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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Some Honeymoon!

The Beginning of a Refugee Journey

Today would have been my parents’ wedding anniversary.

They got married during World War II. At the time Germans were occupying Latvia. Two months after their wedding they were having breakfast when a German soldier knocked on the door and warned that the Soviet Red Army was invading Latvia. If they didn’t want to live under Soviet rule, they must flee immediately. They did.

My mother was from Limbaži, a town in the Vidzeme region in northern Latvia, not far inland from the Gulf of Rīga.

This is probably a school photo of my mother.

My father was from Alūksne in the northeast of Latvia. Too close to the border with Russia.

I don’t know when this photo of my father was taken.

They met in Mālpils, a small town that’s also in Vidzeme, but a bit farther to the south, closer to the capital, Rīga. My mother was a pharmacy assistant and my father was the postmaster. He would go to the pharmacy for prescriptions and she’d go to the post office to buy stamps. Other than that, I know nothing of their courtship. They were married at my maternal grandparents’ home and then returned to Mālpils. During wartime in an occupied country there was probably no opportunity to take a wedding trip.

The pharmacy in Mālpils.

 My mother had no wedding photos among her belongings.ī

 Taking the warning seriously my parents fled on bicycles. Someone must have carried their possessions in a wagon or maybe a truck. Their household goods included linen sheets and pillowcases. Towels that my mother had embroidered for her hope chest. These items made it all the way to America. Decades later when I visited my mother’s childhood home, where her younger brother and his family still live I was surprised and delighted to see a handwoven coverlet on my uncle and aunt’s bed that was identical to the one I have at home.

It’s hard to believe and embarrassing to realize how incurious I was about my parents’ marriage, their early years together, and how they got to Germany. My mother spoke very little about that time, my father not speak of it at all. How terrigly traumatic it must have been to leave behind everything they knew and loved, their families, their country, their professions, their entire way of life.

Two of my mother’s three brothers made it out of Lativa; her younger brother stayed behind with their parents. Only one of my father’s three brothers was able to escape. The other two brothers, his sister, and his parents never made it to freedom. Since they weren’t living in their hometowns when they left Latvia, they were unable to contact loved ones and  probably had no idea what became of them

I don’t know by what route my parents got to Germany. I never had to ask why they went to a war-torn country where all sorts of horrors were happening. What I do know is that most Latvians would have fled into the maw of hell in order to get away from the advancing Soviets army.

My parents in the Bavarian Alps.

My folks wound up in Berlin when it was being bombed. They found shelter in a five-tory brick schoolhouse. My mother said a bomb cut the building in two as if with a knife. I don’t know how my parents survived.

Eventually, they made it to the Hochfeld Displaced Persons Camp in Augsburg in the American-occupied zone, the German state of Bavaria. I’m not sure how long they were there, four or five years probably. Augsburg is where I was born.

My parents’ story and those of friends and relatives provided inspiration for my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart. Our first two refuges in the USA were Pennsylvania and then Delaware where my parents worked to pay back their sponsors for bringing us to America. Like my heroine, Līvija Galiņa, our ultimate desitnation was Western Washington. One of my mother’s cousins, her son, and her mother found a new home in Seattle on Capitol Hill where Līvija lives with her family. Where she meets her destiny.

The link to my novel on Kindle Vella.