World War II generated huge numbers of refugees. On the Eastern Front, Andrew Lewis’ mother was one of them. Her story resonates today.
Rūta. Arija. Ieviņš.
That was my mother’s name.
As a 14-year-old girl she traveled on foot across Central Europe fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. If she and her father and brother had not fled their native country, they would have died. Their knowledge of this fate was so certain that they eventually risked death to escape it. And for that, they journeyed on a hard, hard road.
My mother would spend her teen years in displaced persons camps in Germany. For five years she lived in detention. She did not have a country that she could go back to. And neither did she have a new one to which she could belong.
And she was abandoned in more ways than one. Her mother died during the war. During their flight as a young girl, she was separated from her father for months at a time. These things took their toll. Later in life she would have a hard time forming attachments. She was prone to depression. As a grown woman, she would have difficulty sleeping. She would cry uncontrollably in the night.
But then again, she had at least hope. In February 1945, she had joined hundreds of thousands of European refugees as they pressed toward the Elbe River. The Yalta Conference had just concluded, and by word of mouth, she learned where the borders between East and West would be drawn. Get across the Elbe, the people told one another. Across the Elbe you will be with the Americans.
My mother was instructed to make peace with the American soldiers when she arrived. She was told to just surrender. If nothing else, at least you will get fed, people said. You will get fed and you will be taken care of.
Because the Americans don’t mistreat their prisoners.
They are not the Russians.
With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.
Andrew Lewis lives in Sebastopol and is working on a family memoir.