A Witness to the Times: Professor John Ilgars Grosvalds

Professor J. I. Grosvalds’ father, Janis Grosvalds had a prominent part in the abortive 1905 revolution and as a result had to flee Latvia, which he did through Klaipeda and Helsinki, emigrating to the United States of America. There Janis Grosvalds became a construction engineer and in time, with another man from Latvia, created a building materials factory which was located outside of Boston.

The crash of 1929 hit him quite hard and led him to return to Latvia. He had been an American citizen, but American law at the time required that a person in this situation return to the US at least every five years and when this proved inconvenient for him, he changed to Latvian citizenship. He also lived on Juras Str. and built a new house just down the street from the Emilija Benjamin House and at virtually the same time, though his was on a much smaller scale of course and finished two year earlier – in 1938.

The younger Grosvalds was born in 1927, in the USA and christened “John” with the very Latvian middle name of “Ilgars”. Because of the pronunciation issues involved, all his life he used Ilgars. He lived on Juras Str. until 1941 when he was 13 and again in 1942-44 and used to walk past the Benjamin house every day.

In the 1930s this was still the old wooden summer house that was quite near to the road and the fence was made of prefabricated panels. When the old house was torn down to make a place for the villa, the fence was sold, moved and reassembled, where it stood around another house for many more years. (It is completely gone now, however.)
In those days several “fierce” dogs roamed the property, but they could be fooled! When they started chasing the boy, barking, (along the inside of the fence) he would abruptly turn around and the dogs would reverse course all the way back to the corner of the property. But by the time they made the full run, he would have run past the other end of the Benjamin property.

One time as he was passing by, he overheard Emilija asking Juris to come and look at something; but Juris replied that it would have to wait, as he was behind the house with a shotgun, shooting crows. (Hunting crows was a common practice in the spring, in that era.)

The new Emilija Benjamin House was built from 1938 to 1940. It was faced with stucco made with white marble chips and shiny white mortar. As a result the house was a beautiful white and shimmered in the sun. (At this time it was common to stucco houses in Latvia with grey granite: but of course the result was a dark grey coloured house.)
A special hill (dune) was raised for the new house. Most material for the higher mound was sand taken from neighbouring dunes on the beach (there were no “dune protection laws” in those times) and 5 - 7 workers hauled sand in wheelbarrows for a year, to do this. After that the dune was covered in topsoil brought by a trainload from Germany but Ilgars did not see that part of it.

When the Soviet Occupation began (June 1940), one of their early edicts was the confiscation (“nationalization”) of all private houses of over 180 sq. meters (1901 sq. ft.) Since the Grosvalds’ house was 270 sq. meters they had to give it up, but they were “issued” a 4-room apartment fairly close nearby as a replacement, which had become vacant because it had belonged to a Baltic German.

Of course Emilija Benjamin’s house was also confiscated and was then used as the Residence for the commander of the Soviet Occupation Forces after Emilija was removed.

Because of his (1905) revolutionary credentials (and a very apparent, keen sense about when to compromise with the occupiers) the elder Mr. Grosvalds enjoyed a good relationship with the Communist Authorities and in the 1940-41 period was appointed the Chief Construction Engineer for Riga but nevertheless avoided being seen as a collaborator after the Germans liberated the city from the Communists in 1941.

During the German era the Grosvalds family regained title to their house on Juras Str., but during the nationalization period someone had fired up the special Swedish furnace improperly and the cast iron had cracked, so the house had no heat and could only be used summer.

By this time Emilija was dead and her heirs did not regain title of the Villa on Juras Str. (though they did get some other properties restored to them). Instead, after the Soviet General was chased away, the new German governor (Reichskommisar and Gauleiter, Lohse) moved in.

Reichskommissar Lohse had plans to create a large park around the Benjamin House and to raze the surrounding buildings, but the only things they got around to actually doing, were building an air-raid shelter (bunker) next to the house, which is now on the neighbouring hotel’s property and painting the formerly gleaming white house with camouflage stripes which, while faded, are still visible today. This was done in 1943, when the Soviet Air force was sufficiently reequipped, largely with American airplanes, to once again be a threat. Because of the location of the bunker the small street next to the house, leading to the beach, Vanaga Str. was closed and remains closed to this day. Also, in the 1930s Juras Str. was a dirt road. It was first asphalted during the German Occupation and the work was done by the R.A.D. (the Reichs Arbeits Dienst).

During the German era, security for the house was provided by a platoon of security personnel which Ilgvars Grosvalds believes were some sort of Police and not military troops. (He does not remember the uniforms well enough to describe the precise insignias.) The security detachment was billeted in the house at Juras Str. 6 (the Hasselbaum house) and the Benjamin House itself was routinely guarded by a three man shift. Reichskommissar Lohse used to move around in a closed (hard-top) car (I. Grosvalds did not recognize the make) which was always preceded by a military type car mounting a machine-gun.

Reichskommisar Alfred Rosenberg came to visit for one day and on that day was also scheduled to visit the City of Jelgava. There was very heavy security that day with a security officer stationed every 100 meters on the roads all through the City of Jurmala. Ilgars Grosvalds himself recalls seeing Reichskommissar Lohse one day (probably not the day of Rosenberg’s visit) as he came out through the big mechanically slide-able window in the front of the house in his Peacock Suit (this was the Latvian nickname for the, heavily “decorated”, brown, NSDAP Party, uniforms) and greet his arriving guests with the Nazi salute.

When the Soviets came back (late fall, 1944) the Grosvalds house was re-confiscated and because the entire zone around Juras Str. was now used as residences for high Soviet officials, no one from the family could even dare go near the area. There were actually two buildings on what had been the Grosvalds property and in 1959, the rear building burned down. Since it would not have done for the high Soviet officials to see a burned out building in their area, a battalion of Red Army soldiers was brought in and in two days all evidence of the building was removed and a dune of white beach sand created in its place.

Immediately after the war, Vilis Lacis, the man who was directly responsible for sending Emilija Benjamin to her death in Siberia, spent a lot of time at the Benjamin house, but was officially given a residence nearby, at the end of Undine Str. This house no longer exists. He lived there in 1945-46, but from 1946 onward had a residence in the “Marienbad Hotel” building.

The Benjamin house was used as an official guest house of the Soviet Government until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991.

Janis Grosvalds passed away in 1960; in reply to a question as to why he had not tried to return to the USA, he explained that such an attempt “would not have been safe”. His father’s sister did however return to America in 1950 (it was safer for a woman to try to get permission for something like this), where the partner to the building materials factory bought out the Grosvalds share and with that money the sister bought a house in New York.

His son, (Professor) John Ilgars Grosvalds studied chemistry in the USSR in the 1950s and spent his life in that field.

After the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Latvia in 1991, Ilgars and his brother recovered title to their father’s property on Juras Str. but decided to sell it as they did not have the resources to restore what was left of the now dilapidated building. It took them over ten years to find a buyer and as the money had to be divided 8 ways there was not very much.

In the early 1990s Ilgars Grosvalds met Johanna Benjamin (the widow of Juris, the adopted son of Emilija) and was invited to the consecration of the Emilija Benjamin House after it had been restored to their family heirs. The Consecration was performed by the (Lutheran) Archbishop of Latvia, Rev. Gailitis and was accompanied by a musical performance by Inese Galanta at the piano and Maestro Kokars with the “Ave Sol” choir.

Johanna Benjamin lived in the house until her death in 1999.