Saturday, May 07, 2005

Latvian Survivors

Pete's story, as written for my middle school aged niece, of his Latvian family's survival in the refugee camps before immigrating to America, concludes below:

Part III – Camp Life

I am going to use the abbreviation DP to mean displaced persons. There were a number of different nationalities besides Latvians. Most of the population consisted of people from the Baltic region. There were Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Ukrainians, just to name a few. Now let’s look at what life was like in the DP camps.

First, let’s look at a few numbers. After Germany surrendered in 1945, there were 7 million DPs in West Germany, from almost every country in Europe. There were ten million freed German prisoners from every country that had fought in the war. Add to that the Jews that had survived the Holocaust. The amount of DPs in Germany was like putting the whole population of New York City and Los Angeles into New Jersey. This is in addition to the native people who already lived there.

The DPs had no food, clothing, or shelter. The Allied policy at that time and for the next few years was to simply keep those people alive. There were no long term plans for settling them anywhere.

The camp barracks provided shelter, but they were crowded. Each barrack held up to fifteen people. The families were able to stay together. They slept on bunk beds and kept warm by a log burning stove. Even though it was crowded, it was not as bad as the first labor camp my parents had been in. At first, the soldiers policed the camps as if the DPs were going to escape. They finally realized that the DPs had no place to go. They then left it up to the DPs to police themselves.

For work, there was not much to do. The women mostly kept their barracks clean, did laundry, and took care of the children. Some of the younger men helped the army take care of their equipment and trucks. Some worked repairing the railroads that had been bombed. They were willing to do any type of work to make the days pass productively. The men who worked for the army received a small amount of pay, but they had nowhere to spend it. After the first few years, the DPs were allowed away from the camp if they had a pass. There were farms and villages outside the camp where they went to buy maybe an apple, eggs, or anything else good to eat.

Through the years, the DPs set up schools for their children. Latvian traditions were practiced. They celebrated holidays, weddings, births, and deaths in their traditional ways, always ready to create a party and some enjoyment. They played sports, held mass and said prayers together. Most of the DPs did not work, so they had to do something daily to keep sanity and normalcy in their lives.

My mother said that the worst feeling in camp was the not knowing. What will happen to them? Will they stay there forever? What will happen the next day?

Health and food was always a concern. There was a clinic in camp where the DPs were treated for minor injuries and illnesses. In serious conditions, the patient had to be sent away from camp to an army medical center.

Food was another, very serious, matter. Let me use some examples to help you understand the situation. You have probably seen homeless people on street corners with signs asking for a donation. That was not possible for the DPs; they were all in a camp together, all hungry. You may have seen homeless people rummaging in dumpsters. This did happen in the camps, but there was very little for them to find. There were no leftover hamburgers or donuts for many miles. What is the major food served in a homeless shelter today? Soup! Think of the DP camp as a homeless shelter with 2,000 people in it. What do they feed them? You guessed it, soup. That was always the main meal in camp.

The kitchen area was across the parade grounds, which was quite a long walk from the barracks, especially in the snow or rain. Every morning the DPs lined up to get their first meal. This meal consisted of bread and some liquid which was called coffee, but it wasn’t. My mother didn’t know what was in it. At lunch, they lined up again for a bowl of pea soup. It became known as “zalous briesmus,” which is Latvian for “green horror.” Can you imagine waiting on line in your school cafeteria with 2,000 other kids to get a bowl of the same terrible soup, day after day? My father never touched pea soup after he got to America. For dinner, the DPs lined up again. Dinner was the same as breakfast—bread and coffee-like liquid. This menu was repeated every day, year after year. On rare occasions, the DPs received meat or noodles. The noodles often had bugs in them. The DPs weren’t told what type of meat they were eating, but my parents said that they had eaten horsemeat in the camps.

A United Nations Relief Agency occasionally sent care packages. These contained chocolate, cigarettes, and packaged food. Different items were in different packages. The DPs traded among themselves for what they liked and needed from the packages.

You may ask why there was so little food. I’ll use a current example. If you have seen the news about Afghanistan, you see people moving about the country by the thousands. They also did not know where they were going, but they knew they couldn’t stay where they were. Again, camps were set up to house and feed these people, but only the bare essentials. Airplanes dropped food and supplies for the DPs in Afghanistan, but most of it doesn’t reach the people who need it most. Other people take it and sell it, so the ones who need it most are starving.

Now, let’s go back to 55 years ago, to the Latvian DPs. The world had never faced the challenge of feeding ten million hungry people. There were no air drops. Supplies from the United States came by ship. Everything then had to be sent to the camps by railroad or truck. After the war, the rails and roads were in terrible condition, so food shipments took a long time to reach them. The people in charge of the camps did what they could with the means that were available to them. Most of the DPs, including my family, survived to rebuild their lives in a new country.