As a teenager, reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I was intriqued with the character of Kilgas, the jovial Latvian with whom Ivan Denisovich Shukhov works in the Siberian labor camp to which they both have been sentenced. How did Kilgas get there? Why was he in the camp? And what became of him? Did he ever return to his homeland?
We Sang Through Tears provides a partial answer to these questions. The book is the English translation of a selection of life stories from Via Dolorosa, a series of books published in 1990 by the Latvian Writers’ Association. These memoirs were first-hand accounts of the Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1949 and of the lives of the Latvian deportees in distant Siberian villages and camps. “It was as if a new genre in Latvian literature had been born—first-hand accounts of the victims of Stalinism,” writes Via Dolorosa compiler Anda Līce in the preface to the translation.
Indeed, these 16 excerpts—including a lengthy poem and a selection of annotated drawings—offer the often bittersweet reminiscences of the survivors, those who were yanked from their homes in Latvia, herded into boxcars and transported hundreds of miles east. After years of hard labor, years during which many of their compatriots perished (often to be dumped into mass graves), the survivors returned to Latvia. However, many could not shake the memories or the cloud of suspicion that hung over them.
The title for the book comes from the memoir of Herta Kalniņa, deported in 1941 and again in 1950. She wrote: “It often happened that we would start singing, especially a song in which we expressed our sorrow about having to live in a foreign land and our yearning to return to our homeland, if only to be buried there. We sang through tears. We made a promise to ourselves to survive, come what may, for it couldn’t get any worse.”
Among the selections in this collection are two by Aina Roze, daughter of the famed Latvian publisher Jānis Roze. The Roze family was deported in June 1941, but—as was the custom—the able-bodied men were separated from the rest. In one selection, Aina Roze remarks on drawings she made as a child in Siberia. In the other, she writes to her departed father, thanking him for the life lessons he instilled in her. Jānis Roze died in May 1942 in a labor camp north of Solikamska, Russia, but his legacy lives on in the renewed Jānis Roze bookstore in Rīga, which also published this volume.
Images of hardship and cruelty recur in these stories: The paltry meals of hard bread or flour-and-water gruel. The admonishments of guards, to prisoners marching in single file, that a step to the right or step to the left would be considered an escape attempt. The deep and pervasive cold of the Siberian winter. Lice and midges. Dysentery. Death.
Two fascinating selections come from Jānis Zīle, who spent time in the Vorkuta prison camps. In the poem, “Ballad of Souls in Torment” (written during the winter of 1950-1951), Zīle portrays the cold cruelty endured by the slave labor forced to dig coal to stoke the Soviet paradise:
Dying holds no horror.
Horror belongs to the starving,
Who know there’s one who eats,
Stuffing his mouth with food
Warmed on coals from Vorkuta,
And raising a glass to sing,
—Stalin, the guiding light of our lives.
In the second selection, Zīle recounts a short-lived prison strike in August 1953 (after Stalin’s death) when a quarter million prisoners demanded better working and living conditions. If nothing else, Zīle wrote, the failure of the strike convinced the prisoners that Stalin alone was not to blame for their plight, but in fact the entire corrupt Soviet system.
But the book also holds images of beauty and wonder: The aurora borealis. The scenery of the Siberian wild. The kindness an unfortunate soul could still show another.
For example, Elvīra Sebre’s “Serenity” recalls her childhood in Siberia. Deported with her family in 1949, Sebre manages to survive and gain an education. Her mother dies in 1953 at age 46, leaving Elvīra and her older brother, Jānis, alone. Yet thanks to the kindness of other Latvians in Novikova, where Elvīra attends school, she manages to get by, eventually returning to Latvia where she succeeds academically and is able to live a “happy” life. “I thank all those people in this world who have hated me,” she writes, “because they aroused a tenacity in me and gave me the strength to go on living.”
Not all the stories in We Sang Through Tears end on such an “upbeat” note. In fact, many don’t really end, leaving the reader wondering (as I had with Solzhenitsyn’s Kilgas) what finally happened to the authors. A few stories, such as Zīle’s, are prefaced by a short biography, but most lack closure.
The volume also lacks a fuller context. The introduction by Emīls Dēliņš provides only a brief overview of the deportations of 1941 and 1949. A fuller introduction would have been in order, particularly considering this book is meant for a non-Latvian speaking audience that likely is unfamiliar with the tragedy of the Latvian people. On the plus side, we are grateful for the able translations into English—the lion’s share done by Astrid Sics—that allow the reader to effortlessy follow the stories, rather than stumbling over the odd phrasing frequently encountered in English material emanating from Latvia.
We Sang Through Tears gives us a sampling from a dark period in recent Latvian history. We need to read more of this “genre” to begin to understand what thousands of Latvians experienced.
We Sang Through Tears: Stories of Survival in Siberia
Astrid Sics, comp. and trans.
Rīga: Jāņa Rozes apgāds, 1999
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