A note written by Aspazija
Nowadays business cards are quite practical in their use, and the only times one would write on them would be perhaps to give an additional phone number. However, during the first half of the 20th century it was common to write notes on business cards. One such business card, containing a peculiar request, was written by Aspazija on 14th April, 1943, and sent to the director of the Museum of Literature and Theatre, Arturs Baumanis: “From my room, which was installed on the initiative of the Minister of Education, please remove and return to me my modern tea kettle, as well as the cabinet and the bowl (..). I hope you will yield to my request this time.” These words tell a story where the amusing is closely intertwined with the tragic. The business card refers to a new exhibition at the Museum of Literature and Theatre, which was under the administration of the Ministry of Education. It included a room dedicated to Aspazija, containing items she had donated to the museum. Since the poet was still alive, amusing situations could arise – she could suddenly have a need for the items donated for the museum. April’s Artefact of the Month tells the story of how Aspazija’s tea kettle did not become a tea kettle of national significance.
In 1937, Kārlis Ulmanis’s government took the decision to merge the Latvian Teachers’ Association Museum, which held material related to writers, with the Theatre Museum of the Latvian Stage Association, thus creating a single Museum of Literature and Theatre. Its appointed director, the literary historian Arturs Baumanis, began work on the museum’s new exhibition with great enthusiasm. It was decided that the collections related to Rainis and Aspazija would be at the centre of the exhibition. Initially, the part of the exhibition related to these two writers was held in a single room. But in June 1939, Aspazija wrote a letter to the Minister of Education, Jūlijs Auškāps, suggesting that the collection related to her should be installed in a separate room dedicated to her alone, and promising to contribute to the collection additional possessions of hers. Her desire to be an independent personality met with practical considerations. Aspazija had been living in Dubulti since 1933, and she had intended to begin living part-time in Rīga, although this plan did not work out. There would not have been room in a Rīga apartment for all of her possessions, and so donating them to a museum seemed like a good way to keep them safe. Baumanis, the director, supported this idea of Aspazija’s. The Minister accepted it as well. On 19th July, 1939, an act was drafted on the hand-over of her possessions to the museum. The list of items includes “a nickel tea kettle”. Presumably, this was the same tea kettle that was mentioned in the note, and that was displayed in the room at the museum dedicated to Aspazija.
Other letters, written by the poet during the war years, reveal the tragic side of her life. The greatest difficulty during the winter of 1942 was with heating. She had enough money to buy firewood, but the German occupation powers in Jūrmala issued firewood to officials and soldiers only, and she did not receive any. January that year was bitterly cold. Aspazija read and wrote in bed, covered with blankets. In February, she turned to Hermanis Kaupiņš, the former director of the Museum of Theatre, for help; he managed to get a permit from the local government, allowing one and a half cubic metres of stacked firewood to be delivered to the poet. She had enough groceries; she had received her pension and royalties – 500 German marks – for her late collection of poems Zem vakara zvaigznes, which was published in the autumn of 1942. During that period, Aspazija felt ill, both physically and mentally. She continued to provide for her old maid-servant Anniņa, who was taking care of her. Aspazija complained that Anniņa has “a mouth that is much too big”, but Aspazija thought there was no longer anything that could be done about that. When the bitter cold is over, the poet meets the spring with great joy. It appears that it was the cold that ruined her health. A period of serious illness followed that autumn and during the first part of the next year. In a letter to Elza Rudenāja in May 1943, Aspazija wrote: “I spent the majority of my time in hospitals, and I was closer to death than to life. Now I am all better, and I continue working as much as I can.” (RTMM 572207) Such were the circumstances that led her to request that her tea kettle be returned to her. It is apparent that her request was not mere caprice but due to a serious domestic necessity during a difficult period of her life.
According to Baumanis’ memoirs, in 1944, as the Soviet army approached, the entire collection of the museum was carefully packed up and safely stored, and nothing was lost. However, the collection does not include Aspazija’s tea kettle. It can be presumed that following her multiple requests for it, the tea kettle was eventually returned to the writer. The poet passed away that autumn, and so could not return it to the museum. The tea kettle did not become an artefact of the museum and thus attain national significance, but its story has been preserved, serving as a testimony to the close of Aspazija’s life during the difficult war years.