The Exile ExperienceKeeping Identity Alive

"An interest in one’s past is a mark of culture...The study of history begins with the preservation of memories and then passing them on to subsequent generations. That, also, is an expression of love for one’s native land. To know one's ancestors through their work, virtues and language...is the strongest means of preserving that tradition.'" —historian, scholar, and Latgalian Leonards Latkovskis (1905-1991)

Camp: 1. a. a place usually away from urban areas where tents or simple buildings (as cabins) are erected for shelter or for temporary residence (as for laborers, prisoners, or vacationers) e.g. migrant labor camp>

Merriman-Webster Dictionary

...the common thread binding together Latvians far from their homeland:

  • Siberian settlement and Gulag forced labor camps
  • Latvia Legion in POW camps
  • Displaced Persons ("DP") camps

Fleeing the Soviet return meant sailing down the Baltic, typically Danzig (Gdansk), or across to Sweden. Both voyages were fraught with danger: Soviets bombarded and sank refugee transports, and many of the small boats attempting to cross the Baltic fell victim to its storms.

For the conscripted Latvian Legion[1], who had hoped to use the Germans to thwart the Russian return and to then drive the Germans out in a replay of Latvia's Brīvības cīņas (War of Independence), the end of the war brought a fresh gauntlet of perils.

Nor was one safe in the hands of the West. Sweden Swedish extradition of Baltic soldiers|extradited Legionnaires back to the USSR where they were shot or exiled to labor camps in the Gulag as traitors. In a POW camp in Belgium, guards shot Legionnaires for target practice. From our own family histories, a nurse poisoned Peters' godparents' daughter in the hospital because her father's, Atis', name was "Otto." Silvija's father—then a gangly teenager—had his throat slit at the hands of American GIs and was left to die because he answered his name was "Heinrick." Many write to us that their parents or grandparents were always reluctant to discuss their time in the DP camps. This was why, at least for our families—painful memories retold no more than once or twice.

Yet, Latvians under all of these circumstances took it upon themselves to preserve and nurture that which they were. They preserved their folk traditions, fashioning handicrafts—even an entire loom—out of scraps; they published daily newspapers, periodicals, and paperbacks of their literature; they ran their own medical facilities, schools, even Baltic University|universities.

We who "grew up" Latvian but born in another country will never know or understand the circumstances or voyage that brought us here or that scattered our families to the winds. We can only honor those before us, to portray those times through the stories they told and the memories held in the artifacts they saved and created for future generations.


[1]The Latvian Legion was formed in 1943, after the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Not a single individual has been accused of a war crime while in service of the Legion. Some portion—300 per Nuremberg documents—of Arajs collaborators, who numbered 300-500 at the height of the Holocaust and on the order of 1,500 during later anti-partisan actions—did subsequently make it into the ranks of the Legion. Their presence is routinely used to denounce the whole—57,000 at its peak. The Legion were not "convicted at Nuremburg" as Russia regularly accuses and even reputable scholars contend. Quite the complete opposite, they served as Allied guards.

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