Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV  To a Far Shore


To a Far Shore, Again

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 face.

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 the money?”

“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 the distance.

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.

Settling Down