So many stories lodged in my head, but of all these there is one I regret not having written, and now the story has been taken to the grave. All I am left with is regret and a few notes.
Why didn’t I return with a dictaphone and make good on my pledge to write an incredible story worthy of being told. I promised yet failed a dear old friend, with whom I had formed a bond. We eagerly looked forward to family gatherings when he would continue telling his tale. Verner’s story is remarkable but now, his only living relatives are unable to fill in the gaps, nor could they for it was a story so detailed only a recorded version could ever do it justice. While the bones of the story are known it is the deep emotive quality missing, the descriptive prose narrated by one who experienced war in all its forms and without those recollections the story will remain a synopsis of Verner’s life.
Prelude: It was 1999. Verner and I were left to guard the house after all the wedding guests had left for the reception. Neither of us were unduly perturbed to be left guarding the wedding couple’s first home where the wedding had taken place earlier in the day. It had been a long day, the kitchen was bare as they would not return until after their honeymoon but we found a few edibles and carted them, along with our deck chairs onto the roof top where we settled in under the stars with a view to the dark sea beyond, only three streets away. For a while we simply enjoyed the solitude listening to the relentless pounding of the surf, crickets and cicada’s joyful with song while sipping our ice-cold beers. I reached for another cracker and mentioned I was starving. He began his story
In 1941 on the outskirts of the tiny village of Jaunpils in Latvia, Stalin’s army rumbled toward the township eager to flush out suspected spies. The villager’s knew ahead the army was getting closer and Verner recalled how fretful his mother was for their father had not yet returned from a trip to Germany to purchase farming equipment over a year ago.The Russians reputation proceeded them and many families had secreted the women and children to safety but his mother was adamant the stories were lies but still she trembled said Verner when the big lorries rumbled into town.
He recalled ornaments falling from mantelpieces and the very timbers of their home vibrating as the massive lorries wound down the narrow winding alleyways between the houses. He saw fear creep into his mother’s features and knew then, life would never be the same when she pressed an apple and small square of cheese into his hands and whispered. “Now run my boy, hide in the wood heap. Don’t come out until they are gone do you hear?” He kissed her cheek and ran. Before he had reached the wood heap he heard the front door of their home splinter, loud shouts followed by gunshots, his mother’s screams then silence. The big truck rumbled away. But he had seen her. A terrible sight. His mother’s lifeless body, covered in blood dumped on the back of the truck on top of other bodies, some he knew as neighbors and friends of his parents. He crawled deep under the wood wiggling down until he was well hidden. Hunger and thirst drove him out from his hideaway back to his home.
He didn’t speak for a long while, the memory of what he saw inside him must have been so traumatic he could not bring himself to speak of it, but my sister’s husband later told me there had been a baby, a sister in her basket under the table and the soldiers hadn’t bothered to put her body on the truck with their mother. I do not know if Verner buried his baby sister, he was fourteen so perhaps he did but for days he said, “The Russian’s raped and shot women and girls. Piled their bodies onto trucks but the, the cruelest of all Russians The Bolsheviks left men’s bodies to rot in pools of black blood, food for dogs and flies,” he spat. “Then they left. We, those who had escaped them crept out like frightened mice. Only a handful of old women and a few of us children had survived. Two days later the Germans arrived in Jaunpils.” Sixteen boys, including Verner were taken prisoner.
“I wasn’t frightened of the Germans, I feared the the Bolshevik’s girl more.
The young boys were put to work in the army camp doing chores and running messages. Verner recalled life wasn’t so bad as they trailed the army as it moved into Bavaria. In a bombed out town just over the border two boys found a jar of strawberry jam in the rubble. The German’s made an example of them by shooting nine of his companion’s who had tasted the jam. Verner was thankful later, but wasn’t at the time for he did salivate at the thought of jam, he had been on duty polishing boots and helmets. Only a few days later, he and the five remaining boys including eleven prisoners of war were left in the dungeon of an old ruined castle.
They sourced water by pressing their cheeks to the cold wet stone walls and sucking at the moss. Only one pail of gruel was delivered, once a week however, it was so putrid they chose to eat cockroaches, mice and beetles instead using the gruel as bait. He could not say how long they existed down there in the bowels of the old ruins but it was a long time he said. Long enough for his voice to crack and grow a wispy beard, here he smiled fondly twiddling his long gray-white whiskers.
“Was a long long time girl, tis all I recall. Too bloody long until the American’s came. I couldn’t see when they led us out into the sunshine and for a day I kept my eyes shaded for it gave me a fearsome headache.” Joy gave way to bewilderment
What could a young man do he said, his parents and sister were gone, he agreed to go on to Germany where the disaffected, the lost and lonely were offered passage to other countries to start a new life. For days he searched the walls of messages in vain hope of finding a message from his father. He contacted the Latvian officials who in turn advised him by letter his family had not survived the war
After the war had ended The International Refugee Organization formed the Group Resettlement to Australia initiative. On March, 2nd 1948 at the port of Bremerhaven, Verner boarded the Greek ship General Black, disembarking at Port Melbourne, Australia on April 27. From here with his worldly goods packed neatly into a brown-cardboard suitcase no bigger than a shoebox, he took the coach to Adelaide to meet up with other repatriates he’d befriended in Germany before securing a place in resettlement program.
Making his way through the throng of new settlers milling around the dock at port Adelaide he heard a familiar voice. His father’s voice, an unmistakable deep baritone. They were reunited for a brief time before his father Mailda Augule, having been a long-term prisoner in appalling conditions (which I think was Auschwitz) died of pneumonia. Verner learned his father too had contacted the Latvian officials and been told his entire family had perished.
Verner headed to far north Queensland where he worked firstly as cane-cutter before taking up an apprenticeship in Ballarat, Victoria in carpentry; he acquired his builder’s license, married in 1955 to a Latvian girl Hilarija and they removed to the western Queensland town of Charleville.
In 2001 Verner, his wife and three adult children returned to Latvia for a holiday. Verner was getting old, had survived two heart attacks and wished to see the town in which he had been born in and spent the first fourteen years of his life
In Jaunpils they were directed by a grinning local who had known his parents to a white-washed cottage on a small farm on the village outskirts
Then Verner paused in the telling of his life story, raised his beer and saluted the heavens
“Drink with me girl for God is gracious in his mercy
When they pulled up in their rental car an old lady tending to her garden walked out the front gate and rushed over to greet them and without a word clasped Verner in a fierce hug.
“I knew you’d come home one day my son.”
Postscript Verner learned after she had been thrown on the truck, injured but still very much alive a Russian took a liking to her. Well hidden under a canvas on the floor in the front of the truck he drove on to the Black Sea where he had been posted. After she recovered she stayed on as his secretary, for she too believed her family had perished. After the war he gave her some money and she returned to the home in Jaunpils.She told him she knew for her favorite plant would produce a single out of season flower around mid January every year. She began to believe it was a sign from God her son had survived the war
Hilary passed away in 2002, followed by Verner in 2010.
In June this year his descendants will once again visit Jaunpils. I hear his laugh, lodged firmly in my memory and ponder will more surprises greet this family when next they visit Latvia
I hear him laugh. “This story isn’t finished yet girl.
Indeed it isn’t, not yet. On an old photograph found in his battered cardboard suitcase after Verner’s death in 2010 has scratched on the back, ‘Verner’s half brother Andrew.’ Which child is Verner? Did his mother remarry? Was it the Russian who saved her life or was Verner’s mother married before she married Mailda
This story has more to tell us…