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Short Story - Now Live!

Head on over to my fiction blog and read the genea-fiction short story, “A President For His Country”!

As I’ve said, this short story is only the beginning. I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first novel! All of the information is over on my fiction blog!

If you’ve enjoyed the content on this blog over the past four years, put the tips to use in your research, found something of value in the Latvian Surname Project – I hope that you can support this Kickstarter campaign. The more support I receive from people like you, the more I can focus on Latvian genealogy in my professional life, and the more content there is for you! If you don’t have the money to make a contribution right now, that’s okay – just share this project with your friends, and hopefully some of them can contribute. The more people that know about it, the more support there will be!

Thank you!

Happy Halloween!

No new puzzle today, Aila is taking the day off for every Goth’s favourite holiday – Halloween!

Now, Latvia doesn’t strictly speaking celebrate Halloween, but there are a number of Latvian pagan traditions that do mimic this holiday – most notably the practice of “ķekatas”. Now, in Latvian tradition, this going around to people’s homes dressed in costume was not a one-night-a-year event – they were more akin to the British practice of “mumming” than modern-day Halloween. The period when people would go out for “ķekatas” seems to vary, but traditionally from mid-autumn, through the winter, until early spring.

For more information, check out these two blogs – Crossing the Baltic and Hello Latvia – for their descriptions of this tradition in English.

Time for the Third Puzzle!

What do you have to solve this week? Just a simple keyword puzzle. By solving this puzzle, you’ll reveal the tools that you need to solve the puzzles *within* the “A President For His Country” short story, which is coming soon!

Advance knowledge on how to solve the puzzles will be a great asset – you’ll be able to whip through the challenges quickly, and move on with reading the story!

Come solve the third puzzle right here! Still a few bookmarks to give away, so solve solve solve and let me know you’ve done so!

And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about my regular genealogy blogging activities. New content coming here soon!

Come Solve The Next Puzzle!

The newest puzzle is available on my fiction site!

This time, you will be revealing the name of the short story – and by doing so, find your way to the prologue of the story!

As before, first ten comments get a free story-themed bookmark! Good luck solving it!

My Fiction Project is Live!

So today I’m celebrating my fourth blogiversary! I started this blog on October 10, 2009, and it has been quite the adventure! More and more people are coming here to learn about how to find their Latvian roots. This is fantastic! Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’ve learned a lot! I know I have. You’ve shared so many different family stories with me, Latvians truly are everywhere!

And it is on that last part that I wish to focus today – Latvians are everywhere!

Today marks the beginning of my fiction project… starring, of course, a Latvian-Canadian genealogist! But she’s not your ordinary genealogist.

She’s young. She’s tattooed. And she’s got the boots to break down any genealogy brick wall.

Nor is this an ordinary fiction venture. The first offering to you will be a short story, and from there, we’ll see how it grows into a novel series.

But there’s more to it than just the stories. I’m embarking on a mixed-media storytelling adventure – that means there will be images, codes and puzzles to solve, and eventually hopefully also short videos, apps and who knows what else!

If you want to join in the adventure, head over to my fiction blog here! Subscribe to that blog as well to follow along, though big updates will also be mentioned here. If you follow both, there could end up being some puzzle-solving clues for you in the future! (hint hint)

The story is not up yet… you need to do a little detective work first! So head on over to that blog and solve the first puzzle to learn our hero’s name!

Have you solved the puzzle? First ten comments with the answer win a story-themed bookmark! (So make sure to include a valid email address in the email field!)

The Spanish Flu Epidemic in Latvia

Most of you are probably familiar with the Spanish flu epidemic that ravaged the world from the beginning of 1918 to the end of 1920 and killed somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s population. But do you know how the epidemic took place in Latvia?

Since my great-great-grandmother Dorotea Matilde Francis (maiden name Plūme) was one of its victims, I decided to find out. She died on October 18, 1918, so I decided to consult the newspapers from around that time period to see what was happening. Now, of course, wartime censorship influenced how it was reported, but it can give a glimpse of what the general attitudes towards the illness were at the time. As if the First World War, Russian Civil War and Latvian War of Independence wasn’t enough! But I’m hoping that the utter chaos of this time period in Latvia meant that, maybe, the newspapers were reporting more honestly than they were elsewhere.

The Spanish flu appears to have started in Latvia sometime in the middle of the summer of 1918. Still at the beginning of October, there did not appear to be panic. While deaths were happening overseas, newspapers did not report any in Latvia just yet. They knew what it was, but containment did not seem to be on anyone’s minds.

It is being reported by a number of places that the Spanish flu is raging throughout the Vidzeme countryside. In Smiltene, for example, a performace of the National Theatre was postponed from last Sunday because of the illness. From Lubāna we’ve heard news that schools have been closed for an unspecified time. No deaths have been reported. – Līdums, October 9, 1918

My great-great-great-grandmother lived in the region south of Limbaži. A week before her death, the newspapers were concerned about the epidemic, but still not mentioning any deaths:

From Limbaži regarding the epidemic. In the last few days, the Spanish flu has spread rapidly in the city and has taken on epidemic proportions. Signs of the illness: Strong headaches and sore throat, tiredness and high temperature, and in some cases bleeding from the nose. The illness is particularly virulent amongst students: only 25 of 150 students at the boys’ high school are healthy; and only 16 of 180 students at the girls’ high school are healthy. Now both schools are closed for a week. No deaths have been reported. – Līdums, 12.10.1918

Now the day before her death, the newspapers take on more of an alarmist tone. I wonder if she ever saw this paper, or if she had died before it reached her home.

It can be said that the Spanish flu has taken over all of Latvia. It is raging in cities and in the countryside. In the countryside there are whole parishes where everyone is lying sick in bed. There is no one to take care of the animals. Doctors, however many there are in the countryside, are constantly on the move, day and night, to visit the worst cases. The effect of the illness is not the same in all parishes. There are parishes where the illness passes quickly, while there are others where many are dying. In this latter group, in Cēsis region, we find Kārzdaba, Kalsnava-Vietalva and other districts. Children are recovering quickly, but adults are dying. And not only the elderly, but strong young people. There are situations where a strong person has died in just a few days. This is explained by the fact that adults do not take the flu seriously, but rather when the fever has broken, return to work immediately. Then they get a cold and the illness becomes pneumonia, and then they die. Therefore it is important to take the time needed to get over the illness, and staying in bed is most important.

In the countryside, this illness is particularly troublesome, since now is the time when fields need to be plowed.

In the schools, hundreds of schoolchildren would get sick in one day’s time, so schools needed to be closed. Just one sick person at a public event can also cause the illness to spread in all directions. – Līdums, October 17, 1918

Doroteja was 53 years old when she died. Was she considered a “young and strong person”? Probably not. By this time, she had had nine children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was a grandmother. I have yet to get to this point in Alīse’s diary, but you will see it when I do. She did write about her mother’s death, but I still have to translate the surrounding entries. Other family members also had the Spanish flu, but survived.

After her death, there are more newspaper reports from all over Latvia, including growing numbers of deaths:

Due to the Spanish flu, as can be seen from Rīga papers, even the delivery of newspapers is suffering. This shows how much this plague is spreading. – Līdums, October 18, 1918

From Liepāja. Since many children are now ill with measles or Spanish flu, the city school chairman has extended holidays in all Liepāja schools to October 31, on recommendation from the region’s doctors. Now classes will begin on November 1. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 24, 1918

The number of people suffering from the Spanish flu in Rīga, as reported by the “Rigasche Zeitung” has greatly multiplied. According to the statistics reported by doctors last week, there were 403 cases. The previous week, from October 6 to 12, there were only 74. It is understood that there are still thousands that the doctors do not know about, so it can be safely said that the illness has grown by six times or more. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 26, 1918

The Spanish flu epidemic, as reported by “Baltijas Ziņas”, has not stopped, but it is spreading and creating more victims. Deaths from this plague are growing and so people need to be very careful. The sick should not leave their beds and need to get help from a doctor immediately. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 30, 1918

These reports continue into November. The parishes mentioned in these articles are near to Nabe parish, where Doroteja and her family lived.

Umurga congregation. The Spanish flu is spreading terribly here, claiming many victims. People are lying everywhere as if in a hospital, since there are not many places that can help the sick, nor are there people to feed the animals. Autumn work is being delayed or missed, many things are left undone, and so there are many material losses as well. In many homes 2 or 3 people have died. On the Peri farm in Vainiži, 7 people (adults and children) have died; in many families the flu has killed 2 or 3 people. Few people are turning to doctors, maybe that is why the death rate is so high. All of the schools are closed. – Līdums, November 21, 1918

The new Spanish illness – flu – has been raging in Lielstraupe parish for a number of months. Even though a long time has passed, the illness is not abating, but is spreading more widely. There’s barely a person who has not suffered from this illness, excepting a few elderly people. In some houses, everyone got sick at once, so neighbours had to come to take care of animals. Many have also died from this illness and death is most common amongst those who are young and strong – as if this illness seeks them out. On some days, there are seven funerals in the Straupe cemetery. Because of this illness, the school year in the local schools was delayed. Not only has this illness affected Lielstraupe parish, but it is also raging in Sigulda, Turaida, Lēdurga and Mazstraupe parishes, as well as in Limbaži and Cēsis. – Baltijas Ziņas, November 25, 1918

In this last article, it is interesting to note the mention that some elderly people are not suffering from the illness. It has been posited that they may have had partial immunity due to exposure to the Russian flu that had struck almost 30 years earlier. While this may have been the case for some, clearly this was not the case for Doroteja, since even if she did have exposure to the earlier strain, it did not help her in this case.

Did anyone in your family die in the Spanish flu outbreak? Do you know their story? Share in comments!

WW1 Diary – October 5, 1916

Twenty-ninth installment from the diary of my great-grandfather’s sister Alise, written during the First World War. When the diary starts, she is living just a few miles from the front lines of the Eastern Front, and is then forced to flee with her husband and two young daughters to her family’s house near Limbaži as the war moves even closer. Her third child, a son, was born there in February 1916. The family has now relocated to a home near Valmiera. For more background, see here, and click on the tag “diary entries” to see all of the entries that I have posted.

October 5, 1916

Summer passed so quickly and now fall is here, strong and brash, not promising any mercy. When I was last able to write, we were celebrating the beautiful summer. Now yellow leaves fall to an eternal sleep, making the heart sad and reminding me how easily nature languishes. Eventually we will also be so – having been and now forgotten. Still, the beautiful leaves and flowers growing in the summer give us a good example. So summer does not mourn that it dies in the fall.

Now the air is cold and rainy, rarely a nice day. I have little time to dream, which I used to love doing in the fall, but I do still dream every so often, but then awaken back in the prosaic life of home. Fall work is very hard, due to the heavy rains. The potato furrows are full of water, so potatoes cost 9 rubles a pood. Yesterday we sold a pig for 355 rubles. Milk costs 20 kopecks a quart and still those prices, how terrible they are for the poor. There is mobilization after mobilization. The “white ticketholder” lines have arrived. That must mean a soon end to the war, the end must come! If it doesn’t, famine is inescapable.

Life for us is very carefree and sunny, if only God protects us and sends away the clouds, which gather over our heads without a will of their own.

I only hope that our provider is not called up, what would we do then, and how would Trūte survive this, she idolizes her father.

Research on Second World War Displaced Persons

I am posting this on behalf of a member of the FEEFHS (Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies) Facebook group, since I know a number of readers here are descendants of Second World War Displaced Persons, and could thus help in the research.

She says:

As part of my master’s thesis on the legacy of WWII displacement, I’m looking for people who lived in displaced persons camps and would be willing to share their stories. If any of you have family members or oral histories that fit that description, please [contact] me. All ethnicities/nationalities/religions/experiences welcome.

[...]I’m also looking for perspectives from descendents of DPs and how they relate to their heritage[...]

Ultimately, I’m trying to discover what stories about the war and DP camps were shared, which ones weren’t, and why. I’m hoping that the answers to these questions will help me (and others) understand the legacy of displacement, as well as the way in which the war is and is not remembered.

I’d like for people to get in touch with me no later than October 15, and I’d like to have initial interviews conducted by October 31.

Her name is Cate Hodorowicz Hennessey and she is with Goucher College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She can be reached at

Bringing Out the Great-Grandfathers, Part 2

Part 2 in my series on my great-grandfathers. Part 1 is here.

Today’s great-grandfather is Arvīds Vilhelms Francis. Arvīds was born on August 7th, 1894 (Old Style) at one o’clock in the afternoon at Kroņi farm on the Nābe estate, south of the town of Limbaži in northern Latvia. His father was Roberts Jūlijs Francis (parents Jēkabs and Jūlija Vilhelmīne, nee Roop) from Milīte estate near Lake Burtnieki. His mother was Doroteja Matilde Plūme (parents Mārtiņš and Dārta, nee Andersone) was also born on the Kroņi farm and had inherited it from her parents. Arvīds had two brothers and four sisters that survived to adulthood, Alīse (1885), Vera (1890), Bruno (1891), Jānis (1898), Velta (1903) and Margrieta (1906). There were two more children in the family who died in infancy, Milda (1886) and Hugo (1888).

Arvīds attended the town school in Limbaži and spoke German and Russian as well as Latvian. During the First World War and the Latvian War of Independence he served in the 4th Valmiera Infantry Battalion. According to Soviet-era documents, he worked in counter-espionage in the Latvian army from 1919 to 1921. He married Mērija Alīde Eglīte on September 28, 1919. My grandfather Aleksandrs was born on September 24, 1920, and his sister, who is still living, was born in 1923. The family lived on Mērija’s family farm, Samši, just a few kilometres up the road from Kroņi.

At some point after the war, Arvīds joined the “political police”, a division of the criminal police force dedicated to intelligence and counter-intelligence regarding extremist groups. In the 1920s and 1930s, with Soviet Russia to the east and Nazi Germany to the west, this was a busy job. The family spent the late 1920s and early 1930s living in western Latvia, in the towns of Liepāja and Kuldīga. Arvīds became the regional leader of the political police in Kuldīga in 1928.

Arvīds Francis, c. 1930. Photo from family collection.

In 1929, Arvīds was a member of the “Democratic Centre” political party, but I do not know of any other political involvement. According to family members, much of Arvīds’ work focused on the monitoring of far-right extremist groups such as Pērkonkrusts. His wife Mērija was often worried about how dangerous his work could be.

Working in government intelligence meant that when the Soviets invaded in 1940, he was immediately marked for arrest. He was arrested on August 3, 1940 by the Soviets, imprisoned and tortured at the Daugavpils fortress. Soviet documents of his “trial” state that he was arrested for “actively fighting” against the working class and taking an active role in the arrest and interrogation of Communist revolutionaries during the interwar period. He was found guilty of being “dangerous to society” and the Soviet order and was sentenced to execution. He was shot on June 22, 1941 and buried outside the fortress walls with some of his co-workers. He was 46 years old. He was officially rehabilitated on November 14, 1996 after Latvia had regained independence.

Arvīds’ execution was just one of a series of wartime tragedies for the family. His younger brother Jānis was also executed during the Second World War. His older brother Bruno was missing and presumed killed in action in the First World War. Arvīds’ brother-in-law Georgs, husband to Alīse, was also killed during the First World War. Mother Doroteja Matilde died of the Spanish flu in the last months of 1918. The interwar period also had its deaths – father Roberts Jūlijs died in 1922, and sister Velta died of tuberculosis in the 1930s. While the family numbered nine before the First World War started, by the end of the Second World War there were only three sisters left – Alīse, Vera and Margrieta, all of whom lived to the 1980s.

Next up: We’re moving out of law enforcement and into banking with my third great-grandfather, Pēteris Eduards Celmiņš.

Bringing Out the Great-Grandfathers, Part 1 (updated)

I was looking through old blog posts recently, and realized that I started a series of posts on my great-grandfathers (almost four years ago now), but that I never finished the series. I only talked about one of my great-grandfathers!

So I’m going to finish this series now, and I will start by expanding on the first post I made, because I have much more information now than I did then. So here we go!

If you compare this post to its original version, you can see all of the new information that I’ve found on him in the past four years. This is just an example of everything you can learn at the archives by doing research that goes beyond the names and dates. Of course, this isn’t possible for every person, especially as you go further back, but if your ancestor was a public servant, or prominent in their field, this does give you a peek into what might be available to be found.

So, on to the life of my great-grandfather Augusts Roberts Lūkins. He was born on August 30, 1898 (Old Style, September 11 in New Style) in Daugavgrīva, now one of the northernmost neighbourhoods of Rīga. His father was Jēkabs Lūkins (parents Līberts and Līze, née Mildere), a worker/vendor/farmer from the Jaunate estate in northern Latvia, south of Mazsalaca. His mother was Karlīne Matilde Babure (parents Mārtiņš and Ēde, née Jansone), who was born in Rīga shortly after her parents arrived there from Suntaži parish in central Latvia. Augusts had four brothers, Ernests, Antons, Jānis and Vilis, and two sisters, Olga and Vera. Some of these siblings may be half-siblings, since Jēkabs Lūkins was married and widowed prior to his marriage to Karlīne, and I have yet to locate all of their birth records.

He graduated from the Rīga City Gymnasium and started to pursue medical studies at the University of Tartu, but this was interrupted by the First World War. He served in the 5th Cēsis infantry battalion during the Latvian War of Independence. After the war was over, he enrolled at the University of Latvia in Rīga in the Faculty of Law. He married Lilija Marija Šīre on September 4, 1921.

Presumably to finance his studies, he also worked as a police officer with the Rīga Criminal Police during this time. He received a number of commendations while doing this work, and traveled to assignments all across the country. On March 25, 1922 he was awarded 2000 rubles (approximately $500 today, based on gold exchange rates) for solving case involving the theft of furs and a revolver. On June 20, 1922, he left his position in the criminal police “by his own choice” to take up a position with the Rīga district court.

He stayed with the Rīga district court for the rest of the year, and in January of 1923 was invited to take a position as an assistant prosecutor at the Latgale Regional Court. I assume that this was in the city of Daugavpils, because this is where my grandmother Zenta was born on June 24, 1923. Since he was living far from Rīga, he never finished his legal studies, but this did not impede his career. In March of 1925 he moved his family to Krustpils, where he became the justice of the peace. My maternal grandmother, who grew up in Krustpils, recalls the family, since they were prominent in the community, and remembers my paternal grandmother Zenta as a pretty girl with blond braids.

Augusts at his father’s funeral, 1929. Photo provided by a Lūkins family cousin.

Augusts had been involved in politics, and in 1930 he gained a seat in the 3rd Saeima (Latvian Parliament) after the death of M. Abuls, since he was the next person on the party list. He was a member of the Latgale Latvian Union party at this time, though in Parliamentary documents I’ve seen him listed as a member of other parties as well. He was re-elected in the 4th Saeima, and remained a member until the Saeima was dissolved by President Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934. During his time in the Saeima, he was a member of the judicial committee and the secretary of the criminal law commission. Shortly before the Saeima was dissolved, he was offered a position as a justice of the peace in the Riga district court. He said that if this conflicted with his mandate as a Saeima deputy that he would give up his mandate, but due to the dissolution of the Saeima this did not become an issue.

And so Augusts became the justice of the peace of the 10th district of Rīga. While in this role, he was paid 454 lats per month, which, based on gold exchange rates, is approximately $5800 in today’s currency.

How he survived the first Soviet occupation, from 1940 to 1941, I don’t know, but as far as I’m aware he stayed in his position as justice of the peace until late 1944, when he fled Latvia with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. His daughter Zenta had married my grandfather Juris Celmiņš on October 9, 1943.

The family lived in Displaced Persons camps in northern Germany, including Camp Noor near Eckenforde. They came to Canada in 1949, and after moving about through Ontario and Quebec for a few years due to his son-in-law’s work, they settled in Toronto in 1955.

Zenta died in 1959 of lung cancer, leaving her husband with three young children (he would later remarry). Augusts’ wife Lilija died on July 22, 1968, and Augusts died in Toronto on September 19 of the same year, a week after his 70th birthday. His death was reported in many Latvian emigre newspapers, and he appears in a book about Latgalian politicians.

Augusts’ life is a prime example of the opportunities that independent Latvia afforded the native Latvian population – while Augusts came from a poor family of peasant stock, he was able to rise much higher in society through his education and hard work. In this time period, it appears hard work mattered more than formal education – I very much doubt that anyone would be able to become a justice of the peace these days just through hard work if they didn’t have that formal piece of paper.

Next great-grandfather: Arvīds Vilhelms Francis. Coming soon!