The Bomb Drops—
—Fleeing Latvia in World War II
“An hour to evacuate? But you said we would have a day!”
Just then the vegetable garden blew up.
That’s how my father told the story of how Oma, my mother’s mother, learned she needed to flee Latvia forever. As he told the story, I could picture Oma saying her lines in her Latvian German-accented English. “What’s this? You said we would have a day to pack!”
As I look at the photos of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion…I see adults stoically walking in huge, slow lines, pulling a single bag that contains the only possessions they now own.
Papa told the story as slapstick. As a child, I’d pictured a Benny Hill clip: Serious man knocks on door. Startled housewife replies. Bomb showers dirt everywhere but leaves people unharmed. Faces emerge, blackened by smoke, with eyes wide in surprise. Two adults and five kids scramble around the house at double speed packing silverware. Papa’s voice was bemused when he told the tale. When Oma referred to the story, her tone was one of wonder and humor.
The real story was that this wasn’t the first time my family had left Latvia, but it was the last time, and the most frightening. In 1942, the Russians and the Germans signed a secret non-aggression pact. As part of the pact, Germany agreed that they would withdraw from the Baltic states and cede them to Russia, which meant that all German citizens were relocated to Germany by the German government.
Although my mother’s family had lived in Latvia for 300 years, they were still considered German citizens, much like the “English” nobility in Ireland. Oma, Opa, the nanny, and four children moved to a cushy apartment in Berlin. Oma was pregnant with my mother at the time, so my mother was born in Berlin instead of Riga like her older siblings. Her parents optimistically named her Viktoria: victory. I wonder how she felt growing up with that name, in a country that was not victorious. I wonder if she felt different being born away from her mother’s homeland.
Eventually Germany abandoned the non-aggression pact and invaded Russia. The Third Reich invited Baltic Germans to go back to their homes. Many of the families were understandably wary and left most of their possessions in Germany, but my grandparents had faith in the Third Reich and moved all their things back to Riga.
Opa may have been a staunch German, but he also had his ear to the ground; through his business as an oil broker between several countries, he knew Russia might invade again. As Germany became more desperate for troops, he was drafted and so was his seventeen-year-old eldest son. Opa asked a seagoing tugboat captain to look out for the rest of his family. Oma was told she would be given a day’s notice if the Russians invaded far enough that the family needed to flee.
After the garden blew up, Oma and the nanny gathered up the five remaining children and a single full place setting of the family silver—which I imagine included such items as a salad fork, an oyster fork, a butter knife, a soup spoon. The sea captain got them all on a boat to Poland, and from there they took a train to Hamburg. In a suburb of Hamburg, Opa’s sister reluctantly welcomed seven more people to her tiny apartment above the family delicatessen.
As an adult, I reexamined that story I grew up with about the bomb in the vegetable garden.
I have a vegetable garden. I’ve enjoyed the time I spent there, pulling weeds, feeling the earth crumble in my hands, drinking in the smell of the wet tomato vines. My husband and I have a house we have lived in for almost two decades. Before my father died last year, he lived in a house he’d owned for more than forty years in the city he grew up in, a city I still think of as home. In our houses, we have accumulated decades of family objects. I have items owned and used by my father’s grandmother.
I try to imagine opening the door to have my husband’s drinking buddy tell me I need to abandon my house—the place my children, I, my parents, and their ancestors back three hundred years grew up in. Then, when I babble out some confused question, I see the garden I’ve tended with my children explode and rain down on me. My tomatoes, my land, my house, my safety, my identity, my heritage, all gone.
Oma and her children must have screamed in terror when that bomb hit. Their ears may have still been ringing as they scrambled to pack. I doubt my grandmother had fully accepted that they would need to leave, so I’m guessing the nanny had to sweep in, probably carrying toddler Vicky (my mother) on her hip, and bark orders to snap the children out of their shock. I certainly hope they packed more than those few silver forks, knives, and spoons.
I can only guess why that single set of silver was so important to Oma: To prove that they were still titled Latvians, who knew how to use all those specialized pieces of cutlery. To remind the children who they were and where they came from. To provide some sense of normality. To sell later. Silver cutlery is heavy. I wonder if each of them carried a piece or two, or if anyone lost a piece. I don’t know what happened to that place setting, if any pieces are left; I’ve never seen it.
The details of the journey from Riga to Hamburg are not included in the funny family story. Papa told me the journey “wasn’t that bad.” Of course, he wasn’t there; Vicky, the woman he later married, was two years old at the time. Papa explained that Vicky’s family was traveling behind the Russian front the whole time, nowhere near the fighting. The trains were running. Papa had always been fascinated by wars, especially World War II, and I know he read a lot about what was happening in Germany and near the Russian front. But Papa was not able to imagine being a toddler in this situation or traveling with one.
The bomb itself, and my mother’s family’s reaction to it, must have been traumatic. Then they fled home, never to return. Little Viktoria left behind her bed, most or all of her stuffed animals and blankets and toys, and all the places she’d learned to walk and talk. Her whole family was terrified. The adult women weren’t just afraid of bombs and bullets, either—they had heard stories of what Russian troops would do to German women and girls.
I doubt my mother was toilet-trained at that age. In those days, diapers were cloth. I’m sure it wasn’t long before she was soiled, and they had few or no ways to keep her clean and dry. I wonder if any of them had access to bathrooms with running water. Perhaps they had enough food, or perhaps not. Perhaps any food to be had was unreasonably expensive.
I wonder what they saw on that journey, what they heard, what they smelled. I’m sure they saw other bomb craters and broken buildings. Perhaps they saw starving cats and dogs, rats feasting on garbage, bombs dropping, wounded people, dead bodies, or even more horrifying things.
Papa told me that Mama always felt afraid when she smelled coal smoke, the smoke that came from a train like the one they rode from Poland to Germany. This made me wonder if she also saw and smelled burning buildings. England’s Royal Air Force was bombing Germany mercilessly by this time.
In present-day Europe, the journey from Riga, by boat to Poland, then by train to Hamburg, would take several hours, maybe most of a day. I believe their journey took at least a week, if not several weeks. To a child of two, that stretch of time would have felt permanent, a country of its own. Perhaps the older children told her stories of what their aunt’s store in Hamburg would look like, and what goodies they would find at the delicatessen.
Or perhaps the whole family was quiet, exhausted, dirty, speechless. Most likely, the adults themselves couldn’t form words. They had lost their home, their country, their whole livelihood. They were alive and physically unharmed. They had seen things no one should have to see. They were still together. What words could possibly capture how they felt?
As I look at the photos of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion that appear on my phone, I see people dressed in coats like the one I wear in the winter, pulling wheeled suitcases like the ones I use, as they leave apartment buildings that once looked like those in my city before the bombs destroyed them. I see children trying to smile for the camera through their confusion and shock. I see adults stoically walking in huge, slow lines, pulling a single bag that contains the only possessions they now own.
I wasn’t there when my mother left her native land, never to return. But I feel in my gut what that exile did to her. None of the members of my family ever really belonged to a country again. They scattered across the planet, citizens of seven different nations. Latvia always haunted them—a place they no longer belonged, that no longer existed except in their memory.
I want the Ukrainians to be safe. I want them to have food, and clothing, and shelter, and communities that welcome them. But what I really want is for them to be able to go back home, to the land where they belong, and to be safe there. Because even if our country and other countries welcome them with open arms, we can never replace what was taken away.
©2022 Vera Shanti Giles
All rights reserved
Vera Shanti Giles…
…grew up reading everything she could get her hands on and listening to her father tell stories about history. When she’s not answering her 10-year-old son’s endless questions, she’s writing creative nonfiction, editing the work of others, or laughing with her husband at the antics of their two cats.