John Polis and the Latvian connection

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 10, 1999

It sure was a sad coincidence that John Polis of Albert Lea died on Wednesday, Sept.

Friday, September 10, 1999

It sure was a sad coincidence that John Polis of Albert Lea died on Wednesday, Sept. 1, the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. I emphasize this only because he was one person in the area who really had his life changed because of this war.

Email newsletter signup

In September 1939, John was living in Valka, Latvia, the European town where he was born. At this time Latvia was an independent nation. This nation, plus Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, became known as the Baltic States. However, they were in a rough neighborhood. Partly bordering the small nations on the south in 1939 was Nazi Germany, and to the east was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Communist Russia).

Valka was (and still is) a border town. Just across the river is the twin town of Valga, Estonia. John once told me one of his memories was based on crossing over to Estonia on the river bridge to see films at the only movie theater in the two towns.

Latvia’s two decades of independence ended in June 1940 when the Soviet Army invaded the three Baltic States. The Polis family suddenly had to contend with the brutal rule of the Communist Russians.

Then, in the late summer of 1941, the Germany Army fought its way through Latvia and Estonia during World War II. Thus, the people of Latvia went from one set of brutal conquerors to another equally as bad.

By late 1944, the Soviet (Russian) forces started to drive the Germans out of the Baltic States. The Polis family decided their only option was to retreat with the Germans rather than live under Communist rule again.

Thus, for the rest of World War II, they became wandering refugees and were in Czechoslovakia when the war ended in May 1945. In time, the Polis family was helped by a Lutheran organization to find their new home in Kiester.

Some important aspects of John’s life in the U.S. were listed in his obituary published in the Sept. 3, 1999, edition of the Tribune. To this I would like to add just a few more details of his career as a journalist and photographer.

John’s first contact with the Tribune was as the Kiester High School student correspondent in the early 1950s. After graduation from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, in 1957, he was employed by the Tribune for the summer.

Following his service with the U.S. Marine Corps, John worked for a few months at the Winona Daily News. Then, at the end of 1961, he became the photographer, plus (school news) reporter and sports editor of the Tribune until 1967.

One detail I recall about the sports angle is the fact that John was one of the first to really promote soccer in Albert Lea.

As a photographer John became involved in all aspects of this profession from weddings to church directories to displaying his best photos at many special exhibitions. He won several prestigious awards and had his photos published in both national and foreign publications.

John always maintained his fluency in the Latvian language and deep personal interest in that occupied nation. He was fervently anti-Communist. This particular attitude was firmly based on his early life under the rule of the Soviet Russians, plus what they had done to the people of his homeland during the years.

I’m not sure as to when John was able to return to Latvia for his first visit after World War II. It was likely in the mid-1980s. anyway, he went to Riga, Latvia, to visit relatives. He once told me about all the complications involved with this trip. One had to go to Moscow and Leningrad first and be subjected to a complete search of all luggage and personal items. And on that first trip he couldn’t go to Valka, his birthplace, because it was located in an off-limits military zone.

John made several more visits to Latvia, and was even able to visit Valka. Each subsequent visit revealed a further weakening in the Soviet system. Finally, he was able to return to a Latvia which, like Estonia and Lithuania, was again a free nation.