Volume 33, No.3 - Fall 1987
Editor of this issue: Vilius L. Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Indiana University-Bloomington

"Grandmother, tell me the story of your life again," said Baibele to her grandmother-in-law one evening, when both had settled down in their beds...1

Jēkabs Janševskis, the author of the passage quoted above, is well known for his historical novels. In Mežvidus ļaudis, published 1929, Janševskis portrays peasant life as it might have been during the late seventeenth century in western Latvia. Besides the everyday work and leisurely activities, he depicts various storytelling occasions. The stories are usually told about real events of the past — wars, plagues, and other events personally experienced by the characters. Although Janševskis had no way of knowing what the topics of conversation were in Latvia three hundred years ago, there is little reason to doubt that people have always told stories similar to those told by the characters of Mežvidus ļaudis.

At the time when most history books were in German or Latin, the usual means by which Latvian peasants learned their own history and learned from the experience of others was through the oral tradition. The process of folk history has continued long after people learned to read and write. Books usually deal with the "big" history, which is also taught in schools.

This history deals with such topics as generals, strategic tactics, leaders of people, and changes in government. At home, however, an unofficial, "folk" history describes people and events that are more closely associated with the narrators and listeners. Stories about the lives of parents, grandparents, and other relatives touch upon the "big" history only insofar as it has affected the lives of the people involved. Folk history and family stories address events of the past much more intimately and tangibly than the information published in books.

In the fifteen volume Šmits collection of Latvian folk tales and legends, a short section is devoted to historical legends and stories about the past. Life in the old days, the giving of family names, wars, Germans and the cruel punishment that the lords inflicted upon Latvian serfs are topics that are found in this section of the Šmits collection. Many historical narratives are not tied to specific people known by the narrators, but are retold vividly by children of Latvians who witnessed the events described. For example, a ninety-three-year-old woman remembered a story once told to her by her mother:

My mother said that she saw with her own eyes how a young woman was dragged up to the whipping post and whipped. And the man who beat her was told to hit her so that she would bleed. The poor girl screamed terribly, and when they let her go, she fell down right there on the spot and didn't get up again. But at home she left a little child, because she had had a child before she was married, which is why she was beaten.2

If this story about an event that took place in the early nineteenth century still moves us today, we can imagine how powerful an effect it had on both the mother, who saw the whipping with her own eyes, and the daughter, who "saw" the event through her mother's eyes.

In this article, I would like to describe the process of folk history, as it occurs in the families of Latvian refugees now living in the United States. The family story is one of the most effective means of communicating the past. Children who "see" their own history through the eyes of their parents gain a sense of family continuity. They are likely to perceive the world in a fashion similar to that of their parents.

The narratives I quote were not elicted from the Latvian refugees who took part in the events described. Instead, I chose to interview Latvians born in the United States, who retold family stories that they had heard from their parents and grandparents. In other words, these stories are part of oral tradition. They have been transformed from personal experience narratives told by parents to tales told about parents and grandparents by their children.

Previous articles on immigrant tales have usually dealt with the individuals who tell these tales. Autobiographical narratives and life histories have been used to add an individual dimension to sociological and anthropological studies of Americans who have left another country and permanently settled in the United States. The stories themselves have hardly been tested as to their persistence and use within the average immigrant family.

Family stories in their natural context are told by parents and grandparents to their children, with no guidance or prompting from the folklorist. A family member easily absorbs much information about other family members, and remembers stories that have spontaneously emerged in everyday conversation. The folklorist, oral historian, and other interviewers are likely to elicit from immigrants stories that would never have been told in the natural context in addition to the familiar tales. In my research, I have attempted to avoid this problem by interviewing Latvians not about their own lives, but only about stories that they have heard from other family members.

Leisure time activities such as the family meal, a cup of coffee in the kitchen in the evening, and a ride in the car are only a few of the many family storytelling situations that occur daily. A twenty-five-year-old Latvian describes such occasions:

Sometimes it comes out sort of as a joke, when, say at dinner mother says something like, "You Vidzemnieki eat so much potatoes!," and my father says something about the Zemgalieši, and then they start to talk about the kinds of foods they ate back then, and did they call potatoes 'kartupeļi' or 'tupeņi,' and so on ...

I think the conversations come up most often at the dining room table . . . either at dinner, or sometimes later at night, when you just go into the kitchen, make some coffee, sit down, and you don't start right away, but you think of something, or you've read something, and you just start to talk about that kind of thing.3

Most family stories are fragments, that is, flashes of memory that come up from time to time. Together all of these stories might be called the family saga, which is the sum total of knowledge that family members have about their family as a collective unit. The family saga changes over time, as some stories are forgotten and others are refined, and it varies from one family member to another. Obviously, the stories of one family will not be the same as those of another family, though similar themes do appear.

There is no dependable way of predicting the exact situations in which these tales will be told, since the stories emerge spontaneously in conversation. Physical objects such as jewelry, a chest used to carry possessions across the ocean, or an old pocket watch hold memories for the people who own them. Stories about people and events associated with such objects may be told at any time when the object becomes the focus of attention. In a similar way, photographs and the family picture album are another source of stories. All in all, not only physical objects, but also smells, tastes, certain music, and other sensory stimuli call back memories and reminiscences about the past.

One kind of physical stimulus, a frequent source of stories in other American families, is absent for the Latvian refugees. Places hold many childhood memories. A young woman whose mother was born in Latvia, and father in the United States, compared the stories that they both tell:

My father was born in Ohio, and I actually know more about his childhood than my mother's. But that's because he was born in Dayton, and when we drive past a playground where he played when he was a boy, he always tells us, you know. And that kind of chance doesn't come up that often when I talk to my mother.

A recent study of American family stories presents a thematic typology of these tales. Stephen Zeitlin writes that Americans often tell and retell stories about eccentric relatives, heroes, outlaws, and royalty in the family tree, as well as stories about poverty and hardship during the Depression, or about natural disasters. Courtship and marriage stories, lost opportunity for great wealth, and emigration, either across the Atlantic Ocean or across the North American continent, are also themes commonly found in the storytelling repertoire of American families. Concerning family history, a story will usually concentrate around the "turning point, the time marker, the dramatic moment after which nothing was the same" in the life of parents, grandparents, and other relatives.4

The great turning point in the lives of the Latvian refugees was, of course, World War II. In the memories of young Latvians, stories about the war overshadow all others, both those about events before 1940, and those about events after 1945. It must be said that there are families where stories about the war have not been told at all. World War II divides family history into three segments: prewar, wartime, and postwar experiences.

Reminiscences about the prewar years are often sentimental:

My grandmother's mother lived in the country . . . And she — I know that my mother said that she and her brother, when they were little, they always went there to milk the cows and all that, and she said that they always drank the warm milk, and there was nothing left in the pail when they finished. — That's the same as going to pick strawberries and coming back with an empty basket.

Other narratives, however, are marked by the absence of sentimentality or idealization. A mother may tell how she fell into deep water as a child, and has been afraid of water ever since. A father may tell how he played the french horn in grade school. Grandparents may, in fact, even stress the simplicity and mundaneness of life:

My grandparents had their own farm in Zemgale — nothing big, but still . . . They had farm hands who worked for them. I think it wasn't far from the Lithuanian border. I even think that my mother said that there were people who spoke Lithuanian, who were working for them. But she said they had a good life growing up. There was always enough to eat, she always had clothes to wear. But she doesn't remember that her parents ever would have brought them somewhere, to Riga or someplace else, to a big city. They always stayed right there.

It would be misleading to generalize that all Latvians now living in the United States had an idyllic childhood in Latvia, and that the twenty year period of independence was a time of happiness and well-being for all Latvians. And yet, such positive stories seem to be chosen more often than others for telling. Probably in the minds of the tellers, they best represent the everyday life that was abruptly broken off by the Soviet occupation.

Older Latvians with whom I have spoken may suddenly end their reminiscences with a comment similar to that of a well-known Latvian painter in a newspaper interview last year. Answering a question about his hopes, accomplishments, and losses during his eighty year life, Jānis Kalmīte states, "...I have lost half a life, because I do not consider the years I have spent in foreign countries to have been 'lived'"5

Such revealing comments, along with many tragic personal experience narratives about the war years, would disrupt the leisure-time activities during which family stories are told most often. For this reason these stories may never be told, and consequently they may never pass into the family's oral tradition. I believe, however, that the tragic wartime experiences and the "loss of half a life" weigh heaviest in the memories of most Latvians who left Latvia as adults. They may never express such feelings out loud if they do not have a sympathetic listener — an adult to whom one's most private feelings can be expressed. In the family, these stories are not told often, but may need to be told only once to pass from the teller in into the memory of the next generation.

Older Latvians who experienced the war years as civilians would probably divide them into three clearly separate periods — the Soviet occupation, the German occupation, and emigration to Germany or Sweden during the last years of the war. On the other hand, the later generation Latvians whom I have interviewed do not always distinguish these three periods. To these young men and women, and possibly to their parents as well, it doesn't really matter if the planes flying overhead were German, Russian or American:

My mother and uncle were on the road somewhere — I don't know where they were going, if they were going to school, or just walking somewhere — but they heard sirens.

And my mother thought, "Oh, the sirens again, we'll have to go look for an air raid shelter again," and so on. And she wasn't really hurrying, not really thinking about it, but her brother, he probably heard that it was closer than usual. And I don't know if he saw something, but he said very quickly, "Sister, watch out!" and he grabbed her and pushed her into a ditch, and they rolled in there, and they saw only then that something fell a short way ahead. And she thought that, if he hadn't pushed her completely off the road, then something probably would have happened.

Another Latvian remembers a story that her mother told her. Again, it is not directly linked to a place or time:

Once, my mother remembers that she and her brother both really wanted something to eat, and my grandmother had gotten one loaf of bread, and they had to do with that for a long time. And she had divided it up, so that at each meal there would be so much for each person, and that's all, and no more. And one evening my mother and uncle took that bread and ate the whole loaf. It was meant to be saved for the next day, so that there would be something to eat. And my mother said that she remembers — they were both so little that they didn't really understand the whole thing, they only knew that they were hungry, and so they took it, and my grandmother cried about it all evening, because she didn't have anything to give her children to eat on the next day. She wasn't really angry with them, because she understood that they were only children, and that they were hungry, and that they didn't understand the whole thing. She was just so very sad that they were so hungry, and she had nothing to give. My mother said that she would always remember. It's not a happy thing to remember, but . . .

The same individual told how her grandparents tried every possible way to keep life normal for their children:

My mother said that she remembers, — my grandfather considers learning to be very important — and so, my mother said that every day, while they were traveling to Germany, every evening he taught them something, say, German, or math, or something. Every evening they had to learn something, because he thought that, just because you can't go to school, you know, — there was no school, because they were running away from everything, — but he thought it was very important to learn something new every day.

In the uncertain years after the armistice, Latvians living in the displaced persons' camps were faced with problems of a different kind than during the war. They no longer had to fear air raids, enemy attacks, or famine. The bare necessities of life — food, clothing, and shelter — were at least for the time being provided by Western relief organizations. In a way, life could again return to "normal," except for the fact that they were not living in Latvia. Latvian schools, theater, literature, and concerts recreated the once-normal cultural activities, in what came to be called "Little Latvia." On the official level of the Latvian community, the concept of exile, trimda, was formulated at this time, but few references to exile appear in the family stories about displaced persons' camps. These narratives reflect a return to the relative normalcy, or an attempt to return to normalcy. Family members may remember the crowded, unpleasant conditions of the displaced persons' camps, and the older generation surely remembers a feeling of homelessness and fear for their children's future. More often, however, stories and anecdotes are told about children who took up piano lessons or got into trouble for pranks of one sort or another.

A yearning that everything would return to normal also emerges in stories about life in America. A Latvian family that I know often remembers the story of their grandfather finally getting a job that suited his abilities:

Grandfather was a janitor in Ada, Ohio . And they had arrived here — I don't know how long they had been here, it wasn't long — and then he had a job as a janitor at the university, not a better job somewhere. And he cleaned the rooms and bathrooms and everything. But when the students at this place had math problems to solve, and he saw that they had problems, then he would help them out. And then word got around that the janitor knows more than many of the professors. And so he got the job and stayed at the university as a professor.

Latvians enjoy telling similar stories about the so-called "stupid" immigrants who turned out to be not so stupid after all, and how they were smarter than their coworkers. In this way, Latvians reassert the fact that, although they had to work as janitors in America, their education and background was that of white collar workers.

Family stories play an important role in the lives of young Latvians living in America. They entertain and instruct the children, but also serve as a bridge across the gap between the younger and older generation.

Entertainment and education are two of the most commonly identified functions of folklore in general. Stories such as the one about grandfather getting a job at a university are told as entertainment, in times of leisure, and they also give a history lesson not taught in either the Latvian or American schools — an account of a true event in grandfather's life.

In contrast, a mother telling her children about the time she was nearly killed in an air raid, or nearly starved to death during the war, or about how her father was taken away on June 14, 1941, is not telling the story to entertain or to teach her children a lesson. Such stories are usually told only after the children have matured into adults.

Latvian parents, in relating stories of their own helplessness or resignation to fate, place themselves in a very vulnerable position. Only the most insensitive of listeners would be able to reject this expression of trust and confidence. The closer the ties become between the listener and narrator, the more personally revealing the narratives become.

Through this intimate exchange, parents pass on much of their lives' experiences, which formed their overall view of the world. The children may well come to share their parents' values and goals after they have seen the events of the past through their parents' eyes. As many similar Latvian family sagas continue and younger generations replace older generations, stories about the past help preserve a personal feeling of family identity and ethnic identity among American-born Latvians.


* This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the AABS 10th Conference on Baltic Studies in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 31, 1986. I am indebted to Dr. Sandra Dolby-Stahl of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University for many ideas incorporated in this paper. I am also thankful to Dr. Velta Rũķe-Draviņa of Stockholm University for her comments on a draft of this paper.
1 Jēkabs Janševskis, Mežvidus ļaudis, part 2. New York: Grāmatu Draugs, 1951: 79.
P. Šmits, ed., Latviešu tautas teikas un pasakas, 2nd ed., Vol. 15. Waverly, Iowa: Latvju Grāmata, 1970: 388.
3 Interviews for this paper were tape recorded in spring 1986. The texts have been translated from Latvian. Readers should note that spoken language is not identical to written language; while these narratives may not follow the rules of well-written prose, they accurately represent the natural conversation that was recorded on tape.
4 Steven Zeitlin, "Americans Imagine Their Ancestors: Family Stories in America's Folklore." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1978: 58.
5 Edmunds Zirnitīs, "Mākslinieka zelta jubileja; Saruna ar gleznotāju Jāni Kalmiti," Laiks, 28 December 1985: 3.