In 1940, two 12-year-old girls, dressed in uniforms with matching blue velvet hats, met for the first time. Livia and Irene had just started the school year. Their private school, which they called a gymnasium, was in Latvia, the country of their birth.
Bordered by the Baltic Sea, Latvia is nestled between Lithuania and Estonia. When the girls met, their Russian occupiers were being pushed out by German forces as war raged throughout the world.
Livia and Irene quickly became close friends. When they were about fifteen, Livia invited Irene to spend the summer vacation with her working on her grandmother’s farm. Irene’s parents were musicians on tour in Germany, so the arrangement was mutually beneficial. As the girls milked cows, stacked hay, and did other farm chores, they decided they wanted to go to Germany. Acting on this idea, they traveled to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to secure permission to leave the country. The German officer granted them permission. “It helped that we both spoke German,” Livia said.
“When we returned to the farm and told our plan to my mother, she said, ‘You’re not going.’ She wasn’t pleased that I was so independent. But soon the decision was made for us when German troops came to the farm and said we had four hours to decide if we were going to stay and be part of their communist rule or leave the farm and everything we owned. It was a terrible decision for my family to make.
“Just before the deadline was upon us, my mother, father, younger brother, myself, and Irene, climbed onto horses and left the farm with as many belongings as we could carry. We headed towards the Baltic Sea to take a ship to Germany. It was a terrible feeling to be leaving our homeland and an extremely difficult choice to make.
“As we came closer to the capital, Irene decided she was done with riding a horse and went ahead on her own escorted by the German soldiers. When Livia and her family finally reached the port, the German officer in charge informed them that the last ship out of the country was about to leave. He said, ‘Either go now or stay permanently in Latvia.’
“Although my father refused to leave his homeland, my mother, brother, and I boarded the last ship and sailed towards Germany. There were twenty people in our group. Sadly, we never saw my father again.
“When the Germans first came to our country, they treated us well, so we thought we’d be welcomed when we arrived in Germany. The opposite was true. We were considered intruders and we were treated terribly. When they put us behind wire fences, my mother became hysterical. Eventually they said, ‘There is no place for you here. Tomorrow you will be sent back to your own country (which was now under communist rule) or you will be shot.’ We were all terrified.”
Always a young lady with moxie, Livia obtained the name of the German officer in charge of transportation and went to see him. “I asked the German general to grant my family permission to leave the city that night. He said no. I’m sure I was crying. Then, I believe this one sentence saved our lives. I asked him, ‘What would you do if I was your daughter?’ He relented and gave my family permission to leave.”
After many months in terrible conditions behind fences, Livia’s family was released and Livia was able to reconnect with Irene in Weimar, Germany. Livia’s family found modest accommodations on a campus with eight hundred other Latvians. “Because of her parents’ connections, Irene was living alone in better circumstances on the third floor of a private home. Her parents were still on tour. We were so happy to be together again! We had no work, so we played cards all day in her apartment. We were like sisters.”
The environment outside their slice of paradise was another story. “The Americans were dropping bombs daily and air raid sirens were going off constantly. We became accustomed to this and tried to ignore the danger. However, one day just the two of us were on the street when people told us we must seek shelter because the worst bombing was about to begin. We took their advice. The bombing was so intense, the walls of the cellar opened up and flames started coming through. There were about a thousand people in the shelter. Thankfully, God was with us and we survived. When we emerged, most of the city was on fire or destroyed.” Fortunately, Livia and Irene reconnected with Livia’s family who had also survived the bombing.
When the war ended, Irene’s parents returned to Germany and took her to the United States and a new life in Chicago. As they parted, the friends vowed to somehow stay in touch. A year after Irene’s departure, Livia’s family had a chance to immigrate to the United States.
“When a large land owner from Mississippi saw how our group of Latvians were living and how educated many were, he issued an invitation to come and work on his land. All eight hundred of us accepted his offer and traveled together on one ship. We were each given one dollar. When we arrived in Mississippi, we were spread out among other property owners, but families were kept together. We were given small cabins and lived among the African American farm workers. “We had to pick cotton in brutally hot weather. Many fainted. In desperation, I decided to call Irene to see if she could help us. Fortunately, I had her phone number in Chicago. Irene said, ‘Take the bus to Chicago and come live with me.’ After I assured the mistress of the farm that I would return to my family, I borrowed enough money to make the bus trip by myself. I was only nineteen and feeling afraid, but I knew I must be brave.”
Livia arrived in Chicago on the fourth of July and has celebrated that day as her birthday ever since. Once again, the friends were reunited. Livia eventually got a job, rented a room, and brought her mother and brother to Chicago. Irene married an engineer, had children, moved to Boston, and became a dentist. Livia also married an engineer, had children, and continued to live in Chicago. Both women became U.S. citizens.
Irene now spends the winter in Sarasota and recently visited Livia on Marco Island where she has spent the winter since 1970. “We toasted our nearly eighty years of friendship with a glass of champagne. We are two friends bound together forever.”