Thursday, 3 September 2015

My grandad was a refugee

My grandad was born in Latvia in 1921.

Growing up, he liked the outdoors. He'd go cycling and fishing with his friends. I remember him telling me about how they used to go fishing and collecting crabs at a big lake, but one day they went to the lake, and there was a dead cow at the side of it, decomposing, and crawling with crabs that were eating its remains. He said he could never eat crab again after seeing that!

In the 1930s, he moved with his mum, dad, brothers and sisters to a big farm in Saldus (Latvia). He was planning to go to university to study agricultural engineering. One day he was playing out on the farmland, when, in one of the empty buildings, he saw two figures. He ran back to his house, screaming at his mum that he had seen ghosts. She silenced him quickly and said he must never mention them again. They weren't ghosts. They were a Jewish family (3 people in total) that my grandad's parents were hiding from Nazis. (I am sharing this, simply because I am so proud of my great grandparents for doing this.)

Another day, there was a loud knock at their front door. It was two armed Nazi soldiers. My grandad, fit and healthy in his late teens at the time, was told to be waiting at the end of the street at 5pm. He was being taken to work (in agriculture) for the Nazi's. He had no choice but to go. That was the last day he saw any of his family, although through the grapevine he heard that his parents and siblings had also ended up in Nazi camps, and also that his mother had contracted tuberculosis.

At the end of the war, he was transferred to a displaced persons camp in Wahlstedt, because after the German occupation, Latvia was once again occupied by Russia. It wasn't safe for him to return home. My grandad always described the Nazi occupation as friendly in comparison to the Russian. So, my grandad was brought to Britain as a refugee. He described to me his train journey across Europe towards Britain. He told me he, and the other refugees travelling with him, were each given a suitcase with some clothes as well as things like cutlery, playing cards and cigarettes. He thought he was treated like royalty. When I was little and he'd tell me about this I felt proud - proud that I lived in the nice country that helped other people who needed a safe home.

My grandad had always wanted to return to Latvia once it was no longer under communist control - but that didn't happen until he was 70 years old. So he stayed in the UK. He got married, had two children. He worked in factories, unable to fulfil his plans of studying at university, but he knew he had everything he really needed. A house, a garden, a family. Enough money to buy food and clothes. Safety. Although - he still had nightmares about the Second World War years every single night that had him shouting and crying out in his sleep.

I've copied here an excerpt of a letter he sent to him which he had kept his whole life, which someone kindly translated for us a few years ago. This describes the Russian occupied Latvia that he could not return to (and treatment of Latvians in the Soviet Gulag's that they were sent to) :


I only have half an hour to write a letter to you. I can no longer think straight nor write.

From the first Russian entry day we were horrified by seeing all of those bastards riding in our streets. They were riding on horses through the streets drunk and doing all the worst things that you can possibly imagine. If you think that they are as in 1940/41 and that things are as they were back then, then you think wrong. It was nothing compared to everything that is happening here today. From day one they began looting, killing and raping and it continues every day. When it gets dark, only Russians are outside on the streets.

Do not think anything about my rough way of expression, because now I can only curse and endlessly hate all the vermin bunch, that destroys us. Hatred – this word is not strong enough to express what I feel inside. There is no limit of hate against Russians, but they are now lords in our land. It is now natural here, that people get striped of all clothes on the street, or Russians rob apartments leaving nothing in them, you are lucky if you still get to keep your naked life. And it's all done by majors or even higher position officers of the Red Army. They simply put a revolver to you forehead and say “отдай!” (“hand it over!”). Soldiers take boots and watches from people who return home from work. Top-quality robbery methods appear here. And newspapers write, that it is done by vlasovieši (Vlasovieši - Soviet Motherland traitors) and Latvian national bourgeois.

Don't believe in election results. At four in the morning (on election day) Russians began to wake up all Latvians and bring them to polling stations . With hearts full of hatred, people voted, because we're like a bunch of sheep where we have to do as we are told. Chekists or their assistants were going to every house and made them to go and vote. Cars were driving through the streets, pulling the helpless to the polls. They were in my house 3 times before 3 pm on that day, and, because of my mother was brought to Cheka for interrogation like 10 times, I was forced to go and vote as well. You see how obedient we are now. But only those who live here can understand it.

Our legionnaires, we wanted to greet them properly, and now they come home, but some have been killed and some die in a while after returning. Can you imagine in what circumstances they live there. After spending a few months in “Soviet paradise” people return crippled. Some are like skeletons, due to hard work and starvation, some are swollen from hunger and terrible conditions of life. Many are left blind and lost their minds. Thousands more are killed in Russia. 

How much longer is this madness is going to continue? All this, that I have written to you so far, is only a tiny bit of what is happening here. Do we have to suffer now because fought against Communism? Were Germans right about Russians?

Every day more and more people get arrested and deported to Russia (Siberia). You spoke of faith once. Do you still have it? There are still few people who believe, hope and wait, but more and more, seeing everything that's going on here, have lost their hope and faith. Only thing that is left is to prepare for everything and take the “road of fate”, because nothing can save us now.

Many carry poison for themselves for, when the time comes, to put an end to the suffering imposed by the Russian bastards. Here they arrest old men and women, and 15 years old children are taken from schools put in prison to the time when the prisons are filled, all of them are deported to Russia. And so prisons are filled and emptied to make room for new people to be taken away.

Streets are full with thugs these days. All vermin now prevail here. They get a tremendous salary and a variety of food cards which is all that a man needs. I won't even try to describe the level of starvation here, all I get is bread which even a dog refuses to eat .People are exhausted. It is not possible to describe what is going on here or it would take forever to write it all down. There is no limit of hate and anger. Every day people suffer. One day all this anger will come out.

They arrest everybody as if they were fascists and then they are sentenced for 10, 15 and 20 years of hard labour in Russia. That is cruellest death ever, it drains and tortures before finally killing you.

There are only 2 types of Russians: the Communists and those who are not – the Fascists "national bourgeois" and they are destroyed. In recent days many children and adults are taken to trains, they are all condemned to torment in Russia and all of that is because we do not want Russians and their terrible system.

I haven't been in Riga, but Alma has. Rubbish everywhere. Streets full with poor, homeless people. Latvians will sell the last piece of cloth to be able to live somehow. Do all that is possible to end this nightmare.

Has everyone forgotten that there are three small countries who are waiting for their freedom?

My grandad was a refugee. I am alive because, displaced from his home country as a result of war and military occupation, he was able to live, work and raise a family in Britain.

Yesterday we saw the image of the 3 year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up, drowned, on a beach in Turkey. His mother Rihan and his 5 year old brother Galip also drowned after the boats they were travelling to Kos on sank. His father is alive, but was unable to save his wife and children.

This is not the same Britain that helped my grandad. I don't feel very proud of my country right now. It's wonderful that people are organising donations of tents and sleeping bags and warm clothes and food via, for example, Amazon gift lists. I'm glad people are signing petitions and planning marches. I like that people are speaking out together on social media to say refugees are welcome. But as individuals there is only so much we can do unless our government will accept more refugees. These people need a place to live, in a country where they are safe. Instead of coming here (and to other European countries) on organised trains, being supplied with provisions, and treated with compassion and dignity, they are drowning in European seas. What a disgrace. If he were alive, this would break my grandad's heart. It certainly breaks mine.

PS My friend has set up a page on Facebook which is sharing links to various ways in which people can do a little to help.

1 comment:

  1. My granddad came to this country from what was then Czechoslovakia just after the second world war. He made a home here, worked all his life and raised a family.

    I feel the same as you - our country's response to the refugee crisis is appalling.