Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Magical history tour

with one comment

A week after Eileen and I returned to Geneva from Turkey, my Mom arrived for a three-week visit. We spent time with her in Geneva and Switzerland at the beginning and end of her stay, but the focus of her visit was the two of us travelling to Latvia for 10 days. While Eileen stayed behind and worked, Mom and I visited a destination with singular meaning for us.

In 1944, my grandparents fled from Latvia with their five eldest children, ahead of the Russian reoccupation of the country from the retreating Germans. After four years in refugee camps in Poland, Austria and Germany, my family immigrated to Canada in 1948. Their three youngest children, including Mom, were born after the family settled in the Eastern Townships near Montreal.

In Canada the family preserved what it could of its Latvian identity, speaking Latvian at home and involving itself in the cultural and social activities of the Latvian community in Montreal. They wrote letters to their relatives who had stayed in Latvia and my eldest uncle Janis was active in protests outside the Soviet embassy as well as other events calling for an end to the Soviet occupation and a reinstatement of the independence Latvia had enjoyed during the inter-war period.

Despite the Latvian side of their identity, the older generation treated their new home as permanent. At some point, likely before they even arrived in Canada, they realised they would not return to their old lives in Latvia. My two eldest uncles visited Latvia in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, but my grandparents did not. Even after Latvia declared its independence from the USSR in 1991, my grandparents and most of their children were removed enough from their Latvian heritage that they did not return to the homeland, not even for a visit. I suspect a key component of that decision for my grandparents was that 50 years of Soviet occupation had warped, largely for the worse, the Latvia they had known before 1944.

In the years since independence, my two eldest uncles, Janis and Juris, returned often and reclaimed the two farms their parents owned before fleeing the country. One of my aunts and a few cousins have visited Latvia; I visited as well in 1999. But for the rest of my large family, including for my Mom, there was not enough of a connection to Latvia to make visiting the country a priority.

Even for me, although my visit in 1999 was fascinating, it did not produce in me with the sort of deep connection that I had probably anticipated, neither with Latvia nor with the branch of our family that still lives there. Whether it was the 50 deadening years of Soviet occupation, my inability to speak Latvian or the two generations that separate me from our family’s time in Latvia, that portion of my identity lives mostly in our family’s oral history, and has no living relationship to the country itself.

Nonetheless, I was keen to return with Mom, both to accompany her on her first visit to Latvia and to catch up with the family members I met during my first visit.

We were fortunate to have my uncle Juris join us on the trip. Without him we would have enjoyed visiting the family farms and meeting a few relatives, but organising the trip would have consumed a large amount of our visiting time. With Juris as our tour guide, Mom and I were whisked around the country from site to site, relative to relative.

This is because, since my eldest uncle Janis’s death in 2004, Juris owns the two family farms in Latvia as well as some other properties. He has returned more or less yearly for the past 20 years to manage his properties and has therefore developed a wide network of contacts related to these properties: tenants, neighbours, town councillors, etc. And he is perhaps the only Terauds to have developed an ongoing role in the lives of our Latvian relatives. Juris was thus able to organise our trip on the fly, allowing us a full itinerary with minimal downtime.

Here is a photo of Mom and our well-connected guide in front of St. Peter’s Church in Riga:

Our constant companion throughout the trip was Juris’s friend Janis Lusis. Juris had spoken of him before as a champion javelin thrower and I thought I remembered something about a world record. But nothing stuck, such that it was only when I saw strangers stopping to shake hands with our travel companion that I realised I needed to brush up on the stories I had forgotten about Janis Lusis.

As I discovered, Janis Lusis twice broke the world record for javelin and between 1964 and 1972, he won a complete set of Olympic medals: one each of bronze, silver and gold. I am not certain, but I think he must be the most decorated Olympic athlete in a small country like Latvia. He remains, 40 years after his main sporting accomplishments, a recognisable celebrity throughout the country.

During our trip Janis Lusis was often greeted enthusiastically in the street. At lunch one day, a man chatted with him, said goodbye and left, only to return a few minutes later with a printed page from Janis Lusis’s Wikipedia entry for him to sign.

Here is an old video on YouTube, in German, showing what was then the closest ever finish (2cm) in the Olympic javelin event, between gold medallist Klaus Wolfermann of Germany and silver medallist Janis Lusis, who was competing for the USSR team.

Here is a photo I shot of Janis Lusis next to the Brivibas Monument in Riga, before I had discovered anything about him:

As an excellent interlude in our family-oriented itinerary, we spent one day at the Janis Lusis Javelin Cup in Kandava. The event has existed since the 1970s and attracts all levels of throwers, from beginners in their first competition to national team members from different age groups. Here is a photo of the site and of the back of the eventual winner of the senior men’s category – to the right of the photo you can see Mom (hood) and Janis Lusis (green cap):

The next photo shows Janis Lusis after the final awards ceremony. In typical green-thumb Latvian fashion, the winners received potted plants along with their medals and certificates.

Since Latvian culture is saturated with the name Janis –  including my grandfather Janis Terauds, his eldest son Janis Terauds and his eldest son Janis Terauds (he understandably insists on “John”) – I have tried to use Janis Lusis’s full name in this entry to avoid confusion with my family members.

Our first destination with Juris and Janis Lusis was my great-grandfather’s first farm, named Bisenieki, which is near Puze, in western Latvia. My grandmother spent part of her youth here, although her adult life is mostly connected with the second farm my great-grandfather bought, called Pukstaiši, in southern Latvia. When my grandparents owned both farms after my great-grandfather’s death, they rented the Bisenieki farm to the Roserberg family, who also fled the country during World War II.

After independence in 1991, the Rosenbergs returned to claim the land and it was from them that Juris bought the farm. He also bought some surrounding fields, giving the current property an area of approximately 100 hectares. He rents the fields to a group of five brothers, who work it along with their family’s fields. Here is a photo of Juris with two of the brothers – Janis on the left and Ince on the right – in front of their giant new combine:

The distant farming pasts of Mom and Juris resurfaced as they marvelled at the organisation and uniformity of the fields worked by the brothers. The main 50-hectare plot was planted with canola, which was dry, crackly and almost ready for harvesting. Here is a composite panoramic photo of the canola field and the old barn at Bisenieki (click for a larger view):

The old farmhouse was gone, so during our stop at Bisenieki, we mainly admired the fields and shot photos. Here is one of my favourite photos from the trip: Mom and Juris among the crops in a typical Terauds pose.

Along with his excellent Latvian connections, the other advantage of having Juris as our tour guide was his willingness to recount to Mom and me his memories leading up to, and especially during his family’s flight from Latvia in 1944. Juris’s stories over the course of our trip were the motivation for the title of this entry and were what made this a unique experience for me, probably never to be repeated.

Usually my trips are memorable for their destinations, but in many ways, the opposite was true for our Latvian trip. Between stops to visit relatives and sites were long car rides, over the course of which Juris told us, more or less in chronological order, of what he remembered of his parents’ history, of his earliest memories and finally of his very vivid memories from their flight from Latvia in 1944 until their emigration to Canada in 1948.

Mom would supplement some of Juris’s foggier memories with stories she had heard from her parents, from her other elder siblings, or from the Latvian cousins with whom she corresponded when she was young. But on the whole, Juris’s memories were ordered and detailed, which is not surprising if you know adult Juris, but is if you consider that he was only eight years old when they fled Latvia. Even for Mom, who had heard isolated stories from these times throughout her life, the car rides with Juris in Latvia clarified the timelines of the stories she had heard, added a wealth of new ones and wove them all together into a history of her brother and of her family that I am certain she had not known before.

As visual aids to the story he was telling us, Juris drove in reverse along the back roads by which his family fled from the Pukstaiši family farm to the port city of Liepāja, from where they left Latvia on a German military ship (here is a map of the approximate route). Although Juris has travelled throughout Latvia during his visits to the country over the last 20 years, I think this was the first time he had retraced this route and revisited sites whose importance exists only in his memories and in those of his surviving siblings.

Despite the 67 years that separated Juris from the events in his memory, he navigated the back roads and identified landmarks from memory without much difficulty. It was astounding, considering that he formed his memories as a little boy, looking up a big world, and that in many cases the finer details of the landscape have changed so much.

For example, at one point on their journey his family had stayed for a few weeks at a farmhouse situated on a hill above a stream that flowed into the nearby Venta River. Juris drove relatively directly to the spot despite the following difficulties:

  • The old horse-and-cart driveway had disappeared and been replaced by another not-so-obvious track 500 metres down the road.
  • The pasture hillside that had surrounded the farmhouse and from which he remembers being able to see the stream and the river, was now mostly covered and obscured by a 40+ year-old forest.
  • The river was similarly invisible from the road.
  • The old farmhouse was gone, replaced by two newer buildings.

Despite all of these changes, Juris just veered left onto the driveway when the scenery looked familiar enough.

Below I have recounted some of  the stories Juris told during our day visiting the Pukstaiši farm and retracing the route to Liepāja. Although on the day we followed the route in reverse, I ordered my account according to the original trip in 1944.

To begin, here is the farmhouse at Pukstaiši:

Since they repurchased Pukstaiši in the 1990s, my uncles have been fortunate to have Bronislavs, Genute and their children, a Lithuanian family, as tenants on the farm. They use approximately 50 of the farm’s 100 hectares to raise cattle and their fodder; the remaining half of the farm is uncultivated. As an added, unwritten responsibility of their lease, they welcome the occasional Terauds tourist, which on my two visit they have done with warmth and empathy. In fact, from reliving Terauds stories with each successive visitor, Bronislavs has become one of the family’s most knowledgeable historians, especially about stories related to the farm. Here is a photo of Juris with Bronislavs and Genute:

Behind the farmhouse is a sagging barn that was new when the family fled in 1944. Bronislavs now stores grain in one end of it. Here is Mom and the “new” barn.

Pukstaiši sits on the Vadakste River, which represents the Latvian-Lithuanian border at that point. Here is a panoramic shot of one of the farm’s larger pastures, with the Vadakste and Lithuania beyond (click for a larger image):

When I visited Pukstaiši on a sunny day in 1999, one of my most poignant memories was walking through these pastures to the sleepy, reedy Vadakste, looking across to Lithuania and imagining my grandparents and their four eldest children swimming in the river. I do not know why the river and the international boundary were more evocative than the rest of the farm – perhaps because the area seemed small and intimate next to the big farm that was now the home of another family. Here is a photo of me in 1999 leaning on frontier marker 0556 next to the river:

Twelve years later on a drizzly day, Mom and I left the others and walked the same route, arriving without design at the same spot. Here is Mom leaning on the same frontier marker 0556 as in the photo above. Notice the Latvian amber ring she has proudly featured in her pose.

Unlike my vague connection in 1999 to this spot on the Vadakste, Mom remembered a variety of stories told to her by her parents and siblings about swimming in the river. They apparently even took the horses swimming with them when the animals were suffering on particularly hot days.

Despite the grey weather, Mom could not resist this one opportunity in her life to swim with those stories, so she undressed and suffered her way through the reedy edges of the river for a swim in the Vadakste. She may even have swum briefly into Lithuania – shhhh. There will, of course, be no photos shown here of my mother skinny dipping.

Before we left, Bronislavs insisted that we walk to see the “old oak.” Much of what was once a well-tended orchard in front of the house is now a young forest. At its centre remains an oak tree that once sat alone among the orchard’s fruit trees. We tramped a few metres into the forest and the three visitors reacted in their individual ways: Juris measured the circumference of the tree with his armlengths, Mom scoured the ground for acorns to bring back to her garden in Canada and I shot photos. Here is a photo of the siblings under the old oak, which was eight Juris-lengths around:

Across the old road from Pukstaiši sits the elementary school where Janis and Juris (and perhaps their next youngest sibling Aija?) spent their first few school years. In fact, the elder Janis spent more time there than anticipated. Janis liked to read and, well before the induction age, he was impatient to begin his formal learning, so he would sneak away from the farm to hang out at the school. Juris said that Mamu would regularly receive a phone call from the principal, informing her that Janis had once again snuck into school and could she come and collect him, as all the other students had left and the principal wanted to go home. Later, Juris remembers  sitting often with his big brother on the steps of the main entrance to the school, which is long since abandoned and overgrown.

A grim footnote to the above photo: Juris waited with Janis Lusis in the car as Mom and I wandered around the ruined school. When we returned, he informed us that at one end of the school, in a shady clearing where we had stood to shoot photos, was a noticeable mound that was a mass grave in which the Russians buried their soldiers who had fallen as they invaded this part of Latvia. Later in the day, we saw the contrast between the Russians’ treatment of their fallen soldiers with that of the other occupying army of the day, as we drove past a bright, well-tended German war cemetery with gleaming white headstones.

Near Pukstaiši is the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. She had wanted to be buried there, near her beloved Pukstaiši and next to her father Gederts Odinš. But when I visited in 1999, one year after her death, the cemetery was still almost completely overgrown, with only the area around Mamu’s grave cleared. This was because, during the Soviet times, it was highly suspicious to be sentimental or beholden to anything but the Party, so it was risky visit or tend gravesites. When I visited this time, the cemetery had new life (forgive the pun), with a couple of cars parked at the entrance, the sound of some other visitors, fresh flowers on the graves and well-tended common areas.

Here are the gravestones of three generations of Odinš/Tērauds: my great-grandfather Gederts, my grandmother Tatjana and my uncle Jānis, who was buried there after his death in 2004.

As another grim footnote, Gederts was gored to death at Pukstaiši in 1936, the year Juris was born. It was after Gederts’s death that Mamu and Papu moved to Pukstaiši, where they would live until leaving Latvia in 1944.

When Mamu and Papu decided in the summer of 1944 to flee Pukstaiši ahead of the advancing Russian army, Juris remembered little doubt as to necessity of that decision. Whatever turmoil between husband and wife, father and mother, that he may have missed as an eight year-old boy, Juris understood that the Russians would disinherit and then either kill or deport the family to Siberia. This was the well understood fate for: all landowners; anyone suspected of collaborating with the outgoing German regime; and anyone associated with the previous independent Latvian state who had not already been killed by the Germans. My grandparents owned two farms and my grandfather, like all of his brothers, was in the Latvian army during the independent period, something the family in Latvia kept secret for the next 50 years.

So it was certain: they had to leave. Indeed, when my grandfather received word that the Russians were approaching, he went to his neighbours and told them to leave too. But they all decided to stay and every one of them disappeared after the Russian lines overtook them.

Despite the approaching doom, Mamu and Papu had time to prepare for their departure. They loaded four horse-drawn carts with food and supplies for a long journey. Three men travelled with the family, but Juris only remembered the name of Matias, the groom.

In an ironic twist, they also left the farm in operation. Their farmhands included some landless Latvian labourers, but were mostly Russian POWs captured when the Germans invaded in 1941 and the somehow seconded as labourers. It seemed to me a telling comment on Russian brutality that these ex-soldiers preferred to remain loyal to my grandparents, technically their jailors, instead of betraying them to the advancing Russian army.

Whether through his own military calculations or from some contact among the Latvians fighting to slow the Russian advance, my grandfather guessed that the family needed to hurry to cross the Venta River, after which they could slow down again while the Russians paused to organise a crossing. In fact, the family stopped almost immediately after crossing the Venta: they settled in the farmhouse I mentioned earlier in this entry, which was less than a kilometre from the river.

Whatever strategic role the Venta River played in the family’s flight from the Russians, it presented a low-key character on the day we saw it. After driving on deserted back roads for a while, we parked and wandered down to the unseen bank of the river. Emerging from the undergrowth, we stumbled onto an odd set of campsites next to a brown, lazy river.

To find the exact spot where his family crossed and then settled, Juris oriented himself by the little stream called Šķērvele that fed into the Venta at that point. Juris remembered exploring for hours along the steam, down to where it met the Venta. Visiting the site now, he was surprised to find that the distance from farmhouse to river was less than a kilometre. The following two photos show Juris at the junction of the Šķērvele with the Venta and then the not-so-new converted barn on the site of the old Šķērvele farmhouse:

Juris did not remember exactly how long they stayed at the Šķērvele farmhouse, but he estimated it must have been between four and eight weeks. For one thing, there were the cluster of memories he had of he and Janis exploring the area. For another, they had left Pukstaiši in late summer and would later arrive in Liepāja in mid- to late October. Finally, Juris remembers Papu returning several times by horse from Šķērvele to Pukstaiši for a few days at a time to keep the farm going.

After these few weeks at Šķērvele, Juris remembers the guns approaching again, forcing them to resume their journey. At this point the bulk of the guns were still audibly on the far side of the Venta, just as the main fighting never fully caught up with the family. But throughout the journey to Liepāja, Juris remembered hearing small firefights, seemingly just beyond their range of vision. He said they never knew who was shooting at whom: retreating German soldiers at advancing Russian ones; Latvian irregulars at the German or Russian occupiers; or even spooked farmers shooting at some unknown men approaching their house or village. Whoever was shooting, Juris said it was surreal to pass these nearby firefights: he feared the bullets would start flying at him and his family, but also felt the bubble-like detachment of passing so many of these skirmishes without ever seeing one.

At this point, the war advanced quicker than Papu and Manu had expected and their plans changed. They had stocked their horse carts with the intention of continuing south by land through Lithuania, into Poland and Germany. But the Russians reached the Baltic Sea south of them, encircling the remaining German forces and Latvian refugees in what was called the Courland Pocket. After leaving Šķērvele, Papu and Mamu now had to hope that they could reach the port city of Liepāja before the Russians closed the pocket, or before the Germans stopped sending ships to evacuate their troops from there.

As we drove into Liepāja, Juris described one of the most vivid images I retained from his stories. Thousands of other Latvians had fled to Liepāja ahead of the Russians, hoping to find passage on the German military ships shuttling their retreating troops out of Latvia. Like the Terauds, many of these refugees arrived in horse-drawn carts. But the overcrowded ships could not even accommodate all the human refugees, much less their steeds, so hundreds of families abandoned their carts and still-bridled horses in the city’s large riverside park. Juris remembered and described this scene as we passed the park, which my imagination immediately transformed into a symbolic image of the dislocation of war: an eerie night scene, with thousands of horses, some still attached to their harnesses, grazing calmly in the surrounding yellow glow of a city growing brighter and more frantic in its gathering apocalypse. Stretching the realism of the scene in my head, I also imagined some jarring, discordant music in the background.

Adult Juris is well-known as a man on the go and, true to form, he did not want to stop at the park. So here is a drive-by photo of the perfectly normal, un-eerie park in which the horsey apocalypse took place:

Somehow Papu arranged passage for the family on one of the German military ships and the family added their carts and horses to the hundreds already abandoned in the park. Leaving the horses was especially difficult for Matias, the family groom who had travelled with them from Pukstaiši. When it came time to board the ship, he balked, returned to the park to be with the horses – and disappeared.

The Latvian navy, informed that we three Terauds had come to Liepāja to revisit the family’s escape on a German military ship, were generous enough to dock one of their corvette-type ships in the port for some visual context. Here are some photos of two expressive siblings recreating the escape from Liepāja:

And a photo of Juris and I next to the Latvian navy boat:

On a night in late October, 1944, the Terauds sailed from Liepāja on an overloaded German military ship. Two similarly overloaded ships left with them, but Russian planes sunk one of them during the night. The two surviving ships arrived in what the Germans called Danzig and the Poles call Gdansk, in occupied Poland. The Terauds began a southward journey, first for a year through refugee camps in Poland and Austria, then settling for three years in a more permanent refugee camp in the town of Singen, in French-occupied southern Germany – approximately 350km from where I sit typing in Geneva.

Juris carried on with the story until the family’s emigration to Canada in 1948. But when their ship sailed from Liepāja in 1944, it sailed beyond this special trip I shared with Juris and Mom in Latvia, seeing and touching the same landscapes and landmarks that my grandparents and the elder generation of my aunts and uncles saw as war pushed them from their lives in Latvia.

On such a provocative, reflective trip, there were too many thoughts and feelings for me to summarise here. I will limit myself to one: on our car trip from Pukstaiši to Liepāja, the forgetful landscape could not convey to us the war that dislocated Juris and his family from their home. It seems to me the bomb concussions they felt and explosions they heard, even from a distance, would have physically reminded them that their old lives were destroyed. There was no way on our trip for me to recreate those war-related physical experiences in the story.

But, driving along their route, stopping to walk, look and smell at important points along the way, I was struck by how the changing landscape would have reinforced that they had left their land, and the lives it supported, behind; that they were more or less wandering, hopeful of eventually finding another set of surroundings that could become familiar and support a new life for them. More so than the literary or psychological, it was this physical aspect of wandering the land that struck me: passing a succession of strange hills, trees and rivers, towards an unknown, unseen final destination. I do not mean to infer any spiritual or philosophical meaning from their forced wandering, only to say that, standing at a few of the waypoints on their journey, I felt the enormity of their physical undertaking and upheaval, in effect wandering from the tilled fields and low, dim forests of southern Latvia, to the lakes, gentle hills and autumnal forests of the Eastern Townships of Quebec.


Written by Kris Terauds

October 19, 2011 at 16:06

One Response

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  1. Kris, so beautifully written. It does such justice to that aspect of the trip to Latvija in the present day; but, even more, it’s the most accurate and yet most empathetic account of our family’s flight from their homeland. It’s a real treasure. Thank you so much for writing it. There’s so much for me to treasure about that trip… especially being able to experience it with you. Love, Your Mommy

    Marianna Terauds

    October 20, 2011 at 04:15

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