Latvian Immigration Story
Kalamazoo's Baltic Influence
“It is clear that the Latvians are one of the many ethnic groups that enrich Michigan’s culture. They are a “tile” that helps to form the state’s vivid cultural mosaic.”
–Silvija D. Meija, author of Latvians in Michigans
Unlike the waves of European immigration patterns that impacted Kalamazoo’s population growth throughout the 19th century, the story of Latvian displacement from their Baltic homeland, and their subsequent relocation to Kalamazoo County, came about mostly after the devastating impact of World War II and the ensuing hardships from the German, and then Soviet Union occupation. Settling in southwest Michigan during the late 1940s, Latvian immigrants arrived committed to both adapting to a new country and to continuing to celebrate and pass down their rich, cultural traditions. For many Latvians, their sojourn in southwest Michigan was to be merely a layover to when they would return to their European lands. For others, the dream of a homecoming diminished over time as their children and grandchildren embraced their American identity and language. It wouldn’t be until 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when Latvians would once more have an independent state to call home.
The Aftermath of World War II
Prior to 1918, when the independent nation of Latvia was established, Latvians had long suffered from oppressive invaders and occupiers from other ethnic groups (Poles, Germans, Swedes, Russian, e.g.) for centuries. But due to the onset of WWII, their status as a distinct nation was a brief one. Occupied by both German and Soviet forces, the conclusion of the war left many Latvians with few good options. Returning to the oppressive state of their homeland, increasingly falling into Sovietization and Russianization, languishing in German refugee camps, or making the difficult decision to emigrate to the United States tore at the hearts of Latvians left homeless once more.
Prior to their fretful journey across the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of Latvians ended up in Displaced Person (DP) camps in Germany after 1945. Those who chose to stay in Latvia, or who were not able to go to Germany, may have been one of the 70,000 Latvians “forced to go to Siberia when collective farming was introduced” by the Soviets. Many of those who immigrated to the Kalamazoo area had been living in barracks at the Valka Camp in Germany, including a group of musicians led by the conductor Arnolds Kalnajs. Named Shield of Songs, “a name derived from a folk legend,” the chorus entertained other Latvians and American serviceman stationed overseas with approximately “30 concerts.”
Local Church Sponsorship
In June of 1948, the U.S. passed the Displaced Persons Act, a law that made it easier for European refugees to access travel visas. The law required that sponsors be U.S. citizens, and who could guarantee immigrants housing and employment. The local person most responsible for engineering the program of Latvian immigration to Kalamazoo was a Latvian-born Methodist minister named Janis Laupmanis. Laupmanis had come to the United States in 1940. Before arriving in Kalamazoo, he had worked on a farm near South Haven, Michigan. He also worked at a local church. Rev. Laupmanis grew interested in the plight of post-war refugees after striking up a correspondence with an old schoolmate from his childhood that had been living in a DP camp. After being transferred to Kalamazoo’s First United Methodist Church in 1945, he and assistant pastor Paul Albery organized a church sponsorship program to bring Latvians to Kalamazoo. Their first goal was to bring to Kalamazoo the entire 64 person membership of the Shield of Songs chorus, which they accomplished by the end of 1949. Other important figures at the church involved in aiding the refugee community included Howard Bowman and his wife Winifred. Bowman was chosen to chair the church’s sponsorship program. Other church members who participated in helping to provide financial, housing and employment assistance for the incoming Latvians included Carl and Ethel Snow, William and Agnes Gaut, Loree and Lois Harvey, Zella Kline, Mary Soffrou, Alva and Ruth Summerlott, Walter and Atene Tucker, John and Laura Van Dyke.
Immigrants were often initially lodged at farms around the Kalamazoo area. They were expected to assist their family sponsors with their labor until they were capable of finding other avenues of permanent employment and housing. Aside from the perilous voyage to a new and unfamiliar country with only the clothes on their backs, most Latvians found the language barrier the most difficult challenge to overcome. Understanding the challenges that would impede successful acclimation, the Methodist Church provided evening ESL (English as Second Language) classes in their basement.
“The members of the committee were aware of the individual situations and problems with each family and throughout the first few years were flexible in aiding the immigrants. Mrs. Bowman spoke of her husband’s concern over a woman who refused to learn English. The Van Dykes, also committee members, unexpectedly took into their house Latvian families. These are examples of the care and attention given to the immigrants. Mr. Laupanis, seeing his goal fulfilled, extended himself. “He awaited the hundreds of immigrants at the Kalamazoo railroad station with the same care and help that one would give to one’s father, brother or child. Uncounted numbers were housed and fed in his home…”” (Kolm, 15)
In many cases, Latvians who were once lawyers, architects, scholars, teachers and doctors prior to the war, were limited to working as farm hands, dishwashers, and factory workers because of their unfamiliarity with English, and their lack of certified credentials. Despite these challenges of adapting to a new culture and language, the Latvian community labored through the 1950s as they continued to honor their customs, including expressions of traditional Latvian folk music, dance and dress.
The church sponsorship program was so successful at integrating the new immigrants to their radically new circumstances that many Latvians who had immigrated to other parts of the United States, later relocated to the Kalamazoo area to take advantage of the support of Kalamazoo’s budding Latvian enclave. Overall, there were roughly 1000 Latvians in Kalamazoo at their peak.
Keeping the Culture Alive
In addition to the flourishing musical chorus and the Latvian Association, other organizations were developed as a means of keeping Latvian culture active as younger generations inevitably became Americanized. First, there were the churches–The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Parish and St. John’s Lutheran Latvian Church. The two congregations voted to merge in 1995, with the church located at 100 Cherry Street. Western Michigan University developed a Latvian Studies Program around 1966, which brought in hundreds of students from around the world to study on campus, some of whom elected to stay. Lastly, there is the Latvian Center Garezers Summer Camp located west of Three Rivers, MI. First established in 1964, young adults from all over the United States and Canada interested in heightening their knowledge of their Latvian heritage “learn Latvian, perform folk dances and make traditional jewelry” among other more academic curricula.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, May 2023
“Kalamazoo’s Latvian community”
Museography, Spring 2004, p.7
“Schoolcraft farm Latvian haven”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 June 1949
“15 Latvian DP’s due at Covert”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 July 1949
“Latvian culture flourishes in a St. Joseph County lakeside retreat”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 August 1983, page B8, column 3
“Publishers with a cause”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 April 1988, page E1, column 5
“After 50 years, the influence of religion is implanted in the Latvian community”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 October 1999, page D1, column 2
“A culture in exile”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 August 1999, page C1, column 2
“For Latvians, their history is their story”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 August 1999, page C3, column 1
The Latvians in Kalamazoo: resolution of the difficulties in their lives as immigrants
Christina M. Kolm, 1977
H 325.2474 K81
Latvians in Michigan
Silvija D. Meija
H 325.24743 M512
Local History Room Files
Subject File: Latvians in Kalamazoo
Subject File: Latvians in Three Rivers
Latvju Maksla (1975-1999)