My grandmother, a WWII refugee, is my hero.
In 1944, the year before the end of WWII, the Soviet Army was advancing on my grandmother's small farming community near Rauna, a little over 100 km northeast of Latvia's capital, Riga. For my grandmother's family, Russia was the enemy they knew — the tiny Baltic country had only regained its independence from the Empire a few decades earlier — and that meant that they knew to run.
Valija Grauds, nan or nana to us, was 17. Her family were living as refugees in Kurzeme, close enough to the capital that my nan could visit friends and relatives in the city. During one of those visits, the front shifted again, and she was cut off from her parents and siblings, alone in Riga with no possessions and no identity papers.
Depending on ethnicity or ideology, Latvians were conscripted into either the U.S.S.R.'s army or the German military. Valija had an uncle serving with a Luftwaffe ground crew in Riga. When the Germans realized that the Red Army would take Riga in October of 1944, they fled. Against orders, Arnolds hid my grandmother in a Wehrmacht truck and took her with him through Lithuania to Poland.
As the German army retreated, she moved further west, eventually landing in a displaced persons camp in Lubeck — an area that would become, by the spring of 1945, part of British-occupied Germany. It was there where she began to learn English. And, with a kind of gumption that seems unimaginable to me, my teenage grandmother applied to go to England through a program for displaced persons.
"The Soviets were really eager to have all their refugees go back — not to stay in the Western part of Europe," she says from her current home in London, Ontario. "I knew if I went there I would probably end up being sent to Siberia. There was the need to get as far as possible from that. It was saving your life, really."
For a year, she worked in a wool mill near Birmingham, U.K.
"There was the understanding that you would go wherever the [British] government sent you because England was really depleted of labour — a lot of the young people were killed or were still in refugee camps," she explains.
She says she didn't want to stay as a factory worker for the rest of her life, so she practiced her new language and applied to a British National Health Service midwifery program instead, where she would later graduate (in a borrowed dress) at the top of her class.
Before her tiny country had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union, she'd dreamed of becoming a teacher. However with medical experience now under her belt, she decided to devote herself to nursing and to a new country: Canada, a place she felt was as far as possible from the Soviet Union.
When she arrived in Southwestern Ontario, she picked tobacco alongside my grandfather, another Latvian immigrant, while finishing her Canadian nursing credentials. By the time she retired, she was the clinical coordinator at University Hospital's intensive care, recovery room, and multi-transplant unit in London, Ontario. In other words, she was the boss.
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My grandmother, now 91 years old, has travelled back to her home country many times. First, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, which meant entering Latvia via Moscow and being shadowed by a Kremlin spook, and again in 1991, when the U.S.S.R. disintegrated and Latvia once again become an independent country.
In 1998, she took me along for my first visit. We've been many times since and I've been able to watch the country rebuild and regain its identity over the decades. But in those first years after leaving, my nan had no way of contacting her family back home. What she gave up wasn't simply material, it was a culture, a history and a sense of place; a homeland that even I, two generations later, still long for and miss.
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