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.)