Maris Ubans and his mother and brothers left behind family, friends, home, and country in order to live in freedom. His dramatic story is a lesson for us all.
ESCAPE TO THE WEST: THE MARIS UBANS STORY
An Interview by Edgar B. Anderson, EdgarBAnderson.com
Pursuant to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union in 1940 invaded the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and unleashed a wave of arrests, executions, and deportations aimed at eliminating opposition to Communist rule. The next year Nazi Germany attacked its erstwhile Soviet ally, overrunning the Baltics and imposing its own brand of terror. In 1944 the Soviets drove out the Germans and re-occupied the Baltic nations, which did not regain their independence until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Maris Uldis Ubans, a Latvian, tells his compelling story of survival under both Communists and Nazis and his escape to the West and ultimate refuge in the United States. This interview was conducted by journalist Edgar B. Anderson at the Studio City Convalescent Hospital in Studio City, Los Angeles, California, on March 13, 2005.
EDGAR B. ANDERSON: Could you first tell me your date of birth and place of birth?
MARIS UBANS: I was born in Riga, Latvia, on December 4, 1929.
Q. Speak about your parents -- tell about them and your family background.
A. My parents were artistically-inclined. My father [Konrads Ubans] was a painter. I never saw him after ‘44 anymore, but he died in 1981. My mother [Elina Ella Alise Gailitis] was a textile weaver. She was weaving tapestries and wall hangings when she met my father, and she won the Grand Prix in Paris -- I believe this was in 1926 -- for her work. After that she became a teacher, and after we escaped from Latvia [and eventually settled in the United States] she worked as a professor in Syracuse, New York, at Syracuse University, where she taught Russian and German.
Q. You say you didn't see your father after 1944. What happened? He couldn't leave Latvia? Or he was in the army? What had become of him?
A. He was in the hospital. He was taken by the Germans to dig ditches for the army around Riga, and he got typhus somehow, and he was in the hospital when we were leaving, and he could not travel. And we [my mother, my two younger brothers, and I] left on September 26, 1944, which was a little more than two weeks before Riga fell to the Russians.
Q. So what was the assumption when you left your father -- that you’d never see him again?
A. Well, the doctor said that he probably would not survive the typhus. So we had to make a decision either to leave or to stay. We decided to leave. He survived the typhus and lived another good chunk ‘til ‘81 in Riga.
Q. Now there were Latvians here in the West who traveled back to Latvia in the ‘60s and ‘70s -- maybe not so many. Did anyone in your family think to go back there?
A. No, there were certain problems with the fact that my mother was also working for the U.S. Air Force teaching Russian, and I was at that time trying to get educated and work my various jobs, so I didn’t have the time to go back. My youngest brother [Juris] went back twice. He was sent back by the U.S. Government doing some -- I guess he was working in film exchanges -- and he arrived in Riga to visit my father, but my father that morning had been sent to Odessa on a Russian government order, so the first time he was there he did not see my father. The second time he went there for my father’s 80th birthday, and it was a celebration at the Latvian Academy of Fine Art. And he had not told anybody about this, and he just arrived there, and then he met my father, and he stayed with my father for a day and a half at Father’s house, and they talked about everything, and then, of course, he had to move on.
Q. What were your interests in childhood? Talk a little bit from your birth to the start of the war.
A. I have always been interested in the theater, which was one of my big interests, and it came to be my life, but during the war I had seen all the suffering and death in Europe, and I had decided that maybe I should become a doctor to help the people who were in distress. However, even after I had started to become a doctor, I had a roommate who was a theater major at Syracuse University, and he said, “You look too unhappy,” when I came back from the hospital, and he said, “Come with me, we are doing Shakespeare, you’ll like it,” and I went and I never returned, never left the place.
Q. Where in Riga did you live exactly, and where did you go to school?
A. In Riga we lived in what is called Pardaugava on Ventspils Street and the number was 72, and I went to school in downtown Riga at the 37th Municipal Elementary School, and that was on Aspazijas Boulevard very, very close to what was the radio station and the postal service at that time.
Q. Do you remember the beginning of World War II, September 1, 1939? You were only 10 years old then.
A. I don’t remember that day too much because I was too young. But I do remember the day when Germany attacked Russia, which was in 1941, and I think it was June 22. And on that day German planes bombed Riga, and also they were bombing in the areas that were close to the house where we lived, so I remember that very well.
Q. Do you remember before that -- when the Russians came into Latvia in 1940?
A. Yes, because it was a kind of big to-do because we had lived in a quietude, and then all of a sudden all this happened, and there they [the Soviets] had tanks all over the place, and they had demonstrations, and they had people organized to attack the policemen, and so I saw quite a bit of planned violence at that time. My parents, of course, didn’t want me to participate in any of these things even as a spectator, and I was kept at home a lot.
Q. How about the time of June 13-14 [1941, when the Soviets arrested in a single night more than 15,000 Latvians and sent them in cattle trains to prisons and labor camps in Siberia]? Do you remember that?
A. Yes, we escaped from being taken by being at my grandmother’s house in the country, and we had been searched for at that time, and once that became knowledge to my father, then we kind of hung around the woods near my grandmother’s place.
Q. Some people were marked right away to be deported. Others were not. Did your father have a clear idea why he was on the first list?
A. Well, my father had a history of -- he was one of the Latvian Rifles. He fought in the Christmas battles -- I believe that was in 1917 -- and after that he was a rather patriotic guy, and his friends were people like Edvarts Virza and other literary people who were very definitely against the Russians.
Q. So in the week between June 14 and the attack by the Germans on June 22, you were in the woods?
A. Yes, we were kind of in and out of the woods because I believe that once they [the Soviets] did the first collection of people, they really didn’t go back anymore because they had enough to worry about. The train that collected people from the area where we lived was sitting at Tornakalns, which is a station before you go out to the Jurmala line, and my grandmother was living in Ogre, which was on the other side of the river and a little further out. However, when the Germans attacked, we were at a place near Baltezers staying with some friends also, you know, in the woods in the area where there were the summer houses, and we were there until the German Army arrived.
And I remember the German Army arrived, and the first people we saw were cavalry groups that rode through the woods, and then we went down to the highway, and we saw that the army was rolling along. Interesting to me was the fact that a lot of soldiers were on bicycles, and they had ropes going to some military vehicle, and they were being pulled so that they wouldn’t have to pedal. They just sat on the bicycles and held the ropes, and the tanks or the heavy equipment were pulling them along the road.
Q. How do you recall people feeling in Latvia upon the arrival of the Germans?
A. Well, at the beginning everybody was happy that they had arrived because it saved the country from the Russians -- or sometimes you have to make a decision to separate the Russians and the Communists or the Russians and the Soviets, but to me they were always the Russians -- and the people were quite happy about the fact that the Germans had arrived. Now later on it was kind of a turnabout because the Germans also put down their law and their demand for various things, and then, of course, it became a difficult way to survive. But I think the most important thing was to have survived the Russians.
Q. How was your life -- you were still in school during the German occupation from ‘41 to ‘44?
A. Yes, I was in school, and I was still going to the 37th Municipal School, and the school became a little more self-supporting in that time. We had students on duty. Everybody had a certain day when they had to clean the school, and they had to do various things, work in the school kitchen, and so and so forth because all the people who had been doing that before the war they had other assignments that were more important to the war effort. So we did sweep and take out garbage and do all kinds of things like that.
What I remember very, very vividly is that before the Russians came and during that year when they were there, we had a Jewish girl. Her name was Ida Wagenheim, and she was my mate in the school desk because we had school desks that sat two people side-by-side, and she was there and then, of course, when the Germans arrived she disappeared, and then one evening at school I was on the detail cleaning and taking out the garbage and everything else, and I went out to the big garbage cans, and there she was standing at the garbage cans, and she said, “Please, give me a spoon,” and then I gave her a spoon, and she was eating the food that was thrown out from the school in the garbage. And that was, of course, the last time I saw her. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think she was probably killed with the others in November and December, 1941.
Q. Right away you think she was killed – right when the Germans came?
A. Because the big ghetto cleaning was right that fall.
Q. And how was it for your parents and your brothers during the war?
A. Well, the younger brothers stayed in school. Food got to be difficult to obtain, so we sometimes lived on onion sandwiches, and Father cut the bread and put onions on it and put some salt on it, and that was the breakfast. And also milk was difficult to get. And my father and my mother they both worked. My mother was teaching at the public elementary [school], and my father was teaching at the Academy of Art.
Q. In 1944 the Russians were coming back. What was going through people’s minds in Latvia? What were they going to do, assuming they had survived the Germans?
A. Well, a lot of people had decided that if the Russians were coming back, they would have to try to escape from it because not too many people wanted to see the return and live through what they had lived through before. So, even in the summer when the Russians were close to Latvia, people started evacuating. They were taking boats out of Riga and other places to get out of the country. Some people were going to Sweden in fishing boats. Of course, there were other people like both my grandmothers who felt that they were too old to do anything, to go any place, so they both stayed behind. And my father stayed behind because he was physically unable to travel. But a lot of people escaped.
The day when we escaped might be interesting. It was September 26, 1944. And my father had a friend who had a brick factory and ceramics factory somewhere near Jekabpils, and he had called my mother. He knew that my father was in the hospital. He had called my mother, and he said, “I am coming through Riga with a bunch of equipment that belongs to the factory,” and he was going to take it to another factory, which was in Saka, which is near Pavilosta, on the coast near Ventspils. And he said, “Since my wife and children are out of the Riga area already, I can take you as my wife.” And he had papers for his wife and two kids, and so that my mother and the two kids [my two brothers] then became his wife and two kids in the escape effort. And I had to jump into the moving truck at the place where we had made a kind of a rendezvous, which was near Dzirnavu iela and Marijas iela [streets] because he only had got two kids’ possibilities, but he said that he could hide me underneath the equipment, and he also had already two women hiding there, which were, one was his secretary, and the other one was some other worker from the place where he was the chief.
And that morning he picked up my mother and my two brothers, and then he circled the area so I could jump into the truck. And he had put out a rope ladder and things like that, and then I jumped in there, and then the truck turned around the corner, and I looked back, and I saw my grandmother standing on the street watching me climb into the truck, and then when we turned the corner, I saw her, she was standing there, and she had a kerchief that had been around her head but had slid off, and her white hair was blowing in the wind, and that was the last thing I saw of my grandmother because she died after that.
So from thereon we moved across the bridges toward Jurmala. And there was the new road that had been kind of made because Jelgava was already in the Russian hands. And the only way to get out of Riga was going the Jurmala route and then both the railroad and the road went side by side to Tukums and then, of course, the railroad went down toward Lithuania, and the road split to various different locations. And we went to Pavilosta, which was actually all the way through Kurzeme, from Tukums to the beach.
Q. Who exactly was checking the papers? The Germans were checking the papers?
A. Yes, the Germans were checking the papers, and they were also trying to find people who might want to escape service or whatever. And I was on the edge of being called as one of the air force assistants. So I had to be a little careful.
Q. And your father had been shortly before that -- even though he had been teaching -- he had been taken toward the end to work by the German Army?
A. Because they took everybody, and actually the schools didn’t start that fall anymore, and I remember the last performances in the theaters and the Opera were September 1 and September 2. And I went to one of them. I saw Ziverts’ Vara, which actually was, I believe, the last performance on September 2, and after that the whole cultural life had stopped, and everybody was trying to do things to help the war effort, and the war effort wasn’t too big because the Germans were retreating, and only in Kurzeme [western Latvia] the Latvian soldiers put up six big battles between October and Christmas.
Q. And the purpose of that fighting was what?
A. The fighting in Kurzeme was to allow people to escape, mostly because the Latvians, of course, had no sympathy for the Germans, but they had to stick with the Germans to allow a number of Latvians to escape. [More than 150,000 Latvians managed to flee to the West.] We wanted to escape to Sweden, and we had made certain plans to sit on the beach and be picked up by fishing boats. But the Germans found out about this, and they took us to Liepaja and put us on a ship to Germany. And that was October 11, and we arrived in Gotenhafen, or what is now Gdynia, on October 13, which was the day when Riga fell.
Q. Do you have any other images of Riga in the final days? I imagine it must have been a complete state of panic.
A. Yes, it was kind of panicky, and we were all trying to collect what we wanted to take with us, and then we stayed at various friends’ homes because they were for some reason they [the Soviets] were bombing the area in Pardaugava where our house was, and we had to go back and forth and carry stuff to a grandmother’s apartment where from which we took off.
Q. And then tell about Liepaja. What was the atmosphere? What do you recall from this coastal city where people were awaiting the German ships?
A. Well, it was very really kind of mixed feelings of all kinds of things. People would come in with horses and cows, and they couldn’t take the horses and cows on the ships, and so they left them there. Liepaja was being bombed by the Russians quite often. The Latvian air force helpers were sitting in Liepaja in a train that had all kinds of anti-aircraft guns on it, and they were shooting at the incoming Russians [who were trying to bomb the ships]. Then, of course, the way we got out of Liepaja was that we arrived in Liepaja at the harbor, and immediately we were being taken onto a ship.
The ship had already boarded all the people who were going to go on it, but they still had a kind of a rope step thing that you could climb up, and we climbed up, and German sailors carried up our suitcases, which I think there were about four or five, and as soon as we got on the ship, the ship exited the harbor. So it was a kind of a very rushed situation, and we just sat down on the ship. We didn’t even get down inside the ship. We were on top of the ship in the area where they had placed a lot of boxes with equipment or whatever, and we were kind of sitting between the stuff.
Q. How long was the ride to Gdynia?
A. The ride was a day. And it was a kind of a foggy and rainy time, and I don’t remember too much of anything, except the fact that we were going, and it was cold, and, luckily, Mother had a few things to eat, and the next thing I remember is that we were in Gdynia, or Gotenhafen, and the loudspeakers were saying “Uwage! Uwage!” which is Polish for “Pay attention!” and then they unloaded us onto the ground there.
Q. What then? You were put on a train presumably?
A. Yes, we were put on a train, and that train went into Poland. We ended up at a place called Schakova, which was a camp for workers who were working in a coal mine, and for a while we were in there, and my job was to push little wagons that had coal in it. They came out of the mine, and there was a circle I had to push them around, and at one point in the circle there was an opening and there were railroad cars underneath, and then you stopped the wagon and you emptied it into the railroad cars and took it back to the mine, and they went down on some sort of a mine elevator and then you got the next wagon.
Q. Did you know where you were headed at this time -- or just west? Did you have a goal?
A. The only thing that Mother had in her mind was that she had a friend who had married a Bavarian, and Mother was going to try to get to that point because the friend had invited us. While we were in Poland, the Russian Army had stopped at Warsaw, and they were fighting -- the Germans and the Jews were fighting inside Warsaw -- and then the Russians waited to continue their advance. When they started advancing, they [the Germans] put us on a train from Schakova, and it was going west. We went to Dresden. Luckily they wouldn’t accept us in Dresden. So we didn’t have to be burned in that place. And then we finally ended up in Munich, and I remember that Munich was bombed very, very often, and they put us in that famous place called Dachau. But Dachau was a place where they had the Jews and they had workers who were working on Munich streets, and there were also all kinds of other people in there who were in transit, and I remember going out from there to clean the streets after the bombings, but we were in Dachau a very short time, maybe five days or so. And after that, they sent us into Bavaria because my mother had told them that she might be able to have some connections there. However, once we got there the woman who had invited Mother was not available. Mother couldn’t find her, so we were placed in different situations.
I was working for a farmer -- actually his wife, he was at the front -- but she was running a milk shop. And in the morning I would help her set up the milk shop, and at night I would glue the milk coupons that people turned in onto sheets because they were to go to the government. And Mother worked in a soldiers’ kitchen that made meals for transit soldiers, and the two kids were at the farmhouse, and my mother came home in the evening, and she was stealing potato peels from the kitchen, and we had a little pot belly stove there, and we used to bake the potato peels on that stove, and so we had something to eat.
Q. Some Americans would ask why the Germans would accommodate you at all during this time. What was the benefit to them in giving you passage to Poland and helping you get into Germany?
A. Well, I think that the Germans felt that bringing in people would help the war effort because there would be people working, and although that doesn’t include little kids like my brothers, I did a reasonable amount of work and so did my mother until the Americans came.
Q. And the last days of the war -- there must have been a lot of bombing. What do you recall?
A. Well, the last days of the war the Germans had crumbled already, and the Americans were rolling ahead, and there were bombings in various places, but we were in a very small place on the farm, and my mother was in a little town at the railroad so that the bombing wasn’t too bad before the Americans came. However, there was a bunch of looting going on because the German Army had stores of food and all kinds of things, and those were looted before the place crumbled.
Q. Who was doing the looting?
A. The German people who were living in the area mostly, and then, of course, the American Army came, and there was a large camp of Polish officers who had been captured in ’39 who had been there all this time, and they were let out, and the Americans told them to go and take revenge on the Germans, but the Polish guys were very gentlemen-like, and they didn’t want to, you know, do something bad to the civilians who actually had nothing to do with their confinement. But the fact that they were there, and the American Army came, and they fed them and they fed us, and I remember the first army kitchens rolled up to the camp where the Poles were, and we could go there and get food. That was like paradise.
Q. Do you remember the last day of the war, May 8 ?
A. Not really, because the Americans took us on April 26, which was prior to the end of the war, and for us the war had ended already on May 8 because they [the Americans] were down cleaning up the center of Germany near Berlin.
Q. What was your family’s hope at that time?
A. Well, I had an uncle who was living in Switzerland. He was the American attaché in Switzerland, and we hoped that we might be able to join him and get out of Germany. However, that didn’t happen. We were collected into Displaced Persons camps and stayed in those for some three years prior to the beginning of emigration to various places. And the first place you could go to was England because they wanted people for their coal mines. But they wanted [grown] men, and neither my mother nor I qualified for that.
Q. Your uncle, what was the relationship there? He was an American citizen? Whose brother was he?
A. He married my father’s sister, and he was already an American diplomat in Riga in the ‘30s, and he married my father’s sister, and then he was transferred to Denmark, and of course she went, and then he was transferred to Switzerland, and my father’s sister was in Switzerland with him.
Q. But that connection was never any value to you in getting to the United States?
A. It was. He did some paperwork that allowed us to come into the United States. However, the actual job offer came from a Latvian guy who had a textile factory in Rhode Island, and he offered my mother a job. Although she didn’t go to Rhode Island, that [invitation] got us into the United States as sponsored.
Q. And after the war ended, what did you mother do, what did you do?
A. Well, when the war ended, I got to high school which was a high school supported by the US Army in Augsburg. My mother was working as a teacher for a while at an institute that was teaching teachers for kindergarten places, but after that she became a clerk for the United Nations, and in ’48 I started working for the United Nations too, and I was very lucky because first I was working at the headquarters that was in Augsburg, and they were doing some investigating work for war crimes, and a French general -- and she was a woman -- came down, and I was given to her as a kind of assistant to collect some material that she had to collect, and I did my best, and she went back to Geneva. And then about three or four weeks later, she sent for me, and I went to Geneva, and she made me her assistant, and I became a lieutenant at the age of 18. [Laughs]
Q. A lieutenant in the US Army?
A. In the United Nations Army. But it was kind of a mixture between the United Nations and the United States. The U.S. Army was occupying the place, and the United Nations people were doing all the work.
Q. So when you left Germany was what date? And then you took a ship to the USA?
A. Yes, it’s funny that we arrived in the United States also on April 26, the same day when the Americans took the place where we were in Germany. It was one of the army ships, and we spent a little bit longer than a week on the ocean. We came out of Bremen, and we were supposed to go to New York, but there was a large storm in the way so we went to Boston, and we were disembarked in Boston.
Q. So you left Germany on what date?
A. That I cannot recall.
Q. But that was April of what year?
A. April of ’50.
Q. So you were actually in Germany for five and a half years.
A. Something like that, yes.
Q. When were you again in contact with your father? What year was that?
A. Not for a long, long time because the thing that was difficult for him was that he could not have relatives in a place like America, so for a while the story in Latvia was that we had been killed in the war. And I think very, very late, I think maybe in the middle ‘50s or later, Mother got to connect with some people who were in Riga.
Q. She never had any contact with her mother again?
A. No, not that I know of, and I think that is true because, again, going back and forth it was very bad for the Latvians in Latvia to have any kind of connections or relationships with people who were on the American side.
Q. Since your father was on the list to be deported [to Siberia] the first time, how do you imagine that he wasn’t sent out [with all the tens of thousands of others] when the Russians returned? Just by chance?
A. Well, I think the fact that he had remained while a lot of other people escaped -- he was one of the Academy professors who had remained -- so at the beginning they looked at him as maybe he was on their side. Now the thing that got him busted was the fact that he wouldn’t paint any of their big patriotic paintings -- like, you know, Stalin on the tractors and Stalin plowing the fields and all that -- and he was then taken out of the Academy, and for five years he painted houses and fences in Jurmala [fashionable beach resorts near Riga], where the incoming Russian soldiers and, you know, anybody who was anybody had their place to live.
Q. You said earlier that your mother became a teacher of German and Russian at Syracuse University. Tell about her later life.
A. After she retired, which was when she was 65 years old, at that time she couldn’t take sitting home doing nothing so she went to nursing school, became a nurse, and worked ten more years at the University Hospital and other places as a nurse. Then she came to California when she was 75, and her feet could not carry her anymore in terms of the nursing day in the hospital, and then she retired. In California she lived about 10 years, and then she decided that she didn’t like earthquakes, and she went to live with my brother [Andris], who lives in Michigan near the Latvian colony of Garezers, and she spent the rest of her life there. She died in 1995 on March 10 at the age of 92, and we buried her on March 17, which is right this week.
Six months later: Critical Care Unit, Encino-Tarzana Community Hospital, Encino, Los Angeles, California, September 30, 2005.
Q. Do you remember your first night in the United States?
Q. Where was that exactly? That was on the Harvard campus?
A. In Boston. Yes, in the city of Boston.
Q. Or Cambridge, you’ve said. Was this on the Harvard campus, in the school?
A. No, this was a little house on the harbor.
Q. So who were you there with?
A. My mother, my brothers.
Q. Handel’s Messiah, you’ve told me. And that was actually the first night you were in the United States?
A. Yes, we sang Handel’s Messiah. They have those sing-alongs at Harvard College. That was a fun night in which you could sing along with the chorus.
Q. How were you all feeling that night? What were your mood and your thoughts?
A. Well, we were exhausted but happy to be in this place, very happy and very weepy and sleepy, and happy that we had gotten to that point in our lives.
Maris Ubans earned a B.A. from Syracuse University in 1954 and an M.A. from Northwestern University in 1956. He worked as a professor of theater arts at California State University, Los Angeles, for 35 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ubans returned briefly to direct plays in a once again free Latvia.
Maris Ubans passed away in Los Angeles on October 28, 2005. A celebration of his life was held at the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern California on December 3, 2005, on the eve of what would have been his 76th birthday.
The interviewer, Edgar B. Anderson, also wrote “Laima Veckalne’s Story: A Tale of Forgotten Soviet Crimes,” about an 18-year old Latvian ballet student and her family who were arrested by the Communists in 1941 and deported to Siberia, which was published June 8, 2001, and is still available at FrontPageMagazine.com. His own website can be found at EdgarBAnderson.com.
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