This is a revised version of an essay I posted in November of 2020. It’s not just sad, but horrible that not only have things not changed in that time, they’ve gotten worse. Putin, a Stalin-wanna-be has brutally invaded Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians have fled, thousands have stayed to fight for their country, and too many have died. My heart aches for them. I read the headline, watch video clips and cry. I hope the refugees can all go home soon and none of their children are born stateless.
A Photo Essay
Refugees have been on my mind lately, even though the refugee crisis on the southern USA border has been pushed out of the headlines by the pandemic and the presidential election. I’ve also been reading about refugees and their desperate plight in books by Erich Maria Remarque, Flotsam and The Night in Lisbon.
Flotsam is defined as the debris from the wreckage of a ship or its cargo. It’s also defined as people or things that have been rejected and are regarded as worthless.
Isn’t that perfect? We were human flotsam from the World War II wreckage of Europe. At best refugees were regarded by natives of the countries they fled to as “unwanted guests,” at worst as “the scum of Europe.” How sad that so little has changed.
I’ve also been thinking about refugees because for the past two years I’ve been writing a novel about a Latvian refugee, Līvija Galiņa, and her family, who after years as flotsam in Europe have finally found a safe haven in Seattle, Washington, USA. There, one snowy evening, Līvija is nearly run down by an out-of-control car, which has skidded on an ice street and jumped the curb. Her life is saved by a dashing former fighter pilot, Cameron Quinn. Writing my novel has been an all-consuming, delightful, frustrating, agonizing journey–hours of writing, followed by more hours of re-writing, editing, and more editing, doing my best to make my story captivating and readable. Hoping readers will find my characters as engaging as I do.
Here are a few photos of my family’s time in the Hochfeld Displaced Persons camp in Augsburg, Germany.
This cattle car is not loading Jewish people to send them to concentration camps. This cattle car is loading Latvians to take them to Siberia. Thousands were deported. Most of them never returned. They died of starvation or overwork in forced labor camps. Or because it was so cold that even vodka freezes during a Siberian winter.
Nikolaijs lost his leg in WW II. He and his friends are posing outside a hospital. My uncle was in the Augsburg DP camp with us. He, my other uncle–my father’s brother, Alfons, my parents, and I all lived together. I think we had two rooms. A separate room for my folks and me and another for the unmarried uncles.
I have no idea how this picture got taken or why Mr. Ohaks is in it. He was the “elder,” the supervisor, I guess, of the DP camp building where we lived. He was no relation to us. Perhaps he was my uncle’s friend, or as the elder, maybe he was everyone’s friend. I have no idea where that ball came from. It could have been in a CARE package from America.
My uncle never talked about her. I never knew her name. I only know about her from what my mother told me. The girlfriend had a husband who had stayed in Latvia. I don’t know how they got separated. Was he a soldier who’d been reported killed in action? While in Germany she learned that her husband was still alive. She went back to him, leaving my uncle devastated. In her absence, her husband had married someone else. The girlfriend was not allowed to leave Latvia again. Alfons never married. I based events in my novel on real-life incidents.
The uncles left one by one as they found sponsors in the USA. I’m upset because Nikolaijs was my favorite uncle. I believe the buildings on the right are the ones where we all lived. Many refugees did not have such elegant accommodations. Some had to live in root cellars.
A laissez-passer is “a diplomatic travel document issued by the United Nations” to stateless people. Refugee who’ve lost their homelands.
The Greely was the navy transport ship that brought my family and other refugees to New York.
I remember very little about the trip. I was only three and a half. My mother and I had an upper bunk in a cabin with other women and children. My father was in a different cabin with other men. Everyone but me was seasick.
On the Greely was the first time I remember seeing a Black man. He was a steward and very nice. He gave me an orange. Oranges were such a rare commodity that in the camps they were Christmas gifts.
The nice steward also brought me a dish of red Jell-o. It was the first time I’d ever seen such a thing. I called it kustelīgais (wiggly)
Our first stop in the USA was Pennsylvania where my parents worked on the corn farm that belonged to our sponsors to repay them for bringing us to America. We also lived in Delaware for a while.
After a year of working for their sponsors, refugees were free to go wherever they wished. My folks hated the heat and humidity of East Coast summers. Alfons had completed his tenure working on his sponsors’ farm in South Dakota and moved to Tacoma, Washington where he had friends. He wrote to my father saying how nice it was in western Washington and urged us to come to live here. I may be prejudiced but I think he couldn’t have picked a better place.
(More installments of Latvia Under the Soviets will follow)
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