Ansis was born in the Latvian City of Daugavpils on the 29th of April 1929 the youngest child of Alfrēds and Berta Sķērstiņš, brother to their older twins Zigurds and Ojārs. His father, Alfrēds, was a Captain in the 7th Latvian Infantry Regiment and was stationed in different locations around Latvia taking his wife and young family with him. During those early years Ansis was not in one location more than a couple of years moving with his father as he was re-posted.
His early years were times he wouldn’t speak of too often but by all accounts they were a time of some fond boyhood memories. It was to be part of an age that would be lost with the tragedy of war that was to unfold across Europe a few years later.
These were a time of ideal in Ansis life where childhood was blessed with warm Latvian summers and the cold snow of the Latvian winter. Summers when the school had broken were enjoyed by swimming in the rivers and lakes and fishing, appreciating the scented pine forests as a playground. In winter the snows brought new adventures to enjoy and from a young age Ansis had skis made for him. Like many of the young boys he quickly learnt to ski, skiing to school as well as racing on country tracks through the pines.
For a young boy it was a tranquil life harking back to a previous less hurried age. He had memories of his mother making sauerkraut and storing in barrels. In the winter large blocks of ice were cut from the rivers and stored in the cellar. In summer his mum used this to make fresh ice cream a treat for the young boys.
Life was to change forever with the outbreak of war in September 1939. Latvia along with the other Baltic States became pawns in a secret pact signed by Germany and the Soviet Union the month before the invasion of Poland. It would finally be 9 months later in June 1940 after orchestrating incidents as a pretext the Red Army marched in and The Soviets annexed the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
In school Ansis was taught Russian and although family life continued the Soviet control was witnessed by the young boy. On a visit to Sigulda in later years he related how as a boy he had seen the work of the Soviet secret police, NKVD. Bodies of tortured Latvians dumped overnight into a cellar in the town square. One can only imagine the effect on a young boy to witness such things.
As a family they were not safe. Ansis father being a Latvian army officer the family were in the sights of the occupying Soviets as were many of the middle classes. One of the controls the Soviets used was deportations. Many were deported, collected in the middle of the night and sent to Siberia where the majority died. Ansis father was tipped off that he was on the list for deportation and fled into the forest hours before being picked up. For three months he lived in the forest with others who mounted a resistance against the Soviet occupation. The family didn’t know during these days if he was alive or dead.
In June 1941 Germany launched operation Barbarossa against the Soviets and marched into Riga on the 1st of July. Ansis father along with others were in a position to leave their hiding places and he finally appeared at the home of an uncle and aunt exhausted from the months of harsh living. The family were eventually reunited.
The German occupation was a mixed blessing the Soviets were driven back but atrocities were then committed during the occupation. The only legal military was German, under German command. In January 1943 under executive order from Germany the Latvian Volunteer legion was raised. Most who joined were not volunteers but conscripts and their numbers were used to bolster the army in the Baltic region. Both Ansis elder brothers were taken into the legion and survived the war but a cousin was sent to the Eastern front and died within days in 1944.
In 1944 Ansis, 15 years old was with his mother and father now in the town of Cesis. This was to be their last home in Latvia. The tide of war was running against the Germans and Latvian territory was being directly targeted. Ansis recalled how a few doors away the house was being used as a German sentry post when a solitary Russian bomb, destroyed the building taking all the windows in their house out.
This house was directly next to a dairy and it was with the owners of the dairy that Ansis would leave with his mother and father. After carefully burying their most prized possessions in a crate close by, the families fled away from the advancing Red Army. The journey took them to the Latvian coast and on board a ship heading towards Danzig. This ship was sunk on its return journey.
It was at this time that the possession of the butter became worth its weight in gold. The families were able to negotiate for a railway wagon that attached to a train heading west through Poland into Germany. The journey took 3 days in the cold winter of 1944. Ansis father was very ill during the cold journey. He also related how they had a stop at Szczecin and for a walk to try and secure some bread. It was here he saw the result of mass bombing and recalled that despite a long walk saw nothing but rubble.
Eventually the family made it to Germany. The family were assigned to farm work outside Hamburg and Ansis remembers the bombing as the war was drawing to a close. Despite being over 20 miles from Hamburg the farm house shook with vibrations of the nearby bombing. The fields were covered in the defensive chaff foil strips that had been dropped which he and other boys on the farm would collect.
With the end of war the family was resettled north of Hamburg, his mum and dad eventually living in the town of Rendsburg. In 1947 a young Ansis had the opportunity of re-settlement which in itself seems to have been much of a lottery. Had he been assigned to the previous ship he would have gone to Canada, but found himself being sent onto the UK at the age of 18.
So it was as a young man that he found himself in the north of England in the Lancaster area. For a couple of years he was lodged at a former war time camp doing manual farm labour. From here he was eventually able to move to lodgings in Consett county Durham. Popular meeting places for young people were organised Dances and it was to be here in a chance meeting he would first meet Lilian. By all accounts a spark seems to have been lit, but it would be a long while before they eventually got together. Lodgings were not good. Some of the few possessions Ansis has brought from Latvia were stolen. Eventually after a while with another young Latvian who had arrived in England they were able to share a house together.
Meanwhile Lilian was working away in different places, spending a year in Switzerland as a nanny, but they kept in touch and by all accounts fondness grew. Lilian returned to England and eventually the North while working in hotels and Barnados. Ansis then made the move south Peterborough in search of work and was helped by a fellow Latvian family lodging with them.
Work was still hard. Ansis worked for a time at the brick works and then in the building industry. He invited Lilian down to Peterborough and it was now that he asked if she would marry him and so it was they got together, married in the Registry Office Peterborough in November 1954. Home to begin with was a caravan on the site in Werrington. Work improved with a job at Perkins engines, but this was to be short lived. With annexation of Latvia by the Soviets in 1944, Ansis was not only a refugee but a stateless person. To work back at Perkins it was required to be naturalised and become a British Citizen but at the princely sum of £20.00. Ansis struggled to find work eventually working back on building sites, but eventually with Lilian working as well they managed to save the required amount.
In the meantime in February 1957, Ansis and Lilian’s son Karl was born. Also during these early years Lilian had her first cats, Timmy, Nicky and Topsy. Timmy and Nicky were both lost at an early age but Topsy grew up with Karl and lived until he was 15. The cats were always a quite part of Ansis life and with Lilian a number would become family members during their life together.
Once naturalised Ansis returned to Perkins Engines where he would work until his retirement in 1994. Although never formerly qualified Ansis never the less worked on a skilled operation salvaging engine blocks that had been bored incorrectly. Working with minute tolerances his job involved bringing the pieces back to standard. Ansis never learned to drive and never owned a car and cycled to and from work in all weathers until he retired in 1994. He also had an impeccable attendance record with no sickness.
The young family spent five years in the caravan and with Ansis British Status were able to get onto the waiting list for a house and eventually were offered one in Gunthorpe which was to remain the family home for the next 16 years.
In 1963 Ansis father died. It was impossible to attend the funeral in Germany, but the following year Ansis was able to make the journey for the first time and was reunited with his mother. A couple of years later the whole family was able to make the journey with him. Back this time the journey was long. 24 hours from Peterborough to Rendsburg by train and ship. Ansis would visit his mother each summer until her death in 1978.
Ansis proved himself a hard working husband and father. He used to like his football and one of his pleasures on a Saturday after the morning at work was to meet up with some friends and watch Peterborough United. With Karl there would be some trips to London. Early on a visit to London airport was to start an interest that would be with his son for life. He made the first models for Karl and bough the first train set that started hobbies for his son. The first short visit to London airport would be followed by days out at the airport buying the first plane spotting books, radio for listening to aircraft and binoculars. Some happy days were spent out and times at home listening to the aircraft radio.
In 1979 the family moved to Harris Street and the house that would be home until today. Still cats played significantly. Rooki replaced the well-loved Topsy and made the move with the family from Gunthorpe to Harris Street. Rooki was to be with Ansis and Lilian for 15 years. When he passed away strays were looked after Neela and Rilla sharing their affections for many years.
As the cold war started to thaw in the late 1980’s, glasnost opened up the former Soviet republics. Where communication had been limited for many years it now became possible to consider visiting Latvia. In 1989 Ansis and Karl made the journey to Riga in Latvia to visit his cousin Gunar and brothers who he had not seen since 1944. It was an opportunity to visit revisit Cesis and the house he last stayed in before leaving. That first visit was like a time warp, things seemed little changed with the passing of so many years. The window of the house seemed little changed since his father and mother had been photographed at them.
The visit was the start of the close relationship he would have with Gunar from afar until Gunar’s death last year. The weekly opportunity they would indulge by telephone to chat to each other, something I know was greatly appreciated by both of them.
Ansis retired from Perkins in 1994 and was to spend 20 years in retirement. The many years standing at a machine had taken their toll on his knees and he was to have knee replacement operations. Although recovered his mobility was never as good as it had been. Four years ago he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He successfully underwent surgery and was declared clear of cancer within the year. As his mobility started to be impacted he still enjoyed feline company. They both tamed a stray tabby cat that that had been fed a year, bringing him into the home. Tarn as he was to be called was the cat he would still enjoy and spend his time daily with until his passing last week.
Ansis early life was not easy. He lost at an early age the security that many take for granted. He worked hard for everything he eventually had but he was a man that was gentle, kind, loving and generous. He appreciated what he had and worked hard for his family never complaining. What he had witnessed during his early life moulded many of his views, in particular his hatred of war.
He is sorely missed by the family that loved him.