Irēne Elksnis Geisler (Grand Valley State University)
The concept of locality is paramount to scholarly discussions confronting the relationship between territory and identity. Contemporary discourse frequently encourages us to refine the concepts of “nation” and “collective belonging” relative to territory and cultural entity. For Latvians who were deported to Siberia, and who fled to the West, the path into exile was a journey of border crossings. This was not only a physical experience, but an emotional passage into multiple unknowns. Many Latvians in diaspora and former deportees now living in Latvia continue to self-identify with origins linked to a distinctive rural Latvian homeland. Accordingly, to lose one’s dzimtene (native place) is analogous to losing one’s personhood. As Latvian women and men self-reflect on dzimtene, they reveal the centrality of gender and locality in the basic construction of Latvian national identity.
This paper utilizes the lens of gender to explore and interpret oral narratives of former Latvian refugees and deportees of Second World War and Post-war Latvia, specifically in relation to concepts of locality and identity. It finds that women, because of their social roles and gender constructs, identified with these ideas differently than did men. Throughout the chaos and suffering of war and deportation, women often sought to preserve tradition, social norms and customs. During Summer Solstice, refugee women picked Jāņuzāles, flowers with healing properties rooted in Latvian folklore. Some deportees made great efforts to bring along folk costumes to Siberia. In the narratives of survivors, particularly women, locality shaped experiences and memories, reinforcing the notion of loss of national belonging.