The Republic of Latvia is on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. It is bordered by Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are known as the Baltic States.
History of Immigration and Settlement
In the nineteenth century South Australia was visited by numerous Latvian sailors who worked on Baltic trading ships, carrying mainly softwood timber, known as Baltic pine. The ships docked at Port Pirie so frequently that one of the wharves was given the name of Baltic Wharf. Many of these sailors settled in Port Pirie.
Hermans Tomsons was one of the Latvian seamen who lived in Port Pirie at this time. He was born in Mazsalaca, Latvia, in 1877 and arrived in Port Pirie in the 1890s. He became a deep-water captain and married a woman from Port Pirie.
A number of Latvians arrived in Port Pirie in the aftermath of the abortive 1905 revolution against Tsarist Russia. They worked as seamen or in the town’s lead and other metal smelters. A number of them were active in a radical political group in Port Pirie. This led many Latvians to be regarded with suspicion.
Andrejs Voitkuns settled in Port Pirie after the 1905 revolution. He was born in Latvia in 1885. He worked in the town’s lead smelters until 1915, when he joined the Australian army to serve in the First World War. After the war he returned to work in Port Pirie’s smelters.
William Ellenby (Vilis Berzins) was another Latvian to arrive in South Australia after the 1905 revolution. He was born in 1885 and arrived in Australia in 1909. He worked in the building industry. By the end of the Second World War Ellenby was a building inspector. He was appalled by the shortage of housing. He had built his own house very cheaply and began to teach other people to do the same. He formed the Adelaide Home Builders Club, a housing co-operative, in 1951. The club built between 50 and 100 Adelaide homes in the post-war years.
Between the world wars the Australian government kept a list of prohibited left-wing Latvian books. Some Latvians were kept under surveillance by South Australian police because they were suspected of being Bolshevik subversives. In the early 1920s a Latvian living in Port Pirie known as ‘Lielais Peteris’, Big Peter, was deported by the Australian government on these grounds.
The most significant wave of Latvian emigrants came to South Australia in the years after the Second World War. During the war Latvia was under Soviet occupation. Latvians were subjected to oppression and mass deportations. By 1945, 156,500 Latvians had escaped to western Europe. They were among 12 million war refugees awaiting resettlement in Displaced Persons camps. Approximately 20,000 Latvians arrived in Australia between 27 November, 1947, and the end of 1952.
The first Latvian refugees arrived as Displaced Persons in South Australia from Bonegilla Migrant Centre in Victoria on 9 January, 1948. Twelve Latvian men and 53 other Baltic people arrived in South Australia on this day. They were among 843 Baltic DPs who had landed at Perth on 29 November, 1947, on board the General Hentzelman. In the six weeks between their arrival in Australia and their South Australian allocation they had undergone intensive English language lessons at Bonegilla.
In exchange for their passage to Australia all DPs agreed to fulfil a two-year employment contract with the Australian government in unskilled occupations. The 12 Latvians who came to South Australia in early 1948 were employed by the Engineering and Water Supply Department to lay pipelines to Happy Valley Reservoir. They lived in tents at the corner of South and Sturt Roads in Bedford Park.
Another group of Latvian DPs arrived in South Australia in March 1948. The size of this group is not known. They had arrived in Perth aboard the General Stuart transport ship and stayed at Greyland camp just outside Perth before coming to South Australia. They were employed in the grape, apple and orange industries of Renmark, Berri and Barmera.
A number of Latvian women DPs arrived in South Australia from Bonegilla on 20 April, 1948. They were employed throughout the state as domestics in hospitals. Three days later a group of 50 Latvian men arrived in Adelaide. They had been working on Murray River water and irrigation systems. In Adelaide they were placed in factories and various public works.
By 24 October, 1948, there were 246 Latvians in South Australia, 206 men and 40 women. Large numbers of the men were employed by the Engineering and Water Supply Department, the Islington Railway Depot, the wharves of Port Adelaide, and the Pimba Rocket Range. Smaller numbers were employed at John Shearer Farm Machinery, Kilkenny, in the forestry industry in the state’s South- East and by BHP. Latvian women DPs worked at the Repatriation General Hospital at Springbank and at private hospitals, sanatoriums and psychiatric hospitals throughout the state.
In February 1949 there were 452 Latvian DPs in South Australia. By 1955 there were over 2,500 Latvian South Australians.
Many of the Latvians who came to South Australia as Displaced Persons were highly educated. When their two-year contracts with the government expired they were free to seek employment more suited to their qualifications. But the qualifications of most of these people were not recognised in Australia. While Latvian engineers were permitted to work in their profession, lawyers were not, because of the vast difference between the legal systems of Latvia and Australia. The Australian branch of the British Medical Association prevented doctors and dentists who had been trained in Latvia from practising in Australia until they had undergone further study. Quite a few Latvians had had their studies interrupted by the war and turmoil within Latvia. Despite language barriers and other obstacles, many eventually obtained degrees in Australia and were able to work in their chosen fields. Many sponsored the emigration of relatives in Latvia to South Australia.
Today Latvian South Australians are employed in a wide range of occupations. They have settled throughout Adelaide and the rest of the state.
In 1945 there were a small number of Veclatviesi, Latvians who had settled in South Australia before the Second World War, living in Adelaide. They included William Ellenby, Fricis Rozevics, Katrina Rubasko, Ernests Ziverts, Vera Ziverts, Helena Thornley (Mamis) and Irmgarde Thornley. Adelaide’s Veclatviesi did much to assist their compatriots who arrived in Adelaide as Displaced Persons after January 1948.
The first gatherings of Latvian DPs in South Australia were under the auspices of the Lutheran Church. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity.
The first service for Baltic Lutherans was held on 10 October 1948, at a migrant camp at Port Adelaide. It was conducted by Pastor Alfred Freund-Zinnbauer, a South Australian Lutheran of Bohemian Jewish descent.
The first specifically Latvian gathering in Adelaide was held in the ballroom above the King’s Theatre, at the corner of King William and Carrington Streets, on 20 November, 1948. It was attended by 145 Latvian South Australians including the Consul, C.S. Toms, William Ellenby and their wives. The gathering was organised to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Latvia’s declaration of independence on 18 November, 1918. People made speeches and sang Dievs Sveti Latviju, God Bless Latvia. The evening provided Latvian South Australians with an opportunity to meet and support each other. It proved to be the genesis of a rich and varied cultural life in South Australia.
In November and December 1948 there was a further influx of Latvian DPs to South Australia. The Latvian Association of South Australia Inc., held its first meeting on 24 December, 1948, at the home of Irmgarde Thornley at Brighton. A 12-person executive signed the association’s constitution. They were: O. Strauts, J. Matisons, J. Plume, V. Malins, A. Stolcs, Z. Miksens, I. Nagaine, V. Plume, I. Thornley, M. Miksena, O. Badere and J Miksena.
The Latvian Association held its first general meeting on 15 January, 1949, at the Curzon Theatre, 62a Gawler Place. A total of 83 members attended. By February there were 100 members. Besides providing a social and cultural focus for Latvian South Australians, the association worked as a liaison between new arrivals and government, gave them access to information, and provided accommodation. It was assisted in this work by Pastor Alfred Freund-Zinnbauer. The association’s headquarters are now at Rose Terrace, Wayville.
A number of other Latvian groups were soon established.
The Latvian Literary Group was founded on 21 January, 1949. It began to gather a library of Latvian books, distribute Latvian journals and magazines amongst the Adelaide community, and publish a newsletter. J. Plume, E. Voitkuns, J. Saulite and Anna Brante were prominent in this group. In 2010 a historical book, Latvians in South Australia was published giving information on Latvian history and activities in South Australia.
The Latvian Adelaide Sports Club was also founded in January 1949. O. Resnais, J. Ratnieks, A. Krevics, G. Matisons, V. Dresmanis, K. Ramonovskis, V. Ramonovskis, J. Kulnieks and V. Arajs were its founding members. They met to play basketball at the YMCA in Wakefield Street. Today Latvian teams actively participate in various age grades of the South Australian Basketball Association.
In May 2017, after a 23 year absence, the Baltic Games was held at Pulteney Grammar School in Adelaide. Teams from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia competed against each other in basketball and volleyball.
Two Latvian choirs were established in Adelaide. Male and female choristers had travelled to Australia together and had begun singing on the ship to amuse themselves. Eriks Biezaitis founded a Latvian male choir soon after his arrival from Bonegilla in March 1949. The mixed choir ‘Dziesmu Laiva’ was established in 1951.
Daugavas Vanagi, the Latvian Relief Society, was founded in 1951. It takes its name from a hawk from the region of the Daugava, Latvia’s main river. The society raised money to send back to invalids and other Latvians awaiting resettlement in DP camps in Germany and assisted Latvian ex-servicemen in South Australians. Today the society provides assistance for aged people of Latvian background, including a home visiting program. The society also provides recreational and social activities for members of the Latvian Community in Adelaide.
In March 1949 Pastor Freund-Zinnbauer began conducting Lutheran services in a hall in the suburb of York, now called Beverley, and at the Smithfield migrant camp. When Woodside Migrant Hostel opened in May 1949 Pastor Freund-Zinnbauer, assisted by Dr Johannes Stolz, at that time chairman of the Lutheran immigration committee, began conducting services there. These services were in German, which most Baltic DPs had learnt during their stay in refugee camps in that country. At the end of May 1949 services for Baltic Lutherans began to be held once a month at Saint Stephen’s Church, Wakefield Street, and at Immanuel Church, North Adelaide. Pastor Bugis, a Latvian from Melbourne, occasionally visited the Adelaide congregation. In mid-1949 an Adelaide Latvian Lutheran congregation of 187 people was established. It was presided over by Dr Stolz. In February 1951 Pastor Voitkus arrived in Adelaide to preside over the congregation. On 3 October, 1971, the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Peter in Rose Terrace, Wayville, was officially opened. A small number of Latvian South Australians belong to the Catholic Church. A Latvian Catholic parish was established in Adelaide in 1950.
The Adelaide Latvian Theatre Ensemble was established by Henry Gelsen on 20 September, 1950. In its early years it rehearsed and performed plays at the Rechabite Hall in Grote Street, Osmond Hall in Gouger Street, and in the King’s Theatre Ballroom. The ensemble has now disbanded.
The Adelaides Latviesu Pamatskola, Latvian Saturday School, was founded by Mrs Biezaitis in 1950. By the end of 1951 there were 120 students. Classes were held at Saint Stephen’s Church Hall. Today primary and secondary classes are offered in the Latvian language, culture, history and geography during school terms in premises at Rose Terrace, Wayville. Adult classes are conducted Monday and Tuesday evenings. The school is part of the Ethnic Schools of South Australia.
Other Latvian groups that were established after the association was founded include folk dancing groups, scouts and guides groups and a kokle ensemble.
The Latvian folk dance group, Auseklitis, was formed in 1962 and is still going strong.
The kokle is a traditional Baltic stringed instrument. It is laid flat on the player’s lap and the strings are plucked. It sounds like a harp or the Japanese koto. The first kokle ensemble in Adelaide was founded by Mikelis Svilans in 1971.
Australian Latvian Cultural Festivals are held each year from 26 December to 1 January. They rotate between Australian capital cities. Adelaide hosted the festival again in 2018. Singers, choirs, musicians, folk dancers, artists, academics and sporting teams from all over the country visit the host city to perform, hold seminars and compete. Popular sports include novuss, which is played on a table with flat discs; golf; tennis; table tennis; volleyball; basketball; chess; and bridge. Latvian Australians usually sponsor Latvian artists and groups from Europe to perform at the festival.
In 1955 Latvian South Australians purchased a house in Clark Street, Wayville, which was to become known as ‘Latvian House Talava’. Talava is a district of Latvia. In 1968 the community opened a large hall adjoining the building. In the early 1970s Latvian South Australians opened a museum in Rose Terrace, Wayville. It contains an extensive collection of Latvian regional costume, mementoes and military medals brought out by DPs, coins, examples of textiles such as prievites, woven sashes, and dzintari, amber, and traditional ceramics.
The main anniversaries observed by Latvian South Australians include the Remembrance of Soviet Deportations, Saint John’s Day and Independence Day.
13 10 14 June is a solemn anniversary for all Baltic peoples. On this night in 1941 60,000 Baltic men, women and children were deported from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia by the Soviet authorities to break resistance to the Soviet occupation of the countries. Deportees were taken to gulags, forced labour camps, in Siberia and other Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. Further waves of deportations took place between 1944 and 1954. In memory of these events Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian South Australians gather annually for a commemorative church service. A flag procession precedes the service.
On 13 June, 1959, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian South Australians planted trees in Glenunga Reserve in remembrance of the Baltic deportations. These communities unveiled a plaque at the site on 14 June, 1983. On 13 June, 1992, to further acknowledge the terrible impact of the deportations, including the flight of the lucky from their homelands, the Baltic Council of South Australia unveiled a foundation memorial plaque on the Migration Museum’s ‘Reasons to Remember’ memorial wall.
In the northern hemisphere 24 June is Midsummer’s Day, the longest day of the year. Since pre-Christian times Latvians have celebrated Midsummer’s Day as the triumph of light, warmth and life over darkness. In pagan times Latvians built bonfires. Men wore huge garlands of oak leaves, which symbolise strength. 24 June has also acquired a Christian meaning, as it is the feast day of Saint John. Today Latvian South Australians celebrate Saint John’s Day at Dzintari, meaning amber, the community’s property at Normanville. Dzintari is also the venue for Latvian Summer School, held for Latvian Australian youths for three weeks during January.
Independence Day on 18 November commemorates Latvia’s 1918 declaration of independence from Russia. It is celebrated on the nearest weekend. On the Friday night the community holds a reception at Latvian Hall for friends and government officials. On the Saturday they hold a flag-raising commemoration ceremony with Latvian and Australian flags, speeches and brass bands in front of the hall. In the afternoon the community gathers for a concert. A combined church service is held on the Sunday. Over the weekend they celebrate with communal meals, cultural performances and sporting events.
From 9 November, 1991, until 28 January, 1992, the Latvian Folk Art Group of South Australia staged ‘From the Past Into the Future: Latvian Handcrafts in South Australia’ at The Forum, the Migration Museum’s community access gallery. The exhibition examined the close relationship in Latvian culture between folk songs and the geometric symbols used in handcrafts. Dainas are very ancient four-lined Latvian songs. They describe the lives and beliefs of pre-Christian Latvians, and the meaning of designs used in embroidery, jewellery, woodcarving and ceramics. ‘From the Past Into the Future’ recognised the continuing inspiration of these motifs for Latvian South Australian artists and crafts people. The exhibition ‘Latvians Looking Back, Looking Forward: the generation that followed the early Latvian Settlers’, was staged at the Migration Museum in March 2014.
Over the years Latvian South Australians have generously supported the reassertion of Latvian independence. In 1992 alone Palidzibas Fonds, an assistance fund under the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Adelaide, sent seven shipping containers of humanitarian aid to Latvia, including non-perishable foodstuffs, medicines, clothing, books and machinery.
Organisations and Media
- Latvian Federation of Australia and New Zealand
- Association of Latvian Organisations in S.A. Inc.: publishes Latviesu Zinotajs, a monthly newsletter. This association is an umbrella body for 21 Latvian groups in South Australia.
- Latvian Association of S.A. Inc.
- Latvian Education Centre (‘Dzintari’), Normanville, S.A.
- Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Adelaide Inc.
- Latvian Catholic Association of Adelaide
- Latvian School of Adelaide Inc. Classes in Latvian language and culture are given for primary and secondary students, as well as adults.
- Latvian Youth Association
- Latvian Adelaide Sports Club
- Latvian Guides and Scouts
- Latvian Cooperative Society
- Latvian Social Club
- Latvian Relief Society Daugavas Vanagi Inc. The Auseklitis folk dance group and a male choir are affiliated with this society.
- Latvian Museum
- Latvian Music Library
- Latvian Army Officers’ Association
- 5EBI Radio Program
- According to the 1981 census there were 2,076 Latvian-born South Australians.
- The 1986 census recorded 1,841, and 2,962 people said that they were of Latvian descent.
- According to the 1991 census there were 1,582 Latvian-born South Australians. 2,412 people said that their mothers were born in Latvia, and 2,798 that their fathers were.
- According to the 1996 census there was a drop of 539 persons between 1981 and 1996. The second generation numbered 1,359, making it slightly larger than the first generation of 1,302.
- The 2001 census recorded 1,030 Latvian-born South Australians, while 2,870 people said that they were of Latvian descent.
- The 2006 census recorded 842 Latvian-born South Australians, while 2,933 people said that they were of Latvian descent.
- The 2011 census recorded 673 Latvian-born South Australians, while 2,782 people said that they were of Latvian descent.
- The 2016 census recorded 523 Latvian-born South Australians, while 2,792 people said that they were of Latvian descent.