Tarzier Memoirs

Part III Two Decades of Freedom



Fetler’s rigid attitude was a stumbling block for our work. His intolerance was well exemplified in the case of Anna Glum’s marriage to a Russian Orthodox man. Anna Glum was a single woman, a loyal member of our group from its inception. A widower with two grown daughters, a Russian Orthodox man called Nkikin, attended our meetings and eventually wooed Anna Glum. Nkikin was employed at the railroad station, but because he spoke no Latvian he was reduced to doing menial work. They made an odd couple. Perhaps it was a question of money rather than romance. He may have figured that with his salary from the railroad and her stipend from the Mission they would be financially comfortable. If so, he was in for a disappointment. When Fetler found out about the engagement, he dismissed her forthwith, ignoring the strong probability that Nkikin would eventually become a Baptist. To me fell the task of giving Anna the news: she had been fired for daring to date outside of the Baptist fold.

This was a blow to Anna, both materially and to her German ego. She left us entirely, moved in with the man, and soon after the two were married in the Russian Orthodox Church. On the day of their marriage our meeting place was totally empty. The whole congregation was over at the Orthodox Church to watch a Baptist get married to a Russian Orthodox. When the ceremony was over, the crowd rushed to our meeting hall to laugh in our faces. Our work in Ludza suffered beyond hope after that, and we never regained the influence we once had.

I would like to say that things went well for Anna, but they did not. In her marriage she soon became like a cricket in hot ashes, unable to get out of a difficult situation. Nkikin’s older daughter regarded her with suspicion and hostility and never let her assume the rightful place of mistress of the house. She remained an outcast in that household, and not even the birth of a son changed things. People who used to come hear her sing and play at our services now looked down on her. I heard that she called herself a sinner and regretted having disobeyed Fetler and the Mission.

Eventually, Anna left her Russian husband and took her son to Germany, as part of a repatriation of Baltic Germans initiated by Hitler prior to the outbreak of World War II. Following the collapse of the Third Reich she escaped to the United States, where she worked as a nurse in a Wisconsin hospital. Not that I especially cared about her fate, after she betrayed her sacred trust by marrying outside the Baptist fold. I didn’t feel that our movement could ever count on her again. Still, I felt that Fetler could have handled the matter with more tact, and who knows, she might have been wed by a good Baptist minister instead of a Russian priest, and our work would not have been exposed to ridicule.

I encountered another problem that I was poorly equipped to resolve, this one in Zilupe. An Englishwoman, Margaret Reynolds, had volunteered to participate in our missionary work. She received a stipend from England and so asked for little pay. We welcomed her music—she played the harmonium at our services—but she was stubborn and hard to control, never became fluent in Russian, and never quite fit in. She did not listen to my advice when a young man from our church, too young for her, presented himself as suitor. That relationship broke off, but then a widower named Tarvit proposed to her. Again, I found it unsuitable for an Englishwoman to marry an older bearded Russian, but her mind was made up. Fetler refused to interfere, although he could have, so I married them in a ceremony in Zilupe.

They moved to Daugavpils. When the war broke out and currency controls were mandated, her monthly stipend dried up. Moreover, in order to marry a Russian she’d had to give up her British citizenship, so she was stuck in Latvia. According to a Russian proverb, “Love like your own soul, and beat like a pear.” That is, make your woman obey you, even if it requires beatings, just like a pear that becomes soft as it is pounded.

Jakobs Vagars, the other man in our original group, was swallowed into Stalin’s gulag when the Red Army occupied Latvia in 1940. The Soviet Secret Police had his name on file, and the before-and-after photos did not sit well with them. Despite his past service in the Red Army, Vagars was immediately deported to Siberia and never heard from again.

The most devoted missionary in Latgale was Lucia Silins. If she were a Roman Catholic, she would have been canonized. Her story begins in the basement kitchen of the Missionary and Bible Institute in Riga. Her formal education could not have gone beyond junior high when she came on the staff as a cook. But, over steaming pots of food in the kitchen, she heard the call of the Lord to dedicate her life to spreading the Gospel. She applied for a change of status, from cook to mission worker, and soon arrived in Zilupe as a missionary, bringing a bicycle and a few articles of clothing, all her worldly belongings. Her work with us consisted, initially, of making house calls on her bicycle, or, in the winter, simply walking from house to house on the snow. She did not really have a permanent home. She spent her nights wherever people offered lodging.

During the German occupation and food rationing, the local authorities refused to issue ration stamps to Lucia, ostensibly because she was not a farmer woman, but more likely because they knew she was evangelizing the Roman Catholic population. She survived World War II and the Soviet occupation by living just like the Prophet Elijah, fed by ravens and eating off the land. She eventually found permanent lodging in the manse behind the Zilupe chapel. During Soviet rule the church was turned into a print shop, and Lucia used the manse for meetings. Eventually, the church was dissolved by the Communists and Lucia had to leave. She died a few years ago. No one, I believe, did more to evangelize Latgale than Lucia Silins.

In Vaivodi, fellow pastor Kurcitis and I held meetings in a widow’s cottage. One August, after we finished our meeting, the widow offered us her bedroom for the night. Well, we thought, why not, anything was better than the benches at the railroad station--but we were mistaken. She gave us her bed, which had two straw-filled mattresses one on top of the other. I made my bed with one of the mattresses placed on two parallel benches, leaving the bed to Kurcitis. But as soon as I laid down my weary bones, a plague of shiny black fleas set out to feast on me. Needless to say, I scratched all night. In the morning Kurcitis persuaded me to go roll in the meadow for a dew bath, which, he said, was just the thing for flea bites. He joined me, the two of us in our birthday suits. I noticed he had few flea bites, while my body was covered with red spots. Why was that? I think that Kurcitis was spared because he’d slept on the bottom mattress, while I had used the top mattress, complete with the widow’s fleas. But it still rankles that Kurcitis accused me of not being his equal in holiness: “Look, Brother Tarziers, I have faith and you don’t, and that’s why the the fleas chose you for their meal.” We left Vaivodi and went back to Rezekne, where I was living at that time. We did not stay at the widow’s again.

Before I leave Latgalia and move my story to Riga and the Golgotha church, I would like to relate an odd experience I had. Once a month I took the train to the village of Vilani, about 25 km west of Rezekne, to hold a Gospel meeting. Vilani was a primitive place. It consisted of one muddy road with a boardwalk on each side. During snowmelt and the rainy season, this “main street” became a sea of dirty slush. In order to get to the other side, one had to wade in knee-deep mud. If a pig had a mind to cross the street, it left a deep trough that soon filled with dirty brown water.

The village had a Roman Catholic church with a small monastery next door. We held our meetings in a small room with several plain benches for furniture. Midway through one meeting, as we knelt down to pray, the air became heavy, so heavy I could almost touch it. The room seemed full of evil spirits. I wasn’t the only one affected--a woman in the group broke into fearful cries, as if she were being choked. I had to summon all my strength and faith to resist the power floating in the room. I felt completely drained when the meeting was finally over and the group left. I slept on two benches placed together, using my overcoat as blanket. I was glad when morning finally arrived and the eastbound train took me back to Rezekne.

I remember with sadness the fate of some of the citizens of Vilani. The first members of our congregation were gypsies, a family of four by the name of Kovalevsky. They opened their doors and hearts to us before anyone else. Kovalevsky gave testimony at our meetings, in a simple and folksy way. The local Roman Catholics did not mind our presence at first, especially when the gypsies gave up on petty thievery after accepting Jesus as their savior. But then the Nazis occupied Latgalia and proceeded to exterminate gypsies along with Jews and homosexuals. The Kovalevskys were flushed out of the house and shot in the backyard.


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