Her Big Band of Siblings Hit the Road, Playing In Europe and the U.S.

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lydia Fetler Hartsock lived most of her adult life in Silver Spring and worked as a high school language teacher. Except for the Russian and German songs she would occasionally sing, few people had any inkling of her dramatic early years, when she hopped from one continent to another, learned half a dozen languages and led a life so exotic that it could be the script for a film.

She was born in New York in 1917 and was the third oldest in a family that grew to include 13 children. When she was 3, her family made a reverse migration and returned to Europe.

Her father, William Fetler, was a charismatic Baptist evangelist who was born in Latvia and studied in England before moving to St. Petersburg, in czarist Russia, where he became, in the words of one of his sons, "the Russian Billy Graham."

His increasing popularity drew the ire of the state-sanctioned Russian Orthodox Church, and in 1914, William Fetler was arrested and forced into exile. After five years in New York and Philadelphia, where he continued his missionary work with displaced Russians, he sailed back to Europe in 1920 -- with four American-born children, including Lydia. The family lived in England and Germany before settling in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1924.

William Fetler built a 2,000-seat church and preached each Sunday to three congregations -- in Latvian, Russian and German. The children attended German schools and picked up Russian, Latvian and English along the way.

"The attitude my mother had was that you just did it -- you adapted and you learned," Lydia's son, John Hartsock, recalled. "The more languages she learned, the easier it became."

All of the children learned to sing and play instruments, and in 1933 they surprised their father with a family concert. Lydia played the trumpet.

When an authoritarian ruler took control of Latvia in 1934, the Fetlers were uprooted again, first to Amsterdam and later to Sweden. The children polished their musical act and progressed from church appearances to full-scale concerts. Their first public performance was in Oslo in 1936.

"My God, that place was crowded full," said Lydia's brother Philip Fetler, a retired Air Force colonel now living in San Antonio. "After the first concert, we were staying up all night, counting money, so that gave us the idea that we could make a living at this."

For the next several years, as William Fetler struggled to make a living from his missionary work, the children supported the family with their music. They roamed Scandinavia and western Europe, becoming something of a Baptist version of the Trapp family singers of "The Sound of Music."

"It's like they made their own universe together," John Hartsock said. "They just hung together like a club."

As the oldest daughter, Lydia became almost a second mother to the younger children.

"We kids were horsing around all the time," Philip Fetler said. "There was turbulence in the family, there were arguments. She was the peacemaker. She was the princess in our family."

Traveling through Switzerland and Germany in their Chevrolet bus, the Fetlers found themselves penniless in Munich on Christmas Eve 1938. The children presented an impromptu concert at a Baptist church and were taken in by German families. They continued to wander in and out of Germany for another six months, blissfully unaware of the menace about to be unleashed on the world.

"Today, I can't imagine how we did it," said Paul Fetler, the fifth child in the family, who is a retired composer and music professor in Sarasota, Fla. "We went into Nazi Germany. We were so casual about everything. We had no idea of the gravity of the situation."

Already an exile of two countries, William Fetler understood it was time for his family to leave Europe altogether. In 1939, they boarded a Polish ship in Copenhagen bound for New York.

The Fetler family band appeared throughout the Southeast, including once at the governor's mansion in Richmond. When Virginia Gov. James H. Price learned that the family's visas were about to expire, he called first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who arranged for the Fetlers to make a quick trip to Canada. A day later, they were readmitted to the United States as refugees.

Between military service and college, the family band broke up for good in 1944. Lydia went to the University of Cincinnati, where she majored in German and met her husband, John Kaus Hartsock. Before she agreed to marry him, he had to learn to sing "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" -- in Russian.

They lived for several years in Colombia, where her husband worked as a geologist, and where Lydia added Spanish to her list of languages. The Hartsocks settled in Silver Spring in 1951 and raised two sons. Lydia worked as a translator and, in 1958, began teaching Russian and German in Montgomery County schools.

She received a master's degree in comparative literature from the University of Maryland in 1970 and continued to teach at High Point and Eleanor Roosevelt high schools in Prince George's County until 1982. Her husband died in 2002.

Lydia enjoyed singing old childhood songs with her sisters, but the family never had a complete reunion after settling in the United States. Nine of the 13 Fetler children are still living.

Lydia Fetler Hartsock was 91 when she died April 22 of pneumonia at Brooke Grove Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Sandy Spring. She enjoyed gardening, painting, writing and caring for pets in her retirement.

The one thing she had no desire to do, her son said, was travel.

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