Driven away from the Homeland – a Review of the Book Songbirds Swept away in the Wind by Lidija Mednis

September 9, 2019

That January was exceedingly hot – the hottest in 50 years. Lidija Mednis, a Latvian woman, had arrived in Australia in January 1951 after a long and tiring trip from Germany, where she and her husband had lived in a refugee camp after the war. Arriving in Australia, a country unknown to them, a place so different from the Latvia and Germany where they had lived, they had to start building up their lives from nothing:

We were on tenderhooks about life, uncertain about what would happen, wondering on earth where we had arrived…I had never been so lost in my life.

Lidija was born in Riga in 1923 in the time of independence. Her father was the principal of the elementary school in Viesīte. Her mother worked as a teacher. In 1926, her sister Elga was born. Together they lived in the small community of Viesīte.

In her book Songbirds swept away in the wind, A memoir Lidija Mednis describes her happy childhood in the village. She writes in fragmented pieces, about cooking jam, Mr. Mūrnieks and the herrings, the Red Cross group. What stands out is the social life of the village; playing and working together, often improvising and helping one another. The small stories give an image of both a peaceful and joyful time.

Sometimes, in a few sentences she refers to tragedies that lay ahead, contrasting them with the stories of the harmonious life in the village. She makes clear that this way of living will end, becoming beyond reach. Reading about the happy days, you already feel the loss.

Inevitably the years of war approach. The stories make clear how life goes on, despite the war and the insecure fates of the boys and men. Work on the farms, carried on by women, needs to be done. In 1943, there is still a song festival: The audience was moved to tears by the song…May you live long Latvia, which was sung three times.

Most impressive are the letters at the end of the book, written during the war. These are about the day-to-day life devoid of a routine and about the uncertainties that follow. What makes it emotional is how information reported in a matter-of-fact way can hide a tragedy, like a letter from her mother writing from Riga to Lidija’s sister: Elga, your coat is still with the tailor. Next week it will be ready.

But it is the end of September, and the front is getting closer quickly. Elga stays in the countryside and will not come to Riga any more. In early October both she, Lidija and their father–-all separately– will flee the country, while their mother will stay behind in Riga taking care of an orphanage, not wanting to leave the children alone.

Their mother had already written: Please don’t feel put out that I am not with you, but my responsibilities take first priority and I feel that I’m needed here more. They will not see her again.

All three of them will arrive in Germany. It is there that Lidija’ s sister Elga, very shortly before the end of the war, is wounded and dies. Lidija just describes what happens, but you can feel the powerlessness between the lines, which is then concentrated in a single question: Why?

Lidija becomes a student at the Baltic University in Hamburg, and there she meets her future husband. Together they decide to emigrate to Australia, as friends from the university had already emigrated to this very hot and unfamiliar country.

The start is very difficult, but Lidia manages, with a tremendous amount of energy, to make something of her life. Though Lidija was trained as a nurse and a student of medicine, she becomes an art teacher and painter. In her sixties, she decides to attend a writer’s course where I write and hope to become a serious writer.

Songbirds swept away in the wind is a very beautiful publication in two languages–English and Latvian. It has a great many pictures, dating from pre-war times, to the life in Australia. It has clearly been made with great care and love. It is to remember the life of Lidija Mednis and her family and all those who were in the same situation, facing a tragic era when war took over the lives of so many people.

Helga Merits