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Embracing cultures

Posted: Tuesday, Oct 2nd, 2012

Florence-area residents Ojars and Zinta Sovers survived harrowing early lives in World War II Latvia and post-war Germany. Zinta published a book this year about her experiences in other cultures.

It’s been a long road from displaced persons camps in post World War II Germany, but as Zinta Sovers gazed at the Pacific Ocean from her comfortable Florence-area home she shares with her husband, Ojars, she reflected on her past with acceptance.

People hear her softly accented speech and ask, “What is your first language?”

“I tell them my first language is Latvian,” she said, “but my best language is English.”

She recounts her experiences in a book published this year, “Far from the Linden Tree.” Her motivation for writing was to have a record for her sister’s children and to explore her own feelings about being thrust into different cultures.

“My mother always said, ‘Wars can take your house and take your things, but what you have learned, no one can take away,’” recalled the 75-year-old.

She was born in Latvia in 1937, at a time when the Baltic country was independent, a rare period for the nation, which is bordered by Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia, and has suffered war and occupation by various foreign powers since medieval times.

At the onset of World War II, her idyllic life began to change. Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union. Mass deportations were ordered. Entire families were sent to labor camps in Siberia, where many perished. In the summer of 1941, the German invasion ended the brutal Soviet occupation, which was supplanted by that of the Nazis.

The family had settled in the countryside, and Zinta has fond memories of playing outdoors, but reality would often intrude, especially when an incendiary bomb would drop on their small town and the family would rush to safety.

The war could no longer be ignored in the fall of 1944, when one evening townspeople looked outside to see acres of burning lights — the Russian-German front.

“It looked like lightning,” recalled Zinta. Knowing they had narrowly escaped transport to Siberia the first time around, and with the Russian Red Army closing in and word that the retreating Germans would blow up the train station, the family fled to catch a train while they could.

So began their lives as refugees. The plan was for 7-year-old Zinta, her mother and 10-year-old sister Vija, to meet their father in Riga, the capital city. Because of the bombardment, the train failed to stop. Zinta didn’t see her father again until 1966.

They continued to the port city of Liepaja where they boarded a ship bound for Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland).

German police awaited them. Women and children were herded into a large room and told to strip. Their clothes were sprayed with DDT and they underwent communal showers, the women humiliated because the German men adjusting the water did not leave the room.

At that time, they didn’t know the Germans had employed “showers” of cyanide on others. According to U.S. State Department figures, between 1940 and 1954, up to one-third of Latvia’s pre-war population was lost due to the Holocaust and Soviet and Nazi occupations.

Zinta doesn’t remember being worried about what was ahead as hundreds of thousands of refugees continued on the move.

“I didn’t know why we were traveling on the train all the time, but if the train was warm and mother was close by, I was fine,” she said.

After finding shelter where they

For the complete article see the 10-03-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 10-03-2012 paper.

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