Easter is not all about bunnies, chocolate, and eggs. We know that.
War. When I toured through the Red Cross Museum in Geneva Switzerland a decade ago, what struck me was that around the world, all the time, are many wars.
While we in North America focus on World Wars One and Two, for many, many people, human destruction happens daily, over and over again.
This Easter Weekend, my first husband and I spent important time reconstructing his family past, destroyed by war. His family’s country, Latvia, was devastated economically and physically by occupation during World War II. But the war that happened at the hands of growing Soviet occupation after that war was even worse for three tiny Baltic countries that just wanted to live in peace.
It was not to be. A calculated, middle-of-the-night escape amid bombs and threats brought his young parents and his older brother (age 4) to a refugee camp in Sweden. It was in Stockholm that my husband was born as his parents, threatened by death by Soviet forces because they held university degrees, started new lives.
It is not a unique story. It happens every day. Families are divided by war, by lack of choice. And often they are never reunited.
Such is my husband’s story, too. We went to Sweden over Easter to spend time with his last surviving aunt, the sister of his father who passed away in Barrie with us 18 months ago ago. The family of five sons and one daughter were irrevocably split by their escape. One brother died attempting to get his family through Germany and on to America. Another died when he stayed back in Latvia. Two others we don’t know about. The sister, Zenjia, escaped with my in-laws and settled in Sweden where she lives today.
We needed to see her. She lives alone in the small apartment she has been in for 35 years. She is waiting for surgery to replace one hip but without support of family she worries that recovery will be worse than living with the pain that is her daily life.
She jokes, though. She is quick to suggest we cook a salmon and make a salad and sit together at a meal. She answers our questions about her life, her first marriage to a writer/artist who turned out to be a political activist who ended up in a Swedish jail; her second, happier marriage to a man who worked in publishing. We heard about how she and several other couples lived together in two rooms and earned 20 kroner a month as they began to build news lives. And while they adopted their new cultures, they tried to hold on to what they had so unwillingly left behind–their language, music, art.
She cried with us. She laughed with us. She shared great wisdom about the importance of acceptance of each other’s differences as we live our lives together.
In the face of her experience as a young woman, her life today represents great peace in the country that has embraced her as one of its own.
Of course, I understood very little of our conversations since communications was essentially in Latvian. But the universal language of care has no vowel or punctuation and that language we both understood. The language in a vase of flowers as I unwrapped them … poppies, pussy willows, and tiny, pink blooms. The language that goes unspoken from one set of eyes to another.
For sure a second highlight for us was finding the hospital where my husband was born. Searching among huge structures, we rounded a corner of an old building with its tall, austere windows, now darkened and we wondered if this could be it. Medicinska Karolinska said the letters on the top of the building, along with the construction date, 1799. Donated by the royal family and converted to medical service for refugee use, this structure is not on tourist maps and difficult to find. But there it was and in the dusk, across the lawn, ran two large rabbits… no doubt our personal Easter bunnies.
All of this experience: stepping back to one’s roots, considering what life would have held had war not interfered, makes us realize how infintesimal is our very existence. How accidental. As we walked through the history of Stockholm, adding my husband’s own history to its story, we were changed. Finding roots is so important; finding an elderly aunt whose heart knows only love is the treasure.
If Easter teaches us to move beyond pain, to celebrate resurrection, we both certainly felt that in our own way we have shared that experience. From great pain, great loss, great grief experienced by this entire family, divided through none of its own actions, has come great achievement, great connection, great joy.
An Easter to be forever cherished!