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Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick joined the Lincoln Journal Star in 1994 and has loved covering life in her hometown ever since. Will write for chocolate. Or coffee.

Velta Didrichsons wants to know if I’ve seen a movie.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” that romantic comedy full of loud and lovable Greeks holding onto the Old World with both hands — and wringing those hands when a daughter decides to marry someone who doesn’t break plates on the floor after dinner.

I tell her I have, indeed.

“Just put in Latvian instead,” says the 80-year-old who came to America as a girl.

The grandmother is trying to explain her culture. The closeness of a community in Lincoln that once numbered 1,000.

She’s explaining the reason for a big fat Latvian party that will continue all fall in a city far from the Baltic Sea.

It’s the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence. A big deal for the tiny country filled with farms and forests, beaches and birch trees.

They celebrate every Nov. 18, Didrichsons says. With food, and wine and speeches streamed on television from the capital city, Riga.

They remember the man who first led the way to freedom, Karlis Ulmanis. A Latvian-turned-Cornhusker who hung a Nebraska pennant next to his country’s flag in his presidential office.

The longtime prime minister and benevolent dictator was known as Daddy Ulmanis to his people and earned a degree in agriculture from NU in 1909.

I knew about Ulmanis — exiled to Siberia in 1940 — before I talked to Didrichsons, thanks to the press packet from the Latvian Institute and newspaper archives.

“Some of the things he learned he brought back to Latvia,” the widow says. “Like 4-H, like overalls.”

Like the checkered cap and suit he wore as he strolled the countryside to mingle with his Lutheran people, “a style he adopted in Lincoln,” according to a 1936 Lincoln Star story.

The University of Nebraska graduate and Latvian leader will be honored Friday on campus with a visit by the ambassador of Latvia.

And for the next two months, Latvian art exhibits will be featured at local galleries to celebrate this landmark year in the country's history.

The big Latvians are already out at the Latvian Social Hall — 8 foot tall and carved of wood — greeting passing motorists on 33rd Street.

The brightly-painted pairs of dancers are hard to miss.

Although I have a confession: I’ve spent a lifetime overlooking the brick building — even with its name spelled out in big letters on the busy street.

It’s a hall that has been a hub for Latvians who landed in Nebraska nearly 70 years ago, uprooted by war.

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Didrichson tries to explain the story of the exodus, the displaced people of her country who came here for respite and never left.

“It’s a long story,” she says. “Do you have two days?

She talks about the invasions and occupations, the Russians and then the Nazis, and the brutal return of the Russians who executed and deported thousands.

“We knew there wasn’t a chance for us to even save our lives, we had to flee.”

The Germans loaded them on boats and took them to work camps in the fall of 1944. When the Nazis lost the war, Didrichsons and her family ended up in refugee camps, one after another.

They found new countries willing to take them.

Everyone wanted to come to America.

And Nebraska had a special pull, Didrichsons said. The farms. The educational home of their founder.

By 1951, the people of Latvia had a church in Lincoln. They started a Latvian school.

They formed a Latvian association. They helped each other find work at Gooch Mill and the Regional Center and the railroad. They toiled in factories that made dolls and watches and tires.

Didrichsons’ father became a carpenter at the university and her mother worked there, too, making beds and cleaning the girls’ dormitories.

Didrichsons earned her fine arts degree at NU and met her husband, Ilmars, a photographer and civil engineer.

He’s gone now.

All these years, they held onto their old home and country. They formed friendships with the people who spoke their language and knew their history.

“We were all a part of this,” Didrichsons says. “We did not leave Latvia because we wanted to have a better life, we wanted life. We wanted to keep living.”

The living history of the Latvia they all love is on display this fall in Lincoln.

A big, fat Latvian celebration.

Better than a movie.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK.

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