Ilze west: Strength in the Midst of Trial

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Outside in the corner of a garage is a refrigerator shelf sitting on the ground full of perishable food items. Earlier in the day, her refrigerator stopped working and, as her last resort, she decided that the coldest option was the garage floor.      

Inside her home in Opelika, Alabama, is cozy furniture, a large bouquet of dried hydrangeas in shades of pink, gold and blue and framed pictures of her family. Adjacent to a woven rocking chair sits her open Bible all alone on her kitchen table that still has four seats around it, even though it is only her left living there.

Ilze West has been an American citizen for 67 years now.  Serving in the college ministry and being a part of a widows’ group at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn keeps her busy.

She travels around sharing the story of her family’s escape from Latvia near the end of World War II. Because she was so young when her family fled their home, the stories that she shares are ones that her parents and siblings have shared with her.  The first memory that she has is their first night of freedom.

Ilze, one of the five Keikulis children, is last in line to her brother Janis (John), and her sisters Anna, Jodite (Judy) and Modra.  

Her parents, Arvids and Cilite, are whose story she shares most often. Her father was a pastor in their community, and her mother was a loving and godly wife, she said.

“The story that I tell is because my parents learned the scriptures and to trust the Lord in times of persecution and desperate needs. We have the Lord. We always have Him in all of these things,” West said.

In 1944, in a village in Latvia, the head of the Keikulus family decided it was time to leave. West’s “Papa” had forewarned his family many times that when he decided it was time for them to leave their home, they would go in peace and with God.

West’s family had to dodge bombs on the way out of their house. With trees being uprooted and homes destroyed around them, some of the people in the village asked if they could tag along.

As they walked through the town, forming a link by holding hands, bombs were dropping to the right and to the left of them. With people darting and screaming all around them, her father prompted them that if they ran to the left or right they could be easily killed, so he wanted them to walk in a straight line and in peace.

As they walked in a line through the town, their pet cow, named Cherry because of her whopping, brown eyes, and their puppy followed close with them. “Peace. God is with us,” her dad continued to remind them.

“Children, turn your heads. Don’t look at death so it’s not common to you. That’s somebody’s precious one,” her dad would say to them in their reaction to bodies piled up along the side of the barn near the warfront farmhouse that was their first area of refuge.

Each morning just before daybreak, there was about a half an hour of silence when the bombing and shooting paused. During that time, Papa would go outside for fresh air in order to have a devotion and prayer time with the Lord.

He began to notice a pattern after the third morning. At the base of a tree each morning, just as the sun was starting to light the sky, there was a fresh loaf of bread sitting on the frozen ground.  

This went on for 22 days, and the dark rye, Latvian bread that kept mysteriously appearing was full of enough nutrition to keep them all alive and sustained until they moved on to their next location.

West joked that her father had told them they were going to leave Latvia, and instead of moving east, they would head west toward America. Little did he realize his youngest daughter would end up later being married 46 years to a Floridian named John West, making their move westward all too literal.

Her father-in-law set them up while they were still in college. She remembers that after her first date with her late husband, she told him that she would be content to one day live on the mission field in a shack as long as she was telling people about Jesus. Later when he walked her back to her dorm, he said to her, “Well, if it’s not you walking down the aisle, it’ll be someone just like you. Goodnight.”

West has told so many of these stories of her family’s struggles and triumphs so many different times in hopes that she will encourage and inspire. All throughout her story, she has said that she found peace and strength in her relationship with Jesus.

One of her favorite scripture passages that she references her life and experiences is Psalm 126:5-6, which says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Something that West has wanted to accomplish for many years is authoring a book, with her two surviving sisters, of her family’s stories. She has spent much of her time over the years transcribing cassette recordings of her parents’ testimonies.         When her husband was alive he would help her sort through all of her materials and technological challenges with their computer.

When John and Ilze made the move to Auburn, Alabama, one of her first friends was Patty Chance, whom she still serves with at her local church today.    Chance, along with many others who know West or have heard her speak, is eagerly looking forward to the publication of these miraculous stories.

“It’s like, ‘Why wasn’t this done yesterday?’ We’ve talked about that since the day I knew her,” Chance said. “She has sharpened me in my walk with the Lord in her vivacious, zealous, outspoken, unashamed love for the Lord Jesus.”

Besides writing a book about her family’s World War II escape, West is also working on digital photo albums of all of the overseas mission trips that her and her husband went on when he was a missions pastor.

Along with pictures from the many different countries that they had visited and ultimately lost count of, each page is filled with scriptures and memories of what her and her husband spent 28 years of their lives doing together on the mission field.

Beyond wanting to tell the stories of her infancy and early childhood, West also plans to inspire current families in challenging situations by telling stories of what happened so long ago.

“This is a story about how God prepared a family to live under terrorism of a worst kind,” West said. “So, ‘For such a time as this,’ God can prepare every family for whatever he will take them through. God is still the same as he was 70 years ago.”

West’s pastor’s wife, Kem Jackson, one of other many people who have known her for years, has been richly encouraged by her testimony of the goodness of Christ in her life.

“I don’t think I’ve ever known of anybody to be any more faithful to the Lord than Ilze West. She went to Bible college, and she learned so much from her mother and daddy. But then she’s had her own story. She’s been faithful to the Lord through all the things that they have been through,” Jackson said.