ALMI – a Refugee by Tiiu Priilaid-Kleyn

Review : Julie Hattingh 28. augustil 2013

Almi’s story is skilfully yet simply woven together, in its translated version, by her daughter Tiiu, who used the memoirs of her Mother – collected over a life-time - to reproduce this fascinating work.

ALMI – a Refugee by Tiiu Priilaid-Kleyn

It took Tiiu 30 years to translate the original Estonian memoirs, to organize them into book format, and then to get this to the publishing stage.

In a nutshell, the synopsis on the back cover of the book tells it all – yet at the same time it has the effect of whetting the reader's appetite in terms of finding out more about this remarkable woman. Almi's life was one of hardship, adventure and stoic fortitude. What comes as a pleasant surprise was how entranced I was from the outset. The foreword which starts with the following sentence: "The storm was raging outside while I was weeping inside. Here we were sitting in this very small boat, once again on our way, to ...where?" had me captivated from the get-go, and I found that I wanted to read more about Almi's life journey, which I subsequently discovered, ended in Cape Town.

Almi was not of the school of the faint-hearted. This remarkable woman was able to cope with whatever came her way, to make the best of often appalling circumstances, and to turn her talents to the benefit of her family. Almi was in short, the mainstay of her large family, and her beloved yet oft times ineffectual husband, Aleksander.

We first meet her as a young girl, with an older sister to whom she was very attached.

Early on in her life, Almi had to come to terms with loss and responsibility. The devastating effects of the death of the sister, her changed circumstances at the tender age of 13 when she had to leave school to assist with tending the farm animals and doing chores, all had a lasting effect on the young Almi.

When she and her husband Aleksander, together with their young family, were forced to flee a war-torn Europe, in order to seek asylum elsewhere, they embarked on a series of often terrifying journeys not the least of which was an exhausting sea voyage in an old rust-bucket of a boat, which finally brought them safely to the shores of Africa, and to Cape Town, before completely disintegrating!

Almi's resourcefulness was what saw them through many a tight spot, from getting a accommodation on the boat, to taking in boarders in Cape Town and working as a seamstress in Claremont – all of which were handled without complaint and indeed often with equanimity. In reading this book I was transported back to the Cape Town of 30 odd years ago, an enchanting experience as I recognized many of the places where the family had stayed including the beautiful Sans Souci which they cared for as temporary custodians, this yet again, thanks to Almi's unswerving resourcefulness.

Almi's history is inspiring, fascinating and for me totally captivating. The work weaves a spell all of its own, being the story of a courageous woman, probably unaware of the depth of her fortitude and strength. I am left with a great sense of admiration for her and am in awe of her accomplishments often under the most difficult of circumstances.

It is a book well worth the reading.