Love survives war, 45 yearsof separation
November 21, 2005
When last I wrote, my Aunt Baiba – after a 45-year search – had finally found her first husband Verner, in Russia. The last word of him had been in the autumn of 1944. At that time she had been notified that he was to be executed by the German army (which had conscripted him a year earlier) because he had “allowed” the men under him to consort with Russian women.
Yet his name had never appeared on any listing of the dead, nor had my mother’s homemade Ouija board ever pronounced him dead either, only “lost.”
In June of 1989, Tante Baiba was 70, but to me she seemed an eternal 23. I saw her always as she had been in the DP camps when I was a little girl, wearing the brown and gold boldly striped sweater, the narrow gabardine skirt made over from one of Uncle Verner’s suits, and her blond hair neatly combed in a pageboy.
I also knew the story of their early married life in Riga, Latvia: Aunt Baiba, not knowing how to cook anything but milk soup with dumplings, had made it week after week. Uncle Verner, besotted by love, had eaten it for lunch and dinner without complaint. At the time I’d heard that story, I hadn’t understood why the adults found it so amusing.
Years later, I thought I understood: no one had expected my aunt and uncle to sustain their passion and adoration on such spare fare. Those who laughed apparently believed the fleeting nature of their own love applied to others as well. Not to me, of course.
Now that she knew my uncle’s whereabouts, my aunt composed a letter to him and showed us the snapshots she was enclosing: photos that chronicled her life and revealed her corresponding aging since she had seen him last. For a moment, looking at those photos, my heart skipped a beat: how would Uncle Verner react to them?
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Would Aunt Baiba seem a stranger to him, an imposter? How much would it matter to him that her hair was short now and gray? That her flesh was no longer firm? Maybe she shouldn’t send the photos at all? But of course, she did.
Uncle Verner’s reply was not long in coming. She let us read from that first letter: “Your letter arrived when I was very ill. Reading it, and knowing now that you are alive and safe in America, gave me the strength to recover.”
Oh, what a perfect reply, what an affirmation! I felt my childhood dream for them had finally come true. Yes, he loved my aunt, had never stopped loving her. Then my heart sank with the next sentence: he was married to another woman, had two grown children with her. Horrible to admit, but when I read that his wife was very ill and not expected to live long, my spirits rose.
And then I was overcome by a strange sadness, for from the very beginning of their relationship, Uncle Verner had told her that he still loved his first wife, my aunt Baiba, and that he always would. When a daughter was born to them he had named her Juliet, for that was the name he and Baiba had picked out if ever they should have a girl.
In subsequent letters, Verner filled Aunt Baiba in on his strange story: reprieve from execution; the death march to Danzig; conscription by the Soviets; betrayal by a Latvian countryman; transport to a slave labor camp in the Soviet Arctic.
He had a spot in his head where a large section of bone had been removed to save his life after being attacked with a lead pipe and left for dead in the Soviet mines. After eight years in the slave labor camp, only six men out of 1,200 had remained alive. Verner was one of the six. He told Baiba he thought he probably loved animals more than humans.
So, a year after they found each other, Aunt Baiba flew to Latvia to meet Uncle Verner. He greeted her at the airport with 46 red roses – one for every year they had been apart. Aunt Baiba said she would not have recognized him except for his eyes and voice.
A year later, she flew to Latvia again. Verner’s wife had died in the meantime and finally they could be together again. But there were obstacles: Baiba would not move to Russia and she did not want him to leave his children; Verner’s health was precarious and Baiba’s insurance would not cover all the treatment he needed.
But they did the best they could, and wrote letters to each other every week. Before he died, Uncle Verner asked his children to put photos of Aunt Baiba in the left inside pocket of his burial suit. When the time came, the children notified Aunt Baiba of his death but never said a word about her photos.
n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.
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