Book Review - Among the Living and the Dead

A descendent of Latvian refugees, Inara Verzemnieks was raised in the US by her grandparents. Following the death of Livija, her beloved grandmother, Inara sets out to discover her roots in the hope she might “find her again in the old stories that still existed there.” In Latvia she visits her great-aunt Ausma for the first time. Over five years, she pieces together the sisters’ stories – how they lost each other during the Second World War and did not meet again for almost fifty years. Livija lived in a German refugee camp with her young family until they were allowed to travel to America. Her husband was treated with suspicion because he had been conscripted by the Nazis. Asuma also suffered the pain of exile as one of 41,000 Latvians sent to Siberia under Soviet order in March 1949.

Latvia’s history, Verzemnieks learns, is “cratered with epochs of loss and displacement.”  Her family are from Gulbene, a region shaped by centuries of migration and flight: “Once, the people who lived here didn’t even bother distinguishing between the different routes that cut through their land. They simply called the paths in and out of their region by one name: war roads.” Those born prior to the 20th century would have been “bound under hereditary contract to provide a lifetime of labor to the wealthy friends of whatever empire happens to be ruling at the time.” In 1882, her great-great grandfather purchased the land he worked from the German baron who employed him.

Livija and Asuma grew up on the farm they called Lembi and were considered well-off by local standards. Livija was sent to boarding school, housed in a castle reclaimed by a newly independent Latvia at the close of World War I. There she met her future husband. Asuma’s education was cut short following the arrival of Soviet troops in Latvia. Verzemnieks is eager to glean as much information as possible from Asuma, collecting and pocketing her memories “like they are so many perfect stones”, even though it is sometimes painful for her grand-aunt to recall her past. Asuma’s husband, Harijs, tries to intervene by reciting a list of his own calamities, “to offer me his trauma, so that he might spare his love talking about hers.”

Verzemnieks’ lyrical memoir is subtitled: “A Tale of Exile and Homecoming.” She gets to the heart of what it means to be a refugee: the painful limbo, the longing for home, the constant desire to resurrect what has been lost. It’s also a homecoming of sorts. Verzemnieks may have lost one set of grandparents in America but she gains the love of another side of her family who welcome her with open arms.

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