Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV  To a Far Shore


A Difficult Decision

I have always been a procrastinator. I have misused the Latvian proverb: “Measure seven times, cut once.” This trait of mine, in retrospect, was almost disastrous in the late days of World War II, when I put off leaving Latvia until the last, risking the lives of my children and Olga. It was summer, 1944, and German occupation of Latvia was at an end. The Red Army had already driven German troops out of Russia proper. By summer, Stalin’s troops had pushed the front all the way to the central part of Latvia, near Riga. I knew that the return of Soviet domination would almost certainly mean the slaughter of the older males in our family, Janis age 17, Peteris age 15, and myself. But, even as reason told me to seek safety for us, a fierce part of me did not want to face the truth.

Following the Sunday service, the Riga pastors met in the Agenskala church to discuss our dire situation and review options for the Russian occupation and the bloodbath that would likely follow. We prayed, first, seeking divine guidance. A long silence followed, broken first by my old friend, Pastor Augustus Korps:

“Robert, you’ve got to leave. Perhaps you do not care about your own skin, but think of your children. When the communists return, no one will be able to save your children.”

His words filled my heart with a tumultuous brew of sadness, anxiety, and sorrow. I knew Korps was speaking the truth. But I loved my country. I had come back from England with high hopes for the Baptist movement in Latvia. I had slept many a night stretched out on church pews with only a coat for a blanket, to do God’s work in the small towns of the Latvian countryside. I had worked for two decades to build up the Golgotha church. With all our differences, I loved my congregation.

Shaking off my reverie, I asked: “What about you? What are you planning to do?”

Korps replied gravely, “I am staying. I am a single man. I have only my own life to account for, and that of my aunt. I will send her to the countryside to stay with our relatives. But you—that’s a different story. You must leave. If not for yourself, then do it for your wife and children.”

However, within a few days of that prayer meeting, once more I was able to put off the painful decision to leave. The Red Army suffered a setback only 15 kilometers south of Riga, and I could tell myself that a miracle was happening at last. God then sounded another wake up call in the form of an envoy from Pastor V. Weger of Stockholm.

Strange things happened in our lives, things that are hard to explain. Our exit from Latvia involved many coincidences and mysterious turns of fate, the stranger sent by Weger to knock on our door not the least of these. Here I must turn back the calendar to 1939, a few short months before World War II engulfed Europe, and before the Russian occupation. At that time, I still worked full time as pastor of the Golgotha church in Riga, and our church invited Pastor Weger for a brief visit. He had taken a special interest in the evangelization of Latvia. On this last of his many visits to Riga, the two of us spent a delightful retreat on the beach at Jurmala. My wife Olga had him over for Sunday dinner at our apartment. I still chuckle at his reaction when we all sat down to eat off a firewood crate. I guess he could not help himself—he wondered out loud, “You are pastor of a historical church in the nation’s capital, and the church cannot buy you a dinner table?” Coming from the peace and prosperity of Sweden, he did not understand what it means to surrender one’s possessions to invaders over and over again. One becomes oblivious to appearances and propriety.

At any rate, we had welcomed Pastor Weger with open arms, never expecting that our hospitality would pay off a thousandfold. It was years later, after I had almost forgotten him in the turmoil of war and occupation, that a stranger knocked on our door, saying that Pastor Weger had asked him to look us up. The man introduced himself as Probst Pöhle, a representative of the Swedish Red Cross. Of course we offered him lodging in our humble apartment.

Pöhle was on a Red Cross mission to repatriate Swedish nationals stranded in Berlin, Riga, and Tallinn. As a member of the Red Cross, he had been guaranteed safe passage by the German authorities in Berlin. Even though he was Lutheran, and I a Baptist, we spent every spare moment discussing the business of God. He had not been invited to speak at any of the local Lutheran churches, a fact which I ascribed to the rigidity of Lutherans in general. This being the case, I invited him to give the Sunday sermon at our Baptist church instead. I served as interpreter, translating his German into Latvian. His sermon covered the Gospel of John, Chapter 3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The depth of his knowledge of the Scriptures impressed me, especially coming from a Lutheran. I was grateful that he had appeared in my life.

He stayed with us for three days while carrying out his repatriation work in Riga, and on Monday he took the northbound train headed for Estonia, a fifteen-hour journey. Trains, especially in wartime, provided no food or water to civilians, so my wife Olga gave him a kilo of black market grapes and fixed sandwiches for the trip. I thought later of the quote from Ecclesiastes: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.” Before leaving, Pöhle had a serious talk with us. On behalf of his Swedish friend Pastor Weger, he offered us a truly priceless gift: he would help us leave Latvia for safety in Sweden. I was not a Swede, and both of us knew that safe passage for our family was well beyond his area of responsibility, but, busy as he was, he offered to take us under his wing. He was scheduled to be at the Red Cross office in Pernau, Estonia, for a few days, taking care of business, and then at the main office in Tallinn. If we followed him to Pernau, he said, he would facilitate our exit from the Baltics along with the Swedish refugees he was charged with helping out.

However, one more time I allowed myself to put off the decision. With feet of lead, I carried on as usual in Riga for a couple of weeks after Pöhle’s departure, while the battlefront drew a crooked line only a few minutes south of the city.

God then spoke in another, quite forceful way. The mailman delivered a mobilization order for our 17-year-old son Janis. He was to report at once for Latvian military service. I hid the notice, telling myself that the war was not his to fight. Nevertheless, this was only a temporary patch. It prodded me to request leave of absence from Golgotha Church, and to find a substitute to carry on the work.

Still, I waited, hoping against all evidence that the Communist menace was not real, that this was not happening to us. Perhaps my father had done the very same thing twenty-five years earlier, when he came out of hiding and walked straight into the Communist maw. Olga’s strong will was, at last, what got me going. She sat me down across the table and presented an ultimatum. Her speech was brief and to the point:

“If you want to leave, we start out tomorrow. If we do not start out tomorrow, I will stay here. I will not go with you. Tomorrow will be too late.”

So, finally, we gathered the children, sadly packed up two suitcases with our immediate needs, wore as many layers of clothing as we could stand, slammed shut the front door, and headed out toward the railroad station and our uncertain future.