Latvians sell building, rent space now

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The Dovre Hall building, 2337 Central Ave. NE, is in its third generation of immigrant ownership.

Originally owned by a Norwegian group who named it Dovre Hall, it was purchased by Latvian immigrants in 1970. They called the building Latvian House. Early this year, Meerwais Azizi, an Afghanistan immigrant who has owned Crescent Moon Bakery for six years (renting his store/restaurant space on the ground floor of the Latvian House), bought the building from the Latvians. Now the Latvians are renting space, including second floor offices and the third floor ballroom—which is also available for rent to the general public—from Azizi.

On Thursday, April 27, Northeast residents will be able to experience authentic Latvian folk music, when a group from Latvia performs at 7 p.m. at Latvian House; the phone number is 612-789-1575. Tickets cost $20.

Personal histories
The Northeaster recently talked to three Latvian immigrants: Maija Zaeska, of Delano (who has been president of Latvian House for the last five years); Girts Jatnieks of South Minneapolis and Laimonis (Lyman) Sprogis of Fridley about their personal histories, as well as the events and entertainment they have enjoyed at Latvian House over the past 36 years.
Zaeska said the Latvian house, which they used as a social center, was important to them because as refugees who were forced from their homeland, it gave them a place to celebrate their culture and heritage.

Most who emigrated to the United States had left Latvia in 1944, fleeing after invasions by Russia and Germany. The Russians (Communists) came first; in 1941 soldiers deported 45,000 Latvian residents to Siberia in cattle cars. “Many perished on the way. We still commemorate that night, June 14, 1941,” she said. Those who were left lived under communist rule for two years until the Nazis came.

“Latvians thought life would be better under the Nazis, but it really wasn’t,” Zaeska said. Both the Russians and the Germans forced Latvians into their armies. In 1944, the Communists started coming back into Latvia. “That’s when the Latvians fled,” Zaeska said. “Of the two evils, they looked the worst. The Latvians never identified with the Russians, who were from the East. What the Communists did was just as horrendous as the Nazis, but the Americans were more aware of what the Nazis were doing.”

Zaeska’s family fled to Germany on a German troop ship. “My father came home and said we were leaving in six hours. I was 4, my sister was 2. My parents filled pillowcases with clothes, grabbed us two kids and went to the harbor. They didn’t have any property. My mother’s sister couldn’t make up her mind. She said she was going to wait a couple of weeks; she never made it out.” (She survived the occupation, however, and lived the rest of her life in Latvia.)

Zaeska said people were crowded all over the ships; one ship full of refugees was bombed in an air raid and sank.

Jatnieks said his family ended up on the coast of what now is Poland. They traveled through Dresden a week before it was bombed and finally settled up north. “We thought that was safer. We could flee to Britain if required.” His father found work in a munitions factory.

Zaeska’s family was taken in by a dairy farmer and his family near Denmark, by a bay. “Before that, we kind of wandered around in Germany. We were homeless.”

When the war ended, the Latvians went to refugee camps run by the Americans, British or French. “Families were put together in soldiers’ barracks, with blankets hung between them.” Sometimes, the families in the camps were better fed than the Germans. Zaeska and Jatnieks said they remembered CARE packages from America that had little balls and jacks for the children and fresh fruit such as oranges. “Some German beggars came to our camp to beg for food.” The refugees got ration cards, and often traded tobacco for food or other goods. “My father bought a Singer sewing machine for two packs of cigarettes. My niece still has it,” Zaeska said.

Sprogis’ family lived in a camp for displaced persons (“We called them DPs.”) in Bavaria. “It was an old German grenadier training center, a barracks,” he said.

Latvia was still occupied by the Soviets, who promised repatriation. “Some gullible people went back. They found out things were worse, and they should have stayed in Germany. Some were imprisoned,” Zaeska said.
By 1948, Germany formed its own government and in 1949, the refugees had to leave.

“Germany was broke and overloaded with refugees; the country was bombed out,” Sprogis said. America, Canada and Australia were among the countries that agreed to take immigrants.

Sprogis, who lives in Fridley, said his family came to Minot, North Dakota. He found work in a local hotel, but first had to clear up a misunderstanding. “Because of my name, Laimonis, they didn’t know [from my papers] if I was a man or woman.” When he arrived at the hotel, he found out the job reserved for him was as a chambermaid. “The hotel manager said, ‘I think we have to make a change.’ They made me a houseman, a handyman, a job that involved lots of plunger action.”

Zaeska’s family was sponsored by farmers in Wisconsin. “We were like indentured servants. You had to work for a year for that person before you could be free to go. We were there three years. My mother cleaned houses. She’d been a school principal in Latvia.”

Within five years, nearly all the Latvians they knew had become U.S. citizens and were well on their way to learning English. “Our parents valued education for the children and maintaining our own language and culture. People worked two and three jobs. They bought houses and sent their kids to college. Our generation was mostly college educated; it was typical of World War II refugees from Eastern Europe,” Zaeska said. Her father worked in Northeast, for the Kullberg sash and door company (it is listed in the 1936 Minneapolis City Directory as Kullberg Manufacturing Company, millwork and cabinet work, 600 to 626 Main St. NE).

Jatnieks’ father worked for the Minneapolis grain and milling companies, then a tile and marble company on Nicollet Island. “A lot of Latvians lived in Northeast and Southeast,” he said. “My mother worked for the University of Minnesota in the dormitories and hospital as a cleaning lady.”

Zaeska, Jatnieks and Sprogis all became professionals: Zaeska was a teacher at Buffalo High School, Jatnieks worked for Honeywell as an electrical engineer, and Sprogis worked in the steel industry, later founding a company, Rebarfab, Inc., in New Brighton.

In the early 1950s, a group of Latvians bought a Norwegian church in south Minneapolis; they dedicated it March 25, 1951, renaming it the Latvian Evangelical Church. Its address is 3152 17th Ave. S. Sprogis, who joined the church with his wife Biruta in 1955, has been its congregation president for the last nine years. In 1960, there were 1,200 people, all of them Latvian refugees, in the congregation. Today there are 400 congregation members; Sprogis said a typical Sunday might attract from 80 to 100 people.

Latvian House
The Latvian community decided they needed another building, as well, for their social activities: dinners, dances, plays, concerts. Some of it was spurred by competition: “A group of Estonians had bought a house on Lake Street in 1962 and their group was much smaller,” Jatnieks said. Also, the larger Latvian communities in the eastern cities, Chicago and New York, had bought property for large community halls in the late 1950s. “We said, everybody else is doing it and we’re spending a lot of money renting space.”

“We bought Latvian House so we could enjoy other things, concerts, plays, Latvian dances. And we could serve beverages,” Sprogis said.

Zaeska said, “Latvians like their beer.”

They bought Dovre Hall in 1970 and dedicated it in 1971. (The Dovre Building had been the home of the local Sons of Norway lodge from 1921 to 1970.)

Zaeska said they chose the building because they wanted it to be self-supporting; they rented out the storefront business space on the ground floor and some of the second floor offices. Through the years their tenants have included dentists and doctors, a hypnotist and the Ethnic Dance Theater company, which rented space for nine years. The Latvians used the third floor ballroom and adjoining bar and kitchen, as well as some second floor office space.

Latvian House’s photo albums include many pictures of young and old in native Latvian costumes, dancing, singing and eating. A choir called Teiksma often performed there; its director is Elga Pone, Zaeska’s sister.
“We are a singing folks,” Zaeska said. “Music is important; we hold sing-offs between the men and women. We also celebrate summer solstice, decking the halls in tree boughs and branches. The men wear oak wreaths on their heads. There is a lot of singing then.”

Latvia regained its independence in 1991. Two Latvian presidents have since visited Dovre Hall, as well as many native musicians and performers.
Attendance at Latvian House has been decreasing in recent years, and Zaeska said many people who used to provide financial support for it are now sending their contributions to Latvia, instead.

Sprogis said he has mixed feelings about the decision to sell Latvian House. “It meant something, to have our own house. On the other hand, we have to think about the upkeep on an old building. Our society is being reduced by age. The younger generation doesn’t live within the area of the Latvian House. When we have programs or Independence Day celebrations, people sometimes come from Iowa or Wisconsin. They don’t want to make these trips for any little concert or play. There’s not enough interest. We were losing money, the building is old, the taxes went up. The man who bought the building is a good energetic young businessman.”

Zaeska said they’re not planning a farewell ceremony. “That would be like a death knell, and we’re not quitting. We might look for another place if we think we need one. But we’ll be renting here for at least a year or two.”

Azizi said he isn’t planning any major changes, at least for a while. He plans to expand his office to the second floor but will continue to rent out some of the building. He bought the building, he added, because “it is better to buy than rent.”

To contact former Latvian House members, call 612-789-1575. Crescent Moon Bakery’s number is 612-782-0169.

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