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Escape and exile

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 3

Alison Christy 9 November 2007

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

As usual, the mention of her research stops conversation; no one ever knows what to say in response to genetics and yeast

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 3

Methods of Determination of Genetic Ancestry: A Proposal

Abstract The 1944 Siberian exile of the Latvian couple Laima Klavina Lapegale and Karlis Lapegale was naturally distressing to their daughter, then four years old. Recent evidence suggests that Laima Lapegale may have actually survived her exile and remained in Siberia. We propose to determine, by traveling to the Siberian town of Krolosk, whether the Laima Lapegale described by Michael Perch in his 1998 article is the same Laima Lapegale exiled to Siberia in 1944.

Background Anna Forsch is a direct descendant of a Laima Lapegale in her maternal line. She thus possesses the mitochondria and, with a fifty percent possibility, one of the X chromosomes of a Laima Lapegale (1). This Laima Lapegale was exiled to Siberia in 1944 while her mother escaped to America with relatives.

The story of Karlis and Laima Lapegale begins in 1939, twenty years after the formation of the country of Latvia, when the two young Latvians fell in love. No interesting stories about their courtship have been reported by Laima’s sister Lidija, who was by that time already married to her husband, Konrads, and likely pregnant with her third child. Lidija has described her sister as “rebellious”, “clever” and “stubborn” – words that could also be used to describe the investigator, Anna Forsch – but has always insisted that she and Laima were the best of friends (2). Laima and Karlis were married and had a baby (Verena Lapegale), at which point the Soviets occupied Latvia. By all contemporary accounts life was very hard (3).

In the early morning of June 14, 1941, the Soviets deported their first round of Latvians: mostly intellectuals and Latvian administrative officials. The Latvians thus feared Soviet occupation and welcomed the Germans, who occupied Latvia later that month. Germans were not at this time interested in the preservation of Poles or Jews, but Latvians chose to give up certain fractions of the population in order to preserve the Latvian majority. This unfortunate phenomenon is often observed in the animal kingdom: both cannibalism and infanticide are common among mammals when food is scarce.

When the Soviets returned to occupy Latvia in 1944, Karlis and Konrads fought alongside the Germans to keep them out. When the Soviets won, Karlis and Konrads were considered traitors to the dominant government.

Konrads said they had to leave Latvia. They had no idea what might happen tomorrow, he said – they could be deported, they could be shot. The Russians were already stopping trains and blocking escape routes over land, drawing the Iron Curtain closed. Konrads said it would be temporary: they could all come back later, when the valiant Latvian people had thrown off the Soviet yoke.

Karlis and Laima were reluctant to leave. Laima’s mother was old, and if both her daughters left there would be no one to take care of her. And surely the Soviets wouldn’t stay long, they said. They were young, and accustomed to living in a country that had a new occupying government every few years.

It was decided that Konrads and Lidija and their five children would leave first, taking Laima’s daughter Verena with them. The émigrés fled to Western Latvia, and from there to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany. Laima and Karlis said they would follow them after Laima’s mother died, or Lidija and Konrads would come home when they could.

Anna’s mother, Verena Lapegale, reports a feeling of excitement at the age of four: her mother packed her things and kissed her goodbye, and she hurried with Aunt Lidija and Uncle Konrads and all of her cousins to catch the train that would take them to Western Latvia. Verena recalls a cluster of neighbors waiting around her aunt’s house; vultures waiting to scavenge the furniture left behind. She reports that when they got to their little shack in the DP camp, Aunt Lidija told her not to bother unpacking her clothes, because Soviet rule couldn’t last (5).

But it did. Later that same year Laima and Karlis were deported to Siberia, and Lidija’s family unpacked. For three years they lived in the DP camp, eating canned rations and stale bread, before Konrads decided to take them all to Chicago, across the Atlantic, where a Latvian community was forming and friends could help them find jobs and learn English.

They would still all go back to Latvia, Konrads told them. It was just a little farther to go. If they crossed the water once, they could do it again.

From then on, their story is the standard American immigrant story: boats, trains, hardships, finding a home, learning the language, getting a job, educating six children and becoming, in time, affluent American citizens. But unlike many other immigrants they always planned to go back. And they knew that when they returned they would have the monumental task of restoring Latvianness to Soviet Latvia, so they felt they had to preserve their Latvian essence, clinging to every shred of tradition that could be considered Latvian. They had to shape their children into Latvians – preparing them for the day when great America forced the Soviet Union to release its grip on the precious jewel of their country.

In 1963 a letter arrived at the American Latvian Association addressed to Verena Lapegale, from a woman named Inta who had known her mother in a Siberian camp.

The letter, preserved in a plastic binder in Anna’s mother’s bedroom, states that Laima and Inta were “best friends”, that they were in a camp together with other women from the Baltics, that life was hard back then, that they ate potato skins and pine needles. The letter does not mention Karlis at all, but does say that Laima told stories about her daughter, and that Inta’s own daughter died of fever while in the camp. The letter states that when Inta escaped – running through the woods to a railroad where she bartered a hidden ring for the chance to stow away in a coffin-sized compartment on the train and ride back to Moscow so she could walk the remaining miles to Latvia – Laima was still alive. In this letter, Inta writes that she misses Laima very much and thinks about her every day. She writes that she will try to smuggle the letter out of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t know if she can do it, but she hopes that they get it and that they have heard from Laima, because she hasn’t (6).

We hypothesize that the Laima Lapegale described in Michael Perch’s article is the same Laima Lapegale who birthed Verena Lapegale Forsch, leading to the eventual birth of Anna Almanta Forsch, and that meeting her ancestors and knowing her history will help Anna to better understand her present and future life.

Preliminary Data Michael Perch writes in his article, “From Exiles to Immigrants: Siberia’s Little Latvia” (published shortly after his disappearance in a collection of travel articles entitled Turn Left at the Yak in the Road: A Life of Travel):

The [Siberian] village Krolosk came together in the mid-1800’s, when Lutheran pastors brought Latvian exiles together in one area to better spread the word of God among them. Many of the residents have been here for generations. It’s truly incredible that they identify as Latvian at all. The Latvian culture here would have certainly died out eventually had the village not received a fresh infusion of Latvian language and culture in the 1940s and 1950s, when survivors of the gulags found this precious mini-Latvia and moved in.

Why did these exiles stay? Some planned to travel homeward once they regained their health or procured a train ticket, but they found lovers, friends and commitments here before they managed to leave. Others feared they wouldn’t make it back, or that they’d return to find their friends and families missing.

Laima Lapegale, a white-haired women with crystal blue eyes, recounted: ‘It was winter, I was so sick, and Riga seemed so far away. And I thought, what do I have in my homeland, what is waiting there for me? Only memories. And I thought I would lose even those memories when I saw what the Russians had done to Latvia while I was gone’ (7)

Specific Aim 1 To find the Laima Lapegale described in Perch (2000) in the Siberian village of Krolosk and determine whether she is, in fact, the Laima Lapegale in question.

S.A. 1.1 Finding Laima LapegaleWe intend to travel to Russia. In return for an invitation that will allow us to procure a travel visa, we intend to present a talk on our graduate-level study of epigenetics in yeast on 12th of August at Tomsk State University, Siberia.

We will begin our journey in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, with a brief layover in Frankfurt, Germany, followed by a flight to Riga, Latvia, for a brief visit with our sister, Milda Forsch Ozolins, her husband, Janis Ozolins, and her two children Ludis and Andrejs. From Riga, Latvia we will take an overnight sleeper train to Moscow, Russia. From Moscow, Russia, we will travel along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Tomsk, Russia (Siberia) where our talk will be presented. We will then travel by ferry to the smaller town of Kolpashevo, described in Perch (1999). In Kolpashevo we will inquire into the chartering of a boat to the island of Krolosk. There we will inquire of the locals as to the whereabouts of Laima Lapegale.

S.A. 1.2 Determining whether Laima Lapegale is the woman in question.We will question Laima Lapegale as to her past history and possible progeny. Should doubts arise, identification of blood groups can more accurately determine heredity. Should blood tests prove inconclusive, we will consider more stringent tests such as DNA testing or mitochondrial DNA testing.

Specific Aim 2 To determine the future of Anna Forsch, who is currently floundering.We are going to travel to Russia and hope that by the time we get back we have come to terms with our situation: that is, single, thirty (approximately ten years before the probable cessation of reproductive abilities in this organism) and newly graduated with a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Genetics but without any strong desire to go into industry or academia or any of the many things one can do with such a specific high-level degree, or anything else for that matter, and really no idea what we want to do with the rest of our life.


  1. Takamatsu, M. and R. P. Stoops. (1998) Maternal genetics, epigenetics and gene silencing in mammalian reproduction. Review. The European Journal of Advanced Theories in Experimental Biogenetics, May 16(3):38-47.
  2. Lapegale, L. Personal communication.
  3. Kalnins, D. Personal communication.
  4. Kashireddy, P., et al. (1986). The role of starvation and nutrient imbalance in infanticide and cannibalism within predator groups. The Journal of the International Society of Evolutionary Ecologists, November 9(1):189-195.
  5. Verena Lapegale Forsch, personal communication.
  6. Inta, Letter to Verena Lapegale. 1963.
  7. Perch, Michael. From Exiles to Immigrants: Siberia’s Little Latvia published in Turn Left at the Yak in the Road, Transit Press, 2000.

“I knew you were American!” the American man says. Anna wishes he would speak more softly; even in her running shorts and bright white sneakers, she holds out hope that the Russians might think she is one of them. “Are you hurt? Let me give you a hand.”

She is hurt: each step surprises her with the pain. She reaches up to lean on his shoulder, and he walks while she hops beside him. “Do you want to go to the hospital?” he asks.

“No, I’ve done this before,” she says. “I just need a day or so off my feet.”

“Oh,” he says. Then he adds, “If you’d said that you did want to go to the hospital, I would have told you to go to Germany.” She hops in silence. “Will you be in Moscow long?” he asks.

Anna winces as she stumbles a bit. “I’m just passing through, actually; I’m supposed to get a train ticket to Tomsk.”

“Tomsk?” he says, turning quickly toward her, so that she spends a moment wobbling awkwardly on her good foot. “Tomsk, in Siberia? What are you doing there?”

Anna shrugs. “I’m giving a presentation on genetic regulation in yeast,” she says.

“Yeast,” he says. “Huh.”

As usual, the mention of her research stops conversation; no one ever knows what to say in response to genetics and yeast. Anna is free to concentrate on each small hop, each one getting her closer to her hotel and the safety and isolation of her own room.

{Continued next week}