Piecing Together the Past

Family history can be unreliable and nebulous especially in troubled times. Growing up as a child of a Latvian refugee I had of course listened to my mother’s tales of her life in Latvia and subsequent departure towards the end of the war. Details and dates are sketchy at best - I heard how she and her family - my grandmother and step-grandfather - left their home in Riga to stay in the country at his parents small-holding, something as a cultured city girl she must have found hard to deal with. I imagine it was round the time of the impending second Soviet invasion in 1944 when the Russians were approaching the eastern border of Latvia. I also remember hearing of their flight from Latvia where like thousands of others, rather than live a second time under Russian occupation, they just took what they could carry and made their way to the coast to be evacuated by ship to Germany. Astonishingly I never gave these stories much thought - for me they were just part of my mother’s history which I accepted in the blasé way of the young.

I recently rediscovered these photos and managed to decipher some of the Latvian writing on the back, all in my grandmother’s hand. I had assumed this tiny photo of my mother with her signature and an official stamp was from a passport but looking on the rear you can make out the words Tērvetes tbc sanatorijas darba terapija which translates as therapy worker in the Tērvete TB Sanatorium - a piece of information of which I had been unaware. Tērvete is a place south west of Riga in the old region of Courland or Kurzeme and amazingly the sanatorium still exists. She must have been about 17 or 18 years old. The picture of her holding a horse must also date from this time - she is wearing the same clothes and hairstyle - but for some reason it has been cut down from a larger photograph. The group of people in the next picture are standing in front of the same building and the horse appears again. On the back is written Tērvetiesi Bēgļu gaitas - refugees from Tērvete and the date is autumn 1944 when the second Soviet invasion was imminent. The two girls with the horse and cart also appear in the previous photograph to the back on the right - perhaps my mother knew them.


Only a handful of photographs remain from my mother’s early life and these appear to be the last ones taken in Latvia. Did she and her family join this band of refugees with their few possessions and flee for their lives? Or perhaps they left at a later date? In any case, I know that in their haste to leave they left all the family photograph albums in the safe-keeping of my step-grandfather’s parents who remained behind and subsequently destroyed them rather than let them fall into Russian hands. As my step-grandfather used to work for the Latvian government as a civil servant the albums possibly contained incriminating evidence and they must have feared reprisals.

These photographs give a human face to the mass exodus of citizens from the Baltic states in the final stages of World War 2: between August and December 1944 there were 102,500 civilian refugees from Latvia alone, most of whom went to Germany. By the end of the war there were 170,00 Latvians living in Germany. Most of these, including my mother and family, would have hoped to return home to live after the war, but it wasn’t to be. She didn’t return to visit until the 1980s when she was reunited with her father, by which time she must have felt like a stranger in her own land. The Russians were responsible for ethnic engineering on a massive scale - thousands of Latvians were transported to camps in Siberia, a mass influx of native Russians took their place leading to the marginalisation of the Latvian language and culture. This era of Latvian history is well documented in the Museum of the Occupation in Riga. These few small photographs go a little way to help me understand the huge rupture and ensuing sense of alienation in my mother’s life. I wish I had paid more attention…….