Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia



Peteris and I were proud of our lineage. A family tree, handwritten in the old Bible, traced the name Tarziers to Lettish princes in the days before domination by foreigners. In keeping with the pedigree, our father Karlis became a many-sided man, writer and poet, farmer and worker. His calloused hands stung like sandpaper when he applied a well-placed slap to our bottoms, but his poetry moved people to a different sort of tears. Above all, he loved the soil and land of Latvia. When serfdom was abolished and land ownership rules loosened in the late 19th century, Karlis jumped at the chance to own the hundred acres he had worked for a decade already. Mother’s generous dowry of three hundred gold rubles served as down payment, and a mortgage took care of the rest. His was the first generation to own the land it worked, but, he clearly hoped, the first of many.

Father was unusually well educated for the times. He spoke fluent Russian and passable German as well as Latvian. For years, he wrote regularly, mostly about Baltic agriculture, for a St. Petersburg daily. In return for his contribution, our family received a free subscription to the paper. Peteris and I fought over the magazine insert. The pictures it contained gave us a glimpse into big city life, a universe away from the Predeli countryside. After graduating from the Lutheran seminary Father briefly taught school in another Pagasts before taking on the farm full-time. Family lore has it that his health was too frail for the ministry, though it is not clear how farm life was in any way easier. Perhaps Karlis did not really want to be a full time minister. I would guess his heart was really in the black Latvian soil.

After a twelve hour day behind the tiller, Karlis would wash up, change into clean clothes, and cultivate his mind. He played the violin and wrote religious poems, hundreds in all, to be sung to old Lutheran melodies. The neighbors frequently called on him to officiate at funerals. He really outdid himself on those occasions. Rather than rely on ritual, he gathered personal information from the family of the departed, and wove the information into a special farewell hymn.

While these talents endeared him to the local folk, they set him at odds with the Lutheran clergy. The Lutheran pastor demanded cash, while Karlis’ payment was an occasional loaf of fresh home-baked white bread. So Father’s actions and, in fact, his very presence were a slap in the face of the church, morally and financially. Karlis rebelled against the authority of the church in other ways, too. He joined the revival Baptist movement and eventually organized informal religious assemblies with Baptist speakers and choir. He was not about to let a pastor tell him how to behave.

Our wealth grew. The steam-driven thresher stood out like a boil in the face of the Druviena countryside, especially when we rented it out at harvest time. We became known as “Dampishi” and “Pharisees,” the latter name a corruption of Tarziers, a reference to what people saw as obscene money-grubbing. “Bible Stallion” was another choice insult hurled at Father by the young socialist troublemakers, because of his prominence as Herrnhuter or Teller at the Assembly. In later years, his counterrevolutionary activities earned him the name of “Gray Baron” by the Bolsheviks. But even though we regarded the name calling as petty and unfair, in retrospect I see that animosity ran far beyond pettiness, and the local teens only repeated what they heard at home.*

Father not only antagonized the church, he also took sides politically. Even our relatives disapproved of Karlis’ activities, especially those against the tsar. One event sticks in my mind, a startling chance he took with his life. Latvia had rushed to proclaim independence in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, prematurely as it turned out. In the years following this attempt at independence, regiments of the tsar’s dreaded Cossacks, the Black Hundred, would regularly march through the village, rattling their sabers. The idea was to suppress, by fear, the remains of Latvian patriotism. Not about to be intimidated, Father got together with some of the neighbors and hatched a plan to stalk the armed Cossacks in the woods at night. They hoped to kill a few with butcher knives and pitchforks and thus to teach the Tsar a lesson. But the Cossacks knew better than to enter dense woods after dark. After one cold, sleepless night of waiting for a horse patrol that never showed up, Father and his band of revolutionaries gave up that particular revolutionary effort, and he got to live another thirteen years.

We knew Father primarily as a skilled, dedicated farmer, a messenger of God, and a passionate political activist. Peteris and I were stunned, then, when we uncovered a tender side of his. Our find happened more or less by accident. We must have been fairly young, probably in our mid-teens. Our parents had left for the day, leaving us in charge of the farm. We wandered into the storage building to the left of the main farm house, a cavernous building with all sorts of farm equipment, with hams hung out to cure. Family belongings were stored here too, in large trunks. Snooping around in one of the trunks, we found first the original copy of the first printed edition of the Glück Bible. The book took our breath away. It was bound in wood plate and leather, meant to last forever.

Another find, however, inspired tenderness rather than awe. It was a bundle of letters, written in neat longhand, tied with a cord, Karlis’ love letters to our mother Jüle. We had no idea that he was capable of such sentiment. We knew our parents as a team, and it had never yet sunk in that their lives had been separate before. We carefully retied the letters, closed the lid of the trunk, and went about our business, but the discovery was startling: our father at one time had been a young man like us. At one time he had wooed and won a young, beautiful girl who would become our mother. One of my regrets in life was that we burned the letters and gave away the Glück Bible when we sold the farm in 1922, in preparation for the exodus to Brazil. We were certain that the end of the world was near, and who would need family keepsakes then? Of Karlis’ creativity only one poem remains, a spiritual testament in which he foretold his death.

What more can I say about this complex man? Mother leaned on him even more than we did. She would never really get over his death. Peteris and I loved and feared our father. We were trained above all to obey and to emulate him. Our two older brothers left the farm as soon as they could, perhaps needing a break from his iron grip. We two younger ones might eventually have done the same had prophecies of Armageddon not decided for us (see Spirit Speaks). We were proud of our father’s role in the community, even though his political leanings would cost him his life during the first Red Terror. His brutal death shaped the rest of my life, and that of my brother in Brazil.**

*Decades later, in Brazil, my mother Emilia, Karlis’ daughter-in-law, shared with us girls: “I knew the Tarzier family back in Latvia, long before I married your father. They were rich, cold, and arrogant. They thought they were better than anybody else. I didn’t like them at all.”*Decades later, in Brazil, my mother Emilia, Karlis’ daughter-in-law, shared with us girls: “I knew the Tarzier family back in Latvia, long before I married your father. They were rich, cold, and arrogant. They thought they were better than anybody else. I didn’t like them at all.”—MT

**Even though I never met my grandfather, shock waves from his death resonated through our household. My father Pedro (Peteris) dealt with his pain with denial. Crying is a luxury in times of war, and by the time he arrived in Brazil four years later, his father’s murder was an old story. His grief surfaced in indirect ways, such as unrelenting hatred of Communism, the “Reds” as he called them. Miriam and I, Karlis’s granddaughters, were not raised to become doctors or lawyers or (God forbid) housewives. We were supposed to dedicate our lives to fighting Communism or, failing that, the Catholic Church--that is, to carry on Karlis’ work and ideals.—MT

Christmas 1918

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