GREENVILLE— The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces surely brings back memories to Mara Cox of Greenville, who with her family, the Jekabsons, fled Latvia when it was taken over by Russia 77 years ago.
Cox’s son-in-law, Frank Rocco “Rocky” Satullo, owner of The OhioTraveler, has been intrigued by this family’s history and put his writings about them online recently.
Mara was the middle child of Karlis and Anna (Porietis) Jekabsons. She also has four sisters, Maija Carey, Ilze Koch, Ilona Reif and Selga Jekabsons. Maija and Selga are now deceased.
The four older daughters were born in Latvia while Selga was born in one of the displacement camps the family stayed in during their escape.
“Dad was in something like the National Guard, when the Russians arrested him and other people in 1941, but he was only in there several months until Germany got the upperhand,” Mara said. “Some stayed until they felt it was safe to leave and tried to find their way back home. In 1944, when Russia got the upperhand, we felt we had to go or they’ll take us to Siberia.”
A horse and wagon was borrowed by their father, and her mother put wet laundry, paper and pencil for the kids, and loaded up.
“We had to avoid all Russians, so we went to a friend’s house to pick someone up, then to our grandmother’s house and then we went to my mother’s twin brother’s house but they couldn’t come because his wife had a new baby,” Mara recalled. “We went to where Dad’s family was and his parents were too old to leave. We just disappeared.”
Their mother’s aunt was married to a baron of German descent, and they had to leave for their own safety from the Russians.
“We were all to go on a ship but one wheel of the buggy broke down and we couldn’t go,” Mara said.
It’s a good thing as that ship they would have boarded was bombed.
“Later, we got on another ship, the General McRae, and went to Poland where there was another wagon to pick refugees up,” the story goes.
“By 1945, we were getting with some German-Latvian relatives that had to escape from Latvia to Poland, With the help of these relatives, we were able to get to the British Zone of Germany after the war.”
Along the way, the family saw bombings way in the distance.
“Our mother was strong for the family,” Mara said. “Dad probably suffered from PTSD from when he was in prison.”
After five years in the Displaced Persons camps, they were able to come to America and wound up in Greenville, Ohio.”
“I was 5 and the middle child when we left and I turned 11 on the ship to America,” Mara said. “Some refugees went to Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the United states. Mom requested America. At one place, we were boarded in a school and studied American history.”
Ray Petersime, of Gettysburg, was instrumental in getting the Jekabsons to this area.
“He sponsored many immigrants and was involved in the Church of the Brethren and Church World Service,” Mara said. “Each one of us wore a tag on the ship and we had to memorize the number on it. When we got to port in New York, everybody got to see the Statue of Liberty. On Dec. 12, 1950, we arrived in Piqua. We went by Greyhound bus to Piqua where Mr. Petersime met us and said prayer.”
The Jekabsons lived in Gettysburg for three weeks, and the patriarch became a dairy farmer.
Their father died in 1973 and their mother on June 11, 2001, just three months before 9-11.
“We are thankful because they did not live to see Sept. 11,” Mara said, tearfully adding, “My first thought was our daughters won’t know how to live through a war.”
Mara and her husband, retired podiatrist Dr. David Cox, have two daughters, Becky Satullo and Kathy Smith and have three grandchildren.
Mara is a 1959 graduate of Greenville High School and a 1963 graduate of Miami University with a degree in education.
The Coxes met in high school but went their separate ways for four years until fate brought them back together.
“I applied for an elementary teaching job in Bedford, Ohio, when David was in the College of Podiatry,” she said. “In 1964, we got married and I taught two years at South School in Greenville.”
Her husband was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966 and was stationed in Memphis, Tenn. After his stint in the service, they returned to Greenville where David went back into podiatry practice with his father, Forrest Cox.
“I was a stay-at-home mom and helped out at his office when needed,” said Mara, who also used to babysit for Dr. Boli’s children while in college.
All of the Jekabsons sisters received valuable educations in their new country. Maija studied at Miami-Jacobs Business School and became a paralegal. Ilona and Ilge became nurses and Ilona worked for her husband in Cincinnati.
“The Latvians prided in education in our camps,” Mara said. “Latvians had school except one year and it was a German school. We were so lucky to come to Greenville and attend the one-room schoolhouse, Sugar Valley on Wildcat Road.”
The females of the family all became citizens of the United States.
Their father is the only one who didn’t become a U.S. citizen.
“He tried for years and couldn’t finish,” Mara explained. “All of us became citizens at different times. Mother and I became citizens together in 1974, Ronda Warrick Miley was my witness, and Elizabeth Hill was mom’s witness.”
Mara, who has served in the Altar Guild at St. Mary’s Church in Greenville since 1980, and busy with David at the Darke County Park District, where she annually presents a program on decorating Latvian Easter eggs among other activities, said Latvia became free in 1991, and that some of the family members went back in 1993 to visit.
“Ilze’s husband made all of the travel arrangements,” Mara said. “We took a ferry across the Baltic Sea and stayed there a week and then we went by plane. It scared me. The first thing they did was take our passport. Then we found out a diplomat was on board so I felt better.”
While there, she and other relatives stayed in a hotel owned by Russians and also went to the West Coast to see two of her father’s seven brothers.
“My thought coming into Latvia was that we were American citizens,” Mara said. “I felt like I was going as a tourist. All had gardens in their yards. We couldn’t go to our house because the Russians bulldozed it for a collective farm, so we visited the house where Dad grew up.”
Mara, who has a lot of information on herself and her family’s journey in life, said the Latvian and Lithuanian languages are the oldest languages.
“They are very archaic,” she said. “Learning English just happened for me. Being at Sugar Valley helped.”
It was also reported that Elizabeth Hill took Anna to Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio, on Oct. 18, 1974.
“My mom’s friend took Mom to Serpent Mound because they had learned about it as youngsters,” Mara said. “When my mother and her twin brother were young and in school, they were exposed to lessons about America, maybe history too, but they learned about the Serpent Mound as well. Then, after many years, our mother still had didn’t write or contact our relatives or her brother because it would not be safe for those in Latvia or maybe even us. My mother had a cousin who, with her family, was living in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. David and I had a cabin we owned in Ontario, so when we heard that this cousin’s brother was going to be visiting from Latvia, we took my mother up there to stay and visit while we went on farther north of our cabin. We got to meet him and talk to him.”
Mara said when her Mother went to Hamilton, Ontario, she took that postcard with her.
“She wrote a letter to her brother, not giving her real name or any address as Latvia was still under Communist rule,” Mara said. “She signed the letter with just a nickname only he would know. The letter was given to her cousin, who had come from Latvia. He was given the letter with the Serpent Mound postcard in it to give to her twin brother when he went back to Latvia.”
More on Serpent Mound and other stories on the Jekabsons can be found on Satullo’s The Ohio Traveler website by checking out The Vintage Ohio Postcard entry.
More about him will be featured in Life’s Reflections, a column authored by this reporter every Monday. Thus, it will appear on March 28.