Andris, Where Are You? From Latvia to New Zealand: The family story of Andris Apse, by Ron Crosby, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013), 254 pp., $39.99
The story of our lives cannot be told without some recounting of the lives of those closest to us. Thus, the story of Andris Apse begins with the flowering adolescence of his mother and father in the closing years of the 1930s. It is a testament to the enduring qualities of the written word of times past, since so much of the tale is told through the letters and diaries of his parents. Through these faithfully safeguarded papers, they communicate their feelings and experiences, even as their lives entwine in the turmoil of World War II. A tentative courtship and brief marital bliss is swiftly followed by separation and seeming loss – until their final mutual rediscovery more than 40 years later. Will the proliferation of emails and digital photographic images of our times be as accessible to those who seek to write our life stories half a century from now?
This is not a book to be avidly (or readily) consumed in a day or two. Through these simple letters and diary entries we are dramatically drawn into the lives of ordinary people swept up in the tide of military conflict and its aftermath under communism. Through his father’s eyes we experience the Russian annexation of Latvia (and the other Baltic republics), following the Hitler–Stalin non-agression pact which preceded their joint invasion of Poland. This seizure was displaced soon afterwards by conquering German forces until the subsequent Russian reoccupation. The Russian – or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as it then was – annexation and reoccupation both came complete with the standard mass deportations (of around 10 per cent of the population) to the ‘Gulag Archipego’ in Siberia, of perceived potential enemies of Soviet domination. George Orwell was being not so much inventive as merely factual back in 1948 when he introduced the concept of ‘thought crime’ in his novel 1984. In retrospect, one cannot help but be astounded by the yawning gulf between the views of those who experienced Stalin’s communist regime at first hand and the quasi-religious fervour of those who admired and endorsed it from afar. Would Karl Marx have approved of the Stalinist manifestations of his ideological creation? What was done in Marx’s name back then remains mind-boggling.
The story of Andris’ mother is traumatic as she struggles to survive on her own. With the tide of battle swinging against German forces, her husband persuades her to escape with baby Andris from the now encircled Latvia, ahead of Soviet reoccupation. Her ship is fortunate, and survives its hazardous voyage across the Baltic to Germany in the ‘German Dunkirk’ evacuation – a seldom-told historical epic which dwarfed the British original. Surviving the war in a displaced persons camp, she accepts the inevitability of her husband’s death at Russian hands, and decides to take up an offer of emigration to New Zealand – not a difficult choice, since returning to Latvia as the widow of a soldier who fought on the Axis side would have guaranteed death or banishment to the Gulag. An acquaintance of mine once recounted his father’s experience in the British army during the aftermath of the war. He became an avowed pacifist after being commanded to forcibly repatriate (in other words at bayonet point) Soviet (Cossacks, Ukrainians etc.) prisoners-of-war and their families who had fought on the Axis side. Their frantic prayers and pleas were ignored as they were herded across the border into the Soviet sector – to be lined up and mown down by the waiting machine guns.
The New Zealand Andris’ mother experienced in the early 1950s was a world away from the one we take for granted today. The author deftly captures the stifling monoculture that frowned at anything foreign or different. Andris soon learned to look and sound just like his peers, lest he suffer the painful attention of the school bullies. His mother was fortunate enough to find live-in employment while struggling to learn the alien English language. Sadly she was less fortunate when a liaison (she couldn’t even think of being able to maintain a socially acceptable relationship as we understand it today) lead to an unplanned pregnancy. Few contemporary readers could begin to contemplate the shame that society heaped on women in her situation. Even in the early 1960s the officially sanctioned morality dictated that the contraceptive pill could only be prescribed to married women. A further sense of the atmosphere of the times surfaces as we follow the tragedy of her marriage to a domineering abusive fellow Latvian refugee – from whom she is finally rescued, years later, by the adult Andris and his wife.
Rejected by his step-father, Andris must finish growing up away from his mother and the siblings of her new family. He begins a career with the New Zealand Forest Service which introduces him to the scenic beauty of the wilderness. Seeking to capture the beauty and majesty surrounding him, his photographic hobby slowly develops into a commercial activity and rising public acclaim for his works. Finally, marriage brings the family life he has long been denied, and then comes the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like toppling dominoes, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics slowly falls apart, and Karl Marx’s ideological belief – that historical determinism would prove communism to be the ideal form of government – is shown to be false. With the Iron Curtain corroded and then crumbling, free contact becomes possible between East and West. Like the proverbial lightning bolt from a clear sky, a chance third-party contact reveals to his parents that their loved ones are in fact still alive. The human dilemma each of his parents then confronts is well drawn, along with subsequent reunions in Latvia and the final resolution of their relationship from all those decades earlier. New lives and extended family relationships now overlay the tribulations of the past.
This work is much more than an account of struggle through relentless adversity. It is a testament to the love of a mother seeking to shield and support her children regardless of personal cost. It is a testament to the bonds of family – the drawing together of the Latvian and New Zealand halves, and the reuniting of the broken pieces of the latter. Lives initially wracked by helplessness and despair are finally suffused with warmth and optimism. One can but hope that many more of the tens of thousands similarly affected, may have shared so positive an outcome.
The book ends with a sobering postscript. It offers page upon page translations of the detailed instructions issued in 1939 to the Communist Party agents of Russian occupying forces – Orwells ‘thought police’ – on how to identify, arrest and deport to the Gulag any potential opponents of Latvia’s newly imposed Soviet regime. All of it is written in polite bureaucratic terms, with an emphasis on ‘avoiding any public unpleasantness’. Bear in mind, this was the unprovoked, uninvited, militarily unopposed occupation of a peaceful sovereign country. Short of what happened in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, it would be hard to conceive of a more chilling evocation of the dangers of unbridled self-righteous totalitarianism.
Is it exciting reading? No, but it is definitely rewarding reading. But should it be regarded as required reading? Yes, invoking Jorge Santayana’s dictum: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
BRIAN CLEARKIN is a reviewer and writer who lives in Thames on the Coromandel.