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.

At my maternal grandparents’ house. My mother’s tribe, the Franču (Francis) family. 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. 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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Winter, Limbaži, Latvia, Early 20th Century

A photo essay

Limbaži, Latvia. My mother’s hometown is a small city in a small country in the northeast corner of Europe, across the Baltic Sea from Finland. Over the centuries, the town’s fortunes have risen and fallen like the tides. When Limbaži achieved city status in 1385, its population was six thousand. By 1622 that number was reduced to twelve. The Svētupe river had become too shallow for ships to navigate so trade went elsewhere. The Black Death returned to Europe in both 1390 and 1400; that no doubt had much to do with the decline in the number of people living in Limbaži. The population rebounded to 549 in 1773. Currently, its population is nearly nine thousand. During the Middle Ages Limbaži was a trade center and part of the Hanseatic League, kind of like an early version of the European Economic Community. During its years as a Hanseatic city, the town’s population may have been as large as twenty thousand. As the river waters and trade fell, so did the town’s population.

During my trip to Latvia during the late years of the Soviet occupation I was able to visit my mom’s hometown and see the house where she grew up. Her younger brother’s family lived there. He and his wife are both gone now, but their son and daughter still live in the house.

Winter in Latvia is a long, cold, and dark season. Not as snowy now as it was in the early Twentieth Century. In winter the sun rises as late as nine a.m. and sets before four. I once asked my mother if the short days depressed her. She replied that with all the snow reflecting light, nights weren’t as dark as they would be without snow. I wish I could travel back in time to Limbaži before the Second World War before the economy was decimated under Soviet rule when Latvia was a peaceful, prosperous country. I’d like to have had a chance to get to know my grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I had a whole tribe of them. I’d love to have join the winter fun, sledding, ice skating, building snowmen and having snowball fights. Everything we were all robbed of.

Sine the Eastern Orthodox liturgy is very different from what is heard in Western churches, I have included below a link to a video of the Bulgarian National Choir singing the Lord’s Prayer. I think it’s very beautiful.

This is Parka iela, the street on which my mother’s family home still stands.
This pretty bridge lead to St. John Evangelical Lutheran church, which my mother and her family attended. Where she was confirmed.

Market, 1935. Steeple of St. John Evangelical Lutheran church in the background.
Winter fun, sledding. 1920s.

ras iela, 1920s.


Russian Orthodox church of the Transfiguration of Christ. Out of curiosity my mother and one of her cousins attended a service there. There are no pews in a Russian Orthodox church because they believe sitting in the presence of God is disrespectful. No organ, either, as only the human voice should glorify God. The Russian Orthodox liturgy is amazing.
Joyful celebration on ice at Christmas time more than 100 years ago. The firefighters brass band played. You could hear the rustle of ladies’ long dresses and the swish of skates on the ice of Mazezers Lake.
Jūras iela, 1930s. Part of winter fun in Limbaži. They were still using horse-drawn wagons when I visited in the mid-eighties.

All photos courtesy of Limbažu Muzejs (Museum)

Scroll down for a YouTube video. I don’t know where the images are from. Probably not Latvia.







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