My mother was born in the city of Riga in Latvia in 1939. Less than six months later, the German army invaded Poland, beginning World War II. Hitler and Stalin divided Eastern Europe with Latvia and the other Baltic states to be taken by the Soviet Union. The Russian occupation of Latvia between 1940 and 1941 was marked by oppression, executions, and deportations to Siberia. When Nazi Germany attacked Russia, it took over Latvia until 1944, when the Red Army returned. Many Latvians fled with the German Army to Germany to avoid living under Soviet rule again, my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunt, and mother among them.
One of her stories about that time was that they had to leave her teddy bear behind, since they carried all their possessions and supplies on a wagon and there wasn’t room for it. On the way to the port where they got on a boat, they were shot at by Russian planes and one of their two horses was killed. No one in my family ever returned to Latvia. They came to Nazi Germany as refugees and suffered from malnutrition until the US Army took over and provided adequate food. A firebomb dropped from an Allied plane fell into the cellar where they were sheltering once, but obviously it was a dud, or I wouldn’t be writing this. My mother told us that the Germans called them “Polaken” as their blanket term for Eastern European refugees, and you had to say “Heil Hitler” as a greeting in public until the war ended. They spent five years in a displaced person’s camp until they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1949.
I’m sure that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine today would have upset her, but she died last year. The events of her childhood left her with PTSD, but unfortunately there was much less awareness of such conditions in the 1950s, so my mother never got any treatment for it or for her anxiety and depression. In college, she began self medicating with alcohol, and began using Valium in the 1970s. This affected our family life, and the last fifteen years were marked with increasing health consequences and a DUI crash which injured her but fortunately no one else. My struggles with addiction led me to become a SMART Recovery group facilitator, then social worker and therapist.
Today is my birthday, and last night when I read that the invasion had started, I had such a sinking feeling in my chest. (My father’s side of the family was also very much impacted by the war – my grandfather was a German Jew and left Germany in 1936). I find it unbelievable that Putin would start the first war of aggression by a major power in Europe since World War II, and bizarrely claim its goal is to get rid of Nazis in power in the Ukraine – where both the president and prime minister are Jewish. I know I’m not alone feeling both angry and sad about this unjustifiable pseudo-imperialist war of conquest. It’s also depressing that the right wing in this country has been vocal in its support of Putin, a totalitarian gangster dictator, international bully, and antisemite.
Lately, when one of us says “I just can’t even,” we respond “you can, you just don’t want to.” So I’m going to try to enjoy my birthday, even as a cloud of intergenerational transmission of trauma hangs over me. I won’t self medicate with recreational substances. I’ll feel helpless in the face of world events I can’t control, like ya do. I’ll reach out to my people for support, and try to support them. I’ll keep working and go on vacation. But after two years of pandemic, nobody needed this, except I suppose for a certain murderous ex-KGB megalomaniac sociopathic criminal; for whom my Buddhist friends would say we should feel compassion, but not today, I just can’t even.