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Coming to America

Posted January 08, 2014 in Community Featured, Des Moines West

The story has been told and retold, passed down three generations. Melinda Vanags’ grandpa was a man of few words and he’s gone now, so no one will ever know. But here’s how the story goes…

Melinda Vanags with her garage sale remnants.

Melinda Vanags with her garage sale remnants.

“We have to leave… NOW.”  Vanags’ grandpa came home one day and said the Latvian equivalent of these abrupt and harsh words to his young wife. The two lived in Latvia, and it was 1946. World War II had recently ended, but for Latvia, the struggle with oppression was just beginning.

Latvia is a small Eastern European country that abuts Russia and sits on the Baltic Sea.  With the conclusion of the Second World War, Latvian occupation shifted from Nazi Germany to the equally brutal Soviet Union during the regime of Joseph Stalin.

It’s unknown how Vanags’ grandma reacted to her husband’s insistence that they must go, but when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and before long, Vanags’ young grandma and grandpa had fled to West Germany, which was then occupied by the United States and the Allied Forces.

Vanags’ grandparents lived in West Germany for two years while waiting to emigrate to the U.S., and it was there that Vanags’ father was born. A year later, this young family made the voyage to America. They possessed nothing more than two crates of meager possessions, a fighting spirit and, according to Vanags, a schutzengel.

A “schutzengel” is the German word for “guardian angel,” and down in Vanag’s tuck-under garage, she has an old (and possibly valuable) painting of just such a schutzengel. The angel is depicted guarding two children as they pass a rickety bridge that spans troubled water.

There are lots of neat old things tucked down in Vanag’s garage: artwork, antiques and an ancient hat box addressed to a Des Moines lady circa 1928.  These are the remnants of a garage sale she had last summer. But of all neat things Melinda has, it’s the schutzengel that she likes the best.

“Dad was born in Germany,” she says, “And now this found its way here.”

One might wonder why Vanag would be trying to part with such a cool print she attaches so much familial meaning to.

“Everything has a price,” she says. Of course, her angel is still there, so she must have placed that price high enough to keep it.

Contact Darren at 953-4822 ext. 304 or to recommend someone for an upcoming issue of “What’s In Your Garage?”

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