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Giving comfort to Latvians in a strange land

  • 2001-11-29
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - The village of Lena lies deep in the Norwegian countryside, far from the capital of Oslo. The only places to pass the time, aside from the great outdoors, are a market, a post office, a pub and one very expensive sports shop.

It was there that I attended school in 1996 with 50 other Norwegian students. The world seemed to be covered with mountains, the surrounding hills engulfing us.

Many people think that Balts relate mentally with Scandinavians - in this case Norwegians - but that's not true. Compared to the troubles Baltic peoples face, Norwegian students seemed concerned with small, unimportant things. We had little in common and I felt very isolated.

They knew almost nothing about the Baltic states. Some would ask, "Didn't you experience a war recently?" Or, "Do you have Sprite and highways in Latvia?"

One day, out of the blue, a man called me. He spoke in a Bergen dialect. "This is Johannes Haanes from Oslo. I heard about you in our cultural society, Norway-Latvia. You like to ride horses? My son Ivar Juris' ex-wife has a stable not far from your school. Maybe you'd like to visit them?"

This was my first contact with him.

Johannes

Johannes Haanes is a 71-year-old Norwegian. His hair is thick and gray, but despite his age, he has a strong, optimistic personality. He is still active and makes it a point to enjoy sports the year round, including mountain climbing.

He has a broad knowledge of Latvian history, which was welcome after my encounters with the students.

Born in Bergen, his mother passed away just a week after his birth. He grew up surrounded by the blue and green-yellow mountains with his father and older sister and brother.

As a boy he collected stamps, some of which were from Latvia. Back then, he had no idea he would marry a Latvian woman.

Her name was Ligita Veisele. "I think Latvia would be an unknown country for me if it wasn't for Ligita - it would just be a place whose emblem I used to see on stamps when I was a boy," Johannes said.

I visited his home with two other Latvian students. Johannes took us to museums, concerts and the cinema in Oslo. We were spoiled. He treated us so well.

Sometimes he would say, "Don't think you're special. I just have an affinity toward Latvians."

Through Norway-Latvia, he regularly opens his home to other Latvian students, artists and choirs. "Maybe my job there sounds boring but it brings me into direct contact with new people all the time. My most exciting moments are going to the train station to greet them at the platform, the first time they see Norway. They have their own ideas about what this place will be like, but they are usually worried. They wonder how their lives will turn out here. I try to reassure them."

Ligita passed away in 1994. Sanda Deisone, a Norwegian teacher in Valmiera, once stayed in their home while Ligita was alive. "Sometimes I come across some old letters filled with her bright expressions. She was so interesting. To stay with them was a little island of happiness in that unknown world."

Johannes met Ligita in 1955 in Vasteras, Sweden, where she studied nursing and he studied engineering. They married four years later. "It was May 17, a national holiday in Norway. I went to a café with friends and we met all those nursing students." Even so many years after their first encounter, Johannes blushes to recall it.

Ligita

Ligita Veisele was born in the Latvian village of Babite and lived with her father Janis, mother Emilija and younger sister Ruta. In January 1941, Russian soldiers came to their home early one morning and arrested Janis. He was taken to Riga's central prison and sent to Siberia during the mass deportations in June that year.

On May 9, 1944, Ligita, her sister, mother and two aunts boarded the last fishing boat to leave for Sweden before the Red Army returned on their sweep through Europe to Berlin. Their relatives in Latvia were informed that the boat sank in the Baltic Sea. No one knew they were alive and well, and living in Vasteras.

They heard nothing of Ligita's father's whereabouts for years after that cold winter morning. In 1944, a Russian officer allowed him to send a tiny note from Siberia - a drawing of him with the icy sea in the background. They got the note in the early 1970s.

This prompted contact between Ligita and her father, who returned from Siberia after Stalin's death, and they managed to meet when she visited Riga 20 years ago.

Ligita and Johannes moved to Norway where he worked for IBM and Ligita worked as a nurse. They had three sons, giving each two names, one Norwegian and one Latvian: Karl Gunars, Ivar Juris and Jan Vilis.

Since her death, Johannes has participated in many projects connecting the two countries.

There is no reason for him to insist on maintaining contact with Latvians. Perhaps it instills in him a sense of contact with the woman he loved. Maybe in the voices of the young Latvians he hears something reminiscent of his beloved wife, of times long ago when they met as students in that faraway café - the love he has for his wife living on in another form.