About a decade after Minsteres latviešu ģimnazija (MLĢ) closed its doors, Alberts Spoģis has complied a history of the alma mater of exiled Latvians from around the globe. Minsteres latviešu ģimnāzija izdzīvoja, published in October 2009, tells the story of a one-of-a-kind institution and the only full-time Latvian-language secondary school outside of Latvia.
MLĢ was, in fact, a relic of the Displaced Persons camps in Germany during and after World War II. For a few years almost every camp had a school of its own. One by one they closed down as the Latvian refugees began emigrating to other countries in the late 1940s. The remaining resources were consolidated into one school in Detmold-Augustdorf, and in 1957 that school moved to Münster, or Minstere in Latvian. MLĢ suffered from a lack of facilities, a lack of supplies, a lack of money, and sometimes also a lack of students. But, as the title of the book says, it survived—often on determination and idealism alone.
In 1964 the first student from another continent began attending MLĢ, and by the end of that decade the growing number of students from the United States, Canada, England, Sweden and Australia seeking a super-Latvian education had transformed MLĢ from a school designed primarily for Latvians living in Germany to a school belonging to the whole global community of Latvian exiles. Some say MLĢ provided only a mediocre education, but no one disagrees that what it ended up doing best was to cultivate national pride and keep alive the hopes of an exile community. If MLĢ was often “just school” for the students from Germany, for the community abroad it became the pinnacle of Latvian exile education. Many illustrious individuals and future leaders of Latvian exile society, not to mention just plain colorful characters, graduated from MLĢ, and a disproportionately large number of its former students and employees now live in Latvia.
So much for a summary of the school’s history and mission. Readers who wish to know all the ups and downs and ins and outs will have plenty of reading material in this book written and compiled by Spoģis, a long-time teacher and board member at MLĢ, as well as a poet and the father of several graduates.
Spoģis’ writing style is modest and matter-of-fact. After a very detailed first section (which includes comments about curriculum, tuition rates and even teachers’ salaries during the school’s first years), it seems as if he steps completely into the background and hands the narration of the school’s story over to the press of the day. The bulk of the book consists of articles from newspapers and newsletters, summaries of meetings, and pieces by teachers, students, and the school administration. However, readers may instinctively begin looking at the lists at the end of the book of graduates, teachers, administration, dorm counselors and even kitchen help —and, of course, the pictures. The pictures show all possible graduating classes and school boards, as well as sports teams, concerts, theaters productions, and other activities. They are all black-and-white and some are much too grainy, but an author works with what’s available.
Minsteres latviešu ģimnāzija izdzīvoja is laid out chronologically, with accounts of programs, seminars, concerts, theaters, festivals, graduates, scholarships, speeches, meetings, sports events (even chess tournaments), finances, changes in the school and staff, its relationship to and support from the German government, and other significant events. It seems as if every article that ever appeared in the Latvian press about MLĢ has been reprinted in this book. That said, the book does not pretend to be a complete history but rather a wide-ranging testimony. Most readers, however, will probably not read the book cover to cover. Instead, they’ll jump around and read those articles that pertain to them in whatever way. Here and there they’ll find a gem of an article. The memorials to deceased students and teachers are particularly touching, but so are the quirky reminders that, for example, in November 1980 a group of MLĢ students traveled to Mainz to see and meet Pope John Paul II, in 1989 four students wrote and performed the darkly philosophical play “Jezidija,” and much thought went into deciding on a style for the furnishings in the bar (yes, a bar that served alcohol) on the lower level of the school building.
Beyond the accounts of staff and organizational meetings, the retrospects written by former directors of the school, such as Eduards Silkalns and Ilga Grava, give a more personal glimpse into the school. Grava also dares to touch on the complications, negative attitudes and internal politics that are inevitable in tight-knit communities, as well as the difficulty in mixing and merging students from different countries and backgrounds.
This miracle of a school—it’s a miracle it survived, both financially and ideologically—graduated 53 groups of students and finally closed its doors for good on June 20, 1998. By that time it was no longer catering to the exile community, but rather to teenagers straight from Latvia. Ironically (and very appropriately), it was the fulfillment of MLĢ‘s ideological goal—Latvia regaining its independence—that ultimately forced it to close. Despite the 527-page length and sometimes tedious reading, Minsteres latviešu ģimnāzija izdzīvoja provides good documentation of a legend. I’m happy Spoģis wrote it and I’m glad I have a copy.
Minsteres latviešu ģimnāzija izdzīvoja
Rīga: Valters un Rapa, 2009
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