Latvia Between Wars

Life in my mother’s hometown, Limbaži: a photo essay

Whether or not they are familiar with this Welsh word, Latvians and most refugees know the feeling very well. Even their children and grandchildren know. Its a feeling that seems to be in our DNA and is passed down from generation to generation.

Our refugee parents and grandparents spoke of Latvia as if it were a cross between Camelot and Brigadoon.

A stamp with the coat-of-arms of Limbaži

Between the first and second World Wars Latvia was a free, prosperous, and independent republic.

Town Hall with a kiosk in front

I don’t know what holiday the flag display is celebrating. My guess would be that it’s not Latvia’s Independence Day, which falls on November 18th. I would expect there to be snow on the ground in November since Latvia is almost on the 57th latitude. Even Moscow is farther south. Aberdeen, Scotland, and Kalmar, Sweden are on the same latitude. However, the Gulf Stream keeps Lativa warmer than one might expect so perhaps the holiday being commemorated is Independence Day. It’s a pity that there’s no writing on the back of this postcard.

Outdoor stage in Limbaži. Rīga is not the only town in Latvia where song festivals are held.

The first nationwide song festival in Latvia was held in Rīga in 1873 during the National Awakening. Latvia was still part of the Russian Empire then. It didn’t succeed in throwing off the Russian yoke until 1918, although an unsuccessful attempt was made during the Russian Revolution of 1905. Many Latvians who had participated in the failed uprising fled the country to save themselves and their families from Russian retribution.

Limbažu (possessive case) Evangelical Lutheran church.

These are Girl Guides, the Latvian version of girl scouts in the church my mom’s family attended. My mother is the flag-bearer. I don’t know what the occasion or even what the date was. Too many photos with nothing written on the back.

A home economics class.

There are so many things about this photo that I love. Most of all that it includes my mother as a young woman. She’s the one ducking her head and smiling. In photos, she’s frequently the only one who’s smiling. I also love the meat grinder. My mother had one just like it here in the United States. I also love the bowl, the fat little pitcher, and the scale.

A piano teacher, in the middle of the second row, and her students.

My mother’s oldest brother, Leonīds Francis is in the first row on the far left. The smiley face, fourth from the left in the front row, is my mother. She was the third of four children, the only girl. Maybe she’s around eight or nine in this photo.

This beautiful pavilion is in the Unity Garden located in the center of Limbaži between Rīga and Parka streets. My mother’s family home was on Parka iela (street). The park was established in 1892. The pavilion replaced a building that was damaged by fire in the 1930s. The pavilion has been used as a theater. It still stands to this day. My mother told of riding through the park on her bicycle but never mentioned the theater. Perhaps the pavilion was too new then and hadn’t yet hosted the Ausekļa Limbažu Tautas teātris (National Theater) I love the graceful lines of this building.
At my maternal grandparents’ house. My mother’s tribe, the Franču (Francis) family. These are the people I should have grown up with. My mother and her cousin are sitting on the far right in the first row. My grandfather is first on the right in the middle row. My grandmother is third on the left in the middle row. My mother’s older brothers are on each end of the third row. The man in the uniform is one of my grandfather’s brothers, Gen. Francis. One of my mother’s many cousins is the young man who is first on the left in the middle row. His sister is sitting next to my mother in the first row. His sister made it to the USA. He did not. Many of these people I don’t recognize.

The occasion for this gathering might have been the christening of my mother’s baby brother. The local pastor is sixth from the left in the last row. He was one of the fortunate ones who escaped the Soviet invasion and wound up in the same American town as my family and I. Only five of the people in this group were able to escape the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1944.

I was able to visit this house when I visited Latvia. Many of the people in this photo, including both my grandparents and my great-uncles and great-aunts, were gone by then. One of my uncles came to the United States but stayed on the East Coast when we moved out west. I was four or five when we moved. I never saw my favorite uncle, the one who stayed in Pennsylvania again. For three and a half years he shared quarters with my parents, my father’s brother, and me in the Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. My mother’s oldest brother found refuge for himself and his family in Australia.

These are the people and the town the Russians robbed me of as they robbed many others in all three Baltic States and Eastern Europe. And now, Ukrainians.

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