When the Nazis stormed into Latvia in 1941 and later demanded that the Riga police department assist in the rounding up of Jews, Ilga Svechs’ father, a department official, joined the majority of his colleagues and refused.
Thereafter, the Nazi regime kept close surveillance of the entire Latvian police force, many times leading to house arrests. Eventually, that experience came to the Svechs family as well. As Russian military pressure was driving out the Nazis in 1944, the Svechs family fled the country on a boat filled with refugees because they knew life under the Soviets would not allow the freedom they desired and Mr. Svechs would be a targeted man.
The Latvian refugees landed in Germany, where Nazi troops assigned them to detention camps. While not as notorious as the horrific concentration camps, the detention camps were terrible places nonetheless, where every day was a major struggle.
“The camp we lived in was filthy,” said Ilga Svechs, who was 8 years old at the time. “There was little food, everyone had lice, and many children developed tuberculosis, including my younger brother John and me.”
When Allied forces liberated the camp, she and John were separated from their parents and sent to live in a beautiful German mansion converted for use as a temporary medical facility for children with active tuberculosis.
“My brother and I were in the same room. We were nurtured back to health. They fattened us up,” she said.
After several months of treatment, the Svechs family was reunited. They spent four years in a U.N.-run refugee relief camp for displaced persons until an American family from Byron, Mich., sponsored their immigration to the United States in 1949.
The children slowly learned English and the new ways of America through their middle school and high school years. Then, Svechs’ mother decided that the Latvian community of Grand Rapids might sustain a deli market specializing in European foods and the family-recipe baked Latvian bread. So, her parents opened up a store on Center Street near Ann Street and the family lived in the apartment above. Everyone pitched in. The family became involved with the Latvian Lutheran Church and the Latvian Association of Grand Rapids.
Svechs was initially headed to Michigan State University to pursue an interest in psychology, but two factors led her to Calvin: one, she wanted to be nearer to her parents and the newly found Latvian community; and two, she wanted a Christian education.
She remembers impressing famed Calvin philosophy professor William Harry Jellema with a paper stating that, in her opinion, St. Paul did not have much awareness of women.
“He told me I was a woman beyond my time,” she recalled.
“Calvin gave me the best base for continued education that I could have,” she said. “I didn’t have problems in graduate school; I was well-prepared. Calvin developed in me a creative intelligence. Trust in God and His providence allows for creative thinking.”
After earning an MSW degree from the University of Michigan, Svechs pursued postgraduate studies in clinical social work at Smith College in Massachusetts. Smith assigned Svechs to Cleveland for her fieldwork; she began as a medical social worker at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital. It was there that she saw her difficult childhood experiences link with her professional gifts to give her unique capacity for insight into the minds of traumatized children and adults. Svechs received a PhD in developmental psychology from the Union Institute in 1988.
“I knew that I could bring a wellspring of understanding to those who had experienced mental traumas that overwhelmed them,” she said.
Thus began a distinguished career on the teaching faculty at the Mandel School of Applied Social Work of Case Western Reserve University for 29 years. She also began a private psychotherapy practice. Graduate social work students named Svechs the Teacher of the Year four times—a school record. Although she retired from teaching in 2001, her private clinical practice continues. She also continues as a member of the editorial board for the journal Psychoanalytic Social Work.
In a nomination letter for Svechs, Jerry Floersch, a Case Western colleague now at Rutgers University, wrote: “Another phrase that comes to mind is ‘steadfast in her beliefs.’ And she had such a good reason to give up! Who protected her when she was a child? She didn’t give up. And she brought that integrity and belief into the classroom and to her clients.”
After the demise of Communism in 1991, Svechs returned to her native country of Latvia as a Fulbright Scholar to teach sociobehavioral theory courses and to develop a social work curriculum at the University of Latvia.
She taught in her native language at the University of Latvia and at Latvia’s Academy of Culture during the 1992–93 academic year. Impressed, the Latvian government asked her to assess the readiness for social services at the country’s only children’s hospital. One thing led to another and a regular regimen of flying from Cleveland to Riga began.
“There were no social workers or psychologists in Latvia under the Communist regime,” she explained. “There was mostly mind-control tactics used on society by interrogators and the secret police, not only in public institutions but also extending into family systems. We needed to rebuild capacity for social services in the country.”
Her work has been lauded in Latvia. In 2010, the government bestowed on her the “Cross of Recognition,” the country’s highest civilian award, for outstanding commitment to Latvia, especially in the fields of education and culture. The honor had even more significance to Svechs since her father was a recipient of the same award in 1935, a few years before the country’s occupation by the Nazi and Communist regimes.
Her work goes on. She recently returned to Latvia to delve into issues relating to women and children in the country’s prison system. This time, the government did not invite her to take on this challenge. She asked for the opportunity after noting issues that needed to be addressed.
“After receiving the award from Latvia,” she said with a smile, “I have some muscle of influence there now.”