52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, Week 5: Janis Akerfelds

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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.

3 thoughts on “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, Week 5: Janis Akerfelds

  1. Pingback: 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, Week 6: Nicolas Langlois | Finding My Ancestors

  2. Pingback: Comparing Cousins | A Latvian Canadian Story

  3. Pingback: Lāčplēša Diena | A Latvian Canadian Story

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