In an episode near the end of her thoughtful and eloquent memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” Inara Verzemnieks accompanies a cousin on her mail route in rural Latvia.
They stop at a crude mailbox nailed to a tree. The mailbox belongs to an old woman who has elected to live alone, deep in the forest. Verzemnieks is drawn to the mystery of this woman and imagines seeking her out to pose the question that infuses her book: “How to live with this hurt?”
Though the circumstances of her early life were grim — a mother who mistreated her and a father so traumatized by his time in Vietnam that he could not adequately function — the hurt Verzemnieks refers to is not directly her own; rather it is something she has imbibed and inherited from the paternal grandparents who raised her, ethnic Latvians who settled in America after World War II.
It is the pain of their exile, the yearning for family left behind and the burden of memories from the war itself — her grandmother’s long, perilous flight across Europe from the Soviet forces, and her grandfather’s service as a conscript for the German Army, about which he does not speak.
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Verzemnieks grew up surrounded by people like her grandparents in the small Latvian expatriate community of Tacoma. She sang in the choir, attended church services and went to a summer camp where children saluted the old flag and received instruction in “the proper mounding of hay.”
Tacoma, she sensed, wasn’t so much where she grew up but where she “learned of the existence of our true home, the one we could no longer see.”
Her family’s true home was in the region of Gulbene, in the northeast of Latvia, not far from the Russian border. More specifically, it was at her grandmother’s ancestral homestead, called Lembi.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, her grandparents succeeded in returning once. After they died, Verzemnieks went as well, spending parts of five consecutive years living with her grandmother’s younger sister, Ausma, one of the last surviving members of her grandparents’ generation.
The book interleaves stories from her grandparents’ past and from Ausma’s, along with Verzemnieks’s impressions of life in present-day rural Latvia, governed by its traditional rhythms, intricately and spiritually fused with the natural world. She is there to experience this life, to connect with her family, but also to gain Ausma’s trust so as to elicit her story.
That story is the complement to her grandparents’, the two together constituting the Latvian national wartime narrative: those who suffered the pain of leaving and those subjected to the pain of staying — which meant life under the Soviet yoke, collectivization and, often, expulsion to Siberia.
Ausma shared this fate. In 1949, she, her mother and her invalid brother were stripped of their beloved farm and sent into the taiga. They survived largely because Ausma withstood grueling physical labor and dreadful privation. For her great-niece’s sake, she recounts this past, even though it often brings her to tears.
One might ask why Verzemnieks puts Ausma through the pain of it all. (Indeed, she asks this herself.) Why is knowing the story so important to her? Describing the feeling of arriving in Latvia, Verzemnieks says it was like her “DNA is singing.” It’s a more vivid way of saying, in the current idiom, that she “identifies.”
Maybe that’s all the explanation necessary in our age of genetic and genealogical fascination. Who doesn’t want to know where they come from? And since Verzemnieks writes so well, who wouldn’t want to accompany her on her journey?
Yet there’s also the darker side of this singing DNA. The song of my DNA can make me deaf to the song of your DNA. Concepts of nation, land and blood helped create an independent Latvia, but, distorted by nativism and fascism, they also contributed to its undoing.
Verzemnieks is too intelligent and humane a writer to fall into the nationalist trap, and her inquiry into the past confronts the uncomfortable aspects of Latvians’ participation in the war — their murky role as front-line soldiers in Hitler’s army and their culpability as persecutors and murderers of Latvia’s Jews — but it is impossible to read her book without drawing present-day analogies.
Not only is there a resurgence of nationalist feeling in Eastern Europe but that resurgence is underpinned by a reconsideration — or cynical subversion — of the history of World War II and its aftermath. Each nation asserts its victimhood and denies its guilt, and disputes over past hostilities provide fuel for future ones.
In this context, Verzemnieks’s intimate and poetic book assumes practical value.
The obscure, tiny country she describes still occupies the frontier between empires. A member of the European Union and of NATO, Latvia — along with its Baltic neighbors — again risks becoming the flash point between Russia and Europe.
So it’s instructive to know what happened last time. And, except for the misstep of often using the words “Russian” and “Soviet” interchangeably, Verzemnieks is solid on her history. Even more, she offers a model for how to navigate it. When she reaches the limit of what she can know, she doesn’t confuse it with the limit of what can be known.
She also grasps that no final resolution is possible. The hurt that has been inflicted can never be completely healed. At best, one reaches a measure of understanding — including drawing the significant distinction between the hurt one inherits and the hurt one sustains — which, ideally, should stop you from inflicting this hurt on others.
Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe
By Inara Verzemnieks
W.W. Norton & Co. (282 pages, $26.95)