When it comes to exploring the depth and breadth of history, one Corban University professor is stepping out in faith and telling the story of others who suffered for theirs.
In October, Corban’s Writer-in-Residence Gina Ochsner traveled to the tiny eastern European nation of Latvia to gather first person accounts of the country’s struggles and occupations. Her book may be fiction, but she was able to unmask the truth about Baptist persecutions and atrocities against the Latvian people from those who experienced it.
Bordering the Baltic Sea and surrounded by four nations, the country of Latvia is steeped in history, tradition and culture.
It’s also a country bitterly torn by war and occupation and filled with tragic, yet rarely told stories of mass executions and Christian persecution. However, when Ochsner, an award winning short story writer and novelist, made the decision to write a fiction story based in Latvia, she knew she couldn’t write it from the comfort of her own Salem, Ore. home.
Ochsner spent two weeks in Latvia learning the stories and studying its people as she researched her yet untitled new book. This was her fifth trip to that country and with help from Salem residents Alex and Carolyn Akimoff, who have spent much of their lives serving Christians in the former Soviet Union, she was able to complete much needed research for this multiyear project.
“It’s a fiction novel told from the point of view of a 15 or 16 year old woman when the story opens,” she said. “It takes place after the fall of the Soviet Union and Latvia is now independent. There is a great hopefulness that is shattered by economic problems.
“It explores the relationships between the Jews and the Roma, ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians,” she added. “It shows how people reprocess and reinterpret history to reconcile the present and the past.”
The events during that time period are very difficult for Latvians to discuss openly, Ochsner said. It’s a sensitive area and she said researchers must tread cautiously.
“Collective memory is like mud trampled by many feet and historians cannot agree on just what is accurate or how to tell it,” she said. “Collecting eye witness reports is becoming more difficult as the survivors have aged or grown tired of telling stories they fear no one wants to hear.”
During her travels, she met Latvia’s poet laureate who spent years in a Russian gulag for owning one book in an Encyclopedia Britannica set. He introduced her to others immersed in the country’s history. Each successive trip, including her most recent, led her to new information and a richer understanding of the Latvian people.
Ochner’s book will also delve into one fictional family’s Baptist heritage and the persecution faced by many Christians. She said academics don’t agree that Christianity is part of the Latvian identity, but her research and interviews led her to believe otherwise.
“There really are two histories in Latvia,” she said. “There is the secular history and then there is the Baptist and Lutheran history that the seculars really do not want to acknowledge.
“In the book, the grandfather was an underground Baptist and was sent to Siberia for his faith,” she said. “In order to meet the people who were involved in this movement, I needed to find the information through other means.”
Her search led her to Charles Kelley, founder of Bridge Builders International. His grandfather was part of the Baptist underground. It also brought her to the Akimoffs, whose work with Youth With A Mission’s Slavic ministries proved to be the connection she needed. She traveled with them during her October journey and the pair helped her make otherwise impossible connections.
“Working through the faith community made it so much easier to find who I had to find,” Ochsner said. “It’s been through these routes and avenues that I was able to meet people and see things I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“Baptists in Latvia were not always well thought of,” Oschner said. “In fact, Charles Zingers in his book ‘Stories Old and New’ recalls the deep hatred felt for the Baptists in Western Latvia because in the early 1900s Baptists were not considered members of a real church, but of a zekte (sect) or cult. The kindest epithet used to describe them was kooky. A less kind one was murderers and thieves.”
Because the country was occupied by others for much of its thousand year history, she said the book reflects the importance of national identity to ethnic Latvians. As she made her way through cities and villages throughout the country, she was deeply moved by the stories of not only death, but survival. She absorbed its history and its culture fractured among many different ethnic lines.
“In one city, they had an 85 percent Jewish population in the morning, and at the end of the day, there was just one Jew surviving,” Ochsner said. “The thing is that this is not a unique story. The gypsies were treated the same way…but their stories are largely unheard because they have an oral culture based around songs and stories verses a written one like the Jews have.
“It was humbling and eerie to walk around the gravesites that had been trampled and desecrated,” she said. “People would rather talk about the 60,000 Latvians that were packed on cattle cars and sent to Siberia rather than talk about what happened to the Jews and Gypsies.”
What she learned won’t just be placed into the pages of a novel, but shared with the many Corban University students who will take her writing courses and workshops. She hopes to pass her love of the written word, her research skills and her appreciation for history and God’s impact on it to others.
While important literary strides were made during this and previous trips to Latvia, Ochsner acknowledged she also took home a closer connection to God and clearer understanding of true faith.
“It occurred to me that my faith has never been tested to the point where I have to hide the Bible,” she said. “I’ve never been at a point where I have to sew pages of it to the bottom of my skirt. I don’t know that very many of us in the United States have ever faced that kind of persecution.
“It made me think carefully and long and hard about what it means to have faith and what it means to have that faith tested,” she added. “It was humbling to consider the hardship they faced and that some Baptists were killed. This doesn’t show up in the Soviet history books, but we know that this is true.”
Gina Ochsner has three published books, “The Necessary Grace to Fall,” which won the Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction, “People I Wanted To Be,” which earned an Oregon Book Award and “The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight.”