Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga | Anna Žīgure | Guntis Bērziņš | Māra Zirnīte


Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

There is a saying that every life is worth a novel, and this especially applies to those Latvians whose lives were drastically changed by the Second World War and its aftermath. Memoirs and individual life stories are not the same as fiction, but they provide a unique eyewitness account of documentary as well as historical value. They present reflections of the direct experience of individuals which cannot be found in history books of a general nature.

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, President of the Republic of Latvia 1999 - 2007

Anna Žīgure

I read Lidija’s book and found it very interesting - I think it will be so for other readers as well, at least for the generation of people with the same experience.

She was a strong person; yet there were others who fell apart. The book is also moving - it shows so much affection! And the letters… All that would be a good foundation for a novel. What is most valuable is that there are many photographs, and of good quality. And the English translation only enhances its value.

Anna Žīgure - writer, translator, former Latvian ambassador in Finland

Guntis Bērziņš

One could say that the launch of a new book, is like the start of its life – it “goes out into the world”.

Personally I perceived the book, Lidija Mednis’ memoir, on two levels.

Firstly, I perceived it as a description about the period of war in Latvia and Germany and about life in exile which followed thereafter, in displaced persons camps and later in the new home country of Australia.

What moved me most of all, was the description about the final phases of the war period.

Lidija Mednis (then nee Krēle), as a young medical student at the university, signed up for work in the Latvian Legion Hospital, which was founded in 1944 when the Soviet Army invaded Latvia. In the book she tells the story of this dramatic period.

I was particularly touched by the episode described in the book, where Lidija recounts the separation from her mother. As the directress of a Children’s Orphanage and with the Soviets approaching Rīga, her mother awaits transport so the orphanage can be evacuated to Kurzeme. At this time, Lidija’s lazaret [hospital] is also being evacuated, and she has a telephone conversation with her mother, who says she will be on the same train — the last one departing Rīga. Unfortunately, on this day of chaos, the transport promised to the orphanage never arrives; Lidija’s mother, however, through her sense of responsibility for the orphanage children, stays with them, as all the other orphanage staff have fled. And so this is to be the last conversation Lidija is ever to have with her mother! This episode reminds me how in such times of confusion people’s destiny can be so harsh.

The second level at which I perceived this book, is as a story of a strong, sociable and bright Latvian woman full of energy. A strong character was needed, to work as a nurse without medical training and to assist in operations in a war hospital and care for injured soldiers.

This was needed also after the war in the displaced persons' camps, as well as during the first years in Australia, while the family with small children was starting a new life in the new home country. Lidija describes how in Sydney her husband Elmārs worked during the day, but she worked as a nurse at night, so they could save enough money to buy a house.

Despite all this, the book also marks Lidija’s bright character, when she writes with passion about beautiful moments from the days past, when she and her sister, Elga, had been great singers; of how she met Elmārs, who later became her husband, in Hamburg; and of how she was also an active rower there; and of how the Sorority Zinta was founded in Germany’s Pinneberg.

Lidija’s passion was painting, and later in life she studied this discipline and painted a great deal; did ceramics and later also held solo exhibitions.

Lidija came from a generation prior to mine, and so I came to know her only when I grew up in Sydney, in the already bygone 1960’s. As she writes herself, she was very sociable — working at the Saturday [Latvian] school, helping at the Latvian Community Centre, working at the Latvian children’s camps; she held a number of positions in the Sorority Zinta, was one of founding members of ALMA (Australian Latvian Artists' Association), organised art exhibitions, and did many more things.

So I remember her – as a friendly, caring and very energetic woman.

In my view, Astrida, Lidija’s daughter, you have worked hard and with thoroughness on this book, together with Vija Sieriņa. For the content of the book will enrich the range of knowledge about this time, which, in Latvia, is already being referred to as “the old exile” and is rapidly going into oblivion.

At the same time, these are memories about a strong and energetic Latvian woman, who was dragged into this turbulent / stormy war and post-war period and of how she successfully coped with this time.

Thank you, Astrīda and Vija.

Guntis Bērziņš, son of Lūcija and Arvīds Bērziņš and former member of the Latvian Parliament

Māra Zirnīte

It all started through the window of childhood memories.

The life of every person is like a tiny knot within the tissue of a nation's broad history. If the writer has the eye of an artist; then the memories will come to life in colors, images and episodes of life. Just look at how many people have been kept alive in Lidija Mednis' memories.

Important occasions such as the building of a new church designed by architect Pauls Kundziņš, are seen through a child's eyes. What's more, the land for the church, as well as that for the new Viesīte primary school, was donated by people of high standing in the community — the family of Professor Pauls Stradiņš [a surgeon, known beyond the borders of Latvia]. The church was consecrated by its first minister, Kārlis Kundziņš. In the eyes of Lidija as a girl, the small village of Āžumiests grows into a big, colourful place, full of interesting people and happenings. The Viesīte of the 1920s and 30s is a hub of activity. There is a host of shops at Viesīte, where the Latvian butcher, the Jewish Mr Ķeveļevs, and the Baltic German Osterhofs trade. Both Lidija's parents are well known within the community — her father is the primary school principal (the family lives in the principal's residence at the school), and her mother is a teacher there. Next to the school are the doctor's residence, the forestry district office, the local dentist's rooms, the bootmaker and the tailor — a whole community centre, looked after by the old Strods (the parents of Pauls Stradiņš).

Lidija’s individual view draws one in by its directness. A person grows up, and from a childhood full of love and care is flung into a life which very quickly makes one realise the harsh reality of war. The memories lead Lidija through an endurance test when she starts work at the Latvian Legion Hospital. Her account offers a rare insight into her experience of seeing nothing else but injured, maimed human beings in need of help, even if this help is no more than a few kind words. She has to learn to cope with death and with life during war, when bombing is an everyday occurrence. The happy family is torn asunder — her mother remains in Latvia, her sister dies in Germany of a war injury. She has to farewell her father who leaves for the USA. They never meet again. This turns out to be characteristic of Lidija's generation — with its roots in Latvia, but the top of the tree and also the graves — in countries all over the world. A generation that had to go through an uncalled-for tempering.

The inclusion of personal letters recalls the emotions, dreams and hopes that helped overcome the grief of being separated from loved ones. They are like separate fragments of life that can be gathered into a whole picture. Lidija's written memories also serve this purpose. It is imperative that this experience is understood and valued by those who are yet to come.

In her memoirs, Lidija Mednis neither accuses nor condemns. She describes in a direct way everything that has influenced her in her journey through life, accepting the reality of whatever happened, just as she did when she saw the world as a child. In this lies her strength, reinforced perhaps by her artistic nature — childhood is and will remain the window through which she looks at and values life in her own unique manner.

Māra Zirnīte, Researcher, National Oral History Collection - Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia

Viesīte. Two sisters – first day of school – 2.10.1929 Lidija and Elga. View larger >

Teachers and our family in the Viesīte Stradiņš school. From left: Anna and Elga Krēlis, Lidija in front; second from right side is Vilhelms Krēlis. View larger >

Piano studio, Viesīte 1933 - Mrs. Cimmermanis with piano students. Front row, from left: Lidija, Mrs Cimmermanis, teacher Miss Betiņa. Second row: first from left is Elga; sixth from left is Millija [Bisniece].
Foto: P. Grundmans, Viesītē. View larger >

First year in high school for Lidija, August 1937. From left: Anna, Lidija, Elga and Vilhelm Krēlis. View larger >

In Zasa, on John's Day, 24 June 1939. From left: Elza Birze [Žukiņš, Anna Krēlis half sister] with her children [Ilmārs and Maija], Lidija in centre, and Kārlis Birze, Elza's husband at right. View larger >

© Astrīda Mednis. All Rights Reserved. Web design by Ojārs Greste