Shut your eyes as tight as you can

Gabriele Annan

  • A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile by Agate Nesaule
    Soho, 280 pp, $24.00, December 1995, ISBN 1 56947 046 4

‘We are talking in bed, friends again instead of lovers. Apricot-coloured fern fronds wave against the pearl grey background of my flannel sheets. Both of us are surprised to hear thunder, thunder in February, in Wisconsin, over frozen ground and dirty snow. My hand rests lightly on his grey hair, our legs are still entwined.’ What kind of a memoir is going to follow on from this opening? The answer is two kinds. One – the part dealing with the present and recent past in the USA – is pure schlock mixed with aspiring schlock, i.e. laced with jargon and touting every psychotherapeutic and feminist cliché. The subtitle – ‘Healing the Trauma of War and Exile’ – should be read as a health warning.

The other part of the book is in flashback – a gripping, harrowing account of growing up displaced. It begins with an idyll in a Latvian country parsonage. Nesaule was born there in 1938, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and his attractive, clever, frustrated wife, Valda, who could never get over the fact that she had been deprived of a university education because her family lost everything when they fled to Latvia from Omsk at the time of the Russian Revolution. Latvia was their native land: Valda’s father had left it as a political refugee before the First World War and settled in Siberia. In 1940 Valda had to flee again, this time with her husband the pastor and their two little girls, Beate and Agate. They hid in the woods when the Russians occupied Latvia after the Soviet-German Pact. Agate Nesaule’s memories begin in 1941 when the family returned to live cautiously under the German occupation. In 1944 the Russians advanced once more, and the Nesaules left their country for ever. During their trek to the coast to catch a boat to Germany they discovered that the Germans had poisoned all the inmates of the mental home where the brother of Valda’s closest friend was a patient.

Germany was a grisly disappointment. The Nesaules, with Valda’s mother and two families of cousins, were imprisoned in a camp at Lehrte. They were issued with number tags and made to queue twice a day in the mud for watery soup. Humiliating disinfection routines did not discourage the bedbugs from tormenting them in the dormitories. Nesaule saw an old man beaten until he fell down. Her mother put her hands over the child’s eyes and told her to be always ‘very quiet and very good, so that the guards would not get angry at us’. Sometimes the old woman in the bunk below would tell the little girl stories. One day she wasn’t able to: ‘A fly had settled on her cheek, which she did not try to brush away. Something about that terrified me, and I screamed, so that the adults rushed over. My mother swept me into her arms and put her hand over my eyes to keep me from seeing, a gesture that became more familiar and more futile as the war went on.’

After three months in Lehrte, the family were ‘lucky’ to be sent to work 50 miles east of Berlin at the Lobethal Institution for the Mentally Defective. This place was surrounded by fields and orchards instead of mud, and Pastor Braun, the superintendent, was able to persuade the Nazi authorities that the inmates produced more food than they consumed. He sheltered Jews and political dissidents, but sometimes the SS came and took someone away. The German workers demonstrated distaste for the Latvians. Guns could be heard in the distance, German planes flew overhead by day, American planes by night. The westward stream of refugees increased, then decreased, then dried up. Everyone who could left the camp. The Nesaules couldn’t, because Omite (Valda’s mother) was too weak.

‘“We will be all right, nothing bad will happen,” my mother said. “We’ll just go into the basement, get under our blankets and go to sleep. When we wake up, maybe the Americans will be here. But if not, we will still be all right. We will be together.”’ Agate’s father wept. ‘ “Not in front of the girls,” my mother and Omite said simultaneously.’ Agate had seen him weep at Lehrte, but that was because he, a priest, had stolen three potatoes and lied to the guards about it. When the Russians arrived and took all the men away, Agate concentrated ‘my whole being into willing that they would not make him cry’.

The only man to be executed was Pastor Braun, and the women were lined up to watch. As the soldiers got ready to shoot him, he whistled ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ – ‘He almost got through the second verse.’ The women were raped, usually behind a partition, but sometimes in sight of the children. One day they were marched out in twos to the nearby lake. They were sure they were going to be shot. Nesaule’s mother dragged her forward: ‘If they’re going to shoot us, let us be the first ones ... Come, precious, it won’t hurt. We’ll just hold hands, they’ll put something over our eyes. But if they don’t, you must shut your eyes as tight as you can.’ Nesaule struggled away from her mother: ‘She wants me to be shot, I think.’ It is the beginning of a lifelong estrangement. A soldier gets hold of the child and ‘makes strangling motions ... Warm urine runs over my legs and splashes on the soldier’s muddy boots. The shame I feel becomes part of the moment.’ But the soldier is only miming what has already happened: a German woman has strangled her daughter. ‘Heidi, the girl who sits next to me in school’, lies dead on the ground; a shot rings out as the soldiers execute the mother before she can commit suicide. The other women are meant to watch. No more are killed. They just die of starvation, typhoid and dysentery. ‘Every Wednesday and every Sunday, my mother, my sister and I went to watch the mass burials.’

Eventually the Nesaules managed to escape and made for an American displaced persons camp in Berlin, then still an open city. They arrived at dawn. The queue outside was a block long, the gate still locked. They queued all day, hope rising each time someone ahead of them was turned away. They were the last people to be admitted. ‘A seven-year-old Estonian boy and his grandmother had been in line behind us ... I did not want to see their faces now.’ In 1950, after five years in the camp, the family were given visas for the States.

Nesaule’s account of her early life in Europe is deadpan factual, with details so well-chosen and closely seen that they stand out in 3-D from the page. New light-green leaves on the birch trees which line the path to an execution look vulnerable in the chill drizzle. The girls walk with their legs apart because of the boils (caused by malnutrition) between them. When the boils burst, ‘there is a momentary sense of relief. We do not mind the stench of our own pus and blood, but we do not like smelling someone else’s. So we walk at arm’s length from each other.’ There is no fine writing, no interpretative nudging, no drawing of lessons and no moralising. But the tension, the climaxes of apprehension, horror, relief are brilliantly managed.

The account of life in the Latvian colony of Indianapolis is more of a genre piece, full of amusing cameo characters who bring to mind Hollywood films from the Forties and Fifties with refugee actors, once famous stars in Germany or Austria, playing bit parts in funny accents. The clean, moral, orderly, well-behaved Latvians found life alarming on the wrong side of the tracks among brothels and bars, where the streets were not safe for women returning late from washing up in restaurant kitchens – which is what Valda did full-time, and Nesaule part-time and illegally, because she was underage. Worse than poverty was the self-doubt that came from having been thought ‘not even worth feeding’ as a child. It was as humiliating as a number tattooed on the wrist. Nesaule never believed that anyone at her American school could want to be friends with her. Once, when she was ill with tuberculosis, a classmate brought her flowers, but Nesaule refused to see her. Valda, still raging at her own aborted education, urged her daughters to get As, pass exams, win scholarships, get a PhD. She herself got a degree when she was in her seventies. Her relationship with Agate remained frozen, and when the girl married a fellow student before finishing her degree, two years passed before her mother would speak to her.

Beate and Agate both married drunks. Beate’s was a gentle Latvian who drank himself to death and left her destitute. Agate’s was a crude American slob, noisy with self-pity, but full of love for her. After 22 years and with the help of a shrink, she left him for the grey-haired man between the pearl-grey sheets. The shrink taught her to think that her childhood had made her a masochist. But what can explain her split personality as a writer – one half of it a gushing, jargon-slinging agony aunt, the other a chronicler who can make one think of Primo Levi (she herself thinks of Jerzy Kosinski)? As a 12-year-old arrival in Indianapolis she taught herself to read English from Gone with the Wind. Perhaps, after what she had lived through, ordinary American life never seemed more real than an airport novel.