All posts by Ilse Munro

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, then the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and the prose editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel Anna Noon is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house on Maryland's Patapsco River. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.

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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Are We Better Than This?

People waving to a train carrying 1500 persons expelled from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Suddently everyone seemed to be saying it. Often in reference to the current presidency and its supporters. My congressman, Elijah Cummings, said it to Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s“fixer,” after testifying to the oversight committee that Cummings chairs:

As I sat here and listened to both sides, I felt as if we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this. I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.

While Cummings was praised for his remarks, I wondered whether he, like me, recalled watching—both of us barely old enough to vote—John Dean’s televised testimony on the abuse of power by another president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1973 under the threat of impeachment. No doubt he had since he referred to Dean in calling for Cohen to appesr. Which meant that he knew as well as I did that there was at least one “watershed moment” in the relatively recent past when we were not much better than than we are today.

Something similar occurred when Senator Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign in California. “America, we are better than this,” she said, citing a slew of current problems. She repeated it in a message aimed at immigrants after Trump threatened mass deportation raids. As an immigrant myself, I wondered whether she knew that we illegally deported 600,000 US citizens in the 1930s because they had Mexican ancestry or simply had Mexican-sounding names. Families were separated and far worse. “In Los Angeles,” Professor Francisco Balderrama states, “they had orderlies who gathered people [in the hospitals] and put them in stretchers on trucks and left them at the border.” Moreover, as an undergraduate who faced the impossible choice of a dangerous, illegal abortion—some five years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade—and giving up her newborn for adoption—there was no respectable way to be what we now call a “single mother“—I wondered whether she had ever heard of the Jane Collective, which existed between 1969 and 1973 and taught ordinary women how to perform surgical abortions. An estimated 11,000, mostly for low-income women and women of color And, finally, as someone who lived in Boston during the violence of the school bussing crisis of the Seventies, I wondered whether she was too young to remember what that was like. Turns out, at least for this, she was not. And passionately said so to former Vice President Joe Biden during last week’s first televised Democratic debate.

While I respect Harris, there is also something to be said for a statement made by a less quslified debate participant, author Marianne Willioamson. “He [Trump] didn’t win by having a plan,” she claimed. “He just said, ‘Make America great again.’ ” I am convinced  that coming across as a policy wonk rather than an inspirational leader was a serious obstacle for the previous Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. And that this could trip up Senator Elizabeth—”I have a plan for that”—Warrenin the 2020 election. To the extent that congressional incumbents such as Cummings and presidential hopefuls such as Harris use “better than this” in an purely aspirational sense, they could have a winning way to connect with constituents. But it could also sound too much like Trump’s mantra, positing an idealized past that never existed. When I wrote “It wasn’t Always Like This” in response to the Parkland school shooting, I never meant that we were somehow better in the Fifties, simply that the civilian-use semi-automatic AR-15 was not yet for sale. At some point, even inspirational leaders need to produce plans. Addressing those times when we, as a nation, were not one bit better seems like a good place to start.

 

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My Many Names

Ibsen’s  controversial character “Nora,” first seen in the 1879 production of A Doll’s House, remains relevant today.  (Photo: Old Globe Theater)

There was a time when I had two birthdays, one in the winter and another in the summer. The winter one was a Latvian nameday, but that didn’t matter to me since it was celebrated the same way, with presents and a cake. The American kids that I met had never heard of such a thing. Nor had they heard of my name. Originally “Ilze,” it had been changed to “Ilse” by the time that my parents and I became naturalized citizens of the United States. I sort of liked it since it was a variant of “Elizabete,” which was my maternal grandmother’s name. And Oma more or less raised me since my mother worked a lot. What I didn’t like was that my mother was called “Elza,” which she changed to “Elsa.” Americans pronounced my name like her’s and assumed that we had the same name. What I liked even less was having my name pronounced “Elsie.” That belonged to the Borden Dairy Company’s mascot, and my classmates got a kick out of calling me “Elsie the Borden Cow.” Even though I wasn’t the least bit bovine.

Fortunately, my mortifying moniker was dropped well before I took my seat at the cool kids’ table. Still I never lost the feeling that meeting people for the first time involves unpleasantness. Particularly when my name is read, not heard. It doesn’t help that the first two letters–“Il”–look similar. So I try to cut those calling me “Ise” or “Lse” some slack. I even avoid correcting those who haven’t a clue how to pronounce a short “e” at the end of a word. After all, they consistently screw up “Porsche.” But I draw the line at people with no sign of a reading disorder turning dyslexic at the sight of my name. Surely they can see that I don’t resemble a tract of land surrounded by water, which is what “Isle” means. So when those types then ask how my name should be pronounced, I say, “Pretty much how it’s spelled.” And to those who then exclaim, “What an unusual name!” I respond, “Not really.” At last count, “Ilze” was the only given name of some 12,226 females in little Latvia alone. And there are the countless others called “Ilse” in the rest of Europe and beyond. As well as several rivers, an asteroid and a plant. But no islands, as far as I can tell.

Choosing a research career made me more apprehensive. Somehow, I kept coming across data that showed that strange names put people at a disadvantage. As far back as 1948, a Harvard study found that men with unusual names were likely to flunk out or display signs of neurosis. Subsequent studies showed that names could affect nearly every aspect of life. While some conclusions had to be withdrawn due to methodological flaws, findings on name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere and socioeconomic status—remained robust. Even when siblings with different names but of the same background were used. Moreover, changing names was found to have beneficial effects. Stockholm University economists, for instance, found that re-named immigrants made an average of 26 per cent more in wages than those who kept their original names. I wondered why I’d only assumed my husband’s Scottish surname when we married and retained it when we divorced when I could’ve easily changed my given name on either occasion.

What stopped me, I suppose, was how my family might react. But even after my grandmother and father died and my mother came to live with me in Maryland and told me that she, too, had never liked her name, I did nothing. Even after I’d started writing and, at least, could have picked a pen name. The basic reason was that no other name felt right. I knew that since I’d systematically considered every imaginable possibility. I had lots of time during my daily commute to and from Washington, DC, where I worked as a NASA and Defense Department consultant. It was 80-some miles and included three of the worst bottlenecks in the nation, I went from “A” to “Z” for several days, dismissing most. “Anna” wouldn’t work since it was reserved for my nascent novel, Anna Noon”“Zelda” was as weird as “Ilze” and too closely associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife. In the end, only one name remained: “Claire,” a Latin word meaning “clear” in the French feminine form. It described how I saw myself at the time, which was open and transparent. And brought me back to the Sixties, when I devoured New Wave films such as Claire’s Knee.

While I never did anything with “Claire,” the process reminded me how much effort it takes to name a child. And how little was expended on me. I don’t know what I expected since neither my conception nor my parents’ marriage was planned. And my father, at least, assumed that I’d be a boy based on the size of Mom’s baby bump. He’d even started to call me Maks,” meaning “Max,” Which had a rakish ring I liked when learning about it later. But after seeing me ex utero, my father knew that he had to find a female name for the registry. And fast. Fortunately, a friend—a fraternity brother and drinking buddy, no doubt—had recently named his newborn. So, why not call me “Ilze,” as well? I know that we were in the middle of World War II. That the Soviet Army was advancing. That Valmiera, the city where my parents were sent to work and where, by chance, I was born, was about to be burned to the ground. Still, it might’ve been nice if someone had done more than merely name me after some random baby.

It took 60-some years for me to learn that someone had given my name some thought. Shortly after her 90th birthday, my mother casually mentioned that she never intended to name me “Ilze.” That, even in the womb, she’d called me “Nora.” After the iconoclastic character in Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play A Doll’s House. Only she’d never said a word to my father. At first, I was furious. Then, I allowed that she, like others living amid political turmoil, had made a habit of keeping her cards close to her chest. Still, I couldn’t help feeling unduly cheated. Having a familiar, pronounceable name like “Nora” would have made life in the States much easier. More than that, it would’ve made me more secure in my identify, even my place in the world. Instead of feeling that I was a disappointment to my family because I struggled against societal constraints every step of the way, I could’ve felt that this was what I was meant to do. I might have even seen my mother’s disinterest in teaching me what I needed to know to be a wife and mother as something more than mere neglect. Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself. Instead, I imagined how my mother might’ve shared her hopes and dreams with me as a one-month-old infant in my first short story, “Making Soup.”

It took a contentious presidential campaign to convince me that I never needed some name change to empower me. In writing my essay “No Big Deal” about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I referenced some remarkable women on both sides of my family whose accomplishments dated as far back as the Nineteenth Century. And my native land, which installed the first female president back in 1999. As to the careless way that I was given my name, a big brown beard celebrating both her birthday and her nameday in January took care of that. She just happened to live in a nature preserve in Līgatne, Latvia, which is less than 12 miles from Cēsis, where my father grew up on the family farm. And my father—in fact, most family members that I knew—used the diminutive “Ilzīte” unless I did something to deserve the severe-sounding “Ilze.” And “Ilzīte” just happened to be the bear’s name, and it so perfectly conveyed how lovable bears could be that I almost cried. Then cried for real when I remembered that all of my immediate family members were gone, and no one had called me “Ilzīte” since my cousin in England died five years ago. 

Celebrating a birthday, then a nameday. (Source: Līgatne Nature Trails)

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Season’s Greetings

A crèche in Michigan, where I lived as a child. (Source: Medusa’s Kitchen

My father was born on 17 December 1907 at his family’s farm in Veselava, which is in the Cēsis district of Latvia. There, no doubt, was a stable and the requisite assortment of domesticated animals, but he, unlike Jesus, whose birthday supposedly occurs a week later, came into the world in a well-appointed house, complete with servants. Which is just as well since it’s freezing cold—not to mention snowy—at that time of year and my father might not have made it. So, as an immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather is similar, I cringed each time that I saw a nativity scene with a nearly naked babe asleep on a bed of straw. My father, who’d studied theology at the University of Latvia in Rīga, cautioned me not to take things in the New Testament too literally since it had been written nearly 20 centuries ago. Still, I felt far better once, decades later, I later learned that even scholars who limit themselves to what’s found in the Bible doubt that the blessed event occurred anytime close to Christmas. Particularly since I learned that neonatal hypothermia can set in anywhere below 77.0 to 82.4° F. As in Bethlehem, where December averages range between 57 and 47.

Separating “Christ” from “Christmas” came easily to me. After all, the Latvian word for “Christmas” is simply “Ziemassvētki,” which merely means “winter celebrations.” As such, it is as much about the winter solstice, the day with the longest night, as it is about a miraculous birth, which was a relatively late add-on. As my mother, a city girl, told me and I later fictionalized in my novel Anna Noon:

Christmas Eve in Rīga started in Dom Square. First with a Lutheran service at the Dom Cathedral, then with a stroll home in softly falling snow, amid carolers lifting their voices in equal measure to Christian and pagan songs and merrymakers cavorting as gypsies, storks and dancing bears. In my fifth-floor flat on Elizabeth Street the tree was bright with white wax candles, not the garish incandescent bulbs used here. My presents opened by starlight, not the glare of the morning sun as is done here.

Moreover, the separation was seen from the start. While solstice celebrations go back at least to neolithic times—10,200 to 8800 BC—the first recorded Christmas celebration occurred in Rome in 336 AD. In fact, some say that Saturnalia, which initially coincided with my father’s birthday and honored Saturn, the Roman god whose reign was seen as a time of peace and prosperity, served as a model for the first Christmas. There are certainly similarities. Saturbalia was celebrated by “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.” It, like most winter solstice celebrations, was a festival of lights, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. No wonder the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Nevertheless, Christmas turned out to be an off-and-on affair. The Puritans, for instance, banned it in the 17th century, citing drunk and disorderly conduct. Revived in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church, it remained disreputable. The family oriented occasion that we have come to know, according to some, is mainly the invention of Charles Dickens and other writers.

But both winter solstice celebrations and Christmas are not only about “the best of days” but also about the worst of days, and therein lies their true meaning. As sung in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.” The reason that December celebrations tend to be glutenous and raucous is that the period from January to April was once known as “the famine months.” Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed, therefore a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Moreover, wine and beer had been fermenting since the harvest and were ready for drinking. For those with meager resources, however, the struggle for survival could be brutal. The middle-aged black man who I saw daily after moving to Boston in the Seventies who had set up a tent made of rags in a space on the street by a curb cleared of snow to provide access to a fire hydrant. And the other 554,000 people reported to be homeless in the United States alone on a given night. The mothers and fathers with one-month old infants, the same age that I was when we were forced to flee our native land. And the other 68.5 million people worldwide today who, according to the latest report, have been forcibly displaced in the worst refugee crisis since the one we experienced after World War II. All cold and hungry and far from home. Like my family and I were once. And—if only symbolically—like Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

‘Tis the season for all those sorts of things.

Note: Each year around this time I give a gift of winter supplies for refugees through the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. Would be wonderful if you could do so, as well.

 

A family friendly winter solstice celebration hosted by The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, located just outside of the capital city Rīga.

Jingle Bells,” played in 2017 by some children living at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the central West Bank.