Vitauts in Latvia 15: The National Library

The National Library of Latvia

National Library of Latvia
National Library of Latvia

Gita Berzina, dad’s grandniece, invited him and I to go with her to the National Library of Latvia (NLL) to see the archives and then to her apartment to look through some photos. We found out later that she is actually making contributions to the library by giving them old photos and helping to keep track of some Latvian families. I didn’t fully get the purpose of this project, but it was really cool to see.

Before we went to the library, however, I had business to attend to. Today was the day to get my Latvian passport and finalize my citizenship. I was to become a Latvian pilsonas (citizen). Ansis and Monta came to the apartment at 9:30 to get the key to the van and to say goodbye again, and then he offered to drop me off at the passport office which was only a few blocks away. I was running late because I said I would meet Gita at 10, so I said yes. But in our rush to take a final photo with Vitauts and everything, I ended up leaving my citizenship letter at the apartment, and Ansis, who was already late for an important meeting had to drive back to get the letter for me. Then, Gita showed up and got me a numers (number) for the queue. There was no line, so I got right in, took my photo, paid my fee, and they said it would be ready by 1 p.m. that day. I had to wait for weeks to get my United States passport, and the process wasn’t nearly as high tech. Go figure.

Then we picked up dad and took a taxi to the beautiful new National Library. The library itself is a treasure. It was designed by a famous Latvian architect named Gunnar Birkerts (Gūnars Birkerts), and it is shaped like a mountain with a flame on top. The theme, I think, is that it’s the flame of knowledge. I have never seen a building like that before.

Photo Albums - 12When we walked inside, I was in awe at the spectacular beauty and size of the space. There are 8 floors of books and other archives with an entire separate building dedicated to administration, over 2.5 million volumes in all. To get in, we had to get special passes, and then we followed Gita to the elevator which took us to the fifth floor.

The first display we saw was dedicated to Latvians who had been sent by the Russian government to Siberia. Thousands of Latvian citizens were deported during and after World War II, mostly intellectuals and wealthy citizens who posed a threat to the communist powers. Many of these Latvians remained in Siberia holding onto their culture through folk art, and the display included samples of some of the items that these Siberian Latvians had created over the years. It was a sad story.

Gita, Rita and Vitauts
Gita, Rita and Vitauts

Then we were greeted by Dr. Rita Treija who is a specialist in archiving folksongs and folklore of Latvia. She showed us the gem of the library which is a cabinet that contains over 200,000 folksongs (Latvju dainu) from all over Latvia. In the late 1800s, an influential Latvian named Krišjānis Barons began his life’s work by bringing together a group of helpers who went from village to village collecting the lyrics of songs for all occasions and keeping track of them. He began his endeavor by writing on small slips of paper with his own special coding system much like the Dewey Decimal system Photo Albums - 15for books. Papers from each region were carefully held together by ribbons that his wife made. Latvians are known for having over two-million known folksongs, so the collection, although extensive, represents only 10% of all the songs. That’s basically one song for each and every Latvian citizen!

She told us that they are organized by occasion with songs for births, deaths, and the largest collection for weddings. She also pointed out that the bottom drawer includes songs with obscene lyrics. Recently, they have begun archiving these lyrics online (include link) and she said that the most searched for songs are the ones with the naughty lyrics. Big surprise!

Then she took us into her library and showed us some books and samples of these slips. It’s amazing to think that this one person was responsible for collecting all of this. A running theme of this trip was the power of dreams, and how one person can truly shape and change the world he or she lives in.

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Anna on the Left

Photo Albums - 18While I was looking through a book of folk songs with a whole section of Smiltene lyrics, and being absorbed by all of the history, Gita had given dad a stack of photographs to look through. This is when I learned that she was not only taking us there, but she was actually a contributor to the library. Vitauts immediately recognized photos of his mother, Anna Kamolins in beautiful dresses with mesmerizing eyes that are hard to miss. Gita marked the photos that dad could identify and let him keep one that he had never seen before.

Rita and I talked a bit about American movies, and she spoke excellent English. She asked me about the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she wondered if I liked the DiCaprio movie. I was surprised that Latvians read and knew American literature, and she said, “Of course.”

Then we had a light lunch at the library cafeteria and took a cab to Gita’s apartment.

Photo Albums - 1When Gita invited us, she told us that she didn’t have room for more than two people. I thought she was exaggerating, and she probably was, but her apartment was small. I remember Edgar Jerins warning me how small his New York City apartment was, and it is for four people, but Gita’s is even smaller with just one room and a kitchen. She has made it a very livable and comfortable space for she and her two cats Annemarija Glorija and Beatrise. One was very comfortable and greeted us right away. We only saw the other one once.

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Annemarija, I think?

When we got there, she had Vitauts sit down while she gave him photo albums to look through. The first album was the most interesting to me because it included photos of all of us, the Grinvalds kids. Apparently his mother and/or sister had kept every photo he had sent over the years and organized them very neatly. Each of us had a page, and some of the photos I had never seen before including a couple baby photos of little Norman which are hard to find.

Janis Grinvalds Young and Old
Janis Grinvalds Young and Old

The other albums were like time machines with pictures of our grandparents and even great-grandparents. I wish I could see more of my grandfather and his family, but those photos are few and far between. Dad recognized his grandparents on the Kamolins side as well as his godparents and many others. He was in awe that all these photos existed. It was like a time capsule. Every time he saw his dad he would say, “My pops” and his mother, “My mama,” and his sister, “Es masa.” Touching to say the least. 

I also learned much more about Gita and her mother and brother. Juris, her brother, took the name Grinvalds because Mara didn’t like his biological father’s name. It was a Ukrainian name, so she named him Grinvalds in honor of his great-grandfather, so the name will  live on in Latvia.

Photo Albums - 5Then Gita revealed the feast that she must have worked on for many hours. I told her not to make us any food since it was just the two of us, but as we learned all week, Latvians do not allow their guests to go hungry. She had made three full plates of all kinds of amazing breads with vegetables and fish. She also made a special cake from bittersweet berries because I told her I wanted to try Latvian rhubarb bread. In Latvia, they don’t use rhubarbs harvested after John’s Day, so this was the next best thing. It was all just too much for Vitauts and I. We both tried a few pieces, but there was no way we could finish it. She promised that she would take it to work and have a party for her workmates. I hope she did so.

Vitauts explained to her that he felt guilty because he couldn’t eat more. Of course, she was very Photo Albums - 6gracious and said it was fine, but I have never seen such incredible hospitality.

We eventually said our goodbyes, and she called a taxi. We ended the day by climbing the stairs to our apartment again. Dad kept talking about the nice woman who showed him photographs and made him food.

It was a very good day, until Sue and Glen and I decided to celebrate my Latvian citizenship…

To be continued.

Lots of pictures of albums. It was amazing to see how well-preserved these photos are. Like the rest of Latvia, some places are like a time capsule!

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