Stories of V-E Day: Rita Sparks

By: Brian Louwers | Royal Oak Review | Published April 29, 2015

 Rita Sparks was a child in Latvia when the Russians occupied the country in 1940. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Latvia the next year. She shares her life story in her book, “From Flames to Freedom: Faith Rides the Rails.”

Rita Sparks was a child in Latvia when the Russians occupied the country in 1940. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Latvia the next year. She shares her life story in her book, “From Flames to Freedom: Faith Rides the Rails.”

Photo by Brian Louwers

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Editor's note: This story was included in a full-length C & G Newspapers feature commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. Metro Detroit residents graciously shared their stories in interviews conducted between January and April 2015. Click here for more V-E Day stories from our coverage area.

Rita Sparks, 80, Royal Oak


With its idyllic forests, orchards, lakes and rivers, Skaidrite Rita Sparks said the Latvia she remembers very much resembled the natural beauty found in Michigan.


Sadly, other scenes from her childhood are not so beautiful.


She recalled the days from 1940 and 1941. Latvia had been invaded twice in two years. The Russians first seized the Baltic nation in 1940.


“They rode into town in their tanks unannounced and said, ‘Here we are,’” Sparks said of the Russian occupation. “They invaded us and that started the year of terror for Latvians.”


Life under Russian rule was harsh. Sparks said 15,000 people were deported to the gulags of Siberia on one day alone.


“They took the cream of the crop, anyone they feared would be resistant to the Communists — teachers, government employees, doctors, a lot of professors, policemen,” Sparks said.


A friend’s father, a jail guard, was taken one night. Her own uncle suddenly went missing.


Sparks said the Russian occupiers worked to turn children against their mothers and fathers. Instead, they were encouraged to be loyal to “Mother Russia.”


And then the Germans came.


“They were very friendly and disciplined and didn’t harm us,” Sparks said. “The war on the Jewish population, that was hard to take. We could not go to our pediatrician. He was Jewish. You couldn’t go to Jewish shops.”


Another memory she’s carried throughout her life is the image of a small girl — about her age, 6 at the time — being led with a crowd through the streets of her town to their murder at the hands of the Nazis.


She recalled how her mother cried as she watched the crowd being led away by German SS troops. The little girl was still clutching her doll as she was marched off. The two girls made eye contact. 


Sparks said one of the SS men approached her mother, pointed his weapon and said, “If you don’t stop crying, maybe you’d like to join the parade with your children.”


The tide of the war eventually turned, and the Russians pushed the Germans back. But the German invaders took Latvians with them when they retreated. Sparks ended up at a labor camp in Austria with her mother, father and sister.


The family later lived with an Austrian family. At 10, Sparks was led out with her schoolmates to greet Adolf Hitler when he came to tour the town, even as Nazi Germany’s war was coming to a violent end.


“Our teacher gave the signal, ‘OK, salute!’ I stood there, not moving, motionless,” Sparks said. “He’s not my Führer. He took that little girl away, took me out of my country. I’m not saluting him.”


Allied bombers leveled that Austrian town the next day.


Sparks, her family and the Austrians they lived with sought refuge at a shepherd’s cabin in the mountains until the war ended. She remembered her father running to tell them it was over.


But with the end of the war, the family again found itself under Russian control after V-E Day. Rather than go back to Latvia, then a part of the Soviet Union, the family slipped into a caravan of displaced gypsies. Sparks said her mother grabbed the girls and tucked their blond curls under a scarf to disguise them as they made their way to a camp in the British zone. They eventually made it to Salzburg, which fell under American control.


With their emigration sponsored by the Lutheran Church, the family left Hamburg for New York and came to Michigan in 1949.


Rita Sparks and her husband have been married for 60 years and have three sons. They have five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She was named the Lutheran Woman of the Year in 2006 for her work in support of disadvantaged children. Sparks shares her life story in her book, “From Flames to Freedom: Faith Rides the Rails.”

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