Essay: Madison Magazine editor reflects on her family’s Baltic roots in light of events in Ukraine

Madison Magazine's associate editor, Maija Inveiss, shares her connection to Latvia and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has impacted her emotions.
Anna, Rob, Maija and Janis Inveiss in full Latvian costumes
Photo courtesy of Inveiss Family
Three generations of the Inveiss Family in traditional Latvian folk costumes during the 2018 Song Festival in Latvia. Left to right: Anna (Maija's sister), Roberts (Maija's papa/dad), Maija and Jānis (Maija's opaps/grandpa)

As I’ve watched the news footage coming from Ukraine the past two weeks, I’ve been taken back in time, bombarded by memories that aren’t actually mine. I watch videos of the bombs falling from the sky and I can almost visualize what my Opaps (dad’s dad) went through 80 years ago. Just a teenager then, he found himself hiding and struggling to breathe in a smoke-filled basement in Germany after having escaped from his homeland of Latvia in search of safety. I always thought I understood all of the other family and cultural stories of intergenerational trauma I grew up hearing, but everything has been brought to a new light in this modern context.

I’m a proud Latvian American, a dual citizen and fluent in Latvian. Three of my grandparents escaped Latvia during the Soviet Union’s occupation and made a home in the United States as part of the Latvian Diaspora. My heritage is ingrained in every piece of who I am, from the spelling of my name to the ring I wear every day to the way I communicate with my family. That connection to my culture is why I feel so much empathy for those in Ukraine. My Baltic homeland and Ukraine have a shared history — two countries that have been occupied by different regimes and not allowed to openly rejoice in their traditions. This all feels like a story that I’ve heard before, because I have.

Growing up, I heard stories from my grandparents, family members, teachers and elders in our community about Latvians running in the woods behind their homes to escape to any non-Soviet Union country, or about family members sent to the gulags. Or about relatives who were shot on June 14, 1941, a now-remembrance day for the 15,424 Latvians arrested and sent to Siberia, where 34% died in transport and many more died due to illness, disease, frostbite and hard labor upon arrival. While I don’t have the complete story of my family’s journey, I asked Opaps to give me some details about his journey for a homework assignment I did in 2010 for my Latvian immersion summer camp program. I saved the email then knowing that it was something important to document, especially for when I was old enough to understand the experience. While I’ve read it a couple times over the past 12 years, it wasn’t until last week that the story truly sunk in.

My Opaps left his home in 1944 when he was 13 years old via a passenger train. They went to Gdańsk, Poland, then Bydgoszcz before going to Uffstadt-Babelsberg, Germany. When the Soviet army got closer, my family went further west. My Opaps ended up living through a bombing of a home right across the street from where they were staying in Weimar. He was in the basement of the home and he said “the bomb hitting in that moment shook the floor so much, that the basement was filled with dust. So much so it was hard to breathe.” The home he stayed at just had its windows blown out, but there was a huge hole across the street where a house used to be. I imagine if that bomb had landed just a few feet away; I likely wouldn’t have existed, and my family would have never made it to the U.S. by boat in 1949 thanks to a Milwaukee sponsor.

Like many Baltic Americans (those from Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia), Ukrainian Americans and likely others, what we’re hearing today is a version of the story we’ve grown up with, a collective memory we can now identify — bringing underlying intergenerational trauma to the surface. I started Latvian school at 4 years old, and I learned about the history of my country through a Latvian lens, which tells a very different story from those told in public school history classes. I remember being told in a college 1900s Eastern European history class that the Baltics and Ukraine would not be covered because they were the Soviet Union and this class wasn’t about the Soviet Union or Russia. It can be painful to constantly be associated with the country that oppressed your people.

Maija Inveiss Younger in a folk costume

Maija Inveiss as a young girl in a folk costume (Courtesy of Maija Inveiss)

I see so many beautiful similarities between Ukraine and Latvia. We each have our own languages, cuisine, costumes, traditions, folklore, dance, music and literature that create a sense of cultural identity. In Latvian culture, we sing in times of pain and happiness. It’s a way that we show support and a way to calm the fear of an uncertain future. On the Friday after the initial invasion last month, Latvians gathered in the capital city of Riga and they sang for more than six hours in a show called “Ukrainas Brīvībai” (For Ukraine’s Freedom). Famous Latvian musicians performed, the crowd sang some of the most impactful Latvian choral songs and they raised funds for Ukrainian relief efforts. A country the size of West Virginia raised more than 1.2 million euros for Ukraine. I showed my partner the livestream, saying, “This might be the most beautiful and most Latvian thing I’ve ever seen.”

Toward the end of the Soviet Union’s occupation in Latvia, the Baltics were part of “The Singing Revolution.” It was a time where they started to publicly sing Latvian songs. They reintroduced the song festival and sang songs that alluded to freedom. One of those songs is called “Saule, Pērkons, Daugava” (Sun, Thunder, Daugava River) and it became the unofficial national anthem, a symbol of the Singing Revolution. I was born in 1995 and have sung in Latvian choirs my entire life — and still, each time I sing this song, I’m in tears. Hearing Latvians sing this song in 2022 to advocate for freedom in Ukraine took me back in time to 1988 when it was sung for the first time, back when we were advocating for our own freedom. My tears were as heavy as they’ve ever been.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been going through my day-to-day life, but there’s a constant stream of fear and sadness underneath the surface waiting to bubble over. It’s not only a deep sadness for those with family in Ukraine or Russia, for those going through this directly and for those who have a connection to these areas — it’s an extreme fear that the Baltics are next. All of this has served as a reminder to me that while this hits close to home, others all over the world are experiencing similar circumstances. It’s important to stay informed about other wars and international tragedies regardless of where they are.

I know others in my community may feel similarly. At the same time, I’m not used to people paying this much attention to Eastern European cultures which have always felt so close to my life. I’ve seen so many moments of unity and support from the Baltic community over the past two weeks and from others who might not have a connection to Ukraine whatsoever. I am touched every time I see photos with Latvian and Ukrainian flags side-by-side. In Madison, I have been amazed by all the businesses trying to raise funds to help Ukrainians, from a glass maker auctioning off a Ukrainian flag made of glass to Bloom Bake Shop participating in a national initiative to Leopold’s donating proceeds from the sales of Russian and Ukrainian literature. I know that if this were Latvia, each of these initiatives from the community would mean the world to me. Whether attending a rally, donating directly to causes or buying a local item from a business that is sending funds to organizations doing the work on the ground, that support is impactful.

If you’re looking to support Ukraine, here are some donation options vetted by the Better Business Bureau. Madison Magazine has also started this list with some of the options offered by local businesses to help support Ukrainian causes. Brīvību Ukrainai! (Freedom for Ukraine!)

Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine. She frequently writes of her family and heritage, along with local food in the biweekly BITE newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.