30 May 2013

Hands On Latvia: Kalna Ķonēni

Like many Canadians, I have more than one ancestral home. I've been fortunate to visit several. Confession: Depending on the advance research I did, and/or the resources available when I got there, it seems I rarely got answers to the unknowns. In fact, I know now I did not always ask the right questions at the moment I was there or even make the best use of my time in terms of information-gathering.
Left: The revered oak tree of family memory

So be it. There is much to be said for soaking up environ-ment―all sensual sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, sentimental triggers―and the special effects of new people.

It was a happy day to meet for the first time many maternal relatives; my family members shared the enthusiastic greetings and enjoyed their hospitality. Who does not have a mother / aunt / cousin who says "You must eat everything on the table"?! So Rasma and granddaughter Zane and others welcomed us at the farm where generations of Freibergs and Lindes have persevered agriculturally, through oppression, resistance fighting, military battles, deportation, and struggles—that we in North America can hardly begin to imagine. And that was just the twentieth-century! Two revolutions and two World Wars in your backyard. Epic hardship that made small periods of peace and happiness that much sweeter.  

The table was laden with special treats. We had an orgy of photo-graph reviewing (and eating) with memories and mutual story exchanges facilitated by Madara and Zane. We are humbled that they are fluent in English while we have only mastered a few Latvian words. Last year's mid-summer dried wreathes of oak leaves hang above us, bestowing good vibrations from the traditionally-revered tree. 

Our mutual ancestor Ansis Freibergs came to Kalna Ķonēni by about 1840 with dairy farming experience. His gift for gardening is vivid in the family memory. In spite of all the intervening disruption and terror, his great-great-grandson Normands operates a dairy farm today. The extended family gathers several times a year to help with seasonal chores.
Mālpils Lutheran Church
Mālpils Cemetery
Our hosts took us on a marvellous countryside tour relevant to all the places I mentioned in My Latvian Ancestors (gleaned from all those parish registers and other Raduraksti sources1), truly a hands-on visit. The ruins of the Vatrāne estate community; the Taurupe Manor owned by the same landlord; Keipene, Madliena, Suntaži, and finally Mālpils, location of the Lutheran church where historical family sacraments took place, and the cemetery. Some of the "seasonal chores" for the entire family include caring for the family burial plots where Ansis lies with his wife Truhte, son Otto and wife Ilze, and more.

Zane shows us the ruins of Madliena school-house, now being restored; most probable execution site of reform leader Otto Freibergs in 1906. 

The young people in this family are aware of their history through long family ties to the same community. But they are forward-looking, cosmopolitan, optimistic ... endearing.

When I read of the hard-won Latvia independence being shattered in the 1940s; when I hear the stories of Kalna Ķonēni farmhouse being spared from the torch in order to treat wounded soldiers; when I see the fruition of labours begun almost two centuries ago; absorbing the sentient heritage around me continues to thrill, that this tiny nationality survives with such spirit.

These are very strong people I come from.

1. Latvia State Historical Archives, Raduraksti ( online historical resources.

[Second of four "Hands On Latvia"]
Photographs: BDM, CDM, CBM, April 2013 (thank you!)

© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

24 May 2013

Cemeteries Part 16: Bergen-Belsen

Visiting a Holocaust memorial site is a painful experience.

It's very quiet, few people are observable as we walk the 50 hectares. None of us feels like speaking much. We read information on the stark obelisks placed on the now-grassy fields and woods where thousands of humans once suffered indescribably. A few foundations of the wretched camp huts still remain.
Bergen-Belsen was first a Wehrmacht-run POW camp for Russian soldiers; 20,000 of them are buried in an adjacent cemetery. Only later in 1943 was it turned into a concentration camp by the SS. Both German administrations treated the inmates criminally. The bare obelisks and flat concrete markers, at specific sites, reveal the hair-raising story of overcrowding and malicious neglect through lack of adequate shelter, food, water, and sanitation. At least 52,000 men, women, and children died, Jews being the vast majority. Thousands more died after liberation, weakened from starvation and disease. Mass graves are everywhere:

Along the entrance way, sound recordings and interviews with survivors can be heard. I did not go to view the photographs and historical footage. Many years ago I had seen film made by the camp liberators. Once is enough to never, ever forget. The arriving British and Canadians were stunned by the walking skeletons and heaps of unburied corpses. The crematorium had broken down in the last days.

Many nationalities are represented on the main memorial wall: French, Belgian, Dutch, Russians, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, and so on. The French dedication to their nationals says they "committed no crime other than love for France and not complying with the invaders' ideas." An individual stone can be seen here and there to memorialize a lone person.

The small Jewish cemetery has stone markers for some who died here, erected by family survivors or their descendants. The brief commemorations are poignantly touching and sad. They include Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

But to my horror, the first stone I saw was defaced. The Hebrew inscription can be seen at the edge of the gouges.

                     What evil spirit lingers here??
© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

12 May 2013

Hands on Latvia: Riga

Like my "Hands on Scotland" series (see alphabetical sidebar of topics on right), this four-part series is on recent travels in the country of Latvia. Specific key family points. Not intended to be a travelogue ... more like setting the scene; providing a few memory triggers; atmosphere leading to the warm personal embraces. Information overload is still upon me.
This is the iconic view of part of the Old Town from the tower of St. Peter's Church, on an overcast and chilly day.
Who said the past is a foreign country? It is indeed, as all dedicated family historians know. In this case, the research had been pushed about as far as it could go—although, admittedly, some vital details of the past are still missing. The travel venture was primarily geared to the present and to meeting with live family relatives. That in itself was a foreign country—geography, language, and culture. Mission accomplished, glad to say, a pastiche of past, present, and future.
Typical side street

"Big Christopher" protects the city from a glass box on the Daugava river bank
Riga. The entire Old Town (VECRĪGA) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love that designation every time I see it in my travels. Here: walking the cobblestone footsteps of former ancestral unknowns, absorbing the sights, sounds, customs, stories, and let's not forget the food! Vecrīga is not a large area, very walkable in its 800-year-old footprint. This was my second visit to the city, with more time now to explore side streets, inspect "public art," poke at street markets, and linger on café terraces.

Riga will be the European Capital of Culture in 2014. The city is renowned continent-wide for its examples of Art Nouveau architecture as well as cultural institutions. On the down side: preparation for the 2014 event meant temporary closures of some museums. On the plus side: we were ahead of the general tourist season and shared the city mainly with spring-happy locals.

Most striking are the streets of restored mediaeval building facades that survived centuries of war and destruction, even during the bleak Soviet occupation. Times are not sufficiently prosperous yet to restore many interiors to the same degree. Churches often burned down from fire and were painstakingly rebuilt to original specifications, some more than once. Inside St Peter's, neglected stone monuments sadly need attention.  

The entrance to our hotel faced this odd conjunction of buildings!
Our hotel (Hotel Justus) was chosen for its offbeat charm, abutting a wall of the Dom cathedral complex. Each room was differently shaped and furnished. The decor was a mixture of heavy and whimsy (OK, so I'm no furniture expert):
Part of the lobby/bar

One of my goals was the Latvia War Museum located partly in the ancient Powder Tower (Pulvertornis) but disappointingly it yielded no information about the resistance fighters of the 1905 Revolution—what I needed was one of the closed museums!

We were not into the Latvian Black Balsam liquor yet!

The family history highlight in Riga was dinner at a delightful restaurant with the Linde cousins, descendants of our mutual Freibergs ancestors. What a thrill to meet and jabber excitedly after years of email contact! I say "jabber" because we relied heavily on Madara and Ieva, fluently bilingual, to translate for us and their mother Jolanta. The questions and answers were flying as we got to know each other. We almost forgot to eat. 

And we finalized our plan for a day trip to the family farm!

For Facebook friends, many more photos to be seen there :-)

[First of three Hands On Latvia]
© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman