Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga | Anna Žīgure
| Guntis Bērziņš | Māra Zirnīte
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
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
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
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
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
Thank you, Astrīda and Vija.
Guntis Bērziņš, son of Lūcija and Arvīds Bērziņš and former
member of the Latvian Parliament
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
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
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
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
Foto: P. Grundmans, Viesītē. View
First year in high school for Lidija, August 1937. From left: Anna,
Lidija, Elga and Vilhelm Krēlis. View
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