A short biography of Poulīn (Paulīne) Kļaviņa
Poulīn Kļaviņa (Paulīne Kļaviņa, in Latvian) was one of only a handful of native speakers of Livonian. Though there are people today learning this language as adults, Poulīn knew Livonian before any other language. Born in Vaid (Vaide, in Latvian) on the northwestern coast of Latvia on January 19, 1918, her birthplace was one of a collection of villages lining the Baltic coast that by the beginning of the twentieth century were the last homeland of her people. With the onset of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, the villages were emptied of their inhabitants by the occupation regime. In the years following World War II, Poulīn would move to Rīga, the Latvian capital, to work as a seamstress.
The next decades would be difficult for Poulīn’s people. They were persecuted and scattered throughout Latvia and the world by the Soviet authorities. Many others were deported to slave labor camps in Siberia, never to return. The years of the occupation would see a steep decline in the number of speakers of Livonian. By the early 1990s, there would only be about ten remaining native speakers of the language, with Poulīn as one of the few in this unique group.
During the years of the occupation, Poulīn would help establish the Livonian folk ensemble “Līvlist”, which was one of the few expressions of Livonian culture permitted during the occupation. She also would serve as a source to countless linguists and researchers who were interested in studying her language as well as recording her memories of Livonian village life on the coast. Her selfless willingness to work with whomever had an interest in her language, is perhaps her most lasting legacy as one of the last native speakers of Livonian. Poulīn Kļaviņa passed away in September of 2001.
My memories of meeting Poulīn (in the summer of 2000)
My first memories of meeting Poulīn are at the building of the Irē (Mazirbe) boarding school. I’d heard of her before, but never met her. Before I came to the coast that summer, there was talk of me staying with her at her home in Vaid, but ultimately it made more sense for me to stay closer to the summer camp. There would be more people there and more opportunities to learn about Livonian. Still, the idea of meeting one of them, a person whose inner-most thoughts could only be shared with a handful of others in the world, thrilled me.
It was the second day of the camp, and I heard from one of the teachers that Poulīn was already at her home in Vaid and that she would be coming over to the camp that day to meet with the children. Those of us who were interested in the language would also have a chance to speak with her.
Later that afternoon I was sitting in a room with a few other people. The school had been built on the eve of World War II, but the rooms had a definite Soviet feel. Drab walls and shelving, some couches had been brought in to sit on. We were all chatting and then she came in. At first glance this famed speaker of Livonian seemed just like any other older woman I had seen in the Baltic States. She was of medium stature, and reminded me of my step-father’s mother who had lived with us for much of my childhood. She too had been a descendant of Livonians. Poulīn had been ill and looked it, she seemed a little tired. Her hair was lightly styled and she was wearing a brown skirt, another reminder of my step-father’s mother. Poulīn sat down. I noticed she had slippers on and her brown stockings were pulled up almost to her knees.
I had grown up a speaker of a language that nobody else spoke. As a Latvian in Arizona it seemed that my life paralleled the lives of people like Poulīn. For me, like many of my Livonian contemporaries, the only other people who knew my native language were my parents and a group of mainly elderly people that lived scattered, as we did, in a world that had no knowledge of our words. But there was a difference between me and Poulīn. I had a whole country of people on the other side of the world who knew my native language, but for her there was no other place, save her thoughts and memories, where she could go to hear her language.
That day we did not speak much. I merely observed her. For years I had searched for Livonians and materials on the language, and now, finally, I had a person sitting in front of me who could perhaps unlock all of the mysteries I had pondered for so long.
I would later watch Poulīn speak to the children at the camp. Over the years she had become a sort of language matron, the protector and keeper of secrets. The children called her Paulīnes tante (Aunt Paulīne, in Latvian) and she gave all she could to them, answered their questions, and told them of the old days.
Several days later I would have my first real encounter with her. At the camp I learned that I wasn’t the only person who wanted to seriously undertake learning Livonian. I’d met a Latvian graduate student from Tartu University, in Estonia, who had made Livonian the focus of her studies. We agreed to walk to Poulīn’s house in Vaid, about 8 km up the coast from Irē.
I had often read of Poulīn’s own memories of the old days, when a congenial atmosphere ruled on the coast. People could stop in at each other’s homes unannounced. Now many people I spoke with lamented the fact that this unity had been replaced by property lines that were vigorously enforced by their owners. Owners who often nowadays weren’t even from the coast, let alone Livonians, and were fundamentally changing the character of this place that had been the home of Poulīn’s family and ancestors.
As we walked, I thought of Pētõr Damberg, who Poulīn recalled would sling his shoes over his shoulder and walk barefoot to her house from his home in the west. The Livonian Coast truly was stunning. Barren beaches overflowing with off-white sand, pine forest reaching up practically to the edge of the water, and the sea, its color the slate grey of the stormy summer.
We walked through all the villages along the way, Kūoštrõg (Košrags), Pitrõg (Pitrags), Sǟnag (Saunags), and finally Vaid (Vaide). Each village had its own character, but in some ways all were very much the same, little communities nestled in the forest a short walk from the water. Kūoštrõg was only a short distance from Irē. Pitrõg, further away from Kūoštrõg had a large Baptist church and fish cannery. Sǟnag was so close to Vaid, that two little towns seemed to grow together. In some places we saw fishing boats, though I had been told that no one went fishing anymore. Later I would learn that this was just a fishermen’s tale told to keep the best fishing spots secret.
We walked into Vaid through the forest from Sǟnag. The first sign that we were close was a signpost marking the way to Ozolnieki, the name of Poulīn’s property. In country towns throughout Latvia, homes and estates do not have actual addresses, instead they simply have a name. The name of Poulīn’s home was Latvian and it seemed to derive from the Latvian word ozols, or oak. I never learned if Ozolnieki had any other significance. Often an estate name will extend far back in the ownership of the property, sometimes losing its original meaning and significance altogether. On the coast that summer I saw other property names as well, though most seemed to either be in Latvian or of indeterminate origin. Few names sounded Livonian.
Poulīn’s little house seemed idyllic. Not being an expert in the architectural differences between different cultures, I thought it would not have been out of place, in almost any country setting in Latvia. Some of the fishermen’s homes in the coast towns looked worn and weathered, like they had survived a thousand storms. But Poulīn’s house was nicely painted, a well-tended yard in the front.
Walking up we saw a car parked outside. It had Estonian license plates. My friend from Tartu recognized the car as belonging to Prof. Vääri. A linguist from Estonia, he had come to record and study Poulīn’s language and that of the other coast dwellers, for decades. In time he and Poulīn had become good friends. Listening to their conversation that was easy to tell. Vääri said something and she laughed, joking back. But what was amazing was that they weren’t speaking Latvian, Russian, or Estonian, but instead they were speaking Livonian. It seemed so real and in some ways totally unremarkable. As if outside the walls of Poulīn’s little home there could have been hundreds perhaps thousands of other people speaking in this same language, having the same sorts of conversations. Laughing, joking, arguing, talking about entirely mundane things. In that moment I understood. This language was exactly the same as all other languages. I had come to the coast to study Livonian, because it interested me, but also because it was disappearing. Somehow a disappearing language seemed as if it held secrets that a larger language did not. Something of hidden knowledge, something significant. And though that may be true, this significance does not lie in the number of speakers a language has, instead it lies in our personal experience with the language. Livonian is where it is as a result of a series of unfortunate historical events, but its fate was hardly pre-ordained.
I walked outside for a moment. I was feeling a lot of mixed emotions. Happiness and excitement at having heard this rare conversation, but somehow also sadness at knowing that there is no other place where this sort of experience could have been possible. At that moment I was certain that there were likely no other conversations going on in this language anywhere else in the world.
This realization would reoccur several times during the following weeks. Just like the death of a close loved one, is an experience that the human mind or perhaps the human heart is not made to be able to truly comprehend, so too I could not comprehend this experience. How could something seem so real and alive, yet be so ephemeral and transitory at the same time.
I would meet Poulīn several more times over the course of the following weeks. Each time she was delighted to share her stories, and help us practice speaking the language. Leaving the coast it seemed that these precious conversation more than the months of study were what helped seer the Livonian I knew into my brain.
In one of my final conversations with her, I would ask her a question that had played upon my mind for some time. Seeing her, it did not seem like it could possibly be true, that she really was one of the last of only barely a handful of people to speak her language. She seemed as she had when I first saw her, as a normal everyday person, leading a fairly normal everyday life. Yet she was also unique in a way that seemed was really a result of fate or chance more than anything else. So, I asked her, what it was like to be one of the last people left who speak her native language. She paused for a moment. I had felt uncertain about asking her this question, it seemed like it might be too personal or too strange. But I also knew that a second chance would perhaps never come. Poulīn looked up at me and said, “Earlier it did make me sad. But now I feel happy, because so many people are working every day to keep the language alive.”
I left the coast in early August of that year. I would spend time in Estonia and Finland, before returning to my home in the Arizona desert in the early fall. Poulīn passed away approximately one year later, in September of 2001. Though my own life took me in other directions in the following years, I would think often on the time spent on that distant shore and the experience of meeting this remarkable person.