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Stories from… a trunk

An exhibition of things taken by emigrants when leaving for other countries has been presented in Riga. This topic resonates with Ukrainians strongly these days...
10 September, 17:42

Ukraine saw thousands of migrants from the Donbas and Crimea in this year. However, migration has been common in all times, and very often it was associated with tragic events. Riga’s Museum and Research Center “Latvians in the World,” located at the former KGB building, nicknamed the Corner House, presented exhibition “The Latvian’s Trunk.” The exhibition shows the things which people took with them over the 20th century when forced to emigrate from Latvia.

“The Latvian’s Trunk” exhibition is part of the project “Corner House: Case No. 1914/2014,” held within the framework of the “Riga 2014” program. Riga received the status of European Capital of Culture for 2014, and the organizing committee of “Riga 2014” prepares events aimed at revealing the history and culture of Latvia.

Latvians’ reasons for leaving the country varied over the century: Baptists sailed to Brazil in the 1920s, Baltic Germans were repatriated in 1939, another wave of refugees appeared at the end of the Second World War, and some Latvians emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s. Bread, forks, clothes, torn boots, carpets, oboe, letters and postcards all come from emigrants’ trunks and reveal hidden tragicomic, enlightening, sad and happy stories.

The cumbersome chest on display once belonged to an eccentric widow by the name of Anna Birkans, who went to Brazil with the Baptists in 1922. There, in the tropical forest, these Christians planned to have themselves cleansed of sin and spiritually prepared for the end of the world. However, living conditions were unusually hard, and many immigrants settled on the coffee plantations to earn a living. Anna Birkans did so as well, as evidenced by the inscription on the lid of the chest. However, the woman returned to the Baptist settlement later on and worked on their collective farm.

A touching story is told by a piece of bread which is more than 60 years old. Lilia Kula with her husband and son left Latvia in the 1940s, while her elderly parents did not want to leave their homeland. They gave their daughter a loaf of rye bread, baked by Kula’s mother, as a blessing for her. Many years later, Kula’s family is settled down in Australia with a home of their own, but they still use the family recipe to bake bread.

Things taken from the homeland serve as a kind of talisman for emigrants. Anita Caune, age 10, was leaving for Germany with her parents in October 1944. The girl took her toy, a teddy bear named Tedis. The toy traveled with Caune through refugee camps in Germany, went to America, and then moved to her daughter Vita, who also never separated from Tedis. Caune went on to become the general secretary of the Association of Latvians in America, while her daughter Vita Terauda got the portfolio of the Latvian Ministry of Reform in 1990s, becoming the first female minister in Latvia.

Many traditional dresses are displayed as well, for people took them even though they occupied a lot of space in a trunk. Among the colorful skirts and belts, a white satin dress looks out of place: it once belonged to a girl preparing for a wedding, but her intended bridegroom married someone else, and the abandoned bride took her festive dress to the new country later on.

“Some of the exhibits were brought to us by grandchildren of emigrants who returned to Latvia. Latvians are emigrating today as well, mainly because of financial difficulties. It takes something totally out of ordinary to remain in Latvia and succeed. Many emigrants are those who have not decided on a trade to work in, but want to work. Latvians are actively moving to Ireland, and also migrating to Spain, including the Canary Islands. One can meet a Latvian everywhere in Europe nowadays,” the Riga-2014 volunteer Maruta Gredzena told us.

Visitors to “The Latvian’s Trunk” exhibition can leave on a special stand a list of things which they would have taken with them on leaving the country. Most people include documents, laptops, and some memorable trinkets on the list. Modern emigrant’s trunk may contain traveler’s necessities, photos of friends (despite wide availability of the Internet), and a piece of paper with a bread recipe on it, representing a bit of familiar culture which will support an emigrant away from home.

“The Latvian’s Trunk” exhibition will run at the Corner House in Riga until October 19.

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