By Ashley Wolff
I am Latvian, German, Irish, and, quite possibly, Scottish — and I come from a long line of strong women.
That is not to say the men in my family have any less strength, but there is a certain resilience that surrounds the generations of women in my family.
Silvia Wolff, my paternal grandmother, stands out as one of the strongest. As a child, she and her family fled Latvia during World War II, braved bombings in Berlin until the war ended and lived in a refugee camp for seven years until finding a permanent home in Omaha.
Silvia’s amazing story starts in Riga, Latvia, where she was born in 1935. She had a happy childhood living off of the coast of the Baltic Sea, until her home country was occupied by the Soviets during World War II. She was nine when her family had gotten word that they were next on the Soviet’s deportation list to Siberia.
Silvia and her mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother left immediately, each taking only one suitcase. They made their way to Berlin, Germany, in September 1944. The war was ending, and Silvia remembers spending many sleepless nights in the subways as bombs dropped above their heads and sirens rang.
“I remember one bomb had fallen into the subway not far from us,” she said. A smile began to creep across her face as she continued. “It never went off. To this day I am thankful because I am certain I would not be here if it would have.”
Through everything, she remembers her family always remained calm — something she was grateful for because it made her feel that everything would be alright. When the bombing ended and they left the subway, she saw only destruction. Buildings had been reduced to rubble and debris lay everywhere.
The family managed to find an apartment in Berlin to live until May. Years later, my grandmother learned that during that time Adolph Hitler had committed suicide in a bunker only a few blocks away.
Family flees again to find safety
Although the bombing had stopped, the family was still in grave danger because they were living in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. They would have been deported and killed had they been found. So Silvia, her family and other Latvians headed on foot toward the French-occupied zone of Germany to evade the Soviets. She remembers passing underneath the Brandenburg Gate with uncertainty and fear of what was to come.
“People in the U.S. today have no comprehension of what it is like escaping from an awful place where your life is endangered,” Silvia said, as her eyes welled with tears.
She recalls tromping through the country with little food and all of their belongings on a cart, which her uncle pushed. As they passed through small farming towns, they would trade any valuables they had with the locals for food. She said they usually got just flour; she remembers eating flour mixed with water that was cooked over a fire for most of the trek. She mentioned she never recalls feeling hunger, although she knows now that she must have been starving.
My grandmother told me she had no recollection of how long they had been walking. But she remembers well the roller coaster emotions that came soon after: The excitement of reaching the French zone and the despair of finding it full. The wearing excursion continued until they reached the American zone.
Silvia was now 10, and for the first time in months, she felt safe.
They slept in a temporary location until they were shipped out to another camp in Germany that became their home for the next six years. Although the American’s oversaw the camp, it became a fully functioning town of predominately Latvians. Where this town would be located today, Silvia is unsure.
“I actually had a good time those years in the camp,” she said. “I had friends. I took ballet and played piano. There were schools and music, and my mom worked at her own beauty shop doing hair.”
Years later, when people were allowed to emigrate, Silvia’s family intended to go to Australia, but not all of them were accepted, so they waited. Eventually, they found sponsors through a Lutheran church and were placed with families in Omaha, Nebraska.
They left Germany in 1951 and arrived at the Omaha train station, where Silvia, now 16, entered this new world with hope.
“It’s not an easy transition when you are completely immersed into a new culture and you don’t even know the language,” she said, “but I worked hard to get where I am today.”
Living in Omaha
Years later, Silvia met, Francis Patrick Wolff, and the two married in 1960. They had seven children, including Joseph Wolff, who would be my father. Over the years, Francis and Silvia had many foster children live with them. My dad said there never was a time that there wasn’t a foster kid at the house. One of my aunts and one of my uncles were both once foster kids that my grandmother adopted. They are as much family to me as anyone else.
Silvia’s desire to have foster children was embedded in her from her culture, she said.
“In Latvian culture, guests were treated as family. When someone walked in the door, you immediately asked what they would like to eat and drink. I’d like to think hospitality is in my blood, and I always enjoyed giving someone a home if I could.”
Silvia knew what it was like to be treated poorly and not have a home, and she made the effort to support others in somewhat similar conditions.
My maternal family
While the lives of my mother’s side of the family did not include the horrors of my father’s ancestors, they did include the vigor.
John Stewart Boyle was the first in the family to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He was from Ireland, and he came with his wife, Mary Jane Ford, who was presumably from Scotland, although no one is certain. Their son, Albert, married Mary Louisa Fisher and lived in Hopedale, Illinois.
Albert’s brothers had moved to Nebraska, and Albert soon followed suit. They lived in Farnam inside a dugout for two years while they built a sod house, where Mary bravely gave birth to a son in 1890.
As generations passed, the women in my mother’s family also began to show similar resilience — this time through their pursuit of education.
Kathleen M. Barnes, who would become my great-grandmother, earned straight A’s throughout high school. She had been offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but never accepted it. No one in the family knows why, according to my grandfather, James Boyle.
“If there are any brains in the family, it definitely comes from my mom,” he said, laughing.
My maternal grandmother, Judith Seaver, also held high education standards. She was the first woman to be a certified vocational agriculture instructor in the state of Nebraska. She graduated the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1969 with a degree in agriculture and was cited for outstanding scholarship.
My mother, Cristina Wolff, followed suit. At 21, she gave birth to me and filed for divorce a few months later. She started taking classes full-time at Bellevue University while also working full-time. She had to live off of welfare for four years to make ends meet. Yet this single mother graduated with honors and was on the Dean’s list.
Although I can’t relate to the struggles of the women in my family, I am grateful to be able to learn from their stories. With my graduation around the corner, there is a lot of pressure to live up to expectations. I think it is important not to focus on the negative and to take the good from their hardships. There is enough strength in my blood to fight through anything.