52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, Week 5: Janis Akerfelds

Click HERE for last week’s ancestor.

 

Janis Akerfelds was born September 30, 1898 in the Kurzeme province of Latvia, which was a province of the Russian Empire at that time. His parents were named Jekabs Grinbergs alias Akerfelds and Ieva Sedola. Jekabs and Ieva were married at Embutes parish church in 1892 and had two older children, Ernests and Anna. Janis’ documents state that

he was born in Nikrace, however he was not baptized at the local Embutes church. Shortly after his birth, his family packed up and travelled east to the city of Tomsk, in Siberia. Tomsk is one of the oldest cities in Siberia, and around the turn of century was a growing place. A recent discovery of gold and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway which passed through the city of Novosibirsk to the south, along with the Russian Empire giving land for free as incentive to settle the area made Tomsk Oblast (province) an attractive place to go to have a try at making a better life for a peasant farmer like Jekabs. There were also two universities recently founded in the city. It’s possible that Janis was baptized either in Tomsk, or somewhere eastward along the way from Nikrace to Tomsk. Jekabs and Ieva had a fourth child, Martins, while living in Tomsk in 1902.

Tragedy struck the family and Jekabs must have fallen ill while in Siberia, and the family came home, presumably to be near the rest of their extended family, to Nikrace. In July 1904, Jekabs passed away at age 34. His wife Ieva was 5 months pregnant with their fifth child, born in November – Katte. The family lived at Cepli farm in nearby Lieldzelda at the time of Katte’s baptism in November of 1904. Shortly thereafter, revolution broke out in the Russian Empire. Violence and unrest spread throughout Latvia, Kurzeme in particular. By 1906 things had calmed down again, but the revolution left lasting impressions on the majority of Latvians, who were poor peasantry.

Ieva remarried in 1908 and fellow widower Janis Blazgis became Janis’ stepfather. The family grew and remained in the Nikrace area. Janis attended Nikrace pagastskola (elementary school) before becoming a farm hand and a bricklayer. In April of 1924 Janis, his sister Katte and his mother Ieva moved in to Skrundenieki farm, owned and operated by the Ziverts family. Janis and Katte both married siblings Arturs and Anna Ziverts, children of the head of the farm. It’s likely Janis and Anna were married first, based on the birth of their first child in 1925. Katte and Arturs weren’t far behind, their first son was born in 1926.

Janis and Anna would go on to have 14 children in total between 1925 and 1948, and Katte and Arturs had 8. Skrundenieki was a centuries old, small farm. It had four rooms and had a spring as a water source. All 26 people between the two families lived and worked there. Janis’ brother Martins at some point acquired a neighboring farm called Jaunzemji, which had previously belonged to his wife’s parents. The 1920’s and 1930’s passed peacefully, although Janis and Anna lost two children – one as an infant, apparently fell out of a highchair and hit her head, and the other was named Elvina, aged 12, who stepped on a rusty nail and died of tetanus.

Then came the 1940’s, and World War Two. Latvia was essentially invaded and occupied by Soviet Russia, and the Soviets wasted no time in attempting to squash Latvia’s nationalist outlook and “russify” the population. They systematically arrested and executed key people they deemed “enemies of the state”, who were in reality, important political, military and social figures. This culminated on the night of June 14, 1941 when in one single night, tens of thousands of “enemies of the state” were awakened in the night, given a few minutes to gather what belongings they could carry, and told that they were arrested and to be sent to hard labor camps in Siberia, also called gulags. Entire families were deported to Siberia – men, women, elderly, children, infants in an incredibly inhumane manner – in rail cars designed to transport cattle. Many people died in the gulags either due to starvation, exhaustion or exposure. This was the fate of Janis’ little brother, neighbor Martins who died in May of 1943 after 2 years in a camp in Kirov. Janis would have seen Martins, his wife and 4 year old daughter all deported that night, and would not ever see them again.

Shortly after that atrocity, the German army began to have some decisive victories against the Russians on the Eastern front, pushing the front lines east, back across Latvia. Latvia was occupied next by Germany in July of 1941. Suddenly new people in Latvia had targets on their backs, and again many mass executions and arrests were made, this time mostly against Jews and Roma. Tens of thousands were murdered under the reign of the German occupiers, who would remain in command for the next 3 years. And although a far cry from ideal, it seems that German occupation was more tolerable than Soviet occupation for Janis and his family – at least they weren’t being killed. But by 1944 the Germans had been taking heavy military losses and the Soviet army was again able to push their way west through Latvia. Kurzeme being the western-most province was the last stand for the German army in Latvia, and when it became clear that they were defeated, they began evacuating their troops through the ports of Ventspils and Liepaja. They also made a point to forcibly evacuate many Latvians who they took with them as prisoners of war. This was the fate of Janis and family. The residents of Skrundenieki farm (including two pregnant matriachs, Anna and Katte, and Arturs and Anna’s elderly mother Jule Dzerve) were forced to abandon their homestead in October 1944, and board a ship at the Latvian port town of Liepaja bound for the German-controlled port of Gotenhaufen. Katte actually gave birth in Liepaja three days before they left, and Anna was 6 months pregnant.

From Gotenhaufen, the family next went to a gathering camp for foreign workers at Kelsterbach, Germany and next, to a sawmill owned by a man named Hermann Mogk III. The entire family worked there, likely gathering resources to support the German war effort. All except Janis’ eldest son Arturs, who at age 19 was deemed old enough to strike out on his own – the Germans used him at a Daimler-Benz plant in Bad Rotenfels, where he lost his right hand in an accident. Janis’ last son was born in December, 1944 while at Echzell. Here they stayed until their liberation by the Allied forces in May 1945. The war was over, Hitler had committed suicide, but still a major loss was that Latvia now remained under Soviet control. Janis’ eldest son Arturs was reunited with his family at this time.

When the International Refugee Organization assumed responsibility for all the people around Europe who suddenly found themselves without a homeland, Janis stated that he would not like to be repatriated to Latvia because he did not want to live under the communist regime. Instead, the family would remain in Germany for another 4.5 years, mostly in the city of Augsburg. Here, his son Arturs, who was now in his twenties, married a local German girl named Luise Gottle, and joined the German workforce. Second eldest son Arvids was accepted as a refugee by Belgium and went there to earn money as a coal miner. The rest of the family waited to be accepted by another country to start their lives anew. During the 5 years they remained in Germany as displaced persons, Janis worked for the US Army in the labor service corps.

Katte, Arturs and the Ziverts clan went to Berthoud, Colorado in March 1950 and Janis’ family followed soon after in August. Janis left his two eldest sons and his mother in law Jule behind in Germany, but brought his wife and ten youngest children to their new home in Colorado, where there was a growing Latvian exile community large enough to organize their own Latvian Lutheran church parish.

Janis passed away in 1970.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

In an effort to learn more of the finer details of my ancestor’s lives, I’ve decided to challenge myself to the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge that many other genealogy bloggers are participating in. I maintain two separate genealogy blogs – one for my paternal side, which is ethnic Ukrainian, Italian and French Canadian and one for my maternal Latvian side. Why? Simply volume of posts and depth of research. So I will be posting from both of these blogs, depending on where said ancestor is from.
Living in Canada – an incredibly multicultural country where mostly everyone comes from somewhere else – I’ve decided to start with the stories of my Canadian immigrant ancestors. My most recent immigrant ancestors were my Latvian grandparents who came here after WWII, and my most distant are some of Canada’s first pioneers who came here in the 1600’s, so we have about 300 years’ worth of Canadian immigration to cover!

Old Photo: Where is This Rollercoaster?

Do YOU know where this rollercoaster is??

This is a picture of my grandparents Arvids Akerfelds and Rasma Vinakmens. On the back of this photo is written “Mai 1955″, so they were definitely in Germany. Arvids looks like he is still serving in the Labor Service, although where he was stationed at this time I do not know. Some of my grandmother’s other photos from around this time period are labelled “Freiburg”. I haven’t been able to find any information about where this rollercoaster might have been!

Ancestor Story: Fricis Vinakmens, Part 2

Fricis’ unit was ordered to guard a captured Russian lumber factory near Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), Russia in the fall of 1942. In the summer of 1943, as the Germans were pushed back westward by the Soviet army, the unit disassembled the factory and brought it back west with them and the captured workers in tow. They reassembled the factory again in Lizums, Latvia and resumed production. In August of 1944, they once again moved west to Incukalns, near Riga for a short period, and in September of 1944, as the Nazis began suffering regular military defeats, the unit and factory were sent to the port of Liepaja, where the entire operation was packed onto a ship and escaped to Danzig (Gdansk), from where they travelled to the Todt Organization headquarters in Berlin. (a typical Todt worker uniform: http://en.valka.cz/attachments/11345/uniforma_todt.jpg)

The unit was in Berlin for one week in October of 1944. They were next sent to Peschiera, in northern Italy, for one month of more training. In December 1944, the unit went to Campo Tures, a comune in the Tyrolian Alps. While I am not sure exactly what they were doing here, it is probable that they were helping build lines of defensive structures.

Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and the hostilities in Italy between the Nazi army and the Allied forces officially ended. What this meant for Fricis was he was now a prisoner-of-war. He and his unit were sent to a POW camp in Cesenatico, Italy, where he again worked as a mechanic.

In October of 1945, the International Refugee Organization took responsibility for all those displaced from their home country by the war. They began sorting people and attmepting to repatriate them to their countries of origin. At this time, Fricis went to a displaced persons camp in Modena, Italy from October 1945 until May of 1946 when he was transferred to a large DP camp full of many different ethnicities in Reggio Emilia.

Here at Reggio Emilia, he met Marianna Levinski, a Russian girl born in Rostov. Marianna had grown up in Rostov, and was sent to Baranovicy, Poland to live with an aunt in 1939 at age 17. The Nazi’s invaded Poland, and Marianna became an “ostworker” or forced foreign labourer, sent to a camp in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in 1942. Marianna was tranferred to many different places as a forced labourer in Germany and France between 1942 and 1945, before ending up in a German DP camp, then 2 Italian DP camps, then finally Reggio Emilia.

Fricis and Marianna were married in Reggio Emilia, and had a son there in April of 1947. The family applied for assistance to emigrate to Argentina, but were initially rejected due to Fricis’ involvement with the Organization Todt. Between this rejected application and 1953, I have found no documents or information about them. It could be assumed that they stayed in Italy or Germany, working and waiting.

Eventually, the family was cleared for immigration to Canada, and on October 17, 1953 Fricis, Marianna and their 6 year old son sailed on the SS Anna Salen from Bremerhaven, Germany to Quebec, Canada.

Marianna and Fricis, c. 1990

Place of Interest: Tomsk, Siberia

 

Tomsk (English), Томск (Russian)

Tomsk is the largest city in Tomsk Oblast, Russia. It is named for the river on which it is situated, the Tom. Officially founded in 1604, it is one of the oldest cities in Siberia.

Tomsk Oblast within Russia

Gold was discovered in Tomsk in (he 1830’s and mining operations soon set up camp, which helped bolster the economy and growth. However, the Trans-Siberian Railway bypassed Tomsk in favor of Novosibirsk to the south, and with it went the development boom in the area.

The Trans-Siberian Railway route

When the Akerfelds family was here around the year 1900, Tomsk was a growing city, with two new universities (Tomsk State University, the oldest in Siberia, founded in 1887 and Tomsk Polytechnic University, the oldest technical university in Siberia, founded in 1900).

Old wooden houses in Tomsk