The Cottage by the Bridge: One Latvian Family’s Escape to America during WW II, by Ivars Fridenvalds. Kindle Direct Publishing, 2021, x + 102 pages, $5.00.

Human pathos set on the stage of World War II. Tyrannical cruelty. Displaced persons. Escape to neutral Sweden. Adventure on the high seas. Cold War intrigue. An unlikely accident. Love of liberty. Challenges of immigration. Patriotism—for both one’s native nation and adopted country. Family ties and relations. Romance. A hard-work ethic. Conversion stories. What more do you want in a novel?

But, of course, this is not fiction—it is all true.

This story is a deeply personal account painted in moving colors. It was written by a humble man—a wonderful man whom I was privileged to know for three decades, having been his pastor for five years. This autobiography is set against the backdrop of world history, in which the lives of various individuals were divinely woven together into the fabric of global machinations. And overarching the tapestry was a Providence that was producing eternal blessings.

Ivars Fridenvalds (1935–2021) was born in Latvia, a small country often linked with two other Baltic states—Estonia and Lithuania—all three of which were (illegally) annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. Like the Poles, Finns, Estonians, and Lithuanians, the Latvians were caught up in the winds of war. Ivars’s childhood was marked by memories of unwelcome troops and airmen wreaking harm and devastation. The Nazis utilized emaciated Jews in tattered clothing as slave labor. The Communists deported 35,000 Latvians to Siberia. And at the age of seven Ivars witnessed his mother’s horror and pain when an aerial bomb caused her wounded leg to be amputated.

The opening scenes take place in and around the seaside town of Mersrags. What should have been an idyllic setting transformed in 1940 into a theatre of threats and torture, suffused with Communist propaganda seeking to brainwash a subjugated people. In 1944, the Fridenvalds were able to flee to neutral Sweden, though their safety was not guaranteed there, as the Russian overlords wanted all Latvian refugees returned. The specter of deportation was mingled with experiences of delousing and diphtheria. In 1950, the family joined others in a trans-oceanic journey aboard the Masen, an old Canadian minesweeper. A southerly route was chosen so as to avoid Russian submarines prowling the North Atlantic. On August 28, 1950, in a dense fog in the Georges Banks off the New England coast, a large fishing trawler collided with the emigrants’ vessel. The crash resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard escorting the boat into Boston harbor. Eventually, the Fridenvalds family was taken to Ellis Island, “known as both the ‘island of tears’ and the ‘island of hope,’ and so it was. Many human tragedies were played out on this island, for here many dreams were fulfilled, but also many dreams were dashed” (55).

In 1954, the dream almost turned to tears, as there was a real threat that the entire family would be forced to return to Sweden. However, many friends and interested parties got involved in the Fridenvalds’s plight, and a private bill was introduced in Congress to resolve the matter. (So, it literally took an act of Congress!)

Ivars gratefully accepted the duties of being an American. In 1958, having been drafted, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and served in Germany. Within a couple of years, he had returned to New Rochelle, New York, and transitioned to civilian life, taking up again his occupation of being a painter. On May 12, 1962, he married the love of his life Grace. A daughter and two sons soon followed.

But there was one more major factor, and that was the spiritual. In 1975, on a Sunday morning, he happened to hear hymn singing coming through an open window at a YMCA building in New Rochelle. He stopped and finally decided to find the room where the small congregation was meeting. That mission work was under the auspices of Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Long Island. The pastor was Malcolm Wright, who that day preached from Romans 12:1–2. Soon Ivars came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, came to faith in Christ, and became a member of the church. A few years later, his wife Grace, who was raised Italian Catholic, joined him in his profession. In 1985, during the time that Greg Reynolds was the pastor, Ivars was ordained as a deacon. Eight years later he and Grace became members of Affirmation Presbyterian Church (PCA), Somers, New York, and shortly thereafter he was ordained as an elder, a post he held until his death on December 15, 2021—about a month after the publication of this book. He was 86 years young.

Ivars could wax poetic. In a poem about his sister who remained in Sweden, entitled “A Candle Burning,” he wrote:

Why did you stay behind?
We loved you.
The years passed into eternity.
They never saw you again.
I saw you, but there was a gulf, a distance separating us.
Time had removed our closeness
Which we enjoyed in our youth.
Our leaving was a tragedy.
It was all a tragedy that happened to us.
Even the way your life ended.
You were alone with a candle burning.

He could also be very reflective philosophically and theologically. In searching “for answers to [the] human tragedy” of how the Jews were treated by the Nazis, he noted that over the years he had come to understand the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life he declared:

I am still searching for answers. I have reached back into the nineteenth century and read philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, George Hegel and Karl Marx. I saw the influence these thinkers had on the despots who would commit such crimes on fellow human beings. That one can take another man’s most precious possession, his wife and his children, away from him and totally destroy them. This happens when man believes that he is God. (9)

And he could express his highest priorities:

Now, as I come closer to the end of my own life, I have reflected on my life’s journey and reconsidered all that has transpired. It has been a fascinating personal journey from Latvia to America. Yet, I am most thankful for my spiritual journey and how God opened my eyes to the truths of the Gospel. My deepest prayer is that many whom I know and love will come to know these truths for themselves. (102)

Faithful. Kind. Humble. Godly. Wise. Steadfast. Loyal. Supportive. These are among the qualities I recounted when I wrote a eulogy for Elder Fridenvalds. After leaving my pastorate in New York in 1998, I would keep in touch with him from time to time. Every conversation I had with him reflected his spirit—cheerful, upbeat, encouraging. I shall miss the opportunity to pick up the phone and speak with him. However, I am grateful for this autobiography and commend it to others. For he being dead, yet speaketh.

Frank J. Smith is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and serves as the pastor of Atlanta Reformed Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. New Horizons, March 2022.

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Ordained Servant: March 2022

Current Issue: Francis Schaeffer—Reformed Evangelist

Also in this issue

Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer

An Honest Appreciation of Francis Schaeffer

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 9, God, Heaven and Har Magedon (2006)

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 25

Genetic Engineering, Human Nature, and Human Destiny: A Review Article

The Old Testament Use of the Old Testament: A Review Article

Marred Desires

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