Talking to children about occupation: lessons from Latvia

8 February 2024, 14:47

“Throughout the twentieth century, Latvia endured three consecutive occupations. In 1940, the Soviet Union seized control, followed by Nazi Germany a year later, which expelled the Red Army. Then, in 1945, Soviet armed forces returned, effectively isolating Latvia from the rest of the world until 1991. Each of these occupations brought terror, widespread arrests, and brutal killings of Latvia’s citizens. Thousands endured deportation to the distant corners of the Soviet Union, particularly Siberia, leaving the land of Latvia and its people completely devastated. Remarkably, all this unfolded a mere two decades after Latvia’s declaration of independence, a declaration once filled with hope and promise for growth,” writes Latvian author Lauris Gundars in the introduction to his “Mika Grāmata” (Mīk’s Book).

I find myself in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, situated in Riga, reflecting on these dates. They bear a striking resemblance to the occupation of western Ukraine and the turbulent events that unfolded in our nations. It’s February 2023, just days after commemorating the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. As I wander through the museum, I become fully immersed in the rich tapestry of Latvian history.

First, I step into a room filled with photographs capturing life in Latvia at that time — families, children, men in suits or military uniforms, women in elegant dresses, weddings, picnics, city celebrations, parades… Then, I follow the stories of these families, their lives overshadowed by the looming war. An interactive map illustrates the shifting fronts of the 1939-1940s, with the guide highlighting the indistinguishable brutality of Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. The Russian occupation led to repression and deportations, while the arrival of the Germans initially brought relief to those weary of Soviet rule. However, the cycle repeats itself, and the Nazi regime, although kinder to indigenous Latvians, perpetrates the near-total annihilation of Latvia’s Jewish population, reminiscent of the horrors of Babyn Yar.

Meanwhile, the spectre of Soviet occupation looms over Latvia once more, prompting many who have already endured it to seek refuge in Europe, often braving perilous boat journeys to reach Sweden. The international community’s failure to recognise the occupation of the Baltic countries meant that refugees were not repatriated to the USSR. Within the German army, a Latvian volunteer battalion was established, whose members, as the war drew to a close, retreated to the forests to continue their resistance against the Soviet forces, a struggle that endured for over a decade. More than 20,000 individuals joined the ranks of the Latvian national partisans or Forest Brothers (Latvian: Mežabrāļi). For those unable to flee abroad or join the resistance, the grim fate of being packed into cattle cars bound for Siberia awaited them.

The exhibition depicting the life of Latvians in Siberia is profoundly moving: showcasing train cars, photographs, survival in -40 ℃ temperatures, their clothing, belongings from their former lives, graves left in the snow, and the tragedy of deceased and unborn children. It also delves into life within the Gulag system and acts of resistance. Within the museum, there are embroideries crafted by Latvian women in the camps, strikingly similar to those created by Ukrainian women, facing a similar fate in Siberia, using fish bones. Meanwhile, back in Latvia, known for its private and prosperous farms, collectivisation is underway, with this typically cold country now being sown with corn.

Next is the story of those who managed to survive, return, and even pass on Latvian identity to their children. The struggle continues, albeit in new forms. Here are the flags cherished by the forcefully exiled Latvian families, evoking emotions akin to those stirred by recent footage from de-occupied Ukrainian villages where flags are unearthed. Some flags date back to the 1980s when it was a simple act to cut the Soviet flag in half and sew a white stripe in the middle.

There are also memories of barricades and a living chain that linked the capitals of the Baltic countries, reminiscent of the solidarity seen from Lviv to Kyiv in those tumultuous days. Finally, the long-awaited Independence arrives.

“What happened to those families mentioned at the beginning of the story?” you might ask. In some cases, no one survived; in many others, someone ended up in Siberia, husbands perished on the frontlines, while close relatives fought on opposing sides — be it German or Soviet. Young men joined the Forest Brothers, while some became emigrants, whose grandchildren later found their way back to independent Latvia. Among the exhibits is a Latvian passport issued before 1940, featuring visas from the 1980s, a poignant reminder that while Latvia may not have existed, its people still travelled under its passport. Because the world did not recognise it, the diaspora fought. Tears well up in my eyes when I ponder the current significance of Ukrainian passports. These stories are profoundly poignant and underscore one truth: Russia’s actions remain unchanged, always leading to death and suffering.

In each room, I discovered a children’s exhibit designed to educate them about the occupation of their country. Here, I encounter the heartwarming tale of Mīkis, a teddy bear with a remarkable history. Originally owned by a little girl named Sandra Kalniēte, who would later become a well-known Latvian politician, relatives sent her Mīkis 6000 km to Siberia so she would have a companion to play with. In 1957, when the family returned to Latvia, Mīkis returned with them. Now, he resides in the museum, where he’s been given a new lease on life — serving as both an exhibit and a beloved literary character.

The museum narrates the nearly 80-year history of the teddy bear. Here, Mīk resides with his family in pre-war Latvia; here, he learns of the devastating news of the occupation; and here, Mīk embarks on a journey to Siberia in a cramped Soviet train alongside other teddy bears. Then, he struggles to survive the harsh forests and bitter cold. Here, Mīk becomes a pioneer, and there, he accompanies Latvians fleeing to different countries after World War II… The museum’s 11th room has 11 stories about Mīk, each corresponding to a chapter in the book “Mīk’s Book,” written by the renowned playwright Lauris Gundars. These stories are recounted through the diaries of Mīk’s owners: young Jēvons, teenager Rudis and his mother Vilma, Vilma’s daughter Zelma and her daughter Rita, and finally, Baiba — Rita’s daughter.

After the museum tour, I’m handed this book, following the final room where Mīk proudly raises the red and white flag of independent Latvia. On the bus ride home, I delve into the book and find myself shedding tears for little Jēvons, who lost her teddy bear on the journey to Siberia, for Rudis, who longed to fight for independence, and for all the victims of Russia — both Latvians and Ukrainians. We must never forget these crimes and atrocities committed by Russia, occurring every minute. Otherwise, we will never be able to stop them.

Holding the black book about occupation for children in my hands, I already know that “Mīk’s Book” must be published in Ukraine. It once seemed like an impossible mission, but a year later, in the winter of 2023, I held a Ukrainian copy translated by Lina Melnyk, published by the Black Sheep children’s art publishing house with the support of the Latvian Literature literary platform. Another anti-Russian book finds its place on the shelves of our readers, coming from a country that deeply empathises with our pain.

“Mīk is worried because everyone is worried. Because drums are beating. Drums are beating all over the world. That’s what Dad and Uncle Robert say. War drums. They whisper to each other quietly, but we can hear them…” writes 6-year-old Jēva. The drums of war are beating all over Europe right now. But not everyone hears them.

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