If you’re like most Americans, you need a map to remind yourself where the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are. These three countries, lying south of Finland and abutting the western border of Russia, were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until declaring their independence in 1991.
If you’re like me, you are unfamiliar with the history, geography and culture of Latvia, a country about one-fourth the size of Oregon and with half as many people — 2 million vs. the 4 million living in this state.
But if you’re me, then you count yourself lucky for two reasons: One, for having met a talented journalist whose upbringing in Washington state by Latvian refugees served as a singular reminder of that country’s presence. Two, for having seen that young woman evolve from the earliest stages of a reporting career to a nonfiction writing professor and author of a book about one family’s tale of loss and survival during World War II and their reconnection after the war.
Released this summer, the book is a profound memoir that is at once eye-opening, soul-searing, sad and uplifting. It is the story of Inara’s grandmother, and her great-aunt, Ausma, born 14 years apart in Latvia and how their family was ripped apart during the Second World War.
Livija fled Latvia with a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son (Inara’s father) to escape the bombs and general mayhem caused by Russian troops in their zeal to drive out the German forces that had earlier invaded the tiny country. Ausma was sent away to Siberia along with her parents and disabled older brother. The two sisters would not see each other again for more than 50 years.
It is a compelling work of literature, blending historical events and geopolitical drama with family stories, Latvian folk tales, and the retelling of wartime memories that left me in awe of the human will to survive in the face of daunting physical and emotional challenges.
In short, it’s everything I hoped for — and, frankly, have come to expect — from my talented friend.
Twenty years ago, Inara Verzemnieks joined The Oregonian as a police reporter in one of the newspaper’s suburban bureaus. She had graduated from the University of Washington in 1996 and excelled as a summer intern on the features desk at The Washington Post.
I was The Oregonian’s recruitment director when we hired Inara late that year, and then became the bureau chief in the office where Inara launched her full-time career. I had the pleasure of editing this precocious young woman whose passion for storytelling was matched with a fierce intellect and an ability to connect unseen dots.
In short order, she moved to the downtown office, became an arts writer, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2007. After 13 years at The Oregonian, she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was accepted and now teaches in the same graduate writing program whose faculty and graduates include Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. (In fact, her prose reminds me very much of Robinson in tone and precision.)
When Inara visited Portland in late July to read from her book, more than 100 former colleagues and subjects of her stories in Portland crowded into the room at Powell’s Books.
(Click on images to view captions.)
She told us she’d been collecting stories about her family for years, growing up in Tacoma with her refugee grandparents and occasionally visiting her Latvian relatives, but the book began in earnest in 2010.
“Because I’m interested in people’s stories, I became a storykeeper,” she told us. “It took a while for me to put myself inside those stories. It took a long time to see what part of that story was mine.”
“Taking time allowed me to discover who I was,” she added. “I was trying to do the journalist’s dodge (of writing about others rather than one’s self). I realized I couldn’t tell a story without telling my grandmother’s story…or my own story.”
It is in the telling of these individual stories — of Livija’s survival of years as a refugee, of Ausma’s endurance during unimaginably harsh conditions in Siberia, and of Inara’s epiphanies in researching her family’s past — that one is able to better grasp the horrors of war and its effects on innocent civilians. Knowing what they have survived makes it all the more remarkable to appreciate their efforts to reconnect as siblings, husbands and wives, parents and children and to share those stories with grandchildren like Inara.
The book serves as a microcosm in so many respects.
- It lays out a condensed history of the Latvian people and the culture they have proudly maintained through the centuries in a place a 13th-century pope called “the edge of the known world.”
- It captures a snapshot of the country’s military history during the Second World War, a sad chronology of events that includes the mass deportation of men, women and children to Siberia; the murders of 70,000 Jewish Latvians by German troops and fellow Latvians; the panicked flight of Latvians escaping their homeland at the end of the war for the West.
- It conveys, with tenderness and admiration, the resilience that enabled so many exiles to overcome the psychological and physical hardships of Siberia’s unforgiving landscape and to piece their lives together again back in Latvia.
I could quote from any chapter in the book to give a sense of the elegant writing. This paragraph, in particular, touched my heart. It is one where Inara is pointing to a portrait of her great-aunt Ausma and her brother in Siberia, posing with another couple in a room with rough white walls — the women looking off to the left, the men looking directly into the lens.
Later, in the state archives in Riga, I will find hundreds of photographs like the one Ausma showed me of the white-walled room in Siberia, the same composition, but different faces, the work of enterprising itinerant photographers who roamed the region’s remote settlements, proposing to snap the portraits of the exiles who lived there in exchange for whatever they could offer in return. Scavenged berries. Socks. Sewing needles fashioned from fish bones.
“For the exiles, it was worth the sacrifice of their most precious commodities. Portraits offered proof of life. They resurrected the banished, restored them to sight, so that it was a possible to imagine they existed once more in the world of the living. In some of the portraits, I notice the women are wearing a similar dress. It takes me a while to realize that it probably is the same dress, passed from one exile to another so that each might feel she looks her best for the photographer.
The book is getting great reviews, including this one from The Washington Post.
I’m so happy for Inara. I’m also indebted to her as one reader who’s now better informed about Latvia and enriched by her storykeeper talents.