Displaced Persons CampsLife Under UNRRA
Fleeing the Second Soviet Occupation
Our parents' generation was forced to flee into exile to escape the Soviet re-invasion of Latvia. Nothing matched the dread of, or hatred for, the Soviets, who had instituted a campaign of mass deporations and outright murder during their first occupation, which came to be known as the Baigais Gads, the "Year of Terror."
The Nazi invasion interrupted that brutal occupation—one horror replaced by another. When the Germans retreated, a choice of one evil over the other was the only option to escape the coming Soviet onslaught. Many made it to the Baltic coast and escaped by boat from the ports of Liepaja or Ventspils—Peters' mom recounted she pulled her scarf over her face so she couldn't see the bombshells dropping in the water and sinking ships around them. Thousands made it across to Sweden, but many also fell victim to a stormy Baltic Sea. After the end of the war, about 200,000 made it to Displaced Persons (“DP”) camps in West Germany. Peter's parents fled twice. They had settled in eastern Germany, and then fled across Germany to the British Zone by bicycle as the Soviets advanced, sticking to back roads to keep from being shot.
And so began life as refugees for the better part of a decade. The DP camps were administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), but the camps inhabitants were largely self-organized and self-managed. Latvians published their own newspapers and periodicals, staffed their own medical facilities and schools, and carried on their cultural life through art, crafts, literature, and music. (Peters' father was an art teacher.) Their hope for home had not yet dimmed—fleeing into exile, many, like Peters' godfather, had buried family valuables for their eventual return, never thinking they would not live to see their homeland again.
As much as we identify with our Latvian roots—feeling at home in Latvia with our relatives, seeing the sights we learned about as children “growing up Latvian” in a country foreign and strange to our parents—the joy of visiting the land of our heritage can't erase the bittersweet knowledge that we should have been born and raised in a free Latvia. Our parents passed their pain of separation on to us—an unfathomable loss, real and palpable. But, more, they passed on the love of their country and their heritage.
We invite you to check out the biography of Anna Apinis, who immigrated to Australia after WWII. Anna dedicated herself to preserving the art of Latvian weaving, working on a loom built from scavenged materials in the DP camps in Germany, bringing it with her to her new life in Australia. Read more here:
We have a very personal connection here. Anna married Peters’ mother's first cousin, Ervīns. After the war, those who had once lived within walking distance in childhood found themselves oceans, continents—10,000 miles—apart after the war—never to see each other again.