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How Long is Exile?

Book I The Song and Dance Festival of Free Latvians

 

The trilogy How Long is Exile? is about a Latvian girl named Milda Bērziņa who, during World War II, at age thirteen, loses her family and country. On October 8, 1944, the German-Russian frontline raged over Kurzeme, moving toward Liepāja, where she visited her Aunt Alma. A telephone call from Alma’s fiance told them that they must immediately get to the ship sailing to Germany. They obey. Thus expelled from home, they were thrust into the strange realm of exile from which she finds no escape.

How Long is Exile? explores through Milda’s thoughts and experiences the psychological state of exile, as she journeys from Latvia to German, and to the United States. In each country and state of mind she finds herself in a different stage of a rich life—as portrayed in the three books of the novel. Yet she never stops feeling as a foreigner because her destiny is tied to her people and her country. She cannot forget her suffering country, nor her sister behind the iron curtain.

In Book I, The Song and Dance Festival of Free Latvians, Milda is 52, a widow and mother of two children, daughter Ilga and son Gatis. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After years of mourning for her husband Kārlis Arājs, she has come to another identity-affirming, traditional song and dance festival to re-connect with Ilga (Gatis has gone West.) and her people and find solace in the beauty of Latvian arts and language. When surprisingly she runs into her once-upon-a-time forbidden love Pēteris Vanags, her life’s course changes dramatically, even as the world changes and the Cold War ends.

Book III  The Long Road Home ends with Milda’s lone life in a new Latvia, where she discovers that for her the sense of exile does not end; it only enters another stage.

 

 

 

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How Long is Exile?

BOOK II Out of the Ruins of Germany

 

Out of the Ruins of Germany is divided in two parts: Part I covers the last half a year of World War II, roughly from October 1944 to May 1945. In this part, Alma Kaija, the main character’s Milda Bērziņš- Arājs-Hawkins aunt, takes center stage, as she became her thirteen year old niece’s guardian. Together they fled through the ruins of Germany until spring, when they found refuge in a remote town in Thüringen. There they lived until the war ended and American troops arrived.

 

Part II depicts their lives after the war in devastated Germany. After a year of uncertainty, in the autumn of 1946, they arrived in Esslingen, a picturesque town in Württemberg, in the American Zone. There, in the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Americans had set up the largest all-Latvian displaced persons (DP) camp where approximately 6000 lived on both sides of the River Neckar. When in September 1946, Alma and Milda got off the train in the Esslingen station, they went looking for the UNRRA headquarters. They were welcomed and assigned an attic room in Lido, the fine arts six story building. There, they spent the next five years, until August 1950, when they separated. Alma emigrated to Sweden and Milda to the United States of America.

 

During those five years, each had found her place and resumed a more or less normal life. Alma continued her acting career in the theater, and Milda went on with her education and other activities. There she met Kārlis Arājs and Pēteris Vanags. There she matured into an independent, free-thinking woman, ready to make the important choices of her life. The book ends with Milda’s waiting for a ship to take her to America.

 

 

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How Long is Exile?

BOOK III The Long Road Home

 

How Long is Exile? book III captures the mood after the fall of the USSR. The ethnic communities—the Kingdom of Exile—is shaken, and the people awake as if from a deep sleep. Milda suddenly becomes active; she makes crucial decisions and switches from an outdated romantic into a realist as she returns home, meets her estranged sister and the country she had left behind. As she tries to find her place in it, she understands that exile is a state of mind; it is a state where half the world’s population lives—like she—uprooted by tyranny and wars.

 

 

The Coveted Recipe
 

The Coveted Recipe may be a part of that story, only steeped in the Dark Ages. I am not sure what it is and where it belongs. Is it an adult fairy tale? A sad tragedy of times past? Or a parable of human nature that in changing remains the same, where innocent people are caught in webs of misplaced fears, laws, and regulations?

It came to me on a sunny day in Berlin as I sat in an U-Bahn that passed along the broken graffiti-smeared Berlin Wall, thinking how it had locked people in—like the Iron Curtain—and how many suffered and died behind those walls that had cut through lives and loves, leaving trails of guilt and sin on all sides. And then I thought about punishments, such as witch hunts and dungeons and prisons and wars. Seeing the devastation through a foggy window, I hoped that the train was speeding into a new and better age . . .