Passing of the Patriarch
This story was told by Karlis' son to his daughter-in-law, Anne Tarzier, in Tennessee, circa 1975.
1918 was not a good year for Latvia . Perhaps because they knew they were about to lose the Baltics, in an energy of desperation Russia's Bolsheviks became emissaries from Hell let loose upon the land. Young men and women, the Communist Youth, hastily put together what they called revolutionary tribunals to exterminate “Enemies of the People.” In Gulbene, two hours up the road from our farm, they took over the Lutheran church, gutted the chapel, and made themselves a courtroom. Wooden pipes from the big organ lay in the ditch across the street. The Tribunal sat in judgment on the altar, handing out their death sentences from God's sacred House.
It was late in the year that an acquaintance of the family, now a member of the local Bolshevik committee, showed up at our house, risking his life to warn us: the committee had put together a list of enemies of the people due to be arrested. Karlis Tarziers, our father, and Janis Ozolis, Mother's brother, were at the top of the list. He urged them to go immediately into hiding—preferably in Riga , the big city, where they could disappear in the crowds.
Uncle Janis did not need to be told twice, but Father was quite another sort. He truly did not know the difference between reasonable caution and abject cowardice. To hide from the young scum that had desecrated the Assembly Hall with excrement, just last year? They needed to hide, not him, to avoid a well-deserved spanking from their elders. It was with obvious reluctance that he boarded the train to Riga with Uncle Janis. Before leaving, he solemnly appointed Peteris and me, ages 15 and 17, heads of the household. We prayed a lot and kept a low profile ourselves.
Our relief was short-lived. Uncle Janis and Father were gone less than two days when Father reappeared, alone, through the back door of the farm house, having hopped off and taken the return train in Aizkraule, half way to the city. He spoke even before he dropped his satchel and peeled off his winter coat and boots. With nothing else to think about on the train, he had obviously worked at length on the speech, perhaps to convince himself as much as his family:
“I am guilty of nothing. I am going to stay right here. I am a man of God. I have done nothing wrong, and I won't let a bunch of ruffians intimidate me. Besides, they are human beings too. They are kids from families like ours. Why would they kill an innocent man? If they charge me with any sins, I will simply tell the truth, and God will help me. Besides, if they can't find me, they may arrest the boys instead. I couldn't take that.”
Mother objected weakly: “These are dangerous times. Why, they shot Lashkewitz, and his crime was to talk back to them. If they can do that to Lashkewitz, what wouldn't they do to you? You organized the White militia, you are a man of God, you speak and write against the Reds. . . “ her voice trailed off hopelessly. We knew she was happy to see him.
His mind was made up. When he made up his mind, nothing could change it. Peteris and I, teenagers still, contributed little to Mother's timid arguments across the dining table. Father led the family in Paternoster on Saturdays and gave testimony at church on Sundays. He was always right, as if he had a direct line to God. Surely he knew what he was doing. Our objections sputtered to a halt even before they left our lips.
Besides, we felt proud of him. No one likes to see their father scamper off like a cockroach, especially not Tarziers. We had come from serfdom to prosperous farming in two generations. We had earned the right to hold up our heads. Determination—no, stubbornness—had served us well. So Mother stuffed her fears, and Father returned to his rightful place as head of the clan, if only for a precious few days.
December 31, 1918 , was crisp and cold. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, as the pale winter sun set over the snow, we sat down to eat—Father, Mother, Peteris, our sister Otilija, and I. We had barely consumed a couple of forkfuls when a shouting crowd outside brought us to the window. What we saw punched the breath out of our lungs. Two sleds approached our house from the road and up the driveway, the reins held by men in Bolshevik uniform. A motley crowd of local ruffians ran after them, waving red flags. One's mind sometimes does not want to take in a fact. Surely they would turn around and go back out. No, they pulled up to the door and stopped. My brain raced furiously. It's just a routine document search. No, they came to the wrong house? No, it's a food requisition. Oh God, let it be nothing.
One of the men stayed outside, his breath and the horses' making swirls of steam in the winter air. The other jumped off the sled, slung a rifle around his shoulder, and marched in the front door without knocking, with a piece of paper in his hand. I noticed his cheeks, pink and shiny from the cold. He is so young! He could be a classmate from the Pagastaskola. . . He stared up from his paper and demanded:
“Which one of you is Karlis Tarziers?”
The noise Father's chair made as he pushed it back on the wooden floor startled me. He straightened his wiry body to its full length:
“I am Karlis Tarziers. What do you want from me?”
“By the authority of the Bolshevik committee, you are under arrest. You have five minutes to pack up.”
Peteris, Otilija and I watched the scene in frozen silence. Mother brought out a duffel bag and a few clothes. Her hands shook. She packed his Sunday tie but forgot warm socks. The uniformed Bolshevik stood at the door, gun cocked, blue eyes like icicles, saying not a word. If only I could get the gun from the barn, I thought, but the Bolshevik's eyes were fixed on us. After a few minutes of fumbling, Mother handed the bag to Father and helped him with his winter coat and hat. The door slammed, and the two sleds disappeared around the bend on the road, the crowd tossing rocks and snowballs at them. Father had just tossed himself to the wolves.
Our sweet potatoes, cabbage, and ham slowly cooled down and dried out on the table. I was hungry, but it just didn't seem right to eat. Mother had collapsed in the bedroom. She dismissed our awkward attempts to offer comfort: “Go do your chores!” Do our chores?
Three days of agony would pass before we knew anything. We inquired first in the local Bolshevik committee headquarters. The Bolsheviks had commandeered the local manor, abandoned by the German baron who had fled to safety. Yes, they said. Tarziers might be in the basement with all the other traitors. No, you can't see him or talk to him. If he happens to be here. Don't bother us with any more questions, we've got work to do here.
In a few days, at last we saw Father's name posted on a list of prisoners to be tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Gulbene. At least we knew his place of imprisonment—he had been transferred to the castle at Gulbene. Father was again warehoused in a cellar, like the potatoes and cabbages of better times. Mother and I spent the next days, then weeks, then months, driving the two and a half hours to and from Gulbene, to bring him fresh clothes and food, as the Bolsheviks didn't bother to waste good food on Enemies of the People.
We couldn't help noticing what pigs had made themselves rulers of the land—they left trails of mud and snow on Persian carpets, moldy food on Italian brocade, crusts of dried-out red wine in the bottom of French lead glassware. When the heavy castle gates slammed shut behind us on the way to the basement, we never knew if we'd get out again. But we kept it up—the least we could do after we'd allowed the young ruffians to take Father away. On the way to the prison cellar, we defied the armed guards to peek in the basement windows where prisoners craned their necks to catch a glimpse of a loved one. A few times we caught sight of his worn face and gave him a quick wave.
How long could this go on? Winter turned to spring. One day, we noticed that even though the guards called his name and took the food we'd brought, we didn't see Father's face any longer. The population whispered of hundreds of midnight executions by the light of kerosene lanterns in the field near the Lutheran church, Karlis one of them—but we couldn't quite believe it. Surely he'd be looking out a cellar window next time we came up—or would he? His usual small pile of rumpled underwear wasn't on the counter, but then, it had been misplaced before, just to reappear later. The guards said they were too busy to answer questions, but I suspect they just didn't want to answer. After many fruitless rides to Gulbene and back the truth sank in. Father was dead.
History, meanwhile, moved on, oblivious to our family's pain. Baltic nationalist forces advanced steadily from the north, beating back the communists. I enlisted at the first opportunity, and my unit was stationed, it so happened, in the Gulbene parish school. Towards the last week of June 1919, street by street and house by house, we won our country's freedom.
An announcement was posted in the villages: the mass graves at Gulbene would be opened. The day rose gloriously warm and sunny, an affirmation of life after a year of war and destruction. On the burial meadow behind the white Lutheran church, hundreds of black coffins were lined up in rows, looking oddly out of place on the fresh green grass. A Latvian military detail guarded the opening of the mass burial pits. It went on forever—some eight thousand people were buried in the mass graves. I watched the bodies as they were pulled from the ground, some mutilated beyond recognition. A medical doctor briefly examined the corpses, turning them over until he found the bullet hole. I cringed at the sight of one head with an exit wound in the left eye.
At last, a smaller pit revealed seven bodies, Father's on top, face up, dressed in his usual clothes. His body looked gray and limp, now that no spirit animated it. The doctor remarked tonelessly:
“No bullets. Dirt in the nose. This one was buried alive.”
What to say? “This is my father.”