Madison Magazine editor reflects on her family’s Baltic roots in light of events in Ukraine

Watching the reports from Ukraine over the past two weeks, I’ve been taken back in time, bombarded with memories that aren’t really mine. I watch videos of the bombs falling from the sky and I can almost visualize what my Opaps (daddy’s daddy) went through 80 years ago. As a teenager, he found himself hiding and struggling to breathe in a smoky basement in Germany after escaping from his native Latvia in search of safety. I always thought I understood all the other family and cultural stories of intergenerational trauma that I heard growing up, but it all came to light in this modern context.

I am a proud Latvian American, have dual citizenship and speak Latvian fluently. Three of my grandparents fled Latvia during the occupation of the Soviet Union and made their home in the United States as part of the Latvian diaspora. My legacy is embedded in every element of who I am, from the spelling of my name to the ring I wear every day to the way I communicate with my family. This connection to my culture is why I feel so much empathy for Ukrainians. My Baltic homeland and Ukraine have a common history – two countries that were occupied by different regimes and were not allowed to openly rejoice in their traditions. This all sounds like a story I’ve heard before, because I’ve heard of it.

Growing up, I heard stories from my grandparents, family members, teachers, and elders in our community about Latvians running through the woods behind their homes to escape to any country not Soviet, or on family members sent to the gulags. Or about relatives who were shot on June 14, 1941, the day now commemorating the 15,424 Latvians arrested and sent to Siberia, where 34% died in transport and many more died of disease, frostbite and forced labor upon arrival. Although I don’t have the full story of my family’s background, I asked Opaps to give me some details about their background for an assignment I did in 2010 for my summer camp program in immersion in Latvian. I saved the email knowing it was something important to document, especially when I was old enough to understand the experience. Although I’ve read it several times over the past 12 years, it wasn’t until the last week that the story really took hold.

My Opaps left his home in 1944 when he was 13 via a passenger train. They traveled to Gdańsk, Poland, then to Bydgoszcz before heading to Uffstadt-Babelsberg, Germany. When the Soviet army closed in, my family moved further west. My Opaps ended up experiencing a bombing of a house right across from where they were staying in Weimar. He was in the basement of the house and he said that “the bomb that hit then shook the ground so much that the basement was full of dust. So much that it was hard to breathe. The house he lived in had just had its windows blown out, but there was a huge hole across the street from where a house was. I imagine if that bomb had landed a few meters away; I probably wouldn’t have existed and my family would never have arrived in the United States by boat in 1949 thanks to a sponsor from Milwaukee.

Like many Baltic Americans (those from Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia), Ukrainian Americans and probably others, what we hear today is a version of the story we grew up with, a collective memory that we can now identify – bringing underlying intergenerational trauma to the surface. I started Latvian school at age 4, and learned about my country’s history through a Latvian lens, which tells a very different story from those told in public school history lessons. I remember being told in a 1900s Eastern European history class at university that the Baltics and Ukraine would not be covered because they were the Soviet Union and that this course was not about the Soviet Union or Russia. It can be painful to be constantly associated with the country that has oppressed your people.

Maija Inveiss as a young girl in folk costume (Courtesy of Maija Inveiss)

I see so many beautiful similarities between Ukraine and Latvia. We each have our own languages, cuisine, costumes, traditions, folklore, dance, music and literature which create a sense of cultural identity. In Latvian culture, we sing in times of pain and happiness. It’s a way to show our support and calm the fear of an uncertain future. On the Friday following last month’s initial invasion, Latvians gathered in the capital Riga and sang for more than six hours in a performance called “Ukrainas Brīvībai” (For Ukraine’s Freedom). Famous Latvian musicians performed, the crowd sang some of the most impactful Latvian choral songs, and they raised money for Ukrainian relief efforts. A country the size of West Virginia has raised more than €1.2 million for Ukraine. I showed the live stream to my partner saying, “This is possibly the most beautiful and Latvian thing I’ve ever seen.”

Towards the end of the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries were part of the “singing revolution”. It was a time when they started singing Latvian songs publicly. They reintroduced the song festival and sang songs alluding to freedom. One of these songs is called “Saule, Pērkons, Daugava” (Sun, thunder, Daugava river) and it became the unofficial national anthem, a symbol of the singing revolution. I was born in 1995 and I’ve sung in Latvian choirs all my life — and yet every time I sing this song I’m in tears. Hearing Latvians sing this song in 2022 to defend freedom in Ukraine took me back in time to 1988 when it was first sung, when we were defending our own freedom. My tears were as heavy as they’ve ever been.

Over the past two weeks I have been going through my daily life, but there is a constant stream of fear and sadness beneath the surface waiting to bubble up. It is not only a deep sadness for those who have family in Ukraine or Russia, for those who live this directly and for those who have a connection with these regions, it is an extreme fear that the Baltic countries are the next. All of this reminded me that even though this is hitting close to home, others all over the world are going through similar circumstances. It is important to keep up to date with other international wars and tragedies, wherever they may be.

I know others in my community may feel the same way. At the same time, I’m not used to people paying so much attention to Eastern European cultures that have always felt so close to my life. I have seen so many moments of unity and support from the Baltic community over the past two weeks and others who may have no connection to Ukraine. I’m touched every time I see pictures with Latvian and Ukrainian flags side by side. In Madison, I’ve been amazed by all the businesses trying to raise money to help Ukrainians, from a glassmaker auctioning off a glass Ukrainian flag to Bloom Bake Shop participating in a nationwide initiative for Leopold to donate the proceeds from the sale of Russian glass and Ukrainian literature. I know that if this was Latvia, each of these community initiatives would mean the world to me. Whether it’s attending a rally, donating directly to causes, or buying a local item from a company that sends funds to organizations working on the ground, that support has an impact.

If you’re looking to support Ukraine, here are some Better Business Bureau-approved donation options. Madison Magazine also started this list with some of the options local businesses have to help support Ukrainian causes. Brīvību Ukrainian! (Freedom for Ukraine!)

Maija Inveiss is associate editor of Madison Magazine. She writes frequently about her family and heritage, as well as local food in the bi-weekly newsletter BITE. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

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