image/svg+xml Hilary B.Bisenieks

The Home Front

I can’t imagine what kind of day it was. In my mind, the backdrop is bare, black like a stage, like it happened to a stranger, like it never really happened. The air is filled with the roar of guns and bombs and planes. That’s what war is, right? I can see them, my father and grandmother, running through the streets of Riga, Latvia, like Mother Courage, trying to escape. That isn’t how it happened, though. That’s just how my mind paints it because all I know of real war are the silent images of tanks rolling through the deserts of Iraq, images which fascinated my father and grandfather but horrified my mother, who didn’t think that a five-year-old should see such things, even on the evening news. Never mind that war was my father’s childhood. My father was born in Riga just two years before the outbreak of war in Europe, three years before the beginning of Soviet occupation, a Latvian who has now spent less than a tenth of his life in his native land.

In 1995, he went to Glasgow, Scotland, for Intersection, the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention. Afterward, he traveled across Europe, visiting friends and correspondents, finally making his way to Lithuania before flying home with a duffel bag full of books and two stout loaves of Lithuanian black bread. Though he was only a few hours away from Riga on that trip, he never crossed the border into Latvia.

At the time, I didn’t ask why, but I wondered. Wouldn’t he want to go back to the place where he was born? Wouldn’t there be some longing for home, for someone to converse with in Latvian besides his father? It took me years to get answers for those questions and even longer to understand those answers. War wasn’t something that an American child growing up at the end of the Twentieth Century could understand. Even when I was bombarded with images of the conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Kuwait, coverage from Waco, Texas, and Oklahoma City and Columbine, I couldn’t really understand the violence. Not until one morning in early September at the start of my freshman year of high school when, in a mysterious assembly, I heard news that I couldn’t comprehend.

When I got home from school later that morning, riding a packed trolley away from the threat of skyscrapers, my father was glued to the television, transfixed by endless images of the destruction just a few hours away from us to the north, the south, and the west. It was like the war all over again for him, something my mother explained, but I didn’t understand. After that, everything was different, and, bit by bit, I began to understand.

In the late summer of 1944, German forces had driven the Red Army back from the shores of the Baltic sea near Liepāja, Latvia, reopening the overland route out of the country. Many people, my grandfather among them, had already left Latvia by sea, but my father and grandmother had, until then, remained. That time, however, they left, not knowing if they would have another chance, taking little more than what they could carry. A convoy of trucks took them as far as Liepāja, about fifty kilometers from the border with Lithuania, and from there they boarded a train to Vienna. Neither my father nor my grandmother knew whether they would ever return to Latvia as unfamiliar landscapes raced past the windows of their train.

Vienna was a haze, a holdover, for my father had taken ill, and his only memories of the city are of seeing Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, as yet unthreatened by retreating German forces and of viewing the hills outside the city from some unknown vantage point. After some days, they were able to go on.On the train again, my grandmother fell in with an anticommunist fellow named Mr. Bautz, a man who was always drawing guns in the margins of his books. Bautz invited them to come with him to what must have been his summer home in Ruhpolding, Germany. It was there that my father, who at that time spoke no German, first heard the word ausländer. Nobody had to explain that it meant “foreigner.”

As my father tells it, “We could not stay long because the local Party boss didn’t want any ausländers in his bailiwick,” and they had to move on, soon finding themselves in a German displaced persons camp, one of the few with open gates, leaving everyone there free to come and go. There, they were in the company of some other Latvian families including some with children, but friendships in war are hard to come by and harder to keep.

“After some weeks, my mother was assigned to a place of work in Munich, in the Hotel Continental, where she spoke bitterly about having to clean German toilets. Before very long, the hotel was hit with incendiaries, so we lost everything except that which we had taken with us to the air-raid shelter.”

And so it went. Munich was a landscape of burnt-out houses, their outside walls being the only things left standing. American air-raids were a fact of life, sending my father and grandmother hurrying to the nearest shelter. Once, after the all-clear, my father emerged from a shelter in the basement of another hotel, the Regina Palast, to find that parts of the building above were on fire, filling the atmosphere with smoke and dust.

Soon thereafter, they returned to Ruhpolding, having heard that the local Party chief was out. Air-raid sirens still sounded, but people in Ruhpolding, unaware of the destruction in Dresden, believed they were in no danger, and many times my father stood outside at dusk, watching American bombers fly over, going to drop their payloads elsewhere in Germany before returning to their bases in Italy. The sound of those bombers sticks with my father to this day, an all-pervading, deep hum of turbocharged radial engines.

Winter turned to spring, with the tide of the war becoming more and more clear. Germany had lost, it needed only to admit defeat. May came, bringing Wehrmacht troops through Ruhpolding, followed, a few days later, by American forces going the other way, leaving abandoned German transports and wrecked military hardware in their wake. Three days later, the European conflict ended with Germany’s surrender. The Soviets had taken the Reichstag in Berlin, but they also had Latvia. There was no going home.

In the 1960s, my father spent some time in a kibbutz in Israel, learning Hebrew and working the land, wandering around the countryside finding roman coins and neolithic stone tools. During that time, he traveled a bit in Europe, spending some time in Munich. Some things were the same, others, different. The Hotel Continental had been hit by explosive bombs later in the winter of 1944, and the only evidence that it had ever been there was a small, modern-looking building standing on a nearby side-street which also called itself the Hotel Continental.

I wondered about this, too. What could bring my father back to Munich, but not to Riga? Safety. Munich was never home. There was always the threat of air-raids, always the feeling of being an ausländer. Riga had been a home, once, but that was taken away. The city was changed by the war. Under the Soviets, thousands of Latvians were disappeared. Under the Germans, neighborhoods were turned into ghettos and concentration camps for the native Jewish population. My father was a native of a country that no longer existed. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he couldn’t go back. Not really. Would his house still be there? Would the streets still look the same, or would they be somehow alien, altered by years and conflict?

He must have had a particular sense of horror on that September morning, then, watching looped videos of airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. How could he tear himself away when it looked like war was coming home again? Watching coverage of wars going on half a world away, he could deny the connection, but this? If things had happened differently, had gone so much worse, if we had had to leave, would I be able to go back to Philadelphia? None of the recent wars in this country, on drugs, on terror, on poverty, has had much effect on me or my home. Travel sometimes takes a bit longer, and there are more cops everywhere, but what of it?

I don’t have to worry about air-raid sirens, foreign invasion, or occupation—not like my father once did.

I don’t speak the language, not yet anyway, but I still want to go to Latvia someday. I don’t ask my father about it though; I don’t have to. I understand.