For immigrants’ child, memories of a land never seen

“Is there electricity in Latvia?” asked one of the first Latvians born in Australia.

Vanda Willis’ voice sounded over the telephone receiver: “Memme (Mother) never learned English. She sang songs about Latvia: ‘Kur tu teci gailīt,’ ‘Dažu skaistu ziedu, Gaujā kaisīju.’ Yes, I know Gauja is a big river over there.”

As she spoke, Vanda sometimes used interesting but archaic phrases, such as “Priekš kara āboli bija smeķīgāki” (Before the war apples were tastier). Sometimes she switched to English, thought about it and searched for words, though most of the conversation was in Latvian.

“Memme talked about Latvia but she said she’d never go back,” Vanda said. “Dad didn’t say anything and I really wasn’t that interested in Latvia.”

Someone listening in on the conversation would not be able to tell that 90-year-old Vanda, who lives by herself in her Sydney home, has not spoken in her native language for many years. The life story of Vanda’s family is a good example of the fate of many Latvians who emigrated to Australia as a result of the unrest in Europe in 1905.

The only people who she would be able to speak to in her language are her sister Austra, who is a year and a half younger, or her other sister Frances, 14 years her junior. Austra lives nearby in a retirement village, but Frances is in Adelaide. If Vanda speaks to them on the phone—once a week with Frances, every day with Austra—their conversations are in English, Vanda says. They don’t have any Latvian friends. Vanda’s daughter, Nora, who died this year, never learned Latvian. Vanda’s grandson Michael, who works as a nurse and also looks after his blind grandmother, has never been spoken to in his grandmother’s mother tongue, let alone been to Latvian school.

Vanda was born on Dec. 31, 1911, in Grafton, New South Wales. She may well be one of the first full-blooded Latvians born in Australia. She is the first Australian of Latvian emigrant parents to be awarded an academic degree, from Sydney University in 1932, according to her nephew, Earl Ewers of Canberra.

Her father, Jānis Zariņš-Andersons (John Sarin-Anderson) arrived in Australia in 1906. He was 26 at the time. Following the 1905 Revolution in Latvia, he had been on the run from a Cossack forced labor expedition. Jānis fled from Bēne in the Kurzeme region of Latvia, traveled to Moscow and then to Vladivostok in eastern Russia, and from there by ship to Japan. Jānis had in fact planned to flee to America but had changed his mind when he heard about the earthquake in San Francisco. Television and radio didn’t exist in those days and according to the stories people told, America had exploded into little pieces and sunk, Vanda recalled with a laugh.

Jānis had been working in the Bēne railway station shop at the turn of the century and had been the first person to own a bicycle in his village. He never told his children what crimes he had committed so that he had to flee from the Tsarist government. Somewhere along the way his surname Zariņš had acquired an alias, Andersons. “Father had always liked Andersens’ fairy tales,” Valda said.

Vanda’s mother, Luīze Grīslis, who spent her childhood in Mezmuiža near the Lithuanian border, joined Jānis after five years. They got married the same day the young woman disembarked on Jan. 19, 1911. The last day of that same year Luiza and Jānis had a baby girl, Vanda. The midwife who helped with Vanda’s birth was an aborigine. “Memme said when she woke up there was a dark-skinned woman with a pipe sitting next to her,” Vanda remembered.

Jānis’ mother, Līze, joined the family in 1912. Jānis liked his new life in Australia so much that he had convinced his sister Marija and brothers Kārlis and Alfreds to emigrate as well. Marija ended up marrying a Latvian, Mārtiņš Pļaviņš, but both brothers took Australian brides.

Jānis was secretary of the first Sydney Latvian Society from 1928-1939. The family’s livelihood was provided for by their shop in Grafton, or bode, as Vanda called it. A business run by Latvian emigrants had seemed suspicious to the locals and it wasn’t too successful. Their next project met with more success: a bus line from Port Campbell to Wollongong.

Vanda’s mother stayed home and tended to the housework as was the custom for women in the pre-war years. She spoke to her children and husband only in Latvian (Vanda had two other brothers and two sisters besides her sisters, Austra and Frances), so till the age of seven Vanda knew no English. When Vanda started school she began to wonder why she was so different to the other kids. Because she was so intent on fitting in with the other Australian girls she spoke to her sisters in English and started to call herself Susan.

Vanda always knew she wanted to go to university. She even completed two university degrees, in 1952 earning an economics degree. Her husband, an Australian psychologist born in England, fully supported her studies. She had met him while working as a teacher in Newcastle. In the 1930s teaching was not considered a woman’s profession, however, the World War II changed all that, Vanda remembered. The war also changed the notion that a married woman’s place is in the home with kids, scrubbing pots and pans.

Vanda has been a widow for 36 years. And since her parents’ death (her father lived to the age of 80, her mother to 86, and both were buried in the Latvian section of the Rookwood cemetery in Sydney) she has had virtually no contact with Latvians apart from her own family. Vanda’s correspondence with relatives in Jelgava ceased after the war.

“Under Russian rule it was more difficult to make contact,” Vanda said. “Jelgava was destroyed and bombed, it was hard to locate them. They must have all been killed.”

At home Vanda still has a small Bible that had been among the possessions brought along from Latvia. The book had been a source of comfort to Luīze Grīslis, who had gone on a journey to an unknown destination nearly 100 years ago. But to Vanda, her mother’s homeland, located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, is a strange and distant planet. She remembered what her parents had told her about Latvia: “The rivers, forests, flowers were good.” She mentioned amber, rye bread, her mother’s sauerkraut, even sour porridge (skābputra)—a meal that non-Latvian guests had found inedible.

Then she surprised a visitor with a question: “Is there electricity in Latvia?”

(Editor’s note: This article was translated from the Latvian by Daina Gross.)

In wagon

In 1916, Jānis Zariņš-Andersons poses for a photograph with his wife, Luīze Grīslis, and two of their children, Austra and Vanda. In the background is their store at Grafton, New South Wales. (Photo from the Willis family archive)


Vanda Willis poses with her parents upon her graduation from university in 1932. (Photo from the Willis family archive)

Michael Willis

Michael Willis, Vanda’s grandson, poses at his great-grandfather’s grave. (Photo by Ieva Puķe)

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