Gunnar Robeznieks, Latvian immigrant who built shopping centers, dead at 88

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Gunnar Robeznieks immigrated from a World War II displaced-persons camp in Europe and became an engineer in America. / Family photo

Gunnar Robeznieks’ farm and family were batted back and forth in World War II as Latvia switched from Russian to German domination, then back again.

In 1944, as the Soviets pushed the Germans back, Russian communists seized the Robeznieks’ farm and livestock. The family’s choices were limited: Stay, and get sent to a gulag in Siberia, or leave everything they’d known. His parents decided to flee their hometown of Livani with their children.

In the waning days of the war, Gunnar, then 17, was ordered into the German Luftwaffe, or Air Force, where his unit spent most of their time retreating from the advancing Americans. He ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp near Munich, where rations were scarce.

“He would say that he lost most of his teeth because of starvation,” said his son, John.

Dizziness plagued the prisoners, who developed what might have been called bedsores, if they’d had any beds.

But the human desire for laughter remained.

“For entertainment,” Mr.Robeznieks later wrote in a family memoir, he and other POWs drolly observed high-ranking German officers in the camp, comporting themselves as if they were in an elite military academy. “The generals,” Mr. Robeznieks wrote, “still had low-rank military personnel as servants to prepare food, shave and wash their underwear.”

He came to America in 1949 for a job picking cotton and watermelons in Mississippi. He went on to earn a mechanical engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and helped design and build shopping centers, office parks and power stations at sites around the country, including Walt Disney World.

Mr. Robeznieks survived the loss of his wife of 57 years, Mirdza, in 2011, witnessing her car slide into the pond behind their Itasca home and sink after she suffered an aortic aneurysm at the wheel. Badly hurt trying to reach her, he took comfort in a doctor’s declaration that she never knew what happened.

Gunnar Robeznieks lived to see the couple’s two sons, John and Paul, become lawyers who checked in with their aging dad by phone a combined four times a day. He saw four grandchildren grow up and thrive.

Mr. Robeznieksdied Jan. 21 at 88 at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

His journey to America started in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, when a U.S. military commander offered the Latvians a chance to work on Mississippi cotton farms.

“I signed up immediately,” he said.


A young Gunnar Robeznieks. / Family photo

About 1,000 displaced Latvians wound up working in the cotton fields of Senatobia, Mississippi, after the war, according to the 2013 book “Immigrants in American History.” Within months, he was offered a chance to work in the town general store.

“Naturally, I was happy to get out of [the] cotton plantation,” he wrote. “I guess the store manager thought that having salesman who speaks Latvian would cause all Latvians in area [to] shop in his store.”

By 1950, the rest of the family also had immigrated to Mississippi — his parents Oswalds and Milda and brothers Karlis and Ojars.

Soon, the radio was filled with news of the Korean War. Though not yet an American citizen, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Japan. As a boy, he’d learned to speak a little Russian with farm workers, a skill that earned him a trip to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, where Russian-speaking GIs were sought because of Soviet Communist influence in North Korea. But his Russian wasn’t good enough, and he was assigned to an engineering detachment.

Discharged in 1952, he rejoined his family in Chicago, where they’d settled. The city was a post-war magnet for Latvians.


Gunnar and Mirdza Robeznieks. / Family photo

Mr.Robeznieks used the G.I. bill to study at IIT.

In 1954, he married Mirdza, a Latvian immigrant he met at a Latvian church bazaar at Hull House.


Gunnar and Mirdza Robeznieks on their wedding day in 1954.

They raised their family in Franklin Park, where he taught his boys, “Just relax, do your best, and your best will be good enough.”

Often, job travels took him away from home. At times, he said of his sons, “When I left to go to office, they were still asleep; when I came home — boys were already asleep.” They caught up with two-hour breakfasts together on weekends.


Gunnar Robeznieks and his sons Paul and John on John’s wedding day.

He underwent two heart surgeries, including a quadruple bypass in 1975. John and Paul gave him a stationary bike as he recovered. After 30 years, their dad estimated he’d logged 70,500 miles on it.

Mr. Robeznieks enjoyed trips to Garezers, a cultural camp near Kalamazoo, Michigan, known as “Little Latvia.” He loved piragis, the Latvian bacon turnovers made by his wife, as well as her piparkukas (pepper cookies).

“The fact the U.S. took in and welcomed his own family, he was more patriotic than the average natural-born citizen,” John Robeznieks said.

Services have been held. Mr. Robeznieks is also survived by a brother, Karlis.


Mirdza and Gunnar Robeznieks and the family they built in America.

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