Those who know me know that my favourite place to travel is to Italy, especially the south, and in particular Abruzzo. But my heart was swayed north this year, and I mean way north — to Latvia.
My preferred travel partner, Andrew (aka Roo), who also happens to be my husband, has family in Latvia. His father, Roberts Bekeris, was born in Jaunjelgava, a small town along the Daugava River, surrounded by green countryside about 80 kilometres from the capital, Rīga. I never met Roberts as he had died three years before I met Roo.
We had sporadic contact with the Latvian family in the mid-90s when we first got connected to the internet, but finding a common language was an issue and the contact faded.
None of Roo’s family had permanently left Latvia, other than his father Roberts. And he didn’t leave of his own volition. From 1941 through 1944, Germany sent Nazi troops on regular forays to take young men into the Latvian Legion. Some estimates say that only about 15-20% of the Latvians actually volunteered. We’re not certain just when Roberts was rounded up to serve in the Latvian Legion, but by 1945 it was clear to many that the war would be won by the Western Allies. Many Latvians chose to surrender to the Allies rather than to their old enemies, the Soviets.
So we don’t know how long Roberts served or when he ended up in the United Kingdom. He and many other Baltic-state prisoners of war were given employment in the fields and factories and were allowed to remain in the UK after the war. Roberts married an Austrian woman, Hilda, had three children and remained in Halifax for about 20 years, until 1965, when the family emigrated to Australia.
Fast forward to 2016. Roo and I planned to go back to Italy and thought it was time to make that side trip to Latvia. We’d only talked about it for 20 years.
In late October last year, I added Roberts to my Ancestry.com account where I have been compiling a family tree. A few weeks later, I received an email through Ancestry from a young man in Rīga claiming to be related to my husband. This young man is called Mārcis Beķers. Notice the surname spelling is different to my husband’s Bekeris. Mārcis explained how his family name is in the original Latvian language. Latvia has had a long history of foreign invaders imposing rule and changing the names of places and people. He told us who his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were and we established that he was indeed related to Roo. He is the grandson of Roo’s late cousin Elmārs. His great-grandmother was Roo’s aunt Vilma. Roo’s dad, Roberts, was the great uncle of Mārcis.
Mārcis’ ability to speak such good English and his desire to know more about his Australian family, only strengthened our commitment to visit Latvia. This was Roo’s chance to meet and communicate properly with family and learn more about his dad’s country of birth.
After some weeks in Italy, we made our way to Berlin for a few days. On the 10th of June 2017, we boarded a Baltic Air flight bound for Rīga. Roo was nervous and excited. But he was smiling and looking forward to unraveling some of the mysteries of his father’s past. What did the family know of Roberts? Could they give more detail regarding how and when Roberts left? Did they have any old photos of him as a youth on the family farm Ūskes? Were there letters or other documents from the past? Roo looked forward to meeting his living cousins and learning more about his grandparents, neither of whom he had ever met.
We planned to spend our first week exploring Rīga and the surrounding area, then in the second week go to the countryside and meet the rest of the family.
Mārcis met us at the airport and took us by taxi to our Airbnb apartment in the Āgenskalns district south of the old town of Rīga (Vecrīga). Over the next week, along with his wonderful girlfriend Sintija, we wandered the sights of Rīga and beyond. Some highlights of our first week were:
- Wandering the Rīga Central Market, housed in old Zeppelin Hangars on the banks of the Daugava River
- Being entertained in the town of Bauska by traditionally costumed dancers with Mārcis’ dad Andris
- Navigating the winding, cobbled streets of the old town, Vecrīga, and its many historic buildings
- Strolling the grounds of the peaceful outdoor Ethnographic Museum, just a tram ride away, on a sunny Sunday
- Climbing the stairs up a treetop tower to view the Gulf of Rīga and stroll the beach at Jūrmala during the long twilight hours that Midsummer brings.
On days when our young hosts had other engagements (both are tertiary students and it was the end of the school year) we ventured off on our own to the marketplace to see handmade Latvian crafts, and around the well-preserved Art Nouveau district of Rīga. We visited the castle at Sigulda, a train ride to the north. On a rainy day, we again spent time together exploring the interesting exhibits of the National Library with its strange exterior and stunning interior.
Thoroughly enchanted by Latvia and the family we’d met so far, Roo and I headed off for four days in Tallin, Estonia. This gave Mārcis and Sintija a chance to finish their exams and assignments, and get ready for Midsummer festivities and our road trip in week two.
To be continued…