This post was to begin with a note recalling the death of my father on October 26, 2013. And so it does now, but it is late because of a great deal of reflection (and research) on the migration of fellow Estonian and Baltic and other citizens out of the devastation of World War II Europe.
If there was any blessing in the closure of most US government functions in October 2013, it was that the forced time off gave me the opportunity to do my real duty that moment. That duty was to be with my father, Albert Vaart, through the last weeks of his most challenging and rich life, which included flying as a German Air Force pilot against the Russians on the Eastern Front, recovering from severe injuries suffered when his plane was shot down in February 1945, and eventual emigration to the United States, where he joined my mother and me in New York City in 1951. The month was trying, yet enriching, and as some of the hours stretched long, I had time to think about things I have not thought enough about.
Those things included questions that have bubbled up in this mind since it was capable of pondering subjects beyond eating, learning a new language, finding ways around a new and extremely complicated home (New York City), and adapting to becoming a latchkey kid–a kid used to being under mother’s foot for six years. through Europe. They included spiritual questions and questions about the events that had brought me to this day.
The remembrance of my father’s death coincided with the discovery of a new work on the subject of post-World War II Germany that Harvard University published in April 2014. The work could not have been more appropriately timed as the Western Allies of the war prepared to celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Unremarked generally in the celebratory mood of that day in June, was the unfolding drama of vast numbers of people being driven from their homes by advancing Soviet armies in the East, from the Balkans to the Baltics.
The book’s author, Werner Sollors, was born in Germany in 1943 and lived those days as a boy. Sollors’s work expanded my knowledge of the times, and takes into account the travails of the displaced persons from the East. What Sollors did in his book, Temptation of Despair, Tales of the 1940s was to recover and synthesize the news reporting, photography, literature, and diaries of the period in Germany, from the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945 through the end of the decade. Harvard described the book as follows:
Drawing on a vast array of American, German, and other sources—diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, government reports, essays, works of fiction, and film—Werner Sollors makes visceral the experiences of defeat and liberation, homelessness and repatriation, concentration camps and denazification.
In the time covered in the book, the people included German citizens, of course, surviving Jews, many German, freed from concentration camps and the many non-Germans who had fled from advancing Soviet armies, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and etc. I recommend it highly.
My own memories of the period are chiefly those my mother shared:
- my birth in the middle of a mid-summer night, she said, during a Soviet air attack;
- our evacuation in a ship convoy that was primarily intended to carry retreating German soldiers in September 1944 over the Baltic Sea to Germany (more below);
- transport in a refugee train from the Baltic seacoast to the relative safety of southern Germany;
- toted, just over a month old, in mother’s arms westward, by whatever means, and away from still advancing Soviet forces;
- mother finding early in 1945 the bodies of the German family that had sheltered us through the winter of 1944–45, a dairy farmer and his wife and daughter (victims of a family suicide pact in the face of advancing Russian forces)
- settling somewhere in Germany, with mother working in an orphanage to support us (see images below);
- sailing aboard a troop carrier, the General Stuart Heintzleman, from Germany to New York City, arriving on June 26, 1950.
Mother and me
Mother with orphans
Me (left) with friends
Unknown orphan, apprehensive, going somewhere
The Gen. Stuart Heintzleman
The Heintzleman’s manifest on arrival in New York City in June 1950. My mother and I were the final entries on this page, Hedvig Marie Steinberg and Andres Steinberg. (Another story.)
To a number of good friends this is an extraordinary story, but, of course, it was not. Millions moved across multiple continents during those months and subsequent years. Many died. Many left behind loved ones–my mother’s mother, Bertha Rettel waved goodbye from the dock in Tallinn, my mother told me–she was unwilling and felt unable to make the perilous effort to escape. (My grandmother died in 1948, but we would not learn of it until 1953 or 1954.)
More than I had imagined before beginning this rummaging has been written on the subject of Displaced Persons, which we were classified by international refugee organizations. To mark the 60th anniversary of the those times, following are a few observations, some contemporaneous, used to describe the times and the moods of those who passed through them. I offer these because my own memories are so sketchy–mother and father did not say all that much, and I seldom had the nerve to probe.
One of the great sagas of our time…—J. Donald Kingsley, director of the International Refugee Organization , quoted in “In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order,” by Gerard Daniel Cohen, and
Within six days [in mid-September 1944], around 50,000 troops, 20,000 civilians, 1,000 POWs and 30,000 tons of goods were removed from Estonia, 38,000 of the military personnel by sea. In the course of the evacuation from Tallinn, the following ships suffered serious damage from Soviet air army attacks: on board the “Nettelbeck” and “Vp 1611”, 8 people killed and 29 wounded; the “RO-22” hit and 100 personnel killed; the hospital ship “Moero”, with 1,155 refugees, wounded and crew on board, sunk in the middle of the Baltic sea with 637 dead. —On the sea evacuation of Germany troops and Estonian citizens in September 1944 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallinn_Offensive)
Half a million Ukrainians, Belorussians and others were deported from Poland to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Croats, and others, fearful of reprisals for wartime collaboration, fled westwards from all over eastern Europe, most of them hoping to get to North America.
and finally from the journal of a Lithuanian sailing to Australia from Germany in 1948:
I am travelling. On the horizon we can see the outline of the Australian continent [could as easily have been on seeing the Statue of Liberty]. That’s my future homeland. Homeland? No. Because I have a homeland. Then why am I travelling? Looking for happiness, fortune.
No. You see I’m not an ordinary traveler. I’m not paying for my passage. Also I get my food free. clothing is also unusual. Shoes from the USA, trousers from Canada, coat…who knows where that is from? I’m called DP, that is “Displaced Person, God’s bird. That’s why I neither sow nor reap.
I left my fatherland, flowering meadows, undulating grain-fields. I left my weeping mother who blessed me, wishing me a happy journey. I left my brothers, sisters, and relatives…. I left part of myself. Like one half-crazed. I departed not know where to or wherefore. I reassured my mother that I would return before long. I certainly didn’t really believe it myself. Only to pacify her. I glanced back at my beloved home as it faded into the distance. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Yes. I departed….Included in Catherine Panich, “Sanctuary? Remembering Postwar Immigration, Allen&Unwin, Sydney, 1988, 22-23.
Doubtless my mother felt these same things as the Heintzleman left Bremerhaven, Germany, in June 1950. But we prospered. My father arrived a year later, took work, went to school, earned a PhD–all with mother’s full support (and mine, though it was hard to pry $.25 from him for a visit to a local swimming pool!). Mother died relatively young, at 67, in 1980. Father lived a full retirement life thereafter, blessed a second time by a precious companion named Clem. I am blessed, too, in many, many ways. But those blessings lie (and accumulate) in another part of the memory shack–to be pulled up in time.
And last, I can only wish, as I know countless others do, that the Lithuanian writer’s sentiments were not being expressed over and over again as a result of the wars that have been fought since 1945 into this day in November of 2014.