Latvians contribute to Tasmania’s development

On the first boatloads of Non-English Speaking Background migrants arriving in Australia after the Second World War from 1947-1951 were people of the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Some of the migrants found new homes in Tasmania, but today few remain.

The male members of these early shipments of migrants who were sent to Tasmania were employed mostly on Hydro-Electric Commission construction projects and in mining, forestry and other industries. Thus the first contribution made by Latvian-born migrants to the development of Tasmania was to provide manpower in places where, due to the remoteness of the location, there was a shortage of manual labour.

In later years this contribution included the know-how of six graduate engineers and the expertise of others in senior technical positions.

Over the years there have been four Latvian-born medical practitioners and one dental surgeon practising in Tasmania. As a matter of interest, Tasmania is almost identical in size of territory to Latvia and, similarly to Latvia, has extensive forest cover. In the late 1980s the chief forestry commissioner, who helped look after these forests, was Latvian-born Andy Skuja.

Two school teachers and three University of Tasmania lecturers of Latvian origin have contributed to the education of young Tasmanians. A number of small businesses has been established by Latvians on the island, too. They include construction, painting, electrical contracting and retailing, the hospitality industry, the jewellery trade and chocolate making. Latvian women worked in Cadbury, Silk and Textile and IXL Jam factories, according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

The number of Latvian-born migrants living in Tasmania has always been small and has declined from approximately 363 in 1954, to about 120 in 1990, to 107 in 2001, to 100 in 2008. The majority of Latvians in Tasmania live in the state capital of Hobart and in Launceston un Devonport.

One of the first Latvian organisations to be established was the St.Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, which became the backbone for the formation of several other groups, including choirs (a male double quartet and a ladies sextet) and a folk-dance group. The organisational role of the church community was eventually superseded by the formation in 1981 of the Latvian Association of Tasmania. The church disbanded about 20 years ago, and the Latvian Association closed in December 2004.

For at least 40 years, a monthly get-together on the first Saturday of the month for socialising, singing and general comradeship has been held. These gatherings were originally conducted at the home of Ieva and Arnolds Šaulis, but when the number of attendees grew beyond 30 the gatherings were moved to larger premises in the German Australian Association of Tasmania. In recent times this number has dwindled to 10 or less due to the attrition of age and illness. However, the monthly meetings continue from March to December and include marking Jāņi in June and Latvia’s Independence Day in November. The German Australian club is in Glenorchy, about 10 kilometres northwest of Hobart.

A past president of the Latvian Association of Tasmania, Edvīns Baulis, has the honour of being a member of the Order of the British Empire. In 2006, Elmārs Kuplis received the Order of Australia for many years of service to the Latvian community and to the Hobart Baptist church. 

A quarterly news and literary publication, Auseklis began publication in 1987 and lasted for 71 issues. After the Latvian Association of Tasmania closed, the publication was renamed Rieteklis and continues to be distributed to all Latvian associations in Australia and to several recipients in Latvia and the United States.

A contribution to the tourist industry of Tasmania was made in December 1984, when a group of local Latvians organised and brought to Launceston the annual Australian Latvian Cultural Festival (Austrālijas Latviešu kultūras dienaas). Some 400 visitors from Australia and other countries came to Tasmania for the occasion.

The 1999 installment of the 3×3 culture camp in Australia took place in Tasmania and attracted 70 participants.

In sport, the “Stars” Latvian sports club basketball team was the strongest in the state for a number of years during the 1950s and the volleyball team was Southern champion for 14 years. The teams thus helped improve the standard and the popularity of these sports in Tasmania.

In the arts and crafts field, Latvians have been represented by Vita Endelmanis, a nationally recognised painter; Zelma Šaulis, a regular top prize-winner in the handcrafts section at the Royal Hobart Agricultural Show; and Peter Dombrovskis, a well-known nature photographer. Dombrovskis (1945-1996), brought the beauty of Tasmania’s wilderness to the attention of the world by means of his photographs. He may have been the first Australian photographer to exhibit at the International Photography Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla., in the United States.

(Editor’s note: This article is based on one written in 1991 by Juris Ķuzis. Ķuzis died in 2003. The article was supplemented largely with information provided by Ervīns Miezītis, another member of the Latvian community of Tasmania. Miezītis, now retired, worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation and the University of Tasmania School of Pharmacy.)

Kultūras dienas

Latvians parade in Launceston during the 1984 Australian Latvian Cultural Festival. (Photograph courtesy Ervīns Miezītis)

Church book

To mark the 35th anniversary of the St.Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, the church published a commemorative book. (Photograph courtesy Ervīns Miezītis)

Wall of Friendship

Members of the Tasmania Latvian community pose in 1986 around their contribution to the International Wall of Friendship in Hobart. The plaque, made of granite imported from Finland, was designed by Reima Miezītis and presented by Edvīns Baulis, president of the Latvian Association of Tasmania. The inscription in Latvian reads, “Latviešu tautas draudzības un labvēlības apliecinājums.” The International Wall of Friendship honors the migrant communities that helped develop Tasmania. (Photograph courtesy Ervīns Miezītis)

Although small, Perth’s Latvian community hangs on

Perth skyline

The skyscrapers of Perth’s central business district are reflected in the Swan River at sunset. (©iStockphoto/Michael Willis)

Perth, one of the most isolated metropolitan areas in the world, after World War II became home to about 1,500-2,000 Latvian immigrants or, more precisely, political refugees. The Latvian population now is estimated between 400 and 500.

In the 1950s, Latvians were scattered throughout Western Australia, Australia’s largest state. Approximately 2.2 million people, about 10 percent of Australia’s total population, currently inhabit the total area of 2,527,630 square kilometers.

Many Latvian immigrants in Western Australia were employed as railway maintenance workers, particularly on the Trans-Australian Railway. In the early 1950ss, this railway was the most important link between Australia’s east and west coasts. Many Latvians were also employed on the local Laverton-Leonora-Meekatharra line and other railway connections within the state.

Whilst everybody enjoyed peace and freedom in their newly adopted country, living conditions were primitive, particularly in the railway maintenance sections. The conditions often more primitive than those in the displaced persons camps in Germany. Maintenance workers and their families lived in tents without floors. Fresh food was supplied once a week and there was no refrigeration available. Sandstorms and hot weather were common. These working conditions were not exclusive to the immigrants. Australians who chose to work there had to endure exactly the same conditions, however, they were few and far between.

It was compulsory for immigrants to work for two years in designated areas of labour shortages, irrespective of their qualifications and abilities. This two-year contract work was more or less a repayment for the free passage from Europe to Australia.

Many of the railway workers were qualified professionals. One wonders why Australian authorities wasted the knowledge of doctors, engineers, scientists and others of which there was a shortage in Australia. Excuses such as standards of their qualifications could have been tested almost instantaneously.

Those designated and engaged in forestry work enjoyed not only better accommodation, but also had fewer problems with heat, insects and sandstorms.

Very few migrants remained in the countryside after their contracts expired. Most moved to Perth or larger country centres, such as Albany, Bunbury and Mandurah. Many moved to the capital cities of the East—Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

As in all larger centres in eastern Australia, the Latvian community in Perth had its organizational beginnings in the early 1950s. Perhaps the most significant initial work undertaken was that of Pastor Leo Kampe, a Lutheran minister who was invited by the Lutheran Church of Australia to provide spiritual care and Lutheran church services to Latvian (and also German) Lutherans. Kampe traveled throughout Western Australia and conducted services to scattered groups of Latvians. His little daughter Ieva accompanied him on many of his travels. Coincidentally, Ieva Vlahov is now the chairperson of the Latvian St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation, the congregation that her father established.

Kampe was not only the driving force behind the construction of the original Latvian church hall, he was also the chief brickmaker and bricklayer. Not having laid any bricks before in his life, he just said that need is the best teacher.

Kampe also organized the Latvian Sunday school and started a publication, Draudzes ziņas. He was an ardent opponent of communism, not only because of its atheism and political philosophy but also because his parents were killed by communists during the First World War, and two of his brothers disappeared without trace during the second occupation. To the great regret of many Perth Latvians, he resigned his ministry in 1969.

A number of other organizations and groups followed. These included the Latvian Association of Western Australia, the Latvian Relief Society “Daugavas Vanagi” Perth Chapter, the Latvian Dramatic Society, the Latvian Mixed Choir, the Latvian Folk Dancing Group “Perkonītis,” the Latvian Relief Society Male Choir, the Latvian Catholic Association, the Perth Latvian School and other local interest groups.

The relatively small church hall could accommodate only about 100 people. For larger gatherings, other halls had to be hired. The three largest organizations –- St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation, the Latvian Association in Western Australia and the Latvian Relief Society “Daugavas Vanagi”—pooled their resources and, with the active participation and significant financial donations of 521 members of the Western Australian Latvian community, bought a parcel of land in Belmont, a suburb about 4 kilometers from Perth’s central business district. Design and construction of the Latvian Centre was undertaken exclusively by members of the Latvian community. The hall was constructed under the direction of Jonis Plucis, managing director of J. & I. Plucis Pty. Ltd. The hall could accommodate 250 people. The complex was later expanded with the addition of the Latvian Library and the Latvian Relief Society Club. Ēriks Ozoliņš, managing director of Westland Development Pty. Ltd., donated the materials and constructed an altar room that was consecrated as a Lutheran church and is opened only during services.

One of the greatest achievements of this relatively small community was the organization of four Australia-wide Latvian Arts Festivals (Kultūras dienas).

With the exception of the mixed choir and the folk dancing group, the organizations mentioned are still active. Regular Latvian broadcasts continue every Saturday on radio station 6EBA-FM under the guidance of Jānis Vucēns and Rita Johnson.

Every organization needs a driving force. Not all names can be listed here; however, the principal contributors cannot be omitted. Pastor Laimons Mušinskis, who replaced Kampe, also took the chair of two arts festivals. The other two chairpersons were Voldemārs Balodis and Juris Pārups. After Latvia regained independence Mušinskis was appointed a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Latvia and conducted several courses there. He also wrote four theological textbooks in Latvian. For his work as Western Australia district president of the Lutheran Church of Australia and for his activities in the Latvian community, he was awarded the Queen’s Medal and Latvia’s Order of Three Stars. For many years, he was also the editor of Pertas latviešu ziņas.

Jānis Grīnvalds served for many years as the chairperson of the Latvian Association in Western Australia, as did Ludmilla Gutmarcis, who was also the long-standing chairperson of the Ladies Guild of the St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation. The Latvian Association now is led by Voldemārs Auziņš. The Latvian Relief Society “Daugavas Vanagi” was led for many years by Jonis Plucis and Vilis Gutmarcis. Its current chairman is Ilmārs Rudaks. Zigurds Titmanis served for several years as the chairman of the St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation and was also the inaugural chairman of the Latvian Centre Pty. Ltd., a company managing the Latvian Centre.

Active participants of the Latvian Dramatic Society included Pārups, Julijs Bernšteins, Dailonis Olmanis and Augusts Kudeika. Zenta Dunsis led the Latvian Folk Dancing Group for many years. Together with the Mixed Choir, they participated in many ethnic festivals throughout Australia.

Kārlis Rīdūzis, an active member and elder of the St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation, edited two publications about Latvians in Western Australia entitled 35 years of St. Paul’s Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation and Perth Latvian Centre 1972-1994.

Notwithstanding the small size of this community (the St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation, ministered by Pastor Gunis Balodis, has 112 registered members), it is still active. An important cohesive force of the community is Jānis Lūks, the vice chairman of the Latvian Association of Australia and New Zealand. His activities in the Latvian Centre as well as in the congregation, and his maintenance of contacts with the wider Australian community, will ensure its continuity for many years to come.

Maira Kalniņa

Seven-year-old Maira Kalniņa (center), seen here in 1949 with her parents and brother, became the 50,000th Displaced Person to arrive in Australia. A minor controversy arose when Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell arranged a publicity effort that involved flying to Fremantle, near Perth, to greet the family and plant a kiss on young Maira, according to the National Archives of Australia. (©National Archives of Australia)


The M/S Skaugum, a transport ship, was among vessels that carried Displaced Persons from Europe to the port of Fremantle in Western Australia.

Kalamazoo remains active despite dwindling numbers

Kalamazoo, with a population of approximately 77,000, is located in the southwest corner of Michigan. It sits about halfway between Detroit and Chicago. The city is home to three institutions of higher education: Western Michigan University, a nationally recognized research institution; Kalamazoo College, a small highly rated liberal arts college; and a large community college.

Despite its relatively small size, Kalamazoo is also home to several billion dollar industries, among them Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and the Stryker Corp. It has two major hospitals, several museums and numerous cultural activities to keep the populace entertained year round. In 2006 a group of local philanthropists and businessmen created and funded a unique organization called The Kalamazoo Promise, which received national attention and triggered a lively educational debate and even inspired similar programs across the country. The organization has promised and committed to pay for a four-year college education at any state college or university for all Kalamazoo School District students who graduate high school.


To understand Latvian culture and life in Michigan, one must first look back in history and understand how Latvians came to settle in the state. During World War II, thousands of people fled their homelands in Eastern Europe hoping to escape the impending communist takeover. They packed what they could carry and fled by boat or land to safer areas, some to Sweden but most to Germany where they eventually settled in Displaced Persons camps administered by the United Nations. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration provided humanitarian assistance in these vast camps that were scattered throughout western Germany. Latvians and others living in these camps quickly established self-government which, in turn, ran schools, medical facilities, churches, and numerous cultural organizations. In the late 1940s the United Nations established the International Refugee Organization, the purpose of which was to resettle and find employment for the millions of war refugees. Some remained in Europe but most migrated to countries throughout the world, including America.

Latvians come to Michigan

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Michigan had a strong agricultural base and also experienced strong industrial growth, especially in the automobile manufacturing. Many church organizations and individuals were happy to offer new homes and to help find work for the needy refugees. Farms, factories and other businesses welcomed the inexpensive but hard-working labor force. During this period, more than 5,000 Latvians found their way to Michigan. Latvians were drawn to Kalamazoo thanks largely to the efforts of the Rev. Jānis Laupmanis, a Latvian minister who had settled in Kalamazoo in the late 1930s. He had kept in contact with friends and acquaintances in Valka, one of the displaced persons camps in Germany, and was responsible for attracting many Latvians to the area. Laupmanis sought out local churches, organizations, and individuals and persuaded them to sponsor Latvians. One of the many to take advantage of this newly formed network and move to Kalamazoo with his family was Arnolds Kalnajs, founder of the Valka choir, Dziesmu vairogs (Shield of Songs). Thus began a succession of choir members, extended families and friends finding sponsors and jobs in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, which is about 50 miles north of Kalamazoo.

Maintaining the Latvian language and culture were of primary importance, thus in the early 1950s numerous cultural, religious, educational and social organizations were founded such as churches, associations, choirs, scouts, schools, children’s camps, folk dancing groups, and literary, art and theatre groups. The main goal was to keep the language alive and to instill in the children a knowledge and appreciation of the Latvian culture.


The majority of Latvian refugees were highly educated with a strong work ethic. They sought to instill in their children an appreciation of the value of education and hard work. In the 1950s it was not uncommon for both parents to work two or three jobs. The grandparents would be left to tend to the children. Because of the high value placed on education many Latvian immigrants entered Michigan’s colleges (Wayne State University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan or Western Michigan University) in an effort to re-educate themselves and adapt to their new lives. The highest priority was to provide a college education for their children. It was almost unheard of for a Latvian child not to enter college upon graduating from high school. Many earned advanced degrees.

In 1967, Valdis Muižnieks and Lalita Muižnieks established a Latvian program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where students could acquire a minor in the language. Also, the Latvian Student Center was built to house those enrolled in the programs. It contained an extensive library and a cultural center. The program was phased out in 1994.

To maintain the language, in the early 1950s a Latvian school was founded and it is still functioning today. The school, over the years, has been housed in rented space in local public schools, in the church social house on Rose Street and now in the Kalamazoo Latvian Hall on Cherry Hill Drive. For many years the school was held on Saturday mornings but now instruction is given on Sunday mornings. Parents and interested individuals are the teachers and they follow educational guidelines and standards set by the American Latvian Association. One should also mention that Latvian Center Gaŗezers is located about 30 miles south of Kalamazoo near Three Rivers. Most children from Kalamazoo have attended the summer camp and the high school. Many individuals from Kalamazoo are active in working, preserving and supporting Gaŗezers.

Two Lutheran congregations

In December 1949, the St. John Latvian Lutheran Church was founded. It was served by the Rev. Jānis Turks until his retirement in 1992. The Kalamazoo Latvian Church was established in August 1950. The Rev. Kristaps Hermanis briefly served as pastor, but the Rev. Arturs Piebalgs took over in 1951 and continued until his retirement in 1985. In the beginning, each congregation held services at rented local churches. In 1961 the St. John congregation built its own structure on Cherry Hill Drive. Soon after the Kalamazoo Latvian congregation purchased its own church on Portage Street. In 1995, the congregations merged and became the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran United Church. Services are held in the Cherry Hill Drive church. The Rev. Leons Vīksne was minister until his retirement in 2003 and was succeeded by the Rev. Biruta Puiķe, who received her education in Latvia. The congregation is very active and still organizes various events.

Organizations and associations

On June 30, 1950, the Kalamazoo Latvian Association (Kalamazū Latviešu Biedrība) was established and a social hall was purchased. It was the center for all cultural events. In 1987 a larger, two-story social center was built next to the church on Cherry Hill Drive. The first building was sold and the present social center is now the focal point for all activities. It houses the school; hosts many weddings, commemorative gatherings and meetings, and is also rented out to the larger local community. In 1956 the Kalamazoo chapter of Daugavas Vanagi was founded and is still very active today offering relief to charities in Latvia. In 1956, Girl Scout and Boy Scout chapters were established and remained very active until the 1990s. In 1964 the Latvian Credit Union was founded and is still active today. A literary group also exists in Kalamazoo. Dace Copeland, former head of the American Latvian Association, sells books and recordings especially related to education. Vilis Miķelsons is a correspondent for the Latvian newspaper LAIKS, as was Auseklis Zaļinskis before his death.

Song and dance

Of the cultural groups, the most prominent and important have been the choirs. As mentioned, one of the major unifying forces for the establishment of the Latvian community was the choir Dziesmu Vairogs. After its leader Kalnajs died in 1975, the choir slowly disbanded. However, a men’s choir led by Roberts Zuika and Monika Dauksts, and a women’s choir led by Jānis Zuika, continued singing. Later a separate choir was founded and directed by Copeland. For many years, a source of great pride and entertainment was another small men’s choir, Piltenes Prāģeri, led by Richards Rollis. The group sang folk songs and other material and even recorded several tapes of its work.  No discussion of music would be complete without the mention of Pēteris Lielzuika who, over the years and still occasionally today, has graced countless events with his beautiful tenor voice.

A folk dancing group in the Kalamazoo community has been led by a succession of individuals. From time to time the group becomes inactive but it is soon revived by younger, energetic individuals. They organize presentations for various social functions and participate in the national song festivals held every four years.

In this brief overview one can see that the Latvians in Kalamazoo were a thriving, active community for many years. Their numbers have dwindled and because of the advancing age of its members there are fewer cultural events than in the 1950s. But always, it seems, younger individuals rise up to take the reins and continue working to preserve the cultural heritage of Latvia. For example, a committee was formed in the fall of 2006 to organize a New Year’s celebration Kalamazoo Latvian Hall with a rap singer, a large specially painted mural of Old Rīga, ethnic food and lively entertainment. Because of the pleasant environment Kalamazoo has to offer, combined with the existing and well-established Latvian community, new families have chosen to make their homes in the area ensuring that the Latvian community should thrive for many years to come.

(Editor’s note: This article is based in part on the author’s book, Latvians in Michigan, published in 2005 by the Michigan State University Press.)

Latvian church in Kalamazoo

The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran United Church, on Cherry Hill Drive in Kalamazoo, was built in 1961. (Photo by Silvija Meija)