Tag Archives: Latvian Refugees

Deprived of Decades

Me (front, second from left) and my friends at Latvian camp in Michigan.

I always assumed that I would live long. After all, my maternal grandmother, who survived the Russian Revolution as well as World War IWorld War II, the resulting diaspora and emigration to the United States, died when she was 90. And my mother, who saw much of that herself, died when she was 91. Since life expectency has increased substantally since my grandmother’s day—she was born in 1879, when it was about 43 years for Baltic females—and was longer for females in the States than for those left in Latvia and since we arrived in the States when I was just five years old, I figured that should count for something. So, it seemed likely that the combination of good genes and good healthcare here would do me well.

I also assumed that most people—my mother and grandmother included—underestimated the toll that being a displaced person nearly from birth had taken on me and the other Latvian girls that I knew growing up in Grand Rapids. By all appearances, my cohort and I were remarkably healthy. But I felt that I was—and suspected that they might be, as well—damaged in ways not apparent to those who did not care to see. Of course, I meant emotional or behavioral–not physical–damage, conveniently forgetting that I considered mind-body dualism something that should have died with Descartes. So I saw nothing incompatible in the two assumptions. We might have to struggle more but would still lead long, productive lives.

That lasted as long as 2012, when I learned that one of the Latvian girls (the one directly behind me in the photo) was having a double mastectomy. Although she responded well to treatment, it made me question one of my asumptions. Particularily when another girl (the one to my right) succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2016. She, like me back then, was in her early 70s and her mother had lived to be 92.

That forced me to face the fact that my nearly dying a year earlier, when I was 71, might not have been the anomaly that I made it out to be (see “Body Language”). Particularly since the extensive testing I underwent in the process revealed a range of other issues. All I needed was the sad news that yet another girl (the one on the right in the back row) had died of unknown causes after six days of hospitalization. She was also in her early 70s while her mother had died a few years before at age 93

 In all cases, death or potentially deadly health conditions had occurred about two decades before they should have according to my first assumption. While I know nothing about the remaining two girls, it did make me wonder whether I would last to 2035, as I had previously expected. And whether the stress of displacement at an early age might have done more than merely make me quirky.

So I searched for corroborating data. Not surprisingly, there was little that was even remotely relevant. One longitudinal study on the forced migration of Finnish children was about all that I could find. In reviewing the existing literature, the authors cited research, particularly from the United States, that showed better health among most immigrant subgroups than native-born residents as measured by indicators such as mortality, morbidity or self-ratings.The immigrant advantage could be attributed to selective migration, meaning that migration, especially the long-distance type, is dominated by people whose health is better than that of the origin country population.This is further reinforced by some stringent host country screening processes. Whether children who move with their parents are subject to the same selection mechanisms is less clear.

Selective migration was intentionally ruled out in the study itself since all families from a specific location were forced to move. As was selective return migration, where unhealthy migrants or those who experience deteriorating health tend to return to their communities of origin. Here, none of the families could return after World War II since their land had come under the control of the Soviet Union.

No support was found for the hypothesis that the traumatic event of forced migration during childhood has long-term negative health consequences. In fact, adult child migrants had lower odds of receiving sickness benefits and the females also had lower odds of receiving disability pensions. And mortality rates were largely driven by patterns specific to eastern-born populations of Finland. The authors suggested that the absence of adverse health effects could be due to the successful integration of these child migrants into post-war Finnish society.

As a former researcher, I knew that this study was hardly definitive. It is widely accepted that negative results are easier to obtain than positive ones since there are so many confounding variables. I also knew that the five or so years of displacement in foreign nations as well as the eventual insertion of young Latvian children into an unwelcoming American culture was, at best, only loosely comparable to the Finnish experience. Still, I took it as a sign that I–unlike others in my cohort–was not doomed to an early death.

That worked reasonably well until this past June, when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 triple-negative invasive breast cancer. I could not understand how on Earth this had happened. No one in my family had ever developed cancer of any sort apart from my aunt in London, who was a dentist and attributed her melanoma to the careless way X-rays were initially used in her profession.

All I could come up with was that my deterioration was but one manifestation of the general breakdown we had all experienced over the past few years. Where things dating back as far as my grandmother’s day–pandemics, far-right extremism , Russian invasions and the subjugation of women–that I thought had been relegated to the trash heap of history had re-emerged. That all the progress we had seen in our lifetimes had eroded and done damage to me just as it had when I was a one-month-old war refugee.

What Was, What Will Be

Post-war Valmiera, Latvia today, as seen from above. (Source: LSM.LV)

“This was my home.” This was my  friend . . . my dog . . . my car . . . my job . . . my father . . . my daughter. These were the statements of loss that I heard at the start of the new video that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, released on CNN during an interview with Fareed Zakaria. Each was accompanied by gut-wrenching footage from the unconscionable war that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was waging against civilians. Just as it was about to become unbearable, the statements and imagery changed. “We will win,” Zelenskyy said with complete conviction. “There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be, there’s no doubt. And those we’ve lost will be remembered. And we will sing again, and we will celebrate anew.”  Even as Mariupol, his nation’s tenth largest city, seemed set to be wiped off the face of the earth.

I understood that sort of loss. Valmiera, a town in Latvia, was founded in the 13th century and has seen its share of invaders and occupiers. It was devastated during the Livonian War (1558–1583), which was fought for control of Old Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) by the Tsardom of Russia against a shifting coalition of the Dano-Norwegian Realm, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Union (later Commonwealth) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Then  burned to the ground during the Great Northern War (1700–1721), where a coalition led by Russia ended the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. During World War II, Valmiera was captured by the German Army (July 1941) and placed under the administration of Reichskommissariat Ostland, only to be recaptured  (September 1944) by the Russian Army during the Riga Offensive. And again burned to the ground. That occurred less than a month after I was born and my parents and maternal grandmother managed to get me out of there.

I also understood that sort of optimism—up to a point. The residents of Valmiera, one of the longest-inhabited regions of Latvia, must have had it. During the 18th century, it became the district center and saw rapid economic growth during the 19th century. And, during the first quarter of the 20th century, became a cultural and educational center, as well. That trend continues, with Valmiera being one of the four Latvian cities short-listed for the title of the 2027 European Capitals of Culture. But each time that it was rebuilt, some loss remained. Particularly the most recent reconstruction, which occurred during the 46-year period (1944-1990) when Russians occupied, then annexed my independent nation as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and left the sad imprint of Stalinist architecture.

Before his death in 2018, Egons Tālivaldis Ziediņš, a teacher who spent his whole life in Valmiera, wrote in “Neapbedīsim Valmieras vēsturi” (“Let’s Not Bury Valmiera’s History,” my clumsy translation):

There are few residents walking along Valmiera’s streets these days who still see what is no longer there. Stopping at the unsightly Culture Center, those who do probably remember that one of the finest buildings in town was located at the corner where Ziloņu Street turns off Rīgas Street and housed the Ustupa and Bundžas ready-made clothing store as well as Eizentāls’ delicatessen.  And that the entrance to the Pūriņa cinema “Splendid” was across the street. As was the Dūņa building, where a bookstore was situated that usually carried one of the pre-war Valmiera publishers—Konrads Vanags, the son of Miķels Amālijs, head of the Šana Society .  And then there was Pūkas Corner, named after one of the shops—the center of Old Valmiera with a police officer standing there since Diakonāta Street intersected with Rīgas Street at that point, and Jurģu Street led down to the Gauja bridge.

Well, the old Valmiera was not rich in ancient architectural masterpieces since most of the structures only dated back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But together they formed a distinctive cityscape that was memorable because it was unique to the area. All this once was and then was not, and now the center of Valmiera is much more open and modern.

It is a genuine pleasure to see that we are taking good care of Valmiera, that it is increasingly well-kept  and beautiful. However, there is one “but.” The architecturally uniform, uninteresting  structures that emerged during the post-war period do not remain long in one’s memory. They could be in any other place in Latvia. I have often had to show foreigners around the town, and it always depressed me when I wondered where to take them. Inevitably, perceptible boredom soon appears on their faces. “Well, you have built a new city here after the war but seem to have given little thought to making it special. Why have you left all your buildings so bare?”

Before Zelenskyy’s video, I felt disconnected from Valmiera. When I reflected on my past, the capital city Rīga usually came to mind. That was where my mother and her ancestors lived.  Where my father, although born near Cēsis, attended university and started his literary career. And Vecāķi,  a resort town on the Baltic Sea where my maternal grandmother had a large summer house.  We were only living in Valmiera because my father was sent there to perform administrative duties during the German occupation in between the first and second Russian occupations. And I was less than a month old when we were forced to flee. But after I cried for what Ukraine once was and, as Zelenskyy bravely predicted, will be again even as its cities were being shelled by the invading Russians, I cried—the first time in my long life—for Valmiera. And for what Latvians like me lost there.

“This was my birthplace,” I said through my tears. Built amid a forest of fir trees on both banks of the Gauja river. This was my father’s car, which he kept the Germans from stealing by bringing the tires inside to his bedroom when it was not in use. This was my father’s office, where he pinned a new piece of doggerel satirizing his Nazi superiors to his lampshade each night before leaving. This was my mother’s office, where she worked as his assistant and did her best to keep him from getting killed. This was the site where they were wed, possibly the town hall. I was well on the way and it was wartime, so she wore a plain dark dress. But carried a sheaf of yellow daffodils.

 

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Starting from Scratch

Me (fifth from the left) with (clockwise) my mother, my father, his sister, her husband and my grandmother at a Thanksgiving dinner in the first house my parents bought in Michigan(Photo: my cousin, Viktors Miške)

My father was 42, my mother was 34 and my maternal grandmother was 70 when they emigrated to the United States with 5-year-old me. Five years earlier, they left everything behind in war-torn Latvia other than what could be crammed into my father’s sports car. The little money that they accumulated as displaced persons in post-war Austria was spent since the States prohibited bringing in so much as a cent. My mother managed to buy bolts of fine fabric and take them to a tailor before we set sail from Bremerhaven. And sew some USD into the lining of my new coat. We arrived at the train station in Lowell, Michigan in 1949 with not much more than the spiffy clothes on our backs. With less, actually, since we were obligated to repay what it cost to get us there by working, for all practical purposes, as servants indentured to our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife.

Nevertheless, we soon had a new car that we owned outright and a spacious house with a mortgage that we had no problem paying and eventually owned outright, as well. All without seeming to scrimp. “Those damn immigrants,” the locals said, wondering how we could do it. (Technically, it was “darn” since the fine Christian Reformed folk of Grand Rapids, where we moved, never cursed.) In part, we did it by doing what has always been expected of any sort of immigrant. My father found a back-breaking job as a finisher in a furniture factory, and my mother took a position doing piecework—a compensation system designed to force people to work at break-neck speed—in a factory manufacturing brass fittings. Only after a devastating miscarriage did she teach herself accounting and get moved up to the office floor. Both spent most nights and weekends renovating our house, a duplex where we lived in one side and collected rent from the other. Which was possible because my capable grandmother assumed the day-to-day housekeeping and childrearing chores.

The other part, however, had nothing to do with being “good immigrants.” Immigrants can work incredibly hard and still not make it in America. What gave us the  edge, I have come to see, was that we, as well as our cohort, did not represent the sort of “huddled masses” that native-born Americans of that era assumed we were. Rather, we were what Ieva Zake more accurately described in American Latvians: Politics of a Refugee Community, “. . . a selective stratum of inter-war Latvian society—mainly upper and middle classes with a very high proportion of politicians, public figures and intellectuals among them.” We did not come to America for a better life. Apart from occupation by Nazi and Soviet armies and the constant threat of death or deportation, our lives were already plenty good. All we had to do was recreate them. This gave us a guiding image, something similar to what elite athletes hold in their heads: a vivid, multi-sensory re-experience of how it had been when everything was exactly right.

This stands in stark contrast to the vague imagery of the American Dream, which many now see as nothing more than a myth, anyway. While there are still those who continue to claim that anyone—even the poorest person—can rise to the middle class and beyond unless they are either lazy or stupid, research shows that most people are doomed to stay where they are. And that this is particularly true in that Land of Opportunity, the United States. According to a 2020 report on 82 countries by the World Economic Forum (click here to download), the US ranks 27th in social mobility. Which puts it a bit above the now-independent Latvia (31st) and slightly below the other Baltic states, Lithuania (26th) and Estonia (23rd). The top ten nations, in descending order, are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Luxembourg, with Canada coming in as14th. Not by accident, these are all places with strong social safety nets. It turns out that rugged individualism does not work so well for those who have never known much economic security and who could do with a little governmental help.

Long before learning of this, I was bothered by how many Latvian Americans refused to see that their experience was not comparable to that of millions of other underprivileged people. Registered as Republicans, they found fault with the Democrats’ War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as well as the associated Economic Opportunity Act. Even my father, who changed party affiliation  once he decided that voting with the rich made no sense whatsoever for a refugee relegated to manual labor. He could not understand why his hard-earned tax dollars should go to those no worse off than he once was, particularly since he had managed to get to where he was then with no assistance of any sort. Which meant—four years earlier—buying a single-family house in the best school district in town while keeping the duplex as rental property. And, by 1964, supporting a daughter—that would be me—who was in her junior year at the University of Michigan and was palling around with the aforementioned rich. So when an able-bodied Black lady with lots of kids and no prospect of employment—what, back then, was unkindly called a “welfare queen”—moved into our duplex, he made it his mission to “educate” her. Preaching a course of action that he deemed would get her off the dole, he horrified my mother, who feared that this would not end well. I was less worried, correctly predicting that it would lead to little more than some spirited banter.

My father never succeeded in converting “Queenie,” as she asked to be called, but the Democrats did impose some constraints. Less than a year after my father died, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Some two decades later, however, my father lost a little of his moral high ground. My cousin in England died, and his son sent me a short memoir that he had helped him write. A passage about my father (“Uncle Viktors”) made me furious at first—why focus on that, of all things?—but subsequently just made me shake my head and smile:

My father’s brother, Uncle Viktors, was rather bohemian by nature and my father financed his studies at university. Once Viktors had to appeal for funds from my father when he was in Paris and needed money to get home, which made my father rather angry. At other times Aunty Lidija bailed him out. I loved him dearly.

Meaning that Viktors—not unlike Queenie—once neither had any compunction about living on other people’s money nor any talent for managing his own. Add that to the well-known fact that he was generally unsuited for physical work despite his fine physique and whatever he learned growing up on a farm, and you had an urbanite who—not unlike Queenie—relied  heavily on cleverness and charm. But, unlike Queenie, he was nevertheless able to radically transform himself and do what it took to survive post-war poverty. And move up in America after starting from scratch. What separated them seemed inextricably tied to the sort of life that each had previously known.

These days, I see the same struggles where I live in Maryland. Some,  no doubt, will—ultimately—be fine. Refugees from the Middle East, for example, who often come from affluent areas. The Syrian family that started a restaurant and gallery down the hill from me. They were not only able to withstand the destruction of their homeland but also the repeated ravaging of their new business, first by successive 1000-year floods, then a 100-year pandemic. (See To Leave or to Stay.”) I am less sanguine about those who arrive here from the poorer parts of the world. Those I come into contact on a regular basis since, being old and disabled now, I need to have all that I use delivered. People like the personable Instacart shopper who surprised me somewhat by texting in French from Costco. After engaging him in a doorstep conversation, I learned he had come here six months ago from the French-speaking part of Cameroon, a country  that has simultaneously  received a massive influx of refugees from the Central African Republic and sent over 600,000 others to Nigeria alone. 

The same holds true for many residents here, whether immigrant or native-born. Clearly, requiring those who have never experienced “up” to somehow pull themselves up by their bootstraps is absurd. There are numerous countries where social mobility consistently occurs. Why is America so stubbornly unwilling to learn from them?

Note: for a look at what it took for my family to get to where they could have that car (see photo below) and that Thanksgiving dinner in their own house  (see photo above), read my short story “Home Furnishings.”

 

Me, posing with our brand-new Ford sedan. (Photo: my mother, Elza Jurģis)

 

President Johnson’s commencement address at the University of Michigan stadium on 22 May 1964, also called “The Great Society speech.”

Private Parts

Me in my standoffish mode, sitting on a dock at Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, Michigan during the early Fifties. (Photo: my mother, Elsa Jurgis)

The most fun I ever had with my mother occurred after she came to live with me in Maryland following my father’s death. We often did silly stuff. Sometimes I made up songs or modified existing ones to suit the situation. (Neither of us could carry a tune, so it worked out well.) In my car, I would sing “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” each time she said something like, “Keep you mind on your driving, keep your hands on the wheel / Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead.” Once I got to “Kissin’ and a huggin’ with Fred,” I tickled her stomach. “Don’t touch my private parts,” she said. “What are your private parts?” I asked. “All my parts are private parts,” she said.

I recently related this anecdote to my niece, Mara Miske, who found me a few years ago through this site. Although we had never met and she was decades younger, our connection was immediate. And, much as we insisted that we were not real Latvians, both her parents and I were that by birth and it accounted for much of our natural rapport. And why it was harder to achieve with those who had negligible ties to our native land. The latter became abundantly clear while she was coaching me on how to approach the middle-aged man who likely was the baby that 21-year-old me gave up for adoption at birth and whom Mara had located  through DNA data posted on the My Heritage site. Being the more maternal of the two of us, she said, “Give him the warm-and-fuzzies he needs.” After which we laughed, knowing that most Latvians are simply not wired that way.

Not that Latvians are cold, although I have certainly heard that said. And read about a study–led by a researcher from Michigan State University, of all places–that ranks Latvia and other Baltic States near the bottom on  empathy. Rather, it seems to be hard to find the right word. One that gets the point across without being perjorative is”self-contained,” which is defined as “quiet and independent; not depending on or influenced by others.”  Another is “introverted.”  Some liked that one so much it became the basis of a long-running, award-winning campaign–#IAMINTROVERT–to promote Latvian literature. (Never mind that it was launched at the 2018 London Book Fair, where the market focus was on the Baltic states, including Latvia, and where the large crowds and absolute unavoidability of social interaction must have made it an introvert’s worst nightmare.)

While the campaign gently pokes fun at what could be considered a national trait, it also highlights some positive aspects. Namely, that there is a link between a preference for solitude and creativity.  In one article, Anete Konste, a humorist integral to the campaign’s success, notes that introversion is prevalent among authors, artists and architects as well as others working in creative fields. The  piece goes on to state that psychologists have suggested that creativity is an important part of  Latvian self-identity and, as such, a priority in the government’s educational and economic development plans. The European Commission has thus reported that Latvia has one of the highest shares of the creative labor market in the European Union.

How Latvians got that way, of course, is anyone’s guess. If pressed, I would say that it started with some particularly brutal forms of natural selection: the wars, occupations and displacements that have plagued the Baltic region throughout history. The introverts–or, as I prefer, the self-contained–kept their heads down and their emotions in check, trusting only themselves. Thus, while my maternal grandfather was murdered by a paramilitary mob during the Russian Revolution for defending his factory (see “The Face-of Extremism”), my maternal grandmother, pregnant with my uncle, quietly took my two-year-old mother back to Riga, sold sausages on the street until she turned herself into a successful business woman and–two world wars later–died in a hospital bed in America at age 90. A lesson my mother, who played her cards close to her chest, learned very well.

The trick is getting others to understand. Both the horrors that you have encountered and the damage they have done. My mother’s solution was to not even try. Her experience was so far removed from that of her American acquaintances that she let them believe what they wanted. Which, once she arrived here in Maryland, was that she was a cute old lady from somewhere they could not quite place. Every morning for years she–legally blind and crippled by arthritis–and her English Springer Spaniel walked the steep, winding loop that took her to her beloved Trolley Trail and back again. I feared for her safety, especially after the dog died, but refused to leave her staring at walls while I went to work in DC. Somehow, she always attracted a crowd. And, inevitably, someone would say, “You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” And my mother would say with a smile that only a few would see as anything but sweet, “Michigan!”

I emulated my mother until I was17 or so. Then, while having a hard time writing a paper on “The Waste Land,” I downed most of a bottle of vodka, lost consciousness in a pool of vomit and was taken by ambulance to an emergency room in the dark during a blinding snowstorm. (See“Winter Wonderland.”) Perhaps binge drinking–so common in Latvian social circles when I was growing up–is as instrumental as solitude in turning introverts into creatives. All I know is that after the ranting and raving I did alone in my second-story room while falling-down drunk, I found my own voice. And, decades later, after I retired and my mother died, the time to devote to writing essays and stories and novels and, eventually, the development of this site. I truly believed that if I could find the right words to string together, the world would come to understand me. Even my long-lost son would, once I gave him his family history. (See “Why I Write.”)

Whether my communication style made me better understood than my mother is up for debate. Particularly when it comes to inferring my feelings. Take the case of the  man who might be my son. (The qualification only means that a definitive maternity test conducted by a certified medical laboratory has yet to be done.) Before Mara could school me on warm-and-fuzzies, I had inundated the poor guy with data designed to quickly fill the gap left by my decades-long absence. Posts and pages from this site, published and unpublished works and material that I generated just for him. How was that to be taken? How would you know without being told that the poem about loneliness and the sea written by the the cartoon character of an introverted Latvian below started as an attempt to write a love letter?

NOTE: To read more about my own self-contained writing style, see “A Formal Feeling Comes.” And for more on one of my minor contributions to Latvian literature, see “A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small.”

 

The #IAMINTROVERT campaign team at the 2018 London Book Fair.

One of a series of cartoons created by writer Anete Konste and artist Reinis Pētersons.