IV To a Far Shore
The following is a transcript of a 1997 interview with Pete Tarziers,
Robert’s son. It is his version of the family's departure from Riga
at age 14. His father's written account of the same events is interspersed--Monica
Pete: It was a morning in mid-August, Dad walks into the bedroom
and says, “Peter and Jan, you two, get up and put on your best clothes,
take the blanket off the bed, and anything you can find that’s warm
and comfortable, and put all of it in the suitcase.” We didn’t
have more than one dinky little suitcase, and it was really not worth
taking, so we placed our clothes and whatever else we could comfortably
carry in the center of the blanket, pulled the corners together, picked
up the bundle, and walked out the door.When we arrived at the railroad
station, it was crawling with people of all descriptions, German soldiers
running all over, and they had first call on the seats.
Monica: So your Dad comes around with the two babies,
right? Tim was just a baby?
Pete: Tim was approximately three and a half years of
age, Anna was just a little baby, she was six to eight months old at the
time of our departure. Maybe she was a year old.
Monica: So she was in diapers. . . she was a tiny little
thing in diapers.
Pete: She was still doing poo in her pants. So we left,
got to the Riga train station, and sat in the restroom, considering ourselves
lucky to find someplace to sit down. We dozed off, but then Dad says,
come on, let’s get on the train. So we stayed close, and we got
on the train.
Robert: It was not easy to travel with two small children.
My sister-in-law Alvine rode with us all the way to Rujiena on the Estonian
border, a whole day’s travel by train, to help us out. Taking only
a piece of hard rye bread for the trip back, she headed back to Riga,
and the rest of us settled down to a long wait. The train to Estonia ran
only once a day. A local woman took pity on Olga, Tim, and Aina the baby,
not yet a year old, and put them up for the night. Fortunately it was
still summer and the night was warm, because Janis, Peteris, and I had
to sleep on the benches at the railroad station. We had company. Other
travelers, including Russians stranded in Latvia, who did not even know
our language, shared our plight.
Our baby Aina still drank breast milk, so we did not have to worry about
what to feed her, but we had very little food for the rest of us. We reached
Pernau the next day, hungry and thirsty, tired and dirty. But a disappointment
awaited us. The Red Cross office was closed; Pöhle had left for Tallinn.
Had we left Riga two weeks earlier as he urged us to do, we would have
found him in Pernau and avoided much hardship. Now there was nothing to
do except to push all the way to Tallinn with four children in tow. I
felt totally lost as we sat for hours in a park near the railroad station,
Aina lying on the ground, the boys walking around aimlessly.
Finally evening came and with it a long, dilapidated freight train. The
one passenger car, crammed with German soldiers, had barely any standing
room. I told Olga to hop on anyway. But, she reported later, her journey
was reasonably comfortable. An officer heard her impeccable German, looked
at her and the children, jumped to his feet, raised his hand in the Nazi
salute, and shouted “Heil Hitler!” Every enlisted man in the
car, Olga said, automatically stood up to salute the Führer. The
major then barked, “Vacate seats for the lady and her two children!”
Empty seats appeared, and the major himself kept watch while the children
slept through the night.
Meanwhile, the three of us, Janis, Peteris, and I, headed for the freight
cars. At the very end of the train we found an empty one. It was totally
dark by then, and of course we had no seats and no lights. We hopped up
and sat down on the floor, which was surprisingly soft and comfortable.
Only when we had reached Tallinn, in the cold light of morning, we found
out what the soft stuff really was. We had boarded a horse transport car
and slept on manure all night—but then, we were too tired to care.
Pete: To us it was just an adventure, me and Jan. Boy,
we were going up to Ventspils, a city we had heard of when we studied
geography. We’d never been there. And of course, the Germans were
scurrying like little ants, making sure the civilian population did not
see the military hardware stashed on railroad tracks and boxcars. They
closed the blinds on the windows, and anyone caught looking out from behind
the bars was taken off the train, and with no questions and no arguments,
was shot. Shot on the spot. So we arrived in Ventspils which is a city
in the northeastern part of Latvia where narrow gauge and regular trains
come together. We got there about ten o’clock [that night] and when
we arrived we found out that the train had left two hours earlier, so
we couldn’t go anywhere. We were told that the next one would arrive
in about six hours, so we waited, and when six hours had passed—nothing.
It was forty-eight hours later that finally a train arrived, a troop transport,
I don’t know where it came from, it just showed up. Of course, everybody
at the station, Latvians, Russians, everybody tried to get on this train,
just to get out of there. We found a nearly empty boxcar with something
like straw on the floor, or so my Dad told us, so we jumped up and found
a nice place in the corner.
Soon we heard a lot of shouting and yelling and we began to move. The
train was long, and the engine small, but we were on our way. Bathrooms
were non-existent. When we needed to go, we waited for the train to slow
down on a long uphill, hopped off, and went to the woods. Before the train
reached the top of the hill and disappeared, we ran and caught up with
it and jumped back on. That little distance of 200 kilometers took us
nearly three days to traverse. That’s how slow the train was.
We slept, and next morning when the sun came up, we had crossed the border
from Latvia into Estonia. So we get up and stretch and Dad says, what’s
all this? We found out that the stuff we had been sleeping on all night
was not straw, it was manure. Of course, we had no showers, no water.
We didn’t even have water to drink.
Robert: So this is how we arrived in Tallinn, horse dung
clinging to our clothes. After we were reunited with Olga and the little
ones at the station, we needed to look for a place to stay. In another
of our lucky breaks, we connected with a couple from years past. Prior
to the outbreak of the war our church in Riga had hosted a choir of young
Estonians from Tallinn. The choirmaster, an architect by profession, had
given us his Tallinn address and had invited our choir for a return visit,
which never took place—soon after their performance at our church,
Latvia was ravaged by the Red occupiers, then by the Nazis. We now knocked
on their door as six bedraggled refugees. Fortunately, they answered the
doorbell, and graciously opened their small apartment to us. They did
not speak Latvian, but Olga was able to communicate in German. We stayed
with them a couple of days, showered and washed our clothes. The couple
then found accommodations for Jan, Peteris, and myself in the guest room
of one of the local Baptist churches, while Olga and the children stayed
on at the apartment.
Tallinn suffered severely under Red occupation. A section of the Red Army
had been trapped in the city for several weeks. In the door-to-door fighting
that ensued, much of the city center had been destroyed. The Baptist church
where we stayed was no exception. Its windows had been blown out and boarded
up. The room had two beds with mattresses, no bedding, but it was summer
and we really needed none. With not much else to do, we prayed for hours
in that stuffy boarded-up church guest room.
Now I needed to find Pöhle, who turned out to be a slippery catch.
He changed lodgings on a daily basis, probably to avoid desperate refugees.
Those he could help were few. He had only two schooners available, and
that only by paying off the harbor authorities. Not that money was a problem—wealthy
Estonians chased after him with offers of gold and diamonds in exchange
for a trip to Sweden. His first duty, of course, was to his stranded countrymen.
But the situation changed from day to day. The choirmaster and his wife
were on their way out too. They quickly crated all their household goods,
furniture, and piano, shipped them to Sweden via Danzig, and left the
apartment. Olga and the little ones stayed behind, so they had a roof
over their heads, but they had to sleep on the bare floor.
My task was almost impossible: to scrounge food for six. I frequented
the local open air market where the locals sold vegetables. I had brought
12,000 Ostmarks from Latvia, our currency during the occupation, but Ostmarks
were worth little more than the paper they were printed on—the Germans
did not give us their real money, only worthless paper scrip. I was mostly
reduced to bartering our personal possessions—watches, coats, shoes,
each a memento of a way of life that was fast disappearing. Some women
took pity on me, because they knew we were stranded in Tallinn, and they
gave me a good deal of free food. One woman from Latvia gave me two loaves
of black rye bread, a treasure in those days, and accepted no payment.
We spent Aina’s first birthday, August 22nd, in this precarious
situation. In all, we waited in Tallinn for six weeks.
Pete: There was an agent from Sweden . . . he gave Dad
one million German marks, just money, to buy whatever he could on the
black market, because there was nothing available in the stores.
Monica: How much would that amount to in dollars?
Pete: Well, that would be like someone gave you one hundred
thousand dollars. But everything in the black market at that time was
skyrocketing so that one teakettle might cost you ten thousand dollars,
or one hundred thousand Reichmarks, so money was really worthless. And
my Dad said that one time, when he walked in, the man showed him a room
filled with nothing but bracelets, necklaces, and gold in all forms, a
king’s ransom worth of jewelry that people had given him in exchange
for passage on any kind of ship that was leaving to any destination as
long as it went away from the Russian invaders.
Monica: Those people were desperate!
Pete: They were absolutely desperate. He said, I’ve
got this roomful, I’m not going to take any of it, I don’t
know what to do with it, I’ll just throw it in the swim. Money,
he said, money is just toilet paper. So that’s why he gave one million
Reichmarks to Dad, to him it was just like a bit of pocket change. He
said, buy whatever you can with this, it’s nothing to me.
Robert: The days dragged on and turned into weeks. The
Russian front moved steadily westward toward the Baltics. Eventually I
managed to get hold of Probst Pöhle, who treated me to a meal and
assured me that there was still time—the Russians were being held
back of the Estonian border, at Petchory. However, the long wait and our
privations were beginning to wear me down. I got very discouraged. One
time Olga and I sat on a rock by the sea, on a stormy afternoon, watching
the fury of the Baltic. I lamented, “Is there any hope for us? How
shall we cross this violent sea?”
Her gaze steady on the horizon, she said, “The water will be calm
when our time comes to sail across.”
How I wished for faith like hers! I could just reply, “From your
mouth into the Lord’s ear.”