When I heard that a book was being prepared about the DP Camp Insula, I immediately recalled my own experience living in Berchtesgaden in 1945. I was there when the Obersalzberg was bombed and the area was liberated.
None of the people who lived at Insula knows anything about us, because we were there before that camp was "officially" founded. We lived in the first DP camp in Berchtesgaden, created in May 1945 immediately after the American army arrived. Like Insula, this camp was also in Strub, but in the buildings of what had been the Adolph Hitler Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel).
I was a youngster in those days, and I had started writing a diary. The first entry is dated September 28, 1944 read:
"Today we are parting from our old and graying Riga. We left Torņakalns station at 22:00 hours".
From Riga we traveled by freight car to Skrunda, in Western Latvia, where my mother's friend, Regina Ginters lived (wife of Arnolds Janis Ginters, DVM). We were there only until October 11, because the front was approaching from the south and the Russians flew air raids every night.
We traveled to Liepaja, at the western coast of Latvia. Just a day or so after we arrived, we were walking near the harbor at ten o'clock in the morning. Quite unexpectedly, a member of the Tautas Palidziba (Help to the People) offered us a "number" (a free ticket) for a ship that was sailing at 1:00 p.m. for Germany. Three hours later, we were on our way.
October 12, 1944:
We departed from the harbor of Liepaja at 1600 in a convoy on ship NR-11 (German navy transport ship). Outside the breakwater, we waited for other ships. At 1800 we departed from Liepaja. All the time I could see the Liepaja lighthouse, I remained on the deck.
The first place we lived in Germany was Lauban (now belonging to Poland), where numerous Latvian railway employees had come. Since my mother had been a telephone operator for the railway, we ended up there too. It was a labor camp. When the Russian army came closer, we were transported to Leipzig. No work was available in Leipzig, however, so we were allowed to go to other places in Germany where we had relatives or friends. My mother's sister was in Berchtesgaden, so we headed there, to spend what would be the last days of World War II.
We (Spuras) and two other families (Skilins and Antons), all ex-railway employees from Riga, headed for Berchtesgaden. I wrote quite a bit in my diary about the journey, but what I remember now is how long it was. Thanks to God, we arrived safely on February 19, 1945.
We could not stay, however, because Berchtesgaden was a "closed area"; we were told we had to go back. The next train was not until morning, so we were allowed to stay in the station overnight. My first impression of Berchtesgaden was, Wonderful! Since there was a blackout it was dark night outside, but a bright moon lit the countryside. We could clearly see the snow-covered mountains and hear the bubbling mountain brook that ran outside the station.
In life, unexpected events occasionally happen; one such event happened to us the next morning. We were standing outside the station, not knowing where my mother's sister lived or how to get in touch with her, when suddenly we heard someone calling to me in Latvian: "Andri!"
It was Ruta Kraulis, my cousin. It turned out that Ruta and her mother, my Aunt Alida, had gone for a walk; they had no idea we were heading to Berchtesgaden. This was the first and only time they had ever walked toward the railroad station. Then they saw us! Their route was an unusual occurrence...a coincidence...or providence, only God knows which one.
We followed them to the Jugendherberge, where they lived and were working. The rest of our group stayed at the station; we had been ordered to leave on the next train.
The next day, we and our travel companions Antons and Skilins families were lucky: we were allowed to stay in Berchtesgaden for three days. During those three days, we all received permission to stay longer and we got jobs. Because I was only twelve, I was not allowed to stay in Berchtesgaden and was ordered to leave, without food-ration cards. We settled in the Jugendherberge-Strub (a familiar place to those who later lived at Insula). My mother worked in the kitchen, and she and Aunt Alida and Ruta would smuggle food under their aprons across the yard for me, since I could not get food.
|The Jugendherberge-Strub (Youth Hostel) where Andris and his mother lived during the winter of 1944-45.|
In my diary I recorded the number of Latvians who were living in and around Berchtesgaden at the time we lived at the Jugendherberge.
Sunday, April 8, 1945:
Today in the cafe Ratehoffer, a gathering of Latvians took place. How many Latvians are here! Together I counted 19 people; the Skilins family, the family from Ramsau, and the family from dairy factory Sturm had not come. Up to now I know that there are 32 Latvians in the vicinity of Berchtesgaden.
At the meeting, I met the Tobias family. Mr. Tobias is a very nice man, from looks and conversations. However, a saying is, "Do not judge a person from his hat."
The situation at the front is very bad. We hope that the Russians do not come in here before the English. We listened on the radio from a station in Luxembourg, which said that the higher-up German gentlemen have purchased villas in Switzerland and are already living near the Swiss border. How detailed is the information the English have about the living of German higher-ups. They even gave the birth dates and maiden names and the muižas [manor estates] where they were living.
Today for the first time we had the new, "real" air raid alarm; that is, two long blows, each eight seconds long.1 Some low-flying planes [Tiefflieger, low-flying fighters] also came over the city, but then the antiaircraft batteries started to shoot, so that the sky was full of white clouds from the smoke of exploding shells.
At the gathering I found out that Donats Baduns, a Latvian legionnaire wounded by a mine, was in the hospital. He had lost his eyesight and both of his arms. I visited him nearly every day and read Latvian books to him or went for a walk with him around Berchtesgaden. I liked him very much.
As a twelve-year-old boy, I found particularly interesting the respect the higher German officers had for this wounded, blind soldier. Donats was wearing his uniform, which indicated his rank as a corporal, yet several generals (I could tell by the red lapels on their uniforms) saluted him first when we walked around Berchtesgaden.
Life in Berchtesgaden during the last days of World War II was peaceful. The peace was interrupted only once, on April 25, by the big air-raid on Hitler's Berghof. I have vivid memories of that day.
April 26, 1945:
Today the whole city of Berchtesgaden is excited, because yesterday, April 25, at 0830, the air raid sirens sounded. I was still sleeping. Ruta woke me up. I started, like always, in angļu mierā [in English: peace], to dress. We started to go outside, when the sirens started to wail again. I thought it would be the pre-recall, but no, it was the "big alarm." We started to walk slowly toward the Stollen.2 Through the clouds we could see airplanes flying very high, with white contrails. They were the fighters [escorts]. But the whole air was full of sound; it was like in a boiling kettle. That meant the four-engine bombers were also above us.3 I reached a small grove and looked up. But then the anti-aircraft artillery started to fire. I started to run. The bombs started to fall. It felt like they were exploding next to us, all around us. What a run! Down the steep hill through the woods carrying a suitcase, running all the time. The air was boiling from the bombs and all the other noise aircraft engines, antiaircraft artillery, and the echo of it all from the mountains.
When we reached the entrance to the Stollen, it was more "peaceful."4 After a while, there was the pre-recall. We started to walk back home. When we were crossing the field, we saw white smoke-rockets. I thought there was a crashed aircraft and the pilot was waiting for help. We came home to the Jugendherberge, where Mr. Zeilers [kamp kommandant] saw us and started to yell for us to get back in the Stollen. The white rockets apparently are markierungs bombe [marker bombs]; that is, markers for targets. We started to run back to the Stollen. The "big alarm" sounded again. The bombing started again, but a bit farther away, in Bad Reichenhall. The pre-recall sounded again and we came home. Before the siren sounded the end of the raid, we started for home. The air raid alarm had lasted six hours, from 0830 until 1500. Then it was peaceful until 1630.
|Underground shelter or "Stollen" carved out of bedrock into the side of a hill against aerial bombing raids near Berchtesgaden.|
I went to visit Donats, and he asked me to destroy some documents, which I did. I just got home-again, air raid alarm. From 1700 until 1900. But nothing happened here this time. During the day they have bombed the Obersalzberg. Our electricity is also bombed out. From 2000 until 2300, no alarm. At 2300, again alarm; at 0100, pre-recall; full recall at 0200. Pre-alarm and higher were from April 25 at 0830 until April 26 at 0200. Therefore, 17 hours.
This morning the pre-alarm sounded at 0235, but no bombs were dropped. My mood is pretty low. It improved when the electricity came back this evening. Right away I litened to the radio, where I found out that the Americans were closer to us than the Russians. Everything is very good.
On May 4, from Strub we could see a lot of cars and trucks on the other side of the valley, the Berchtesgaden side. Russian kübelwagen!5 I had seen them before, during the summer of 1944. I was working on a farm near Tukums in Latvia when the Russian army broke through the German lines and occupied that area for a few weeks. When the German army pushed the Russians back, my mother came for me and took me back to Riga. That is how our exile had begun.
Now I looked more closely at the vehicles and realized the stars painted on them were not red but white. Americans! Thank God!
Alvis and I walked down the hill from Strub, where the Jugendherberge was. We were walking toward the station when a German soldier carrying a machine gun stopped us and was talking to us. That is when two American soldiers came down the road from Berchtesgaden on a motorcycle with sidecar. They stopped. They did not have rifles, only pistols at their sides.
Alvis and I walked toward them and said, "Wir sind Lettlander!" (We are Latvians) as if they understood German or knew where Latvia was at the time, we did not speak English. They motioned for us to move back, and then motioned to the German soldier to throw away his gun and put up his hands. Then they told him to walk up the hill to Berchtesgaden. They followed him on the motorcycle.
That is how, on my thirteenth birthday, May 4, 1945; I met the 101st Airborne Division. Only later I realized that Alvis and I had been in a precarious position. Remember, it was war. We were in the middle of the front and for several minutes between the two opposing forces as we walked and stood between the German and the Americans.
God protected us, the foolish kids!
Shortly after that, UNNRA formed the first DP camp in Berchtesgaden, in the buildings of the Jugendherberge. Since we were already living there, we did not have to move. I have many happy memories of those days, including the few weeks that the French army was sent there as well and many other events.
Everything was going well until one Thursday, when we were informed,
"On Monday you are going home.
"Home? But Latvia is under Russians!"
"On Monday trucks will be at the camp. If you are there you will go." that was the reply.
I am not sure where the grown-ups got a truck, but on Saturday all Latvians had left Berchtesgaden for Munich. A Latvian DP Camp had already been established there, thus concluding our life in Berchtesgaden.
After Munich, my family's exile continued in Esslingen, and finally our path led to Canada. I have been back to Berchtesgaden several times, to show my children the places where I had lived. One Christmas I spent a few weeks there again in Strub, not far from where we lived in 1945. It is as beautiful now as it was then. Memories, memories! Of Berchtesgaden, mine even of wartime are wonderful.
|Hitler's Berghof before the bombing|
Hitler's Berghof before April 25, 1945 and after bombing.
|Hitler's Berghof after the bombing|
On April 25, 1945 near the end of WW II a force of 359 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers flew to Berchtesgaden and dropped about 1,232 tons of bombs on the Obersalzberg area where Hitler's Berghof chalet and buildings of other Nazi officials. Berghof took three direct hits on one wing and damaging nearly every other building. Residents in the area took shelter in the underground bunkers, only six were killed. The remnants of Berghof are seen from ruins of Hotel "Zum Turken". City of Berchtesgaden was not bombed.
Andris E. Spura
1 Air-raid sirens sounded alarms in three stages: "pre-alarm" when aircraft were headed in our direction; "alarm" when aircraft were close; and "big alarm" when aircraft were over us. Recalls were sounded in two stages: "pre-recall when aircraft were departing our area, and "full recall" when all was clear.
2 German state office air-raid shelter. This one was carved at the base of a hill, with solid rock one hundred meters above our heads. It was secure, elegant, and completely bomb-proof.
3 After the war, I learned that 359 English Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers had bombed Berchtesgaden that day.
4 Actually, we did not make the entrance of the Stollen while the raid was on. The splinters from anti-aircraft shells were falling around us and we hid under the roots of a tree, halfway down the hill. When the noise decreased, we ran the rest of the way down the hill to the Stollen.
5 KUbelwagen was the German army word for small car. At the time, I could not see that the vehicles had the white stars of the Americans, not the red stars of the Russians. I also did not know that the American car was called a jeep.
For more information about this book visit
Book Title: Insula - Island of Hope
Book Pages: 453
Ventis Plume and John Plume, Editors
Excerpts and photographs from 'Insula - Island of Hope' already published at Magic City include:
July 30, 2014 Surviving Fear And Terror
July 2, 2014 Compelling True Stories of Latvian Refugees
January 17, 2014 German Lutheran Diakonie's 60th anniversary celebration in Berchtesgaden
January 10, 2014 Latvian Story of 'Fleeing From The Soviets'
December 18, 2013 359 Bombers Over Berchtesgaden - Excerpt from Insula-Island of Hope
December 17, 2013 Berchtesgaden Before Insula (Island of Hope) by Andris E. Spura (at Kingscalendar)
December 10, 2013 Ernst Vahi recalls departure: Excerpt from Insula - Island of Hope
November 23, 2013 Photographs of WWII Refugee Camps (Latvian Insula)
November 17, 2013 Photograph of the Week: Men's volleyball team at Insula in 1946
November 17, 2013 Twin Sisters, Many Journeys: Excerpt from 'Insula - Island of Hope'
November 16, 2013 Stories of WWII Latvian Refugees (at Kingscalendar.com)
November 10, 2013 Photograph of the Week: Insula - Island of Hope
November 10, 2013 Insula Began in Bruckmuhl (Excerpt from 'Insula - Island of Hope')
November 3, 2013 Photograph of the Week: Watercolors of Insula by Leo Trinkuns (1899-1948)
November 3, 2013 Forward to Insula - Island of Hope by Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga
October 27, 2013 New Book about Latvians Displaced by World War II