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Longtime Mt. Morris resident escaped from Soviet-occupied Latvia

Elmars and Marion display the Latvian flag along with Kathy Knutti, left, who is chairman of the Dorcas Circle at Disciples United Methodist Church. Photo supplied
Elmars and Marion display the Latvian flag along with Kathy Knutti, left, who is chairman of the Dorcas Circle at Disciples United Methodist Church. Photo supplied

The population of Riga, Latvia increased by one on Jan. 5, 1930 when Elmars Kalnins was born to John and Janis Kalnins.

A longtime Mt. Morris resident, Kalnins told his story recently to the Dorcas Circle at Disciples United Methodist Church, Mt. Morris.

Riga was a large city of perhaps two million people whose lives were over-shadowed by the presence of Russian soldiers, scattered throughout the city.

As of 1934 Riga was a Russian-occupied city.

While living in Latvia, Kalnins attended grade school.

Being a little rascal brought about frequent visits to the principal’s office, where Kalnins was known on a first-name basis.

Kalnins’ father was a bricklayer, who provided a “medium income” for his family.

A family garden provided food for the family of four.

They attended the Lutheran Church, which was the liaison that helped connect the family with Mt. Morris.

Childhood activities included “kick-the-can” as well as a little basketball and soccer with neighborhood kids.

When Kalnins was 9 his family saw the Russian army marching toward the Daugava River (about the size of the Rock River) in Riga.

At that time the family loaded their few possessions on a small horse-drawn wagon, the boys (Elmars and his older brother, Al) rode horseback to escape from the inner city of Riga to a remote, rural hiding area where they lived for a year.

Other than a few items of clothing, Kalnins only memento of his homeland was a Latvian flag with its three bold horizontal stripes, two of cranberry separated by a white stripe in the middle, which symbolize the country’s warriors.

A brick layer friend of John’s provided lodging, and the basic necessities for the escapees.

The Kalnins family of four immigrated by boat to Poland in 1939, leaving behind extended family and friends.

After six months in Poland the family moved on to Germany, where they lived in a displaced persons (DP) camp, which became their home for almost six years.

Elmars described life in this camp saying, “It was not good! We got one can of Spam each day for six adults to share.”

They lived in the former German barracks. While in this camp they labored by constructing buildings for the German soldiers to live and work.

A new page in the life of the family turned when the Trinity Lutheran Church of Mt. Morris and Bob Kable sponsored their family to emigrate from Germany to the USA.

Kalnins arrived in Mt. Morris July 12, 1950 at precisely 2:45 p.m.

His brother, Al emigrated from Germany a year later, and his oldest brother Boris never left.

Learning English came slowly for the family, who spoke only Latvian, German, and Russian.

The family home was on McKendrie Avenue.

A neighbor complained saying he “didn’t want to live next to no foreigner!”

Kalnins’ father went next door to take care of the problem.

When he was gone a long time, one of the boys went next door to see if he was OK, and found him “having a beer” with his new friend and neighbor.

They were accepted from that point.

The Korean War began, and Uncle Sam drafted Kalnins into the U.S. Army six months after arriving in Mt. Morris, although his English skills were minimal and he spoke no Korean.

After 17 months in Korea (1951-53) he was discharged and returned to life in Mt. Morris and his job as carpenter for Koper and Lovsted.

In 1959 he was hired by Kable Brothers Printing Company, where he continued as a carpenter.

Later, in 1996 he retired from Quebecor, which purchased the plant.

Village life and local politics were significant to Kalnins, who was a village trustee for 14 years (May 1, 1971 to April 30, 1985) and a village president for eight years (May 1, 1985 to April 30, 1993).

Kalnins met his wife, Marion, in Mt. Morris at Lamb’s Theatre where she was an usher.

She would write letters during the movie and was interrupted by Kalnins and his noisy family members, who required frequent reminders to “be quiet.”

Kalnins and Marion Fritz married on April 9, 1960. They have three daughters, Sandy, Brenda, and Lisa, 13 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

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