Each of us has a life story, each with a different color and texture, with moments of joy and moments of despair or sadness. Older Latvians’ lives in particular are full of trauma and often tragedy as the Latvian people have been subjugated by neighboring forces in the first decades of the 20th century as a result of two world wars. This was followed by even more tragedy as families were torn apart again in the 1950s by mass deportations from Latvia and at the same time emigration of thousands of families to the United States, Canada, Australia and various countries in Europe.
One way of documenting these biographies is by recording the oral histories of individuals. This way a physical recording or written transcription of a person’s life story can be passed on to future generations. Just as Krišjānis Barons recorded Latvian folksongs in the 19th century, there are many researchers continuing his job and adding much more to the documentation of people’s lives.
One project involved in this is Dzīvesstāsts (Lifestory), undertaken by the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Latvia. Called the National Oral History project, its aim is to record the life stories of people with a connection to the nation of Latvia “regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of the interviewee who is an inhabitant of Latvia or where—even outside Latvia—this lifestory is recorded.” The material collected via these interviews provides resources to various fields of academic research: sociology, social and cultural anthropology, linguistics, individual and social history, ethnology, and folklore psychology. The Dzīvesstāsts project has a partner, “Dzīvesstāsts – trimdā” (Lifestory – Diaspora), with coordinator Maija Hinkle in the United States organising interviewers who, in contrast to the project in Latvia, work independently, thousands of miles away from one another, according to the Web site.
A similar project homes in on an even more specific group, the refugees from Latvia living in German Displaced Persons’ camps after World War II. The project, called DP Albums, invites people to send in testimonies as well as photographs of life in these camps. The team involved in this project is an eclectic group all too young to remember the events but keen to document them as they are part of their heritage. Funded by various foundations and associations with an interest in supporting Latvian cultural heritage projects, this is one project with a “use-by date,” as those who remember the DP camps age and pass away.
An interactive virtual encyclopedia project is Latvijas ļaudis uz 21. gadsimta sliekšņa (Latvia’s People at the Turn of the 21st Century), where individuals are invited to add biographical data about people who have “contributed to promoting Latvia’s freedom and growth. The people, who are the real wealth of our country, will write a book about themselves, thus creating a collective portrait of the country.” Collating Latvian biographies since 2002, the project is partially funded by the Soros Foundation. The biographies that can be seen there so far are a real cross-section of the community, both those Latvians living in Latvia as well as those who have lived outside Latvia for the past six decades. Many are people with a recognizable name, outstanding each in their particular field, while others have been “quiet achievers” who have made a significant contribution nonetheless.
All these projects have helped to document the personalities, both big and small, that have helped to create the mosaic of Latvia and its people. Each person and family has their own thread to add to the complex tapestry of Latvian history.
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