Private Parts

Me in my standoffish mode, sitting on a dock at Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, Michigan during the early Fifties. (Photo: my mother, Elsa Jurgis)

The most fun I ever had with my mother occurred after she came to live with me in Maryland following my father’s death. We often did silly stuff. Sometimes I made up songs or modified existing ones to suit the situation. (Neither of us could carry a tune, so it worked out well.) In my car, I would sing “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” each time she said something like, “Keep you mind on your driving, keep your hands on the wheel / Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead.” Once I got to “Kissin’ and a huggin’ with Fred,” I tickled her stomach. “Don’t touch my private parts,” she said. “What are your private parts?” I asked. “All my parts are private parts,” she said.

I recently related this anecdote to my niece, Mara Miske, who found me a few years ago through this site. Although we had never met and she was decades younger, our connection was immediate. And, much as we insisted that we were not real Latvians, both her parents and I were that by birth and it accounted for much of our natural rapport. And why it was harder to achieve with those who had negligible ties to our native land. The latter became abundantly clear while she was coaching me on how to approach the middle-aged man who likely was the baby that 21-year-old me gave up for adoption at birth and whom Mara had located  through DNA data posted on the My Heritage site. Being the more maternal of the two of us, she said, “Give him the warm-and-fuzzies he needs.” After which we laughed, knowing that most Latvians are simply not wired that way.

Not that Latvians are cold, although I have certainly heard that said. And read about a study–led by a researcher from Michigan State University, of all places–that ranks Latvia and other Baltic States near the bottom on  empathy. Rather, it seems to be hard to find the right word. One that gets the point across without being perjorative is”self-contained,” which is defined as “quiet and independent; not depending on or influenced by others.”  Another is “introverted.”  Some liked that one so much it became the basis of a long-running, award-winning campaign–#IAMINTROVERT–to promote Latvian literature. (Never mind that it was launched at the 2018 London Book Fair, where the market focus was on the Baltic states, including Latvia, and where the large crowds and absolute unavoidability of social interaction must have made it an introvert’s worst nightmare.)

While the campaign gently pokes fun at what could be considered a national trait, it also highlights some positive aspects. Namely, that there is a link between a preference for solitude and creativity.  In one article, Anete Konste, a humorist integral to the campaign’s success, notes that introversion is prevalent among authors, artists and architects as well as others working in creative fields. The  piece goes on to state that psychologists have suggested that creativity is an important part of  Latvian self-identity and, as such, a priority in the government’s educational and economic development plans. The European Commission has thus reported that Latvia has one of the highest shares of the creative labor market in the European Union.

How Latvians got that way, of course, is anyone’s guess. If pressed, I would say that it started with some particularly brutal forms of natural selection: the wars, occupations and displacements that have plagued the Baltic region throughout history. The introverts–or, as I prefer, the self-contained–kept their heads down and their emotions in check, trusting only themselves. Thus, while my maternal grandfather was murdered by a paramilitary mob during the Russian Revolution for defending his factory (see “The Face-of Extremism”), my maternal grandmother, pregnant with my uncle, quietly took my two-year-old mother back to Riga, sold sausages on the street until she turned herself into a successful business woman and–two world wars later–died in a hospital bed in America at age 90. A lesson my mother, who played her cards close to her chest, learned very well.

The trick is getting others to understand. Both the horrors that you have encountered and the damage they have done. My mother’s solution was to not even try. Her experience was so far removed from that of her American acquaintances that she let them believe what they wanted. Which, once she arrived here in Maryland, was that she was a cute old lady from somewhere they could not quite place. Every morning for years she–legally blind and crippled by arthritis–and her English Springer Spaniel walked the steep, winding loop that took her to her beloved Trolley Trail and back again. I feared for her safety, especially after the dog died, but refused to leave her staring at walls while I went to work in DC. Somehow, she always attracted a crowd. And, inevitably, someone would say, “You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” And my mother would say with a smile that only a few would see as anything but sweet, “Michigan!”

I emulated my mother until I was17 or so. Then, while having a hard time writing a paper on “The Waste Land,” I downed most of a bottle of vodka, lost consciousness in a pool of vomit and was taken by ambulance to an emergency room in the dark during a blinding snowstorm. (See“Winter Wonderland.”) Perhaps binge drinking–so common in Latvian social circles when I was growing up–is as instrumental as solitude in turning introverts into creatives. All I know is that after the ranting and raving I did alone in my second-story room while falling-down drunk, I found my own voice. And, decades later, after I retired and my mother died, the time to devote to writing essays and stories and novels and, eventually, the development of this site. I truly believed that if I could find the right words to string together, the world would come to understand me. Even my long-lost son would, once I gave him his family history. (See “Why I Write.”)

Whether my communication style made me better understood than my mother is up for debate. Particularly when it comes to inferring my feelings. Take the case of the  man who might be my son. (The qualification only means that a definitive maternity test conducted by a certified medical laboratory has yet to be done.) Before Mara could school me on warm-and-fuzzies, I had inundated the poor guy with data designed to quickly fill the gap left by my decades-long absence. Posts and pages from this site, published and unpublished works and material that I generated just for him. How was that to be taken? How would you know without being told that the poem about loneliness and the sea written by the the cartoon character of an introverted Latvian below started as an attempt to write a love letter?

NOTE: To read more about my own self-contained writing style, see “A Formal Feeling Comes.” And for more on one of my minor contributions to Latvian literature, see “A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small.”

 

The #IAMINTROVERT campaign team at the 2018 London Book Fair.
One of a series of cartoons created by writer Anete Konste and artist Reinis Pētersons.

Ethel Street

Me (center) at Ethel Street in Grand Rapids, MI, surrounded by my father (left), his sister (right) and her husband and son (rear). And some lilacs.

Ethel Street was a quiet street with tall trees, spaceous houses and shiny sedans parked along both curbs. It was actually an avenue, but we never call it that. It started at Wealthy Street, on the edge of a thriving business district, and opened to an alley where trucks rumble in and out. It ended some nine blocks south at Pontiac Drive, where the regular grid of Grand Rapids dissolved into the sort of sinuous streets I would learn to associate with abundance and ease.

I was not much more than five years old, then six going on seven. It was the start of the Fifties. My father and mother and her mother—Oma, as we called her—were with me. One of my father’s sisters and her husband and teenaged son were often there, too. We were Displaced Persons—DPs, as people called us—relocated from Latvia.

We lived in a west-facing wooden house of nondescript color that sometimes looked like sunset. It was separated from the sidewalk by a small patch of lawn. Unruly spirea branches pushed clusters of tiny white flowers through the rails of the front porch. A multi-car garage took up most of the rear area, and the space from there to the back porch was primarily paved. Whatever yard was situated to the south was obscured by a colossal row of lilacs spreading purplish scent.

I loved the lilacs, but also the snow. My mother sent my father and me outside with shovels. We laughed as we cleared a gray path to the street. Waging war on something so wonderfully white and sparkly seemed silly to us. Once we stopped to make a snowman.

We rented the entire first floor; someone I seldom saw lived on the floor above us. He must have used the exterior stairs by the alley.

Ethel Street was not the first place we stayed in the States. That was an unheated space above a garage in Lowell. It belonged to our sponsor, a Lutheran minister with a considerable congregation in Grand Rapids. He wanted my father to turn fallow fields into a functioning horse farm and my mother to scrub toilets in exchange for saving us from being shipped to São Paulo to work on some sort of farm there.

Unfortunately, he foolishly pinned his hopes on my father, who was not sufficiently farsighted to study agriculture. Instead, he selected a theology and philosophy curriculum at the University of Latvia in the capital city of Riga, where there were horses but, sadly, no farms.

My father, therefore, slogged 26 miles on foot through thick snow to reach Grand Rapids. He found a job as a finisher in a furniture factory on Godfrey Avenue and a warm place for us across town on Ethel Street. My mother then found a position doing piecework in a factory producing brass fittings, just down the street from my father.

My mother and father took the bus to Godfrey Avenue. Otherwise, they stayed close to Ethel Street. Everything we needed was there.

Saturday mornings we walked across the alley to where a bakery—what could be better?—was situated. My parents bought loaves of bread, which where never quite as crusty as we wanted, then asked the clerk to add cream horns or éclairs. The ones that were sure to shoot powdered sugar up my nose or streak chocolate on my cheeks.

Sometimes I set out with only my mother, turning right on Wealthy. We entered the dark recesses of Doepping’s Dry Goods, where she hurried me past bolts of deep blue dotted Swiss and ice-cream-colored organdies to bins where strips of white cotton eyelet were stored. Which she stitched to the bottom of a white cotton dress strewn with strawberries to keep me covered as my legs lengthened.

Other times I set out with just my father, particularly when Oma was out of insulin. We ended up in the back of Peterson’s Drugs, where revolving racks brimed with paperback books. I laughed at the logos on the spines: kangaroos, penguins, and roosters. Then pulled a serious face to help him select weekend reading. I later learned the lurid covers concealed works by writers such as Somerset Maugham.

From Peterson’s, I was well on my way to the center of the world. Three streets came together to form a wide-open intersection that required someone on each side holding my hand before I considered stepping off the curb. Norwood Avenue ran into Wealthy as Lake Drive sliced through on a slant. Our first bank was there, and Eberhard’s Super Market—the most modern in town—stood just beyond. 

Turning left from Ethel to Wealthy, there was a posh dress shop. We never went inside but liked looking at the mannequins through the plate-glass windows and dreaming of the day we could. When my mother needed a new gown for function my father’s exiled fraternity arranged, we took a bus to the Salvation Army store on Sheldon Boulevard and returned with something she managed to transform.

Further west was the Wealthy Theater. The first time my parents bought tickets, someone misunderstood. The futuristic fantasy we expected was way too realistic for me. Mounting cabin pressure forced blood from the spaceman’s eyes, cracked open his skull and smashed his ship to smithereens. The next time, we saw Cinderella. I liked it so much my parents bought me the pop-up picture book.

While I usually ventured out from Ethel Street accompanied by my parents, there were a few places where it was only Oma and me.

One was the alley. My parents always shopped at Eberhard’s on a strict schedule, organized around the days that they got paid. Oma and I, on the other hand, made our way to the rear of Pastoor’s Food Market whenever we pleased. We rummaged around in the wooden crates ready to be hauled away, making obligatory statements about wasteful Americans. Then lugged home cabbages—perfectly good once we pulled off the outer leaves—or even some lovely tangerines.

Another was school and several associated sites. All we had to do was turn left on Ethel and right on Sigsbee, then walk a few blocks and there was Sigsbee Park Elementary School. My first few days as both a new kindergartener and a foreigner who spoke no  English were predictably scary. Particularly the one when everyone left and no one seemed to remember to pick me up. But then I made some friends and learned what to say and somehow became much braver.

My friend Marsha’s house was located on Sigsbee Street between home and school. Her mother was an accomplished housewife and always ready to welcome me with special treats. Oma helped me buy and wrap a present to take there for my first American birthday party. She washed and braided my hair, buttoned my claret-colored silk dress and bundled me up so I would not catch cold. Wearing her elegant black coat with the karakul collar, she walked me both ways.

I added another stop once I reached first grade. Mrs. Engleman, my silver-haired teacher, invited me to her house after school. Since she lived right on Ethel Street, just a block or so past Sigsbee, I was permitted to visit her. I loved her sunroom, which was full of hanging plants, crystal figurines and cages of canaries. She encouraged me to always excel, and I became the star of her weekly spelling bees.

Then my parents brought home a brand-new Ford sedan, and everything changed. Summers, it took us to see sailboats on Reeds Lake, monkeys and snakes at the John Ball Park Zoo and picnickers in Johson Park. Winters, it took us to see Christmas displays in Herpolsheimer’s and Wurzburg’s windows. And my aunt’s house whenever we wanted. It also took my parents to a duplex on Worden Street. In a part of town I had never been with a school I had never seen. And bought it without bothering to ask me whether I wanted to move.

Which was when I knew that I was doomed to remain a displaced person all my life. I had been displaced from Latvia, Austria and Germany. And finally, I was displaced from my beloved Ethel Street.

Three states and thirty some streets later, I bought a historic millworker’s house on Oella Avenue.  Some years after that, my widowed mother moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me there. With her came boxes of diverse documents, which I tried to organize as I found time. Some were pieces of the past that only a mother might want to keep. One was a letter from Mrs. Engleman:

Ilse is a well-developed little girl and shows much happiness in being in school. She has developed a great deal in the first grade.
            Ilse displays much enjoyment in her ability to read. She reads with expression and understands what she is reading. Ilse does all her work well and puts forth her efforts to please you.
            Ilse is loved by all the children. She wants everyone to be thoughtful of others. This has been taught her through love and respect for her Grandmother.
            I have loved Ilse, as she is so appreciative of all we do in school. She shows much originality and artistic ability and is very careful and neat in doing her work.
            Ilse will be promoted to second grade. She has been an excellent little girl and I shall miss her not being in my room.

I left my second-floor study and went down to the kitchen, where my mother—then ninety—was stirring a large pot of frikadeļu soup.

“Of all the places that I’ve lived,” I said, “Ethel Street was the one where I felt truly happy. Perhaps it was the only place.”

Ethel Street?” she said. “That was where that horrid man upstairs let that poor dog of his howl day and night. I was never happier than the day we moved away from there for good.”

NOTE: I posted my last piece over a year ago, a few weeks before the start of the pandemic state of emergency in Maryland (30 March 2020). It was not so much that I nothing left to say as it was that too much was swirling around in my brain. And this piece, moreover, is merely an abridged version of something I wrote for a workshop at The Writer’s Center decades ago. We were asked to model our writing on a short story we liked. I chose James Joyce’s “Araby,” particularly for the beginning and the end. While his was fiction, mine was fact. Though I was always aware, as I wrote in “Fact or Fiction?,” that the distinction between the two is blurry at best.

 

Oma and me on our way to Marsha’s birthday party.

 

The Face of Extremism

The Red Guard at the Vulkan factory in Petrograd. (Photo: Viktor Bulla)

I have trouble making small talk. I set out to offer some trite remark about the weather but end up blurting something about my grandfather being executed by firing squad in Ukraine. A reliable conversation-killer in many American circles, which is one reason why I set up this site. Now, when I want to share socially awkward ancestral stuff, there is some chance that someone might actually want to respond. Which is what Emma Hardy did after reading my previous post. And, remarkably, revealed similarities that reached beyond Ukraine to an obscure town in the Austrian Alps. But let me start with Ukraine since our president, Donald Trump, has recently put it on the map.

One meaning of “Ukraine” is “borderland,” and boundaries were shifting at the beginning of the 20th Century. When my grandfather, Teodors Johansons, arrived in Kharkiv, it was the administrative center of a Russian district established by Empress Catherine the Great and a major industrial and cultural presence. It was also where the idea of an independent Ukraine was first proclaimed. Teodors had started out in Sweden and traveled the world as an engineer building bridges. He had married Elizabete Zeltiņs in Rīga, then also part of the Russian Empire and making nationalistic rumblings. Elizabete had given birth to my mother Elza in 1915, so he had come to Kharkiv with them, part of the wave of Latvian migration around the turn of the century. His job was running a chemical factory. At home, from the little that I know, there was love and laughter. Teodors and Elizabete had a penchant for pranks, tossing pickled herring from their flat into hoods of passersby below bundled up for the winter.

Revolt against the Russian Empire started in 1917 with the February Revolution in the capital city of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) and the formation of the Russian Provisional Government, dominated by wealthy capitalists and the aristocracy. Community assemblies called “Soviets,” dominated by soldiers and the industrial working class, permitted the provisional government to rule but insisted on the right to influence the government and control the various militias. This was not a stable situation and collapsed with the October Revolution, a Bolshevik-led armed insurrection by workers and soldiers in Petrograd that overthrew the provisional government and transferred all authority to the Soviets. In December, Kharkiv was invaded by Red Guard forces and a Soviet Ukraine was established. This was around the time when Teodors—as I had always envisioned it—was led out to the courtyard of his factory and, despite repeated attempts at reasoning with the militia unit leader—the revolution desperately needed factories and educated people like him to run them and so on—was executed by a formal firing squad while Elizabete, then pregnant with her son Gvido, and two-year-old Elza were allowed to return to Rīga with suitcases full of worthless rubles.

It was only after receiving Emma’s response that I did some reading on Teodors’ executioners, most likely the Red Guard. I learned that enlistment was voluntary and only required recommendations from Soviets, Bolshevik party units or the like. Unit composition and organization varied greatly, and military training was often conducted while workers were still employed at their plants. And the units, while successful in local conflicts, could not prevail against more formidable adversaries like the White Army. But I did not consider the possibility that my grandfather had, more likely, been brutally murdered by a lawless mob until I came across a photograph of a Red Guard unit and shared it with Emma. The horror that I felt was confirmed by her response: “Lots of words came to me as I looked at red guard pic, all words profane. Omg, what a photo. Such intense anger in those faces. And the weapons! How oddly juxtaposed against his angry face is the jaunty straw hat worn by one of the men, 2nd row center. Renoir could have painted such a hat but certainly without the diabolical face below it (painting is my hobby hence this random thought on straw hats). The whole picture BEGS caution against extremes, ideological and political. I mean, it really blew me away.”

Emma’s mother was born and raised in Nikolayev, a village some 50 miles north of Odessa, currently Ukraine’s third most populous city. In 1928 or so, Emma’s maternal grandfather was taken from their home without warning. Not long thereafter, his wife was summoned to an official place to collect her husband’s shoes. “Being given his shoes meant he had been executed,” Emma explained. “That was how the Soviets communicated such things.” Which is why Emma understood about my maternal grandfather the way that others cannot. And why we are worried about what is happening today. After decades of oppression, both Latvians and Ukrainians threw off the Soviet yoke. But post-Soviet Russia is threatening those nations again. And many Americans, perhaps because they share a far more benign history, have not yet learned to recognize—much less fear—the face of extremism increasingly evident at home and abroad.

But, hey, what wonderful weather we’re having! Here I am in Maryland at the start of March, and we’ve barely had any snow all winter.

Steering Clear of Camps

Little me in Altach, Austria, far from any displaced persons camp.

I like it when readers contact me. Particularly those who know how to put what I have written to good use. So I was delighted when I received a message from Celia Schiller, which included some requests:

. . . I am a first year IRPH (International Relations: Politics and History) student at Jacobs University Bremen, which was the former Camp Grohn. I am currently enrolled in a course where we discover the history of the campus and, as a final project, create an exhibition on Camp Grohn and the situation of the DPs that lived there. This is why I did quite some research on this topic and fortunately found your contact information. Would it be possible for you to give me a little bit more information on how you perceived the life at Camp Grohn and maybe describe how it influenced you in the years after? If you have anything else to share, I would really welcome that . . .

Much as I wanted to support Celia’s effort, I had to admit that I knew almost nothing about Camp Grohn. Or any of the hundreds of other DP camps set up in sectors of Germany, Austria and Italy controlled by the United States, Britain or France—three of the victorious Allied Powers—in the aftermath of World War II. And that I might even be the only one alive that I know from my native Latvia who could make such a claim. You see, my father, mother and maternal grandmother—together with one-month-old me—at some point separated from the masses fleeing the advancing Soviet Army and simply kept going. Once we reached the Austria-Swiss border, we rented a root cellar from a farmer and spent four or so years living amid the breathtaking beauty of the Alps. My mother found a good job, so we lived well compared to those warehoused in the camps. And avoided the constant fear of forced repatriation to our then Soviet-occupied homeland. Why more did not dare to go it alone I never understood.

Eventually, we had to reside in a DP camp, but only in order to emigrate. We first went to one nearby in Alberschwende. It was in the French Zone, and my mother, who had long been a francophile, was able to persuade the commander to let her leave each day to go to work. From Alberschwende, we transferred to the International Staging Area at Camp Grohn in Bremen, Germany. It was there, I believe, that we received permission to permanently resettle in Lowell, Michigan, not São Paulo, Brazil, as previously planned. Which was monumental for my family, but not, apparently, for me. The way I describe it in “Welcome to America,” all I did was rail at arbitrary rules:

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any little girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible on my passport photo or I could not emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know precisely how I felt about that.

Or so I was told. The first thing that I can say for sure that I remembered on my own was merely a strange sensation: the way that my first dental filling felt—metallic and clunky—when biting through a sandwich made of a fried egg and two slices of squishy white bread.

But Celia needed something more substantial than Wonder Bread. Particularly when it came to understanding how DP camps might have influenced my later life. While there is no doubt that war and displacement affected me in profound and enduring ways, I cannot make a single connection to anything that occurred in the camps. Not like my contemporaries clearly could. The late publisher and author Juris Jurjevics, for instance, was able to state in an interview:

I think my familiarity with the aftermath of war made me a sympathetic and good observer when I got to the highlands of Viet Nam. It really felt like I had made that scene before. A war-torn society felt completely familiar, as if it were in my DNA. Despite the cultural differences, I thought I knew what the locals were going through, caught between warring factions. There weren’t any surprises as there seemed to be for my buddies. Where I had been the kid pestering American GIs for gum and comic books, now I was the American GI being cajoled to “souvenir” waifs with cigarettes and C-ration chocolate. One day I took a picture of a Eurasian seven-year-old at the wheel of a jeep. It was me eighteen years earlier in a gutted jeep in Germany.

Only after I had set aside the preliminary material I sent Celia did I come to see—for the first time in my life—that not spending substantial time in the camps might well have informed everything, from how I interacted with peers to how I viewed my place in the world.

In the case of the former, I had clearly skipped some stages of social development, having spent my early years mainly in the company of adults, and not that many of those. How ill-prepared I was is illustrated by a story that my father liked to tell, always while smiling and shaking his head. Shortly after arriving at my first DP camp, I came upon a large group of teenaged boys hardened by the harsh conditions they had endured. Appalled that they were drinking rainwater from abandoned tar barrels, four-year-old me marched up to them and, without hesitation, schooled them on subjects such as sanitation. Lucky for me, all that they had time to do was laugh before my father came to my rescue. Over the subsequent years, I never lost that sense of standing apart, of never being able to fully embrace whatever it was that others so easily—so mindlessly—could share.

But camps did more than socialize children; they also strengthened a nascent national identity. At the time we fled, you see, Latvia had only existed as a nation for about a quarter of a century, and the Latvian National Awakening had only begun about a century before. My mother had been educated in German schools, and while my father did attend the University of Latvia, it was only established about a decade after his birth. However, the educated elite were disproportionately represented in the DP population. Instead of falling into despair at the conditions encountered in the camps, some set about re-creating the cultural institutions that they had left behind. Soon there were Latvian churches and schools and athletic teams. Even newspapers and orchestras and theater groups. As historian Laura J. Hilton states, this “provided them with a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, preserving their idealized conception of who they were.” A sense of belonging and purpose that I never got the chance to gain. Which is just as well since “idealized” is the operative term. 

As Juris recalled, camp was no place for anyone, much less a child:

Knowing nothing else, it seemed perfectly normal to grow up in refugee camps in postwar Germany. What was it like? Creepy. Tense. Menacing. We were malnourished and constantly hungry and often shared quarters with other families, making dividing walls out of blankets hung on strings. I remember two families—ten adults—sharing two rooms and the embarrassment of a chamber pot for a toilet. I must have been two and a half. My sister, four years older, remembers a mass of people jumping from windows to their deaths after some announcement over the public address system. My guess is that they may have just been informed of their forced repatriation to the Soviet Union . . . The adult world seemed uptight and threatening. I was probably never fully comfortable in it again, truth be told. Deprivation was humiliating. It didn’t bring out the best in people. A Latvian pediatrician refused to go to the aid of a sick child whose parents were in dire straits and had nothing to barter for his help. Leaders pushed to the front of immigration quota queues.

Also, the nationalism evident there was cause for concern to some:

. . . the Allies had hoped that One World would emerge from the war, a world where victors and vanquished alike declare their solidarity in Humanity. But as occupation authorities tried to further these ends, they discovered that many of the DPs were stateless only according to diplomatic labels: these refugees revealed a tenacious attachment to their ethnic identity. The issue was faced by an American Quaker in Germany working with DPs, who wrote that he was concerned over “the growth of nationalism among them at a time when the world at large is suffering from too much nationalism.”

Ironically, the Allies themselves, or the American-dominated United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, might have fostered this. Europe had never seen such an onslaught of refugees, and no one knew what to do. The hope was that those displaced would go home once the war was over. However, some, particularly Poles and Latvians, saw themselves as being “unrepatriable.” According to Hilton, reasons ranged from “fears of political or religious persecution to uncertainty about economic stability and outright refutation of Soviet-dominated governments.” Thus, administrators had some cynical reasons to give DPs a free hand, even encourage them. (See Arta Ankrava’s doctoral dissertation, From Displaced Persons to Exiles.) If they could be made to miss their homeland enough, they might set aside rational reasons not to return. If so, even the most selfless DP leaders might have inadvertently served as stooges.

Both the bonds and the attitudes carried over to the Latvian American communities that I encountered once my family and I were re-settled Michigan. Although I attended Latvian Saturday school longer than I care to recall and participated a range of other Latvian activities, I continued to feel like an outsider. Try as I might, I was still that new arrival by the tar barrels, passing judgement on kids who acted like they had never left Latvia. Yes, I always seemed to be saying, Latvia is a lovely land, but there are plenty of beautiful places in world. Yes, Latvians suffered unimaginable atrocities at the hands of the Soviets, but so did countless other people. Also at the hands of that other invader, Nazi Germany, which Lutheran Latvians, at least, like to forget. And no, the current refugee crisis, is no less devastating than the one we and our families experienced. And no, the current refugees do not deserve any less help than we were once given. And—for God’s sake—NO, your vote for a president who puts America first and acts like he is Vladimir Putin’s puppet is not the way to safeguard the sovereignty of a small nation about the size of West Virginia situated on Russia’s western border. It will merely fan the flames of neo-nationalism that are increasingly evident everywhere.

I cannot say for certain that I would have turned out differently had I been forced to spend my formative years in DP camps. After all, Juris was and he sounded a lot like me. But I will encourage Celia to consider the likely link between conditions in refugee camps and identify politics if she remains part of the project. Surely the concentration of so many people who have experienced such traumatic loss and displacement and have then been forced to endure such deprivation are more likely than most to display some degree of radicalization. Studies such as the one conducted in the Middle East during the current crisis by University of Maryland researchers for the US Department of Homeland Security certainly show that refugees living within the confines of camps are more prone to hold extreme beliefs than refugees living outside of them. Regardless, I see it as a good sign that a former DP camp—the unfortunate result of rampant nationalism— is now the site of an institution of higher learning that actively embraces internationalism, with students coming from 110 countries and exchange programs in 26 nations.

Note: The planned exhibition, Military Base, Displaced Persons’ Camp, University—Exploring the Past at Jacobs, based on research conducted by students of Jacobs University Bremen under the guidance of historian Rüdiger Ritter, seeks your support. For more on the area, see “Bremerhaven Today,” prepared by Amanda Lauer for this site (Displaced Person.)

 

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ILSE MUNRO

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