Past Pandemics: Did the Spanish Flu Kill Young Gabriele?

The Corona Virus, or COVID 19 as we are being told to call it, is everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean reports of it are on every news channel and social media site. It is now officially a pandemic. Contagious by nature, the fear of it is contagious enough with multitudes of articles on its extent, its deadliness, what to do to prevent it and what to do if you come down with it. Oh, and toilet paper. For some reason toilet paper features strongly in news about this respiratory illness. If only I had had the foresight to buy shares in the toilet paper manufacturing industries!

Perhaps it was the escalation of COVID 19 to pandemic level that got me thinking about the death of young Gabriele, one of my father’s older sisters. I have always wondered what killed her. Born on 8 March 1915, she died on 23 May 1919 in Riga, Latvia at just over four years of age and nearly six months before my father was born. Latvia at the time was a boiling pot of unrest, with the Great War having ended the year before, the Latvian War of Independence being fought, and the Russian Civil War raging not far away. In 1919, presumably after Gabriele died – although I have been unable to ascertain the exact date – my father’s family fled to Germany where my father was born.

I have often wondered what killed Gabriele (pictured above with her older sister Sigrid – Gabriele is on the left ) – was it injury or illness? The family at the time were living at Nurmhusen, their estate near Talsi, around 120km from Riga. Yet it is recorded that Gabriele died in Riga. I can only assume that she was so sick, or badly injured, that she had to be taken to a hospital and perhaps the closest hospital at the time was in Riga. Or maybe the family were visiting friends or relations in Riga when Gabriele succumbed.

Between 1918 and 1920 the world was devastated with an outbreak of influenza which was, in some parts of the world, called the Spanish Flu. The death toll from this pandemic has been recorded as somewhere between 20 – 50 million people across the globe, with the mortality rate estimated at anywhere between 10% – 20%. My search for any mention of this disease in Latvia confirmed that Riga was not spared from this disease with around 600 people dying, although I can find no information about flu in the area around Talsi. Granted the majority of people who died from Spanish Flu were more likely to be young adults but that is not to say children could not have been affected.

However, at the same time as influenza struck, typhoid fever, which thrives in areas of poor sanitation, crowding and social chaos, was becoming an epidemic in Riga, as was smallpox. Could one of these diseases have reached the Talsi region and infected young Gabriele?

I have so far been unable to find a death certificate for Gabriele, nor do I know where she was buried. Perhaps if I can discover the whereabouts of either, I will find out what killed her.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Elise McCune

    Such a poignant post, Alex. I have always been interested
    in the years of the First World War and the flu pandemic that
    followed it. Gabriele was a lovely little girl.

    1. Alex

      Thank you Elise! She was lovely.

  2. Kirsten

    Dieses Photo kenne ich gar nicht ! Kirsten

    1. Alex

      Ich habe es von Dieter bekommen. Es ist ein Foto von einem Foto!

  3. Uschi

    Dear Alex, it is very very exciting whatsup and how you write. I van remember that my mother once told us that g. Died on smallpox

    1. Alex

      Dear Uschi, that is very interesting to know! Thank you! I have always wondered.

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