Latvia Under the Soviets

Life in Limbaži During the Occupation

Those who stayed behind. I didn’t do any adjusting on this photo.

I recognize only two people in this photo even though I’m probably related to most of them. My grandmother is in the middle of the middle row between the two little boys. The tall, blond guy is my youngest uncle, Andrejs.
The invasion of Rīga. 1940. (Wiki)

When my parents, two uncles, and other Francis relatives fled Latvia ahead of the Soviet invasion in 1944 my mom’s mother refused to go. I can only guess the reasons for her decision. She didn’t want to live her country, her culture, and the life she knew. She probably thought she was too old to start a new life in a foreign country. Many people thought that the Allies would drive out the Soviets and that their family members would come home soon. Maybe Oma didn’t want to leave the place where her husband was buried. Andrejs was only eleven or twelve at the time so it’s only natural that he stayed with his mother.

The pharmacy in the town of Mālpils where my mother worked.

My parents had been married only about two months when the Red Army invaded. They were living in Mālpils where they met and where they both worked. My father was the postmaster. Mālpils is about 50 miles (80 km) from Limbaži. His family lived in Alūksne, which is twice as far away, close to the border with Russia. My father was also a telegrapher. I don’t know if he tried to contact either family by phone or telegraph. The Soviet army was between Alūksne and Mālpils so making contact was no doubt impossible. My folks felt they had no choice but to flee. During the first invasion of Latvia in 1940, my father barely escaped being deported to Siberia. His name was on a list of those to be deported but a friend saw the list and warned him. My father hid out in the forest for two weeks until it was safe to return. My parents, too, probably thought they’d be able to return when the war was over and that Latvia would be liberated from the Russians. They never dreamed that they’d never see their country or families again.

The cemetery in Limbaži where my maternal grandfather lies buried. The arrow points to his grave.

The Soviets desecrated many graves. When I was in Latvia during the waning days of the Soviet era, I visited Brāļu kapus Bretherns’ Cemetary where Latvian war veterans were laid to rest. The names and dates on the Latvian patriots’ gravestones had been chiseled away.

My Oma and her chickens. I couldn’t do much to improve the resolution of this photo.

My maternal grandparents’ house has a big backyard. Their property was even bigger before the new government decided that it was too big for just one family and took part of their land away. No doubt the backyard chickens helped the family survive the many food shortages during the years of occupation.

We sent packages with clothes, food, hygiene products, cigarettes, gum, and other items they could use themselves, barter, or sell on the black market. We also sent a teddy bear and a big ball.

My cousin, Reinis helping his dad construct a greenhouse.

Andrejs was quite the entrepreneur. Private businesses were not allowed in the Soviet Union. Andrejs didn’t let that bother him. He had a family to support, a wife and daughter as well as his mother and son. Andrejs raised tulips to sell to anyone who’d buy them. Latvians love flowers and give them on many occasions so he did very well. Other Latvians who lived in more rural areas did the same. On the way to Forest Park Cemetery, I saw little old ladies selling flowers in the street. That was not good enough for my uncle. Andrejs traveled all over the western and southern USSR peddling his flowers. His biggest day was March 8, International Women’s Day when every woman could expect to receive bouquets.

An envious neighbor, seeing my uncle’s nice greenhouse, reported him to the authorities. Andrejs was arrested and spent two years in jail for “speculation.” He didn’t let that deter him. Once he was released from prison he went back to growing tulips, except that he moved his greenhouse into the building at the back of the photo above. Out of sight, out of mind.

My uncle was handy with his hands as you had to be because so many items they needed weren’t available in stores. When I visited he expressed his frustration at being unable to find a trailer hitch so he could attach a trailer to his car so he could haul more tulips to market. He’d have to make one himself, he told me.

My Oma and her two youngest grandchildren, Ilze and Reinis. This should have been my lap, too.

My Oma had seven grandchildren but she got to see only two of them grow up. Four of them wound up in Australia. The seventh, me, in the United States. Like my father’s parents, my Oma passed away years before I was able to visit Latvia.

I love this photo of Ilzīte (affectionate diminutive of Ilze) and her teddy bear from America.

I included this photo because it tugs at my heart. I should have been able to play with this precious little doll and her brother. By the time I visited Latvia, they were all grown-up.

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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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World Refugee Day

My family and I were refugees from Soviet Russia’s invasion of my parents’ homeland Latvia. My heart goes out to all refugees, particularly those who have had to flee from Ukraine because of the invasion of their homeland. Very little has changed in the last 78 years. For that matter, too little has changed since the Bolshevik Revolution that happened in Russia in 1917. Different dictator, same brutality.

This poem, by Latvian poet, Velta Toma (1912 – 1999) speaks to the soul of a Latvian refugee. To refugees anywhere.

This diaspora happened in the same year Ms. Toma composed her poem.

This is the fate from which Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians fled three years later. Germans drive the Red Army out in 1941 but the Reds invaded again in October of 1944,
Bēglis

Aiz manis tumsā zūd ceļi,
deg mājas, un sagrūst tilts.
un visi dzīvie kļūst veļi.

Kā vēju vajāta smilts
es klīstu pa svešām vietām
bez darba, dusas un cilts. 

                    - Velta Toma, (1944)



The translation is my own. 

Refugee

Behind me, the road fades into darkness,
my home burns, the bridge collapses
And all we living become ghosts.

Like a wind-driven grain of sand
I drift through foreign lands
without work, without rest,without kin.




My Book: A Latvian Can of Worms


Latvian Cinderella Meets American Prince

Not my heroine or her daughter. My passport photo for coming to America

My novel, Bittersweet Christmas, a.k.a. A Daddy for Christmas, was supposed to be a simple little romance, written in four months, re-written in two. It was inspired by Christmas books written by a best selling novelist. I’d never thought about writing a Christmas book before. They seemed too sweet for me, a person who eats jalapeños out of the jar and has the personality to match. When I finished reading the famous author’s four-book series, which featured adultery, drug addiction, insider trading, prison, and cancer, I realized that not all Christmas novels need be as sweet as divinity fudge. I decided to give it a go.

Too many novels these days feature these same elements. They’ve become clichés. But if I didn’t want to use them, what would I do for conflict? Who would my conflicted characters be? I turned to my own background for inspiration. I am the daughter of Latvian refugees, born in Augsburg, Germany, where I spent the first few years of my life.

Hospital in Augsburg where I was born.

Considering the things going on in our country today, and around the world, writing about refugees seemed timely. Setting my story in 1952 made it less politically fraught and provided me with plenty of material, which I could crib from the lives of family and friends. I belong to pretty much every Latvian group on Facebook.

My Latvian Cinderella is Līvija Galiņa, the widow of a Latvian soldier who died before their daughter Dzintra was born. In Latvia Līvija was a lawyer, in America she cleans other women’s house. Līvija lives communally with her daughter, mother, and six other Latvians in a big house on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

The American Prince is Cameron Quinn, a decorated former fighter pilot, who lives a few blocks from Līvija’s home. They meet when she is walking home from work one snowy evening and he saves her from being run over by a car which has jumped the curb after skidding on the icy street.

The main conflict is fear of cultural betrayal on Līvija’s part. Latvians are supposed to marry other Latvians. We are a small community. We struggle to keep our community and culture from dying out. It’s what Līvija’s mother expects of her. She faces pressure from the entire Latvian community, which includes a number of single young men. However Līvija’s unruly heart cares nothing about cultural betrayal. It wants what it wants: Cameron.

My mother and I in Hochfeld DP, where
Līvija and her family lived.

Simple enough. Except that while I had given considerable attention to the political situation in Latvia, it turned out I had thought very little about the political situation in the US. I am writing about the era of the Red Scare. Cameron is an aeronautical engineer and test pilot at Boeing. Association with someone from a Soviet bloc country could jeopardize a job he loves, rouse suspicion among co-workers and friends. His heart, too, wants what it wants, He’s a man who doesn’t easily surrender. He would fight for his job. Fortunately, Cameron’s not prominent enough to be dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but would J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI be after him? My dilemma, how much of this to include in a novel which is supposed to be a simple romance? It gives me gives me great points of conflict for my plot, but if I include too much of this material, my story stops being a romance.

A manuscript I thought was almost finished would need to get longer and more involved than I intended it to be. I want this thing to be finished. How much of this new material can I skim over? Head pounding on keyboard.

I love my characters and my story. Somehow I will wade through this mire.

My uncle (on the right), a friend and I at Hochfeld Displaced Persons Camp in Augsburg, Germany