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 of Applebachsville.  

            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 historians!

                                                                                                Chris Handschin, VP

                                                                                                Haycock Historical Society




Thursday, May 3, 2007


            About 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.

            Dad 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 lore.

            So 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.

            It is 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.


The Refugee years

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 Valdis.

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 near.

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.

            We 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.

            On 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.

            Here 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 bicycle.

            The parachute fell about 100 meters from me.  Right away a crowd of people gathered to take the valuable material of the parachute.

            And then came the day of leaving Liepaja - leaving my country for an unknown future …

            We 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.

            The 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 and Valdis.

            The 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.

            We 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 different

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.

            They 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.

            In 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 away…

            The estate was very large, hundreds of acres.  There were 40 working horses, 60 cows to be milked and there were 40 Polish workers working there.

            They 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.

            I 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.

            The 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 few days.

            So 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.

            Our 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.

            The 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.

            We 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?”

            We 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.

            The 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.

            I 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 emigration papers.

            In 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. 

            The 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.


Thanks, Dad!

Gunta Keris-Plostnieks



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Mission Statement: The purpose of the Haycock Historical Society is to research and preserve the history of Haycock and to promote and perpetuate public interest and to inform the public generally of the rich heritage of Haycock Township.   

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