Tearful return to Latvia after a 60-year absence

  • 2005-04-06
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - There was no one at the Riga airport to meet him. All he had was his daughter by his side and a few personal items. Yet after 60 years of having lived abroad, Evalds Ciekurs, 94-years-old and suffering memory loss, returned to his homeland.

It is an astounding story. Ciekurs was found two years ago living by himself, infirm and delirious, in his apartment in New Jersey. He was immediately placed in Innova Health & Rehab, a Mount Laurel nursing home run by the state. For two years he languished there, until a doctor, nurse and social worker 's along with a local columnist and an American Latvian 's decided to help. They wanted to send him home.

While living in the nursing home, Ciekurs' health returned, as did his sanity, and he woke up in a place he did not want to be. His wife had died earlier, leaving the Latvian-born immigrant alone in the United States. At times he implored his doctors and nurses to let him return to Latvia, but no one knew where that was. Finally the group managed to contact his daughter in Riga, who subsequently flew to Pennsylvania to fill out a mound of custody paperwork. After that, it was home free.

"My memory is going," says Ciekurs, holding his temple between his wrinkled hands. "I don't remember very much."

Thankfully, other people do.

A full life

Ciekurs was born and raised in Riga. During World War II, he reportedly drove a truck for the Nazi occupational forces, and later became part of the mass of refugees who fled before the second advance of the Red Army. He ended up in a German displaced persons camp, leaving behind a wife, daughter and son in Latvia.

After leaving the camp, Ciekurs made his way to France, the United Kingdom, and then on to Canada, where he was granted citizenship. He even remarried, although he did so without having officially divorced his wife back in the Soviet Union. Her name was Alma, and his daughter, Malda Znutina, described her as a kind woman. Alma used to write Malda letters during the Soviet occupation since Ciekurs' written Latvian skills were not that good.

1991 was a time of celebration for many Latvian families separated after decades of Soviet rule, and Ciekurs is one example. Shortly afterward he met his daughter. He invited her to stay with him for three months in Canada, after which he asked her to live there permanently. But since she needed to return home to care for her own dying mother, Malda refused.

Finally, Ciekurs traveled to Latvia to meet the wife he hadn't seen since before the war.

"It was a really nice moment," daughter Malda says.

But then Ciekurs disappeared. After his second wife died in America, he lost contact with his daughter. But then new letters began to arrive, only these were from a social worker named Lucia Heugel, who worked at the Mount Laurel nursing home.

Long road home

Ciekurs' return wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the generosity of people who were little more than strangers. He received help from his doctor, Brian Little, and as well as his nurse, Mike Dugger. (Little utilized the Internet search engine google.com a year ago to find out where Riga was.) Together with Heugel, the three worked to send Ciekurs back to Latvia. In three columns about Ciekurs in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monica Yant Kinney wrote that Dugger even resorted to calling Latvian churches.

Heugel, who was from Argentina, spent considerable time helping Ciekurs, writing letters on his behalf to family members and the Latvian media. She reportedly told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she helped him out of empathy, since she was also a foreigner living in America.

One of the letters made it to the pages of Neatkariga Rita Avize, a Latvian daily. The paper published the piece, asking if there were any family members of Ciekurs willing to take him in. One family came forward but eventually was unable to adopt him.

The trip home was thus momentarily postponed, until Biruta Snikvalds, an old friend, recognized his name in an article by a Latvian language publication distributed in Canada. She then supplied Heugel with information about Ciekurs' daughter in Riga. What followed were letters in English to Malda Znutina, a retired schoolteacher. Malda Znutina, who speaks no English, had the letters taken to a friend for translation.

Assured that her father was alive, Malda had to decide whether she would take him in. This meant she would have to travel to the United States and take legal custody.

Though her instinct was to say "yes," she had to decline for financial reasons. Even though she had nursed her mother until the end, Malda was leery of looking after a man she hardly knew. "I had to go myself and get him, and so I said, 'I can't do it 's I don't have the money.' I have a small apartment and a pension and that's all. I can live with what I have. At the time, I said that it wasn't going to happen, I didn't have the means," she says.

However, financial help eventually materialized. An American-Latvian named Ruta Vitols came forward and offered to pay for Malda's tickets and a one-way flight to Latvia for Ciekurs. Vitols also took Malda in during her short visit to America, serving as her translator.

Together at last

To be sure, relations between Malda Znutina and her father are not easy. They hardly know each other, and her one-room apartment, while sufficient for her, is too small for the both of them.

"It's not easy for either of us right now," Znutina says frankly. Although he often has a grumpy temperament, she said that when her father arrived it was touching and tearful moment. And even now, he can be very pleasant at times 's every once and a while mustering up the energy to joke. Perhaps this change of mood has something to do with his new environment, speaking Latvian in his home country and being close to family.

There are also money problems. Ciekurs has two small pensions from the Unites States and Canada, but for the moment they are unable to receive the payments. For now, the two must live off Znutina's pension.

And although he has found a home, Ciekurs journey may not be over. "I want to go to an old folk's home in the countryside," he says.

His daughter explained that he would prefer to live in a community of old Latvians, in a place where he could be around animals and flowers. "He is a great lover of animals," she says. "At the nursing home he was known for feeding the birds."

She, for one, hopes this small dream of his will come true. So much already has.