History – Latvian Community in South Australia

The Latvian community in Adelaide came into being from about 1948 when the Australian government opened its doors to European refugees after World War 2. The Australian government of that time was keen to bring in young families who were willing to work and make Australia their future home as returning to their homeland, Latvia, was not an option considering the political situation of post war Europe. The word refugee was not used; instead, we were classified as Displaced Persons. Since 1945, these Displaced People had already spent time, in various Displaced persons camps throughout Western Europe. Counties such as Great Britain and United States welcomed single adults to their country as they could be used as a workforce. Great Britain was especially keen to allow single young adults to emigrate to be employed for the reconstruction process after the damage inflicted during the war.
In total about 3,000 Latvians arrived in Adelaide between 1947 and 1955. Some disembarked at Port Adelaide, as my family did, and were taken to various hostels or immigration camps in Adelaide. Others went to Melbourne, Sydney or Perth and then came to Adelaide to settle permanently. All of these people who were adults had to sign a 2 year bond in payment for their passage to Australia. Most of these people were educated professionals and were unable to work in their profession until they had completed their bond. On arrival to Adelaide they were given jobs in the railways, forestry department, department of water supply and various factories. Many women worked as cleaners in various hospitals throughout South Australia.
Having lost everything back in Latvia, these people put educating their children as one of the main priorities, as well as maintaining their Latvian language and culture. In order to achieve their goal they saw the need to come together as a group and establish committees and organisations that will help families to maintain their Latvian identity, especially coming together on very important occasions such as the Independence Day of Latvia in November, Deportation of Latvians to Siberia in June, Summer Solstice celebrations singing songs and enjoying Latvian food that is traditionally prepared for such celebratory days.
At first committees met in members’ homes, but for bigger functions halls had to be hired. The school was established on a Saturday mornings and church halls in the city were used as they were affordable. Community members began looking for affordable land that could be acquired by our community. In the early 50’s cars were not that common and people were very dependent on public transport. In 1955 a house, on the corner of Clark St. and Rose Tce. was bought from donations by the Latvian community as its location was very good because both the Glenelg tram and buses ran along King William Road, not far from the Hall. In the early 60’s the adjacent property on Clark St. was purchased and the large hall was built. A second storey above the large hall was built so the primary school could have a permanent home. The school is still going. The Primary school is open on Saturday mornings 9.30 a.m. to 1.00p.m. during South Australian school terms. All teachers are accredited teachers and the school is a part of the Ethnic Schools of South Australia. In the morning Latvian language is taught and after recess singing, folk dancing and other cultural activities are provided. Monday and Tuesday nights from 6.00p.m. adult language classes are held.
The Latvian Association of Adelaide was founded in 1949 and is still going strong despite the decreased membership. The Latvian Association is in 36 Rose Tce. Wayville. The Association manages the bookshop that is open most Saturdays from 10.00a.m. to 1.00p.m. One can purchase Latvian books, C.Ds, traditional Latvian jewellery made by Latvian jewellers in Australia as well as Latvia, handicrafts, food like jams and potato crisps, greeting cards as well as other products.
Next to the bookshop is a meeting room that is used for Board meetings, information sessions, workshops, lectures as well as small functions. In the very back room is the LAIMA Office, Latvian Aged Care where the elderly are able to receive information relating to Aged Care issues and services available to them. It is from this Office that Carers Retreat outings for senior and monthly lunches are organised. The office is open every Monday, Thursday and Friday. They also organise cooking demonstrations of Latvian traditional dishes once a month on a Saturday morning starting at 11.00 a.m. This group has compiled these recipes and printed a cooking book in English called “Flavours of Latvia” which can be purchased at the bookshop. The purpose for such a book was to ensure that the younger generation of Latvian descendants who do not speak Latvian, but want to be connected with its culture, can prepare these dishes at home. Learning how to cook traditional Latvian food is a very effective means of staying connected because some of the food is associated with festivals celebrated in Latvia. For example in the Summer Solstice (Jāņi) a special kind of cheese is made and eaten only on this day.
Next to the Latvian Association is the Latvian museum opened every last Saturday of the month between 10..00a.m. and 12.00 noon. This is the only Latvian museum in Australia and all the exhibits have been donated by members of the Latvian community and the curator is a volunteer. The museum works closely with the Immigration Museum of South Australia and is involved with History Month in May every year.
The back yard is used by the Latvian Saturday schools playgroup . The playgroup is open every Saturday morning during South Australian school terms between 10.00a.m. and noon where parents with pre school children spend the morning learning simple folksongs, listen to stories and play. They are a very important part of the school and they always are the main event at the school’s annual concert.
The house on the corner of Clark Street and Rose Tce. Has a cafe that is run by volunteers every Saturday morning 9.00a.m. and 1.00p.m. during South Australian school terms. One can always enjoy a freshly brewed coffee or tea and taste the delicious traditional Latvian rye bread herring sandwiches and yeast pastries especially ‘’ pīrāgi’’ (bacon buns) and catch up with friends. Every last Friday of the month we have a Happy Hour starting at 6.00p.m.where one can buy a meal and have a glass or two of wine or Latvian beer with friends.
Just across the corridor we have the Latvian library where books can be borrowed . It is run by a volunteer and open Saturday mornings 10.00a.m. to 12 noon.
There is a smaller hall with seating for 100 people. Every month on the first Tuesday we have our regular seniors lunch where about 30 seniors attend. They arrive about 11.00 a.m. here they are provided with information about coming community events, latest news from Latvia, celebrating birthdays and the highlight, lunch. It is an opportunity to meet up with old friends and spend time away from home. They sing some Latvian songs and just enjoy the outing. Volunteers bring some of the more frail others are happy to come by taxi.
On Sundays this hall is used by the Adelaide Latvian Sports club where they come to play a Latvian game similar to pool. It is a small group of both men and women and they compete with Latvian teams from Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Friday nights this hall is used by the folk dancing group. They learn the traditional folk dances and with modern technology and Utube they are able to learn more modern dances direct from Latvia which they enjoy very much.
Monday evenings at 7.00 p.m. the mixed choir sings till 9.p.m. Every alternate year in Australia we have a Latvian Festival where all the choirs and folk dancers come together and perform. The festival is hosted in one of the major cities, Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney. This festival is held in the week after Christmas Day and ends with the New Years ball. This is one of the reasons these groups rehurse throughout the year because most of the people like to attend this festival. Especially the younger people have an opportunity here to make new Latvian friends and catch up with old friends.
The Lutheran church is across the road from the Latvian hall and church services are held in Latvian twice a month. The chuch was built in the mid 1970’s with volunteer labour. Numerous christenings, confirmations, marriages and funerals have been and still are conducted. There is a small meeting hall at the back of the church which is also used for smaller functions. The Latvian embroidery group come here once a month on Wednesdays to share their embroidery efforts and skills.
Further down Clark St. there are the premises of the Latvian Relief Society, ”Daugavas Vanagi”, a club for returned soldiers. They focus on raising funds for the retired soldiers of World War 2 and their families who remained in Latvia. Thay serve lunches every Saturday and meet regularly for meetings , listen to guest speakers on various topics. They also have a men’s and women’s choir and often perform on our National days and concerts.
In the 1970’s every school summer holidays there is a summer camp organised for high school aged students throughout Australia to spend three weeks refreshing and consolidating their latvian language . All teaching staff are volunteers and the total number of students is close to a hundred. This camp was originaly held in Aldinga and parents were asked to volunteer their services in the kitchen. Due to the popularity of the summer camp a property was purchased in the 1980’s in Normanville. The numbers attending are smaller and the proficiency of Latvian not as polished, but still these teenagers look forward to the weeks spent in Normanville South Australia. The summer camp ends with a concert held in the Adelaide Latvian hall where we have the opportunity to see and hear what they have achieved in those few weeks. These days there is some funding made availble by the Latvian government for projects like this one, for the youth living outside Latvia. Often teachers and Professional musicians and weavers of Latvian designs come from Lartvia to expand the cultural programme. Due to the ease of travel and communication quite a large number of students have visited Latvia and returning home to Australia even more keen to improve their language skills. A number of the students have only one parent of Latvian heritage. Hence the opportunity to speal Latvian becomes more limiting and it is during such programmes as the Latvian school and summer camp that help keep the language and culture alive.
We also have Amber Aged Care in the suburb of Paradise- a Residential Aged Care facility for Baltic people. It is a community, not for profit establishment built in the 1990’s. This facility differs from any other because of its multicultural background. Today about one third of the residents come from the Baltic countries and the others are made up of people from many European countries. The staff are also of multicultural background, but the common language for all is English. Throughout the year members of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian communities participate in organised functions such as the annual Baltic Olympics, Baltic lunches, Christmas and monthly friends morning tea organised by volunteers from each of the Baltic communities. Every June the residents who wish to take part are taken by bus to a concert held in the Latvian church to commomerate the deportation of the Baltic people to Siberia by the Russian government before and after World War 2.
Latvians have been very active in their community in Adelaide for over 60 years. The number of active Latvians today would be about 500. The clubs and committees are many but the numbers few. When Latvia got its independence from Communist Russia we all thought that this will be the death of our community. Almost 30 years later we are still here and our play group and young families thriving. At the end of this year the Latvian Youth festival will be held in Adelaide and the Adelaide youth will be hosting this 4day event. It is a national event and they are hoping that Latvians throughout Australia will come to Adelaide to suppoprt them.
LAIMA Latvian aged care programme has been running for 10 years now and with the help of government funding we are able to provide a culturally appropriate service thus ensuring that our elderly are not isolated this is important to our community which they had started and continue to reap the rewards of their hard work of many years .