Category Archives: Latvian Diaspora

My Cousin in England

My cousin Juris Jurģis (second from left) with his wife Enid (far left), his son Andreis (the bridegroom) and his daughter Anna (second from right).

My cousin in England died this December. I hope that he went to Heaven, a place that I assume was more real to him than it is to me. I had always wanted to ask him if that was so. To discuss religion, both seriously and satirically, as I had with my father, with whom he had always been great friends. Both had studied theology in college—my father at the University of Latvia, my cousin at Oxford University—and both were not only spiritual but also worldly and literate. And had a great sense of humor. Only somehow I never got around to it, and now it is too late. And I am so sorry but, nevertheless, know that this is how it often seems to go with many other displaced people.

You see, much of my family was displaced in 1944, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. I was only about one month old and Juris only about 17 years old. But while I had my parents and maternal grandmother with me, Juris was on his own. Eventually, my family and I ended up in the United States and Juris ended up in England, reunited with my father’s sister Līdija. By the time that my parents, my then husband and I visited Juris in 1973, he was a Latvian minister living with his new family in a pleasant parish house in Leicester and the recently widowed Līda, a retired dentist, was living in London. And proud that at age 70 she had not only given up smoking (“Joost une leetle poof,” she said, stealing my cigarette) but also learned how to cook (“Joost like chemistry, no?”).

Of course, I was aware of Juris well before then. His work with the Latvian church took him to the States. And before that, there were the stories. The first one that I remember—no doubt increasingly embellished—went something like this: Juris arrived in England as a young man and worked digging ditches. One scorching day while he was shirtless—all that manual labor and those food shortages had given him a chiseled physique—an elegant lady driving, say, a Bentley pulled over and asked if he might like to relax a bit and partake of some refreshment. That certainly seemed preferable to what he was doing, so he readily agreed. Once situated on a sofa in her palatial manor house, he was able to recover enough to wander over to the grand piano. “Do you know what this is?” the lady asked. Whereupon Juris sat down, raised the keyboard cover and played, say, the start of Schumann’s last sonata. And then politely took his leave.

Our visit produced equally memorable stories. One involved an actual Bentley. We were at Līda’s house. After the roast beef—which, incidentally, slid to the kitchen floor on its way to the serving platter, no one but Līda, my mother and me being any the wiser—the vodka came out. And well after that, my then husband and I decided to accompany another of my relatives, a striking woman of a certain age who, as a beautiful young refugee working at the Harrods cosmetics counter, met a famous British comedian whose name I can no longer recall. So, in the dead of night, we lay back in her luxurious car as she drove with the sort of speed and skill that was remarkable even for one less inebriated the 80 some miles to Broadstairs, where she and the entertainer shared a house high on the chalk cliffs above the sea.

The plan was for Juris to arrive the next day with my parents and changes of clothes. Five of us would then return to London, where he had procured tickets for a performance of The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Which would have worked well had he also owned a Bentley, not something befitting an immigrant minister. Which was not only particularly small but also poorly maintained. And broke down somewhere along the M2. So we had to hitch a ride with a stranger, board a painfully slow train, transfer to the Tube and trek past countless Covent Garden produce carts at  to reach our seats. All with my mother and me in high heels and long gowns.

That was how the visit with him mainly went, with an emphasis on the arts over religion, not to mention good food and drink and lots of laugher. Juris set the tone by saying that we would be fools to waste a sunny Sunday sitting inside listening to his sermon. So, instead, he dropped us off at Ann Hathaway’s cottage, where we enjoyed the delphinia, hollyhocks and dahlias in the extensive gardens and got our fill of Shakespearean lore. He also took us to his beloved Oxford—before or after that, I do not know—where we got an insider’s look at the libraries, living quarters and dining halls and then joined tourists and townspeople for a pint or two in various public houses.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Coventry Cathedral. Since I was never one for touring famous churches and, in fact, often felt apologetic for interfering with those there to pray, my expectations were low. I was not prepared for the stark juxtaposition of the old and the new. As we walked from the roofless remains of the old church, which had been bombed during World War II and wisely left unrestored, to the the new building, constructed of the same sandstone, I experienced a surprising reconciliation of my own war-torn past with my incongruent present. And as we entered, I was not only astounded at how much I was moved by the modern architecture and art but also by the sheer scale of it all. I wandered around in a daze, feeling that I had suddenly become nothing more than an insignificant speck in a vast, mysterious universe. And that this was incredibly comforting.

Remembering how I felt, I now wonder whether the talk that I had hoped to have with Juris had not actually occurred on that day.

For more on Juris, see my essay “Reconsidering Sentiment.”

Reconsidering Sentiment

My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)

When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.

When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.

But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.

One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.

During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.

The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred:  (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”

Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.

Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.

Leaving Latvia

From 1944 to 1945, the approaching Soviet Army forced many Latvians to find escape routes to other countries. According to one source, about 250,000 people became refugees. Many got stuck in Courland, and some 50-60,000 were murdered by Soviet troops in Poland and Germany. After the war, approximately 6000 Latvians found refuge in Sweden, 120,00 in West Germany, 3000 in Austria and 2000 in Denmark. In later years, Latvian emigration spread to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Some succumbed to forced repatriation by the Soviets; most expected to voluntarily return once Latvia was free, though that rarely occurred.

An Oral History

The following is an interview with 83-year-old Mirdza Balas, a librarian in the Sonoma County system. She drove the bookmobile and subsequently became manager of Sebastopol branch, from which she retired in 1989. Balas relates her memories of growing up in Latvia before and during World War II and moving through Europe as a displaced person before she came to the United States in 1957.