A story as old as time itself and sadly still happening all over the world: people forced to leave their homes and settle in foreign lands due to political or economic circumstances. Sometime in the autumn of 1944 my mother, my grandmother and step-grandfather fled the approaching Soviet army and left Latvia on a boat bound for Germany. The war was still raging so it would have been a dangerous journey but more than 270,000 refugees from the Baltic States must have thought the risk was worth it. Their destination remains unknown to me - in fact my mother disclosed very few details about her time in Germany and I never thought to ask her. I presume that the whole enterprise was so traumatic that she preferred to draw a veil over it and who can blame her? I know she befriended a Latvian girl called Gloria on the journey and they stayed together throughout their time in Germany, moving from camp to camp. There are no photographs of her in this period of her life. The only proof of their life in the postwar Displaced Persons Camps is this picture of my grandmother sitting on a bench knitting. My mother has written on the back in Latvian “My mother, Ohmstede Camp, Oldenburg, Germany 1947”. Oldenburg was in the British sector in postwar Germany and there were several camps in the town occupied by people from the Baltic nations. This was probably near the end of their stay in Germany as later in 1947 or early 1948 they emigrated to Great Britain.
I find this photograph of my 43 year old grandmother very moving. It is both very ordinary and quite extraordinary at the same time. There she sits, looking stylish and well-groomed, engrossed in her knitting, a mysterious little half-smile playing on her lips. She could be in a park or her own back garden. In fact, this is how I remember her, often with a piece of sewing or knitting on her lap, calm and serene. Yet her world has been torn upside down - she is a refugee without a home of her own, miles away from her native land, a stranger amongst many strangers. It is often claimed that a photograph tells a story but without any context it can be misleading - without the words written on the back we would know nothing of the circumstances behind the picture.
What was life like in those camps? Different nationalities were housed in separate camps and an effort was made to establish some sort of normality with opportunities for employment, schooling and cultural activities. The refugees were clothed and fed and safe but had no luxuries. They must have missed their homeland terribly and many would have hoped to return but few did. I found a few pictures online of a neighbouring camp in Oldenburg for Latvians which must have been similar - you can see that they have planted a garden in an attempt to make it look less austere but the huts are reminiscent of concentration camps and conditions must have been primitive at best. Further information on the establishment of Displaced Persons Camps in postwar Germany can be read here
I also came across this short film - a montage of archival footage of Lithuanians in displaced persons camps after World War II showing the living conditions, daily camp life and activities. Life must have been very similar for my grandmother and mother - a sobering thought to which I am ashamed to say I gave little attention as I was growing up.
Little remains to document that period in my family’s life. All I found was a small folded piece of yellowing paper in the bottom of a box belonging to my grandmother. It is dated Christmas 1944, so not long after their arrival in Germany, and on it are inscribed in her handwriting the words Königs Wusterhausen - a town near Berlin and the site of a former concentration camp which was liberated by the Russians in 1945 - so this is where she must have ended up immediately after leaving Latvia, before moving on once more to avoid the Soviets. The typewritten words are a few traditional Latvian Christmas carols, a poignant little reminder of home….