The Extraordinary Ilga Vise
As we approach the final days of preparation before They Roared goes to print, I want to share with you the first story - that of the beautiful, gracious, and remarkable woman to whom the book is dedicated - Ilga Vise.
Since the day I met Ilga Vise, many years ago, I knew she was a very special woman, even though I did not know her story then. She now resides in the little town of Mancos, CO, with her daughter, Silvia, and Silvia’s family. Ilga volunteers with the Friends of the Library and is an active community member. I am honored to call her a friend. Her strength, beauty, resilience, and kind heart are remarkable. Ilga has a sparkle about her. She always has a ready smile and is lit with a light that shines from within. Ilga seems to embody joy.
Ilga and her family fled Latvia in 1944 when the Russians occupied their country, and Russian soldiers did a dragnet through the forest. The Russians deported 35,000 people to Siberia. Latvians were happy to greet the Germans because the year under Russian rule had been so brutal. Young Latvian men enlisted in the German Army to fight the Russians. After three years of German occupation, the Russians were making a comeback. Ilga’s father obtained permission for the family to ride on a German Army truck carrying wood chips. As the Russian forces advanced westward, the hope that they could remain in Latvia faded. They needed to leave their homeland.
Then, Ilga's father secured a space on board a ship bound for Germany, which carried the German Army equipment. But in the very eastern part of Germany, the family was forcibly removed from the ship, although they had papers guaranteeing passage to the western part of Germany. They were put on a train that took them to a forced labor camp where many Eastern Europeans and Jews were already enslaved.
Ilga remembers being sick one day while the others at the camp mixed cement to be used for Nazi barriers. She was standing at the window of the barracks, her fevered forehead resting on the cold window and horrified by the scene unfolding before her 10-year-old eyes. The guards were brutalizing another young girl right in front of her window. Those 10-year-old eyes saw much more, I am sure.
On a day in January 1945, the German guards abandoned their posts at the forced labor camp and disappeared. That was the day, in a heavy snowstorm, that Ilga’s father led his family on a two-month, 500-mile walk to freedom. They spent some time in a refugee camp in Germany, before finally making their way to the United States.
Young Ilga sitting on a sled her father constructed to carry their few belongings as they fled.
Ilga's family settled in a suburb of Chicago at first then later she moved to Missouri. She married a wonderful man, Sidney Vise, and together they raised two children. Ilga taught for many years at both Drury University and Missouri State University. She is a long-time member and promoter of the League of Women Voters. Ilga Vise is an inspiration to all who know her, and all who know her love her.
In her own words: “No matter what part of the world we came from, all of us
arrived here with hopes for a better future for our children, grandchildren, and ourselves. I firmly believe that when we treat each other with respect, honoring our differences and rejoicing in them, we will continue to live as a free people. And maybe, just maybe, future conflicts will be settled without bloodshed and war.”
In 2003, Jim Mauldin, from the Center of Ethnic Studies at the Springfield-Greene County Library, put together “Ilga’s Story,” as part of an ethnic storytelling project.
In 2012, Sandra Fenichel Asher wrote “Walking Toward America,” a stage piece that was first produced at New York University’s Providence Playhouse with Ilga and her family present.