War and Awakening
I was a teenager in 1914. My main concerns were a newly sprouted beard
and cracking voice. So when war broke out, involving Russia, Germany,
and Austro-Hungary, the news initially didn’t mean much to me, deep
in the Latvian countryside. It wasn’t World War I then, just another
war, and Latvia had seen many. The main impact on the family was that
our brother Janis, the second-born in our family, left Druviena to fight
for the tsar in the imperial Russian army. Osvalds was spared on account
of the loss of one eye.
Farm work keeps life in perspective. Cows have to be milked and grain
harvested, even if people are blowing each other to pieces somewhere else.
Moreover, occupation troops didn’t bother our remote area at first.
We escaped requisitioning the one time that a young German soldier showed
up at the farm to register our cows and pigs as possible foodstuffs for
the army. Father politely showed the soldier our granary and the storage
building. Along with farm equipment, tools and clothing, the storage building
held whole smoked hams suspended from the ceiling on meat hooks. “Ach.
. . Speck!” the man exclaimed reverently when he saw the ham. At
the end of long supply lines, German soldiers did not get to eat well,
or often. Father sliced off a generous chunk with his butcher knife and
handed it over to the soldier, saying “Bitte” (please). The
young man’s face lit up. With a quick “Danke,” he stuck
the ham in his satchel. Perhaps the urgent scent of smoked ham speeded
him up on his mission. He left after a cursory look at the farm, and nobody
bothered us for a long time.
In one of the vagaries of troubled times, a tall, gangly man knocked on
our door one day, asking for work. Father hired him to run the thresher,
and Andrejs stayed with us in Druviena for about a year. He was a Latvian
from Courland, the southern part of Latvia now known as Kurzeme, one of
thousands forced to flee from the advancing German army. The machinery
ran very smoothly after he joined us, and he patiently taught Peteris
and me how to operate it. A photo still exists of Andrejs and me, next
to the thresher (see Life on the Farm).
Not very long after this episode, our love affair with the steam-driven
thresher came to a happy end. We sold the machine to Karlis Gruniers,
a relative and a farmer like us. Gruniers did not especially covet the
thresher, but it so happened that his only son, also called Karlis, was
about to be drafted. One way to avoid the draft was to be declared essential
to farm production, and the thresher played a crucial role in this. To
secure exemption for his son, the elder Gruniers bought our thresher and
steamer, which of course must be run by an expert, and young Karlis quickly
became an expert in farm machinery. So everybody was happy. We made money
and the young man got to live another day. Family finances well padded
from the sale of the machines, I resumed my high school education in a
small neighboring town called Madona, some 30 km from the farm, where
I was a student when the tsar abdicated in February, 1917.
The school I attended differed in vital ways from education as we understand
it a century later. In 1917, Latvia still chafed under imperial rule.
For example, higher education was conducted in Russian. To add to the
humiliation, one could be expelled from school for speaking Latvian anywhere
on school property, in class, during breaks, or in the dormitories. We
were second-class citizens in the eyes of imperial Russia, and we shed
no tears over the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
Complete bedlam followed the news. We yanked the portraits of the Tsar
off the walls, cut them to shreds with our pocketknives, and stomped on
the pieces. A marching band materialized out of the crowd. Russian soldiers,
who didn’t like the Tsar any better than we Latvians did, now ushered
us through town, and even cleared the way through the crowds, as we sang,
“Joy, Joy is burning in the hearts of the resurrected nation. .
.” to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Along with Estonia
and Lithuania, high on freedom, Latvia was now officially recognized as
an independent country by the League of Nations and the world.
Bit of History
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