I write this history of my family’s escape from the horror of life under the Russians during the early 1940s because I feel deeply that Ukraine under the Russians would be tragic. My story begins when I was a little girl in Latvia.
It must have been a traumatic experience in 1944 for my parents, Janis (John) Zeltins, 38, and Alma Asaris Zeltins, 36, to pack what they could carry and with four children, Zigrida Emilija, 12, Rita Olga, 9, Eriks, 5, and Benita Lidija, 1, in tow, to start a journey with destination unknown from their native country, Latvia. It is truly said that the fear of the unknown is really great, but in this case, the fear of the known was greater than the fear of the unknown. To fully understand what might seem like a “foolhardy” decision, some background is in order.
At that time, Latvia suffered under communist dictator Stalin’s ruthless domination. Our father, being a Baptist minister, was scrutinized for his activities and reported to the Russian government during their occupation. Many people during this time mysteriously vanished, especially people with influence, such as teachers, clergy, and other community leaders. Some were killed outright but many were deported to Siberia for hard labor. Families were sometimes separated; children were taken from their parents for indoctrination into the Russian dogma. Our family had been on the list to be deported but fortunately we were able to escape this fate. As a matter of fact, knowing what occupation under the Russian regime was like, one million (half of Latvia’s inhabitants) left the country. To this day, you can find Latvians in every part of the world as a result of WW II and the Russian occupation.
My family was very fortunate to be able to board a train heading toward Germany. Since we were not Jews, Germany was relatively safe for us, although trains were a risky form of transportation during a war. They were used to transport supplies and troops to the fighting armies, so we were in danger of being bombed by both the Russian and American air forces. When airplanes were detected, the train was stopped, all got off and laid in ditches or fields, in case the train was bombed. If we happened to be near or in a potato field, we’d be assured of dinner. So we continued until we reached Germany. Germany was inundated with refugees from every country bordering Russia. It was a mass exodus.
We traveled, by whatever means possible, further and further west. At one point, we were put up at a large well-to-do farm that needed farm hands since all the able bodied German men were serving in their army. Now our father had steady work and ample food for the family. Our mother was able to work in the garden as well. We had a small apartment on top of the animal barn. The heat generated by the animals and feather down blankets kept us warm.
The end of the war came suddenly. One day, the American army arrived at the edge of the village, and before entering, they discharged some tank artillery down the street to see if anyone would shoot back. None did! The American troops peacefully occupied the village by slowly passing through the street in their tanks. People cautiously came out of their houses and greeted the Americans. We were happy and finally felt safe.
The hope was that we’d be able to go back home soon. That hope was short-lived. It seemed that Germany was to be divided among the Allies and whatever else was occupied by Russians would become status quo! That meant that Latvia would remain under Russian domination and the area where we were in Germany would become part of the Russian zone. Our journey, once again, had to continue toward the unknown, as far away from the Russians as possible.
This turned into a trek by foot on the German autobahn, dragging our belongings in a small farm wagon, with Benita and Eriks perched atop our “riches”. While our parents pulled the wagon, Rita and Zigrida trailed behind. We shared the autobahn with the American troops as they moved west toward what was to be the American zone of Germany. So, if we were going in the same direction as the Americans, we should end up in the same place. When the American troops saw the sight of us walking, some of them generously threw some oranges and chocolate bars to us. I remember that sometimes we also got rides in American army trucks or jeeps. So we continued until we arrived in Hanau, a city near Frankfurt, which was definitely in the American zone of Germany. So we sighed a sigh of relief that we had arrived at a safe place.
Housing for displaced people in Germany was the next step in our lives, and from there my family was fortunate to be welcomed into a small town in Pennsylvania where my parents found work and eventually were able to send my sisters, brother and me to college. How different our lives were in America than had we lived under communist rule.
As I think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I am reminded of the reason my parents chose to endure a very risky journey to the unknown in order to escape Communism. Should Ukraine fall to the Russians will Latvia again in the future suffer its cruel repression? What about Poland and other neighboring countries? The Ukrainians are fighting valiantly to remain free of the evil Russian control. The United States must fund its effort.
Rita Zeltins Heacock