Vitauts 30: My Grandpa was a Bootlegger

Vitauts 30: My Grandpa was a Bootlegger

Janis, Anna, Vitauts and his sister Austra in Latvia

On the way to the USA Women’s Volleyball game in Lincoln, Vitauts began telling me stories. Usually, he will point out what road we are on and which way to go and how many times he has been on a certain highway. “Are you taking interstate?” he asked as I turned onto 680. I told him that we always go this way. He argued that he usually went to Highway 6.

But after we got out of Omaha, his stories began to become more interesting. I had heard, of course, the stories about his father, Janis, not being able to go to college because his cousin stole my great-grandfather’s gold rubles. I mean, who hasn’t heard that one, right? He also told me about his schooling in Smiltene and in the German camps. I heard about my grandfather’s cousins, one of whom was a famous engineer who worked in the Latvian government. But the story I hadn’t heard before was that my grandfather was a bit of a badass.

Dad has told me the story a few times about how he learned to make a certain Latvian moonshine out of sugar beets. He would make it at some of the camps in Germany to trade for food and other luxuries. He never told me, however, that his father did the same thing. I guess I come from a line of borderline criminals which may explain something.

Shortly after the first World War, or somewhere between the two wars, or maybe during the second one (Vitauts wasn’t 100% sure on

Janis and family circa 1930
Janis and family circa 1930

the timeline), his father was given land from the Latvian government as a tribute to his service during WWI. This was after he had survived the German executions of Latvian prisoners which was halted by the Red Cross. It was after he had survived the harsh Riga prison starvation because his girlfriend would sneak him food. But it was before he harbored two German soldiers who were on R&R from the Russian front sometime in 1943. Dad said the soldiers were two of the nicest people he had ever known, but my grandfather didn’t like Germans. Can you blame him?

Anyway, at some point during his farming years, my grandfather figured out a way to make a little extra money on the side. Apparently, he had been earning German Marks which were almost worthless, so he found some people who could turn his grain into moonshine. Dad tried to explain the liquor that they would make, I believe he called it Kandža. It was some kind of corn whisky, and the deal was that my grandfather, Janis Grinvalds, would give the moonshine makers some four-hundred pounds of flour. They would turn it into bottles of kandža, and grandpa would take the bottles to town and trade them for whatever goods he needed. Vitauts said that he had forty or more bottles of the stuff! That’s some serious kandža!

So as I am driving down to Lincoln with my father, I am hearing the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme playing in my head, picturing my dad and his brother driving their two horse team into town to trade bottles of the good stuff for whatever they needed at the time. Dad even said that Janis was arrested once for not following orders when the Russians were occupying Latvia. Apparently he had connections, because one phone call from the local schoolmaster was all it took to get him out. He also hid all of his farm animals from the retreating Russians (or Germans, dad wasn’t sure) so they wouldn’t steal them and eat them. He stayed out in the marshes and the woods, living off the land for two weeks to protect his precious few sheep and cows. The bastards did get one of his horses though. Like I said, bad-ass!

Vitauts with his volleyball
Vitauts with his volleyball

That night, as we watched Puerto Rico dominate the Canadian team, the announcer asked for selfies via Twitter. I tweeted a photo of dad and me with the caption, “Latvian great grandpa for USA! Sveiks!!!” They came over and talked to him for a bit and even gave him a souvenir volleyball. He couldn’t stop smiling the whole night wondering, “How did they find me, I mean?!”

After that, we watched the United States team dismantle the Costa Ricans in three sets.

So all in all, it was a terrific night for USA Volleyball and Latvian immigrants.



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