IV To a Far Shore
To a Far Shore,
World War II ended in Europe,
May 1945. Latvia was again a republic of the USSR, and return to my homeland
would be suicide. Sweden did not seem to offer a permanent situation for
me. I wrote to my brother Peteris in Brazil, explaining my dilemma. Assuming
we would join him, twenty-three years after we had bid each other a tearful
adieu in Latvia, he proceeded to obtain immigration papers for the six
of us. I soon received a notarized contract, endorsed by the Swedish consulate
in Porto Alegre, offering me work in his bookstore. Because I had secure
employment in Brazil, the Brazilian consulate in Stockholm would grant
us a visa without any delays. The visa was good for six months, and permanent
resident status would not be a problem.
But, I thought to myself, this is too easy. Our life was so full of hardships,
especially in the last two years, how come it is so easy now? In other
words, I had unspoken reservations, much as I wanted to put half a world
between us and Russia. In order to buy time, I thanked the consul and
promised to fill out the application at my leisure. But the forms sat
on my desk for a couple of days, and then a week. Every time I sat down
to fill them out, I met with the same nagging inner doubt.
William Fetler, my mentor of twenty years before, offered me a way out
of the dilemma. He was now president of the Russian Bible Society in Washington,
D.C., and he suggested I come to the States in the service of the Society.
Approval by the State Department would not be a problem, though it might
take a couple of weeks, and he had enclosed the necessary affidavit of
support. Now, this felt exactly right. I knew the language, Fetler was
a friend, and I would much rather work for the Bible Society than start
a new career in my brother’s bookstore in Brazil.
Half a world away, my father Pedro (Peteris) had been unusually quiet
and preoccupied. For many months in 1944, as World War II spread wings
of blood over Europe and the Baltics, communication ceased entirely, and
he did not know whether Robert and his family were dead or alive. But
one fine day a letter arrived in our post office box—they had crossed
the Baltic Sea into Sweden, with Russia breathing fire at the outskirts
of Tallinn. I was sore that they hadn’t sailed straight to Brazil,
but now there was new hope. Father must have spent many days pleading
with the crusty, arrogant Brazilian bureaucracy to obtain the necessary
papers. For myself, I spent much of my daydream quota imagining my cousins’
arrival at our gate. It was quite a letdown for all of us when we heard:
they were going to the US instead—MT
Having settled on our destination, we now needed to cross the Atlantic.
I went to the Swedish-American Shipping Company to reserve space on their
first passenger vessel out of Göteborg in March. Their agent was
much less friendly than the consul. When I told him I wanted to go to
America, he grumbled: “Nowadays everybody wants to go to America.”
Did I have a visa, he asked. When I told him no, not yet, he told me to
come back when I did.
In two weeks, to my immense relief, the American Consulate issued non-quota
immigrant visas for the six of us. I marched back to the shipping company,
paperwork in hand. But the less-than-friendly agent had reserved nothing
for us—he did not even remember me. When I reminded him of our meeting
two weeks before, he shot back:
“Two weeks ago you had nothing, and now you have non-quota visas.
What sort of friends do you have in Washington?”
I replied, “My Father.”
I could see his inner wheels turning. He looked dubiously at my aging
I explained: “I mean, my Heavenly Father.”
Now, out of politeness a Swede does not object to such a statement, but
he finds it unusual to say the least. He stalled: “We are preparing
to reestablish passenger ship traffic on a bi-weekly basis. Do you have
“Not yet, but then, you are not sailing tomorrow either.”
“True, but if you want to sail on March 25th, the deadline for reservations
is February 15th. You will need a down payment of $800 for a family of
four.” He went on: “At this point we hope to send out our
first ship on March 25th. We don’t have a ship here, it is in Calcutta
right now. It was rented out to the British government as troop transport,
and we are not even sure if the British will return it on time.”
I had the feeling he really didn’t want us to go to the States.
But I was not about to let a shipping agent shoot down my dream.
I promised, “I shall return before the deadline with my down payment.”
Now, eight hundred dollars was a fantastic amount of money for me at that
time. I made a dollar an hour processing apples, barely enough to keep
the family fed. But, I reasoned with Olga’s help, having gotten
us this far, God was not about to leave us stranded now. Visas in hand,
we went ahead with inoculations against every malady known to man. Except
for the huge obstacle of our fare, we were ready to leave. The second
week in February rolled around without any sign of funds. After a day
of fruitless inquiry in Stockholm I returned to our chapel-turned-house
in Sundby in a rather cheerless frame of mind. But at two in the afternoon
a woman struggled through deep snow to get to the chapel. She had walked
from the village to tell me that Stockholm was calling and would I please
dial number 7 right away to make the connection. A cable had arrived from
the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. The cable was short and to the point:
the Bible Society had remitted $1200, our full fare for the crossing of
the Atlantic. The money awaited me at the First National Bank in Stockholm.
I hardly slept that night. Next morning I boarded the first bus to Stockholm.
I arrived too early, and the longest half-hour of my life was spent pacing
the sidewalk in front of the bank. At last the big doors opened and I
marched into the hushed main lobby, the first customer of the day. After
examining my passport, the clerk walked over to the stack of cables from
the day before, came back to the window, and asked me how I wanted the
money. Exchange restrictions were still in place, and he would have very
much preferred to pay me in Swedish kronen, but I insisted on dollars—the
last thing I wanted was to give the shipping agent another excuse to turn
me down. I explained that I am sailing soon to the States, I have visas
and passport in order, and I must have United States currency. After signing
several forms and declarations, I finally walked out clutching to my chest
the precious brown envelope containing $1200 in US currency.
I ran directly to the shipping office. But the agent had not grown any
more cooperative during those weeks. The first ship to America was totally
booked, he said, had been totally booked for weeks. I firmly reminded
him of our previous conversations.
He shrugged his shoulders: “I could not reserve space for you. First,
you had no visas, and then, you had no money.”
I could not accept no for an answer. After all, God had gotten me this
far, He would hardly yank the rug out from under me now.
I insisted, “How many passengers does this ship carry?”
He told me how many, and added, as an afterthought, “Several hundred
Englishmen will be boarding in Liverpool, headed for Halifax.”
I pursued that line: “Hundreds? Are you sure that all of those will
make it on that date? That’s a lot of people. Plans change, people
get sick, all sorts of things happen.”
I finally convinced him to put us on a waiting list. He reluctantly promised
to call me when he got through to Göteborg to check on available
space. Well, next day he had two cancellations on hand. However, I needed
four in all, one for each adult. He offered to place the two boys, Peter
and Janis, on the next ship bound for America. But I refused to be separated
from my boys. He agreed to wait another week. My stubbornness paid off.
We had to settle for separate cabins, but in a week I had four places
reserved on the Dröttningholm, the first passenger ship to sail from
Sweden to New York after the end of the war.
The last few weeks of our Swedish sojourn were filled with nostalgia.
The people of Sundby had treated us with utmost kindness, and I knew I
would never set foot in Sweden again, nor would I pray in the Sundby chapel
or roam in the woods on summer weekends. This was our farewell to Europe.
We took the bus to Stockholm on March 25, 1946, on the first leg of our
long voyage to the New World. A special express train waited to take the
several hundred outgoing passengers to Göteborg. I was especially
moved to see Pastor Weger at the station. He had taken time from his busy
schedule to come wish us bon voyage.
Our train eventually snaked out of the central station in Stockholm, gradually
gaining speed as it went. It was, as I mentioned, an express train to
Göteborg, five hundred kilometers away on the coast. Customs agents
boarded the train to check our tickets, passports, and visas. In Göteborg
we pulled right onto the pier, and from our compartments on the train
we transferred onto the Dröttningholm.
To celebrate the resumption of regular passenger service to America after
years of war, the harbor was decorated with American and Swedish flags.
Two brass bands played marches. I said to Olga, “Look at the joy
of our Lord’s guidance. He is sending us to our new world and our
new life with all the honors.” In hindsight, that was a naïve
statement, but back then I really expected a rosy life in the New World.
In the evening of March 25, as the sun was setting over Scandinavia and
the evening star appeared in the western sky, our ship inched away from
the pier and into the open harbor. Soon the harbor lights diminished in
I slept fitfully that night. Bittersweet memories of my country kept me
awake as the ship cut through the night—the years we spent building
a free country, my love for my people, my burning desire to evangelize
them, the sacrifices and privations we endured to bring about our dream,
our efforts crushed now by the might of Russia. It seemed to me that night
that I was attending the funeral of my country. Betrayed by Western democracies,
Latvia had ceased to exist.
The annexation of Latvia was never condoned by the international community,
but neither was it condemned, as Western powers looked the other way while
Stalin swallowed up the Baltic states. Stalin was considered an ally of
the West, and summit talks in 1944 and 1945 never brought up the issue—MT
We occupied separate cabins, but separate accommodations were a minor
inconvenience after our travails of the last two years. Olga and the two
young ones occupied a cabin together. The rest of us, Janis, Pete, and
myself, were scattered all over the ship. The ship smelled of fresh paint—it
had been renovated after a fire while crossing the Suez canal. I inquired
about the odd route we took to leave the Göteborg harbor. The ship
was following mine-free channels, I was told—wartime mines were
still in place at the harbor entrance. Besides an architect from Riga,
we were the only Latvians on board. Other passengers included a number
of Jewish concentration camp survivors who had spent a few months recovering
in Sweden before the long trip to the United States.
Soon we found ourselves in the open North Sea and eventually within sight
of lights on Scotland’s rugged coastline. We next reached the Irish
Straits, the Channel of Liverpool, where we sat for several hours, dead
on the water, waiting for the fog to lift. About three hundred new Canada-bound
passengers boarded in Liverpool, as I had been told weeks earlier by the
shipping agent in Stockholm. We then spent several days of rough waters
and sea sickness on the open Atlantic.
When I felt well enough to talk, I had long discussions with the Latvian
architect. Most passengers were quiet and thoughtful, but not the Jews.
He noted, “Hear their chatter, like a flock of squawking blackbirds.
They just got out of the death camps and all the talk is about doing business
in the States. They learned nothing.”
We hit rough weather again near Halifax, Nova Scotia. After disgorging
hundreds of passengers, we were out to sea once more. The last leg of
our voyage was a day of pleasant weather and calm seas, the shores of
New England barely visible on the horizon. We forgot all about sea sickness
and enjoyed our evening meal. The next morning, on April 8, 1946, we approached
New York Harbor from the east. At first we saw what looked like boxes
floating on the sea, then we realized they were New York skyscrapers.
Finally the Statue of Liberty appeared, as if walking on water. Her words
had special meaning for us. We were tired, poor, and we had, for five
years of war, yearned to breathe free. Our long-awaited new home was here
at last, with new customs, a strange variety of English, a foreign land
in every way. The message I heard on the Riga harbor, so long ago, had
come to pass: Indeed, I had been tossed onto foreign shores.