Monday, March 21, 2011

History Close to Home

Every time an old person dies it's like a library has burned down.
~ Unknown

Her name was Helen; she was my mother-in-law for thirty-eight years.

As the end of World War II drew near, Helen and her parents fled with the clothes on their backs as Stalin's tanks rolled triumphantly towards her village in Latvia. Those who stayed behind, including many in her family, were executed, imprisoned, or became serfs to the brutal rule of Soviet Communism.

She spent seven years in displaced persons camps, first in a German camp, later escaping to an American camp that held out hope of immigration to the U.S. She married her husband, my late father-in-law, in the camps. Her eldest child and only daughter died of pneumonia at age three in the hospital barracks. That same day, she gave birth to her first son, Peter. When Peter was still an infant, Helen arrived in the U.S. with her husband, child, and parents.

She spoke no English, but learned enough to get by while working as a nurse's aide. She had a second son in America, took care of her parents up until their deaths, worked hard and prayed faithfully every day of her life. In later years, she cared for her ill husband for years before his death, and then she nursed a sick family friend until his death. Five years ago she endured the death from cancer of her son Peter, my husband.

The past couple of years, Helen was in a nursing home on the East coast. At the very end, her surviving son and her only granddaughter--my daughter Kristine--were both with her. I'm so grateful they were there; after all she had given in life, Helen deserved that comfort.

Helen died today, at the age of 93. Now all those personal stories of loss, pain, terror, hardship, and hope in the wake of the second World War have gone with her. I will never be so close to a person who experienced firsthand the great global cataclysm that was World War II. It's not just a part of my life that's ended; it's a chapter of history gone, one often overlooked and almost forgotten. I wrote about it several years ago; it's linked here. If you can find the time, please read it, because the story of the Baltic states is now untold. Not enough people know what the people of the Baltic republics suffered. In view of today's headlines, the story of tyranny and how it flourishes in silence is worth relearning.

As for Helen, I can never thank her enough for her son, for my children, for the love she showed all of us. For the delicious gingerbread cookies at Christmas, for the pierogs on special occasions, for the apple pie from heaven, for all she did for everyone.

Paldies, Mom. Thank you. Please give Pete a kiss for me, too.