Category Archives: European Diaspora

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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My Cousin in England

My cousin Juris Jurģis (second from left) with his wife Enid (far left), his son Andreis (the bridegroom) and his daughter Anna (second from right).

My cousin in England died this December. I hope that he went to Heaven, a place that I assume was more real to him than it is to me. I had always wanted to ask him if that was so. To discuss religion, both seriously and satirically, as I had with my father, with whom he had always been great friends. Both had studied theology in college—my father at the University of Latvia, my cousin at Oxford University—and both were not only spiritual but also worldly and literate. And had a great sense of humor. Only somehow I never got around to it, and now it is too late. And I am so sorry but, nevertheless, know that this is how it often seems to go with many other displaced people.

You see, much of my family was displaced in 1944, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. I was only about one month old and Juris only about 17 years old. But while I had my parents and maternal grandmother with me, Juris was on his own. Eventually, my family and I ended up in the United States and Juris ended up in England, reunited with my father’s sister Līdija. By the time that my parents, my then husband and I visited Juris in 1973, he was a Latvian minister living with his new family in a pleasant parish house in Leicester and the recently widowed Līda, a retired dentist, was living in London. And proud that at age 70 she had not only given up smoking (“Joost une leetle poof,” she said, stealing my cigarette) but also learned how to cook (“Joost like chemistry, no?”).

Of course, I was aware of Juris well before then. His work with the Latvian church took him to the States. And before that, there were the stories. The first one that I remember—no doubt increasingly embellished—went something like this: Juris arrived in England as a young man and worked digging ditches. One scorching day while he was shirtless—all that manual labor and those food shortages had given him a chiseled physique—an elegant lady driving, say, a Bentley pulled over and asked if he might like to relax a bit and partake of some refreshment. That certainly seemed preferable to what he was doing, so he readily agreed. Once situated on a sofa in her palatial manor house, he was able to recover enough to wander over to the grand piano. “Do you know what this is?” the lady asked. Whereupon Juris sat down, raised the keyboard cover and played, say, the start of Schumann’s last sonata. And then politely took his leave.

Our visit produced equally memorable stories. One involved an actual Bentley. We were at Līda’s house. After the roast beef—which, incidentally, slid to the kitchen floor on its way to the serving platter, no one but Līda, my mother and me being any the wiser—the vodka came out. And well after that, my then husband and I decided to accompany another of my relatives, a striking woman of a certain age who, as a beautiful young refugee working at the Harrods cosmetics counter, met a famous British comedian whose name I can no longer recall. So, in the dead of night, we lay back in her luxurious car as she drove with the sort of speed and skill that was remarkable even for one less inebriated the 80 some miles to Broadstairs, where she and the entertainer shared a house high on the chalk cliffs above the sea.

The plan was for Juris to arrive the next day with my parents and changes of clothes. Five of us would then return to London, where he had procured tickets for a performance of The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Which would have worked well had he also owned a Bentley, not something befitting an immigrant minister. Which was not only particularly small but also poorly maintained. And broke down somewhere along the M2. So we had to hitch a ride with a stranger, board a painfully slow train, transfer to the Tube and trek past countless Covent Garden produce carts at  to reach our seats. All with my mother and me in high heels and long gowns.

That was how the visit with him mainly went, with an emphasis on the arts over religion, not to mention good food and drink and lots of laugher. Juris set the tone by saying that we would be fools to waste a sunny Sunday sitting inside listening to his sermon. So, instead, he dropped us off at Ann Hathaway’s cottage, where we enjoyed the delphinia, hollyhocks and dahlias in the extensive gardens and got our fill of Shakespearean lore. He also took us to his beloved Oxford—before or after that, I do not know—where we got an insider’s look at the libraries, living quarters and dining halls and then joined tourists and townspeople for a pint or two in various public houses.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Coventry Cathedral. Since I was never one for touring famous churches and, in fact, often felt apologetic for interfering with those there to pray, my expectations were low. I was not prepared for the stark juxtaposition of the old and the new. As we walked from the roofless remains of the old church, which had been bombed during World War II and wisely left unrestored, to the the new building, constructed of the same sandstone, I experienced a surprising reconciliation of my own war-torn past with my incongruent present. And as we entered, I was not only astounded at how much I was moved by the modern architecture and art but also by the sheer scale of it all. I wandered around in a daze, feeling that I had suddenly become nothing more than an insignificant speck in a vast, mysterious universe. And that this was incredibly comforting.

Remembering how I felt, I now wonder whether the talk that I had hoped to have with Juris had not actually occurred on that day.

For more on Juris, see my essay “Reconsidering Sentiment.”

Reconsidering Sentiment

My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)

When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.

When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.

But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.

One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.

During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.

The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred:  (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”

Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.

Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.

Bremerhaven Today

The clouds and North Sea winds in Bremerhaven on 23 August 2014. (Photo: Amanda Lauer)

Editor’s note: In the October of 1949, when I was five years old and hurricanes were numbered, not named, my family and I, displaced persons from Latvia, left for the United States from the Interzonal Staging Area at Camp Grohn in Bremerhaven aboard the USS General SD Sturgis, a converted troop carrier, and headed straight into Hurricane 11, which was moving across the Atlantic with winds reaching 100 miles per hour. When Amanda Lauer, who lives up the road from me in Maryland, posted the above picture, I felt I was back there again. I asked her to tell me about her visit, and she sent me the following, which she now shares with you.

I write from a train traveling from Northern Germany to Frankfurt for my return trip to the United States. Though I have visited Germany several times, this was my first excursion to Lower Saxony to visit colleagues at the University of Oldenburg. My host professor suggested that I take a Saturday trip to Bremerhaven, a place that I had never heard mentioned. At first, I was hesitant about visiting a busy port near the North Sea but was persuaded by promises of the amazing Climate House at the Bremerhaven Zoo and the German Emigration Center. It dawned on me that my ancestors might have left from that same spot over 150 years ago in search of a better life.

With a Japanese postdoctoral fellow in tow, neither of us speaking more than a few words of German, we set off on our journey north. Yoko proved to be a valuable companion since she came equipped with three more months of German public transportation experience than I possessed. On the first bus, I used three crucial words on the driver, asking, “Sprechen Sie English?” He responded by speaking very loudly and slowly. In German. Somehow the tickets were purchased. We managed our bus transfer, rode through miles of flat, flat farmland and disembarked just steps from the Emigration Center.

After a quick lunch in the cafeteria, we were subjected to what I assumed was an introduction–it was all in German–and were herded into a small, dim room crammed with other tourists. A very loud German voice began booming over the loudspeaker. I felt quite trapped and rather wary. Just as the doors opened, I figured out that all this had been done simply to simulate what emigrants might have experienced while they were stuffed into similar holding rooms. Phew.

We climbed wooden steps and began the tour, which was quite well done. You are able to listen to the story of an actual passenger–each person has her own–while exploring hands-on exhibits that show the living conditions that prevailed onboard three types of ships.

The first was a sailing ship, used until about 1870 to transport farmers and tradesmen searching for living conditions better than those found in Southern Germany. At the time, only about 1 in 4 farmers could make a living, and there was an overabundance of tradesmen.

That was the case with Frederick Maulick, my great-great-great grandfather, who left Württemberg in search of plentiful land. He arrived in Philadelphia, where he lived for a while before moving west to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, along with thousands of other Germans. As I peered into the replicated steerage exhibit, my heart sank. How terrifying to leave everything you know only to be crammed into a filthy, stinky, dark bunkroom with just a trunkful of clothes and other necessities. I was completely consumed imagining Fred’s life aboard a ship for several weeks and his apprehension at arriving in a foreign land where he could neither speak the official language nor know where he would end up. Things must be awful to entice anyone away from the familiar and into such a ship’s belly.

I barely registered the drastically improved conditions depicted in the replica steam ships and ocean liners. These were for the soft. I forgot about the passenger that I was supposed to be following until we arrived at the Ellis Island audio station. There, I learned that Hertha and her husband were Jewish doctors fleeing the deteriorating political conditions of the 1930s. They encountered terrible situations in New York but survived, never returning to medicine. Things were looking up for Fred, though. He had the promise of fertile farmland and a far better existence than the one that he had left behind.

After Ellis Island and information about the distribution of German emigrants around the world, we were given the option of visiting the displaced persons special exhibit. We both declined. My traveling companion probably did so because she did not know what that entailed. I did so because I get very upset whenever I consider the issue of displaced persons and those that never made it out of war-torn Europe. One tour of a former concentration camp (Mauthausen, years ago) will make you lose faith in humanity for a good long time.

After the museum tour, we took a walk outside along the Weser River. It is this river that carried the emigrants to the North Sea and beyond. I have trouble describing the feeling, but it was incredible to stand where my ancestors stood, looking out at the menacing gray skies and feeling the bracing wind. As I looked out in the distance, just past a big rock, I could almost see the floating icebergs, the billowing sails, the seasickness and the relief of a port on the horizon.