Serpent Mound: Code for Freedom

The Escape from The Soviets 77 years ago

Some in the family escaped the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Decades later, an opera singer smuggled a symbol to indicate that they made it to freedom back to those who didn’t. That symbol was a postcard of Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio.

Mara Jekabsons was a little girl when Russian soldiers invaded her homeland. They imprisoned her father, Karlis, and anyone who had education for fear they may become a force of resistance. Over the next few years, as the Nazis and Russians battled back and forth, Karlis escaped. Later, he fled the country with his wife and four daughters.

The Jekabsons spent the next five years as refugees, roaming war-torn Europe from one displaced person’s camp to another amidst the horrifying scenes of destruction all around. In that time, Anna and Karlis had a fifth child, another daughter. One night, a farm lady came to the fields where Anna laid her baby and kids to sleep in the tall ferns.

The five Jekabsons sisters in adulthood

The lady offered her barn as a shelter for the night. Anna looked at her sleeping children and then smiled at the lady’s kindness but declined. They awoke with frost on their eyelids in the morning, some frozen shut. But for those who could see, the nearby barn was engulfed by flames at the hands of soldiers.

During the Jekabsons’ quest for freedom, they broke a wheel while trying to make it to a ship that would carry them to safety. And to their dismay, they missed it. Then the family discovered that the ship they were to sail on was bombed and sank. Incredulous stories of near-death and slim escapes fill the memories of these and other survivors.

The Jekabsons Seven

“In recent years, I had recurring nightmares of climbing a rope to get on a ship afraid to fall off and die,” Mara said. “When I shared this with my older sister Maija, she said, ‘Mara, that’s a real memory. You did that!”

Postwar, the Jekabsons were sponsored by a family in the Greenville, Ohio area to come to America. Karlis, an accountant by trade, was offered work as a farmhand. When they arrived, the Jekabson seven had only four modest-sized wooden boxes containing only what they could carry. With that and each other, they would learn a new language and culture, eventually becoming citizens of the United States.

Mara “Jekabsons” Cox today
with one of her family’s immigrant boxes

In the 1970s, Anna learned that her cousin and the Godfather of her daughter Ilze, an opera singer named Tālis Matīss, was to visit Canada. Although he was visiting from behind the iron curtain and under surveillance by Soviet agents, Mamu was able to meet with him. During that meeting, she was able to slip Matīss a message to try and return to her sister and twin brother back in Soviet-controlled Latvia. The message was to communicate that they had made it to America alive. But the message had to be in code or use symbolism; otherwise, Soviet authorities would have destroyed it.

So, Anna obtained a postcard from Serpent Mound, a historical site in Peebles, Ohio. It was something she and her brother learned about together as school kids. He would know it was from her and that she was there.

Vintage postcard of the Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound is the largest serpent effigy mound in the world. It is 1,348 feet long and was built by prehistoric Native Americans (the Adena culture).

This effort came at life-threatening risk for the recipients back in Latvia, so Anna was hesitant. But she also knew it would be a great lift if they knew that they were all alive and safe. So, she was careful to craft the message delicately, revealing nothing but saying everything that needed to be known.

A year after the fall of the Soviet Union and its iron curtain, Anna, Mara, and Ilze returned to visit surviving family in Latvia nearly 50 years after fleeing. 

“In all the decades between our escape and return, nothing there changed,” Mara recalled of their trip.

Anna’s home village was beyond the reach of roads. Known lovingly as Mamu, the 87-years-old Anna crossed a rope bridge. She was determined to see the loved ones she thought she would never see again.

The reunion was one of teary-eyed celebration and remembrance. Unfortunately, Anna’s siblings had died just several years before Latvia was freed. But in their mementos was the postcard.

In a private moment, a surviving family member looked into Anna’s eyes with sadness and said, I’m sorry if I seem different than you remembered.

Anna consoled her and said, “We do what we need to do to survive.”  

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler
Note: Mara “Jekabsons” Cox is my mother-in-law

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