Reflections on the June Deportations in a Modern Context

June is my favorite month, because it is just so dang fun! The sun is out, the days are long, we’re not sick of the heat and humidity yet, life is just good! Wahoo!

But smack dab in the middle of this party, each year, we have to stop and think for a moment about one of the darkest moments in Latvian history. On the night of June 14th, 1941, thousands of Latvian families were dragged from their homes, thrown into cattle cars, and deported to Siberia. Families were ripped apart. Conditions were monstruous. Many did not survive.

Every time I read another memoir from deportees or see another social media post of rememberence, I can only think; there but for the grace of God go I. Some Latvians stayed in Latvia throughout Soviet occupation, Some were sent off to work camps to starve and freeze to death, and some fled west, where they were corraled into displaced persons camps and eventually made their way to free nations. For so may of us, myself included, June is a fun happy month. We throw frisbees and go kayaking and have brunch on a waterfront patio, or cocktails on a rooftop bar.

We are the luckiest people in the world. I am the luckiest person on earth. Because I have lead a life where the scars of war and hardship and inhumanity have not directly affected me. There is no reason why I, of all people, should be this lucky. My family could have just as easily wound up in those cattle cars. Living in rags. Eternally struggling against frostbite and disease. Surviving on boiled nettles.

The thing is, for Latvians, mid-June is also a super fun summer month. On June 14th, Latvians are preparing for Jani, the all-night total rager when we celebrate the summer solstice. 1941 was wartime, but those folks still would have had Jani on their minds when those Soviet soldiers knocked on their doors and told them to pack.

So when, once a year, in the middle of the most fun month ever, I am called to reflect on one of the most tragic and cruel events ever, I am also drawn to think about my world in the present day. When I was younger, it was easier to think of extremely tragic awful events as being something “other.” They happened way back in history when people were crazy. Or off in other places that are less civilized. Not today in our civil society. But, of course, this view is naive. Sure, I personally, being extremely privileged and lucky, have manged to escape mass-scale tragedy. But our nation has not.

Two years ago, I posted on Facebook and pondered the paralels between children being ripped from their parents and thrown into cattle cars, and children ripped from their parents at the US-Mexico border and thrown into detention centers.

This year, well, this year, the world burning is closer to home.

There are, of course, people around me who legitimately have been repressed and terrified, by both their neighbors and their leaders. Black Lives Matters protests, spurred by yet another murder of a black man caught on camera, have been rocking the nation. The repression of and violence against Americans of color are of course nothing new; this dark disparity is sown into our nation’s history as deeply as our romantic notions of liberty and freedom, and unraveling it has been, and continues, to be a messy and painful task. Hundreds of years of oppression and racism are nothing new, and so while the obstacles we face are mammoth and disgusting, they are not surprising. Forcing those of us who have lived lives privileged enough to not be directly affected to confront, interact with, and act agains the racism that others cannot tune out is a necessary and expected step in the progress of making the America we live in more closely resemble the America we pretend to live in.

Recently, while watching The Great on Hulu (highly recommend, btw), my husband jokingly asked if we could go back to Latvia and be royalty there. I said no, of course not; Latvians were serfs. Serfs could not be rulers in their own land. Which is nuts, because we are all so patriotically pro-Latvia. It is a country where historically we have been treated like trash for centuries, and yet, it is still our home, and one that we love and cherish. And this thought again made me think aout the Black Lives Matter movement. Because, yet again, there but for the grace of God go I. Just a few generations ago, my ancestors were second class citizens in their own country. Less than a century ago this ancestry lead to many of them, including countless children innocent of any crimes, being brutally deported. These inherent injustices are the exact sorts of injustices are what black people are stuck living with every day of their lives.

And yet here I am today, the luckiest person in the world. White upper-middle class in America. It’s not fair that I get to be here. It’s not fair that some Latvians wound up in Siberia while others wound up in the US. It’s not fair that some Americans live in fear due to the color of their skin while others do not. It’s not fair that refugee children are thrown into detention centers because their parents are fleeing violence, while WASP children get to eat ice cream and play.

I am not glad that the events of June 14, 1941 happened. But I am glad that this near history helps me be more compassionate and insightful with regards to others’ struggles. And I am glad that it falls in the middle of my favorite month, when I get to do all my favorite things, because it makes me appreciate each little gift in my life that much more. I can go for a jog without fear of being chased by rednecks in a pickup truck; I can pig out on hamburgers off the grill without fear that that week’s measley Soviet bread ration will be moldy.

Reflection on this near history also makes me realize that I have never been asked to sacrifice. That is, up until recently, when Covid arrived to test us all. A global pandemic is asking regular privileged folks like myself, to do the bare minimum to contribute to saving our population: to put a piece of cloth on their face and maybe not go to the hairdresser for a few weeks. Holy hell, folks cannot cope. Seventy years ago my ancestors were leaving their entire lives behind and running into war-scarred western-Europe to escape soviet atrocities; today we have to wear a mask to Wal-Mart and can’t have giant pool parties. With this historical context of what life could be, I have extreme difficulty fathoming the lack of resilience or respect for others that results in people feeling repressed here.

I have to wonder whether, maybe, it’s not these people’s faults for being so upset. Maybe it really is that difficult to comprehend the role we each hold in society if your place in that society has never been threatened. Maybe, without an ounce of legit repression somewhere in your blood, you just cannot relate to other people’s pain, and you wind up spinning your mental wheels to come up with some sort of faux repression of your own to fill the void. (Kneeling before sporting events is an attack on MY flag! Not allowing Confederate flags is an attack on MY heritage! Wearing a mask to Costco is an attack on MY freedom!” On the other hand, I know plenty of fortunate people with privileged backgrounds who can operate in life with compassion and understanding for others, so maybe the pandemic-cry-babies are just assholes.)

What I do know is that the mid-June reality-check keeps me personally humble, and this year moreso than in any previous year. While it’s partially because the world is crazier, it’s also because I’m in the middle of reading a memoir from a Siberian deportee. So I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to read up on history. Any history. All history. Your own history, and everyone else’s history. Read memoirs. Go down Wikipedia rabbit holes. Look at a map, pick a spot you know nothing about, and then Google it.

Also, respectfully, please put on your fucking mask.

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