Forced to flee his homeland with his family as a child to escape the advancing Red Army, Andy Taurins has remained close to his Latvian heritage, acting as a cultural and trade ambassador linking Latvia with Wales. He talks to KATH SKELLON about repatriation and life as an honorary consul.
I HAVE little memory of my early childhood in Latvia. At the age of three my family was forced to flee to Germany during the fearsome approach of the Red Army in 1944.
Latvia had suffered appallingly under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s earlier occupation (1940- 1941) when thousands of prominent Latvians were either murdered or sent to Siberian labour camps and the Jewish population in Latvia was subsequently decimated under Hitler.
My parents feared for our lives and we left before the inevitable illegal occupation of Riga, our capital city.
From Germany, my father Arnolds made a clear decision to go to Britain where the health service and the education system appealed to him. The United Nations Refugee Rehabilitation Association arranged for my father, who was a highly qualified forester, to go to Britain on his own, where he stayed for a year to demonstrate that he could learn the language and support himself.
It was a difficult time for my mother, Elza-Karline, because she had lost everything in Latvia – her house, her status and all her possessions.
In Germany, my mother, older brother Aivars, youngster sister Mara, and I, and also my maternal grandmother who had left Latvia with us, all spent almost three years in a Displaced Persons camp.
When the war ended, many Latvians went to Australia or Canada, and others went to the UK as we did – I can empathise with today’s asylum seekers because that is what we were.
Once in the UK, my father worked for the Forestry Commission; we would later join him in a cottage in the Kielder Forest, Northumberland, where my brother and I attended what was then called Kielder Primary School.
There was obviously no Latvian interpreter, so from age seven, I did the best I could to pick up English while speaking Latvian at home. My birth name is Andris but it was easier to change it to Andy from then on.
Three years later I passed my ‘11+’ at ten years old, and progressed to Hexham Grammar School. I have happy memories of growing up in the beautiful north Tyne Valley with my siblings.
My father was promoted and in 1954 we moved to Tynemouth on the coast where I continued my education and sat my A-levels.
My brother went off to London to study oil technology at Imperial College. I joined him two years later and read civil engineering there. I was a little scared of going to live in the city of London, having come from rural Northumberland, but I was very happy there.
Shortly before graduating with an honours degree I met Ann, a Welsh girl, who was studying singing at the Royal College of Music and became my wife in 1964. Ann was a soprano, who had been the soloist with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in 1964 and still had many singing contacts in Cardiff, particularly the television world.
We lived in Bristol for two years, where we had our son, Simon. When the opportunity came it was a natural progression for me to move to Wales and we moved to Llanellen in Monmouthshire.
As a qualified civil engineer I had been appointed contracts manager for the repair of the water mains supply to Cardiff in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 when a landslip at Merthyr Tydfil Colliery destroyed nearby houses and Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, killing 144 children and adults.
The tragedy was made worse by the fact that the coal tip had slid over the water supply to Cardiff shattering two 31-inch diameter water mains. They had been temporarily repaired but it was decided to carry out permanent repairs in 1968. It was an incredibly difficult time for the people of the village, but we were there to do a job and make sure that the mains withstood any further shocks.
Meanwhile our daughter Sarah was born, in December 1970.
Simon is now a managing director with a Swiss Bank in London – he and his wife have four children; Sarah is a primary school teacher now living in Mississauga, Canada, where she lives with her husband and their three children.
On completion of the Aberfan contract I trained as a management consultant in London and Cardiff, eventually in 1977 setting up my own company Taurins, Taylor Associates in Abergavenny.
Over the years I have remained close to my roots, becoming the first Latvian honorary consul for Wales in 2002 – a role I combine with running TTA, and several other companies, which include Red Builders (Abergavenny) Ltd based in my Monk Street offices.
I am also Chairman of Grandma’s Stories Ltd, which produces dual language illustrated children’s books in Welsh and Latvian.
I am passionate about strengthening links between Latvia and Wales.
Since 1999 I have been chairman of the Wales Baltic Society, an organisation which provides a meeting point for Baltic people living in Wales, and I am chairman of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wales.
Latvia regained its independence on August 21, 1991, on my 50th birthday, but sadly my parents were not alive to experience it. The first Latvian ambassador after the occupation came from Canada to London to set up the embassy. He made contact with me after learning that I was related to him by marriage, and this encouraged my interest in Latvia and gave me an opportunity to speak Latvian.
With much encouragement from Ann, in 1996, on my 55th birthday, I returned to my homeland – with some trepidation for the first time – in 52 years.
In 2000, the current Latvian ambassador said that Wales, with the formation of the National Assembly, should have a formal Latvian presence. He asked me to take on the role of honorary consul; although I was very busy with my other commitments, he persuaded me to apply for it. And so the process began: I flew to the capital Riga for interviews; my appointment had to be ratified by the Latvian Parliament, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and also the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I was appointed shortly after my 60th birthday. My role is to act as a cultural and trade ambassador to support and encourage links for the benefit of both countries.
I am a port-of-call for some 400 Latvians living in Wales who may need advice or help with filling in forms, or perhaps translating Latvian documents into English, and helping with work-related matters. When the police require a Latvian interpreter they will invariably contact me.
Five years ago I facilitated a twinning between Tredegar Comprehensive and Jaunpiebalga School in Latvia.
Two years later, a folk dance group from Lubana was invited to participate in the Tredegar House International Folk Dance Festival, and they were hosted by a Newport folk group, Gwerinwyr Gwent, who then visited Latvia 2011 to take part in the Lubana Dance Festival. I was happy to help with interpreting.
I’ve recently sponsored students at Deri View Primary School, Abergavenny, in their LAMDA music and dramatic arts exams, and I am funding musical instruments at my former primary school in Bellingham, Northumberland. After ten years, I’m still passionate about my role as honorary consul for the Republic of Latvia, and uniting my adopted country of Wales with my homeland.
One of the things I do is give talks to various organisations such as Probus and Rotary, to inform people about my country, its history, and its traditions, and encourage them to visit.
Although I’m based in Abergavenny, my official duties regularly take me to Latvia, in particular to the town of Jaunpiebalga, some two hours’ drive from Riga, where I was born. I now have the documents to prove that I was christened at St Tomas’ Lutheran Church in December 1941, thanks to Ulla Logina, the head of Jaunpiebalga School. She visited Wales two years ago with two young Latvian students who took part in a mock parliament debate in the Senedd and presented me with a folder that contained a photocopy of the original birth certificate which had been hidden in a ledger in the church archives. After searching for almost seven decades it was the missing piece of the puzzle – a very special moment. On my next visit to Latvia I was shown the original certificate for myself and saw the signatures of my late relatives on there.
This is helping me to trace my family history. The certificate can’t be removed from the ledger, but I have a photograph of it, and can show my children and grandchildren.
In 2010 I was invited to take part in a rededication ceremony of a war memorial outside the church in Jaunpiebalga – built by sculptor Karlis Zale, who also designed the Freedom Monument in Riga, which also honours soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). Latvia’s President attended the Jaunpiebalga ceremony on July 1, 2010, and I was honoured to be asked to make a speech. It was an emotional occasion and one I will never forget.
Ann and I correspond regularly with St Tomas’ Church, having paid for some heating to keep the congregation warm in this vast church during the winter months. We are also supporting the restoration of the organ, which will be a century old in 2014, and hope it will be finished in time to mark this special anniversary with a concert at the church.
Most recently, I was proud to fly the flag for Latvia when our teams competed in the London 2012 Olympics; although I wasn’t able to be in London, it was a proud moment when we won a gold medal in BMX and a bronze medal in beach volleyball, a popular sport in Latvia as we have 200 miles of beach (so winning a medal in this event was no surprise).
Subsequently, we won a gold and a silver in the Paralympics.
I’m incredibly proud of my people and my heritage, and at age 71 I have no plans to retire from my role as honorary consul.
It is an exciting time for Latvia; in 2014 it will celebrate Riga being European Capital of Culture which also coincides with the next meeting of Latvian honorary consuls and it will also be the golden wedding anniversary of Ann and myself.