presentation april 2012
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Behind the Scenes, “With Only a Suitcase”   

Presenter:  Ellen Adamsons

Article by Lucy Martin, pictures by Ellen Adamsons

Most families have a back-story: who they are, where they are from and how they arrived. New or old, many of those stories encompass hardship, drama and eventual success.

RTHS member and long-time Kars resident Ellen (Nagloren) Adamsons was born and raised on a farm in Alberta. She went on to be a teacher of English and history.

Ellen's husband, Karlis Adamsons, was born in a displaced persons camp after World War II, in Wurzburg, Germany. By this point, the Soviet Union had basically annexed Latvia. Going home would risk execution or a one-way trip to slow death in Siberia. So, in 1948, when not yet two years old, little Karlis and his Latvia-born parents came to Canada. Six months later Maija Adamsons was born (in 1949). Virtually penniless, with two children to feed, their father, Janis, and mother, Velta, began life anew, armed with little more than determination. (A third child, Valdis, followed in 1952.)

Artisan houses in Riga

    Artisan Houses in Riga

This family saga is thoroughly recounted in  “With Only a Suitcase” by Ellen Adamsons, self-published in 2011.  (Note: with so many “Adamsons” in this article, I'll use first names, to reduce confusion.)

Aspects of that book were referenced in Ellen's talk. But she primarily focused on the history of Latvia, its people and their aspirations. An overview of the homeland her husband's family was forced to flee.

A capacity crowd of well over 50 filled the Rideau Archives for Ellen's talk, despite competition from a key hockey play-off! Ellen greeted her audience in Latvian and spoke warmly of those who inspired her to write and publish: Coral Lindsay (neighbor and mentor), Ron Wilson (editor extraordinaire), Susan McKeller (fellow author and archive volunteer), Georgie Tupper (founder and leader of archive's volunteer group) and Serge Barbe (City Archivist).

Ellen does not speak or read Latvian fluently. So she directed her deepest thanks to her sister-in-law, Maija, who spent years translating family letters and research material for “With Only a Suitcase”. While rewarding, the task could also be quite painful. Through family letters and records, Maija and Ellen discovered the inner hopes and fears of beloved relatives. Struggles to survive, years of physical hardships and searing loneliness were unveiled, as family members coped with the upheaval of war, followed by the loss of their homeland, language, and all they had known in their youth. (We who have only lived in peace cannot easily understand the horrors unleashed by war.)

Most have some working familiarity with countries like England, Germany or France. But mentioning Latvia often leads to wrinkled brows. Latvia, Latvia...hmm. That's one of those little countries, somewhere near Russia and the Baltic, right? (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania...which one is which?)

As Ellen explained, Latvia has the sometimes-unfortunate distinction of being wedged between big, fractious neighbours – including modern-day Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia. It was not a recipe for domestic tranquility. Consider what is said and unsaid in a single sentence from the BBC country profile: “Latvia was under foreign dominion from the 13th until the 20th century.”

I shan't repeat every historical event mentioned by Ellen, but here's a sampler. Latvia itself is blessed by mild climate and access to sea and trade routes. The tribes we came to call Latvians arrived circa 9,000 B.C. In general terms, Ellen recounts that they were an independent people, with a culture of gender equity, keenly connected with nature. They did not have a system of kingship. Interesting lake fortresses were a common feature in the 9th and 10th centuries. Across many centuries, typical components of Baltic trade included amber, fur, forest products, honey and wax.

   Finnials on building in Riga

Finnials on buildings in Riga


   Art Nouveau building in Riga

Art nouveau building in Riga

Traditional Latvia was an oral culture rich in dainas, or folk songs. (See more travel and cultural information on the Internet at  )

According to this site “...dainas are four-line verses that are impossible to translate precisely into other languages. They are lyrical, witty and philosophical, are similar to aphorisms and contain thousand-year-old wisdoms of the world. Folklorist Krišjānis Barons put a great amount of work at the end of the 19th century into collecting and codifying these dainas by writing each one down and filing it away in a large cupboard. Now the Cabinet of Folk songs contains over two million dainas and is Latvia's national treasure.”

   Detail from art nouveau building

Detail from Art Nouveau Building

Many of the host culture's so-called pagan customs persisted even after outside influences arrived. Christian missionaries began their efforts in 1190. Caupo of Turaida was the first prominent Latvian leader to accept baptism (1191?). In some ways that represented a cultural betrayal, for which (as Ellen put it) “he is reviled to this day”. In 1201 Pope Innocent III commanded German crusaders to conquer Latvia, which they did, establishing modern-day Riga. Although Indo-European in origin, at this time Latvian was rendered using the Latin alphabet style and structure in the 1270's. What I'll call creeping serfdom was introduced in the 1300's and would not be outlawed until 1817. (It began with small obligations of labour, which grew and grew.)

To keep things brief, let's just say the next period featured a confusing muddle of terms and events that sometimes make history an unpopular subject. Key dates mostly address power and organizational struggles between the church, knights and city authorities. Later conflicts were less about church and cities and more about competition between neighboring nation-states. A short list: Hanseatic League (1282-1721),  The Reformation. Livonian Wars (1558-1583). The Duchy of Courland 1640-1795. The War between Poles and Swedes (1600-1629). The Great Northern War (1700-1721) And so forth.

Just for fun, Maris Goldmanis has crafted a website on Latvian history at   (I'm not sure how authoritative the pages are, but it's broad in scope and well illustrated.)

It wasn't until the mid 1800's and early 1900's that the perpetual springs of Lativan cultural identity coalesced into determined efforts for nationhood. That must have been an interesting period in Latvia. Prior to World War I, Riga's stimulating mix of culture, prosperity and architectural attainment earned the  Latvian capital a reputation as “Paris of the Baltic Sea”.

The 20th century brought Latvians dizzying cycles of hope, despair and rebirth. After enduring great devastation in World War I, Latvians fought to stake out post-war independence, with the first Latvian Parliament meeting in 1920. That window of independence was slammed shut by invasion and occupation by the USSR during World War II. For most of that conflict, Germans battled Soviets across Latvia. Civilians hunkered down, died or fled – by the hundreds of thousands. As battle lines swung back and forth, both Germany and the Soviet Union forcibly conscripted Latvians as just so much cannon fodder. After Germany's defeat, Latvia was claimed by the USSR as a spoil of war.

Real autonomy for long-suffering Latvians only came in 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Empire. One legacy of that period is the fact that Latvia's population is now nearly one-third ethnic Russians. Many Russians came to replace Latvians displaced, killed or deported by war and occupation. Their descendents (born in Latvia) are not culturally Latvian, but have known no other home. Sorting out property claims from that era many decades later is still a challenge. By necessity, the struggle to nurture a strong Latvian identity must also encompass the country's many ethnicities, cultures and influences.