The first years of the Republic of Latvia was a hard time for the people of the new-proclaimed state. The country was devastated by calamities, hunger, illnesses. During this time, Latvia received aid from the American Red Cross organization, with whose help the Latvian Red Cross Youth was founded in Latvia in 1923. The children and young people’s movement played an important role in the interwar years, not just in educating children and promoting a healthy lifestyle but also providing material and moral support to the children of hard-off parents. It was at its most obvious in collecting and distributing Christmas presents, a process that involved Red Cross groups throughout Latvia ‒ as captured in the photographs held in our collection.
Keywords: Red Cross; Red Cross Youth; USA; Christmas; Matīss Tomaliūnas; Kārlis Iltners
The headline quotes two lines from a Christmas poem by a ten-year-old member of the Latvian Red Cross Youth group staying at the Krimulda Sanatorium, published in January 1926.1 The short fragment of the little girl’s poetic effort is an excellent illustration of the endeavours by the young members of the Latvian Red Cross Youth to bring the Christmas spirit to their peers, particularly ‘the children whose Christmas, due to various domestic problems, [were] likely to be empty and miserable’.2 The Christmas spirit of the time is captured in pictures taken at the time by photographer Matīss Tomaļūns (Tomaliūnas), now part of the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine collection.
Photographs by Tomaliūnas are held not just in the collection of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine but also at the Latvian State Archives and Latvian Museum of Photography. There is not a lot that the museum knows about the photographer himself. According to the records of the Latvian Museum of Photography and Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine, between 1931 and 1944 the photographer owned a studio in Riga: at 58 Katoļu Street from 1931 to 1933, at 21 Vitebskas Street (renamed Jersikas Street in 1936) from 1934 to 1940, and at 15 Peldu Street in 1944. The dates of his photographs indicate that Tomaliūnas was active as a photographer from the early 1900s until the 1950s. His photographs show that in the 1920s‒1930s he was engaged in recording various activities of Latvian children and youth. The digital depository of State Archives holds photographs of the Latvian Scout Organization, while the images in the collection of our museum record activities of the Latvian Red Cross Youth organization (further referred to as LRCY) and the LRCY children’s choir of Riga elementary school pupils.
The LRCY choir of Riga elementary school pupils (further referred to as the LRCY Choir) and its conductor Jānis Milzarājs have been featured in this blog before, albeit in the context of singing and the positive impact of vocal activities on health. However, alongside giving concerts in churches, at school anniversaries, children’s programmes and theatre performances and regularly performing at the Latvian Red Cross events, the LRCY Choir, part of the Latvian Red Cross Youth group, was also a regular contributor to other undertakings of the organization.
The Latvian Red Cross Youth group was created in 1923, modelled after the Junior Red Cross (now known as Red Cross Youth) organization founded in 1917 in the USA.3 Members of the organization ‘learned to follow rules of hygiene, dress properly, regularly air rooms, maintain cleanliness, help their peers, keep their school and its surroundings tidy, organize hot meals, workshops, playgrounds, edifying tours, etc.’.4 The organization was headed by a Central Committee approved by the Main Board of the Latvian Red Cross. Work in the Latvian Red Cross Youth was organized in groups that were active in schools, kindergartens, shelters, children’s reading rooms and libraries and extra-curricular youth organizations. The circles were headed by teachers or medical doctors, and children and young people who did not attend schools could also become members.5 LRCY published its own Latvijas Jaunatne magazine initially edited by literary theorist Kārlis Egle (1887‒1974), later by literary historian Roberts Klaustiņš (1875–1962), then by Associate Professor in Education at the University of Latvia, the former Minister of Education Aleksandrs Dauge (1868–1937).
Secretary General of the Latvian Red Cross, member of the Central Committee of LRCY Jānis Akmens (1887‒1958) wrote: ‘There are still so many fragile and pale faces in our schools and families as a painful reminder of the recent years of the world war and refugee life, when oftentimes it was not just the parents but also the children who were forced to spend long days and months half-starving, in the cold and damp, without adequate clothing and provision.’6 The historian Ēriks Jēkabsons describes this time in even harsher words: ‘By the time of the ending of the First World War, not just the Baltic region but the whole of Central and Easter Europe was reminiscent of real hell: chaos, starvation, contagious diseases. More people were killed by influenza, typhoid fever, dysentery and similar ‘plagues’ than by actual warfare.’7 He points out that it was the involvement of the American Relief Administration (ARA), a USA government agency, and the American Red Cross, a non-governmental organization, in providing aid to Latvia that saved this country from starvation and epidemic diseases in 1919.’8
The American Red Cross helped set up the medical institutions of the Latvian Red Cross9 and, leaving Latvia in the summer of 1922,10 handed over large stocks of medicinal products, various materials and several second-hand trucks11, later transformed into the first ambulance vehicles12, to the Latvian Red Cross organization.
The following years saw the American Red Cross provide further aid to the Latvian population. For instance, in the spring of 1923, the Children’s Foundation of Latvian Red Cross received a donation to the children of Latvia from the Americans ‒ 4 million Latvian roubles that were to be divided proportionately between the children of all ethnicities living in Latvia13. With the support of the American Junior Red Cross, the Latvian Red Cross Youth organization was founded.14 The Red Cross Youth organizations of the two countries collaborated closely up to 1940 when Latvia lost its independence.
Going back to the photographs by Matīss Tomaliūnas mentioned in the opening of this post, it should be noted that the museum’s collection contains a number of interesting pictures capturing the involvement of the members of the LRCY choir in the LRCY Christmas events. It is quite poetically described by Jānis Akmens: ‘Another lovely custom is visiting the most disadvantaged families, bringing Christmas trees and presents suitable for a Christmas tree. When a Christmas tree is presented along with the gifts, it is easier for a self-conscious family to accept the donation: the presents now seem less like charity handout and more like a gift of love.’15
Tomaliūnas has managed to capture several moments where members of the LRCY choir help collect Christmas donations for the destitute (holdings of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine, inventory number MVM 43188 Ff 5201, MVM 43193/1-6 Ff 5206/1-6). In terms of composition and story, the most successful of these is the scene captured in December 1930. Although Tomaliūnas mostly worked as a photo reporter, this particular photograph balances on the line between photo reportage and art and seems to strike an emotional chord with anyone who views it.
The gifts were either obtained by the LRCY children with the help of their parents, hand-made during handicraft classes at the LRCY circles or donated by Red Cross Youth organizations from other countries. ‘[..] Every year for Christmas young Americans prepare dozens and hundreds of thousands of gift boxes for children in other countries ‒ to send a greeting and make young souls all over the world light up with warm friendly feelings at this festive time. It is not expensive, not even the most necessary objects that are packed in these boxes; the American children choose things which they have especially treasured or which have played a special role in their life. [..] Our Latvian children also receive between fifteen hundred and two thousand interesting gift boxes every Christmas; they are divided between the most diligent children and those whose Christmas, due to various domestic problems, are likely to be empty and miserable,’ that is how the cooperation between the LRCY and the American Junior Red Cross was described by Jānis Akmens.16
The moment when Christmas presents from the American Junior Red Cross have reached singers of the LRCY choir in late 1926 (holdings of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine, inventory number MVM 43182 Ff 5195) has also been recorded by another photographer known for frequently capturing the activities of the Latvian Red Cross ‒ Kārlis Iltners (1887–1974). Perhaps this may not be counted among the best works of this master of photography; still, the tables with toys in the foreground and the gift boxes with a cross and lettering that says ‘A Merry Christmas’ offer an insight into what the Christmas presents sent by the American Junior Red Cross were like. No detailed information about the photograph is available and we really do not know if the children from LRCY choir are the recipients of the gifts or if a moment of preparing to deliver the presents to other children has been recorded here ‒ both versions are credible. It should be noted that the LRCY choir regularly gave concerts and it is quite likely that they performed at Christmas as well.
A LRCY report of activities between 1 July 1926 and 1 July 1927 mentions that 2000 boxes received from the American Junior Red Cross have been distributed among the LRCY circles. The report also records the size of the gift boxes ‒ 23 x 10 x 8 cm ‒ and their contents: soap, socks, gloves, toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, pencils, toys, etc.17; however, the photograph taken by K. Iltners provides a more specific idea of the things donated by the American children. We see baseballs and various desk-top figurines, a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty, etc.
Meanwhile LRCY had also collected 140 gift boxes with their own hand-made objects, traditional Latvian fabrics, patterns, handicrafts, etc., which were dispatched to the American Junior Red Cross.18 The cooperation between the Latvian and American Red Cross Youth organizations continued until 1940, as did the gift box exchange. Interestingly, a Latvian Red Cross report from 1934 notes that the LRCY boxes with handicrafts and traditional patterns were displayed at Americans schools in glass cases as ethnographic exhibits.19 And similarly, the LRCY photographs dating from the time have also become exhibits at our museum, conjuring up the Christmas spirit lovingly created by the children of LRCY. Just like the ten-year-old girl’s poem about Father Christmas, mentioned earlier:
Father Christmas, rosy-cheeked,
Wading through the snow,
White and long his beard does glow,
Red and warm his coat.
His sack of gifts is filled with games,
parcels packed with toys.
Brightly glitters Christmas tree,
Makes my heart beat faster.
Little rabbit joins us now
To watch this Christmas wonder:
Father Christmas scatters seeds,
Feeding hungry birds,
Rewarding all who love him dearly
With Christmas gifts he brings us yearly.20
Published: December, 2021