My dad was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1929. My Grandmother was a former schoolteacher, who became Superintendant of the Riga school district. My Grandfather was an artist of some repute. Dad had two brothers, one adopted…my Grandparents found a basket containing a baby on their doorstep one morning, along with a note asking that he be given a good home.
His childhood was entertaining…Latvia was occupied by the Red Army in the 1939, by virtue of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, and then later by the Nazis in 1941. My dad remembers, in 1941, walking around with his friends, and finding live rifle and heavy machine gun rounds laying about. It was great fun to lay them out on the railroad tracks, and wait for a train to roll by…bang bang bang. Anti aircraft rounds were much more fun (louder), but they had to be more careful lest the Germans decide it was a Partisan sabotage attempt, which did occur.
The German response was very simple….”Raus Raus Raus” and then in German “Everyone in the street”. The German commander (if there had been any German casualties) would count off so many people until he had selected 15 for each German killed, who would then be put against the nearest wall and shot as a lesson to the rest.
His favorite story about the Red Army soldiers was describing the trouble they had washing their faces. It was very awkward using the “sink” in the bathroom while kneeling on their knees. Their trousers would invariably become soaked. They would lather up their hands and faces, pull the chain and the water would come in a rush, much too quickly to rinse their hands or faces! Apparently they had never encountered flush toilets.
Although they lived in the city, they also had a summer house at the Baltic seashore…the Jurmala. A favorite activity was scouring the beach for amber, which would wash up after storms. My grandfather would have some of them ground into beads, then drilled and strung into traditional necklaces. He was also a silversmith, as part of his artistic activities. I have several Boy Scout neckerchief sliders that he made for my dad, one with an amber inlay.
My dad told me about his cousin…a very progressive young lady, whose father, my great Uncle, was a brewer. He prided himself on his brewery being nearly self sufficient. He grew his own hops and corn. The corn stalks were saved for fuel to be used in the brewing process.
One year, there was an enormous party and feast on St John’s day. Food and beer were plentiful, all were enjoying themselves. My Aunt, a young lady of 16 or so, wanted to smoke a cigarette. However, ladies of good breeding didn’t smoke in public. Nor did they wander about unescorted. So she enlisted my dad.
They slipped away quietly to one of the brewery’s barns so that she could smoke in peace. Unfortunately, it was one of the corn husk barns. She dropped an ember, or didn’t extinguish her butt properly. The barn went up in flames, which quickly spread. Fortunately, the town’s fire department was well represented at the feast. Unfortunately, they were all three sheets to the wind…hopelessly drunk. The brewery burned to the ground. I met her when she was living in Queens, New York in the 1970’s.
By 1944, the Nazis were in retreat, and the Red Army was advancing. My Grandfather was dead, as well as my uncle, they had joined the German Army fighting the Reds. My Grandmother decided it would soon be time to go…they had experienced life under the Reds, they would take their chances with the Nazis. They had already emptied Grandfather’s studio, removed canvases from the stretchers, and packed as much as they could carry. The rest, they had bricked-up in an alcove in St John’s Church, where they would remain until 1996, when my dad visited Riga, and told Museum curators what they had done years ago. They were retrieved and donated to the National Museum in Riga.
It was 1944. My dad had loosened a fenceboard in the back of the house. As the Reds advanced through the city, they slipped out through the fence, made their way to the railway station, which was deserted, and followed the tracks, and the German retreat.
Fortunately, the war didn’t last much longer. They found themselves in a succession of DP Camps (Displaced Persons Camp) for refugees. The first was Camp Lohengren outside of Munich. The next was Warner Caserne, also outside of Munich. My dad was quite enterprising while they were there…he built crystal radios out of parts he scavenged from discarded German electronics. They were able to supplement their rations quite handily. Their last camp was Valka, located outside of Nurenberg. The camp Baker had a shed with a wood burning stove. My dad was able to keep a chicken that he had bought in the shed in exchange for a few eggs to the baker. He and my grandmother shared the rest of the eggs between themselves…usually by shaking the eggs, poking two holes with a pin, and sucking out the contents raw. My dad remembers the excellent bread there. The baker was quite accomplished.
They underwent the Red Cross screening, and were sponsored for visas to the U.S. by dad’s Aunt and Cousin, who had previously made it to the U.S.. They obtained transport to Bremer Haven, which was the port near Schweinfurt where there were many ball bearing factories that had been heavily bombed (pounded, in his words) by Allied air raids. Their Trans Atlantic voyage was aboard a Liberty ship, USS Marine Tiger, whose chief function was ferrying nurses to Europe from the U.S.. The accomodations were very comfortable…Two level bunks, as well as a Dining Room with waitress service! The war in the Pacific was still in full swing, so the staff was generally very protective of their positions.
Their ship arrived in Boston, and they took a train to New York, where they were met by my dad’s Aunt and Cousin. They had applied for a scholarship for my dad, which he recieved. He had to travel to Taconic, Connecticut (where he met my mom) to complete the paperwork before enrolling in the General Studies School at Columbia University in the Pre-Engineering program. Unfortunately it was 1953, and the Korean war had started. To obtain a draft deferral, he required a greater English language proficiency than he posessed. He and my mom were married before he shipped out for Korea.
In Korea, his commander was thrilled to have an Engineering student on his hands…so dad was tasked with aligning the sights of all the battalion’s artillery pieces. To do so, he travelled from one artillery battery to the next, clutching the handholds outside of a tank.
When he returned, he re-enrolled in school, and took a job as a carpenter’s apprentice at the Levittown construction project on Long Island, NY.
Categories: Real people Real Experiences