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  • Elizabeth Barenis

The road to Latvia

Updated: Nov 8, 2018

In the spring of 2018 I applied for an artist residency in Latvia. To my excitement, I was chosen as one of ten international participants for the 14th annual painting symposium at the Mark Rothko Arts Center in Daugavpils, Latvia, where I lived and painted for two weeks this past September.

My journey to Latvia, however, begins before I was born, when my grandparents fled the country for their lives in 1944. The photograph below shows the family just before they fled.

Alma and Karl with their two sons and Alma's sister far left, just before fleeing Latvia

Latvia has seen many troublesome times in their fight for independence, but I will begin the story in 1940, on a day when my grandfather Karlis arrived to work at his music store business in Jelgava to find a lock on the door and a Russian guard informing him that the business now belonged to the communist state. Karl was luckier than most at the time, though, because he was permitted to work as a clerk for a small salary, while many other Latvians were being awakened in the night to be sent to Siberia, from which few returned. During the next several years, Latvia saw the Germans overpower the Russians. But in 1944, things changed again.


In the summer of 1944, the Soviet army unleashed an attack to reclaim Jelgava, and at the same time Karl received word that his name was on a list to be deported. The family had to act quickly. Karl and his wife Alma, with two sons in tow, fled with just the clothes on their backs and two bicycles. After a 60-mile journey to a family home in the country, they decided to seek refuge with the Germans who were helping to move Latvians out of the country. They missed the refugee ship by half a day; but their tardiness saved them, because that ship was bombed and all its passengers drowned. Instead they traveled on a small tanker which took ten days to reach Germany, a trip that would ordinarily take just one day. But thanks again to some fortune of fate, if they had arrived any earlier, they would have been victim to a raid in Berlin. In Karlis' words, "You will see that our life was dangerous but lucky. That was our happiness."


After quite a struggle in keeping one step ahead of the Russians while also battling fatigue and hunger, the family finally arrived at an all-Latvian camp near Nurnberg, Germany, where the United States and Germany worked together to house and employ them for the next 5 years.

Karl's work pass from Fischbach Displacement Camp

In 1949, the Barenis family finally qualified to immigrate to the United States and, with their two sons, now ages 7 and 9, entered New Orleans with no money but bound for work on a farm in Scott, Mississippi. Karl picked cotton and tended the fields for six months while he saved enough money to pay for housing and find a job that more aligned with his previous experience in a music store. Eventually he began tuning pianos which led to selling pianos, which eventually led to opening his own music store and expanding his family by two more sons. Barenis Music Company opened in Greenville, Mississippi at the end of the 1950's and was the same store which my father came to own and where I spent much of my childhood.

In the late 1970's, Karl and Alma retired to St. Petersburg, Florida.




Pictured Above: Karl and Alma take the family to visit relatives in New York City circa 1957; Barenis Music Company in 1960's Greenville, Mississippi; my parents circa 1978 who became co-owners of Barenis Music Company.


Fast forward to 2018, and I have just paid a visit to Latvia by way of Germany. There's no doubt that while I was there, I found the spirit of my ancestors. And I gave of my spirit too, in the form of the paintings I left behind, which are now part of the collection of the Rothko Art Center.


Click here to read the next post, "Hello, Riga!"

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© 2020 by Elizabeth Barenis