Notes from an ugly duckling

Tale of the White Crow

The white crow of Iveta Melnika’s memoir is an outcast: an ugly duckling among the swans, a white crow among the black. This is how the teenaged Melnika perceives herself: ugly, shy, and despised by her peers. Tale of the White Crow tells the story of her coming-of-age in the turbulent period of Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Although Tale of the White Crow is subtitled “Coming of Age in Post-Soviet Latvia,” Melnika’s painful journey through adolescence begins before Independence, while Latvia is firmly under Soviet rule. Melnika is conscious of the inequities of life under the Soviets: though everyone is supposedly equal, families who are well-connected or who have relatives in the West enjoy a superior lifestyle. Meanwhile, Melnika’s family struggles along in one room of a communal apartment. Her father cannot work because of a severe heart condition and Melnika’s white crow status at school is exacerbated by her family’s poverty.

Change begins slowly, with a few people wearing badges of the Latvian flag. Political events are filtered through Melnika’s teenaged consciousness: “I had to stand for hours in the hot sun, listening to boring talks, and watched some weird people putting the flowers at the foot of the Freedom Monument.” Gradually, she becomes more interested. Deeply moved by the human chain holding hands across the Baltics (on Brīvības Street there were “so many that they had to stand three, four deep”), Melnika joins a pilgrimage of thousands to commemorate Latvians lost in the mass deportations of the 1940s. Should the Russians invade again, she doesn’t expect the West to intervene. “And why should they care? …Pampered by their good fortune, they are unable to comprehend our desperate, even ridiculous fight for survival as a nation with its own language and cultural values.”

Melnika’s adolescence is rocky but not untypical. She thinks she is ugly and repulsive, that others hate and mock her. Sometimes she wonders if she isn’t crazy. “Maybe if I had jeans my classmates would look differently at me.” Her own jeans are undesirable Polish knock-offs. Or if only she had a boyfriend! Melnika craves the change of status that such a commodity would bestow on an ugly duckling like herself. She doesn’t even aspire to turn into a swan, she says, but would settle for becoming a decent duck.

Her grandmother has taught her to believe in God, to whom, she says, looks don’t matter. “Yeah, not to Him,” Melnika comments, “but they definitely matter to people, and very very much, by the way.” Her hunger for love and belonging leads Melnika to join the Church of Christ, which is aggressively evangelizing in post-Soviet Russia and eastern Europe. Her parents disapprove, afraid that the church is a cult that preys on young people. Melnika tries hard not to believe this, though she has her own misgivings. The church leadership demands unquestioning obedience: “Do you know why Satan is in hell? It’s because he is proud and rebellious. Just like you are now.”

After years of repression, Latvia is vulnerable to the tactics of American cults, and to corruption. Unbridled capitalism exacts a savage toll from Latvian society. The result is immense suffering, and nostalgia for the meagre certainties of Soviet times. Former inequalities seem slight in view of the widening gulf between rich and poor. While the elderly starve or commit suicide, Rīga’s streets are clogged with luxury cars. Gangsters buy huge flats downtown and spend their evenings in expensive discos and restaurants.

Iveta too has her disco period, a time of emptiness and searching that leaves her even lonelier than before. Afterwards she is as depressed as she has ever been, still without the love she longs for and outside the church where she found, at least briefly, a sense of community. However, she manages to obtain an education and stay afloat. As she points out after one typically disastrous social encounter, she must learn from these experiences for they will help to prepare her for the future: “If I manage to get through this, I am one step closer to the big life now.”

Tale of the White Crow came into being because of a chance meeting of the author and David Pichaske, the publisher, while the latter was teaching in Rīga on a Fulbright fellowship. (The book actually was printed in Mongolia, another of Pichaske’s foreign assignments.) Part of the book’s considerable charm derives from its idiosyncratic idiom, which the author wished to “normalize” as her English language skills became more sophisticated. Happily, Pichaske argued for the original and to some extent prevailed. His photographs of Latvia are included.


Tale of the White Crow: Coming of Age in Post-Soviet Latvia

Iveta Melnika

Granite Falls, Minnesota:  Ellis Press,  2003

ISBN 0-944024-46-7

Where to buy

Purchase Tale of the White Crow: Coming of Age in Post-Soviet Latvia from

Note: Latvians Online receives a commission on purchases.

Survivor eulogizes Jews who died in Latvia

City of Life, City of Death

Max Michelson was born in 1924 into a large and loving Jewish family in Rīga. By the end of World War II most of his family and friends were dead, murdered during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. City of Life, City of Death is his eulogy to those who perished, and an account of his own rather miraculous survival.

In 1939, Jews comprised 5 percent of the population of Latvia. About half of these lived in Rīga and made up 12 percent of its population. Latvian Jews did not for the most part speak Latvian and this meant that social contact and friendships with the Latvian population were minimal. This contributed to the lack of understanding between the two groups.

The Michelsons were a talented and intellectual family. Max’s Aunt Clara was an accomplished writer who lived in Paris. His Uncle Leo was a successful painter, while his Uncle Eduard was a mechanical engineer and intellectual. The family plywood factory, run by his father, also provided an income to the artists of the family.

With the Soviet invasion of 1940, the family’s factory and home were nationalized and the Michelsons moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Mežaparks. Then came the mass deportations of 1941, of which Jews formed a large proportion. Michelson writes that the Jews blamed Latvian Communists for the high proportion of Jews deported, while Latvians blamed the deportations on Jewish Communists. In 1941, the invading Nazis disseminated propaganda that all Latvian Jews were Communists and were responsible for the Soviet occupation and particularly the deportations.

The occupation began with a series of vicious attacks on Jews in which many were dragged from their homes and either imprisoned or murdered. These attacks were encouraged by the German Nazis but, Michelson says, were enthusiastically carried out by local Latvians—members of Pērkonkrusts (Latvian Nazis), the Aizsargi (paramilitary groups) and others. He insists on the complicity of all Latvians, stating that "the persecution of the Jews (in Latvia) was approved and accepted by the majority of the local population" and that "the willingness of Latvians to act as hired killers is well-documented." He is bitter about the lack of help offered his family by Latvians, particularly blaming his Uncle Leo’s friends in the artistic community for not coming forward.

One day Max came home to find that his mother had been taken away by the police. They had come for his father, but as he was ill Max’s mother had somehow persuaded them to take her instead. Max never saw her again. Later, when all Jews were required to move into the Rīga ghetto, Max’s father insisted on including in their meagre belongings some of his wife’s clothing. "When they took Mama away," he insisted, "she wore just a light dress. She will need her warm clothes when she comes back from prison."

On Oct. 25, 1941, the Rīga ghetto was sealed off. When it was clear that Jews in the Large Ghetto were being exterminated, Max dragged his father to the work camp, or Little Ghetto. There they found a temporary reprieve from death, but nevertheless his father disappeared one day. The majority of Max’s relatives and friends were killed during the liquidation of the ghetto, or Large Aktion as it was called.

When the tide of the war turned against the Germans, Max and other prisoners were transported by boat to Stutthof, Poland, and then by train to Polte-Werke at Magdeberg, Germany. On April 11, 1945, he and some others suddenly found their camp unguarded. They immediately left and, though their trials were not yet over, this was the beginning of their freedom.

After the liberation came the terrible news that no member of his family who had been trapped in the Nazi occupation had survived. There seemed no reason to return to Latvia: "All of Europe seemed like one vast cemetery, hardly a place in which to start a new life." Max Michelson eventually found his way to New York. He married and became an electrical engineer, settling in the Boston area.

Michelson recounts that, after the destruction of the Large Ghetto in Rīga, an old Latvian woman, a stranger, said to him: "Soon they are going to kill you all." After the fall of Germany, during Max’s first night in a Red Army Hospital, a fellow patient told him, "You will be dead by morning." Both predictions proved wrong. Max Michelson survived, "by happenstance" he says, but with unthinkable losses.


City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga

Max Michelson

Boulder, Colo.:  University Press of Colorado,  2001

ISBN 0-87081-788-4

Where to buy

Purchase City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga from

Note: Latvians Online receives a commission on purchases.

Nesaule’s book reveals ‘riches of the heart’

A Woman in Amber

A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.—Franz Kafka

"I must not speak and I must not cry….It was essential to be compliant and to pretend to be all right."

These are the lessons of war that six-year-old Agate Nesaule learns when her family is evacuated by the Germans from Latvia toward the end of the Second World War. They are conscripted to work at Lobethal, a home for the mentally ill. When the Germans are routed and conquering Russian soldiers burst into the basement where the refugees huddle, their only hope for survival is to become invisible. The men, Agate’s father among them, are marched away to an unknown fate. These are among moments Nesaule reveals in her memoir, A Woman in Amber.

The Russian soldiers begin to drag young women behind a partition, where their cries are plainly audible to those on the other side. Agate and her sister Beate are too young to understand what is happening, but eventually the soldiers forego the partition. When their mother is not quick enough to cover their eyes, they learn how women become the spoils of war. For Agate, these memories will remain unspoken for more than 40 years.

But A Woman in Amber is not so much an account of wartime atrocities as of their aftermath, the devastation that floats like an iceberg through refugee lives, freezing emotion while remaining nine-tenths submerged. It is about the circularity of personal history and how the past forces its shape on the future.

Agate’s family spends five years in British camps for displaced persons. "The riches of the heart do not rust," says a frequently quoted poem by Karlis Skalbe, and the Latvians take these riches to mean education. The resourceful refugees organize schools, musical groups, cultural events.

When Agate finally arrives in America, she is given to understand that she is safe at last. When her nightmares pursue her, she feels guilt and self-loathing; after all, things aren’t so bad, she is alive. Others are so much worse off. "It was disgraceful not to be thankful for everything."

It is difficult, but Agate learns to function in the new country. "Learning English was thrilling, the most wonderful part of learning America." A teacher encourages her to write, gives her The Diary of Anne Frank. At the library, Agate obsessively studies photographs of concentration camps, looking for Anne. The mountains of eyeglasses convince her again that her own sufferings are trivial: "How dare I even think of writing about my own minor inconveniences, my privileged existence?"

Above all, no one must know what happened to the women in the basement at Lobethal. When the local Latvian center holds a debate to establish who suffered more in the war, men or women, it is a foregone conclusion that it is the men who suffered most. They have the statistics to prove it. The few women who disagree (Agate’s mother is one of them) are shouted down; what are their losses by comparison? "There are worse things than death,’ they say, but the word ‘rape’ cannot be spoken. Otherwise they will be ostracized, blamed for their own tragedy. Agate puts up her hand to vote "with the winning side."

When she makes an unsuitable marriage before completing her education, her father says, "How could you do this to us?" Her mother echoes the sentiment. "You’ve chosen between me and him," she tells Agate, "you’ve abandoned the Latvians for the Americans, go on, go with him." And Agate too feels that she has "abandoned Latvia itself." Only her grandmother calls her back to bless her with the gift of a few bed sheets and a handful of change, because now she will be "alone in a strange land."

It takes an acutely perceptive therapist to extract her story from Agate. The telling of it breaks the ice of her emotional life. She will still dream of soldiers and trains, of being pursued or separated from her loved ones. But there will also be opportunities for healing and growth, and the ability to trust in the small gestures of care and love that still exist in spite of cruelty and destruction.

This is a beautiful and complex book, full of the contradictions and ambivalence of life. Kindness can come from any unexpected quarter, as can cruelty. Victors are not always villainous, the vanquished not always innocent. A Woman in Amber is like a painful blessing. If the last part of the book—in its concentration on the therapeutic solution—seems less vibrant in comparison to the richly textured past, one cannot begrudge the author her hard-won epiphanies, or wish her anything but the happiest of endings.


A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Agate Nesaule

New York:  Soho Press Inc.,  1995

ISBN 1569470464

Where to buy

Purchase A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile from

Note: Latvians Online receives a commission on purchases.