I originally wrote this for an old family newsletter, The Thal Gazette. Now over thirty years ago, our brief visit to Talsi and Valdemarpils feels like a completely different time.
Because of the recent “openness” of the Soviet Union, our family was able to visit our “hometowns” in Latvia this summer. The four of us were there in July as part of a Baltic cruise.
After months of communications with Intourist officials, we finally received permission to visit Talsi (Talsen) and Valdemarpils (Sassmacken) just days before we left Toledo. Even with that on paper, we were unsure of finding a car and driver when we arrived in Riga. Though we saw several groups of tourists, it is definitely not a major industry in the city of 730,000. In fact, our ship’s group of 3 busloads exhausted their supply of English-speaking guides. But we had a car and a driver waiting for us and sped off at about 9am to Valdemarpils, a little over an hour’s drive from Riga. The drive was quite beautiful. The roads were well- maintained two and four-lane highways, through country much like northern Michigan. There were lots of evergreens and birch trees, wildflowers, and fields of potatoes. Our driver spoke no English, so we got along at a very basic level with my Russian dictionary.
Valdemarpils, which according to the Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer had a population of 1135 in 1962, has probably not grown much since then. We found a small farming community more than willing to help us. When our driver asked about the Jewish cemetery, we directed to a small tree-covered hill overlooking a lake on the outskirts of the town. This is where the cemetery once was but no longer exists. We later learned that it is a Baltic custom to put cemeteries under trees or in wooded areas, and this was a beautiful location. Leaving our driver for a few minutes, we quickly learned that the natives spoke no English or Russian (so much for the Russian dictionary) – only Latvian, and fortunately a little German. We were directed to the “Town Hall” where the archives were located. There we could find nothing dated before 1939 when the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic Republics. The houses and buildings we saw were probably much like those of the 19th century, though I doubt that these were that old. Both people and town gave the impression of a hard life that hadn’t changed much in 100 years.
Next we arrived in Talsi, about 8 miles from Valdemarpils. It’s location on a lake in a small valley is quite picturesque. A much larger town, of about 5000 inhabitants, it has a small library, which we had been directed to by the people in Valdemarpils. Although we were unable to find any trace of the family or any Jewish records, we caught a glimpse of a nice sized book collection, a very primitive restroom, and Dad swears, a mouse. The people were very friendly, and presented us with a set of small Talsi postcards. There is a short town history on the back in both Russian and Latvian which I hope to have translated before too long. In search of lunch, we found a public cafeteria and had a very basic meal of beef stroganoff, cucumber soup and potatoes. This was real life, not like our other “packaged” meals for tourists. In Talsi we saw many newer buildings, probably from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the postcards even show a small-scale “residential area” of apartment buildings.