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Surviving Fear And Terror
By Veronika Svilans Smits
Jul 30, 2014 - 7:37:34 AM

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I was born in Varaklani, Latvia. After graduating the high school of Varaklani on June 6, 1940, I enrolled in the University of Latvia. On June 17, 1940, the Soviet Red Army occupied Latvia. In the autumn, when I entered the university, it had been renamed University of Riga.

The people of our country under the occupation by Russian Communists were living constantly in a nightmarish, terror-filled environment. Every day, some people's friends, relatives, or acquaintances mysteriously disappeared. The arrests and detentions happened during the night. Hatred against the repressive system was rising, but it was subdued and helpless because of an elaborate surveillance and spying network, which the new regime had installed.

The ongoing manhunt and terror began on the night of June 13, 1941. The Soviets arrested people from all occupations, from all regions of the country: men and women of all ages, including the aged, adults, students, children, and babies. Authorities had prepared lists of people for deportation. They took people to various railroad stations or sidings and crammed them like cattle into freight cars. Even the most primitive conveniences were not available to them. A hole cut in the floor had to serve for disposal of human waste during the travel, which lasted for months. The men were separated from their families and sent to different locations. The Communists had planned and executed these actions as directed by the authorities in Moscow. In June 1941, when Hitler decided to break the secret pact signed with Stalin on August 23, 1939, German forces took over the Latvian territory. The surprised Soviets retreated and fled without any resistance. The frightened Latvian people, not knowing what to expect, hid wherever possible.

After a year of terror under the Soviets, most Latvians received the German soldiers--though not their leaders--as liberators. Because of the war, the University was closed that autumn. I entered Nursing College at the First Riga Hospital on Aizsargu Street. That was a four-year course. I stayed there twelve months. In autumn 1942, I returned to the University.

In 1943, the German military power began to decline. The Soviet armies, revitalized with American help, started a massive counterattack and regained previously lost areas of the Soviet Empire. The German efforts to contain the onrushing Soviets were failing. The battle lines were drawing closer to Latvia.

After Christmas 1943, I taught English in the high school at Varaklani. The German army occupied the high school building and the classrooms were located in different places. The studies at the school ended April 30, 1944. I returned to Riga for my exams. The air raids had become more frequent. Some people tried to escape the war's destruction by moving out of the city to the country.

Everybody was forced to work. I joined the Red Cross. The head nurse ordered me to a field hospital in Ergli, Latvia. On August 19, 1944, the Red Army captured Ergli. It was recaptured by Germans, then again by Soviets, and then back and forth several times. When I got up, ready to return to work, I walked outside the house and all I saw was chaos. I joined the steady stream of terrified Latvian peasants and farmers fleeing from the advancing Communists. People were crowding highways and country roads to escape the feared intruders. We were all fleeing the nightmare of the Soviet occupation we had experienced during 1940 and 1941.

Our peaceful little country was destroyed again by passions of war, leaving scars all over it. I met with my work unit at Suntazi. Two nurses were missing. The Russians had captured them, but somehow they managed to escape and within a few days caught up with us.

Gradually our unit retreated toward western Latvia. We passed Riga on the night of October 5. We stopped there for only a short while. I picked up my young sister, Viktorija, who was staying with relatives, and we moved farther on to Kurland.

On the night of October 12, I could see unusual light in the direction of Riga. In the morning, we heard the news that Riga had fallen into Communist hands. Then one day the German military authorities ordered all refugees who were not permanent residents to leave. Shortly thereafter, we were all ordered to leave for Germany. Victoria and I left Liepaja on Saturday night of November 4 with two friends aboard the ship named Bukareste. The ship was crowded with refugees, soldiers, and cargo. It was difficult to find room to sleep. Luckily, nothing happened to our ship and we reached Gotenhafen safely. Here, for the first time, I stepped on the war-torn German soil. It was a strange feeling.

I received orders to work in Reserve Lazarett at Saarbrucken. Victoria, too young to work, was sent to Bavaria to stay with the family of one of the doctors. My two friends were sent to work in Regensburg. When I arrived by train in Saarbrucken, the Reserve Lazarett had already transferred to Bendorf am Rhein. I left the same night, traveling through Worms, Frankfurt, Silssen, Giessen, and Niederlandstein, reaching Bendorf am Rhein by Koblenz at noon on November 9. The next day I was at work in the Operating Theater (surgery). The sisters, doctors, and nurses were very kind to me. I became ill and ended up in the hospital. On December 1 Chief Surgeon Weber told me that I was transferred to Habelschwerdt am Glatz, to work in Sonderlazarett (special hospital), on the east side of Germany.

I was allowed a ten-day urlaub (holiday). On December 2, I collected my documents and went to visit Viktorija in Miesbach, Bavaria, arriving there on December 4. Seeing my sister was exciting as well as painful. The ten days passed quickly, and I was sad leaving her.

My diary reads, "I left Miesbach at 14:50, arrived in Munich at 16:45. I quickly found D-Zug (fast train), left Munich at 20:45, went straight through Breslau, arriving in Munich on December 12 at 13:00. I had to wait until 23:07 for the train to Habelschwerdt. That was a so-called Personen Zug, (passenger train) a very slow train. I arrived at Habelschwerdt next day at 10:00. What did I find there? When I opened the door, there were 25 Latvian nurses, all crammed in a room with double bunks. No work! There I spent Christmas of 1944."

We were not far from the Russian front line. No one could give any advice as to what to do. Even the head sister could not be of any help. Somehow, a group of us managed to get papers and permission to travel to Potsdam near Berlin. The trip lasted more than a week. At some railway stations, the train stopped for hours. A couple of hundred nurses of different nationalities were gathered in Potsdam Cinema Hall, not knowing what would happen next.

On February 4, 1945, I witnessed the bombardment of Berlin. My friend Aria and I tried to find the Latvian center in Berlin. I believe it was on NWJ Prinz Ferdinand Strasse 2. Right about noon Tieffliegers, the allied dive-bombers, arrived. At first, we hesitated to go to the bomb shelter, but after the second sounding of the alarm, I noticed no one was on the street. By now, the bunker was so crowded that we could hardly squeeze into it. We stayed there until after 4:00 p.m. People cried and screamed as the bunker shook from the bomb explosions.

It is impossible to describe what it looked like outside. There was no traffic. Volunteers posted on street corners directed people how and where to move. We returned to Potsdam after 10:00 p.m. From Potsdam, other Latvian nurses and I were sent to the Reserve Lazarett, in Bergen b/Celle, uber Hanover. It was in Trupper Ubungs Platz, some sort of a military training school. In the hospital, all the facilities and equipment were very modern.

The atmosphere was disturbingly unusual. With each passing day, we could feel the end of the war nearing. The Germans surrendered May 8, 1945, ending the war in Europe. Since the hospital was in the British occupied zone, it was taken over by the British Medical Corps. Nearby was a concentration camp holding about 70,000 inmates. Most of them were very sick. They had typhus. The sick were brought in on stretchers, dirty from head to toes; some could not speak. A sign on a door of a room in the hospital read "HUMAN LAUNDRY." They were like skeletons, so very weak. In two weeks, the group I was working with had washed 9,000 people of different nationalities, including Latvians. Some Latvian nurses caught typhus and became very ill. My friend's mother died from it. A British hairdresser, who was cutting the inmates' hair, also became ill and died.

All sick people were placed in the hospital. Two hundred German nurses were brought in to work in the hospital. The first country to collect its citizens was France. French patients were taken home by airplane. Thousands were taken to Sweden, and some other countries accepted the people from the concentration camps. Then, in June, I heard the news about refugee camps, the Displaced Persons Camps. I looked upon myself as a refugee. We discussed the matter with other Latvian nurses.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) announced that England was offering work for coal miners and domestic workers. My friend wanted me to apply with her to go to England. However, I was worried about my sister, Victoria, far away and alone. I asked the English matron for permission to go and find her. I was granted four weeks of leave and was ready to leave. My friend was not happy about it. On August 28, 1945, I left Bergen-Belsen, not knowing how I would reach Miesbach. The worst part of the trip was overnight from Hanover to Augsburg on an open freight train loaded with black coal. I arrived in Miesbach, Bavaria, late next afternoon.

My sister Viktorija had been moved to another place from where she had lived before. Now we both were happy being together. I registered myself in Miesbach so that I could receive food ration coupons. Now we had to decide what to do and where to go. I gathered some information about different camps. In October, we decided to go to Berchtesgaden and apply to be accepted in the Displaced Persons Camp Insula. The camp was administered by Area Team 1069 under UNRRA and the U.S. Army Corps. Area 1069 administration office was in Traunstein, later moved to Bad-Reichenhall.

Veronika Svilans Smits

Magic City Editor's Note:

We have been glad to assist the authors in promoting this book. Below you will see a list of articles most of which have a photograph or two attached, about the experiences at 'Insula.'

R.P. BenDedek

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:

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

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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