By Christa Krutowskis Turnbull
This piece originally was published in 2014.
When we disembark from the plane in Riga, I see the ghost. I stop as if frozen in place staring at him. This is an unnerving moment. The ghost smiles broadly and wraps his arms around me in a big hug, saying, “It is wonderful to see you, Christa.” I am struggling for words as I see this man who looks, moves, and sounds like my late father Nikolais Krutowskis, but I finally smile back at Uncle Peter, Dad’s sole living sibling.
We are reconnecting with our family who was torn apart by World War II. I hope to deep dive into Dad’s family history, taste Latvian culture and get to know his remaining family. So we go to Riga for a long weekend to visit Uncle Peter, his wife, and daughter. Dad grew up on a farm with bee hives and apple trees in the region of Abrene. Having heard so much about the farm from Dad, I very much want to see it on this trip. I hope to see the family cemetery; immerse ourselves in Latvian culture, and spend time with this far-away part of the family.
He expected to see his mom again…
In 1936 when Peter was just a toddler, my dad was conscripted into the Latvian Army. Nick fully expected to return soon to the farm and live out his life there. Also he had expected to see his mom again. World events, however, intervened.
According to family lore, he marched to war where he and other Latvian soldiers were captured and conscripted into the Russian Army. Later, he was captured as a German prisoner of war. During this time, Nazi Germany took control of Latvia.
At the end of the war, the U.S. Air Force freed Nick and the other POWs; and a treaty gave Latvia to Stalinist Russia. Many Latvian soldiers eagerly returned home, but rumors had it that they were taken to Russian labor camps. Rather than risk that fate, the handsome and charming Nick remained in Germany and flourished buying and selling on the black market. There he met, wooed, and then married Erna, a lovely woman from a German resistance family, immigrated to the USA, and made a new life for us there.
Dad often reminisced about the farm and his family. He loved his childhood, but he was not to return to Latvia again until 1976, sadly after his mom passed away. He was, however, able to reconnect with his father, sister, and three brothers. The next visit in the mid 1980s, he could only visit his siblings. It would be Nick’s last trip to Latvia.
So now we are in Riga visiting our remaining family. A total of 10 of us are traveling–my husband and me, two grown children, their spouses, and our four young grandchildren. Uncle Peter and Aunt Veneranda squeeze us into their apartment for lovely dinners, lots of cognac, and lively conversations. They show us pictures and describe our family history. I am feeling my Latvian family come alive inside me.
Getting embedded in the culture – highlights
To help us learn about Dad’s culture, on the following day my cousin Marina and a local guide take us on walking tours of the beautiful and historic Riga, sharing cultural highlights and gorgeous architecture. I learn that this walled city with medieval buildings was founded in 1201; and the historical center is a World Heritage Site. Additionally, the European Union Commission designated Riga as a European Capital of Culture due to its orchestra; opera, and Art Nouveau architecture. We troop around Old Town, tour the Dome Cathedral and enjoy exploring the open air market there. We see the Freedom Fighter Statue; and tour the Museum of Fire Service, which is located in one of the many Art Nouveau buildings. We walk through the Daugave River Park admiring the boats on the river.
Riga is not like some travel destinations that seem to be frozen in time, as if they are living museums. It is a city that values its history, but also celebrates its contemporary activities, sports, and art. We go to the Ghetto Games Festival, a 3-day event which includes a pan-Baltic competition of street gymnastics, dirt biking, and skateboarding. The contestants performe dangerous stunts to demonstrate their skills. This festival also features street art, ghetto rock concerts, and contemporary videos. We love it!
Riga, the capital and largest city of Latvia, is located about a mile inland from the Baltic Sea on the Daugave River. Latvia regained its independence as a country on September 6, 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004. It uses the Euro for currency. The people at the shops and restaurants in Riga speak English.
We eat at many restaurants sampling the local cuisine. Our favorites are Latvian crepes with salmon; creamy borscht; and a pot made of potato, mushroom stew with smoky kielbasa sausage. Traveling with four children ages 5-9 adds to our experience because the shop keepers and restaurateurs are very child friendly. Children’s food orders are really special. Elaborate decorations are included on their plates and food is made into the shapes of faces and animals. Our grandchildren are delighted with the special attention. Because of the children, residents smile and initiate conversations with us.
We found that Latvian architecture represents its history, good and bad. For example, downtown Riga is very pretty with medium high-rise buildings that are new or remodeled and well maintained. Lovely cafes and shops are inviting and comfortable. When we ventured out from this area, however, there are pockets of multifamily buildings that are Soviet-style utilitarian cinder block structures that are often abandoned or in disrepair, and look as if these neighborhoods are in a post Soviet era recovery. Many are being torn down and replaced with new, graceful structures. We found it interesting to see the city in transition.
So Let’s Visit Dad’s Family Farm
When I asked Uncle Peter about visiting the family farm, I am saddened to learn that the farm and nearby village are still in Russian control. We would need a special visa to visit it and my grandparents’ graves. I didn’t know that the region of Abrene would not have been ceded back to Latvia. I have since learned that the area is sometimes called The Lost Latvian Land.
What I learned
- When exploring one’s family roots, it is good to check the details of the location of important sites to make sure proper visas are arranged.
- The places of our ancestors do not stand still. I went to find Dad’s culture—and we sampled some of it—but I also found a vibrant culture that is a modern, European city.
- Latvia was settled about 9,000 BC and has been a crossroads of commerce, thus has been under the control of many cultures. We would have had greater understanding and appreciation of the multicultural influences from reading a little about its history and culture before we began our trip.
This vacation was truly special for our family. We loved experiencing the wonderful Latvian culture and the friendliness of the people. And I am convinced now that Uncle Peter is not really a ghost.