Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Rings of My Tree - by Jane E. Cunningham

Book Review
by Zinta Aistars

The Rings of My Tree – by Jane E. Cunningham
ISBN: 1595263489
Publisher: Llumina Press, 2004
160 pgs.

The monsters and beasts in my childhood bedtime stories were not imaginary. They were flesh and blood and in human form, and usually they wore the uniforms of the Red Army. They marched in my parents’ memories, relentless and cruel, driving them from their homes in Latvia during World War II. My parents were refugees, displaced to camps in Germany in the 1940’s while awaiting sponsors for their immigration to the United States. Although I was born in the States, I have known two homes, two cultures, two languages, two histories, and the stories on which I was raised have become a part of my ethnic inheritance.

Reading Jane E. Cunningham’s book about another Latvian woman’s personal journey as a refugee from Latvia to the United States during the war was like hearing the stories of my parents all over again. What amazed me, however, were the accuracy of perception and a to-the-core understanding of an experience the author could not have shared. Cunningham, after all, is not Latvian. She is an Irish-American living in Connecticut, a teacher, and no closer to the Latvian experience than, well, crossing the street, as it turned out. For 45 years, Cunningham has known and befriended her neighbor, Mirdza Vaselnieks Labrencis. Now a woman in her mid-eighties, Mirdza has shared her stories about her home in Latvia and her journey to America with her most attentive neighbor, resulting in this slender but powerful book. Cunningham has even written it as a first-person account—a daring move, but one at which she was surprisingly successful. In nearly every detail and perception, the story is Mirdza’s. It is also the story of most all Latvian refugees.

In the preface, Cunningham notes of Mirdza: “She has entrusted her story to me to record for anyone who thinks freedom is an automatic entitlement or that punishment is a direct result of something you have done.” The trust is well-placed. Cunningham captures the nuances of this woman’s personality and experience precisely and movingly, this survivor who walks now with a limp as a reminder of war injuries, but a spirit of quiet joy and intensified appreciation for the gift of life so nearly lost. “I have been spared for some reason,” notes the elderly woman. “I don’t think God would be happy with me if I wasn’t happy back.”

Born in 1920 in this tiny country on the Baltic Sea, Mirdza recalls a childhood that flourished in freedom. The thought that she would lose that freedom and everything she had thus far known as her life by 1939, when the Soviets forcefully occupied the Baltic States—Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania—was incomprehensible, unimaginable. When the first rumblings of war to the east could be heard, young Mirdza was attending school in the town of Dobele (where my own father was born and that I was privileged to visit at about the age which Mirdza here describes). While the rulers of larger and more powerful countries gathered to negotiate away the land, liberty, and lives of these small nations, she played cards and read favorite books and giggled in youthful innocence with her friends, as yet unaware of what was to come.

The Baltic nations knew oppression. One of the oldest countries still in existence today, Latvia has a bloody and harsh history of one Superpower after another taking control of its land and enslaving its people. Dating in its official history from the early 1200’s, but with cultural roots even further back, Latvia had by World War II known only 20 years of independence. Two decades out of seven centuries. Perhaps the cruelest of oppressors, however, was the one clamoring at her borders now: Russia.

“There was a lot to learn about making concessions in life,” Cunningham writes in Mirdza’s voice about her predecessors and their lessons in survival. “They were survivors. They… knew how to be happy and celebrate even the smallest treasures in life, for they had learned to cultivate happiness from oppressed soil.”

Mirdza quickly begins to learn these same lessons for herself as Communists overtake Latvia. Karlis Ulmanis, then president, disappeared into Russia, presumably to his execution, on the night of June 11, 1940, along with thousands of other Latvians. Overnight, the Communist Party became the only government allowed, and anyone who was a threat, or was perceived as a threat to this brutal ruler, was deported to Siberia, usually to their death. Town officials, newspaper journalists, municipal workers, church leaders, leaders of educational institutions, teachers, business owners, landowners, anyone with a voice that was known to be outspoken was added to the list of those destined for deportation, and, in most cases, death. Joseph Stalin had used his sickle, emblem on the red flag of Soviet Russia, to “decapitate Latvia’s freedom.”

“Latvians of my generation remember the dates of June 14-15, 1941, the way Americans remember December 7, 1941. These two days and the week after mark the first official Soviet Mass Deportation of Latvian from their homeland, taking them to either their execution or the Siberian hard labor camps… Only Communism would reign from now on… Each day and night we lived in fear, holding on to all that we were—Latvians of good character who lived by the Golden Rule. Thousands of good-living citizens were literally rounded up on that June night by Soviet armed guards and put, sometimes thrown, into trucks and hauled away to be shoved into cattle cars at the train station for their ride to Siberia… well educated, civil people who paid the ultimate price because of Stalin’s egomaniacal, despotic fervor for our fertile land and its gateway to the Baltic Sea. The Soviet sphere was not a matter of race, creed or color. It was political ideology gone berserk.” (pg. 11)

Yet another crucial understanding of this tiny country’s position in the war that Cunningham brings to Mirdza’s story is the bloodied rock and hard place in which Latvia found itself during the German-Soviet War between Stalin and Hitler. How to choose? Which way to run? How does one survive in this hell between two crazed despots? Flung between one army and the other, those left behind after the Soviet deportations either fled as refugees or marched into battle. While few had sympathy for the German side in the war, many felt that they had a better chance of survival, and a better chance to regain their freedom, with the Germans than with the Russians. Germans would swallow the country’s culture, turning it into everything German. Many believed, however, and rightfully so, that to side with the Soviets could only mean mass death and deportation. To those caught in the middle of this grist, learning to trust no one, to always watch one’s back, to reveal nothing, became the means of survival, which continued throughout the Soviet years (Latvia finally regained her independence from Soviet Russia in November 1991).

Mirdza’s story tells of her time under Communist and German rule, learning to “roll with the punches” of two Superpowers as they moved their borders back and forth across Latvia. “As fervently as we were not Communists, we were not German National Socialist collaborators or sympathizers either. Latvia was forcibly occupied… When your country is no longer your country and army trucks and tanks go up and down the road where only a few cars and horses with wagons used to drive, it is impossible to forget that life is moment by moment, breath by breath… always on the edge of disaster. No one was safe.” (pg. 19)

A decision had to be made. To stay and or to go. Both options were a life risk. Both involved an end to life as Mirdza and her people had known it. Eventually, Mirdza joined many and became a refugee. “Latvians were becoming like lemmings going to the sea to save themselves from the barbaric Russian bear.” (pg. 24) Mirdza was separated from her family, believing them all lost to the war, a young woman alone, running for her life.

To survive—“where there is life, there is hope”—Mirdza undergoes a psychological shifting in her spirit and in her psyche. “Inside my still anesthetized cocoon, the soul of the self is changing. This forced-by-war metamorphosis was a lonely place to be, and yet it seemed to be a place of unconscious, unfolding change that surfaced through a new, foreign determination that surprised me. Survival is a funny thing… tied to self-respect. The greedy monster ministers of war had separated my family, killed some of my friends, issued a warrant for my life, bombed my house… raped and pillaged my country and took away the normal use of my left side… the caterpillar in my mind was losing its slow-crawling legs and I have no idea when the wings of courage developed, but there was a flapping inside of me.” (pgs. 31-32)

Pushed to its limits, human nature shows its true colors and true fiber. A frightened girl emerges a strong, determined young woman, doing what she must to survive and to establish some semblance of a new life for herself. It is not in her nature to be bold, Cunningham writes of her heroine, nor is it the nature of a nation to be subjected to the depravity of war. Those who cannot adapt—die. Those who find wings and tap into a core wisdom of resilience—live. Mirdza makes a decision to live.

To survive one does what one must, sometimes shutting off the mind, other times shutting off the heart. When required, both are called back into action. Cunningham writes of Mirdza’s life in German refugee camps with a compassionate honesty, never glossing over Mirdza’s very human moments of weakness, but letting her moments of personal heroism quietly shine in their own illumination. When Mirdza meets a Latvian man in 1948, she marries him, sensing that two survive better than one. At the birth of her first child in 1950, her battered heart opens fully to allow her to feel the first real love she has known—as a mother for her son.

When a sponsor offers Mirdza and her family an opportunity to immigrate in 1950 to the United States, she knows a sustaining gratitude. “It took a lot of love for people in the allied countries to sponsor the displaced persons after the war, and it was not an act of kindness that we took for granted.” (pg 132)

But Mirdza finds that being an immigrant carries with it a stigma that blinds those who will not see. From those who cannot see beyond the fatigue and poverty of the refugee, who cannot fathom that other cultures are no less valuable than their own, in America she encounters a new kind of bigotry and another variation of oppression. “Maybe because I was born in freedom and raised in a household of properness and had a good, solid education in many disciplines, it did not occur to me that I would ever be considered less valuable than anyone else or discriminated against simply because I was a displaced victim of war. I never once thought that some Americans or anyone in the world could think less of someone who had never done anything wrong to them.” (pg. 132) The family sponsoring the Latvian immigrants eventually asks if they might have Mirdza’s son (they are childless), as if to immigrants a child would mean any less than merchandise to barter, and they offered acres of land in exchange. With all that war does to the survivor, values as deep seated as a mother’s love, however, are unchanged, and Mirdza and her family eventually break away from their sponsors and form a new life in a new home. Hard work does not slow them; their debts are soon paid, and with time they have a home of their own.

Mirdza’s family continues to feel the sting of discrimination. Because of her foreign accent, she is assumed to be uneducated. Because of her background in a different culture she is assumed inferior. Finding a community of other Latvian immigrants becomes a lifeline to sanity. In her home, she senses the ostracization of her neighbors, but in her Latvian community she relaxes into creating a home in exile. When at last one neighbor crosses the street to knock on her door and speak to her, take the time to get to know her and listen to her story of survival—Mirdza’s warmth unfolds.

It is this story that becomes her bridge to acceptance in her home away from home. Many years later, Mirdza is able to connect with her father, for long years thought killed in the war, but still alive in Soviet Latvia. A correspondence begins between one world and another that cannot always cross cultural differences. When the time comes that Latvians from behind the Iron Curtain are allowed travel to the United States, Mirdza is eager to show off her new home. So much to see, she notes, historic sites, great cities, immeasurable abundance. But for those who are coming from the Soviet Union, it is the American grocery stores that hold the greatest fascination.

“With eyes practically popping out of her head in the produce department of a super-size grocery store, my normally reserved sister whispered her questions to me in Latvian: ‘How can you just walk around this orange lying on the floor? Why do Americans just let food lie on the floor and not pick it up? Why is there one entire aisle for dog and cat food? Are American animals that difficult to feed? Why is there a pharmacy in a grocery store? How many kinds of shampoo do Americans need?’ By the time we got back to my house not only was I exasperated from trying to explain capitalism, but I realized that her world and mine could never mesh again. The war and development of an evil ideology had truly separated our daily lives… Instead of being bowled over by American abundance, I think she was disappointed by our careless treatment of it.” (pg 156)

On the other hand, Mirdza also realizes that her sister from Soviet Latvia cannot comprehend the constant and typically smiling American face. Smiling now herself, Mirdza acknowledges, “I couldn’t answer her… through my own lasting grin. I was so American… Smiles come from freedom.”

In 1994, Mirdza returns to a free Latvia, 50 years after leaving as a refugee. She visits the graves of her parents. She visits her sister, whose now pleasant and quiet, easy-paced life in free Latvia bears little comparison to her own in the United States. War changes everything. Perhaps the only thing the two sisters have in common anymore, aside from their roots and their language, is that both teach their children to count the years of a tree by the growth rings in its wood.

Cunningham’s account of a story so far, surely, from her own as an Irish-American living in Connecticut is testimony of the ability to bridge two cultures and two very different perspectives on life to form very human bonds of friendship. This slender volume is highly recommended for anyone willing to take a moment to appreciate what makes us all different… and what makes us all the same.

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