Eugene Dubnov


She belonged to him, and he to her. He had a feeling of complete oneness with her - it seemed as if neither of them could exist without the other. She was his Latvia - Riga where all of them had got on the train, and the Sigulda Railway Station where they had got off, and likewise the street which bore the name of his favourite poet Janis Rainis. It was along this street that all of them had just walked - in a northerly direction till they had come to Sigulda castle. And the castle itself - a 13th century fortress built by the Teutonic Knights on the summit of a hill - was also a part of his Latvia, her history and her beauty.

Here, under the walls of this very castle, Andreis had made his fatal mistake, in trying to kiss Ilga.

It was the first time in his life that he had tried to kiss anyone, and it had happened by a mere fluke. From the top of the hill there was a breathtaking view of the river Gauja, as it ran calmly and unhurriedly, full of its own dignity. Bushes and trees that grew along the banks were reflected in the water as close undifferentiated shades. The forest here was mixed - both deciduous and coniferous. Below the hill, on the left beyond the river a seemingly impenetrable pine forest began with trees that bore their high load of branches proudly and with ease. But here, in the vicinity of the castle, the yellow and russet of autumn leaves predominated. It so happened that in their talk - they were discussing a problem in organic chemistry which Andreis's mother had told him about - they had strayed away from the rest of their school, somehow got behind the wall of the fortress and had taken a few steps down the path. The rest of the party - altogether about a hundred senior school students with their two teachers - had remained on the other side of the castle. Andreis had been suddenly overwhelmed by a surge of love, a love that had been gathering force for the past hour or so, a passion for these forests, this river, these pebbles beneath his feet - and a passion for Ilga too, for she was a part of this world, an all but essential image in his picture of it. In her quiet unruffled dignity she suggested to him the river Gauja itself.

This affinity had just struck Andreis, a wave of emotion rose up in him and brought tears to his eyes.

"Ilga," he interrupted her in mid-sentence and when she turned to him, a slightly puzzled look in her eyes, with an awkward gesture he drew her to him and forcibly pressed his lips on hers.

"Have you gone mad!" Ilga shouted and pushed him away. "Who do you think I am?"

He started to mutter something in his own defence but she wasn't listening.

"Honestly, I never expected anything like this from you!" she was saying indignantly as she turned back and began going up the path again. "To take advantage of me like that! Anybody might think I look like one of those Russian girls who hang about Riga railway station!"

She spoke these words when she had already reached the castle walls - and they happened to be overheard by Andreis's schoolmate, Karlis, who had unexpectedly emerged from the other side. He stopped in his tracks and started to stare at them, rather rudely, shifting his glance from one to the other. Just a moment before his sudden appearance Ilga had taken out her handkerchief and was proceeding to wipe her lips and part of her cheek where - so Andreis began to think with shame - a wet trace from his mouth must have remained.

Karlis grinned maliciously. "Is your hankie big enough, Ilga, or do you want mine as well? Serves you right - you shouldn't have got mixed up with that kind of company!"

It had sometimes seemed to Andreis that Karlis himself might have had his eye on Ilga. On a couple of occasions he had caught Karlis's surreptitious glances at Ilga during the break period. And once in the classroom Karlis had said that Ilga must be as randy as a pussycat and that he need only wink at her, and she'd come running. Karlis, who had taken up bodybuilding, had a small head on his broad shoulders. This would never attract Ilga the intellectual, as Karlis must surely have realised. That was why, while talking about how easily he could have had her, he never in fact ventured further. All the same, he had become decidely hostile to Andreis ever since he had seen him with Ilga in the park together.

And now Karlis was openly triumphant.

"Or perhaps," he went on, "you'd rather have a whole towel - he must have slobbered all over you with those lips of his - and I bet snotted you all over with that nose of his as well. Luckily for you, I have my big towel with me," he pointed to his bag, "I brought it because I intended to have a dip in the river. But I'm not mean - I can sacrifice my towel for you and do without my swim!"

Ilga turned sharply and without a word ran into the castle courtyard.

"So you're the kind of fellow who takes advantage of our girls like that?" Karlis turned his attention to Andreis. "Who thinks they look like those Russian tarts in the railway station? I wouldn't if I were you, Nahumovich!" he drew out the syllables of Andreis's surname containing as it did the name of the Old Testament prophet. "I wouldn't, that's for sure!"

"What do you mean `our girls' and what business is it of yours?" Andreis became angry. "What happened is between Ilga and me."

"Oh no it isn't, Nahumovich!" Karlis once again drew out the syllables of the name. "It's no longer between the two of you but between us all. I heard how upset Ilga was, how she demanded that you leave her alone. And you will leave her alone too - I'll take care of that!"

He turned on his heel and left. At that moment a whole group of their schoolmates appeared from the other side, and Astrid Maura, their teacher, announced that they were going to visit the famous Gutman Cave and other caves on the left bank of the river. Andreis wanted to be alone - he was very much hurt by Ilga's reaction and offended by Karlis's insinuations. But as luck would have it, he was just at that moment joined by Imants Birkmanis, a boy from his class. Imants asked him would he help him prepare for a Latvian language test which was in the offing. Andreis readily agreed. He found it flattering that in the school he should be regarded as the expert on the Latvian language. For after all it was the best school in Riga, and that probably meant the whole of Latvia. It even boasted that some of the children and grandchildren of distinguished Latvian writers were studying there. It was particulalry ironical - he thought wryly - that Imants should have come to him with his request for help in the Latvian language while Karlis's jibes were still ringing in his ears.

He had hardly had time to recall his exchange with Karlis when he heard Karlis's voice once again behind his back. This time, however, Karlis was not addressing him.

"Come here, Birkmanis, just for a minute, I've got a word to say to you."

Imants joined him, and they walked away. Out of a corner of his eye Andreis noticed that Karlis had led Imants up to his pal Krishjanis and that the two of them together began to say something to Imants. From the way Imants glanced back at him and then in the direction where Ilga was now walking along the path together with a party of some of her girlfriends Andreis could guess that they were talking about him and what had just occurred.

He found himself alone again, for Imants had not come back to him.

In a few minutes they were all of them, including Andreis himself, crossing the bridge over the Gauja.

Vidzeme, the largest of Latvia's four provinces, as far as the eye could see, stretched all around. Riga stood at its western limit; to the north was the Estonian frontier; the river Daugava formed its southern boundary, while to the east it marched with the province of Latgale.

As he came down from the bridge, he suddenly caught sight of a deer that seemed to flicker as it rushed through a forest clearing. Nobody else appeared to have noticed it. He turned excitedly round to tell someone what he had seen but there was no one near enough.

The banks of the river here were yellow and red sandstone, marked at intervals by high-vaulted and deep caves. The first cave their party came to consisted of two grottos, one above the other. As if to continue the colour scheme of the river banks and of the autumn leaves outside, the cave walls were a patchwork of all shades of russet brown and ochre. Everybody began to chatter together in an animated manner and to break up into small groups to explore the caves. Amid this lively din and the sense of togetherness all the others were evidently experiencing Andreis felt particularly lonely and hurt.

He came up to Astrid Maura and started to say out loud the opening lines of Karlis Skalbe's poem entitled "Unrest":

Always blue are the Latvian hills,
Never calm under Latvian birches,
Always the horn laments on Latvian hills.

This poem had suddenly come into his head, along with the musical setting by Emils Darzins. He was a bit nervous because he wasn't sure if she, his class teacher, would regard the lines as relevant: after all, the hills around them weren't blue at all but red and yellow with the autumn leaves. He felt even more nervous remembering how the poem went on mentioning as it did the white Daugava rapids rather than the Gauja which was before their eyes.

But he never got around to the Daugava. His timing had been very unlucky: he hadn't noticed that Uldis Balgalvis, the PE teacher, was standing next to Astrid and looked as if he had just been interrupted while chatting her up (and he a married man too!) Either in order to get rid of Andreis's intrusion on this potentially romantic occasion or perhaps because she was genuinely concerned, Astrid broke into his spouting poetry and called out: "You, girls over there! Skaidrite, Ilga! Come down from up there at once! It's dangerous!"

The two girls gazed down at her, and it seemed to Andreis that they were looking at him. Ilga soon turned away but Skaidra - whom everybody but he called by the tender diminutive Skaidrite ("little beauty") - continued her gaze. Andreis got even momentarily worried in case Ilga had told her friend what had happened between the two of them under the castle walls. He had sometimes thought that Skaidra fancied him, and now he wondered if he had done the right thing in preferring Ilga. He felt somehow that Skaidra wouldn't have brushed him aside the way Ilga had done. She was indeed, true to her name, the most beautiful girl in the school. But Andreis had found her too much of an intellectual lightweight, not clever enough, especially when compared with Ilga.

He glanced away, and, with his recital of the poem still unfinished, walked back to the cave entrance. There he sat down on a bench by a couple of poplar trees, now almost totally bare. They were so high that the only reason that they hadn't been blown down seemed to be that they gripped the soil hard with the knotty fingers of their roots. Fascinated, Andreis kept on staring at these roots bulging above the ground till somebody sat down beside him.

He turned round in surprise. It was his classmate, Valdis, who lived in the same block of flats as he - on the floor below. Andreis had often played chess with him but usually in Valdis's parents' flat - for Andreis was slightly ashamed of his father who had a way of cracking jokes in or out of season. Thus, Andreis had thought he would drop dead of shame when his father had asked Valdis - the first time Valdis had visited his family - whether his particular form of madness was chemistry or the mystique of the Latvian idea. Valdis had not been offended - he had even answered in the same bantering tone that he should not be confused with Andreis - his own pet insanity was chess. Even so, Andreis had never brought him round again.

Valdis's own father - Gunars - was the complete opposite of his. Taller by head and shoulders, he was also twice as broadly built, and he both walked and talked with a calm deliberation. He was also unlike Andreis's father in that he took his son's affairs very much to heart. For instance, he was clearly emotionally involved in the two boys' chess competition, even though he managed to hide his feelings. It was only at the end of a game that he would ask with a slight nervousness in his tone who had won. If it was Andreis, he would congratulate him in a slightly forced manner. But if his own son had been victorious, he would breathe heavily, saying "So! So!" and start walking jubilantly up and down the room.

It had sometimes seemed to Andreis that Gunars had seen those victories not only as his son's personal achievements but also as an apotheosis of the Latvian soul. Indeed, he was a scion of a noble Latvian family whose origins went all the way back to the famous Duke Jekabs who lived in the 17th century.

Andreis had even once asked Valdis if he too had felt that his father had looked on these small victories as representing a vast triumph for the entire Latvian nation. Valdis concurred, with one correction. What his father felt, he said, was not a feeling of superiority so much as of inferiority in regard to Andreis's own ancestry. Andreis was not a little surprised at this - hadn't his mother come of peasant stock from the province of Kurzeme where Duke Jakobs had been the overlord? His mother's forbears could well have been the serfs of Valdis's ancestors. But it turned out that Gunars's sense of inferiority had nothing to do with Andreis's mother - it was Andreis's father, of all people, whose mere presence made Gunars feel inferior. Apparently, as Valdis had explained, once when they were all of them in their cups, Andreis's father had told Gunars about his own family tree. That family tree went all the way back to King David - to the 10th century BC, no less! He had even drawn, there and then, that tree for Gunars's benefit. This was news indeed to Andreis, as his father had never told him anything of the sort. But in any case he had always felt himself estranged from his father in all sorts of ways.

He had allowed his thoughts to drift away - and now suddenly realised that Valdis was asking him something. "Sorry, could you say that again?" he inquired.

"I said why are you looking so glum?"

Andreis answered, quite untruthfully, that he had a headache. Valdis immediately rushed off to Astrid who could be relied upon to have on such occasions as this - the school outing - all sorts of pills and potions and things. Andreis tried to stop him, but he wouldn't listen. As Andreis followed him with his eyes, he noticed that there was somebody else watching Valdis. That somebody was Karlis again. After Astrid had handed Valdis a tablet, having briefly glanced at Andreis from where she stood, Karlis came up to Valdis.

The two of them started a conversation which soon became an argument - or so it seemed to Andreis. At this point Andreis turned away, so they shouldn't notice that he was watching them.

When Valdis came back a few minutes later, his face was flushed with embarrassment as he avoided Andreis's eyes.

"I'm sorry I was held up, I wanted to get you something to drink to wash the tablet down - I'd clean forgotten I had a bottle of lemonade with me!"

"I've some mineral water of my own," said Andreis, "here, look it's Borjomi, my mother insisted on my bringing it with me."

"Still, have some lemonade, it tastes nicer," Valdis muttered, thrusting an aspirin tablet into Andreis's hand and opening a bottle of lemonade. "Well, must be off now, got to talk to Astrid about my essay," he blurted out, still avoiding Andreis's eyes, and hurried back into the cave.

Andreis found himself once more alone. While all these things had been happening, the sun had disappeared behind a cloud and the air had become colder. The sparkling blue of the river had darkened and had become turgid, with a steely glint in it. A sudden, almost wintry gust of wind chilled him, and all at once he remembered that today was the second Sunday in October, traditionally in Latvia the day for saying farewell to autumn. He was certain that none of the others were making this connection - surely had the school deliberately planned the outing for this date, it would have been announced.

The outing lasted a few hours more. They all went on to the Gutman Cave, and from there to Turaida Castle with the legendary grave of Turaida's Rose - which under different circumstances would have awakened romantic feelings in Andreis. Finally, proceeding along the river's right bank, they returned to the railway station.

Andreis was the first to get into the train, so as not to have to join the company of others where he might feel he wasn't wanted. As the carriage was nearly empty, he found an unoccupied four seats and took one of them. Nobody joined him, and he remained sitting by himself. He felt distinctly embarrassed when Astrid called out to him across the aisle, for everybody to hear: "Have you decided to be all on your own, Andreis - is that the effect the autumnal scenery has had on you? Or have you still got your headache?" All he could do was smile back, but the smile was evidently not very convincing, for Astrid gave him what seemed a slightly anxious look.

As they were drawing into Riga, Skaidra came and sat next to him.

"I won't be in your way, will I?" she asked.

"No, no, of course not," he answered politely. He was glad not to be still conspicuous as the only one in the carriage sitting on his own, although he found it difficult to concentrate on what she was now saying to him - something about her wanting to study acting after she had finished her high school studies.

Karlis passed along the aisle a couple of times, giving them rather nasty looks, but there wasn't much, Andreis thought, Karlis could do about the situation.

As they got off the train, he said goodbye to Skaidra and walked towards the tram stop. As he approached it, he noticed Ilga who must have arrived there before him and who was evidently waiting for the same tram - she lived only one stop from his. What surprised him was that not only did she not avoid his glance as their eyes met but even seemed to expect him to join her. A bit puzzled by all this, he actually gave the tram stop a wide berth and despite his tiredness made up his mind to walk home - it wasn't more than three stops anyway.

When he reached home, he found only his father was in, his mother having gone to a scientific conference in Moscow.

"The return of the prodigal!" his father greeted him.

He's at it again - always a joker, Andreis thought despondently.

After giving him a closer look and even making as if to sniff him, his father asked: "Did the Latvian countryside turn you on - it looks as though it had an aphrodisiac effect on you?"

At any other time Andreis would have wrinkled his nose in distaste and walked away. But now he decided to take no notice of his father's clowning because he had plans of his own.

"Father," he started gingerly, "you were a war correspondent in those years and must have had a first-hand knowledge of what had been going on. I wanted to ask you how you felt then - as a Jew I mean - with the Russian antisemitism on the one side and the German destruction of the Jews on the other."

His father scratched his head. Andreis recognised this as an ominous sign.

"Do you remember how last year you went boating - with Valdis I think it was - either on the Daugava or on the Gauja?"

"Yes, it was with Valdis, and it was on the Daugava," Andreis answered, wondering where the conversation was leading.

"Was the weather all right - was it a nice sunny day?"

"Yes, it was." Andreis was on his guard.

"And was the water pleasantly warm - surely you must have gone for a dip?"

"Yes, we did, the water was all right."

"And did you have fun?"

"Yes, of course," answered Andreis, more and more expecting there was going to be a catch in it somewhere.

"Well, then, that was just how it was for us Jews - with Stalin on the one side and Hitler on the other."

"Why do you always have to be cracking jokes when I'm talking to you seriously!" Andreis exploded. "Everybody else's father behaves like a normal father, but I'm stuck with a cross-talk comedian!"

"And why do you always have to be asking idiotic questions!" his father's reaction was no less angry.

"I was just trying to find a way to start a conversation," Andreis said, realising that perhaps his father had a point.

"Well in that case my advice to you is - next time try and find a happier way to start one. I'm sure that with the kind of education your mother and I have given you and with the talent for rational thinking you've inherited from her you will succeed."

Andreis decided yet again to ignore his father's sarcasm.

"When in 1944 Russian troops occupied Riga - you were among them - you must have been one of the first to witness what the Germans had done to the local Jewish population?"

"Why the Germans? This was done mainly by your Latvian friends - under German direction, of course."

"You shouldn't generalise - what about all those who risked their lives to save people? You yourself and Mother told me about her own family! And there were lots of others - like Janis Lipke who saved 34 Jews - or Karlis Jankovskys, or Anna Polis, or Andreis Graubins! Or what about those drivers - they'd make a chapter in themselves - who either refused outright to transport the victims or used various dodges - like pretending there was a fault in the engine - to give them a chance to escape? All these men - Vidzis, Briedis, and lots of others as well - were risking - "

"Yes, there were indeed such," his father interrupted him, "but the problem is precisely that there were not "lots of others," as you put it just now - far too few in fact and certainly not enough from the victims' point of view. The sad truth is that out of 80,000 Latvian Jews only 150 survived."

Andreis was trying to remember something he had come across somewhere, either through hearsay or through reading.

"Yes," his father continued, "a handful of righteous men is a negligible quantity and can not make any real difference."

And then Andreis at last remembered.

"Somewhere or other in the Bible doesn't it say that God - in whom I don't believe by the way but that doesn't matter - that God was willing to have mercy on Sodom and Gomorrha for the sake of just a handful of righteous men? Surely these were likewise statistically a negligible quantity! A handful - that's nothing at all, you're perfectly right, not enough to save the victims - but perhaps enough in a different sense - enough to redeem evil!"

His father gave Andreis what seemed to the boy a strangely serious look, and the latter even thought he was about to say something really grave without a shadow of sarcasm. But this lasted only for a moment.

His father took a step backward, bowed with mock ceremony to Andreis and offered him his hand.

"I am honoured to make your acquaintance! These days a man who has heard of the Bible deserves our esteem. Is it Mother who has been teaching you the Scriptures, then - both Old and New Testaments together I presume?"

"Now you're being silly, Father - you know perfectly well Mother doesn't believe in God either!" irritated, Andreis jerked his hand out of his father's. "I can't understand how you can crack jokes and play the fool when we're talking about such things as the Holocaust! When you saw the mass graves in the Rumbula Forest - did you also crack jokes then?"

"Not then," said his father with sudden seriousness, "but that was only because there wasn't time - we had to make haste finishing off the captured Latvian policemen before our superior officers sobered up."

"What? Are you serious? Did you shoot the prisoners with your own hands?"

"With these very hands!" his father struck the pose of simple straightforward honesty and stretched out both his hands towards Andreis turning them palms upwards for the boy to examine them better. "Forty four of them, tall and short, dark and fair."

"Without even a trial? But how did you do it?"

"How?" his father asked. "Why, like this."

He gave Andreis a wink, grabbed a chemistry textbook from the table, pressed it against his shoulder and, aiming it like a submachine gun, lunged forward and shouted at the top of his voice: "Rat-at-at-at-at-at-tat!"

The cat which until then had been asleep on a chair in the corner, jumped up, looked at Andreis's father in a startled way, and dashed out of the room.

For the first time Andreis thought what an actor must have been lost in his father, for a moment ago he did indeed look just like a hardened soldier carried away by the sound of his own gunfire in the heat of battle.

"I don't believe you," he said, "you're making it up - and you're giving the cat a nervous breakdown!"

"If you don't believe me, ask your mother," his father said. "I told her all about it when I met her not long afterwards."

"And what did she say?"

"She said it was a shame I had missed those two who'd been in the latrine. Do you think I'd have married her had she said anything different?"

"But how was it so easy to do it?" Andreis was still incredulous. "Didn't anyone put you on a charge afterwards?"

"I've told you already that everybody was dead drunk after the battle for Riga. The commander of the regiment to which I was attached as a war correspondent - and those captured Latvian policemen were his responsibility - he was a friend of mine. I was a major, and he was a colonel. We had both witnessed terrible things before, but nothing on such a scale. After we had both visited the Rumbula forest and seen all those freshly charred bones and the ashes scattered about all over the place, we went back into the city, took all the policemen out into the yard and just shot them "while trying to escape." Later on we couldn't forgive ourselves for those two in the latrine that we had overlooked. Of course, they were put on trial afterwards and indeed sentenced to a labour camp in Siberia for the slaughter of peaceful civilians. But after a bit they were let out because of one of Stalin's amnesties - needless to say, no political prisoners ever benefited in that way. I only hope that when my time comes and the world will have to make do without me, him upstairs will not hold my having missed those two in the latrine against me."

Andreis was still trying to digest everything he had just heard when the telephone rang. He lifted the receiver. It was Ilga.

"I simply wanted to ask," she said, obviously nervous, "if I might borrow that chemistry book you were telling me about, just for a couple of days. Is that all right?"

"That'll be OK," Andreis answered. "But could I phone you back a bit later - I'm in the middle of an important conversation."

"All right," she said and added hesitantly, "I'll be waiting for your phonecall then."

No sooner had Andreis replaced the receiver and gone back to his father than the doorbell rang. It was Imants. He said he wanted to doublecheck which day they had agreed to prepare for the exam on - he couldn't find Andreis's phone number but he knew where he lived and as he was passing by on his way home anyway he decided to pop in.

Andreis confirmed that they had indeed arranged for the day after tomorrow. After this he naturally expected Imants to leave - but for some reason he didn't. Shifting from foot to foot and looking all the time at the top right-hand corner of the ceiling, he began muttering about how he hadn't enjoyed the outing or, for that matter, the company of his schoolmates. Andreis kept politely silent. After a couple of minutes, Imants suddenly without warning struck the wall with his fist and blurted out: "That couple - Karlis and Krishjanis - honestly, I can't stand them - and I never could! So see you the day after tomorrow!"

And with that he darted out leaving the front door open behind him.

Andreis's father followed Imants with his eyes, as if he envied him.

"And you're saying," he told Andreis, "that I'm comic: I wish I could be half as comic as some of your friends. That boy is really a born clown!"

Before Andreis could think of a reply the phone rang once more. It was Ilga again. This time her tone was at once nervous and with an inflection of injured innocence.

"I'm sorry to bother you again, but I've been waiting for a phonecall from you, and now I've got to go out, so I decided not to wait for you to ring but to call you myself."

"Ilga," he said patiently, "aren't you being a little bit neurotic? It was only five minutes ago that you last phoned me. I'm still busy and in the middle of a conversation. Don't worry, I'll phone you as soon as I'm free."

He replaced the receiver. Somebody rang the doorbell.

It was Valdis bringing the chess set with him.

"Let's have a game," he suggested, just a little ingratiatingly, "if you aren't too tired."

I wonder where the lot of you were when I really needed you - when you were put on your mettle - Andreis was thinking moodily to himself when his father asked him with genuine surprise: "Tell me if you please what all these visits and phonecalls are all about? Is this some kind of pilgrimage? Have you become a cult figure as a result of your trip to the heart of the Latvian countryside? Are you performing miracles of healing? Perhaps if I touch you I'll be rid of all those traits in my character that give you the gripes."

He gingerly approached Andreis and made as if to touch the lobe of his ear.

Andreis gave a sigh of resignation and to Valdis said: "I do as a matter of fact feel exhausted after that outing - we must have walked miles and miles! Let's have a game tomorrow."

"All right," Valdis beamed. "Do you want to come over to my place or shall I come over to you again?"

"You'd better do that," answered Andreis, "as long as you're prepared to put up with my father: he just might be around, along with his jokes."

Translated from the Russian by John Heath-Stubbs and the author

Published in:
South Carolina Review 36-1