IV To a Far Shore
I have always been a procrastinator. I have misused the Latvian proverb:
“Measure seven times, cut once.” This trait of mine, in retrospect,
was almost disastrous in the late days of World War II, when I put off
leaving Latvia until the last, risking the lives of my children and Olga.
It was summer, 1944, and German occupation of Latvia was at an end. The
Red Army had already driven German troops out of Russia proper. By summer,
Stalin’s troops had pushed the front all the way to the central
part of Latvia, near Riga. I knew that the return of Soviet domination
would almost certainly mean the slaughter of the older males in our family,
Janis age 17, Peteris age 15, and myself. But, even as reason told me
to seek safety for us, a fierce part of me did not want to face the truth.
Following the Sunday service, the Riga pastors met in the Agenskala church
to discuss our dire situation and review options for the Russian occupation
and the bloodbath that would likely follow. We prayed, first, seeking
divine guidance. A long silence followed, broken first by my old friend,
Pastor Augustus Korps:
“Robert, you’ve got to leave. Perhaps you do not care about
your own skin, but think of your children. When the communists return,
no one will be able to save your children.”
His words filled my heart with a tumultuous brew of sadness, anxiety,
and sorrow. I knew Korps was speaking the truth. But I loved my country.
I had come back from England with high hopes for the Baptist movement
in Latvia. I had slept many a night stretched out on church pews with
only a coat for a blanket, to do God’s work in the small towns of
the Latvian countryside. I had worked for two decades to build up the
Golgotha church. With all our differences, I loved my congregation.
Shaking off my reverie, I asked: “What about you? What are you planning
Korps replied gravely, “I am staying. I am a single man. I have
only my own life to account for, and that of my aunt. I will send her
to the countryside to stay with our relatives. But you—that’s
a different story. You must leave. If not for yourself, then do it for
your wife and children.”
However, within a few days of that prayer meeting, once more I was able
to put off the painful decision to leave. The Red Army suffered a setback
only 15 kilometers south of Riga, and I could tell myself that a miracle
was happening at last. God then sounded another wake up call in the form
of an envoy from Pastor V. Weger of Stockholm.
Strange things happened in our lives, things that are hard to explain.
Our exit from Latvia involved many coincidences and mysterious turns of
fate, the stranger sent by Weger to knock on our door not the least of
these. Here I must turn back the calendar to 1939, a few short months
before World War II engulfed Europe, and before the Russian occupation.
At that time, I still worked full time as pastor of the Golgotha church
in Riga, and our church invited Pastor Weger for a brief visit. He had
taken a special interest in the evangelization of Latvia. On this last
of his many visits to Riga, the two of us spent a delightful retreat on
the beach at Jurmala. My wife Olga had him over for Sunday dinner at our
apartment. I still chuckle at his reaction when we all sat down to eat
off a firewood crate. I guess he could not help himself—he wondered
out loud, “You are pastor of a historical church in the nation’s
capital, and the church cannot buy you a dinner table?” Coming from
the peace and prosperity of Sweden, he did not understand what it means
to surrender one’s possessions to invaders over and over again.
One becomes oblivious to appearances and propriety.
At any rate, we had welcomed Pastor Weger with open arms, never expecting
that our hospitality would pay off a thousandfold. It was years later,
after I had almost forgotten him in the turmoil of war and occupation,
that a stranger knocked on our door, saying that Pastor Weger had asked
him to look us up. The man introduced himself as Probst Pöhle, a
representative of the Swedish Red Cross. Of course we offered him lodging
in our humble apartment.
Pöhle was on a Red Cross mission to repatriate Swedish nationals
stranded in Berlin, Riga, and Tallinn. As a member of the Red Cross, he
had been guaranteed safe passage by the German authorities in Berlin.
Even though he was Lutheran, and I a Baptist, we spent every spare moment
discussing the business of God. He had not been invited to speak at any
of the local Lutheran churches, a fact which I ascribed to the rigidity
of Lutherans in general. This being the case, I invited him to give the
Sunday sermon at our Baptist church instead. I served as interpreter,
translating his German into Latvian. His sermon covered the Gospel of
John, Chapter 3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the
kingdom of God.” The depth of his knowledge of the Scriptures impressed
me, especially coming from a Lutheran. I was grateful that he had appeared
in my life.
He stayed with us for three days while carrying out his repatriation work
in Riga, and on Monday he took the northbound train headed for Estonia,
a fifteen-hour journey. Trains, especially in wartime, provided no food
or water to civilians, so my wife Olga gave him a kilo of black market
grapes and fixed sandwiches for the trip. I thought later of the quote
from Ecclesiastes: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt
find it after many days.” Before leaving, Pöhle had a serious
talk with us. On behalf of his Swedish friend Pastor Weger, he offered
us a truly priceless gift: he would help us leave Latvia for safety in
Sweden. I was not a Swede, and both of us knew that safe passage for our
family was well beyond his area of responsibility, but, busy as he was,
he offered to take us under his wing. He was scheduled to be at the Red
Cross office in Pernau, Estonia, for a few days, taking care of business,
and then at the main office in Tallinn. If we followed him to Pernau,
he said, he would facilitate our exit from the Baltics along with the
Swedish refugees he was charged with helping out.
However, one more time I allowed myself to put off the decision. With
feet of lead, I carried on as usual in Riga for a couple of weeks after
Pöhle’s departure, while the battlefront drew a crooked line
only a few minutes south of the city.
God then spoke in another, quite forceful way. The mailman delivered a
mobilization order for our 17-year-old son Janis. He was to report at
once for Latvian military service. I hid the notice, telling myself that
the war was not his to fight. Nevertheless, this was only a temporary
patch. It prodded me to request leave of absence from Golgotha Church,
and to find a substitute to carry on the work.
Still, I waited, hoping against all evidence that the Communist menace
was not real, that this was not happening to us. Perhaps my father had
done the very same thing twenty-five years earlier, when he came out of
hiding and walked straight into the Communist maw. Olga’s strong
will was, at last, what got me going. She sat me down across the table
and presented an ultimatum. Her speech was brief and to the point:
“If you want to leave, we start out tomorrow. If we do not start
out tomorrow, I will stay here. I will not go with you. Tomorrow will
be too late.”
So, finally, we gathered the children, sadly packed up two suitcases with
our immediate needs, wore as many layers of clothing as we could stand,
slammed shut the front door, and headed out toward the railroad station
and our uncertain future.