“Little Simeona, still small but sufficiently smart, goes to her mother who is sitting in the garden under the blossoming apple tree. She takes both of her mother’s hands and asks: ‘Dearest mommy, tell me some sunny words that will make me love everything.’ Mother is surprised at such a question from her girl. It is difficult to come up with an answer in a moment. Where will she gets such words?” – Janis Liepkalns, March 2015.
Janis passed away in his sleep at the age of 101 on Jan. 10, 2017.
Not much had changed in the nursing home since I visited it on a Cultural Field Experience last March. Scattered around the various rooms and floors were elders in wheelchairs, most of whom I recognized from seeing them last March. But once again, similar to how he captivated me before, I found myself drawn to one specific man in a wheelchair.
Not much was different about him from the rest of the people who rolled past him at slow speeds, except for one obvious missing factor, a leg.
Last year, he was brought to my attention because his birthday fell on the first day of CFE, so we were asked to join in and sing. One of my group members asked how old he had become, and the staff replied that “he’s turning 101 today!” I found it hard to believe that I was standing in the presence of a centenarian. I had to know who he was.
I discovered his name was Janis Liepkalns, a Latvian World War II veteran born in March 1915. A WWII vet? But whom was he with, and where did he fight? And how did he lose a leg? I got the chance to find out when the CFE group was asked by the nursing home staff to go room to room to learn six facts about every resident. I spent this time to ignore my task of interviewing many residents so that I could learn as much as I could from Janis.
Janis was born to a Latvian farming family a year after the start of World War I. His childhood was rather normal, between going to public school and tending to his father’s farm.
He developed a love for many things there, but he loved writing and music the most. He went to college to study both engineering and agriculture. By the time he finished college and got back to work on his father’s farm, WWII started.
Janis went to work in a mechanics company, which was making bits and pieces to be sold and used in the war. But Latvia wasn’t a part of the war yet, so Janis was distanced from the fighting.
Then Germany occupied Latvia, and all able-bodied Latvians were conscripted into service for the Nazis to fight against Russia. The only men who weren’t drafted were Latvian Jews, some of whom Janis was close friends with but never saw again.
While fighting against Russia, a Soviet bullet pierced through his leg at the knee, and he was hospitalized and brought to Germany. Because the Germans had started to lose the war, they lacked the supplies needed to save his leg, so they amputated it from the thigh.
While in recovery, American forces conquered the town the hospital was in, and as a result spent the rest of his recovery a Prisoner-of-war under American occupation. Janis was released back to Nazi Germany a few months later, since the US forces knew that he would no longer qualify to fight having been disabled in battle.
The German state sent him to occupy an apartment building being used to house Latvian veterans and refugees. Unfortunately, the building was hit in a British bombing run, which killed 147 Latvian residents, and left Janis alive but with badly damaged hearing. Soon the war ended, and with it came the new struggle of figuring out what to do next.
Janis, with little to his name and unsure of his family’s condition, decided in 1952 to immigrate to Minneapolis (when I asked him why Minneapolis, he said he didn’t understand the difference between here and other cities like Chicago and New York), and once there found a job in a restaurant.
Finding little fulfillment and pay in that, he took a job for a Latvian printing company, helping print the Minnesotan-Latvian magazine, Tilts. But by 1976, the company shut down, and Janis found a job in mechanics, helping to make small parts for planes, trains and automobiles.
He continued in this line of work until 1996 when he retired. Other activities he participated in during this time were gardening and growing roses, and for 40 years he played oboe for the Minneapolis Police Orchestra.
I was amazed by the full life this man had led, and despite all the things life had thrown at him he had kept going. Turning 101 was just another day in his full life as far as he was concerned, and age had not affected him at all.
Janis was quick to tell me that if the nursing home hadn’t deemed it cheaper to put him in a wheelchair he would still be walking with a fake leg and a cane.
His English was always slow, and so I was worried he had perhaps become slightly senile, but when I saw him speak Latvian to a friend of his, it was evident that he only had trouble holding onto a language that he rarely used in his earlier years.
His conversation in Latvian was rich, full and fast, stunning me with how unaged he really seemed. The only evidence that he had aged at all was that his eyesight had deteriorated over the years, a recent development, so much so that he was writing less than a year earlier but no longer could. But it was these developments about Janis that stuck with me the most.
Janis has a sad look in his eyes, and I believe it to be so for a variety of reasons. One was homesickness.
The last time Janis had seen his family was in 1980.
His brother had returned to the farm after 14 years in the Soviet gulag (a harsh Siberian penal system that housed political prisoners, minorities, and intellectuals), and Janis came to visit and help his parents and his sister welcome his brother home.
For those who don’t know much about the history of Latvia, let me explain the significance. Latvia became a free country in 1918, three years after Janis was born. It remained free until Russia occupied it, then Germany occupied it, and after which Russia occupied it again. It would not become free again until after 1991, when the USSR broke apart.
This means that Janis has not been in a free Latvia since 1940, when the Russians declared it to be a part of the USSR.
Another factor that I feel makes Janis sad is the lack of family in America. He has never had a wife, nor has he ever had any children. He has technically been alone in America since day one. He says that his only love is writing, and that brings me to my last and most significant point.
Janis loves writing. He’s written beautiful poems and thoughtful essays for decades, but recently, when he’s beginning to have all the time he needs to write, his eyesight leaves him.
The cruelest twist of fate, but rather than pity himself he makes jokes about it.
“What can you expect, I am 101 years old!”, he shouts gleefully.
And yet somehow, I can’t bring myself to agree with him. After reading his work, I feel terrible that such a voice of knowledge has been taken from this world.
But perhaps similar to Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone, “the best laid plans of mice and men can oft go awry.”
I write this article for three reasons. One, to be able to capture and share even the tiniest essence of the wonder I felt when I was able to meet this man. Two, so that the century-old stories he carries do not disappear with him. And three, to show the results of the CFE program, without which I never would have met this wonderful man.
And I believe never again will I meet such a man, who inspires such a sense of awe.
No matter what life threw at him, no matter what life gifted or took away, this man kept going, and still keeps going. And I would like to thank not only my school for the opportunity to meet this man, but I would also like to thank the nursing home, Elim Redeemer, for being a caretaker for the keepers of stories.
And Janis, paldies, or thank you, for showing me, and perhaps others, what it looks like to achieve greatness and humility, and inspiring me to keep going even in times of struggle.