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
New York: Soho Press Inc., 1995
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