The Times Literary Supplement (July 29. 2017) [JB comment: a remarkable, moving piece; should be of interest to persons focusing on Eastern Europe.]
John Murray Thomson, mid-1990s; Ingrid Thomson, early 1960s
“We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.”
W. H. Auden, “Refugee Blues”
The hearse was a Mercedes estate with the Polish company name embossed in gold down the sides. SLABINSKI AGENCJA FUNERALNA. My father was stored in the back in a coffin, while I was seated in the front next to Mr Grabowski, the Polish undertaker. It was early morning in the Estonian capital of Tallinn and seagulls were swooping inland like harpies. My father was to be driven 600 miles in this hearse to Warsaw, before being air-freighted home to London. His “repatriation” (undertaker shorthand for the transfer of a deceased person from abroad) was as geographically tortuous as it would be long.
Few of us expect to die while on holiday abroad, but that is what happened, fifteen years ago, to my father. In November 2002, he arrived with my mother in Tallinn for a winter break, which ended in a mortuary. His death at seventy-four was cruel but somehow apposite. Estonia, one of three Baltic states, along with Latvia and Lithuania, is where my mother was born in 1929. Her birthplace borders the east coast of the Gulf of Finland and forms a maritime border with Russia. The Russian influence is never far away. My grandfather, a young man when Tsar Nicholas II was on the throne, spoke fluent Russian (Pushkin, he said, was “not worth reading in translation”). During the early 1930s my mother grew up in Tallinn in the shadow of the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky cathedral. There was little sense of the tragedy that lay not far ahead.
Caught between the German anvil and the Russian hammer, in 1939 Estonia was overrun by Stalin, then by Hitler, and then by Stalin again. Independence from post-tsarist Russia (proclaimed in 1918 after the British navy backed an anti-Bolshevik civil war) had lasted barely twenty years. Ahead of Stalin’s advancing Red Army, my mother, her parents and her sister fled westwards through the liberated zones of post-Hitler Germany before reaching England in 1947, where they acquired British citizenship. My mother was seventeen at the time. Half a century later, she had taken her Scottish-born husband to see her birthplace, and been promptly widowed.
A road map of Europe showed that my father’s journey westwards by hearse, through Riga and Kaunas to Warsaw, paralleled my mother’s journey by foot, train and horse-drawn cart in the autumn of 1944. By the time she reached England via displaced persons camps in Germany, all three Baltic states were locked in Stalinist hibernation, and had virtually disappeared from the map. A single occupation can divide a country for generations, as it did in France; Estonia’s triple-occupation – Soviet, Nazi, Soviet – was something more long-term and humanly corrosive.
Fortunately, my mother was part of the British government’s “Baltic Cygnet” scheme launched in 1946 to help fill the domestic labour shortage. Young Baltic women were invited in their hundreds to serve as nurses or cleaners in London hospitals. The first of the “cygnets” arrived at Tilbury Dock on October 19, 1946. To the London Evening Standard they were “gentle swans”, who had come to aid the sick of post-war Britain. Soon afterwards came approving reports from British hospital matrons that these bourgeois Balts were “first class workers”, who might “hopefully marry Englishmen”. The little my mother knew of England came from books; Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, which she read in Tallinn at an early age, convinced her that London was a reassuringly decorous place of Edwardian proprieties. Refugees are less likely these days to have such a skewed image of the host country: films and social media provide a stream of information. While London was blackened and depleted by war, the fate of my mother’s birthplace meant almost nothing to the British public. People thought she came from Ethiopia. (“Not Ethiopia – Estonia.”) She met my father in 1960 and married soon after. They went to Paris for their honeymoon, where, in September of the same year, I was apparently conceived in a Left Bank hotel. They saw Sergei Eisenstein’s subtly anti-Stalinist film Ivan the Terrible; perhaps, in some unformulated way, my mother understood that Stalin had played his part in my conception.
Mr Grabowski had driven twelve hours overnight from Warsaw, bringing with him his own hermetically sealed coffin with a “drop-in zinc liner” to guard against sepsis and other infections. He was the Polish representative for the funeral agency in west London which oversaw “repatriations” of deceased British citizens from, among other places, the former Soviet bloc. In Warsaw my father was to be embalmed, a legal requirement for all repatriations. Embalming became de rigueur (as it were) in the US during the Civil War when young men died far from home. In my father’s case, however, there was a complication. Few countries embalm to UK standards, and Estonia before it joined the European Union in 2004 was no exception. Therefore my father was to be embalmed in Warsaw, and from Warsaw flown to Heathrow. Mr Grabowski, tall, with a dead-white complexion and uneven teeth, did not seem to mind when I told him that I wanted to accompany my father all the long distance from Tallinn to Warsaw. He liked the idea of father and son making a last journey home together across maternal lands. In London my father had worshipped at St Mary’s on Paddington Green, an Anglo-Catholic church where John Donne preached his first sermon in 1615. It was to St Mary’s that his body, by way of Poland, was destined.
I felt curiously calm, perhaps because I had not registered properly that I was in a hearse with my deceased father. His death the previous week had been a shock. According to my mother, he had woken early in the hotel where they were staying, and gone for a walk across Town Hall Square before breakfast. Flurries of snow were blowing along the city’s medieval ramparts. My father had almost reached the square when he must have felt a stab of pain and collapsed. An ambulance arrived and the paramedics, making a quick assessment, administered morphine and insulin; it was too late. The autopsy revealed an “occluded” artery to the heart.
My mother stayed behind in the hotel while I went to identify the body, as British law required me to do. The body had been brought up to me in a lift from hospital storage. How to greet the dead? How best to serve their memory? My father’s eyes, half open, stared incuriously at the ceiling; I noted a strange flat glitter in them. I let my hand run over his forehead and the hair that would soon be ash. But what disconcerted me most was the shape his open mouth made with the teeth bared. A grin, was it? An expression of surprise? Who would have thought that his world would end here, so far from home?
We left Tallinn for Warsaw at 7.30 am. Mr Grabowski’s speed was not always compatible with safety. At Nomme, outside Tallinn, we hurtled dangerously beside a railway line; a train rushed towards us and swerved away in a flicker of blue lightning. Disused grain silos and chemical factories used by Tarkovsky in his film Stalker, from 1979, sped by. It was an odd experience, unnerving in its way, to be sitting so close to my father. At the British Embassy in Tallinn the young diplomat in charge of repatriations had curiously never seen a dead body. “I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but we don’t get many British deaths here in Tallinn. In Spain of course it’s different – nationals die around the clock there.” My father was the second British citizen to die in Tallinn, I gathered, since the Northern Irish motorcycle champion Joey Dunlop crashed his Triumph into a tree there in 2000. Having been repatriated in the standard zinc-lined coffin, Dunlop was given a hero’s welcome. Most international flights have a body in the hold; airport cargo-handlers refer to human remains as “HUM”.
Blue motorway signs marked the distances in kilometres: St Petersburg 300, Kaliningrad 515, Warsaw 810. The snow had covered factories and collective farms long since abandoned. By the sea at Pärnu we passed a cemetery (surnuaed, in Estonian, “dead garden”), a picture of silence and whiteness. In his odd, dated vocabulary Mr Grabowski said: “The Latvian frontier is approximately 40 miles from here, sir. We should reach it before breakfast, if all is going to our plan”.
At intervals we passed Russian Orthodox churches, their gold domes lending an exotic air to the unpopulated distances of forest and bog. At Ikla we crossed the Estonian–Latvian frontier. Back in the 1930s, Ikla had been one of the most vigilantly guarded frontier posts in all Europe. Latvia’s fear of Soviet incursion had left the border fortified with watchtowers and barbed wire. That day it was policed only by birds wintering in the guardhouse roof. Today, with President Putin’s renewed interest in the Baltic, the watchtowers are reportedly manned full-time. Having annexed the Crimea, Putin may yet covet Tallinn as a gateway into European and Scandinavian territories. Like Stalin and Peter the Great before him, by controlling Tallinn, Putin would be able to protect Russia against incursions from North-west Europe; he would command all Baltic territories.
On the Latvian side of the boundary post, a lake appeared before us ice-bound and dazzling. As we approached Ainaži in the Vidzeme region, the road became less deserted. Knots of people stood at bus stops; Soviet-era Icarus buses went juddering by on their way to Riga, the capital. Along this same road fifty-eight years ago my mother had been caught up with displaced people pushing handcarts, bicycles overladen with bundles; old women and children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An estimated eight million homeless Europeans had to be rehabilitated after the war. What to do with the tide of human misery? Post-war propaganda and planning was effectively defined by the idea of repatriation and the refugee. It has become so again today. Hanging from trees on the way to Riga – my mother remembered – were soldiers young and old in Wehrmacht uniforms, with cardboard signs on their chests branding them in German as Verräter, traitor. She passed burning houses, frightened for her life; push on westwards while the going was good, that was all that mattered.
On crossing into Latvia from Estonia in September 1944, she had sworn to herself: “Remember where you come from. Don’t ever forget your birthplace”. Yet she went on to do all she could to forget, assimilating so completely into English society that she could almost pass for an Englishwoman. Though post-war England was often stuffy with its rituals of roast beef and empire, she found Britain and British conservatism in particular a refuge from the zealotry and extremism she had escaped. Modern Britain was formed, in part, by persecuted minorities from abroad; it would be worse off without them.
Much has changed since then, of course. Making Britain one’s home used to be seen as a responsibility that required some emotional disengagement from the “old country”. Today, immigrants, with Facebook, cheap flights and satellite television, are less likely to see themselves as would-be Britons than as members of a foreign country, hosted by, but not necessarily emotionally connected to, Britain. A refugee no doubt feels something much more complicated, but the barrier between where she is and where she has come from appears more porous in these days of rolling international news. For refugees such as my mother, however, Britain was a place of complete and permanent exile. The effort required to fit in must have been exhausting; she was constantly aware of the manner or speech that would betray her foreign identity. Assimilation felt necessary to her survival. In the winter of 1956, after swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II and “Her Heirs and Successors”, she was “naturalized” – made a citizen of the United Kingdom – and no longer classified as stateless, or, in the polite French locution, dépaysée (de- countried). Even among fellow refugees, she avoided all talk of her homeland and the past. Why remember them? Far better a re-birth, without the taint of her earlier life in the Baltic.
Presently we passed a snowed-under school, with a disused Soviet-era aerodrome and a collapsed control tower behind it. Container lorries rumbled towards us heading east to St Petersburg. At 11.30 the morning sun showed through dirty-looking clouds. At the Latvian town of Ķīšupe we pulled up at a STATOIL filling station. Mr Grabowski got out and, unhooking the pump gun, filled up the tank. There was a smell of diesel, and over the forests in the distance the snow continued to fall. Oil, water, battery: all in order. A concrete flyover with signs for “CENTRS” took us past Riga’s Soviet-designed Palace of Culture: a fairy-tale ziggurat. We continued in the direction of Ķekava in central Latvia. There was an impression now of stillness, of absence, in the monotony of farmland, forest and drifted snow. Fir trees pelted by and then the odd spiky mobile phone aerial and tatty-looking supermarket. While Mr Grabowski chatted in a desultory way about the funeral business, I had a sudden unwelcome vision of a white-walled embalming room in Warsaw with metal trolleys, elbow-operated taps and hospital-type sinks. Mr Grabowski, perhaps sensing an unease, said: “Sir, your father will be good. We use the best up-to-date alcohol injection methods. The embalmer is an old friend of mine and he knows the job so well”. Mr Grabowski spoke with such courtesy that I almost felt comforted. “I hope – dear friend, sir – that you will sleep well tonight in Warsaw.”
Selecting a coffin for my father had not been easy. Inside the Tallinn funeral home hung a pungent odour which I could not quite place. Formaldehyde? Carbolic? At the far end were floral tributes to Ema (Mother) and Isa (Father). A video screen high up on the wall advertised in Estonian and ropy English: Gravestone Negligence, Deceased Transport, Embalming. Sample coffins hung from the showroom walls. The light was poor – just a couple of spots in the ceiling – but I managed to choose a costly and ostentatiously lacquered model. I felt that my father deserved it. The polite word for “coffin” in Estonian is puusärk, literally “wooden shirt”: the idea, Lutheran in its simplicity, is that we come from nothing and return to nothing in a “wooden shirt”. Why not a lacquered wooden shirt? Afterwards, I telephoned the London funeral agency that was to oversee the repatriation. Door to door, it would cost £995. “We offer a bespoke service”, the manager explained. There was just one hitch: lacquered coffins of the sort I had bought are not allowed to be cremated or buried in Britain. “It’s an EU stipulation – the lacquer may be harmful to the ozone layer, you see, or it might pollute the water table.” I returned the coffin to the funeral parlour, exchanging it for one of plain ash-blond wood.
A little past midday, the snow was beating hard against the hearse. The Lithuanian frontier was not far off. We were driving across a land once known as Courland (in German, Kurland). Between 1561 and 1795, Courland had been a duchy that extended into modern-day Latvia, trading with the Caribbean and West Africa (there is a Courland Bay in Tobago). For us, it radiated a sense of emptiness and melancholy. Marguerite Yourcenar, in her great novel of 1939, Coup de grâce, set in the area during the Russian Civil War, spoke of how “Russo-Baltic embroilments” had created arguments over borders, occupations, despotisms, uprooting, displacement and exile. These arguments are with us again.
On we drove through sleety winds. To our right, the Lielupe river slipped in and out of view like a silver eel. From the car radio came cracklings of static and fade-outs in Russian. At a level crossing outside the industrial city of Panevėžys in Lithuania we stopped to let a train pass. A film of diesel smoke blew across the windscreen; we lifted over the rails and continued on towards Kaunas, the cold air split by the train’s siren behind us.
There, a drunk-looking man was sitting on a roadside bench with his head between his knees, apparently vomiting. Kaunas had once been a city rich in Jewish publishing houses, Jewish salons and Jewish theatres; then came the war, and the Lithuanians together with the SS murdered 30,000 citizens. Those who suffered the most during the Second World War were surely those trapped between the totalitarian millstones of Hitler and Stalin. My mother had hoped to return to Tallinn after the war as a “repatriant”, but with the Cold War under way, she resigned herself to being “unrepatriatable”.
Motorway signs for Immanuel Kant’s hometown of Kaliningrad (Königsberg) on the Polish–Lithuanian border rushed past amid a blur of LUKOIL petrol station signs and directions to a cement works. At Marijampolė we parked outside the 1890s railway station, its paint faded and peeling. Mr Grabowski got out to use the waiting room lavatories; ten minutes later he returned. There was cigarette smoke on his breath, and I thought I could smell peppermints, too. “Please, sir,” he said, “it is time for you to adjust your clock.” Poland, he explained, was one hour behind the Baltic states; I looked at my watch, now adjusted, and saw that it was almost time for lunch.
The last Lithuanian town before Poland, Kalvarija, petered out into twenty yards of no-man’s-land before the Polish boundary post. My mobile phone was registering a Polish network already. An obstruction in the road ahead – a car crash, perhaps? – defined itself as a police road block. Container trucks and lorries were being pulled over by frontier police. Smugglers? Child-traffickers? A blue-uniformed patrolman flagged us down.
“Good morning”, he said in Polish. “What have we got in the back?”
Preparing a face for trouble, Mr Grabowski answered: “Human remains”, and from the glove compartment he fished out the British Embassy document I knew well by now. The guard stood stiffly by the roadside while he read it.
The coffin containing the human remains of the late Mr John Murray Thomson is zinc-lined and has been hermetically sealed to conform to Airline Regulations and Consular Requirements. The coffin contains only the remains of the late Mr John Murray Thomson and nothing else.
After five minutes, with a gesture of dismissal, the Lithuanian policeman said: “Można przejść”, “You may go”. Mr Grabowski put the hearse in gear and continued to drive slowly past the road block, anxious not to appear to be “running away”, as he put it. It was some time before he took the Mercedes up to speed again.
“Snowing”, he said eventually. “God how the snow has snowed. Oh dear. The snow may certainly be worse in Warsaw. At this rate it will be lucky if we arrive in Warsaw without a lot of delay.”
“We’ll be very late?”
“One cannot tell. My experience is – snow this side of the frontier, twice as much snow before Warsaw.”
At Suwałki in Poland we drew up outside the Cowboy Motel, confusingly mock-Tudor in design and far from the romantic Baltic of my imagination. Dozens of lorries with Russian number plates were parked outside.
“Too early for vodka”, Mr Grabowski said with a smile, “but perhaps in time for lunch?”
“You are sure?”
I was. The undertaker went in search of food while I stayed in the hearse. I wound down the window a crack, and dozed. Earlier that morning a hospital porter had handed me my father’s possessions. The tagged plastic bag disclosed a sum of Estonian currency, a small blue comb, a wrist watch, a grey wool overcoat, a navy blue cotton shirt, a grey cardigan, a black leather belt, a pair of grey turn-up trousers, underclothes, dark-coloured socks, a white cotton vest, a British passport and a shopping list found in his trouser pocket. All these things tugged at me, but what made me gasp was the watch. The mechanism relied on the wearer’s wrist movement and the hands had stopped ticking at 12.46 am on November 11, four days after the heart attack. As I tapped the watch glass, the hands had begun to move again.
After an hour Mr Grabowski emerged from the Cowboy Motel.
“Very. The Cowboy Motel don’t microwave the food.”
We slithered off amid a roadside slush and the steering wheel jumped in Mr Grabowski’s hands as we bumped across a land as flat as a swamp. Darkness was falling fast: in Baltic latitudes it is already black night at three o’clock in the winter afternoon. We were 50 miles from Warsaw. The snow-world shifted and changed as we sped along the great Berlin–Minsk–Moscow road. “In ten minutes, sir, my friend, we will be at our destination.” An orange Lucozade glow swept over us as we entered a tunnel. The old year of 2002 was dying and my father was sleeping the sleep of the dead behind me.
Warsaw, a city of war wounds and sorrow, had been burnt to ashes by the Nazis and rebuilt in grim Stalinist architecture. Soviet troops had stood by complacently as Hitler ordered the city and its inhabitants to be annihilated in August 1944. By the time the Red Army finally “liberated” Warsaw five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left.
Big, almost weightless snow crystals showed up glossy in our headlights as we manoeuvred into a four-lane arterial road. A giant green motorway sign CENTRUM WARSZAWY indicated that it was two kilometres to the city centre. At a billboard advertising wedding dresses (“Perfect For You On Your Special Day!”) we took a left turn into Fosa Street. It was not a smooth street for a hearse to travel along. In spite of all the ice-miles we had covered since leaving Tallinn thirteen hours ago the Mercedes felt suddenly fragile.
Mr Grabowski doused the headlights outside 12 Fosa Street and the engine cut out. Above the door of a dacha-like building was the sign SLABINSKI AGENCJA FUNERALNA. Men in overalls seen dimly through the doorway were stapling linings into coffins; there was a sound of timbers being sawn. At last my father’s supine journey to Warsaw was at an end. He was to be embalmed here and dressed in a “wine-red” shroud before his air transfer to London. Still, it would be a while before he actually reached the quiet ground of Paddington Green. Numerous consular formalities had yet to be itemized, paperwork stamped and franked; later, there would be packets of deeds and bequeathals tied in solicitor’s ribbon.
I had not eaten for thirteen hours and my lips felt dry with salt. “Stay here a moment”; Mr Grabowski took me by the arm: “Or shall I find you a taxi for a hotel?”
I said nothing but my silence seemed to ask him a question.
“You are okay? A little rest, you will be all good again.”
I shook Mr Grabowski’s hand and walked off in the direction of the church adjacent to the funeral agency. How was I feeling? I was frightened of how my father might look after embalming. Filled with chemicals he could not be as I remembered him in life. Mr Grabowski, with his undertaker’s tricks, would ensure that my father appeared untainted by decay. But with death all the light drains from the face, and nothing can put it back in again.
At the church entrance an elderly man was shovelling grit on to the ice. Inside, a metal grill on the right was adorned with an image of a Polish priest who had sheltered Jews in the crypt during the war. I lit a candle – it burned almost cheerfully – and after a minute I made my way back to the entrance. There I turned to see the flame waver then gutter out. The day really was done.
The flight home to Heathrow was delayed for as long as the snow drove down hard over Poland. Warsaw was a white-out. Finally, on the afternoon of November 14, my father in his wooden shirt was on his way on board Polish Airlines Flight LOT285. He arrived punctually at 9.30 pm local time, and the coffin passed without difficulty through immigration. The dead have no need of passports. The following day the coffin lay before me in the aisle of St Mary’s Church under the Marylebone Flyover. Scuff marks showed on the lid and the silver name-plate was scratched; otherwise the damage done during the journey was minimal. A pale November sun filled the sky.
My father’s gravestone states: GLASGOW 1928 – TALLINN 2002. A visitor might wonder at this life lived in Scotland and the Baltic. My father had been married to my mother for forty years, no mean portion of a life.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.