RARE FIND: One of just two photos that exist of Mark Beehre’s grandfather, pictured on the floor in front of the group of Latvian army soldiers, estimated age, 16.

NEXT Friday, Eastern Bay residents have the chance to hear author, photographer and physician Mark Beehre speak about he and his mother’s journey to Eastern Europe in search of family heritage lost during World War II.

It has been more than 70 years since his mother, Irena – then five years old – her sister and their mother, Tatjana, fled the Baltic Republic of Latvia in 1944 to escape the invading Russian army – an occupation that would continue for the following 50 years.

Mark says the journey enabled his mother to discover a past she’d never known, and to reclaim the story of the father she had lost.

Returning Home – A Place to Stand, is a text and photographic work documenting the journey and its findings. It began in the form of an exhibition and has now been produced into a small-format, hand-stitched limited-edition booklet.

The booklet details the findings that have filled in the gaps of Irena’s early life. It is based on more than two years of research including Mark’s individual trips to Latvia, the trip he and Irina made together in 2017, and information gathered through a freelance genealogist based in Latvia.

CELEBRATION: Mark Beehre will be celebrating the reclaimation of his mother’s history at the Opotiki library on June 14.

Having lived as a displaced person for 78 years, Mark says, for the first time, his mother was able to obtain her birth certificate from the registry office in Riga, and furthermore, to track down a “citizenship file” documenting the existence of her father, a man she knew very little of.

Irena, her sister and her mother had left Latvia in 1944 not knowing exactly where her father was.

“He (Mark’s grandfather) had been conscripted into the army, and my grandmother had of course presumed they would meet again after the war”. But his grandfather was never seen again, and what became of him can still not be confirmed. “What we do know is that the army unit he was in was pretty much decimated in battle,” Mark says. “We can presume he lost his life there.”

After fleeing Latvia in 1944, Irena’s journey had taken her through refugee camps in Germany, through to resettlement in Australia, and then, in the 1960s, marriage to a New Zealander.

Mark says it wasn’t until a crumbling Soviet Union recognised Latvia’s sovereignty in 1991, and the last Russian troops left the country in 1994, that exiles such as his mother felt safe to return.

He says the coming event celebrates his mother’s reclamation of her history.

Returning Home – A Place to Stand, An Evening with Mark Meehre, is being held on Friday June 14, from 7pm to 9pm, at the Opotiki Arts Society Hall, King Street. Entry is free.

The event is being hosted by Mark’s cousin, Opotiki resident Ilmars Gravis. Tatjana was Ilmar and Mark’s mutual grandmother.

By Lorraine Wilson

By Lorraine Wilson