Former Le Sueur and longtime Belle Plaine resident Milija Curiskis joined a pretty exclusive club recently. Curiskis, who moved from Oak Terrace in Le Sueur to The Lutheran Home in Belle Plaine at the start of this year, celebrated her 105th birthday on Thursday, March 19.
But perhaps reaching 105 isn’t that impressive -— at least when you compare it to the rest of her life. After all, most people don’t have two birthdays.
Although Curiskis has called the United States her home for the past 70 years, she was actually born on March 6, 1915, in Riga, Latvia. For the first two years of her life, her family celebrated her birthday on March 6, but that had changed by the time she turned three.
When Curiskis was born, Latvia still observed the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar. In 1918, Latvia switched over to the Gregorian calendar, which was first introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and is widely used today. When that switch occurred, Latvian citizens were told to add 13 days to their Julian birthday, and so Curiskis has celebrated her birthday on March 19 ever since.
Curiskis lost her mother young, and her father remarried and moved the family to Russia for a few years. That is until the Russian Revolution heated up and the family moved back to native Latvia.
Curiskis fell in love with a young doctor, Adolf Curiskis, and the happy couple wed and lived happily in Latvia until war broke out.
According to Janis Curiskis, Milija’s second son, her family did not escape unscathed when the Soviets invaded Latvia. The Soviets conducted a huge deportation of tens of thousands of people in June of 1941. The Soviets took Milija’s aunt and grandmother — and she never saw either of them again.
Milija and Adolf fled Latvia and made a new home together in Germany. They were assigned to a couple of Displaced Persons camps and spent six years at a camp near Bad Wörishofen, which was in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area.
“Nobody was invading the southern part of Germany so they were fine just existing,” Janis said.
Food was a little scarce, however, until the war ended, and noodles and green pea soup were what they mostly ate. According to Janis, to this day his mother will not eat green pea soup.
Janis was born in 1946, and can still recall asking his mom for a snack when he was a little lad, and being given a raw potato cut up like French fries.
The Curiskis family, which included Janis and his older brother Juris, emigrated to the United States as refugees in 1950. At that time, they didn’t get to pick where they would end up — they were sent where there was a need. The family came through Ellis Island but almost didn’t make it in.
According to Janis, his father was a “straight shooter” who spoke up when he saw something that was not right and did so when he saw people who were sick bribing their way into the United States.
“He tried to speak up, and one guy told him, ‘You are going to see the United States like you can see your ear’,” Janis said. The only way to see one’s ear is in the reflection of a mirror.
Luckily, Adolf was able to explain the situation to people higher up in the United Nations Relief organization, and their family was allowed entry. From there, they were sent to North Dakota since there was a need for doctors there. Although Adolf was a doctor in Latvia and Germany, he needed to intern in the U.S. first. After completing his internship and thesis, he set up a practice in New England, North Dakota.
Curiskis had to serve five years in New England, N.D., but when those five years were up, the family moved to Elgin, North Dakota. By that time, they were all naturalized U.S. citizens.
As for Milija, she had a passion for growing vegetables and flowers. Her yard was aburst with vibrant, beautiful blooms, and her family ate peas, radishes, carrots, and lettuce fresh from the garden.
She is a friend to the animals as well. As a child she cared for a raccoon, and as an adult she also cared for turtles, birds and cats.
Milija and Adolf moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1974, and sadly, that was also the year Milija lost her husband. After his death, she decided she wanted to be closer to her children. While Janis was hopping around at different teaching jobs, her older son, Juris, was an architect in Minneapolis. So Milija had a house built near Maple Plaine.
In 1978, she sold that house and moved into a house with her two sons in Belle Plaine, with Milija living in an attached apartment of her own, and resided there until she moved to Oak Terrace in Le Sueur in 2017.
While she was living with her sons, Milija became known in the Belle Plaine area for her orchids. She studied the care each variety would need. One variety needed a 10-degree difference in temperature, so Milija would carry them into the basement and back up again each day. Her orchids thrived, and Janis said one even gave off 240 blooms, which was anything but ordinary.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic did not allow for a proper celebration with family this year, this year’s birthday is just one more notch in an incredible, well-lived life.