Bringing My Father Home

 

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At intervals we passed Russian Orthodox churches, their gold domes lending an exotic air to the unpopulated distances of forest and bog. At Ikla we crossed the Estonian–Latvian frontier. Back in the 1930s, Ikla had been one of the most vigilantly guarded frontier posts in all Europe. Latvia’s fear of Soviet incursion had left the border fortified with watchtowers and barbed wire. That day it was policed only by birds wintering in the guardhouse roof. Today, with President Putin’s renewed interest in the Baltic, the watchtowers are reportedly manned full-time. Having annexed the Crimea, Putin may yet covet Tallinn as a gateway into European and Scandinavian territories. Like Stalin and Peter the Great before him, by controlling Tallinn, Putin would be able to protect Russia against incursions from North-west Europe; he would command all Baltic territories.

 

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On the Latvian side of the boundary post, a lake appeared before us ice-bound and dazzling. As we approached Ainaži in the Vidzeme region, the road became less deserted. Knots of people stood at bus stops; Soviet-era Icarus buses went juddering by on their way to Riga, the capital. Ice, snow, ice, and the road to Riga was a flat gleaming whiteness. Along this same road fifty-eight years ago my mother had been caught up with displaced people pushing handcarts, bicycles overladen with bundles; old women and children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An estimated eight million homeless Europeans had to be rehabilitated after the war. What to do with the tide of human misery? Post-war propaganda and planning was effectively defined by the idea of repatriation and the refugee. It has become so again today. Hanging from trees on the way to Riga – my mother remembered – were soldiers young and old in Wehrmacht uniforms, with cardboard signs on their chests branding them in German as Verräterin, traitors. She passed burning houses, frightened for her life; push on westwards while the going was good, that was all that mattered.

On crossing into Latvia from Estonia in September 1944, she had sworn to herself: “Remember where you come from. Don’t ever forget your birthplace”. Yet she went on to do all she could to forget, assimilating so completely into English society that she could almost pass for an Englishwoman. Though post-war England was often stuffy with its rituals of roast beef and empire, she found Britain and British conservatism in particular a refuge from the zealotry and extremism she had escaped. Modern Britain was formed, in part, by persecuted minorities from abroad; it would be worse off without them.4

Much has changed since then, of course. Settling in Britain used to be seen as a commitment that required a degree of emotional separation from the “old country”. Today, immigrants, with the internet, cheap flights and satellite television, are less likely to see themselves as aspiring Britons than as members of a foreign country, hosted by, but not necessarily emotionally attached to, Britain. A refugee no doubt feels something much more complicated, but the barrier between where she is and where she has come from appears more porous in these days of rolling international news. For refugees such as my mother, however, Britain was a place of complete and permanent exile. The effort required to fit in must have been exhausting; she was constantly afraid of the manner or speech which would betray her foreign identity. Assimilation felt necessary to her survival. In the winter of 1956, after swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II and “Her Heirs and Successors”, she was “naturalized” – made a citizen of the United Kingdom – and no longer classified as stateless, or, in the polite French locution, dépaysée (de-countried). Even among fellow refugees, she avoided all talk of her homeland and her past. Why remember the past? Far better a re-birth, without the taint of her earlier life in the Baltic.

 

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Presently we passed a snowed-under school, with a disused Soviet-era aerodrome and a collapsed control tower behind it. Container lorries rumbled towards us heading east to St Petersburg. At 11:30 the morning sun showed through dirty-looking clouds. At the Latvian town of Ķīšupe we pulled up at a STATOIL filling station. Mr Grabowski got out and, unhooking the pump gun, filled up the tank. There was a smell of diesel, and over the forests in the distance the snow continued to fall. Oil, water, battery: all in order. A concrete flyover with signs for “CENTRS” took us past Riga’s Soviet-designed Palace of Culture: a fairy-tale ziggurat. We continued in the direction of Kekava in central Latvia. There was an impression now of stillness, of absence, in the monotony of farmland, forest and drifted snow. Fir trees pelted by and then the odd spiky mobile phone aerial and tatty-looking supermarket. While Mr Grabowski chatted in a desultory way about the funeral business, I had a sudden unwelcome vision of a white-walled embalming room in Warsaw with metal trolleys, elbow-operated taps and hospital-type sinks. Mr Grabowski, perhaps sensing an unease, said: “Sir, your father will be good. We use the best up-to-date alcohol injection methods. The embalmer is an old friend of mine and he knows the job so well”. Mr Grabowski spoke with such courtesy that I almost felt comforted. “I hope – dear friend, sir – that you will sleep well tonight in Warsaw.”

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