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War Stories

[This post is for the 28th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy, which will be hosted right here. The Carnival post will be up on Friday!]

Since I’m hosting this edition of the Carnival, I got to choose the topic. I chose War Stories. When I thought of this topic, I initially had ideas to talk about the various experience of my family members in World War II, since this was a defining moment of my family’s history, since over the course of the war, all four of my grandparents left Latvia, spent several years in displaced persons camps, and then came to Canada.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should tell a different story – the narrative of my family’s history focuses on World War II so often, it would be interesting to tell a different story for a change.

So instead I will talk about one branch of my family’s experience during World War I and the Russian Revolution. These stories have been told to me by my great-aunt, who is now 98 years old.

When World War I started, Latvia was still a part of the Russian Empire. My great-aunt was three years old, living in Krustpils, which was then part of the Vitebsk guberniya, with her parents Jūle (nee Štelmahers) and Brencis Līcītis. Because of the war front raging through Latvia, the family moved further east, and settled near Rzhev, a city approximately 200km west of Moscow.

The three lived with a Russian family by the surname Kislev in a manor house. The family had two daughters, Vera and Zoya. It is living here that my great-aunt learned to speak Russian, and took great pleasure in going to the local market as well as to the Orthodox church, even though the family was Lutheran. They were not the only Balts living in the area – other Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians had also moved to the Rzhev area to avoid the war.

But World War I was not the only war going on at the time. This was a time of political upheaval in Russia, which eventually led to the 1917 Revolution and the beginning of the Communist era. The family was opposed to Bolshevism early – my great-aunt remembers going with her father to listen to a speech that was given by a political party leader that was opposed to Lenin and his party. After the Bolshevik victory, she also remembers her mother arguing with a Communist about “workers” and what the party would do with people who were unable to work due to age or infirmity, and his response being less than satisfactory. When the Communists came asking how much they were paying in rent to the Kislevs, they lied and said a lower price than they were actually paying. They knew that otherwise the Kislevs would have had even more of their property expropriated for being “kulaks” (affluent farmers), even though they really didn’t have very much.

But the defining moment that showed the family precisely where the Bolsheviks went wrong and why their family would always remain opposed to Communism was when the Communist soldiers came to the village, took the grain stores and burned them in the town square, calling them “rich peoples’ food”. Instead of this grain that they had stored up, the people were given animal feed to eat.

World War I officially ended in 1918, but the following years were still filled with conflict in Eastern Europe, with the civil war in Russia between the various factions, as well as the wars of independence in the Baltics. While Latvia in declared independence on November 18, 1918, this wasn’t officially recognized until the early 1920s.

I’m not certain when exactly the family returned to Krustpils, but it would have been before the autumn of 1919, when my grandmother was born. The wars ended, and Latvia gained an independence that had been lost eight hundred years earlier.

In recounting this story, I’ve realized just how many of the details of this time period are a mystery to me, historically speaking – in Latvian Saturday school, we didn’t really study it. We learned about early Latvian history and the beginnings of German rule. We learned about the following periods of Swedish and Russian rule, and then about some of the Latvian writers of the late 19th century who started to inspire political movements of independence and nationalism. But we didn’t study the independence wars. We celebrated the 18th of November every year, acknowledging independence as being gained in 1918, and that from that day on people lived happily ever after until World War II broke out. The first I recall hearing about the independence wars was looking at some maps in my Latvian historical atlas that I acquired in my first year of Latvian Friday night high school, but I don’t recall ever discussing them in class.

So my mission for the next couple of months is to educate myself more on this time period. It was an important period of Latvian history, and it might hold the key to answering some questions about different types of access to various Latvian genealogical records. I will be sure to share my findings here!

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