Begun in 1935 as a way to help rural Latvian schools and libraries enrich their book collections, the tradition of Draudzīgais aicinājums continues today in North America. Literally meaning “friendly invitation,” the event is usually commemorated in late January as close to the 28th as possible. That date is the names day for Kārlis, as in Kārlis Ulmanis, the last pre-World War II leader of independent Latvia.
This is grassroots alumni development. In Latvian churches, schools and community centers in the U.S. and Canada, the event often is marked with speeches, concerts and—central to the tradition—presentation of books and other gifts to schools and libraries.
It was Ulmanis who issued the first Draudzīgais aicinājums call on Jan. 28, 1935. In the invitation to the people of Latvia, he wrote: “Let us give them books, paintings, artworks. Let us each help our old schools to receive good musical instruments. Many schools, many community centers are still without their own radios. Our church walls are bare and cold, country church bells with their old sounds find it difficult to warm hearts and bring them together. Therefore, only rarely do we hear those ringing. Whoever at home has many books, many paintings or other beautiful artwork, let us donate, let us give a portion of those to our county community organizations, and to our county schools.”
Latvia at the time had a government-run Culture Fund that had collected and distributed books nationwide, but demand was greater than the fund could meet. According to historian Adolfs Šilde’s Latvijas vesture: 1914-1940 (Stockholm: Daugava, 1976), Ulmanis believed culture could not be left only in the hands of a government organization. Ulmanis, Šilde wrote, “wanted to motivate people towards the interests of the spirit and open a path for thoughts on social ethics.”
Ulmanis had always loved books himself and therefore asked that first of all the empty library shelves of country schools be filled. He himself gave books and materials to his first school and other Latvian schools, and many followed his example.
Two years after it was started, Jānis Celms noted, “Draudzīgais aicinājums is not just a single fundraiser, but it is the beginning of a continuing Latvian tradition whose foundation is based within a sense of responsibility, a burning love for the homeland and a united spirit whose goal is to cultivate to the fullest the pillars of our culture—school, church, and Latvian society.”
By March 1939, more than 1.6 million books had been donated in response to Draudzīgais aicinājums. In addition, the Culture Fund had received donations for the purchase of school curricular materials, radio receivers, and musical instruments valued at LVL 501,506. Also donated were 4,300 paintings, art reproductions and portraits, 90 busts and sculptures, as well as other valuables. So that the Draudzigais aicinajums would not lose momentum, teachers, local politicians, and ministers were involved in the process.
Today, however, the Draudzīgais aicinājums tradition often goes unnoticed in Latvia. Some have criticized the event as an extension of the political and cultural policies of Ulmanis, who in 1934 disbanded Parliament and made himself a dictator, albeit one who is remembered fondly by many first generation exiles as well as older Latvians in the homeland.
The well-known writer Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš credited Draudzīgais aicinājums for developing in Latvian culture a high regard for books.
(Editor’s note: Andris Straumanis contributed to this article, which originally appeared on the SVEIKS.com site.)