To download a PDF copy of the whole story, please click here. The PDF version comes without the puzzles and other special features found in the website version.
October 7, 1939
Karlis Ulmanis, President of the Republic of Latvia, knew what the future held. He was certain of it the moment he had been forced to accede to the Latvian-Soviet Mutual Assistance Treaty. But he had suspected it before.
He had already been planning for such an eventuality. He knew that the end was near when he no longer heard from his sources in Moscow. Latvian leaders in the Soviet Union had all vanished without a trace in the last two years. It had only been a matter of time before the Soviet Union would come to gobble them up once again. And with the world focused on the Nazi blitzkrieg through Poland and looming armies in Western Europe, no one was paying attention to what the Soviets were doing in the East.
It was almost as if Stalin and Hitler had planned it that way… which they had. Ulmanis knew that. He had even had spies at that fateful meeting between Molotov and Ribbentrop. From his early days, he had studied statecraft and the machinations of all of the great leaders of history. Caesar, Bismarck, Catherine the Great, even Jefferson, Lincoln and other Americans. Not because he intended to follow in their footsteps – really, all he had wanted was to farm – but when his people called on him to lead, he’d answered, and he would not abandon them to obscurity. His people were his reason for living.
Ulmanis was well aware the Western Allies were in no position to help the Baltics, like they had at the end of the war twenty years previous. He could only count on his people, whose futures he had to prepare for. He was lost, that much was painfully clear. He would not survive the war. Neither would most of his generation. But the future, the future generations…
There was a hope for them, and he had already planted the seeds for it, with the assistance of his most trusted advisers. He knew the Soviets would have a huge surprise on their hands when they entered Riga and seized key facilities.
Now, for the last part of the plan. He wrote out his final letter, sealed it and called his secretary’s deputy, a young man by the name of Vilis Veisbergs.
“Sir?” Veisbergs said, coming into the room.
“I have one last assignment for you. The last shipment. And you must take this to my daughter.” He held out the letter and a small box.
“Your daughter, sir?!”
“Yes. She’ll be about your age. She’s in America. She was born there.”
“Does anyone else know about her?”
“I haven’t told a soul in this country. I’ve always routed my correspondence to her through intermediaries in other countries. You carry a great secret.”
“All for our people?”
“Yes. Take this to my daughter, and stay in America. Whatever you hear, whatever you read, don’t come back. Don’t come back until our people are free again. You know what we’ve hidden. This is the key.”
“I will, sir. Thank you. I will not fail.”
Veisbergs bowed and left the room quickly. Ulmanis sat back in his chair and stared at the pennant on the opposite wall, from a school in the state where he’d spent few years, but forever held a piece of his heart.
His daughter, Minna. In Nebraska. In the United States. The future welfare of his people all depended on her and the enduring memory of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States: Thomas Jefferson.
“So how soon can you come here?”
“My grandmother is 100 years old. She told me a fantastical story, but she has the paperwork to prove it. I can’t do this on my own – I need someone experienced in Latvian research to do it.”
Latvian-Canadian genealogist Aila Rudzite stared at her phone, listening to the story that her newest client, Jolene Spritzer, was telling her. According to Jolene, her 100-year old grandmother was the daughter of a Latvian statesman who had entrusted her with secrets that would save the country.
Aila had heard stories like this before, of course. People getting into genealogy are often trying to find a connection to famous people. One of Aila’s first jobs was usually telling her clients that her Latvian ancestors were more than likely peasants. Furthermore, in the case of Jolene’s grandmother, who would have been born around 1909, Latvia was not even a country at that point. And Jolene’s grandmother had been born in the United States and had never left it.
But still. Aila was never one to turn down an all-expenses-paid trip. Being a young genealogist – not yet thirty – meant that Aila had the flexibility to pursue jobs at will, without worrying about a spouse, children or a mortgage, but also with the corresponding difficulties of needing to pay her rent as a genealogist younger in years than most of her colleagues had in experience. So she moonlighted as a private investigator when working out of Toronto, and as a museum professional when working out of Riga. Both of these jobs were flexible enough that she could pursue genealogy assignments in other locales when not working on a specific case.
And she was not currently working on a case.
“Ms Rudzite? Are you still there?”
“Yes, yes. I can come tomorrow if you like. I’ll email you the details you’ll need to purchase the plane ticket. Will you meet me at the airport?”
“I will. Thank you, Ms Rudzite. Grandma Minna can’t wait to meet you.”
Aila clicked off her phone and sent out her details before realizing she hadn’t even asked Jolene where she was going. Oh well, once she got her itinerary she would find out soon enough. Meanwhile, she had to consult her closet to see what she had to wear that would not frighten a 100-year old lady. For Aila was not only a genealogist, she was also a Goth. She didn’t usually wear makeup, but she would dress the part when it suited her – plenty of blacks, dark reds and the occasional white or pink accent when appropriate. And of course the tattoos. She had three.
There was nothing she could do about the tattoos – some of those would be showing – but otherwise Aila selected some non-descript black pants and shirts, and shoes that weren’t as high as her normal platform boots. By the time she finished packing her bag, an email itinerary had arrived from Jolene.
Aila was on her way to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Something nudged at Aila’s memory. A distant memory of something Latvian in Nebraska.
Fingers flying on her laptop, she threw together search terms, looking for her quarry. Within a few clicks, she had her answer.
Grandma Minna might not be crazy after all. Jolene hadn’t said that her grandmother grew up with her father. Just that her father was a Latvian statesman.
And not just any statesman. He was THE statesman. Well, formerly, anyways.
There was a possibility that Grandma Minna was the daughter of interwar Latvian President Karlis Ulmanis, who spent his early thirties living and studying in the United States – Lincoln, Nebraska,to be precise – and then returned to Latvia before the First World War, ending up perfectly positioned to lead the newly independent country.
His legacy was a controversial one – hailed as a hero by some as a dictator by others. Initially a Latvian intellectual and writer during the Russian Empire era, he was forced to flee after the 1905 Revolution, and settled in the United States. During his time there, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for several semesters and then bought a dairy farm in Texas.
Following the declaration of an amnesty, Ulmanis returned to Latvia and became a founding member of the Latvian Farmer’s Union political party and the Latvian People’s Council, the body that proclaimed Latvian independence on November 18, 1918. After serving several terms as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, in 1934 he became concerned about the possibility of a government takeover by right-wing extremists, and seized power for himself in a bloodless coup, dissolving the Saeima (Parliament). He suppressed political activity and detained political activists of all stripes, but his development of the economy and education made him popular amongst the citizenry.
When the Soviet Union invaded in 1940, Ulmanis was arrested and deported to the far reaches of the Soviet Union, and was believed to have died in prison in Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan) in 1942. According to established reports, he had no wife or children, since his dedication was to his country, but the news from Nebraska had Aila wondering.
What if he did have a child while living in the United States, and what if she did have secrets that could change everything?
Early the next morning, Aila was on her way to Lincoln, Nebraska, by way of Washington DC and Chicago. It was mid-afternoon when she landed in Lincoln.
Exiting the arrivals area, Aila spotted a woman looking to be in her mid-forties holding a sign with her name on it. The woman was not looking at her, instead scrutinizing all of the older women who were coming out of the arrivals door.
Aila walked up to the woman and put out her hand. “Ms Spritzer? I’m Aila Rudzite.”
The woman blinked a few times and then shook Aila’s hand. “Jolene Spritzer. Welcome to Lincoln. I confess, you don’t look like who I expected.”
“I get that a lot. I assure you, I am fully capable and properly experienced to do this work.”
“Let’s get going then. Grandmother is expecting us.”
They drove out of the city to a small farm on the outskirts of town. Waiting for them on the front porch was a frail-looking elderly woman who stood up to meet them as they left the car and walked up the path. Unlike Jolene, the woman showed no surprise as to Aila’s appearance.
“Ms Rudzite! Sveiki!” she greeted Aila in Latvian.
“Sveiki, Mrs… I’m sorry, Jolene never mentioned your last name.”
“Just call me Minna, dear. Come in, I have tea waiting for you.”
Jolene hovered in the background, unsure as to what to do, and confused about her grandmother’s lack of reaction to Aila’s unorthodox appearance.
“You too, Jo! Come inside and stop looking like a gaping fish.” Minna turned to Aila. “I was the one who found you, I just had Jolene make the call. She may have been unaware of your age and other interests, but I made sure to do my research. I wasn’t going to entrust my family secrets to just anybody.”
“And I met your approval?”
“Oh yes. You are not afraid to be yourself. And you are committed to Latvia. Committed to helping our people. Just like Papa was.”
“May I ask… who your father was?”
“We’re getting to that. Tea first, then the story.”
Minna served Aila and Jolene tea, and the women sat around her kitchen table, eating some cookies with their tea, while Minna told them the story.
“My name is Minna Grieta Veisbergs. My maiden name is Ulmann, but that was the Germanized form that in use when I was born in 1909. The Latvian version was Ulmanis. I suppose you recognize this name, don’t you, Aila?”
“Then you know who my father was. I don’t have many memories of him – after all, he returned to Latvia when I was only four – but he wrote me letters regularly. He was a loving father, but his first love was always Latvia. He was so happy when Latvia became an independent country. So happy that he could participate in such a historical process.”
“How is it that the world never knew he had a daughter?”
“Leverage, I imagine. Latvia was still surrounded by large empires, empires that always longed for Latvian territory, as I’m sure you’re aware. He was afraid that if it became known that he had a child, it would become a weakness that could be exploited by his enemies. I think he also always imagined he might need someone on the outside who could help restore Latvia’s freedom if he no longer could.”
“Did he send those letters directly? Someone certainly could have figured it out.”
“No. He always sent them through intermediaries outside the country – often school friends in Germany, or his school friends here. Only once did a messenger come directly here. And he stayed. That was the last I heard from my father.”
“It was late 1939. The war had already started in Poland. Latvia had been forced to sign the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union – the first step to eroding Latvian sovereignty. My father saw it for what it was, and had already suspected that something like that would occur. So he sent his last messenger out of the country, straight to me, with the secret that brings us here today. That messenger was a young man by the name of Vilis Veisbergs.”
“Yes. He delivered the box and my father’s last letter to me. Having been told not to return to Latvia, he stayed and worked on my and my mother’s farm, and then we ended up marrying a year later. Jolene’s mother Amalia was born the next year.”
“What did the letter say?”
“I’ll show it to you. Come.”
Copyright 2013, Antra Celmins.