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Of People and Their Struggles

Posted on 6/22/2021 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

A visit to Riga, Latvia gave Lora Lee the opportunity to reconnect with a childhood friend whose family had fled Soviet rule following World War II.

By Lora Lee Brown, 3-time traveler from Auburn, WA

We were picking strawberries, harvesting local produce in a field near my home, something most teens and young people did in the valley near Seattle when I was young. Suddenly Vija began to cower in the field. Surprised, we gathered around her and asked what was wrong. On the hill above us, the cars had begun to race on the local track. Vroom, vroom they went as they rounded the curves. It meant nothing to us. “It sounds like the planes when they were dropping bombs,” Vija said. “What bombs? What planes?” We really knew little about Vija’s past. She had appeared in school a few years earlier not speaking English. Now she was just one of us.

“We were hiding in a cave,” she said. “Where?” we asked. “Near a river,” she responded. Thus we learned a little about this refugee family that had come to us from Latvia.

Visiting with Vija in Riga during our trip, I learned a little more. I asked questions we never thought to ask when we were young. Her father had been a forester, responsible for Latvia’s forests. He knew enough when the Soviets took over to take his family out, and apparently, how to do it. Because Washington State has so many forests, I asked if her father had been able to work in our forest industry when they came here. “No,” she said, “but he helped in some government situations with translations.” Dumb question on my part. Our men were returning after World War II and going back to their jobs, including in the forests. My father had helped there during the summers when not teaching or administering schools. He helped earn his way through college by manning a fire lookout, and therefore was valuable to the Forest Service during the war. When I was very little, we lived in a (now historically-protected) log cabin in the Mt. Baker area while dad chased fires.

The discussion with “Irene” in Lithuania, who had been deported with her family to Siberia by the Soviets, and seeing a model of the sod-covered cabin in which they survived was a very present and poignant experience. All the educated/professionals and their families were deported, she said. The men were put to work in the Siberian mines under brutal conditions. None returned. Some women and children did survive, and returned to their home countries. 95% of the large Lithuanian Jewish community was exterminated by the Nazis.

In our home visits in Latvia, we learned how difficult it was (and is) to survive after the Soviet economy collapsed; salaries were gone, savings were gone, pensions were gone, your property had been largely collectivized—you had nothing. You had/have to be creative to survive. In both the homes we visited, the families, at least in part, had returned to the land. It reminded me of growing up in Washington State where one could be a professional, but also had property and a garden (as I do now) and the fruits of the garden were preserved (canned by my mother and grandmother, frozen by me). The life of these families was in no way strange to me. But I was surprised to learn that our breakfast host, wine-maker, was the son of Vēsma, our Trip Experience Leader! Brava!

We learned in our presentation talks in each country about the fears and strengths of these people, their need for the European Union and gratefulness for the support of the U.S. in their struggle for independence from Russia. One speaker stated that if Russia (which constantly threatens at the borders) moves in, they have only 48 hours of existence if the U.S. and the European Union do not come to their aid.

Now a change of pace …

We were warned in speech and writing that the Russians were not kind, courteous, or nice—that being so was not part of their culture. I ran into this occasionally, such as trying to get into the Yusupov Palace when the ticket office was closed, and the doorman kept referring me back to the “closed” ticket office. But people on the street in St. Petersburg regularly helped us, and spoke at least some English.

Let me tell you the story of my last night in St. Petersburg:

I went to bed about 7:30 p.m. because of my early morning flight out. About 9:00 p.m. came a quiet rap at my door, then a louder one, then the maid let herself in with a key. I met her halfway across the room.

“Are you sick? Are you ill?” she asked in understandable English.

“No,” I replied (my Russian being nonexistent,) then flapped my arms like a bird flying and said “I fly,” then held up three fingers “at 3 o’clock.” She gave a sigh, came across to me, and kissed me on my forehead. Before I could recover from my shock and surprise, she was gone.

In the story of the Samaritan, the question is asked, “Who was the neighbor … the friend?”

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