Escape from Latvia -Anna’s story, Part I

In between the giant nation of Russia and the lovely and cold Baltic sea sits three small sister nations: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  Before World War II, the rolling hills of Latvia boasted a population of 1.2 million.  After that war, only 600,000 of her countrymen remained.

What happened to the other half of Latvia’s people? Sadly, many of them either died or were outright executed, many more were packed up like cattle and shipped to work camps (some as far as Siberia and the North Pole), while the rest bundled up everything they owned, grabbed their young children by the hand, and walked out of Latvia forever, joining thousands of other refugees in war-torn Germany and other parts of Europe.   By war’s end, many refugees had died in cities that were destroyed.  Of the survivors, most were unable to return to their homeland and were forced to relocate to other countries.  Only a few (about 34,000) were fortunate enough to relocate to the United States to begin a new life.

One of these brave refugees from Latvia was named Anna, who, along with her young daughter Irena, fled their country and navigated through Western Europe, barely escaping death on multiple occasions, and lived for several years in a safe zone in Germany, before eventually settling in the United States. Anna and her daughter made a wonderful new life in America.

Irena eventually grew up, got married, and had three sons.  All of Irena’s sons are now married and have children of their own, and Anna’s legacy of bravery and perseverance lives on in the lives of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I have benefited greatly from Anna’s courage, for I married Erik, her favorite grandson.  🙂

This is their amazing story of survival, courage, and God’s protective hand.

Chapter One – Anna’s Early Years

Anna Ancans was born on December 9, 1911 in Malkalni, Latvia. Anna was the youngest of eight children with bright blue eyes and long, wavy, thick brown hair.

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Anna’s day started at 4 am while it was still dark, as she lived on a small a small working farm in the far eastern regions of Latvia, where it was her job to herd and watch the cows.  She attended school, which was 8 km way, with her brother Losha.  They both lived at their school during the week.  Anna remembers packing six slices of rye bread, some barley, potatos and – if lucky – a bit of homemade cheese into their little white cloth food bags and hope it was enough for the week.  She liked learning, and geography became her passion.

After school, and moved to Riga, Latvia’s capital. There, she worked at the Dzervju Art School and Library.  She also worked for a time in bookkeeping and for the Ministry of the Interior.  Life was simple, but money was tight back in those days.  In order to save money for her one dress or shoes, she often would eat bread and soup in the “Student Kitchen” in Riga, where the poorer students regularly gathered for a hot, cheap meal.

A few years later she met and married handsome Juris Maskalans.  Juris was an accountant, he served in the Home Guard, and was a musician and poet.  Juris was outgoing with a great sense of humor. He was loved by everyone. He often played his guitar at informal social gatherings, and  Anna later said that he reminded her of Elvis Presley.  She and Juris married in 1939 at the age of 28.

In June 1940, Russian soldiers – hundreds of thousands of them – were at Latvia’s borders.  Soon after, Losha learned that Anna’s entire family was on a list for arrest and deportation.   The city of Rezekne was sealed off by the Russians.

One day the phone rang.  It was Anna’s older sister Emilija calling.

“Anna, I had a dream,” her sister said breathlessly.  “In my dream I saw Latvia’s fields, covered in blood.   What do you think that means Anna?”

A nervous shiver ran down her spine and she instinctively reached for her belly.  Anna was pregnant.  She wondered how this instability would affect her and her new baby.  A few months, on February 18 1941, they welcomed Irena was born on February 18, 1941.

1941 was the Year of Terror in Latvia.  And one night, that came true for Anna.

About three months after the birth of Irena, Anna and Juris went over to a friend’s house to play cards. While all the men gathered in the living room upstairs, Anna went down to the basement to get some food.  Suddenly, she felt the sharp point of a bayonet at her back.  It was a Russian soldier – fiercely demanding that Anna tell him who was upstairs and what they were doing.  Anna explained that they were simply enjoying a game of cards.  Suddenly, she could see more soldiers surrounding the home.  She was filled with fear.  In just a few moments her life would change forever.

To read Part II – Escape from Latvia part II — Rounded Up

To read Part III –  Escape from Latvia part III, the List

To read Part IV (if you only read two parts, read this one and the next) – Escape from Latvia Part IV — Bombings and Miracles in Germany

If you only read one part, read this one – Part V – Escape from Latvia part V – Last Train out of Dresden.

Finally – Escape from Latvia – Conclusion (Coming to America)

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Little Boy Lost (Logan’s adoption story)

It all started with an email.

After four and half years of enjoying our sweet daughter Claire, it was time to put our names into the hat to adopt again.   I had completed the necessary paperwork for the same agency that we adopted Claire, updated our adoption album, and the “waiting game” had begun.  As with our adoption of Claire- you can wait a week or you can wait a year, but there is always a wait built into the adoption process –always.  So I was surprised when we got an email so suddenly from our social worker letting us know that there was a birthmother, due soon, who was interested in beginning a conversation with us about adoption.  But there was a catch: this birthmother, although carrying a healthy baby boy, had overdosed on medication very early in her pregnancy.  Would we still be interested in her seeing our album?

I asked Erik what his thoughts were. He said: “Well, Claire’s birthmother drank heavily for nine months straight and God protected her in the womb.  So let’s trust God again, and go for it.” We said yes, and to make a long story short, we met with beautiful Kristin, hit it off right away, and she chose us to parent her baby boy!  Our little family of three was over the moon with excitement!

The baby boy, whom the birthmother had named Logan, was born without a hitch and was a beautiful, healthy baby boy indeed. But according to Virginia state law, the birthparents have 25 days to change their mind about the adoption, so we could not adopt him right away.  Erik, Claire and I excitedly started a nursery and bought diapers and formula, all the normal things expectant families do.

Our excitement was tempered somewhat when we approached the 25 day mark. We heard from our agency that the birthfather had registered himself on website called the Virginia Putative Father registry.  What did that mean?  That’s when our social worker told us some bad news: it seemed the birthfather did not want his parental rights to be terminated and would most likely contest the adoption.  Oh no!   There was a court date in two months and we would know more then.   My social worker told me guardedly: “I will be honest with you Heather.  This is not a good sign, but don’t give up hope.  We need to see what happens in court.  Maybe he will allow this adoption to go through after all.”

After two difficult and nerve-wracking months, the phone rang. It was our social worker, asking us to drive down to the adoption agency to meet with the birthfather, as he had requested a meeting with us.   We were all hopeful that this was a good sign, and we met with him a few hours before he was scheduled for court.  My first impression of the birthfather, I’ll admit, was very positive.  He was tall, very handsome, and seemed genuinely nice.  We chatted back and forth for about an hour or so, and I thought we had a great connection with him.  The meeting went well!!  The crazy part was that he was due in court that very day, and had to make his decision in literally about an hour from the time we met with him!

I vividly remember him leaving the office and walking out to his car (I was watching from a window). When he got to his car he started anxiously pacing back and forth.

“Hon, look at him,” I said to Erik. We watched him pacing for several minutes before getting into his car to drive to the courthouse.  “That’s not a good sign.”

We were driving home when we got the call from our social worker. She told us that the birthfather had indeed filed for custody of his son, and would not allow his parental rights to be terminated!!   She told us that this was most likely a closed door as Judges very rarely, if at all, rule against a child’s biological parents.  The birth father was ordered to complete a home study and come back in six months.  He also had the option to begin visitation with Logan.

Our social worker said we should consider this a closed door. After hanging up the phone, we both started to cry buckets of tears right there in the car. I couldn’t believe that our adoption had just fallen through!  It was a long drive home.

After mourning our loss for a couple of weeks, we decided to go back into the waiting pool at the adoption agency so other birth mothers could review our album, but they were hesitant to start communicating with us because they knew that Kristin had chosen us, and we were all in limbo until the second court date, which was scheduled for six months from that time.

Remember what I said about the fact that there’s always a wait built into every adoption? Well that’s where our wait occurred – right there in the middle of the story — for six long months.

What we didn’t know was that God was working behind the scenes, in unexpected ways, using everyday people to accomplish His purposes.

During the long six month wait, there were a lot of people in limbo. For starters, our poor birthmother was caught in a time warp, trying to decide if she should parent her son, even though she felt that adoption was in his best interest.  In the end she decided that she would parent Logan if it came down to it, rather than allow him to go to the birthfather, as she knew things about him that led her to believe that he was not a good man.  Kristin remained strong and resolute during the whole process and didn’t give up hope that good would come from this difficult situation.

Secondly, it was a long wait for Kristin’s parents, who were wondering how the story was going to turn out. In order to burn off nervous energy, Kristin’s dad took matters into his own hands and started to dig into the background of the birthfather.  He met with some folks, followed up on some rumors, and hired a Private Investigator.  What he found was very disturbing: it turned out that the birthfather had a serious criminal background.  The birthfather was not a good man, and Logan’s grandfather was determined to keep Logan away from him.  They actually wondered if Logan’s birthfather really even wanted Logan, or if he just wanted to have some sort of twisted power play over Kristin.  Logan’s grandfather diligently gathered documentation to use against the birthfather in court.

It was also a long wait for the adoption agency and Logan’s foster family, as they had only signed up for the typical 25 day foster care timeline. They were wonderful people, however, and loved Logan as their own son.

It was also a long wait for poor Logan, who was in limbo in foster care, awaiting his forever family, whoever that would turn out to be.

Of course, it was a long wait for us, too. So we did what most Christians do when they don’t know what to do: we prayed.  Erik, Claire and I prayed diligently, many of our friends and family prayed, and Kristin’s mother was continually praying for God’s will to be done for sweet Logan.

After nine long months of waiting and praying, everything came to fruition one cold day in February when the second court date finally arrived. We were all on pins and needles, wondering what the Judge would decide.  Erik was at work but I was at home praying non-stop when the call came through.  It was our social worker.

I could actually hear the joy in her voice when I picked up the phone: “By a miracle of God, the Judge ruled against the birthfather and terminated his parental rights!! Logan is yours!   We just need to schedule a Placement Day and then you get to take him home!!”

Our little boy lost would now be able to come home to us forever! I called up Erik at work and we both started crying on the phone together (spontaneous, intense crying is built into every adoption as well).

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But how did this happen? Why did the Judge rule against Logan’s biological father?  It turns out that there were three main factors.  First, the birthfather failed to complete his home study and didn’t visit Logan even ONE time during the six month period.  Secondly, the birthfather did not have a parenting plan in place.  Thirdly and most importantly, the Judge accepted the criminal background information on the birthfather that Logan’s grandfather was able to provide to the court.  It was clear to the Judge that Logan being parented by his biological father, in this case, was definitely not in Logan’s best interests.

Two weeks later our little family of three drove down for the Placement Ceremony!

The Placement Ceremony was a wonderful, emotional, joyous celebration. Unfortunately, Logan cried and screamed during most of the ceremony, but his crying did not diminish our joy at becoming his parents.  Logan became our son on February 13, 2009.

In the years since, we have been privileged to enjoy an open adoption with Kristin and her parents. We love them as if they are a part of our family.  We’ve visited them and they have visited us.  Logan knows his full story and knows and loves his biological family.  Open adoption has really worked for us and has been a blessing for Logan.

I recently called Kristin’s dad for the writing of this post.   I thanked him for doing his part in Logan’s story, and I asked him if he thought his investigative work played a role in court that day.  He answered very simply and humbly: “I don’t think the adoption would have gone forward without the information we were able to bring to the court.”

“You saved a life,” I told him directly. “In my opinion, at least.   You changed the course of a human life.”

In conclusion, I want to specifically single out Logan’s beautiful and amazing birthmother Kristin for remaining strong for nine uncertain months, and for giving us one of the best gifts we could possibly receive. We cannot imagine life without our active, funny, intense, deep, sweet, sporty, smart, and big-hearted son.  You are amazing Kristin and we love you.  You are family!

As I look back on the story and see how many moving parts had to perfectly coincide for the miracle of Logan coming into our family, I am so very grateful to God, for making everything turn out the way it was supposed to be for everyone. I am so glad that not only is Logan a part of our family, but Logan’s entire biological family is now a part of our family, too.

Decisions…Decisions

Choices. We make them every day. One choice may lead to a seismic shift in our personal or professional life.  Another choice has a small impact, barely noticeable.

There was a time many years ago when God gave me a very important decision to make, but I scarcely knew how impactful the decision would be at the moment I made it.

I was thirty years old and out of a job as my boss, Senator Bob Smith, had lost his election. I was toying with starting the adoption process, but I also wanted to continue my work on Capitol Hill.  I had a few job offers but nothing felt right until I learned that Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana was hiring for a Legislative Director (LD) position.  I applied, receive a call from the Chief of Staff (CoS), and then went in for what would be my only interview.

I knew that this particular interview was going to be the biggest, most “important” interview of my life, because Mike Pence was a rising super star and already in House Leadership. I dressed to the nines, prayed a whole bunch, and even practiced my interviewing skills in front of a mirror.

The moment of truth came when I sat down with both Mr. Pence as well as his CoS.

I know you are all dying to know about what I thought of Mike Pence, so here it is: He seemed guarded, serious, authoritative, kind, and pleasant, all at the same time. Even though he seemed genuine and cordial, for some reason I was incredibly nervous during the interview.  He truly intimidated me!!  Maybe it was his authoritative presence, or his stern demeanor.  During the interview, the CoS asked the questions while Mr. Pence sat listening, staring at me with his eyes that seemed to bore into my soul.  I was so nervous that half way through the interview process I blurted out: “I am so nervous right now!  I just have to say that.  I don’t know why.  Ok, now that that’s out of the way I feel much better!”

Yep. That happened.

Now, if you have read From the Valley to the Hill, you know that I have a tendency for the awkward during important interviews so this is nothing new. So, I was surprised when I got a call a couple of days later from his CoS.

“Hey Heather, this is ____. I wanted to give you an update on the interview process.  So, it’s down to you and another candidate, and Mr. Pence and I will be deciding over the weekend and we will let you know of our decision on Monday.”

Right after the call I immediately got down on my knees and prayed, asking God to give me this job because I really, really wanted it.

All of the sudden I felt the Lord speak directly to my spirit in a very clear, unmistakable way. He asked:

“Do you want to work for Mike Pence?”

And in that moment, I felt in my spirit that God was saying to me: “Just say the word and the job is yours.”

For some reason I knew that an answer was required of me, in that moment. And that my decision was an important one and would affect the rest of my life.  I was at a crossroads, and destiny was hanging in the balance.

I hesitated for a minute and then finally said. “Yes, Lord, I do.  But I want your will more than I want my own to be done.  So…(long pause)…you decide.”

Monday morning I got the call: they decided to go with the other guy! I was deflated.  And angry.

“God, what the heck? You asked me and I said I wanted you to decide.  I thought you would say “awesome Heather, in addition to this job I will give you riches and honor as well” or something like that.  I never expected you would say no!!  I thought you would be so thrilled that I told you I wanted your will instead of my own that you would bless me with this job! I’m so confused.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. To make a long story short, I ended up just not getting any job at all, started to work very diligently and rapidly on our adoption process, and adopted our beautiful daughter Claire about a year later.

After we brought Claire home, I had an epiphany about working for Mr. Pence. Had I chosen to say “yes Lord, I want to work for Mr. Pence” with no qualifier, I believe I very much would’ve gotten the job, and we never would’ve adopted Claire.  Working on Capitol Hill as an LD is an all-consuming job, and I am quite positive I would have been unable to complete the adoption process.

Did you catch that? We would never have adopted our meant-to-be-super-special daughter, Claire.

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In that moment, I was very thankful that I didn’t just go with the answer that defined what I truly wanted, but rather I let God decide what I truly needed.

So this brings me back to big choices that God gives to people. Here are just a few from Scripture:

  • There was a time when God asked King Solomon to ask Him for anything, and He would answer the prayer, no matter what. King Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom. God was so impressed with his choice that He gave him wisdom greater than any king before him, and riches and honor as well. Solomon made a wise choice, and God blessed him more than any other king, ever. (By the way, I was referring to this story a bit sarcastically when I spoke to God after I found out that I did not get the job.)
  • God offered a choice to the Israelites when he said “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” The Israelites, sadly, did not consistently choose God and His ways, and therefore they came under judgment several times and their kingdom was torn in half.
  • Jesus gave a choice to three fishermen to drop their nets and come follow him, and Jesus would make them fishers of men instead. The men obeyed and followed, got a front row seat to Jesus’ ministry, and changed the world. He also asked a rich young ruler to follow him, but the young man went away sad, and we’ve never heard from him again.
  • Finally, did you know that Jesus actually had a choice about going to the cross to die for the sins of mankind? He sure did. And in fact, Jesus asked God to choose another path for him that did not involve the cross, not once, but three times. Scripture does not record what God actually said to his Son in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it’s clear that God did not offer Jesus an alternative. Jesus, in a moment of pure humility and self-denial, finally states “Lord, would you pass this cup from me? Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

Jesus basically said: “God, I would prefer another way, but you decide.”

And actually, there’s one ultimate choice that all of mankind must make: To choose for God, or choose against him. When Jesus was on the cross, in his dying moments, he was flanked by two thieves who  each had a choice. One chose the path of faith and one did not.  Jesus turned to the one who believed and said:

“This day you will be with me in paradise.”

So this brings me back to my story about Mike Pence. Every choice you make can have a small or big impact, and it’s hard to know, in the moment, how your choice will affect the rest of your life.

That day when God asked me if I wanted to work for Congressman Pence, I am glad that I hesitated before giving Him my answer. I am glad that I offered Him a qualifier.  I offered Him a qualifier because deep in my heart, I believe that God is good, and He knows what’s best for me.

I am so glad that God chose Claire for our family. And I would always, always choose my Claire-Bear.

Because jobs come and go, but family is forever.