Riga, Vecaki and Valmiera, Latvia (1944 and before)
It may seem strange for me to say that I feel displaced from sites that I have never inhabited, but I do. My mother’s family came from Riga, dubbed “Little Paris.” My father moved there to attend university and stayed on for years. My mother spent her winters there and her summers in nearby Vecaki, both on the Baltic Sea. Even though I never even saw either place, cosmopolitan cities and sandy beaches have always drawn me the most. And even though my father’s family came from Cesis and I was born only 20 miles away in Valmiera, both in the beautiful Gauja valley, I cannot connect with either as much.
Liepaja, Latvia (1944)
When the Soviet Army made it entirely impossible for us to remain in Valmiera, my family packed my father’s cherry-red sports car and they and I, a newborn, took the 200-mile trip to Liepaja, a western port on the Baltic Sea. When, as a teenager, I teased my father for his conservative driving habits, he reminded me that is was he who had gotten everyone through the machine-gun fire and the burning bogs. When we arrived, we were greeted with the chaos of a city overrun with refugees. Eventually, we were able to board a ship that was big enough to take our car and to survive the shelling of the sea lanes.
The [Not So] Free City of Danzig (1944)
We disembarked at what my parents referred to as “the free port of Danzig,* which, as of 1939, it no longer was since Germany had invaded it on the second day of the war. A German officer told my father that he had to confiscate our car for the war effort. My father asked what earthly use a sports car could be to his war effort and requested the officer’s name. After repeated refusals, the officer blushed and admitted that he was called “Räuber,” meaning “robber.”
Carless, we boarded trains that took us as far west as we could get. My parents had heard that Soviet soldiers were searching refugee camps for Latvians to repatriate, so we stayed well away from them.
Altach, Austria (1944 – 1949)
What made us stop upon reaching Altach I do not know. We found a place to stay in the root cellar of a farmhouse that the farmer helped us outfit with a wood-burning stove. My father found work at a Silveretta hydroelectric dam. I do not know how long he lasted there, but after he fell the equivalent of several stories and landed on a ledge, he decided that was not for him. Instead, he started studying law at the University of Innsbruck. My mother taught herself stenography and eventually found work as the personal assistant to a successful businessman who was very kind to our entire family.
I could have grown up in one of the loveliest places on Earth were it not for the wholesale collapse of institutions in post-war Europe. (I did not fully comprehend how bad it was until Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II was published in 2012). Our best bet was Brazil, so we prepared for that accordingly.
Alberschwende, Austria (1949)
So that we could be processed for emigration as refugees, we relocated to the DP camp in Alberschwende in the French Zone of Allied occupation. Unlike us, most of the others who were living there had been residents ever since they had fled some five years ago.
Our prospects improved when we obtained sponsors for emigration to the United States, an older Lutheran minister and his wife who wanted to start a horse farm on their current property that they could enjoy in their retirement years. This had been made possible by the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which clearly specified that:
. . . assurances in accordance with the regulations of the Commission have been given that such person, if admitted into the United States, will be suitably employed without displacing some other person from employment and that such person, and the members of such person’s family who shall accompany such person and who propose to live with such person, shall not become public charges and will have safe and sanitary housing without displacing some other person from such housing.
It gave first priority to “people who previously engaged in agricultural pursuits and who will be employed in the United States in agricultural pursuits,” so my father was identified as such even though he had not done any farm work since he had left his parents’ place.
Bremerhaven, Germany (1949)
We crossed the Atlantic Ocean in converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane. Almost everyone other than my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. We were processed at Ellis Island, after which we undertook a 730-mile train trip to Michigan. My mother burst into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings.
Lowell and Grand Rapids, Michigan (1949-1962)
Even though our sponsor headed a large church in Grand Rapids, the only charity that we saw in Lowell came from parishioners. (We later learned that the pastor and his wife had kept many donated items for themselves.) The pastor and his wife considered the cramped, unheated space above their garage to be suitable living quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child. And had no problem putting my parents right to work seven days a week to pay off the expenses that they had incurred in bringing us to America. Until we did, we were bound to them like indentured servants.
Fortunately, other Latvian DPs lived in the area. As documented in Silvija D. Meija’s Latvians in Michigan, more than 5000 Latvians came to the state after World War II and formed large communities in Kalamazoo, Detroit and Grand Rapids. My father also connected with his countrymen through his academic fraternity Patria. I attended the despised “Saturday School” and participated in other Latvian activities. It was not until I was writing of this piece that I realized that Latvians must have seemed as strange as Americans to me.
For my first five years, I had been sequestered in the Austrian Alps. The only person outside of the farm where we lived that I recall encountering regularly was Arme Frau (Poor Woman), who supplied us with goat’s milk. While I spoke Latvian at home, I rarely came across other Latvians, certainly not entire communities, unlike the other kids in Grand Rapids, who had developed close ties in the DP camps.
Mostly, I found the Latvians interacting with my parents to be fascinating. They loved to eat and drink, sing and dance. And they could tell the most remarkable jokes and stories. But, as Ieva Zake notes in her 2010 book American Latvians: Politics of a Refugee Community:
. . . Latvians in American represented a selective stratum of inter-war Latvian society—mainly upper and middle classes with a very high proportion of politicians, public figures and intellectuals among them . . . These exiles had strong opinions and were used to expressing themselves.
The older I got, the more I found myself at cross-purposes with a number of Latvians that I encountered. As Zake astutely observes:
. . . This “correct behavior” set very strict regulations on how an exile Latvian was supposed to act and think to demonstrate their true Latvianness. Consequently, for many of the younger émigrés, the bigger problem was not being accepted by the Americans, but being able to live up to the norms and strictures of the Latvian exile community.
I knew I was not like Americans. But I was not like Latvians, either.