An Exile’s Suitcase

What if a hostile foreign power was invading your country and you had to flee? What would you bring along, what would you leave behind? That’s a dilemma that the people of the Baltic States faced in October of 1944. It’s the dilemma faced by Ukrainians today. People have had to deal with that quandrum for hundreds of years. It has also happened to people in their own country, such as the Japanes who were interned in the United States during the Second World War. Those are questions my parents faced less than two months after they married as the Soviet Red Army advanced into Latvia.

Of course, nobody’s suitcase really looked like this. As far as I know.

In 2021 an art gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, with contributions from nine refugees, created an exhibit called, “The Suitcase Project” at a local art gallery. This exhibit, which I was able to view online only, was especially meaningful for me because of the participation of people from the Baltic States.

Here’s a list of people’s comments that accompanied the exhibit. I have not edited their comments but added my own remarks in parentheses.

Linens: sheets, towels (my mother brought linen sheets, pillow cases towels she’d embroidered for her hope chest)

Silver spoons

woven coverlet (My mother brought along a woven coverlet that I still have. When I visited my grandparents’ home in Latvia there was an identical one on my aunt and uncle’s bed)

documents, photo albums, clothing, a few silver items such as dinnerware, candlesticks, and sugar bowl (which I now have) and some money and family heirloom jewelry sewn into the hems of their coats. Some of these items were packed into a sturdy German ammunition’s case that my grandfather used to use to carry items to barter with during the war. This wooden case would later became my toy chest; I painted it blue with white and yellow daisies. Most everything else of theirs was simply left behind, or taken from them by the Russians.

(My parents had a huge wooden chest that was painted light green. It was big enough for me to hide in even when I was as old as ten. Our apartment here in the US caught fire in the middle of the night when I was five. My screams woke my parents. My father kicked out a window pane and threw our stuff out the window. I don’t know how the chest with our other stuff escaped. Firefighters put my mother and me on a parked bus. We watched the fire from there)

Some had nothing but the clothes on their back.

One grandmother’s advice, Don’t take your winter coat. You’ll be back by winter. (Some didn’t return for decades. Most of those who did return were there only to visit. A few moved home to Latvian permanently. It’s “home” even if they were born elsewehre. Neither of my parents ever returned, not even for a short visit)

Silverware that was brought from Latvia – as silver could be traded for food in the most dire of situations….

Wedding china, porcelain cups, jewelry, a white velvet wedding dress. Matchboxes from a factory where a man worked. A wood jewelry box  decorated with amber inlay. Diaries, autograph books.

Silver 5 Lat coins (some coins were turned into brooches or ornamental spoons. I have one such one Lat spoon)

A wooden  coffee grinder, a frying  pan and a roasting pan. A   folding baking pan that’s sill in use.

A two-year-old brought her teddy bear.

Haunting.

In addition to the woven coverlet, my mother brought along a Latvian, Zemgales folk costume. I don’t know if it ever fit her. Maybe before she got pregnant with me it fit but it seems made more for a teenage girl than a young woman. My mother brought it along from Germany then to the United States from the east coast to the West Coast from house to house. I never thought to ask her about the folk dress. I assumed it was hers, even though she never wore it. It’s too late now. I can’t help but wonder if some refugee bartered it for food or some other necessity. I’ll never know.

Detail from the sash from my mother’s folk dress. These sashes are about nine feet long and are worn wrapped around the waist three times, then knotted and the ends hang loose to the knees.
The vest from the folk dress is sewn with great care and skill. It’s fully lined. There are hooks all around the bottom edge of the vest so it can be attached to the skirt. The buttons are handmade sterling silver. Did my father make them? He was taught goldsmithing in the Displaced Persons camp in Germany.


The refugee organization obviously thought it would be easier for a goldsmith than for a postmaster with limited language skills to find a job in a prosperous America. My father spent the rest of his working life as a machinist but for a few years, he made jewelry for fellow Latvians.
A Zemgales (one of the provinces of Latvia) brooch that my father made to go with the folk costume.

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Celebrating Latvia’s Centennial

Memories of Latvia’s centennial from my friend, Sandy Wilkolak, in Ohio. She’s very active in the Latvian community, which is one of the largest in the USA.

“Today is Latvian Independence Day…Here are a couple of memories of our 100th Year Anniversary celebration in 2018 in Cleveland.

It was a most memorable evening. We had a live band for dancing…Our folk dancers performed..Food was prepared by a Latvian chef..I enjoyed decorating the stage and the tables which included M&M’s with Latvija 100 printed on them..🇱🇻💯 Dievs Svētī Latvīju. God Bless Latvia…💕

Latvia’s flag and a bouquet in the flag’s colors at the Latvian Center in Cleveland.
Table decor with favors.
The famous centennial M & Ms with the Latvian spelling: Latvija. How sweet it is!
Round dance. Some people have authentic folk dress.
Dancing is an important part of Latvian culture. Like our songs, it helps sustain us no matter what the circumstances.

Thanks, Sandy, for letting me use your photos and words.

War and cruel fate may have scattered us all over the world, but wherever we are, we will celebrate Latvia’s Independence Day, even if we have to do it virtually.

My Book: A Latvian Can of Worms


Latvian Cinderella Meets American Prince

Not my heroine or her daughter. My passport photo for coming to America

My novel, Bittersweet Christmas, a.k.a. A Daddy for Christmas, was supposed to be a simple little romance, written in four months, re-written in two. It was inspired by Christmas books written by a best selling novelist. I’d never thought about writing a Christmas book before. They seemed too sweet for me, a person who eats jalapeños out of the jar and has the personality to match. When I finished reading the famous author’s four-book series, which featured adultery, drug addiction, insider trading, prison, and cancer, I realized that not all Christmas novels need be as sweet as divinity fudge. I decided to give it a go.

Too many novels these days feature these same elements. They’ve become clichés. But if I didn’t want to use them, what would I do for conflict? Who would my conflicted characters be? I turned to my own background for inspiration. I am the daughter of Latvian refugees, born in Augsburg, Germany, where I spent the first few years of my life.

Hospital in Augsburg where I was born.

Considering the things going on in our country today, and around the world, writing about refugees seemed timely. Setting my story in 1952 made it less politically fraught and provided me with plenty of material, which I could crib from the lives of family and friends. I belong to pretty much every Latvian group on Facebook.

My Latvian Cinderella is Līvija Galiņa, the widow of a Latvian soldier who died before their daughter Dzintra was born. In Latvia Līvija was a lawyer, in America she cleans other women’s house. Līvija lives communally with her daughter, mother, and six other Latvians in a big house on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

The American Prince is Cameron Quinn, a decorated former fighter pilot, who lives a few blocks from Līvija’s home. They meet when she is walking home from work one snowy evening and he saves her from being run over by a car which has jumped the curb after skidding on the icy street.

The main conflict is fear of cultural betrayal on Līvija’s part. Latvians are supposed to marry other Latvians. We are a small community. We struggle to keep our community and culture from dying out. It’s what Līvija’s mother expects of her. She faces pressure from the entire Latvian community, which includes a number of single young men. However Līvija’s unruly heart cares nothing about cultural betrayal. It wants what it wants: Cameron.

My mother and I in Hochfeld DP, where
Līvija and her family lived.

Simple enough. Except that while I had given considerable attention to the political situation in Latvia, it turned out I had thought very little about the political situation in the US. I am writing about the era of the Red Scare. Cameron is an aeronautical engineer and test pilot at Boeing. Association with someone from a Soviet bloc country could jeopardize a job he loves, rouse suspicion among co-workers and friends. His heart, too, wants what it wants, He’s a man who doesn’t easily surrender. He would fight for his job. Fortunately, Cameron’s not prominent enough to be dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but would J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI be after him? My dilemma, how much of this to include in a novel which is supposed to be a simple romance? It gives me gives me great points of conflict for my plot, but if I include too much of this material, my story stops being a romance.

A manuscript I thought was almost finished would need to get longer and more involved than I intended it to be. I want this thing to be finished. How much of this new material can I skim over? Head pounding on keyboard.

I love my characters and my story. Somehow I will wade through this mire.

My uncle (on the right), a friend and I at Hochfeld Displaced Persons Camp in Augsburg, Germany