Turning Away Refugees is an American Tradition
Life Amid the Largest Group of Displaced People in History
This was what it meant to live in the days that followed the war’s end, the days of placelessness, when more than 30 million people had been scattered across Europe and had lost their words for home.
The same shorthand was used to refer to all of them: DPs, as in Displaced Persons. The Latvian DPs took the acronym and used its letters to construct an alternate term for themselves: Dieva Putnini. Dieva from dievs, as in the Latvian god of sky. Putnini as in the diminutive for bird. Little birds. As in that which is ungrounded; as in that which can foretell sorrow, but also possibly hope; as in being in an endless state of passage.
When finally, my grandmother passed through the steel gates of Camp 269 UNRRA Pinneberg, assigned to live among the 3800 other Latvian refugees housed there, she carried with her a daughter, Maruta, then 3 and a son, my father, who was just under a year old, and only beginning to find his capacity for speech, the ability to name himself and the things around him—little bird; lost boy.
At night, curled in on himself, as if making himself as small as possible to give others more room, my father, the baby who had absorbed the flight paths of the bombers from his mother’s arms as they wandered through that last worst days of the war in search of shelter, now dreamed in a barracks that had billeted young Luftwaffe pilots.
Where once they had absorbed lessons in the principles of aerodynamics and aerospace engineering, and how to navigate by the position of the stars, he now played on the floor with scraps of paper that he made glide and twitch with his breath as if they could take wing.
It was a life defined by waiting, wherever you found yourself, whether assigned to scratchy cots wedged inside stalls that until recently berthed saddle horses for the German cavalry or boarded in bunks installed in former surgical suites that still smelled faintly of amputations, cauterized wounds. Mothers approached toddlers in their rooms, absorbed in quiet play, only to discover them gumming what looked like scraps of exploded ordnance. Those early days passed in an endless stretch of unstructured hours, the monotony of small temporary rooms.
Together, they were cleansed in clouds of DDT, the babies sometimes laughing into the fog, trying to catch it in their mouths like snowfall, the women instructed to kneel slightly, as if in curtsey, and to lift the hem of their skirts just enough to accommodate the delouser’s nozzle, with its puff of air and the fine dusting that would drive away the lice and their typhus.
Lice were not the only named fear.
Also: dysentery, rickets, diphtheria, syphilis, TB, scabies, polio.
They learned to surrender themselves for regular medical inspections, passed their health record books to the nurses and doctors to initial without thought for privacy, their lives now a running count of coughs and infections, lung spots and fevers. On the days of the mass inoculations—hundreds of the camp’s children injected at once, the nurses punching the flesh of one twitching buttock after another—the mothers helped skin heir babies from their chunky wool tights. Rabbit pants, the Latvians called them.
But for all the shots, sickness still found them.
One morning, Livija lifted my aunt, Maruta, from sheets sweated wet.
In time, they would learn she had contracted polio. But on that day, all they knew was the force of her fever, that she was listless, unable to sip water without distress.
A nurse came, and perhaps thinking it was something that could be cured with a dose of antibiotics, she decided to administer a shot, a quick punch and wriggle of the rabbit’s haunch.
Whether out of haste or ignorance, or both, she chose to slip the needle into the center of Maruta’s buttock, and pierced her sciatic nerve.
Almost immediately, Maruta’s leg on that side went limp, the ankle flopping as if attached to the foot by a thin tongue of skin.
Between this, and the effects of the polio, Maruta would ultimately struggle to take a single step, her legs bound in braces, pushing a walker.
And, eventually, though still years in the future, but already starting then, in the camp—as she tried, and failed, to grasp the hands of the other small children whose mothers encouraged them to circle up in the weak sun to sing and dance as a distraction from the guard towers and the phlegm-colored soup and the fact that they were swaddled not in diapers but in flyers instructing the refugees on the regulations of the camp—the muscles of all four of her limbs started to shrink, atrophying, until one day, which would mark the beginning of her last days, the only comfortable place for her was bed.
These were the unnamed fears:
That you—you were the reason this happened. at you were the one to blame. at the moment you pushed the door closed on your former life, the moment you took to the road, chose flight over your family and the farm—all the while telling yourself that you were making the right choice, the only choice—you might have been mistaken.
And now this: your little boy, his sudden not-speaking, like an envelope quietly sealing itself shut.
What did my father understand of their life among the placeless? He would have been too young to remember the walls of the refugee processing centers that they passed through, covered with the names of family members whose whereabouts were unknown, sometimes a photo, if photos had come with the refugees: Have you seen —— ?
But he most likely heard the nightly broadcasts that played on the camp radio, the voices of children, old enough to recall their names and from where they had come, sending their words out in search of lost parents. Perhaps he even understood the pitch of their pleas, if not the actual meaning.
Did he know his own father was missing, like so many of the men who were there, but weren’t there, a number written then crossed out on their wives’ intake forms?
He turned one, then two, before he even learned what the word father meant, at least what it meant in relationship to his own life, the shape that it occupied, its silence, save for the scrape of rough hands jacketing you for a trip outside, the impatient clapping tempo of a walk too fast for small legs, the crusting of one weeping eye.
On the subject of where my grandfather had been for the last two years, and what had happened to him in the war, he appeared to have drawn a line through his memories, as if he were a document from which hundreds of pages had suddenly been redacted. But the rage that sometimes gripped him and filled the little room that they shared—that rattled the tins of dried milk and sardines and sent rolling from the table the cigarettes that came in the refugees’ boxes of rations, and which everyone traded on the black market for the things they really needed, like soap and sewing supplies—said enough for his family to suspect that he’d never really returned from wherever it was he’d gone.
What he did not say:
After the doctors had picked the bone fragments from the hole in his head and sutured it shut, then fitted the pit of his skull’s orbit with an eye made of glass, after my grandfather had finally emerged from the coma induced by his injuries, the German military hospital in which he recuperated was seized by the Allies.
At this point, my grandfather was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium, where the Allies tried to make sense of men who wore the uniforms of Nazis, but who claimed that they were not Nazis at all, only conscripts, forced to join the army of their occupier. There were interrogations, and inside those interrogation rooms, if the stories of the men who were held there can be believed, the kinds of reckonings that accompany war’s end, the release of collective anger and rage and fear.
In the end, after months of questioning, Allied investigators ruled that he was not a criminal, and let him go. But from the larger moral question of what constitutes collaboration, he would never be released.
Once again, my grandmother corrected her calculations, restoring the original number of family members to include her husband, but only because there was no other way to record the presence of someone who was back, but not back. She had heard enough resurrection stories, myths that celebrate the possibility of regeneration—the revivification of those assumed dead—to know that there is almost always a hidden cost, almost always something that is held back in exchange for the right to return from the other side.
When he spoke, his voice sounded like the tip of a match drawn across phosphorus.
Mostly, he didn’t speak.
He could disappear at any moment, even as he lay right beside her. She could feel him scuddering about inside himself, traveling years and miles, before abruptly returning to their bed to look at her in a way that told her she might be the only thing tethering him to this room, to her, to the two children asleep on their cots at their feet.
My grandmother listened to him breathe himself back to calm, the four of them suspended in the night-sounds of the barracks, the sound of secrets uncontained, slipping through the loose weave of the blankets hung as partitions, between the suitcases stacked in imitation of walls: who is loving whom, who is striking whom, who is sick on homebrew, who neglects their children, who calls out in their nightmares, and who thrashes in silence.
Like this, she would remind him without words. Being alive is like this.
A year after my grandfather’s return, my grandmother gave birth to another child, a boy. This time, my grandfather was there to hold his second son.
Now, with a brother, my father began to find his voice again, to whisper to him, to tell him all he thought he should know about their home, its secrets and wonders and dangers: the puddles of oil and floating garbage at the camp’s periphery that could be lanced with sticks; the older boys who stole and fought and ran from the police, and who once blamed my father for their supposed crimes when an officer stopped to talk to them, so that my father ran, too, and burrowed beneath a mattress for a very long time before he realized, in a thrumming of confusion and fear, that no one was looking for him at all.
By now, most of the refugees had lived nearly three years in circumstances meant only ever to be temporary. On the question of where the hundreds of thousands in Europe displaced by war should go next, the rest of the world had remained decidedly silent. Only Great Britain, Australia and Canada had come forward offering to help in any substantive way—Where would you be willing to be resettled? a form from that period had asked; Canada, my grandfather had written, his handwriting less certain than his answer—but even still, restrictions were such that all available spots would likely go only to young single men and women. Few countries seemed to want resettle families with small children, let alone families who might be supporting some- one with a disability, the war-maimed, the chronically ill, the elderly.
In the United States, Congress shut down all attempts to relocate any refugees, citing possible shortages of housing and consumer goods, fear of reconversion unemployment, and apprehension as to the type of persons who were inmates of the D.P. camps in Europe.
And in this way, the impermanent became mistaken for the indefinite.
Life in the indefinite was to scale piles of war rubble for sport, to root through the grit for anything could be turned into toys, fragments of magnet, webs of cloth, unburned books, miraculously, once, a spoon.
It was to push donated baby dolls in donated baby carriages across reclaimed fields that had been originally been graded to accommodate soldiers for inspection; to run naked on your mother’s orders so that the sun on your bare skin might somehow help unbow the bend to your legs, unthicken the bones in your wrists that had begun to bulge beneath the skin, the first signs of rickets.
It was to pretend the smears of guts and grease in the barracks’ basement were not from the pig reported stolen from a nearby farm. It was to see nothing when seeing nothing was required, as if you, too, had rinsed your gums with some of the black market liquor that was said to sometimes cause blindness.
Life in the indefinite was to leave the adults to meetings where they argued over the preservation of the language, the loosening of grammar, the loss of the old words for things that had no equivalent in this new life. They should resist becoming like potatoes with old eyes, one former farmer put it, never to be replanted.
So they searched for a word that would embody the state of remaining ready for the possibility of return, even as they prepared for the unlikelihood that they could ever go back.
By day they completed questionnaires and enrolled in English lessons and submitted themselves to certification tests so that they could prove themselves skilled at something— sewing, or typing, or factory work—anything that might convince a potential host nation that they were worthy of sponsorship, ready to contribute in any way needed. At night, they danced in folk collectives, taught their children the words to the old national anthem and organized choir recitals.
They hacked gardens from the fields where soldiers once drilled so that they could follow along with the seasons, as they would have back home, marking each day not in the usual increments of time, but by what is growing or what is not growing or what will soon grow.
And the chemists who had fled with the contents of their laboratories unable to bear the thought of leaving their life’s work behind—Florence flasks and Bunsen burners, test tubes and crucible tongs; the librarians who arrived with armloads of their treasured first editions; the members of the national theater company who unlocked suitcases to reveal wigs and costumes; the printer who unloaded a working press—they all began to share their passions with their campmates. The former academics re-created their lesson plans, hosting night classes for the refugees in their native languages—art history and folklore, statistics and physics—so many classes that the academics would eventually open their own university. Among the faculty of the new Baltic University, as it was called: my grandfather, a former economics professor, his old formulas awakening in him once more.
Lektor, he noted on his camp papers, wherever occupation was required, and inside the family’s small room, he took to stacking all the books he could find that might be relevant to his classes—Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Self-Administration in England and Wales, Statistics I in English, which he read with the help of a dictionary, given to him by one of the British officers who were running the camp.
Before long, he was named Chair of Economic Theory, and the family was walled in on all sides—as they ate, or as the adults made love with their hands over each other’s mouths so the children wouldn’t hear, or as they fought, or told the children not to fight—by books offering concrete theories as to how and why people make the choices they do.
In this way, the camp residents gave themselves jobs when there were none, but for the lecturing and the farming and the dancing and the singing, they received no salary. Occasionally there were tasks to be done around the camp for what amounted to pocket money, never much.
Still, sometimes it was enough pocket money that you might decide, maybe, today, to bake something sweet—enough money anyway, to send your boys in search of a lemon.
Lemons aren’t very sweet, said my father, once they were outside.
Let’s get candy instead, said his little brother.
No, let’s get an orange, said my father. Oranges are better. Yes, agreed his brother, an orange will be a much better surprise than a lemon. It was their first attempt at a present.
She did not scold them, merely set aside what she had started of the dough, then quartered the orange, and let the smell of the pith fill the room, as if this, too, could be a kind of celebration.
Maruta is missing.
From these stories. From their daily lives. When her polio infection was eventually diagnosed, she was sent to the nearest hospital, outside the camp, kept for months in the children’s ward, where, at the time, it was thought that it be would be disruptive to the young patients’ recovery and rehabilitation if their parents visited too often.
They were barred from seeing her for more than a few hours each weekend. They arranged for day passes, walked stiffly through the camp gates, past the guards, silently preparing themselves for this endless reenactment of separation, her tears, her building rage.
They are losing her, even though the nurses comment on her progress. She will not look at them, tries to roll herself so that she faces the wall. As if she has decided it is somehow less painful to imagine they never came, because then, at least, she would not have to watch them leave her here, all by herself, again and again.
Back at the camp, they watched family after family leave. Their number now just a few hundred refugees: the old, the broken, those whose bodies did not work in the ways a sponsoring nation tends to deem of use.
Grudgingly, the United States had begun to reconsider its earlier apprehension as to the type of persons who were inmates of the D.P. camps in Europe. And favored, in the end, were those refugees who could work as farmhands in the country’s Midwest and its South, their prospects debated in such publications as Congressional Quarterly, a kind of scouting report for refugees:
In Iowa, where the population has declined by 83,000 since 1940, a state survey showed that several thousand displaced persons could be welcomed there immediately. Kentucky is estimated to have a capacity to absorb over 5,000. In Minnesota Gov. Youngdahl’s commission, which included representatives of agriculture, labor and welfare groups, has reported that the state has places now for 8,000. A similar commission has been appointed by Gov. Aandahl in North Dakota—a state in which the population has declined by 148,417 since 1940.
Such news gave them the faintest possibility of hope—and enough specific detail—that they could, at last, begin to realistically imagine alternate existences for themselves. They pulled atlases from the shelves of the camp libraries, made notes on elevation and climate, collected anecdotes from the camp’s U.S.- raised United Nations staff. And from this jumble of amateur intelligence gathering, gossip and supposition, they built their own imagined realities of resettlement, revealed to themselves their desires and fears. Maybe today they were wind-chapped and numb, disarticulating the dimpled carcasses of pullets at a poultry processing plant in northern Michigan. Or, as when rumor spread of possible spots in California, maybe the next day, they were squinting against the sun, shedding burned skin like snakes, thinning the dates from medjool palms. Iowa is about the same elevation as Latvia, they noted, and from there it was an easy walk to the cornfields, the flat, shimmering heat, like a hand pressed against the backs of their necks, the itchy perfume of hot loam and manure.
For my grandparents, though it made no difference which future version of themselves they allowed themselves to hope for, or hope against. No invitations came—from Iowa, or California, or Minnesota, or anywhere else.
Another year passed. And then another.
As more and more refugees left, there was no more need for so many classes at the Baltic University and my grandfather received a letter that his services were no longer needed as a lecturer.
Maruta returned from the hospital to finally live at home again, pale and weak, and distant. And then the seizures started. As she pitched and twisted, her head ratcheting on the floor of their room, my grandmother trying to hold her, to still her, pressing Maruta to her stomach, swollen now with her own fourth child, they could feel their worry pitch and ratchet with her: what had the neighbors heard, would they tell someone, thinking perhaps that to highlight anyone else’s unfitness might raise their prospects of resettlement, should spots ever come up again?
From Among the Living and the Dead, by Inara Verzemnieks, courtesy W.W. Norton. Copyright Inara Verzemnieks.