Personal Journey: Reconnecting with family roots in Latvia

PJ-Lativa
The Cakars family farmstead in Ranka, Latvia. When the family, formerly serfs, gained some land, the nobility did not respect property rights.

The children sat impatiently waiting for school to begin, until one of their classmates called them to the window. Crowded around the pane, they watched as KGB men arrested their teacher outside. They never saw him again.

Andris told me this story as we stood in the same spot. He was one of those kids. It was after World War II, and Latvia was under Soviet occupation.

My grandfather had gone to that school, too, as did his brother, Andris' father.

I was traveling with my wife and kids. In Latvia, we had seen everything from a secret underground Soviet bunker, built in case of a U.S. attack, to the gentle beaches of the Baltic Sea. But it was this day, and this story, that made the deepest impression.

As a result of the war, my granddad came to America. Andris' father was deported to Siberia by men like the ones who took his teacher.

Our family was from the tiny town of Ranka. It has never had a stoplight, but on his genealogy tour, Andris pointed out the building where the KGB kept its post.

He could trace our kin back to a man named Krustiņš(meaning "little cross"), who was the first of the Čakars family to be liberated from the bonds of serfdom, which ended in Ranka in 1819. Prior to that, our peasant forebearers were "slaves of their lords in the full meaning of Roman law," as the state diet affirmed in 1765.

As in the United States, the slaves were liberated without land. We admired the tree-lined lane leading to and from the lord's manor house, still standing, that Krustiņš had to walk on his way to work.

When our clan finally did get land, the nobility did not respect property rights. In one instance, a lord built a mill on Čakars ground. When the family sued, they lost and were imprisoned.

Krustiņš' grandson was Kārlis, possibly the first success story in our family history. He had his own farm and prospered. He had two sons: Pēteris, my grandfather, and Jānis, Andris' dad.

Kārlis made enough to send Pēteris to a teacher's college. There, the family started to diverge.

Pēteris moved to the capital, Riga, and lived in an Art Nouveau apartment building. He became citified and white-collared. Jānis took over the farm, and Andris still lives nearby.

I wondered about this cleavage, which eventually spanned an ocean divided by an Iron Curtain. My father and Andris were first cousins. What would it have been like had they the chance to grow up together? Andris has a son my age. We get along famously.

We visited the old farmstead where Pēteris and Jānis grew up. It is far off the beaten path down an overgrown, rutted dirt road. The land is privately held again by another Latvian family with two kids.

They greeted us warmly, but their life was clearly difficult. Joining the European Union has been particularly hard on Latvian agriculture.

We visited the local cemetery. The Čakars family has deep roots in the area. It is an uncommon surname, but in Ranka, there are Čakars buried whom even Andris doesn't know.

I paused longest at Andris' father's tombstone. He in eternity and I on Earth, sharing the same name.


Janis Chakars writes from Roxborough. In Latvian, his name is rendered Jānis Čakars.

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