From a Child in a Nazi Labor Camp to the Harbor of New York: Latvian Native Shares Her Story
Good morning, and welcome to Around the World, Here at Home on KSMU.
Today, we hear the remarkable story of a woman who was born near the Baltic Sea, in the independent country of Latvia. Ilga Vise is well known in Springfield for her years at Drury University, Missouri State, and as a volunteer with the League of Women Voters and other causes. She’s also someone very special to me as a friend and a mentor.
She still remembers the vivid scene from her childhood in Latvia when the Gypsy wagons rolled into town once a year.
“The highlight was at night. They would have a campfire, and they would play music—it was sort of Hungarian. And they were always very colorfully dressed—they would have wild colors, and the women would have long skirts. And of course, their main thing was telling your fortune,” Vise said.
By the summer of 1940, Adolf Hitler’s Germany had occupied Poland, which is near Latvia. Vise was a girl, shopping with her mother in the capital of Riga when the church bells started ringing. They both rushed outside to see an elderly man fall to his knees in tears.
“The Russian tanks were rolling into the capital city of Riga. And he was praying, ‘Help me God, because this is the end of Latvia,’” Vise recalls.
Her father, who had been part of the Latvian Air Force, was suddenly forced onto the rolls of the Red Army.
Her family went to visit her uncle’s apartment on a volatile night that turned out to be Latvia’s Day of Mourning. She recalls watching her uncle and father peering out the window as black vans drove up to various homes and whisked people away.
“After the Russians came in, people who were in positions of leadership just disappeared – everyone they considered enemies of the state. And those people were taken Siberia, to the Gulags, the work camps—and never heard of again,” Vise said.
A couple of weeks later, her mother was at home when a school principal rode up on his bicycle and told her she had to leave immediately. Her family was on a list of those to be deported to Siberia. The only reason the could guess why, she said, is because her mother had had a small confrontation with the youth Communist leader in the town.
So, Vise and her mother and a few others took off for the woods near their home.
“My mom just grabbed up a freshly baked piragi, which is a Latvian bacon roll,” Vise said.
They huddled under enormous fir trees, beneath the lowest branches in the space near the stump of the tree.
“One night, when we were in the woods, I heard these [sounds] like twigs breaking when people walk through the woods. And there was a soldier. And I realized there was a dragnet – there were soldiers just going through the woods,” Vise said.
The little boy traveling with them coughed – and the soldier nearest their tree stopped. For some reason, Vise said, he decided to go on.
They made it back to their home, which was in a part of Latvia that the Soviets and the Germans were fighting over. The Germans then occupied the territory, then it looked like the Soviets would regain control. Since Vise’s father had deserted his post with the Red Army, they knew they had to leave before the Soviets regained control.
Her father secured a wood chip truck to transport his family out of the city—but the going was slow, due to immense traffic out of the city as well as constant bombing and shelling by the Soviet Army.
“It took us two nights [to reach the bridge]. And we reached the bridge. And we crossed the bridge October 13, 1944. And that was the very night that the Russians took over the city. We crossed the bridge about eight o’clock. And by midnight, the Germans blew up the bridge because they wanted to stop the Russian advance,” Vise said.
They then ran into some German SS officers who, despite them having papers, herded them into an empty train car at gunpoint. They traveled east to an empty airfield surrounded by barbed wire, heavily guarded by German troops.
“We found out that there were also Jews there who had been there for a long time. They all looked starved. When we saw them begging for food as we were coming in, my mother said, ‘But we live in a civilized era. What is this?’” Vise recalls.
As a ten-year-old, she was forced with the others to do hard labor, mixing cement to form huge road blocks that the Germans hoped to use against the Soviet Army. One day, she was very sick with a high fever, and her mother begged the German troops to let her stay in the barracks while the others went to work. It was a snow-covered day in January, she said, and the window panes were covered with tiny formations of ice crystals.
“As the sun came up, I went to the window, and I put my hot head against that. And pretty soon, I saw these three figures coming toward me. And what it turned out to be was two soldiers, and a Jewish girl in the middle," she recalled.
The snow had frozen over and formed a hard crust on the ground, Vise said. The soldiers were forcing the girl to lie face down, and then they were stepping on her head so that her face was crushed in the hard snow.
“And I was so horrified, number one, because of what they were doing to her. But I was also scared of what they would do to me if they saw me. And one of them did see me. And this was the strangest thing: he stopped [torturing the girl]. And he made the other person stop,” Vise said.
“To me, it was a life-changing moment. I knew that was wrong,” she said.
There came a day when her family saw the German guards just pack up their bags and leave. So, they were free to go. Vise's father, who knew geography well, took his family and began walking West.
“On January 13, 1945, in the midst of a horrendous snowstorm, that began our trek westward that we continued for the next two months—probably a distance like from Springfield to Chicago. We had walked that distance,” Vise said.
When the war ended, they had walked all the way to what became West Germany – and found themselves a mere 36 miles beyond the Soviet-controlled border of East Germany.
Finally, after several years in a refugee camp, her father learned that the World Organization of Churches was going to sponsor them in a new land: America.
“About seven days across the Atlantic, a terrific storm came up. The ship cracked. After the storm was over, we slowly approached—we could see a small strip of land on the horizon. And eventually, we pulled into New York Harbor, and everyone on the ship…went to the edge of the ship where the Statue of Liberty stood. And my dad, with tears in his eyes, said, ‘Hello, Liberty,’” Vise said.
Ilga Vise celebrated her 80th birthday over the weekend with her husband, Sidney, her friends, and family.