy Soviet person and renew her right to live in Latvia.
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Edited by Valters Nollendorfs