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German Lutheran Diakonie's 60th anniversary celebration in Berchtesgaden
By by John Plume
Jan 17, 2014 - 7:30:34 AM

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Eleven Return and Rekindle Memories

by John Plume

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." Soren Kierkegaard.

Reunion photo - larger version in the article on Jan 10 titled: Latvian Story of 'Fleeing From The Soviets'
On a beautiful, sunny day, with the snowcapped Alps as backdrop, eleven of us--four from the USA, four from Canada, and three from Australia--approached the Insula entrance where a 20-foot Latvian flag was displayed.

We saw with our eyes and responded in our hearts. My brother Ventis said, "It was so...gratifying and emotional to see Latvian national colors displayed at the Insula entrance, and to the right is the building in which we lived for four years. Now to see again the beauty of the surrounding land in which we found peace and shelter after the ravaged years of war.

No Latvians had lived at Insula for at least 20 years. The flag was an honor, not only for us, but also for all the Latvians who had once lived here. In all, more than 765 Latvian Displaced Persons came through Insula--Latin for "island"--from 1945-'49, according to the current Insula director, Rolf Hopmann; he gave a 15-minute power point presentation of the history of Insula for the audience.

Insula kept its name after the DP camp was closed and converted to a home for aged and infirmed DPs, unable to emigrate. More than 351 Latvians, Hopmann said, came from other DP camps to Insula to live out their lives. Current occupancy is 275 residents.

Seven of us who had gathered for the reunion had stayed at Insula for the four years following World War II. They were Leo Trinkuns, from the USA; Herta (Spira) Sulcs and Andris (Fuksis) Zeicman, from Australia; and Igors and Juris Svistunenko, from Canada and Ventis, and I, from the USA.

Others in our party were Iris (Vrublevskis) Grimes, USA: Jennifer Zeicman, Australia; and Donna and Edith Svistunenko, Canada. We were all honored guests during the German Lutheran Diakonie's 60th anniversary celebration in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Andris was determined to attend the Latvian reunion: "It would be my last chance to meet some of my fellow Insula refugees. In particular, I would meet my Insula childhood friend, John Plume (Janis Plume) and his older brother, Ventis, and would also meet Leo Trinkuns, who knew my family in Insula, and also the Svistunenko brothers, and our dear friend Herta Sulcs."

"Insula," Zeicman went on, "was like a part of Latvia in exile. It was here that I absorbed the Latvian culture, went to the Latvian school, learned to read and write in Latvian and became a keen reader of Latvian books. "Here I acquired my Latvian identity. Latvian would always be my heritage."

Photograph taken of the camp c. 1946
The all-day celebration on May 7, 2011 began with an ecumenical church service in the Chapel, which was a sports gymnasium, designated as Building IX during the DP days (1945-1949). Among others, those attending included bishops from Bavaria and Italy, as well as other pastors and dignitaries. This was followed by a formal presentation in the meeting hall-dining room, formerly the auditorium on the ground floor of Building VI where dances, movies and plays were held during 1945-1949. Amongst the many greetings delivered at the ceremony was a letter from Ken Senft, the former Director of Lutheran World Federation-Service to Refugees (1947-1951) in the American Zone of Germany. My brother, Ventis, read in German the congratulatory letter from Kenneth Senft, who lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was involved in the conversion of the Insula to its present use. He referred to Insula as an "island of hope." Igors Svistunenko reflected on this reunion as " opportunity to put a closure to those happy and nostalgic memories from my youth."

Five such reunions had been previously held, the largest one drawing 40 people was here in 2003 at Berchtesgaden, Germany. Others have been held in Alaska 1997, 2000, Toronto 2006, and in Ohio 2009.

It was a surprise to the eleven attendees at the celebration, when they were called to the front and presented with 1948 Latvian Bibles, printed in Helsinki, Finland. The Bibles had been funded by Britain during the DP years. Abridged version of the first edition of Insula Memoir had been translated in German and were presented to the honored guests.

Herta Sulcs presented Director Hopmann, a decorative wood plate with painted image of Insula; it was a wedding gift given to her in 1947 (photo above). It will be displayed in one of the buildings.

Then to enlighten the audience, Herta sang her own rendition of "Beautiful Berchtesgaden," and in Igors Svistunenko words, the song "brought nostalgic tears to just about everyone's eyes."

Outdoors, there was a German cookout and music from a 13-piece brass band, as well as Bavarian folk dancers. One could not ask for more. Yes, the musicians even played "Alte Kameraden."

Photograph taken of the camp c. 1946
We toured several Insula's rooms, where some of us had lived. These rooms were only 13 by 20 feet and had accommodated as many as six people or more at times. From the windows of our room we could see the Watzmann. Now the view was obstructed by 50 to 60-foot tall Norway spruces. However, we saw where the bunker had been located, and the rooms in buildings that served as the Latvian schools, and the tunnels linking buildings.

Andris said he had to rely on his memories, spurred by the reunion, since "there was no evidence that Latvian refugees had ever lived in Insula. "It is clear," he later wrote, "that the Latvian Insula of 1945-1949 is now part of history and details of this vibrant community life could well be soon forgotten, unless details of the history are documented."

The 2011 reunion gave me a chance to see my old friend Andris for the first time in 62 years. I arrived from the USA, he from Australia. We had been buddies as kids in Insula, and we recalled the skiing and sledding and stick games.

Andris' father died defending Berlin against the Soviets.

The graveside marker of Leo Trinkuns' father, who died at Insula and was buried in Berchtesgaden, was rededicated.

The Svistunenko brothers, Igors and Juris, took advantage of the trip to explore. Igors: "We took the Koenigssee boat trip to St. Bartholomew, and from there hiked until we could see the Eiskapelle Glacier that we visited as kids. We had a great day at Insula."

Comments from others who attended: Andris Zeicman: "I remember Insula as a vibrant Latvian enclave in Germany (in) which I spent four and a half years of my childhood after the war. It was the place where I had to come to terms with the loss of my father missing in the battle of Berlin."

Iris (Vrublevskis) Grimes traveled from the US to visit Insula for the first time, a generation removed, as the only American-born member of her family. "It was an emotionally charged experience as I realized that I was walking the same paths and hallways that my parents, maternal grandparents, great aunt, and uncle had been living in for their four years at Insula. I was honored to be there and share the time with those who experienced Insula first-hand."

Igors Svistunenko reminisced, "My fondest memories are of meeting, once again, Ventis, John and Leo and to meet Iris Grimes (Vrublevskis) from USA as well Herta Sulcs, Jennifer and Andris Zeicmanis who came to Insula all the way from Australia. I still remember being on top of Silberg when Antons Vrublevskis won the first place in downhill ski race March, 1949."

He added: "I left Insula knowing that it had made a very successful transformation evolving from a wartime set of buildings--originally to serve destructive purposes. (It) next served as a refugee to Latvian DPs during the postwar years, and now functions very well as the premises that are dedicated to serving the human community in a most generous, friendly and benevolent way."

A Azelickis photo of Insula 1946

Insula had served and continues to serve for many purposes. Originally built as sports school for German Girls, it housed OKL (General Staff Command) during the war. Afterwards, it became a refugee camp. In 1948 Lutheran World Federation organized a part of it into a Study Center. In 1949 it was closed and converted to care center for the aged and infirmed refugees. It has continued as a care center for seniors under the management of the Bavarian Evangelical Lutheran Church Diakonie retaining the same name of Latvian refugees.

Of course, in many ways, the war years were not the happiest of times, but as a Baltic DP noted, "They should not be forgotten: "For heaven's sake, why does one relive the tragedy of the past? It was years ago, we fled from the approaching danger. We left our country. This is something we can never forget, neither here or at any other place in the world. It lies too deep in the heart and one cannot forget it. It stands too clearly before our eyes how it was back in 1944, the year of the 'big flight."

Andris would not disagree. He thought, "Insula should be remembered as a significant part of the refugee history after World War II."

Andris added, "It (Insula) demonstrated how under difficult circumstances a group of Latvian refugees could establish a community that functioned effectively for four years." And the community lasted, he wrote, until 1949, "when the migration program took off and the Insula residents were scattered to all parts of the world." Only to return.

John Plume

Some of those at the reunion

Berchtesgaden Before Insula (Island of Hope)
by Andris E. Spura
December 18, 2013

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.

Book Title: Insula - Island of Hope
ISBN: 978-1-61863-383-5
Book Pages: 453
Price: $22.95
Ventis Plume and John Plume, Editors

Excerpts and photographs from 'Insula - Island of Hope' already published at Magic City include:

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

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

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