Howdy everyone in the Whitehall, Hillview, Jacksonville and Carrollton area. My name is Janis Berzins and I have lived in Chicago for the past sixty five years. I believe I have a story that you will find interesting. Several years ago I was at a friend’s sixtieth birthday party where I met a young lady named Alyssa Schutz. I asked her where she was from and she said from a small town in central Illinois called Hillview. I said really! I know where that's at. Alyssa was surprised that I knew of Hillview and I was surprised that she was from Hillview. I told her that my family arrived in Hillview in April of 1950.
We were Latvian refuges who were forced to leave Latvia when the Russian communist brutally occupied our independent democratic country. My father was a judge and faced probable execution and the rest of the family faced deportation to Siberia where conditions made life questionable. We fled to war torn Germany and afterwards lived in refugee camps for five years. At the time the US had a restrictive immigration policy but in 1948 the US congress passed the Displaced Persons Act that allowed our family to immigrate to the US. One part of Act required a sponsor when admitted. We obtained a sponsor through the Lutheran church who's name was Tucker. He and his sister lived on a farm near Hillview that was once a part of the McClay orchards.
At the time Arthur Powell was the sheriff of Greene County and he and his wife Jerry had a house near Hillview. He came from a large family. Eleven brothers and two sisters. Sheriff learned of our situation and suggested to my father that my sister Ieva come live with them and that my sister Irja live with the McClay family. The reason being to learn English before starting high school. My family has fond memories of Sheriff and Jerry. Later when we were living in Chicago, Sheriff visited us to see how we were making out in the big city. We lived on the Tucker farm for six months then moved to Jacksonville after my father had fulfilled his obligations to the Tuckers. The following summer my sisters returned to Hillview and again lived with the Powell and McClay families. Our house in Jacksonville had no running water or heating system. There was an outside handpump, outhouse and coal burning stove in the kitchen. We managed. It was a lot better than being in Siberia or in war torn Germany. My father bought chicks and in several months we had eggs and lots of chicken dinners. Eventually my father found work on Dr. Appleby's farm near Jacksonville. He had sponsored the Kezbers. Another Latvian family. Mister Kezbers was a writer and has written a book about working for Dr. Appleby. "Dr. Appleby's Servants." Not very complimentary. Since my father could not use his judicial background in the states he had taken bricklaying courses in the refugee camp. In the spring of 1952 he went to look for work in Chicago. Fortunately the US was experiencing a post war economic expansion and he found work outside of Chicago where the suburban boom was taking place. We followed him to Chicago that fall.
So far our family’s immigration story is fairly typical for that time period. What makes my story quite different has to with Alyssa. When many Latvians finally settled into cities mainly on the east coast and midwest we built institutions such as churches, schools, scouts, sport teams, veteran groups, youth organizations, fraternities,and purchased 200 acres for a cultural center in southwest Michigan. The purpose being to continue to pass on our language and cultural heritage to our children and to fight for the return of democratic and free Latvia. Free from communist oppression. Well to my surprise I started to see Alyssa at various Latvian functions in Chicago and Michigan. I could see that Alyssa had developed a strong friendship with a young Latvian named Eriks Zusevics. I'm good friends with Erik's parents and have known Erick since his childhood. Last year my children told me that they were engaged. When I met the young couple and congratulated them on their engagement I was surprised when they told me that the wedding ceremony would be at the Whitehall Methodist Church and the celebration at the Schutz farm in Hillview. I said I'll be there. I was defenatly interested in going back to Hillview. They also asked if at the wedding, I would be interested in talking to the wedding guests about my family’s experiences when living in the Hillview area. I told them I would gladly do that and started to think about what I could say.
Last august we left Chicago for the drive down to the Methodist church in Whitehall. My family are Lutherans and I had never been to a Methodist church. I was surprised that the alter was on the second floor with no icons but with a colorfully painted inside. Erik's aunt, who is the archbishop of the Latvian Lutheran Church of America led the service. After the service we headed out to to the Schutz farm. Arriving, we saw in the distance a big white tent on a smaller rise in the middle of a corn field. There was a small pond and the tent was surrounded by eight foot high corn stalks. Turned out to be a great place to have a wedding. A warm greeting from the Schutz family, fresh air, delicious steak, lots of refreshments and great music combined for a hearty celebration. No noise complaints.
Eriks and Alyssa have many relatives and friends. Many gave sincere and interesting speeches about Eriks and Alyssa. Unfortunately for me I could tell the wedding guests patience for speeches was dwindling. I was worried that no one would be interested in what I had to say. When my name was called to come up and talk I went with an uneasy feeling. Well there I was, back in the place where I started my life in America. It felt unreal. I was three years old when I came to Hillview and now seventy. Earlier I had talked with Gordon, Alissa's uncle, about what I was going to say and he listen with interest. Gordon had gone to his relative and friends and told them about my story. That it would interest them and it did. As I was talking about Tucker, Sheriff and Jerry, the McClays, Appleby and my families experiences many conversations stopped. At the end I thanked all the people that had helped us in our first years in the US.
At weddings there is always a division between the groom's and the bride's guests. Additionally, at this wedding between city and rural folks. It's natural. But after my speech I felt the division lessened. I talked to Alyssa after the wedding and she agreed. Many of Alyssa's guests came up to me and talked about the local families I had mentioned. I talked with a grandson of the Powell family. Many had fond memories of Sheriff and Jerry. One women said that she drives by the Appleby farm everyday on the way to work except now it's a golf course with expensive homes. Many of the Latvian guest also said it was great to hear our family’s story. Erik and many of his friends are strong athletes. They and the local guests all dance like crazy until late into the night when the last bus took them back to Whitehall. This time we Latvians came to Hillview in greater numbers.
I would also like to mention the day after the wedding. At the wedding I asked Gordon if he could take me, my wife and son to the places my family had lived. Gordon said gladly. We left the luncheon in Whitehall and first went to Sheriff Powell's house. That's only thing I remember from Hillview. My real memory starts in Jacksonville. Next we went to the Powell family house. One of the Powell granddaughters now lives there. We had pulled away from the house about one hundred yards when we encountered a SUV. We had to slow down to pass when Gordon said "that's Judy Powell, Bud's daughter." I don't remember Judy but do remember Bud. Gordon asked her to stop and when I started to talk to her about why we were there and as soon as I mentioned Latvia, Judy said Irja and Ieva, " I remember Irja and Ieva." It was amazing that after sixty seven years she remembered my sisters and pronounced their names perfectly. Their names are not the easiest for English speakers to pronounce. If I had had one more beer at the luncheon we would not have met. Fate? Judy said that she lived in Roodhouse and rarely comes this way. She was showing a friend were she used to live. Later when talking with my sisters, Irja said she remembered Judy from after church activities. Next we drove to the McClay farm. It was all overgrown and we could not see a house. Gordon could not remember a Tucker farm so it probably is also gone. Finally we drove to Hillview. Gordon said that in 1993 the dike holding back the Illinois river from the bottom lands was breached and the flood was higher than the telephone poles. Many houses were destroyed. He also said that Hillview had suffer from several fires. There wasn't much left except the post office in which my sister had posted letters to our relatives in Latvia.
Well that's the story. Our family came here penniless and with help of others and hard work we have pretty much lived the American dream. We have all been fairly successful in our lives. I finished The Univ. of Illinois Chicago and taught high school history. My son finished Michigan St. with a degree in civil engineering And now works on bridges and roads in the Chicago area. My daughter finished Northwestern Univ. and now works with online advertising in the Chicago area. My sister Irja went to night school for eight years ( god bless her) and received an accounting degree from Northwestern Univ. She worked as an account for forty years in New York City. Ieva received a nursing degree from the Univ. of Illinois and worked as a nurse at Stanford hospital in California for 40 years.
I don't know if I'll ever get back to Hillview. I do know the Alyssa and I will always have a special friendship. Mr. and Mrs. Schutz were at the the Latvian Culture Center in Michigan Labor Day. It was great to see them. Maybe it's fated that I do make it back to Hillview.
As we all know, immigration is a controversial and divisive issue in our country. Obviously the immigration situation in 1950 is different from what it is now but this is one immigrant that wants to say God Bless America and all the goodness it has given to its people.
– Jānis Bērziņš