March 04, 2001
The story of the Latvian community of Greater Cleveland begins in the late 19th Century when the first immigrants settled in the former Western Reserve area of Cleveland, Ohio. Over the next 50 years, they were joined by a growing number of immigrants. According to U.S. census statistics, more than 600 Latvians lived in Greater Cleveland in 1940 and the number grew to more than 4,000 ethnic Latvians by 1960.
The earliest settlers were immigrants in search for a better life in America. They were predominantly country folk and manual laborers with little education; nevertheless, many were bright and devoted workers.
In the summer of 1897 the Rev. Hans Rebāne arrived from Boston to set up the small Immanuel Lutheran congregation consisting of 50 people. He would come two to three times a year to Cleveland to hold a service for the congregation for the first several years. Services also were held at homes of church members and were led by president of the congregation, Juris Zetzers. This early church survived through the 1930s.
Around 1905 the first political refugees from czarist repressions in Russia reached Cleveland. They formed their own society and were very active in their political and cultural activities. Many of these immigrants returned to Latvia after the October 1917 revolution in Russia.
In 1950, Cleveland discovered another type of Latvian. They were citizens of a free and independent Latvia fleeing from communist oppressors. Upon the arrival of the Rev. Jēkabs Kugrens and the Rev. Kārlis Sautiņš, two congregations emerged in July and August 1951—the Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church of Cleveland and the Latvian Ev. Church of Peace. Both congregations joined the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Exile. Services in the 1950s and 1960s were held at various sites.
In 1962, the congregations merged to become the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church. As the merger was accomplished, two splinter groups formed, which barely survived until 1978.
In the meantime, the new United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church congregation purchased the Church of Redeemer, located in downtown Lakewood, and proceeded with a complete renovation of the church structure. The church located next door was used as a meeting hall. On April 5, 1964, the Archbishop Kārlis Kundziņš consecrated the renovated church. In the years that followed, the congregation added a basement floor to the church, and in 1971 built a new hall adjacent to the church. During this decade, the congregation reached its peak membership of 900.
Once the new hall was built, all the activities of the Latvian community of Greater Cleveland were headquartered there. The congregation developed a busy program of religious activities, with regular worship services conducted every Sunday and on holidays. The Sunday School, which included language and culture as well as religion, grew by leaps and bounds. Children also formed various youth groups. Catechism and confirmation are particularly important since, according to Latvian traditions, it signifies young persons’ coming of age. Through the years, the church women have been very active organizing meals, bazaars, art exhibits and concerts.
A church council, as well as an executive committee consisting of a chairman, secretary and treasurer, is responsible for the financial and administrative functions of the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church. Four chairmen who have led the efforts so far: Arvīds Veits, Tālivaldis Berkulis, Zaiga Kelers and Edvīns Auzenbergs.
The ministers who served the various Lutheran churches over the years included the Rev. Jēkabs Kugrens (1951-1965), the Rev. Ivars Gaide (1966-1974) and the Rev. Laimdots Grendze (1974-present) of the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church congregation; the Rev. Kārlis Sautiņš (1951-1971) and the Rev. H. Jurjāns (1971-1979) of the Latvian Ev. Church of Peace congregation; and the Rev. Kārlis Briedis (1962-1978) of the Martin Luther congregation.
The Cleveland Latvian Baptist Church was organized in 1951 and led by the Rev. Juris Barbins (1951-1960), Arturs Meija (1960-1971), Uldis Ukstiņš (1971-1986), Arnolds Ūsis (1986-1998) and Pauls Barbins (1998-present). The Baptist church members were very dedicated and active. They formed a women’s auxiliary, youth group, a music ensemble and a Sunday school, where religion, Latvian language, history, geography and music were taught to children. The worship services were held at many different American Baptist and Presbyterian churches in Cleveland.
A very small Latvian Catholic group, consisting of some 60 to 70 members, formed their own chapter in 1951 to hold monthly services in Latvian, which were conducted by Msgr. Aleksandrs Goldikovskis. This chapter was presided over by Jānis Gercans.
Marģers Grīns, the spiritual leader of the Latvian religious movement “Dievturi” also lives in the Cleveland area.
While the church was the key player of the social organization of the Latvian community, it was not the only organized group in the area. Two important organizations were set up in 1951: the Cleveland Latvian Association and the Latvian Welfare Association “Daugavas Vanagi.”
The “Daugavas Vanagi” became active in Cleveland In the fall of 1951 when a group of former war veterans established a Cleveland chapter. The chapter currently is led by Viktors Zemesarājs. At the peak, there were 268 members. This association included not only veterans, but students and the women’s auxiliary. The second largest chapter in the United States, the Cleveland Welfare Association not only offered support for disabled Latvian veterans, but supported all major cultural, educational and humanitarian efforts worldwide. The association planned welfare and cultural activities on an annual basis. The Latvian Ladies Auxiliary Committee organized charity dinners, raffles and bake sales, with all proceeds marked to support disabled veterans, needy families and the education of young people in Latvian heritage.
For more than 40 years the Welfare Association sponsored a theater group and sports activities and supported Latvian boy scouts and girl scouts. Members were also usually active in church and, for the most part, members of the Cleveland Latvian Association as well.
The Cleveland Latvian Association began its work on April 16, 1950, as it undertook the representative functions with the American government, its institutions and local communities. The association was created with the objective to unite all Latvians, promote and sponsor their ethnic cultural heritage and language, and help Latvia regain its freedom. One of the association’s responsibilities was organizing the annual observation of the Latvian Independence Day on Nov. 18. The association also spearheaded fundraising drives to support local cultural activities. It sponsored the boy scouts and girl guides, the sports club, the Latvian Sunday school, a choir, a library, concerts and theater. To keep the Latvian community abreast of the latest events, the association published a newsletter.
In 1965, Latvian senior citizens organized their own activities. These seniors meet twice a month at the United Latvian church hall and pass the time playing chess and cards, as well as discussing Latvian cultural, political and current events. One of the group’s leaders, Janis Ladusans, was also Cleveland’s Latvian community correspondent for the New-York based Latvian newspaper Laiks. He presided over the group from 1985-2000, when he retired from active duty at the age of 95. The current president is Oskars Danilovs.
Under the sponsorship of the Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church, the Cleveland Latvian Sunday School was founded in 1950 with Kārlis Purviņš as its director. In addition to teaching Christian religion, the Sunday school’s mission is to help preserve the national heritage through instruction in language, geography, history, literature, and song and dance. The school also had its own orchestra, choir and theater group that would perform at annual talent shows and other special events.
A core group of educators has devoted its efforts to Latvian youth. Besides teachers, who reached in numbers of some 30 in a single semester during the 1970s, there have been almost a dozen of directors of the school. Most prominent of those was Maija Grendze, who devoted some 25 years of service to the community. Other directors of the school have been Lidija Ūdris, Jānis Jurjāns, Marģers Grīns, Raimonds Šilders, Artūrs Rubenis, Uldis Bross, Silvija Rūtenbergs, Māris Lācis, Baiba Crawford and Māra Rusmanis-Kaugurs.
In the years following the founding of the Sunday school, Latvian ethnic girl scouts and boy scouts and a Christian youth group were set under the same roof. Boy scout and girl scout troops were established for the youth also to preserve the Latvian cultural traditions and to form good, strong moral character. Besides their regular scout programs, they also learned Latvian history, geography, language, literature, folk music and folk dancing.
The boy scout troop Daugavas 51 was formed in 1955 with scout leaders Artūrs Mantenieks, Jānis Linde, Voldemārs Zvirgzdiņš and Gunārs Tobiens. In 1958, the Latvian boy scouts were also registered with the American Boy Scout Council and participated in many Boy School activities and jamborees. Hūgo Klingbergs led the boy scouts from 1962-1995.
The original leaders of the Latvian girl scout troop Venta 27 were Tamāra Daina, Meta Avens and Zigrīda Tobiens. For decades that followed, Livija Lagzdiņa provided strong leadership. The girl scouts held an annual Christmas craft bazaar with proceeds earmarked to charities and other worthy Latvian causes. On Mother’s Day, the girl scouts would visit the sick and elderly Latvians at their homes or nursing homes and present them with flowers.
In the early years, the scouts would gather at the homes of the leaders or parents for their meetings and activities. After 1962, the meetings were held at the Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church every other Friday. In the spring, both the boy scouts and girl scouts would join for an annual spring program, featuring the presentation of the flags, prayers, speeches, skits, songs and dances. In the summer, the scouts would hold camps, where many lifelong friendships were forged. Every five years, the Latvian scouts would come together from all over the United States and Canada to celebrate the scout movement in different host cities including Three Rivers, Mich.; in the Catskills of New York; in Rose City, Mich., and Canada. The parents’ committee was a very important part of the scout movement because it helped to finance and organize the annual meetings and summer camps.
In September 1953, the Cleveland Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church invited the Latvian youth to a meeting to organize a Christian youth group with the goal to help the youth grow up in a strong Christian home, have knowledge of the Latvian culture and to keep the Latvian traditions alive. Two years after the group was formed, Cleveland hosted the American Latvian Youth Association national meeting. Under the leadership of the Rev. Ivars Gaide in the 1960s and 1970s, the group enjoyed many meaningful discussions on life and religion. Every year, the group would participate in the Christmas candlelight church service, after which they visited the elderly and sick in their homes.
Of extreme importance to the local Latvian community is the preservation of its cultural heritage.
The first Latvian choir in Cleveland can be traced back to 1904. Today, the Latvians in Cleveland have three choirs—the Cleveland Latvian Association Choir, the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church Choir and the Baptist Church Choir—along with the men’s musical ensemble Tevzeme the girls’ ensembles Aijas and Dzērvenītes. The most prominent leaders were Jēkabs Ūdris, the conductor of the Cleveland Latvian Association Choir, and Vilnis Ciemiņš, composer and conductor of the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church Choir.
The Cleveland Latvian Association Choir was formed in May 1951. Laterthat year it held its first performance on Latvia’s Independence Day, Nov. 18. The choir, which averaged 35 singers, participated in the first National Latvian Song Festival in 1953 in Chicago and has performed at every song festival since. The choir sings at the June 14th Memorial Day and Nov. 18 observations, as well as other cultural events. For 40 years, the choir held annual concerts featuring songs and skits.
More than a decade after the Cleveland Latvian Association Choir was formed, another choir emerged. The United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church Choir began in 1964 under the direction of Zenta Vīķe, who was the organist, and later was directed by Jānis Kalnietis. In the early years, the choir had about 25 singers, but later that number doubled. The choir performed two concerts a year—on Palm Sunday and during Advent—as well as participated in all special church services. Throughout the years, the choir would travel to other cities for performances.
A male octet ensemble called Tēvzeme was founded in 1965 by Edvins Selmanis. The group later expanded to 12 singers and had as many as 17 singers at one time. Rated as one of the best ensembles in the United States by the Latvian American Choir Association, Tēvzeme would travel to other Midwest cities to perform. The group would also have an annual concert in the Latvian Parish Hall in Lakewood, as well as participate in other cultural events. In 1985 the ensemble recorded an album.
During the 1970s, a group of girls who graduated from the Latvian Sunday School started an ensemble called Aijas and participated in numerous events. In the 1990s, Dzērvenītes, a new ensemble composed of younger school girls was formed. In the summer of 1966, a kokle ensemble was organized to play the traditional Latvian instrument.
To help further the interest in Latvian music, honor the tradition and preserve it for future generations, the Cleveland Latvian Concert Association was formed. Founded in 1955, this was the first Latvian organization of its kind in the United States and Canada. The association would attract famous Latvian musicians and choirs from around the world to come to Cleveland for concerts. From the very first concert to this day, the association would sell ticket packages of four concerts per season.
On the local level, Cleveland had its share of musical talents. Victor Babin, pianist and director of the Cleveland Music Institute, originally received his musical education in Rīga, Latvia. Other musicians included: Vilnis Ciemiņšs, composer, pianist and organist; Jānis Kalnietis, choir director, teacher and music critic; Jānis Kļaviņš, baritone; Māris Lācis, bass; Ausma Pirktiņš, choir director; Andris Rožukalns, pianist and organist; Vilma Aigars-Ubelīte, soprano; Andris Ūdris, musician; Jēkabs Ūdris, choir director; Valdis Ūsis, bass-baritone; Jānis Vaskis, musician; Antonina Vaivods, opera singer; Jānis Zemzars Jr., pianist; Torilds Barbins, choir director and baritone; and Pēteris Briedis, violinist for various orchestras and symphonies.
The church has been blessed by the talents of organists Elza Kalniņš, Līga Zemesarājs, Dāvids Ūsis and Markus Apelis. Several Latvians also taught music. Austra Gaikens, Zenta Vikis and Anita Auzenbergs taught children piano and the Rev. Kārlis Briedis conducted violin lessons.
Choral singing and folk songs still remain one of the integral parts of Latvian social life. Cleveland has hosted more Latvian song festivals than any other American city. Thousands of Latvians from all over the world traveled to Cleveland in 1963, 1968, 1973 and 1997 when the city hosted this event, which takes place every five years in different U.S. cities.
The 1963 song festival drew 5,000 spectators for the folk dance show and more than 10,000 were in attendance for the main concert, which featured more than a thousand singers from all over the country. In addition to these two main attractions, there were sacred music concerts, theater, sports, a symphony orchestra concert, an art show, an ethnic costume show and crafts display. While the number of participants and attendees declined in the years that followed, all the Latvian Song Festivals were great events. The 1968 and 1997 festivals were honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a special commemorative cancellation postmark.
For decades in Cleveland, the Latvian theater has been entertaining audiences of all ages. The first known play in Latvian took place in 1909 with the production of “The Strangers” by Ed Zvārgulis, followed by production of “The Prodigal Son,” a piece written by Rūdolfs Blaumanis. Theatrical activities continued through the years, with extended activities in 1917 and again decades later when the new wave of Latvian immigrants arrived.
In the 1950s, two theatrical groups emerged, the first sponsored by the Latvian Welfare Association and the other sponsored by Cleveland Latvian Association. From 1953 to 1957, these two troupes produced seven plays each, directed by Vilma Aigars-Ubelītis, Emīls Skujenieks or Julijs Borgs, with set design by Bernhards Sniedze.
In 1958 Artūrs Rubenis, then a recent theatre arts graduate from Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts, arrived in Cleveland to continue his studies at Western Reserve University’s School of Library Sciences. He took over the leadership of the Latvian Welfare Association theater troupe and is continuing activities into the new millennium. At least one play a year was produced for the next 44 years under his artistic leadership. In addition, he established an annual play production at the Latvian Sunday School, where some 30 to 40 youngsters could enjoy their first theatrical experience, learn Latvian in its practical application on the stage, establish friendships and advance their theatrical skills.
The main goal of each performance was to make the audience feel, enjoy and think in Latvian as a whole communal act, while experiencing the action on stage through the character interaction. The repertoire of all Latvian theatre productions in Cleveland, with three exceptions, has focused on Latvian authors, including some local playwrights.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the group was also an active member of Latvian Theater Association of Northern America, which was incorporated in Ohio. The theatre group toured Latvia on July 30- Aug. 9, 1990, presenting two plays in eight Latvian cities. The group celebrated its 40th anniversary with a tour to U.S. cities on the East Coast. It has also had guest performances in Chicago, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Indianapolis, Rochester, New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, St. Petersburg and Ft. Lauderdale.
Among local Latvian actors, several should be noted: Astrīda Jansons, Ilga Rubenis, Rita Kaugurs, Zenta Apinis, Līga Zemesarājs, Ausma Pirktiņš, Jānis Vaskis, Haralds Mazzariņš, Eduards Tērauds and Edvīns Veits. Two religious leaders, the Rev. Lauma Zušēvics and Ilze Grendze, received their first professional training by participating at school and community productions.
It should be noted that the only complete record about the Latvians of Greater Cleveland has been the volume Pašiem savs teātris (Theater of Our Own). Complete with original program notes, pictures and actor biographies, it is a complete report of all Latvian theater activities from 1952 to 1988 in Cleveland.
The Latvian community has also hosted an array of guest performances from other U.S. cities, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; Canada; Sweden, and Australia. Since 1990, several theatrical productions have come from Latvia.
Cleveland area artists also have had their talents on display over the years. From 1964 to 1985, local Latvian artists and artisans had annual exhibitions showcasing painting, jewelry and ceramics. In addition, about 50 individual art shows were presented with a number of well-known Latvian artists from around the world. Once the church hall was built in 1972, all the subsequent exhibits were held there.
At these art shows, judges would award ribbons to the best of the show and would present scholarships to the young artists.
Every year in December, there would be a Christmas craft bazaar in the church hall, where attendees could purchase paintings, ceramics, jewelry, books, Christmas cookies and other items.
In 1988, Austra Linde showcased her Latvian folk costume doll collection, which was well attended thanks in part to interest generated by television reports. Each of the 120 replicas were 18 inches tall, dressed in scaled, but detailed, reproductions of original Latvian folk costumes representing the different regions in the country.
Two Latvian art studios have operated in Cleveland. In her studio, Milija Āboliņš, featured paintings, ceramics, and woodwork, while Dailonis Štauvers, showcased paintings. In 1957, Štauvers made a film spotlighting highly acclaimed Latvian artists. Other noted artists have included Rūdolfs Aboliņš, Rūdolfs Vītols, Anna Bērsin-Skuja, Skaidrīte Saule, Elza Grūze, Maija Grūzīte, Lilita Riekstiņš and Vita Reineks.
Also of cultural importance is folk dancing. This ancient form of folk art always brings enjoyment to the young dancers as well as the audiences who appreciate a well-choreographed show. Latvian folk dances usually feature four or eight couples performing repetitious single circle dances and square designs wearing traditional ethnic costumes.
The first official dance group, named Jautrais Pāris, was formed in 1952. Later that decade the boy and girl scouts started another dance group. In 1966, the Pastalnieki group emerged, as dancers from the two earlier groups along with Sunday School students joined forces. Today the folk dance troupe Pastalnieki is comprised of three groups: married couples, young adults and school children. Dancers perform at an annual spring show at the Latvian church hall and participate in other Latvian shows across the country and overseas, as well as at local American community events.
Latvian books are housed at the library of the Cleveland Latvian Association (2,150 books and 120 videotapes), which is located on the basement floor of the Latvian church; as well as at the Cleveland Public Library (2,300 books), Kent State University Library (4,000 books) and Case Western Reserve University Library (several hundred). The bibliographies of Latvian books in libraries are now available on the Internet, too. The Cleveland Latvian Association donated money to purchase many of the books in these collections and other books were donated by families. Duplicate books were sent to Latvia for their schools and libraries and some were sold to raise money for new books.
In the 1950s and 1960s, bookstores were run from the Kampars and Ezergailis family homes. In the 1950s the Latvian Welfare Association also had a small library in its headquarters in the Bohemian National Hall. Today, there is a bookstore in the basement of the church. The Sunday school library consists mostly of childrens’ books and magazines used by school teachers. And many Latvians have their own extensive collection of books in their homes.
Since 1952 there exists a book club, which periodically meets to review and discuss Latvian books. The first book club was organized by Hūgo Krūmiņš and sponsored by the Cleveland Latvian Association. A new club was formed in 1969 and remains active today. The meetings are held at different members’ homes.
Cleveland has been home to a number of Latvian writers—such as Emīls Skujenieks, Hūgo Krumiņš, Jānis Kalnietis, and Pēteris Dūms—and an array of playwrights, such as Artūrs Rubenis, Astrīda Jansone as well as others. For some 15 years, radio listeners could hear Latvian voices on the WXEN radio station. Broadcast on Monday nights, the program was hosted by «riks Ieviņš and featured music, poetry and news about the Baltic states. The Cleveland Latvian Association and private donations supported the program. The radio program was broadcast from 1962 to 1978, until the radio station was sold.
A small group of filmmakers have recorded events in the Latvian community. The remodeling the church and the eventual consecration ceremony of the building—complete with the church service, the congregation members and the meal at the hall—was filmed by Jānis Hāzners and Jānis Ziediņš. Hundreds of Latvians came out for the showing of the film with narration by Artūrs Rubenis and drawings by Bernhards Sniedze in October 1965. Subsequent films chronicled a combination of church activities, the choirs, the women’s auxiliary group, the Christian youth group, the Sunday school, folk dance group and theater.
In addition to these films, various associations, societies and churches kept minutes of proceedings and published newsletters and event programs, which provide the primary source of information today. The most notable are the Cleveland Latvian Association’s newsletter Latviešu Informācijas Biļetens, the Latvian Welfare Association’s Ziņotajs, and the church bulletin, Draudzes Ziņas.
Academic and professional activities
Cleveland Latvians have also continued other activities from the homeland, such as in 1952 reactivating fraternities and, three years later, sororities. Members consisted of those who studied in Latvian, German and American universities. These dozen or so fraternities and sororities were reactivated in the United States so members could continue the Latvian traditions, get together for discussions and socialize. A student group existed from 1954 to 1962 so students with common interests could get together. From 1956 to 1970 a separate academic group also existed. In the 1990s, when Latvia regained its independence, these groups helped renew the chapters in Latvia. Although the numbers are dwindling, the fraternities and sororities still remain active in their pursuit of promoting academic excellence.
In the 1970s, Latvians helped form a Baltic Studies Program at Kent State University (KSU). Professor John Cadzow directed this Baltic Studies program, which included Latvian language and other courses that students could take to earn a minor in Latvian Studies. The university also houses a large collection of Latvian books in a library. Local Cleveland organizations donated more than 4,000 books to the university for their program. Over the years, more than USD 100,000 was distributed in scholarships to Latvian students studying at KSU.
The first Latvian doctor opened his practice in 1954 and more were to follow. In 1961, Latvian doctors with practices in Ohio formed the Latvian Physicians in North America Association. This gave them a forum to discuss the latest products and procedures and share information and ideas. The group was especially instrumental in helping older doctors who had practices in Latvia before they immigrated to America pass the state board tests and obtain a license to practice in the United States. Some of the notable physicians in Cleveland include: Dr. Vilis Nāģelis, Dr. Victor Straubs, Dr. Vilnis Ciemiņš, Dr. Jānis Ciemiņš, Dr. Jānis Zemzars, Dr. Verners Rutenbergs Sr., Dr. Verners Rutenbergs Jr., Dr. Verners Bērziņš, Dr. Erna Bērziņš, Dr. Constantine Jacobsons and Dr. Jānis Kļaviņš. Those in dentistry include Dr. Ilze Bekeny, Dr. Valdis Ūsis, Dr. Andrejs Ķīsis and Dr. Victors Kalniņš.
Those who served in the Latvian military also formed several organizations to promote their common interests. The army personnel who fought for Latvia’s independence in 1918 formed strong bonds and friendships during their service. These relationships remained strong even when they immigrated to America. The Cleveland chapter of the Old Riflemen’s Association participated in various ceremonial events including Independence Day celebrations on Nov. 18, Lācplēša Diena on Nov. 11 (commemorating the 1919 victory of the Latvian Army over German and Russian forces), and commeoration of the 1916 Christmas battle between the Latvian riflemen and the German Army.
Cleveland also has a local chapter of a disabled veterans group that assists with medical services and other issues such as pensions and financial counseling. In addition to serving in the Latvian military, many Cleveland Latvians have served in the American armed forces, including Brigadier General Vilmārs Kukainis.
The oldest and biggest Latvian credit union in the United States, the Latvian Cleveland Credit Union Inc., was founded Oct. 26, 1960. The first office was at the home of its first president, Kārlis Norvelis. In the years that followed, the credit union rented an office across the street from the United Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church. Five men have served as president: Kārlis Norvelis (1960-61), Verners Rutenbergs Sr. (1961-77), Oskars Danilovs (1977-82), Jānis Krumiņš (1982-85) and Vilmārs Kukainis (1985-2000). In the beginning everyone volunteered their services, but eventually the bookkeepers became paid positions.
In the first five years from 1960-65, there were 280 members with USD 250,000 in assets. By 1998, the number of members grew to 717 with assets of USD 8.9 million.
A second credit union emerged in 1966 when Peteris Leitis and Arturs Petersons proposed to establish a church credit union. The Cleveland Latvian Church Credit Union members included Ohio Latvian church members, their family members and Latvians from other churches. In the first year, 123 members joined with assets of USD 60,000. By 1994, that number had grown to a USD 6 million balance. Many Latvians volunteered their time and expertise to help run the church credit union, including directors Herberts Salaks, Artūrs Pētersons, Aivars Auzenbergs and Andrejs Smiltars.
In 1998, the two credit unions merged under the name of the Latvian Cleveland Credit Union. Combined, they now have more than 1,000 members with assets of more than USD 15 million. The credit union offers most banking services including savings, checking, certificates of deposit, individual retirement accounts, and loans for automobiles, homes and businesses.
Sports and leisure
Over the years Latvians have always found time for sporting activities. In 1952, the Cleveland Latvian Association sports club Stars was founded and teams were fielded for competition in various sports including volleyball, basketball and soccer. Latvians in most major cities in the United States formed athletic clubs. Cleveland was part of the Mid-West Conference that included Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Columbus, Lincoln and Des Moines. The Stars would also participate in local American leagues.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the most popular sport was volleyball. For 17 years, from 1953 to 1969, the women played in the finals and took first place seven times in the Mid-West Conference and won the national title in 1962. During this same time, the men were also very strong in the Mid-West Conference and won the national title in 1958.
The sports association also sponsored basketball teams. From 1957 to 1969, the teams made it the the Mid-West finals every year with the exception of 1960 and 1965. The players competed against Americans in Cleveland’s industrial league.
Area soccer players organized their own independent league called the Cleveland Football Club in the early 1950s and competed for seven years. After a 10-year absence, soccer was once again played, sponsored by the Latvian Welfare Association. In the 1980s, many of the players left for college and the league folded.
Latvians also participated in skiing, tennis, racquetball, swimming, track and field, and wrestling.
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s the Stars association was inactive until a new generation of athletes formed the Cleveland Latvian Sports Club, which was renamed the Cleveland Latvian Athletic Club in the 1990s.
As many of the volleyball, basketball and soccer players got older, they started to take up the game of golf. In 1987, the golfers formed their own Cleveland Latvian Golf Club for both men and women golfers. Cleveland golfers have competed locally and regionally. Since 1985 golfers from Cleveland and Columbus compete for the Ohio Golf Cup. Golf is now the most popular sport with the greatest number of Latvian participants.
The elder Latvians also participated in bowling, table tennis, chess, as well as stamp collecting.
In the 1950s, under the sponsorships of the Cleveland Latvian Association and the leadership of Roberts Vilumsons and Jānis Veide, a chess group was started with 12 players. The first tournament was held in the 1953-54 season. From 1953-1957 the Latvian chess players participated in American tournaments in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio. The chess players participated in three different leagues: high school, industrial and clubs. Starting with the 1956-57 season, the Latvians formed their own club. They won in the 1957-58 season and in 1959-60. Today, Latvians still participate in friendly chess matches every month as part of the Golden Agers meetings at the parish hall.
The Cuyahoga Latvian Philatelic Club was founded in 1968 by Bonifacijs Egle, Perijs Ēdelbergs and Artūrs Rubenis. During the 4th Latvian Song Festival in Cleveland, an exhibit displayed a complete collection of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian stamps, Wenden stamps, air mail and special Latvian postal cancellation marks. Besides these philatelic gems, there were rare materials from original designs of Latvian monetary notes of 1923, with original proofs and essays.
In the fall of 1990, in anticipation of the first Latvian stamps after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the club was reactivated and was instrumental in publicizing the reintroduction of Latvian postage stamps to readers of America’s largest stamp journal, Linn’s Stamp News. The club kept in contact with Latvian postal authorities through 1994, suggesting several innovations and corrections in the Latvian postal procedures. After the illness of club president Bonifacijs Egle, the club suspended its activities. However, there are still a half dozen individual stamp collectors in the Cleveland area.
Cleveland Latvians joined forces with Lithuanians and Estonians to organize the Baltic American Committee of Greater Cleveland, which served as the voice of the Baltics in Northern Ohio. Over the years, the committee demonstrated resourcefulness and a firm commitment to Baltic self-determination and independence. It would voice protests against the Soviet occupation of Latvia in order to garner press and the attention of state congressional representatives in Washington, D.C. Every year, it would hold an ecumenical prayer service commemorating June 14, 1941, the night of the first mass deportations of Balts to Siberia. Clevelanders also formed a support group to offer financial support to the National Front of Latvia during the National Revival of 1989 in its efforts to regain independence. When Clevelanders learned that the Latvian presidential palace needed a modern security system, Vilmārs Kukainis spearheaded a project to raise funds to install an electronic detector in Rīga’s castle.
Learning from the American community about successful fund raising, Latvians have a proven track record of success. The Help Latvia program was set up in 1992 so Clevelanders could ship packages with food, clothing and books as humanitarian aid two or three times a year to family and friends in Latvia. Latvians not only donated funds for different causes, but utilized all available resources. For example, the Eco-Latvia group helped avert a ecological disaster in Ventspils, Latvia.
For many years, Cleveland Latvians have been active part in the American political process by voting for candidates who supported the aspirations of the Baltic people. Although, traditionally they tended to vote Republican, they have recently started to vote for candidates of both parties, as long as they supported Latvian causes.
Several other notable Latvians have returned to their homeland for a shorter or longer period, to provide assistance in various fields and to help instill American democratic ideals to the new independent republic. Other Clevelanders frequently travel to their homeland and offer financial assistance to friends and family in Latvia.
(Editor’s note: This article is largely based on a condensed version of the English summary, written by Laura Briede, of the book Mūsu mā;jas un patvērums (Our Home and Our Refuge), published by Nordik Publishers, Rīga, Latvia. The book of 650 pages and some 250 illustrations and pictures tells the story of Latvians in Cleveland. Our thanks to Artūrs Rubenis for supplying the text of the article.)
(Last updated September 19, 2007)
Laura Briede lives in Cleveland, Ohio.