A clean-up team in destroyed Liga, 1941. Photo: German Federal Archive

What forced exile does to a family

Inara Verzemnieks’s remarkable new memoir travels back through the stories of her own relatives
June 20, 2018

For someone exiled from their homeland, the past becomes an almost physical place. Inara Verzemnieks’s memoir, a remarkable debut, considers the effect of forced exile on the elders of her family—the displacement of her Latvian grandmother Livija to America after the Second World War mirrored in her great-aunt Ausma’s Soviet exile to Siberia.

As refugees, forced to abandon Riga while bombs dropped on the Latvian capital during the war, Livija and her husband Emils were unable to return to a country subsumed by the USSR. Instead, Livija travelled back through stories, told and retold to a young Verzemnieks, of Lembi, the bucolic farmhouse where she grew up, accompanying the cows to pasture, “toddling barefoot behind the slow-hoofed cortège.”

Verzemnieks has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and here she applies a journalist’s eye to her own family—tracking down and interviewing those still living in Latvia. In doing so she uncovers what was omitted from her grandmother’s idyllic limbo, where “lilacs bloomed, regardless of the season.”

What her grandmother left out includes a younger sister left behind and her husband’s SS uniform—Verzemnieks identifies in her silence the shame of never being free “from the larger moral question of what constitutes collaboration.”

On the one hand, writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, (written in exile from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia), “we must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.” And yet, he notes elsewhere, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Verzemnieks’s wise book appreciates the tension between these two precepts.

Though at times tempted by the sentimental nostalgia she tries to complicate, Verzemnieks offers a deeply personal book, preserving stories that would otherwise have been forgotten.

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks (Pushkin, £16.99)