Tag Archives: Latvian Refugees

Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any 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 or I would not be allowed to 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 exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)

 

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

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In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.

Before The Storms Begin

A refugee boat organised by the Latvian Central Council on the way to the island of Gotland. (Source: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.)

I was born toward the end of August, when—despite the summery weather—a few leaves had already turned red or gold. A month or so later, my father, my mother, her mother and I were forced to flee my birthplace, Valmiera, which the invading Soviet Army subsequently burned to the ground. We kept going—first by car, then by ship and, finally, by train—until we reached the Austrian Alps, where we found refuge. Some five years later, we crossed the Atlantic Ocean during a mid-October hurricane to resettle in the United States. So, from the start, autumn has been a time of great urgency and gratitude for me.

This was put into words when I learned “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” at the first elementary school that I attended in the States:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!

The urgency was expressed in the “safely gathered in” part, which I took to mean everything that had to be done before winter arrived. If we did not have to harvest crops, there was produce to be put up and a pantry to be stocked. And leaves to be raked into piles and burned. And storm windows to be installed and heating oil to be delivered and coats and hats and mittens and boots to be bought. The gratitude was expressed in the “God . . . doth provide” part, though—skeptical of the existence of a Beneficent Being even then—I unconsciously replaced Him with my resourceful parents and grandmother and the occasional kind stranger. Since such adults, even in Austria, managed to do what must be done, I was left to look for signs of snow. Each year, I selected one dry leaf on one all but bare branch and willed it to drop, believing that then sparkly flakes would fall.

Last September, I felt the same urgency, but not the same gratitude. The worst refugee crisis since the one that I had experienced was underway. While the good people of Lesbos and the like struggled to save those who came to their shores in overcrowded dinghies and others in northern countries such as Austria were welcoming, a remarkable number of Latvians and Latvian-Americans remained indifferent or even hostile. Since I saw myself in the faces of uprooted Syrian children and my parents and grandmother in the arms that held them, I experienced their abandonment. Not knowing what to do, I posted a piece, “Debt of Honor,” urging former Latvian refugees like me as well as their progeny to show more support. And was pleased when it  received thousands of views and started some spirited discussions. And was crushed when it ultimately failed to convince anyone not in basic agreement with me. I could not understand how the remainder could be so incapable of empathy, and they could not understand how I could say what I did. Over and over, they told me in various ways,”You don’t understand. It’s not at all the same.”

This September, I entertained the possibility that the majority view might have merit. This came about while I was searching for images of Latvian refugees crossing the Baltic Sea in woefully inadequate contraptions comparable to those now used for Mediterranean Sea crossings. Since over 3770 making the Mediterranean crossing died doing so in 2015 alone, I thought that there would be a compelling parallel to draw. I learned, instead, that only a few thousand Latvian refugees had fled in this manner. Most of us, mainly members of the cultural, political and economic elite, were evacuated in seaworthy ships under the protection of the retreating German Army. Just how different this was is evident, for instance, in videos of well-dressed women and children carrying bouquets of flowers. And stories from people such as my father, who was allowed to bring his red sports car onboard, even though it was subsequently confiscate in Danzig.

The more I thought about the implications of this difference, the more others came to mind. Soon, I could completely see why former Latvian refugees and following generations might not readily relate to Syrian refugees. And certainly not to those, say, who fled Somalia. But that did not explain why I felt such kinship. I could not believe that I was nothing more than a bleeding heart, particularly since I am something of a hard-ass. After careful analysis, I concluded that I could be characterized not only as hard-assed but also as imaginative. Both attributes have come in handy in my scientific and technical work as well as fiction writing, But the latter has an additional benefit. As novelist Ian McEwan noted when calling the September 11 attacks a “failure of the imagination,” “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

This failure of the imagination, of course, is not limited to terrorists or those with whom I share some history. It is a problem of global proportions. People on either side of any divide—racial, cultural, political or spiritual—seem more ready than ever to erect barriers against each other and, as though that was not bad enough, to seek out others with the intent of changing or eradicating them. Simultaneously, it seems that the forces throwing many opposites together—say, the displacement and migration caused by armed conflict, climate change and economic hardship—have never been greater. I cannot see this ending well unless we, as individuals and groups, become far more imaginative. And soon since winter is on the way.

We could start now. Look at the photograph below, where refugees disembark a small boat against the backdrop of storm clouds and an angry sea. Then pick out a person and imagine how he or she feels. (My choice is the toddler with the flimsy blanket held by the man in a short-sleeved shirt.) Then imagine what you would do. (I would get her a down parka and and insulated boots. And some form of shelter. And water and food, of course. And do the same for the man since she cannot survive without an adult to care for her.) Then play the video below showing schoolchildren and teachers performing for audience members. Imagine that most are from the nation where you live and a few years have passed and that the person that you selected is now among them, safe and warm. (At this point, there is little left for me to imagine. I once was that refugee girl singing an English hymn in an American school, waiting for that dry leaf to fall.)

 

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Refugees arrive at Lesbos on 14 October 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a dinghy. (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP / Getty Images)


“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Hope PR School Program 2013.

Note: Last autumn, when I was looking for something more tangible than words to contribute to the refugee situation, I was looking for a birthday gift to send to someone of Latvian descent who was born in one of the World War II displaced person camps in Germany. I had sent her a wool scarf from a fancy store the previous year but decided to do something different. I went the the website of the International Rescue Committee, the organization where I once did volunteer work, and bought a refugee rescue giftWarmth Through the Winter—in her name. And vowed that I would do something similar for everyone else, whether or not they cared about the current crisis. And would ask that they do the same for me.

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Warmth Through the Winter. (Source: International Rescue Committee)

A Good Day

My father and me doing nothing much on a nondescript day in the Fifties.

In 2010, WilliamTunstall-Pedoe, a University of Cambridge-trained computer scientist, claimed that analysis of over 300 million facts by his search engine True Knowledge led to the conclusion that the second Sunday of April 1954 was the most boring day since the start of the 20th Century. As a nine-year-old experiencing that day, I am sure that I would have wholeheartedly concurred. And predicted that the same would be said of the entire decade. But that there would surely be a shift in the Sixties, when I would be old enough to go away to school and leave behind the most boring city in the world, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my family, which, though not the least bit boring, tolerated tedium all too well. I would then lead an exciting life.

I did go on to lead an exciting life, although often not in the ways that I had naively envisioned. Which might be why, after more decades of that than I care to recall, I came to the same conclusion that my family must have reached by that Sunday in 1954: any day where nothing happens is a good—not a boring—day. A day, for instance, were my grandfather is not dragged out to the courtyard of the factory that he runs in Kharkov and executed by Russian revolutionaries. Where my pregnant grandmother, accompanied by my mother, a mere toddler, does not arrive in Rīga with little more than suitcases of worthless rubles. Where I do not leave my native land right after leaving the hospital where I was born because the Red Army is about to burn down Valmiera. Where, once my family and I escape to Austria, I do not cry because all my grandmother can give me while my mother is at work in a distant city is goat’s milk from the old woman who lives up the mountain. Where my father does not fall the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric dam where he has to work. Where my family and I do not wear overcoats inside the unheated space above the garage that our sponsor in the United States—a Lutheran minister—sees as suitable living quarters during a Michigan winter. Where my well-educated father does not walk 26 miles in the snow to Grand Rapids to find work as manual laborer in a furniture factory. Where my well-bred mother does not miscarry my brother doing brutal piecework at a brass factory on the same street. Where my accomplished grandmother does not read a redacted letter from her son, who is imprisoned in a godforsaken Kazakhstan gulag. Where . . .

So, as I sit at my computer on a gray October Sunday and have little to look forward to other than finishing this piece and the housecleaning that I started last week and the cooking that I do on weekends to use up as much as possible before shopping on Monday, which I do so that I can dispose of as much packaging material as possible when trash collectors arrive at my curb before sunrise Tuesday morning, I must grudgingly admit that I am having a good day. After all, I hardly need to head for the hospital because I am in danger of dying, as was the case just this past January. I can even take comfort in the fact that others that I know are likely having a good day, as well. I just read a message, for instance, from a fellow Latvian in New York who grew up with me in Michigan and whose family, much like mine, had survived some seriously bad days. I learned that she spent last night handing out Halloween candies and reminded myself that she did not need to deal with waking up this morning to a seemingly healthy husband in the throes of the cardiac event that kills him, since that had already occurred, along with my disturbing brush with death, earlier this year.

Still, it is hard to dismiss all those incessant updates on the Syrian crisis that serve as nagging reminders that there are refugees much like what my NY friend and I and our families once were still out there and that they continue to have horrible days. I am relieved, at least—and hope that my friend is too—that, earlier this month, I stopped short of ordering that frivolous birthday basket of cookies and brownies with those pretty ribbons from Williams-Sonoma, doubled what I would have spent, found the site of the International Rescue Committee—the outstanding refugee-aid NGO where I once volunteered—and gave the Gift of Warmth Through the Winter in her name instead. Since it has grown much colder over the subsequent weeks and this present provides families with emergency kits that include protective sheeting, warm blankets, mattresses, woolen socks and insulated boots and clothing, perhaps now there is at least one less displaced person at risk for hypothermia. Hence—by my current definition—having a good day. I doubt that my friend missed the unsent basket since she does not need to worry about hunger. And could spend her birthday having a lovely lunch in the city, followed by a rousing night at the opera, which, no doubt, took it from a good to a great day.

Note: If you want to send me a holiday gift—or even a card or a cheery message—might I recommend a similar re-direction? Or, even better, a direct refugee donation, since that seems to involve a little less overhead.