MAILED: Dec. 12, 2000
Dr. Paulis Lazda, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor of history, has been awarded the highest honor of his homeland of Latvia: Commander of the Order of Three Stars.
Lazda was in the company of the commanding General of the Michigan National Guard and ambassadors from Finland, Italy and the Netherlands, all of whom received awards for their contributions to Latvia at the Nov. 17 ceremony in the capital city of Riga.
I still cant believe it, Lazda said. It is very gratifying and humbling, and I must acknowledge many others who have contributed to the work I did and am being honored for.
In addition, to his wife, Dr. Irene Lazda, chair of the foreign languages department at UW-Eau Claire, and their youngest son, six Latvians who studied at UW-Eau Claire were in Riga for Lazdas recognition. It was a special thing for me to have the Latvian Blugolds come out and help me celebrate, Lazda said.
Lazda was recognized for his initiative in the founding of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which shows the experience of Soviet and Nazi rule in Latvia until its independence in 1991.
In 1993, while teaching history in the UW-Eau Claire Semester in Latvia program in Riga, which he played a key role in starting, Lazda realized the urgent need for a place to take students to show them this devastating period in Latvias history. Thats when I started my second life, he said.
That summer the first museum exhibit, documenting the first year of Soviet occupation, opened. Seven years later the museum boasts some 120 displays, including documents, artifacts and relics, photos and texts in four languages. In 1998 the Latvian government designated the museum as part of all official protocol visits by foreign heads of state and other visiting dignitaries.
It is a necessity for us to remember and understand Latvias history, said Lazda, who considers the 50-year period of occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to be a time when Latvia fell into a memory hole.
Lazda, who was born in Latvia in 1938, fled to Germany with his parents and two brothers to escape the Soviet invasion. There, they lived in a labor camp until the closing months of the war when they walked 200 miles to reach the American military positions near Lüneburg in northern Germany. They spent six years in refugee camps after the war.
I know what so many Latvians went through, Lazda said. Instead of suffering in silence, I took the initiative with the help of many colleagues in America and Latvia to start the museum, said Lazda, who is the chairman of the board of directors of the museum.
Lazda says there has been a tremendous amount of interesting discovery as he works to preserve bits and pieces of the past. Ive found that remarkably the exiles in the gulag (a forced-labor camp) kept a sense of humanity, civility and even beauty in that most inhuman place, he said.
The museum includes a cattle car that was used to transport people to camps in Siberia, a needle made from barbed wire, a handmade silent piano keyboard, sketches by an 11-year-old girl depicting the deportation of her family, and documents from the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.
In one exhibit survivors of the Soviet occupation constructed a replica of the barracks in a gulag. Lazda says that so many prisoners were crammed into the barracks that when someone rolled over at night the entire row had to roll over.
One of Lazdas favorite museum relics is a letter sent from the West to a relative in occupied Latvia that was stamped Censored: Must Not Continue by the KGB but then for some reason made it to its destination. This letter does two things, Lazda said. It indicts the system for what it was a very cruel system intent on isolating people from the rest of the world, and it shows the reason for its collapse because it was inept and corrupt.
In addition to the museum, Lazda is busy coordinating a traveling exhibit titled Latvia Returns to Europe: From Occupation to Freedom. With its 25 large displays, the traveling exhibit has been shown to the European Parliament in Brussels and 10 European capitals.
Each year, Lazda goes to Latvia five or six times as well as travels to other countries to organize showings of the traveling exhibit.
The museum is closely connected to my research and academic work, said Lazda, who has been teaching history at UW-Eau Claire for 33 years. Its a continuation of what I do in the classroom, and I apply what I learn and discover to my teaching.
Although Lazda is surprised and humbled to have received such a prestigious award, he also is very proud of the museum and the impact it has on visitors.
Lazda summed it up when he recalled a comment from President Ranger Groomsman of Iceland, one of the first visitors to the museum. Groomsman said, Every nation has a right to its past, a right to have a memory, a right to have a history. It is a fundamental human right.
This essentially is our effort, Lazda said. To remember, to preserve humanity and to recover from the experience of inhumanity of the occupation.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Dec. 12, 2000