European Memories

of the Gulag

BioGraphie

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Austra  ZALCMANE

Austra Zalcmane was born in 1935, the daughter of a local historic leader of the Aizsargi, a paramilitary organisation formed during the Latvian war of independence that back the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis (1934-1940). The hierarchy of the organisation was soon targeted by Soviet repression and Austra’s family were evicted from their home.

On 14 June 1941, the family was arrested and separated. Her father was sentenced to forced labour and did not survive. Lilija, her mother, brother and sisters were deported to the Krasnoyarsk region. Her little brother died there, her mother and the three girls suffered hunger and illness.

In 1946, Austra and her sisters were allowed to return to Latvia, as part of a measure concerning Latvian and Estonian orphans and half-orphans in the special settlements, and were fostered by their aunt. She went to school and became a primary schoolteacher. Her mother returned in 1957 under the amnesty for all the special settlers.

Austra is the sister of Lilija Kaijone.

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Austra and Lilija’s family

Thanks to their uncles and aunts, Austra and Lilija have kept pre-war photos of their parents with them as children.

Their father was the local leader of the Aizsargi, he can be seen on the photos (centre) with his subordinates.

Their house and their childhood pictures are now all that is left of the pre-Soviet period.

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The “Russian Hell”

On the train, Austra Zalcmane  heard the adults cursing Russia, which they compared to Hell. So in the girl’s mind, the idea formed that the resettlers were to be thrown into a world of flames. She was terrified of arriving in Russia.

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Boat journey

River transport was also a feature of the deportees’ journey to their final destination. When they arrived in Krasnoyarsk, Austra Zalcmane and the others got on a boat and travelled upstream to further destinations. During the journey, they noticed a leak in the boat and were all afraid of sinking and drowning.

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Choosing workers

After travelling more than a month, the deportees finally arrived. The directors of the surrounding kolkhoz had been warned of their arrival and were waiting for them on the quayside. But most of them were disappointed at this group made up almost entirely of women and children. They all rushed to get the healthiest families. On the other hand, the families of women and young children had no takers… but since they had come, they had to be taken away. Austra’s family found themselves in a distant sovkhoz.

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Austra learns Russian

At school, Austra and her sisters found it very hard at the start to fit into Russian-speaking classes. They were helped by their mother, who had spoken fluent Russian since the First World War. Probably Austra’s mother had fled to the East during the war, like many Latvians and had picked up the language.

With extra homework done under their mother’s supervision, the girls quickly became the best pupils in the school.

Changing housing conditions for the deportees

After living in big huts, on top of other families, Austra, her mother and sisters finally obtained an individual place to live.

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Changes in deportee housing

After living in huts crowded together with other families, Austra, her mother and sisters eventually got a little home of their own.

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Learning Latvian again

After returning to Latvia after the Second World War, Austra went back to a Latvian school. But she had forgotten her Latvian and got poor marks for dictation. 

The process was the reverse of what she had already known in Siberia, but symbolically a more painful one to learn her native language, which had become foreign. It was made easier by her schoolteacher who showed her great patience and deep sympathy.

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Discrimination against former deportees

 Austra, and her elder sister especially, were faced with restrictions because of their background: daughters of an enemy of the people, resettled in Siberia, they had to fill in an autobiography before they could gain a university place or job and were often refused. They learnt to conceal their origins.

Austra also refused to deny her father’s memory and was not allowed to join the komsomol communist youth movement.

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Administrative documents

Like many other deportees, Austra has kept the documents relating to their family history. For example, her father’s death certificate, which her mother finally got in 1947, the documents rehabilitating the family in the 1990s, and the replies from the administration concerning their family home, nationalised in March 1941.