Introduction by Emily Gilbert
I am really excited to publish the latest blog post by Alexandra Māzers about her Latvian family history. Alexandra (Alex) is a second generation Latvian who lives in Devon in the UK, and has spent the last few years researching her Latvian family. Alex’s father came to Britain as a child, on the European Volunteer Workers’ dependent relatives scheme, after the Second World War. In the summer of 2014, Alex and her father returned to Latvia for the very first time since he had left in 1944. They returned again this summer, in 2016, to visit some of the relatives Alex had found through her research. Something True is the story of her father, and the 5 Lat coin that meant so much to the refugees who left Britain, a symbol of an independent Latvia and their homeland, which they had all hoped to return to, someday soon.
I have to tell you something true. There’s another woman in my father’s life.
My mother knows all about her – I expect lots of husbands and wives do. Sons and daughters, also. Whenever my father sees her, his eyes well up with tears of pride and he’s away, some place, happy. I think. My mother’s always been very understanding. She believes that you should follow your heart, a path she has happily trod these past 53 years of married life. My mother was just 17 when she met my father and he a little younger than that. To call my father a work-in-progress – what husband isn’t? – goes without saying and that other woman of his came with the deal. And so – faced with the choice – my mother did what every woman has always done and followed her heart. Because that’s something true also.
This other woman’s name is Milda. She’s the woman on the face of the 5 Lat Coin.
To describe my father a work in progress is actually no exaggeration. He was born that way, several weeks premature. His family name as a child was Cimds, which is the Latvian for “glove”. He was born so small you could literally fit him in the palm of your hand and so, the name stuck.
Cimds was born in Riga, March 1944 under a sky red with fire. His newborn cries drowned by the sound of exploding bombs and pistol shots. The Red Army were advancing. Hell had broken loose. Cimds didn’t know what was happening, but his family did. The events of 1944 – what was happening around those little cries – would change his and their paths forever.
The 5 Lat Coin was born under a better sky. Clear, blue. The only sound you could hear when the 5 Lat was first produced was the sound of people living their lives. There were no armies marching, just a country being a country in its own right, for the first time in centuries. Independent. Free.
The people of Latvia had fought long and hard to call themselves Latvian in their own country and now it was the people of Latvia’s time. Latvia was its own Republic. Pride in that united a country.
To commemorate the achievement in 1929, the 5 Lat coin was produced, designed by artist Richard Zarins.
On the reverse is the Coat of Arms of Latvia and on the front, the woman who lives in so many people’s hearts even today – the Artist’s muse – Zelma Brauere wearing the Latvian traditional headdress with ears of corn thrown over her shoulders. Once put into circulation the coin was given a nickname.
Every country needs a symbol, something to be proud of as Milda rapidly came to mean Latvia to the people of Latvia. With every passing year that sense of national identity associated with the woman on that particular coin grew. Children would be given a shiny 5 Lat coin to put in their piggy banks on birthdays and find in their stockings at Christmas.
For Latvians, Milda was more than just a coin. Sure – she was about Latvia. But every bit as much she was a token of faith. A hope in this new future.
Unfortunately – as I told you in the beginning. I have to tell you something true. And part of that is that life can turn and bite you most when you very least expect it.
Unknown to the Latvian people, a secret accord was under way. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1940 – thanks to that agreement signed between Hitler and Stalin the previous year – the Soviet Army were to roll roughshod over the Baltic grinding all three formally independent countries under heel as they went.
Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Republics no more. The West sat on their hands and let it happen.
On the March 25th, 1941 – at precisely 1 pm – Milda was taken out of circulation. And then the deportations began, first under the Soviets and then under the Germans. Everyone it seemed wanted to be Baltic. Everyone welcome. Everyone except the people already living there….
Come October 1944, my Grandfather – Cimds’ dad – came home from work, breathless. Scared. Cimds’ mother was crying as were his Grandmother and two sisters. Everyone was running around packing what they could. What was important. What could be carried. The skies were screaming now and Hell was literally the other side of a river. Cimds, being a baby, didn’t understand what was happening around him but the people he loved were visibly scared and my father watched whilst everything fell apart around him. After being kicked out of the Baltic in 1941 by the Germans, the Soviets were coming back with avengance. My family made it out on the last boat leaving Riga. Both my Grandparents had witnessed family taken by soldiers already. It wasn’t going to happen to their children.
Little Cimds doesn’t remember the journey, how they got to Germany. He doesn’t remember the train journey when the children around him died. He doesn’t remember the bombs or hiding from the Red Army following them even into Germany. He doesn’t remember his parents and eldest sister crying in May, 1945 when his older sister died. He just remembers there was a point and then she was suddenly no longer there.
Cimds’ earliest memories are of smaller things. Child sized things. Hunger and cold. To this day my father can’t stand the slightest chill. Even in the summer, at night – the slightest chill has him shivering and his oldest surviving sister was always the same.
Hunger, cold and the endless DP Camps. This was the size of my father’s world. Being moved from one place to next. His eldest surviving sister remembered all of it. She was a young girl and not a small baby, told not to look back. Being older, my Aunt looked back, often. She saw the planes, the flames, the places they had barely escaped from, burning behind. She remembered who was on their side and when nowhere was safe.
The displaced were stuck in the middle of insanity. But to my father, it was simply where he grew up.
At the end of the war, my family ended up in at a barracks in Lubeck along with so many other refugees. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians all with no home to go back to. The war may have been over, but for them this is where an uncertain future began. The army they had fled from, had taken their homelands. With no home to go back to value – your heritage, where you were from – get to be the only things other than family you have.
Schools were set up to educate the children who had witnessed the war. Books and papers were printed to keep the spirit of a homeland alive….and they did. Children would dress up in traditional dress keeping memories alive and Milda once more became the face of home.
Latvian choir in Lubeck DP Camp
Many of the refugees, when they packed in haste, took with them only what they could of value, what was important, just like my family. The 5 Lat may not have been worth anything as currency, but the coin was made of silver and Milda herself once more came to represent what she always had – but more than simply just where these people came from – she also symbolized faith that there would be a future.
A better one.
Milda traveled with many of the refugees across Germany, witness to all the families who carried her throughout. She had survived like they had and she was important. She stood strong just like the Freedom Monument in the hearts of all those that had left Latvia and her meaning grew strong like the hopes of the refugees. She is a symbol of better days. Not just those behind. She’s a token of faith in what’s to come.
Many coins were made into broaches to be worn with national costume, a token given to fellow Latvians, keepsakes to remember them by and of home. My Aunt – Cimds’ eldest surviving sister – had one made into a brooch which she cherished her whole life. Cimds remembers his sister wearing Milda with pride. I too – Cimds’ daughter – remembers my Aunt’s brooch. Growing up in England at a time when Latvia wasn’t even on the maps of the world. I would gaze at her and ask my Aunt who she was and listen as she explained Milda’s importance.
But my father never had his own Milda. Not until 2014 – 70 years after he and his family left Latvia – Cimds took a brave step.
He finally went back home.
The 5 Lat Coin
Alex’s father, Cimds, as a boy in Lubeck DP Camp
For his whole life, my father had only ever had his family’s memories of Latvia, but this was all about to change. Cimds had grown. The child who could fit in the palm of your hand when he was born became my father, Imants, and in 2014, Imants went back to Latvia to make his own memories.
Retracing his family’s steps, he visited Riga (where he was born) and – outside the church where he was baptized – the only place he knew where his whole family had once stood all around him – I placed in the palm of his hand a coin…. but not just any old coin, of course.
Alex’s father returning to Latvia
I gave him a 5 Lat of his very own. Something for him, something to cherish and keep always, a part of Latvia. A part of him.
The moment I placed Milda in his hand I saw a shine in my father’s eyes….and a journey felt finally complete. My Dad was finally home.
* * * *
I am writing this in 2016 and much has changed since that day. I have written about my family before, starting with “Another Country Called Home” and I am so very glad I did write. You see, through writing it has helped me find my father’s family – our family. They read “Another Country Called Home” and after all these years of looking for them in 2016 our family was reunited once again in Latvia. Turns – out all along – they had been looking for him.
You see, I told you I needed to tell you something true. And the truth is simply this. In the end, it’s all about faith. Our family met-up for the first time since 1944 earlier this year – a journey Cimds’ daughter and – this time – Grandson shared with him. Upon leaving to return to England, a coin was placed in my son’s palm, the Grandchild of Cimds’ hands and it was Milda, of course. Something for my son to cherish forever.
And so Milda lives on in another generation – to be the other woman in some yet-to-be-met young girl’s life who lies ahead for my dear boy as my mother lay ahead for my Dad. And she is out there, yet. I know this – because that’s what Milda is about.
Sure. She’s about where you came from, home. But more – Milda’s a token of faith for thousands, that ahead, there lies a future.
And the home – and life there – you have yet to make.
In Memory of Milda, a lady I am finally getting to know through my beloved family the two sisters that share my name. Milda Mazere, an Aunt who – like my Aunt – was strong and loved dearly.
All photographs are courtesy of Alexandra Māzers. Artwork courtesy of Mark Māzers.