Peteris’s dangerous journey: saving 2,000 lives in WWII

A woodpecker is working hard on one of the trees surrounding Peteris Jansons’s house on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island. Spring seems to have finally reached Scandinavia and Peteris, 92 years old and his wife Inga, 89, are preparing to celebrate their seventieth wedding anniversary in April. They met on this very island in 1943, when Peteris arrived by boat after fleeing from Latvia so as not to have to serve as a soldier in the German army, which at that time had occupied his country.

by Salvador Merlos, Riga

Peteris left Latvia on his 21st birthday and it would take 26 years before he would set foot in his homeland again. During his first two years as a refugee in Sweden, he risked his life during 30 boat trips and saved more than 2,000 fellow countrymen and women who fled German and Soviet troops in Latvia.

Anyone who talks to Peteris will wonder what pushed him to risk his life so many times, and the answer will always be the same: “I had not planned it; it just happened. I did it for Latvia.” But not all refugees shared the same fate as the Latvians saved by Peteris. Of the 40,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who fled to Sweden during the Second World War, more than 2,000 drowned in the Baltic Sea, reminiscent of the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, where over 3,500 people died or went missing in 2014 and already 500 in just the first three months of this year.

Peteris recounts these events while pointing at a map of Latvia and showing the routes that would save thousands of lives. “One of the most dangerous journeys I recall was the one that saved 273 people. I remember a newborn baby girl, some children and even elderly people. For 46 hours, nobody moved an inch. The top of boat was maybe only 5 cm from the water, so I ordered all the passengers to throw most of their clothes and belongings overboard. I still remember the sun was setting, a long trail of things floating in the aftermath and the absolute silence of the passengers. We finally made it to Slite, in Gotland. And that was in good weather; imagine in the colder months, when the only way to warm up was by huddling by the engine. We always sailed by compass, without life vests and were very poorly dressed. It was terrible.”

Some of his companions were captured and executed by Soviet troops. Others were sent to Siberia. When his wife got pregnant, Peteris decided to stop making the trips, which ultimately saved his life. After his son Jānis was born, Peteris started studying Swedish and later began a career in engineering. He quickly felt welcomed and integrated into Swedish society, although Latvia and his loved ones always remained in his heart.

In 1957, he was told by letter that his parents were alive. Inga explains with tears how she opened that letter and called her husband. He learned that one day in 1944, his parents were waiting on the shore for their son to take them to Sweden, but they failed to meet. In 1972 he was finally able to return to Latvia to visit his family, although his parents had already passed away.

Peteris humbly shows the Order of the Three Stars that Latvia honored him with for his heroism, while Inga shares a photo album filled with Latvian relatives, their son Jānis, daughter Eva and their granddaughter Marie. As he bids farewell, Peteris recalls the fortune he was told by his cousin in Latvia when he was 15 years old: “I will travel across water, and then remain in the place where I ended up. In this place I will find a girl and I will never return back home.”