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Latvian Story of 'Fleeing From The Soviets'
By Sylvia A. Zeltins Vadas
Jan 10, 2014 - 12:15:29 AM

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Fleeing From The Soviets

An Excerpt from "Whisper in a Storm" by Sylvia A. Zeltins Vadas

with commentary by Victor and Rolf Zeltins

Victor: "The Russians were attacking again, and when we saw the German flack gun placements half a mile away and the German army planting land mines in my uncle's garden, my grandmother and I decided to go to Liepaja and then on to Germany. My uncle did not want to leave the farm. On the way to Liepaja, we were able to get a ride with the German soldiers, and wounded soldiers were picked up along the way. We spent the night with some friends in Dobele and then we continued on to Vadakste. As the Russians approached and came closer we crossed over to Lithuania where my aunt Greta lived.

"We were caught between the two armies for about two weeks. Then the Germans countered as we watched a German tank division pass by. From Liepaja, we went to Gotenhafen in eastern Pomerania on the Baltic coast. When we reached Litzmanstadt (Lodz), where my clothing went through Zyklon B gas chamber but for some reason I was left out. We were taken to a transit camp in Lerhte, Hanover, and from there we went to the village of Rigbon, where I was reunited with my mother."

We were taken to a place called Stargard. We boarded a train. I sat at the window of the train trying to catch a glimpse of Germany.

We were brought to a large refugee camp in Shoenau. It had previously been a mental hospital. All the patients had been taken to concentration camps. Hitler had no use for the unfit.

We spent a few days in the camp. At meal times we all lined up in long queues at the camp kitchen with an empty tin. After a few days we boarded the train again. We got off the train in a town called Lauenburg. There was a tall, elderly man waiting for us. He was Mr. Smukal, the father-in-law of the German soldier who had arranged for us to come here.

Mr. Smukal helped us onto his horse-drawn cart. Mother sat on the front seat with Mr. Smukal, they were talking in German; Rolf and I sat on the back of the cart.

We came to the village of Riben, our new home. Small, two-story farmhouses stood on both sides of a tree-lined road. We turned into the yard of the Smukal farm. Mrs. Smukal came out to meet us wearing a frozen smile on her thin lips.

They had two teenage sons and a daughter, a young blonde woman with her young children. Their father was away, fighting in the war. They had come with their mother to live with their grandparents in the country. Then there was Edith, a seventeen-year old girl from Essen, Germany who had come to the country to escape the bombing raids.

We were shown to a room behind the kitchen. This was going to be our "home." There were two single beds in the room: one for Rolf and one for mother and me to share.

The farm looked untidy and dirty. Mother and I got to cleaning and tidying everything up. Mr. Smukal was pleased and told us so. Mrs. Smukal did not like her husband being friendly to us. The more kindness he showed us, the more nasty she became to us and to him.

The Smukal family ate well because they grew vegetables, kept pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, and geese. One of my jobs was to wash the dishes. Mrs. Smukal used to get angry if I could not get the dishes done fast enough. It was hard work, as there was never enough hot water and the wartime soap did not make a good lather. I had to scrub the pots and sooty black pans with sand.

February of 1945

We had to hurry. Mrs. Smukal wanted us to vacate our room and leave....

[While living at the Pantelis' farm] Horse-drawn wagons were coming down the road. The Russian soldiers were sitting in the wagons, amidst the looted feather bedding and clothing. Even after four years they still looked the same, in long khaki woolen coats, grubby hats, felt boots worn by scruffy men with guns at the ready. Two wagons turned into our drive; the others stopped at the end of the road and waited for them. Mother went out to meet the soldiers. She could speak Russian. They were surprised to hear Mother speak in their tongue. They were somewhat taken aback. Yet, they had come for their loot. Nobody was going to stop them from taking their "reward." Stalin had promised them "free run" of the occupied territory, if they would be the first to reach Berlin. Whatever they did, they would not be punished for it.

They came into the house, holding their guns ready to shoot. They rummaged through the rooms, taking anything that looked interesting or valuable to them. They did not take anything from our room. They took all the food that they could find. But there was not much to take from the Pantelis' farm. They took their loot, got on their wagons, turned their horses around and drove away. Nearly every day there were wagons with Russians turning into our driveway.

As I walked through the cow-barn door into the pig-kitchen, I froze. Mother was standing in the doorway opposite a drunken Russian soldier, holding a gun to Mother's breast. In broken German, he was asking for a watch. Mother was so frightened that she had forgotten how to speak Russian. She was replying in German telling him that she did not have a watch. I quickly ran back into the cow-barn to tell the boys.

We then heard a shot from the house and Rolf took charge. He sent us out behind the cow-barn and then he went to see what had happened to Mother. Shortly, but what seemed a very long time, Rolf returned. He had not found Mother. Instead he had found a Russian soldier in our room, looking for Mother under the beds.

Rolf could speak a few words of Russian. So he says to the Russian, "My mother is not here." The Russian looked surprised and said, "Are you Russian?"

Rolf replied, "No, a Latvian."

The Russian stopped searching for Mother, stumbled out of the house, climbed on his wagon and drove away.

Russian soldiers were sitting in the wagons, amidst the looted feather bedding and clothing.

A few minutes later Mother, looking very pale, emerged from an outdoor toilet where she had been hiding. The Russian was looking for anything valuable like a watch. She had told him that she had no watch. However, she had hidden her father's gold watch in the barn. Then the soldier had gone into the house and found a clock on the wall of the living-room. Angrily he had ripped it off the wall and discharged his gun. By the time the Russian began to look for Mother, she had retreated and hidden in the toilet.

The next time we saw wagons turning into our drive, we all ran for cover in the nearby forest. When the Russians saw us running, they began to shoot at us. We threw ourselves to the ground, laid there for a minute then jumped up and ran again. We heard the bullets whistling past our heads. Finally we were in the forest and safe because they were too drunk to follow us. After they left, we came home.

Relates to the reunion in 2011 in next weeks article titled: 'German Lutheran Diakonie's 60th anniversary celebration in Berchtesgaden'

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

Photograph from the 2011 reunion. More in next week's article

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

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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