Recently I had the inimitable honor of interviewing Mara, a remarkable woman in every sense of the word. She shared her experience and escape from occupied Latvia in the 1940’s. She and her family could almost be called “The Von Trapp” family from the movie, The Sound of Music. As her circumstances were not unlike those depicted in the movie, and which many others during this dark period of history endured. She graciously will express in “her own words” what transpired while escaping and hiding in the woods with her father, mother and five siblings. My heart was captured by her journey and what she and her younger siblings had experienced. During the interview there were some tears, some laughter, and a realization that what happens during our lives is a blueprint of who we are in future times. But most important the caliber of strength we get from the LORD while undergoing tribulations. Her name Mara, was a very popular girls name in Latvia in the 1940’s.
I hope you appreciate reading her story as much I did learning about this incredibly classy humble and at times, amusing woman. She only wanted her first name to be used, and of course I obliged and respected her request. I found Mara to be an admirable and godly woman. She didn’t really want to get into specific details. Thus, I encouraged her to express what she felt most comfortable sharing, and nothing more than that. So here is her story.
CD: First of all, let me preface by saying how honored I am that you would share your story with us. So, thank you on behalf of The Bottom Line Ministries for so graciously affording us the opportunity to do so.
Mara: Of course, very welcome.
CD: Mara, let me clarify. You are a retired teacher—
Mara: Art, school teacher.
CD: Sorry, of course. You are a retired art teacher. You have one son, two grandchildren, and your beloved husband passed away three years ago.
CD: Can you take us to Latvia and your life there just prior to the occupied territory?
Mara: Well, I was a very young girl. But I remember that up to 1941, Latvia was a beautiful country to live, and raise children. But slowly over time there were things changing. There were signs all over the place, that things were changing. Things were changing…it was scary and a tense time. My father was a pastor at the Latvia Lutheran Church, and my mother was busy raising us five kids.
CD: So, you were a family of Christians?
Mara: (Nodding her head enthusiastically) Of course. Of course. Yes, we were. And that was one of the reasons they came after my papa too.
CD: For being a Christian, or being a pastor?
Mara: Both. I have it burned in my brain, heard all about it as a child. Saw it too. And I heard my mama crying at night openly to God, and my papa praying out loud. It was a nightmare. I remember crying and being so scared, hiding under my bed with my siblings. World War II –it’s just a page out of history for most people. But for me, and my siblings, we lived it. And it wasn’t a good time at all.
CD: Mara, I cannot imagine what you and your family had endured. My heart goes out to you as I can sense the trauma is still with you it’s palpable. You need to take a minute? Are you Okay?
Mara: (We paused for about five minutes before continuing.) They were lying to us, these people in Latvia. Promising us protection from the Nazi’s, and all the time these other ones, were trying to get in and take us over. We couldn’t get news anymore. Communication was shut down, being blocked. The libraries were throwing out books. We were being watched, and we couldn’t say how we felt it was a scary time. My papa was a really well-known pastor in the area with a big congregation. They, the ones who made believe they were trying to help us, would burst into our home almost nightly. Eating our food and taking what they wanted. And warning my father he had to join their forces, or we’d all die. It was enough to scare a young girl and young brother and sisters and mama, who clung to all of us like she’d never see us again.
CD: Oh my gosh Mara, I’m so sorry. Can you give us the ages of your siblings and self?
Mara: Yah. I was born in 1934, Mark, in 1936, Gabriel 1937, Mikaella and Valentin, twins, 1939.
CD: Yikes, all so young. So, you were obviously the oldest one, I imagine a lot of responsibility was placed on you because of that.
Mara: Oh Yah! Anyway, we had to get out of there or we would not make it. I remember the night clear, almost like yesterday. Papa came in with Mama and told us we were going on a trip. And it was going to be fun, an adventure. This was 1942, so we kids were young. But the twins were toddlers. Mama was a tiny lady, but strong. And she had such deep faith and trust in God. My papa prayed in Latvian language of course, the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 91. I remember this, why? Because that is the main Psalm my papa would pray as we hid in the woods and traveled. Those were days of strong prayers, strong faith, and trusting in God.
CD: So, God was your guide, and your faith kept you going. Your family took off in the middle of the night. Do you remember what items your parents took with them for their escape?
Mara: Yah. Mama packed just necessary things for us children. Papa took his Bible and a suitcase, nothing more. Because we had to travel light, run and hide. We couldn’t take big things with us. It was all about escaping and moving away from our country.
CD: Oh my gosh Mara. Your family, and so many others at that time, what horrors you faced.
Mara: Yah. But it wasn’t that bad. We believed God would help us. And He did! We prayed during the cold nights in the woods. We got by with eating herbs in the woods, nuts, berries, things like that. And my mama had lots of preserves, she made homemade jarred items. We had enough, and always just enough. It was like the jars kept being refilled. I remember always having just enough for everyone to eat.
CD: So, God’s hands and His provisions, never ending. And how long did you hide in the woods?
Mara: I think about one year. We kept moving, then papa and mama ran into others escaping the occupation. They all feared the red storm. Then one family offered us passage on a fishing boat to get to Sweden. There were many others from Latvia there. And then, we could figure out a way to go west, and get to the USA.
CD: I am on the edge of my seat Mara! I know and have read of these situations and spoke to several Holocaust survivors and they all tear at my heart. We in the USA have been so blessed, so blessed indeed.
Mara: Yah, very blessed. Well long story short. My papa got work in Sweden, and mama sewed clothes. Papa, he applied for citizenship to go to USA, we had to wait a long time. We finally got passage and arrangements were made to Ellis Island in 1949.
CD: How did your faith hold up during this whole time? Did you or your mama and papa ever lose faith?
Mara: Never! We all trusted in God! Papa was a good man. A man of God. He would always give thanks to God for all things. He never swore, cussed or got mad. He never had the poor me attitude. He was a fighter and never stopped believing nor did my mama. She was busy caring for her children, and I helped with chores. God is the only thing that kept us going. We always prayed together, and never stopped believing. His promises are true, He will always help His own. I can’t stress that enough. You write for this Bottom Line Ministry, so I want to tell your readers, that God is real. And He was the One that got us through it all. Otherwise we’d all have died for sure.
CD: Amen! Yes. I’m sure our readers will appreciate hearing about your family’s great faith.
Mara: Good, very important. God is very important.
CD: I agree. Now, when you first pulled into New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty come into view. Can you describe that moment, if you would?
Mara: Oh yah! I was shaking with excitement. I was standing on a bench to look over the heads of people on the boat. Papa, well—it was the first time I saw my papa cry. He had tears running down his face, and mama was sobbing too. But there was so many others crying as well. So, it wasn’t unusual to see. I was happy because my papa told me we would be free and be able to do anything we wanted to do. I always wanted to be a teacher, and so that is what I became. And then my papa said, ‘thank You Sweet LORD for bringing us home.’ That I never will forget. Those were his words; I still hear his voice in my head. Like it was just now.
CD: How beautiful to praise God as you pulled into safe harbor. Where did you wind up living?
Mara: We lived in a shelter for a little while. But then, papa got back to preaching, a pastor’s position opened up in a Lutheran church on Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Papa got a house to live in that went with his being a pastor. We all lived there until I graduated from Erasmus Hall High School. You know, a lot of famous people went to that High School.
CD: Yes, I know. Neil Diamond, one of my favorite singers went there.
Mara: I met my husband there, and we fell in love. Oh, and he became an ordained pastor too! He got transferred to New England, and so here I am to this very day. My husband, Ivars, better known as George, died just three years ago. You know, I miss him every single day. But as a Christian, I know I’ll see him, my mama and papa again. We had a good life, and I was a happy wife. He had a sense of humor that kept me laughing non-stop. He loved cats, and we had many. I loved dogs, and we had many. We’d often get into debates about cat people versus dog people. (She laughed as her eyes misted over.) And here is my Lulu, Ivars brought her home 10 years ago. My little Russian blue. And Ivars last cat. And it will be mine too. I’m too old for any more animals after this one passes on.
CD: So sweet, what a nice memory, and how blessed to have had a great love and marriage. Mara, how about your siblings, are they still with us today?
Mara: Yah! All of them, yah! And we still talk on the phone every day. My sister lives in California with her son. And I just came back from a visit there. That’s why I couldn’t get back to you quickly about this story.
CD: Wow! God bless you all! That’s wonderful, I’m so happy to hear you are all well and still in touch with each other.
Mara: Yah! And we are all grandparents, and great grandparents too. Not me! I’m only a grandmother, not great! My son waited until in his late forties to be married. He was so fussy! Finally, I’m an old lady, but became a grandmother twice in the last 3 years. My Ivars would have been so happy. He always said to me, ‘Gemma’ he called me that name, said I was like a precious gem to him. Anyhow he’d always say, ‘Gemma, I don’t think our boy will ever find a girl to settle down. He’s too darn picky. But I can’t blame him, he’s looking for someone like his mama.’ I sometimes believed that he’d never marry too. So happy he found someone to love and has two kids too!
CD: I’m sure Ivars knows that and has a front row seat in heaven watching your son and little ones.
Mara: Yah! But the girl he married doesn’t go to church and didn’t baptize the babies. What can I do? Nothing, keep my mouth shut and pray one day her heart will be touched by Jesus. We raised our boy in the church, the Latvian Lutheran Church. He believes and still does. I don’t know— he fell for this lady without faith. But I believe God had a lot to do with this match. Because when I say some biblical verses, she nods now and smiles. Before she’d walk out of the room. So, little seeds, little seeds. God is good all the time, so He has a plan. But I love her, like a daughter too. She is a good mother and wife. God has a plan, always does.
CD: Yes, He surely does. May I ask you, as an immigrant come into our country legally, and waited for safe passage and applied for immigration. What do you think about the migration situation going on today?
Mara: Oh boy! I get so hot under the collar about this! This is not the way to do it. This is unsafe on every level. We don’t know who is coming in, no way to keep track of them. Of course, we want foreigners to come to the USA, but legally, like most of us did, and still do. This pouring into our country, and displacing veterans in nursing homes, to make room for migrants, and tossing homeless out of shelters to place the migrants in, it’s not right. Providing free this and free that, and nothing for American homeless people in the streets, and a lot of our veterans, it’s just a sad thing. I feel sorry for the ones who really need to be here. I feel sorry for the pawns that are being used, and for those being abused. It’s just out of control. Just so out of control, and I’m darn mad about it! Close up those borders, get an account of who and what is coming into our Country. This is a very dangerous and volatile situation, and these people in Washington D.C. are out of touch with the majority and pulse of the real people. Oh, I better shut up, I’m an old lady on a rant, and I will keep yipping and yapping and flapping my gums! Oh, and one more thing. My boy proudly served our country for 8 years. And he is a hard worker. He is very upset how they treat veterans too! Not right! My family worked hard when we came here. We didn’t get anything for free. We worked hard. Oh boy, let me shut up now LORD, before I go too far with my big mouth! I love all of our brothers and sisters, it’s just a matter of doing things right, for all people. This includes the migrants of course. But it has to be done right. Lord knows my heart, but He knows I can yip too long. So, I will shut up now!
CD: You are a priceless Gem; your husband is correct to have called you that nickname! I love your passion, Mara!
Mara: Well, I guess I’m so passionate about doing what’s right. And I’m not patting myself on my back, but after what we lived through, and millions of others who came to this country legally, and waited years to do so… it’s just not right to have these unidentified people pouring in. Again, I want them to come, but legally, processed appropriately. And they need to be vetted. Just like my family was, and countless others who came here legally were. Yah, there are extenuating circumstances where they are fleeing persecution, or fearing for their lives. Of course, take them in. But, honestly, looking at the majority of healthy young men pouring into our countries. One has to wonder, who are they and why are they here all alone? Who are they? That’s all we want to know. Get a gosh darn system in place to vet properly, and to protect those coming IN, and of course those already HERE!
CD: You obviously thought a great deal about this situation. Thank you for your much appreciated candor.
Mara: Yah. Of course. You know I lived a very good life, thanks to being here in this Country, and I love it. I thank God for it. I also believe that God will protect His own. As for those who are not with our LORD, I always say, ‘I hope you have a pair of asbestos pants, cause where you’re going you will need them!’
CD: (Hahaha) That is too funny! You are such a funny lady. I have to remember that line!
Mara: Yah. My students always would tell me that. I am an artist, and loved teaching students art. You know it is kind of like my life.
CD: How is it like your life?
Marla: Well, from Latvia childhood to fleeing in the woods, to passage on a fishing boat, to Sweden, to beautiful USA. All part of an artist’s drawing wouldn’t you say? I mean to say this. God is the Master Artist, and He painted and filled in the blank canvas for my life. From Latvia, to America, to my marriage, and now here I am in the golden years of my sunset. But I know what the final painting of my life will be. And it will be more beautiful than any painting of my life so far.
CD: My goodness! Wow! Mara, that is the most beautiful way of describing God and His plans for our lives. Wow! You are a poet too! Thank you so much. In closing, what advice would you give the younger generation today?
Mara: Find a mid-point and meet there, try to teach each other and learn from each other. And if you don’t know God, get to know Him. He got me and my family through the worst and darkest scariest days of our lives. And He never left us. He pulled us through. His promises are real. I know this, because I lived through them. And He delivered on every single one of His promises, over and over again, and still hasn’t stopped yet. God is real!
CD: Amen! Mara, I have great admiration and respect for you, for not only what you’ve gone through with your family; but I can see your light shining, and that is definitely from above. Thank you so much for your time, and I wish you many blessings now and always.
Mara: Yah, and He does bless me. God bless you and your heart. And thank you for taking the time to listen to this old lady.
CD: Old lady! Never! You are a breath of fresh air, and it was an absolute honor to meet and speak with you. God Bless you.
Psalm 9:9-10-The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.