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To Russia, with love
           By SAM SEJAVKA  

Shortly after Christmas last year, I received a phone call from a stranger, Philip Birzulis, an Australian-Latvian visiting from Riga. He asked me if I knew I had an aunt living in Siberia.

I was aware my father Vilis' only sibling, Marija, had been sent there from Latvia during the waves of deportation that followed the Second World War. I knew little else. I had only a sketchy impression of her story. The phone call was to change that.

Since my father's death in 1980, I had attempted to contact Marija and her offspring; my letters were translated by Latvian acquaintances, and posted using near to illegible addresses transcribed from the back of old envelopes. I received no replies. But they were desultory efforts. Melbourne is a long way from Latvia and my ancestry there seemed to have no direct relevance to my life here. I have always kept an eye on the tiny nation's affairs and I wear the Namejs' ring my father gave me. But that was the extent of the relationship.

My father was a conscript in the Latvian Legion of the SS that retreated along the eastern front before the Red Army. He spent the years directly after the war in a displaced persons camp, emigrating to Australia in 1950.

He died before I developed an interest in the stories of his past, but I know he was a recidivist deserter and spent a lot of time digging trenches. He permanently damaged his kidneys lying in the snow feigning death while Russian troops passed nearby. In the aftermath of the war, on the black market, he had his papers altered to read Wehrmacht rather than SS, and had a tell-tale tattoo removed. Though his was strictly a fighting unit, the SS designation would still have been enough to complicate his emigration plans.