Chaplaincy

End of the War

This week's blog post has been written by Associate Chaplain, Urzula Glienecke.

Photograph of a glass sculpture in front of a black background.
Sculpture They Won the War

On the 8th and 9th May we remember the end of World War II. Allow me to tell you just a bit about it from a Latvian and a personal perspective.

When I was a child, May 9th was one of the most celebrated days of the year. “Day of The Victory” it was called, not “end of World War II”. Masses were gathered in huge military parades with flags, tanks, guns, icon-like pictures of the Communist Party leaders (rather curious in an officially atheist country) and colourful, floating balloons. The balloons were the only positive thing for me as a little girl, because we were forced to go. If we wouldn’t, my mother would have gotten into serious trouble at work and have had to answer in front of the Communist Party there.

So, we went and bore the cheerfulness and the show of the military power of the oppressor. The balloons floated at my ceiling for several days afterwards – which was just a tiny compensation.

Why oppressor? “The Soviet occupation of Latvia was an unprovoked brutal act of aggression by a superpower against a numerically small sovereign neighbour.” [1]

As a child I knew it was an oppressive system, because the very closest friends of my family had died in Siberia. They were farmers, humble and cheerful people doing their work, welcoming others, sharing a joke or two with my family members – that’s how I knew them – and, well, simply living. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They were three brothers, the youngest of them being somewhat disabled. He was the only one of the three who had married. He was at a market in the nearest town doing some business and enjoying its diversions from the quiet country life. When he came home at night, all the doors of their farmhouse were left open ajar and his whole family was gone: his brothers, his wife. He asked around in despair and sorrow, and heard that there were some cattle trains full of people at the nearest train station. He went there to look for his family, but was pushed away. He then volunteered to get on the train in hope to see them again. They squeezed him in. He never saw his dear ones again – he died on the way – as many others did standing for weeks in the wagons with no food or water on the way to the work camps in Siberia. His brothers died of cold and hunger in the camps – treated with hate as “enemies of the country” – for no reason at all. Only the wife returned decades later – a broken and a bitter woman.

I knew it was an oppressive system…because I was living in the divided garden of my great-grandfather. We were lucky to be allowed to stay in the house at all, but all the painstakingly and lovingly planted orchard was taken away and given to settlers. My great-grandfather was a man from a very poor family. He worked and worked, saved and saved – and bought a bit of land on the outskirts of the town. Each window and each door in that house looked different, because they were all second-hand. We were worried about whether the roof would hold in the autumn storms, because the well-used beams he had put under it were so worn and thin. He gave the ground floor to the Jewish school, most of the rooms to tenants to get some income; keeping just a corner in the house for his young family. He kept working – repairing shoes for other people – and saving for the orchard trees. They were his pride and joy. Cherry trees, apple trees, pears, plums, quince – you name it!

And then all of them were taken away. His only two children were separated for life, as his daughter, my grandmother, stayed, but his son was forced to escape to America (he was also somewhat disabled and therefore only got called into the army the very last days of the war. It happened to be the German one – armies moved over the Latvian land back and forth the whole time. Many brothers, fathers and sons were forced to fight on opposite sides). The brother, Paulis, and sister, Velta, only met once after more than fifty years of separation, but the father Janis never saw his son again. And he only saw the orchard he had planted through a fence.

I knew it was an oppressive system…because in the 80s I went to the military zone in the West side of Latvia. It was there to keep people confined to the Soviets with no way to escape. For many did try to escape – in tiny boats on the sea, in self-made flying machines. They were caught and killed or deported. And the whole zone became a military machine, an empty and desolate land. I remember the mud left after tanks driving through it, the smell of chemicals, the empty, abandoned houses with windows staring like empty eyes and a rope with a loop swinging from a dead tree like gallows. I was just a child, but I never forgot that.

I knew it was an oppressive system…because I had to go to a violent, oppressive school especially made for Russification of my people.

I knew it was an oppressive system…because Russian-speaking strangers on the bus kept telling me, a child: “Just you wait, we will send you all to Siberia!”

During the Soviet occupation following the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Pact, Latvians suffered a lot. Hundreds of thousands of people – including children – were deported to Siberia and died of cold and hunger either there or already on the way, because they were transported in trains meant for cattle and not human transportation: no water, no food, no heating or sanitary facilities. [2] Others (about 200 000-250 000) were forced to leave the country after World War II to escape similar fates. The borders were closed, families were separated and many never saw each other again. This included my friends and family members.

There was no freedom of thought, speech or belief. The system functioned by means of oppression, seclusion and fear. Many people were imprisoned and tortured – often to death – by the KGB (Комитет государственной безопасности). Under Stalin alone, as many or more people as under Nazi Germany were killed. [3]

I knew it was an oppressive system – and I risked my life for freedom and independence from the Soviets.

When I was 14 I joined the Underground Church. Our group was literally underground – we met in a cellar under a church in Riga. There Rev Aida Predele, an ordained minister of the Latvian Lutheran Church, was telling us, youth, what the Christian faith was about. She told us about God's unconditional love and about our call to work for peace rooted in justice. That was exactly what I was looking for! I wanted something to give meaning to my life, to sustain me through the toughest times. I was also looking for Someone to love me and the world, the environment I had grown to love so much myself. Throughout all the dangerous Soviet times, my Grandmother Velta was travelling around Latvia playing the organ. As a girl I went with her and one time – standing in front of an altar of a tiny countryside church – I had a profound experience of being loved deeply and unconditionally. I wanted to learn about what that was!

Then in the cellar under the church I understood more about it. Aida also encouraged me to pursue studies in theology when the Faculty opened again after Latvia gained independence. I did, and now to my lived experience a PhD has been added.

In the Underground Church we were also political. Many of us went on the Barricades, joined the Baltic Chain, kept up messages of hope and resistance. During the Barricades the churches in the centre of Riga were turned into hospitals for the wounded and places of rest for the tired. We were singing and praying in the bitter cold of Baltic January (pun intended) – together, all faiths and none. And we won! The Baltic States are free and independent. And the youth of the underground church group are free to live their faith openly (most of us have become ministers in diverse denominations and in one case – a nun! She is dancing for peace, weaving camouflage nets).

 

And that’s just a tiny bit of the whole story.

 

A note to all readers:

To support the Guerrilla Peace for Ukraine initiative, and share solidarity, vigilance and hope for Ukraine, with others in Scotland and around the world, please visit the website and plant a sunflower on the map:

https://guerillapeaceukraine.org/

 

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[1] https://okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en/history/1-soviet-occupation/the-soviet-occupation-19401941 

For more please see: https://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/media/2001/download.

[2] https://gulag.online/articles/soviet-repression-and-deportations-in-the-baltic-states?locale=en

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excess_mortality_in_the_Soviet_Union_under_Joseph_Stalin

For more please see Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War, by Laurence Rees.