A Latvian Journey to America
For some of us, collecting the history of our township,- its
residents and its past has become a difficult obsession.
On the one hand those of us
interested in history are at an age where we can understand the
beauty and historical significance of stories passed down from
those who have seen a different, older world than we’ve taken
in. We want desperately to capture every word to share and pass
down to those who come after us. We want them to know what life
was like was back then. Then again, we realize our own time is
so precious. It is filled with work schedules, home schedules,
must-do lists, want-to-do lists and then even more of it is
swallowed up by just day-to-day tasks. Oddly, as we live with
technology at our fingertips, we are failing, due to the lack of
TIME, (of all strange coincidences), to harness it to record
our most precious history, the stories the “old timers” have to
share before it is there time to leave us. This is the
difficult obsession we must carry out.
For many years I have been fascinated by
our Latvian neighbors and their quiet existence in the village
Knowing only our culture here
in America, a country of relative political stability, it was
difficult to understand why a people would leave their
familiar, beloved homeland to travel half way around the world
and begin anew in our tiny village.
I am sharing with you all a beautiful
letter our Haycock Historical Society received on 9-24-07 from
Valdis Keris. I will be sharing in its’ entirety, including the
hand written note as it is all so relevant to our mission as
Chris Handschin, VP
Haycock Historical Society
THE READING AT MY DAD’S, ERNEST KERIS’,
Thursday, May 3, 2007
ten years ago, a few years after my mother had died, I started
thinking about the life that she had led, about life’s
circumstances that were faced and overcome, and about the
character of my parents that was formed from many difficult
events in their lives.
was 84 then and it was highly possible that he would not be
forever on this earth, so one day I asked him to write down the
experiences of World War II so I would really know what life had
dealt our parents and how they survived.
Growing up, there was not much delving into this past, partly
because it was painful and because my dad was a positive person
and held no bitterness. Every once in a while some story came
out and we children elaborated on it and formed out own family
one day I received this letter that I am holding in my hand from
my dad. It is dated January 13, 1997 and I want to read parts
of it to you. It is written in Latvian but I translated it on
the way home from Chicago Monday.
about our family who were well to-do landowners but left
everything to flee the oncoming communist regime. The events
parallel and ring true for many Latvians of my parents’
generation. They are unique and I want my children and
grandchildren to realize what was conquered for us to be here
and to live comfortably in the freedom of this land.
On October 1,
1944 we started to pack our belongings to leave Latvia and to
flee the advancing Russian army. The war front lines were
advancing every day and we decided to drive with a 2-hourse
wagon to Germany.
In the wagon we
put smoked sausage, ham, bread, and other food stuffs, a bog of
four and cracked barley – for the horses, bags of oats. Also
blankets and other bedding, so the pile was quite high.
Together we were
Rev. A. Klaupiks, who a few weeks before had married my
sister-in-law, Sophie, so Sophie, Frida and Reinis went along on
their bicycles. And Duda, (Dad’s wife, my mother), I, Gunta,
Valdis were on the wagon. Gunta was two years and 4 months and
Valdis 2 months old. On the wagon was also a baby carriage for
The parting and
saying “goodbye” to Duda’s mother was emotional and painful
because she categorically refused to come with us. She said –
“How can I leave my house and my estate and my animals?” In
1949 she was deported to Siberia…
We started our
trip in the afternoon. It was difficult and heart-wrenching to
leave the country of my birth because we felt that we would
never return. After we had traveled a few kilometers as a “last
farewell” cannon grenades of the enemy flew over our heads. We
ran into the ditches on the side of the road but nothing bad
happened to us. The war front was close in back of us but later
we were not troubled by it.
The end of the
first day we reached the Krusta kalna Inn at Barta. There we
slept overnight and ate the food from our wagon.
The next morning
we continued our journey towards Lithuania. After we had
traveled about ten kilometers we were stopped and told that the
road ahead was closed to all traffic because the enemy was very
We took a side
road to Nica and then to Liepaja. We went the night at a
baron’s estate in Nica. There Reinis and I had to get rid of
our guns. We each had one along. When the baron found out he
was upset and made us throw them in the nearby canal. They were
sure the Russians would soon be here and if they found guns
there would be trouble. Thank God that the Russians didn’t come
that night and after the night we proceeded on our journey.
settled for a while in Jurmalciems with the Zegelnieks family
which was not far from Liepaja. There were already a number of
German soldiers staying with them, but they took us seven people
in very cordially. There we lived three weeks. They were
sunny, October fall days.
the property was a large field of carrots. We helped harvest
them and we also boiled a big pot of carrots to feast on. Every
dinner time we roasted a ˝ sheep to make sure everyone had
enough to eat. Altogether we were 14 people.
Valdis fell tragically ill – he wouldn’t eat, became lethargic
and we started to plan where we would bury him in the garden
under the apple tree. But then Mrs. Zegelnieks gave him some
wine and other remedies and after a few days Valdis showed signs
that he would endure and slowly regained his health.
During this time Rev. Klaupiks often would go to Liepaja to take
care of the necessary papers for us to travel by boat to
Germany. One day I decided to take a bike and try to get back
to Kaleti, the town where we had lived, but didn’t make it to
our homestead “Klavu majas”. A few miles before our house I was
stopped and told that the approaching war front was right before
me. Coming back it was already dark; I was bombarded with so
called “candles” from Russian planes overhead. These were
parachutes with bright lights that the Russians dropped in order
to illuminate the area so they could see where to drop the
bombs. I immediately dove for the ditch and covered my bicycle
with my body so the planes couldn’t see the shiny parts of the
parachute fell about 100 meters from me. Right away a crowd of
people gathered to take the valuable material of the parachute.
then came the day of leaving Liepaja - leaving my country for an
unknown future …
left the horses with friends in Liepaja. On the boat we were in
such a crowded room that it was difficult to find a place where
we could lie down and sleep at night. We had a few bags of
belongings. We put them on the floor and slept on them.
next morning the ship docked at the German port Gottenhafen. We
gathered our belongings. Reinis never got his briefcase.
Someone had taken it overnight. At the port, right away ladies
from the German refugee organization NFV gave us milk for Gunta
next part of our journey was by train to a city near the border
of Poland to be disinfected. In a big room with about 20
showers, we could wash ourselves very well, and then we were
sprayed with various powders.
were than taken to a refugee camp near Berlin. Polish people
worked in the kitchen. We were given food three times a day –
in the morning coffee, a piece of bread, a small piece of
sausage and marmalade. Lunch and dinner was some kind of soup.
Everyone had to have a ticket to get the food. Children had
food. After two
weeks we were taken to Neubrandenburg in the Mecklenburg
district. At one point the train stopped and we didn’t know for
how long it was going to stop. Baldis didn’t have any more milk
in his bottle and we had to get some somewhere. I risked it and
crossed the fields to the nearest farmhouse to get some milk. I
did it fast, got the milk and with great trepidation ran back.
What if the train had left, what then? But thank God, I got
back on the train and soon it started moving.
put us in a school. At night we slept so close all in a row on
the floor that it was almost impossible to move.
the town was a hall where the German ladies fed the refugees.
The head administrators were a Latvian and her daughter. We
arranged that I could work there. I cut bread, sliced sausages
and did other work. In the evening going home, I was given a
large loaf of white bread. But how could I give it to my family
without the stares of the other refugees? Then I devised a
plan – I kept the loaf under my jacket and during the night when
everyone else was asleep I broke off piece by piece and gave
them to my family and that is how we feasted night after night.
We were no longer that Many. As soon as we had arrived in
Germany, Rev. Klaupiks, Sofie and Reinis left us and went to
live in Berlin.
Shortly before Christmas, we were all asked what we did for a
living. I said I was a gardener and right away they took us to
the Neka baron estate where I would be the groundskeeper. They
let go the Polish groundskeeper and took him to a place far
estate was very large, hundreds of acres. There were 40 working
horses, 60 cows to be milked and there were 40 Polish workers
provided us two rooms in a separate little house, gave us a sack
of potatoes and food rationing cards. Milk we got every day, at
milking time two liters.
started to work in the garden. There was no snow and in March
the fields were tilled and sown. I sat in the greenhouse,
watched the heater – the tomato plants were already a good
size. From twines of hazelnut trees I made baskets, tood them
to the people living near the estate and got eggs, bacon, and so
I added to our meager diet.
owner of the estate was a real baron. The wife was kind and
every so often brought us apples. They had a large orchard,
very large pear trees. Once when I was pruning a pear tree I
fell from about a height of 15 feet and injured myself. The
baron said not to climb up the pear tree anymore and to rest a
came the end of April, 1945. We decided to leave the estate and
go to the western zones of Germany. Duda walked with Valdis in
the baby carriage, Frida walked with Gunta on a bicycle, and I
walked with the bicycle on which were tied our earthly
belongings. That was the start of our journey.
destination was Gustrov. The German soldiers gave us a ride for
a little distance, sat us up in a truck atop empty cartridge
boxes. We spent the night in a small town in a church. There
people fed us. The next morning we continued walking. That day
we walked about 30 kilometers to an estate by the side of the
road. The owners had already left but there were cows in the
barn. Fida milked them and we got milk. The potatoes were
loose in the ground and we took them and boiled them.
next morning in the courtyard we saw German soldiers with a
truck. I went and asked them if they will be driving in the
direction of our journey. They said they will be going in the
direction from where we came. Frida didn’t believe me and went
to ask them herself. I suppose because they were asked the same
question the second time they said they were going our way. We
sat in the open back of the truck and the ride started. But
driving out of the gate on the road the truck turned the other
way. Our loud screams and pounding on the driver’s cabin gave
no results and we were taken back to where we came from. We
slept in the same church and the next morning started the trip
one more time.
spent four days on the way to Gustrov. They were filled with
many experiences. The road was filled with German refugees.
Often planes flew overhead and shot at them.
In many places
there were road blocks, congestion, maimed horses and destroyed
wagons. At one point we saw a wagon filled with goose down
comforters for Germans to sleep on. The comforters were torn
and feathers were flying about 10 meters in all directions. We
could get past these congestions carefully edging along the side
of the road. When we noticed planes coming in our direction we
ran off the road and hid behind large trees. I took Gunta and
hid her under me behind a tree. Once though, in our haste, we
forgot Gunta and she was left sitting by the bicycle by the side
of the road. When we came back Gunta, sad and frightened, said
“Why did you all leave me?”
neared Gustrov but were not allowed into the town. We stopped
at a small house not far from the bridge that led to the town.
In the yard was a big pile of carrots and turnips. We built a
fire and cooked and ate them. One day we were informed that the
town was liquidating their food supplies so they wouldn’t get in
the hands of the Russians. I went and got 5 pounds of butter
for free. That secured our fat supply for a while.
After a few days we were allowed to enter the town. We easily
found a place to stay because many residents had left fleeing
the Russians, thinking that they soon would be here.
war came to an end. One day we were told that all foreign
refugees would be taken to a camp in the English zone. We
went. We were still sitting on the bus when we were informed
that the next day we will be able to go home to Latvia. We were
upset and confused because that is not what we wanted. Luckily
one of our group spoke English. He explained that we were
fleeing Russian Communism and will not go back. After a lengthy
discourse it was decided that we would be driven to a camp in
Schwarzenbeck. The first night there we slept between machines
in an electric supply factory. It was a large room and the
weather was warm. Nearby were 12 barracks for the factory
workers. We were assigned to these barracks. Families with
small children were given the so called “Children’s Barrack”.
We lived there with eight other families, each had one room.
The room was tiny – ours had two cots for sleeping, a small
table, two chairs and in the center an iron stove. Gunta – you
slept on the two chairs and Valdes in the carriage. That is how
we lived four years until 1949.
began to work in food distribution. The camp had about 160
people. We had to estimate how much food each family needs,
then weigh it and distribute it among the barracks. The food
rations were different for workers and non-workers, young people
from ages 12 to 18, children up to 12 and those who were sick.
We had to figure it our every evening.
Gunta – you started to attend the kindergarten, led by Mrs. Kuze.
Duda was pushing Valdis in the baby carriage around the camp.
You, Gunta were strong – you stood in line for food in the
kitchen. Everyone was amazed at the little girl already doing
chores and taking on responsibility.
Later Frida left to work in England and we had more space in our
small room. In 1948 Rev. Klaupiks had secured our emigration
papers to the U.S. but Ruta was born in January or 1949 and only
children over 6 months were allowed to get on the boat. Another
problem was that Ruta was registered as a child of another
family and we were to have a boy. That caused a delay with our
1949 our camp was moved to a transit camp in Wentdorf. I
continued to work in food distribution. Wentdorf was the
transit camp for all emigrants from the English zone. I
arranged Baptist church services and, although initially we were
the only Baptists, the meeting room was full of people. Later a
number of Baptists came and we had pastors A. Usis and V.
Freimanis serving us. Duda and I sang duets. Later we also had
quartets and double-quartets made up of Baptist singers. In our
farewell service we want ten songs.
emigration papers were straightened out and on September 24 in
Gron we boarded the ship General Sturgis. On October 1st
we landed in New York. We were welcomed by pastor J. Zeltins
who drove us in his car to Applebachsville.