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Surviving Eastern Front and Gulag with Optimism Intact

I just submitted my 5-star review to Amazon, recommending:

Driven West, Taken East

A World War II Memoir of the Eastern Front

By Vilnis Bankovičs

Translated from Latvian by Maris Roze. Published by XLibris US.

I couldn’t put this story down until I’d read every line.

Born between 1922 and 1924, it’s the author’s fate to experience the power, brutality, deceit and lies of both Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarian regimes from 1940 to 1950. His youth, the most beautiful years, are spent fighting for his country’s independence, as Latvian cannon fodder covering the German retreat, and as a Gulag prison camp inmate. At age 23, Vilnis Bankovičs makes it home to Riga, now a repressed, censored society where he is an ‘unreliable’, regarded with suspicion, a second-class citizen, and where it is dangerous to tell anyone what he’s experienced. Decades later, during a visit to America where Bankovičs is unsurveilled, the story is told to his emigrated family, who help publish this memoir. Maris Roze translates from the Latvian to crisp, haunting English prose that convinces me I’ve been transported to 1943.

I’ve read many accounts of political prisoners sent to the Gulag labor camps. This story drives home the fact that many of the men were about 20 years old. One – whom the author comforted - was 16. I consumed the pages describing the routine of hard labor rewarded by a below-sustenance diet in diseased, crowded cells -- feeling angry.

The events are sickening, a black backdrop against which young Bankovičs’ sturdy character and pure heart shines. He is always finding some reason to consider himself lucky.

“Don’t shoot at anybody,” his mother told him. “Every soldier is some mother’s son.”

Good advice, because his countrymen are conscripted to both sides at the front.

No matter how much I read of the torture at Stalin’s hand, I’m still shocked. This book has got me wondering -- Were there viable alternatives to the west’s allying with Stalin? I’ve always assumed there were none. But now I expect clear-thinking, freedom-loving believers of God and democracy to come up with better solutions. Stories like this one should not have to be written.

The historical detail of the memoir is a treasure trove. Who knew that the tree-felling, log-heaving norm for one inmate at Lagpunkt No. 2 was three cubic meters per day, which would earn him 600 grams of daily bread. I will be acknowledging this excellent resource in the bibliography of The Linden Tree & the Legionnaire historical fiction series.

Paldies. Thank you Gundega Valian for giving me this book recently at the Southern California Latvian Community Center Christmas Market in Los Angeles. Gundega’s mother, Velta, was the author’s schoolmate and first love, in 1943.


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