This is really big for me. My father (deceased) left behind a short memoir of his experience during the invasion of Germans into Lithuania, written in English. I published it, thinking, somebody might want to read that. It was published in 2017. Now, 2021, a translation into Lithuanian is published. Now he is an author in his home country, "his people" from whom he was ripped most of his life.
This past year refugees have gotten a very bad rap. The negative propaganda is: they are criminals, thieves, rapists, leeches trying to steal a piece of the American dream. They’ll get on the dole and stay there the rest of their lives.
This is, of course, not true. It is the propaganda of racists who want to cast any dark skin as someone to be shot, tortured, or otherwise dehumanized and punished for “invading” our country (e.g. we could take away their children and store them like cattle).
In fact, most of us are within three generations of an immigrant. Our families for the most part are built on the backs of immigrants.
Our Hater in Chief himself has grandparents who—in desperation or simply in aspiration?—immigrated to America. He married two foreign women (one of possibly dubious legal status before he married her), and had five of six children by them. Thus, America has allowed his foreign-enhanced tribe to prosper. He insults his own family with diatribes about the uniformly “bad people” that cross our border.
You’ve seen me reflect on the sad fate of my family, that was displaced by the invasion of Germans and Russians into Lithuania, and who fled for their lives, with a baby buggy and a wash pan. They were not alone; they were part of 12 million other people that Hitler’s regime “dislocated” from a quiet life in their country of origin and the country of their ancestors. (They were not part of the 10 million murdered.)
I just read a book that gave me some new thoughts:
THE DISPLACED by Viet Thanh Nguyen
First, let’s distinguish between an IMMIGRANT and a REFUGEE (or a DISPLACED PERSON). IMMIGRANTS can be people who voluntarily choose to move to another country. They might be able to bring their wealth with them, and they might plan for a smooth transition professionally.
A REFUGEE is a victim of bad luck. Something in his/her country changed, and he/she is running for her life. The motivation is FEAR OF DEATH. Thus, you can say, “I’ll live in a refugee camp, even for thirty years, rather than die.” (per a Tibetan lady I met in Nepal)
In that time, you might have children, and they might become “dreamers” who hope for some of the benefits that citizens have: access to jobs, social security, education, welfare, maybe health insurance. How long can that go on? I’m sure our “dreamers” are heading for a third generation without status as a “stateless people.”
It’s true that an influx of refugees can destroy an area that is not prepared to care for them.
I saw Calcutta inundated with Bengalis who fled death in West Bengal, because they were Hindu, and West Bengal had decided it was for Muslims. In Calcutta (1970), we stepped over sick and dying people on the sidewalks. Social services consisted of picking up bodies from the streets in the early morning.
Controlled immigration, and controlled refugee intake and placement, are the only way to ensure we are not overtaken by all the miseries of the whole world. The key factor is: what is a “HUMANE” response to the unlucky. And, ideally, one not biased for people of certain color, race, and religion. Or gender.
If all people have a right to live and prosper, let’s allow that all people do not have a right to live and prosper AT OUR EXPENSE and DESTRUCTION. That’s “invasion.” This is the root of our political debate: how far does our humanity, and our capacity for assimilation of the unlucky, extend?
The Zombie Invasion movies capture the fear: people who are not “really people” will eat us.
Here are some insights from THE DISPLACED book:
They are models for residents who have become complacent and complain about their “lack of opportunity.” What doesn’t kill you can make you strong.
The Supreme Court just agreed that there was nothing dubious about T’s wish to block, wholesale, people from certain countries, who just happen to be majority Muslim.
By chance, this week is the 70th anniversary of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. This bill was President Truman’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Europe after World War II. People were piling up in displaced person camps with nowhere to go, and they were heading for year 4.
Many were stateless refugees. They would not return to their homelands under Soviet communist control after the war. (They were right—those enticed to return were shot on arrival or deported to the Gulag. Why did the Soviets want them back?)
The Lithuanian Group on Facebook posted a link to Harry Truman’s statement, June 25, 1948. He says he signed with “great reluctance” because “the bill is flagrantly discriminatory.”
Truman was inaugurated in 1945 and urged immediate Congressional action on the “world tragedy.”
What were the shenanigans?
Congress waited 18 months to act. After three extensions, a Senate report came out. A bill was presented “without a single public hearing.” A compromise bill was passed IN THE LAST DAYS of the session. Truman: “If I refused to sign this bill now, there would be no legislation on behalf of displaced persons until the next session of the Congress.”
The bill allowed 200,000 DP’s to be admitted to the USA, along with 2,000 Czechs and 3,000 orphans. At the end of 1947, there were more than 600,000 people in the camps. This was a generous and welcome allotment for the USA.
There were cut-off dates for ELIGIBILITY that, in effect, excluded Jewish and some Catholic displaced persons. Those eligible had to have entered the camps before December 22, 1945. Many Jews, and Catholics fleeing communism, arrived after that date.
(About 250,000 Jews lived in the camps. Catholics were 50-55% of the camp population in 1947. 20-25% were Protestant.) Truman: 90% of Jewish DPs are excluded based on the date, the other 10% may not meet other restrictions.
40% of those allowed to enter had to come from areas “annexed by a foreign power”—building in a bias for people from the Baltics and Eastern Europeans. (Who happened to be whiter than others…)
This is what is called “structural discrimination.” Rather than say, NO JEWS, AND KEEP THE CATHOLICS OUT TOO, or WE WANT WHITE PROTESTANTS WHO ARE SKILLED, the Congress used DATES as a cut-off. Clever, huh?
Truman says: “I hope that this bitter disappointment will not turn to despair.”
I don’t know if his recommended amendments for greater fairness and humanity made it into law.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE: My parents made the cut and immigrated with two toddlers in August, 1949, based on this law, after four years in the camps. Lucky, after being very unlucky.
ALSO, FYI: I met a Tibetan woman in Nepal who had lived in a refugee camp for thirty years. She was safe.
More statistics on the Refugee Problem Left by World War II at http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1948041400
A memorial monument is planned, to be built in the middle of Lithuania by February, 2019. The design is by sculptor Tadas Gutauskas, in collaboration with an architect, Saulius Pamerneckis. It will be like the Vietnam memorial – a place to commemorate, grieve, and pray.
See the initial website: http://partizanumemorialas.lt/en/ for photos of the target design, and information about the sponsors. The website provides instructions for donation. Soon there will be various options for donation including Paypal.
Tadas was a painter when he gave me permission to use his art as images in my illustrated novella, Vilnius Diary. Since those days (2006) he’s done a number of public monuments in Vilnius, like The Road to Freedom.
The partisans are men who decided to try to fight the Russians who returned to occupy Lithuania in 1941. They organized, armed themselves, and retreated to the forests to fight back. There is a movie about them: The Invisible Front (1914). See here. And here.
About 20,000 of them died. Many of their remains were not found. One of their leaders said, “We are not afraid to die.” The odds were greatly against them. Their resistance movement was between 1944 and 1953.
One of the emotional triggers for me is an awe for their heroism. Lithuania is a small country (about the size of West Virginia) and it was easily overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union. The Nazis quickly killed nearly 200,000 Jews and other “undesirables,” and then came the Soviets who exiled hundreds of thousands simply because they were educated people and might organize to resist the occupation.
Many people like my parents successfully fled the massacres and deportations. But the partisans stayed, and resisted, to their deaths. They chose to stay and fight.
The website shows photos of individuals and there might be video interviews with several survivors, who are in their nineties now. These are the faces of heroes. I think their circumstances are what make this movement so poignant: the small ad hoc force, overwhelming odds, meager resources, living year-round on the run in the forests (like other guerillas), dying horrible deaths (torture, mutilation), and lost remains.
Lithuania has only been free of Soviet and Russian occupation since 1991. (That’s 27 years ago.) It has taken YEARS to rebuild. It is going to take DECADES to process what happened. (Consider: how America has processed the Civil War, the Cold War, the Vietnamese War, the war in Afghanistan, etc. etc.) The stories ARE JUST COMING OUT.
The stories of the escapees, emigres, and gulag-returnees are JUST COMING OUT. (See my other blog entries.)
We need this for therapy, understanding, healing, and appreciation for the sacrifices of others for good. Could you do what a partisan did?
Below is an ad for the project which will appear in Draugas News (English) in the U.S. every month for a year.
The Crimson Blight by Ona Eirosiut Algminiene, translated by Leo Algminas. 2014.
Crimson Blight fictionalizes a short period in Lithuania’s history, between 1940 and 1941 when Russians occupied the country. It belongs to the genre of personal accounts of a horrible time during WWII. As a novel, it has a lot of weaknesses. As a fictionalization of memories or a diary, it offers something interesting: what was the daily experience of seeing the Russians come in and take over. The perspective is a land-owner’s in a small Lithuanian town.
Be warned it is also in the category of atrocity stories. A few things I learned here: Common Russian soldiers were mad to discover all Lithuanians lived better than they did, no matter what class; they were victims of Stalin’s forced conscription; and that might explain some of their anger and brutality.
The narrator’s experience of a level of brutality that shakes your faith in God and humanity explains why many Lithuanians who stayed through the German occupation that followed could not bear to live with Russians again—they fled and they would not go back to Russian occupiers after the war. Jews were not inside the Lithuanian social circles (in this story); they helped the Russian occupiers run the place; and this family of Lithuanians did not identify with them nor sympathize with them. Nor did they hate Jews.
Finally, I learned that it is very hard to figure out when you’ve had enough abuse and you are ready to run for your life. Clinging to routine, tradition, faith, work, and family is normal, especially when the devil starts living in your house.
A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile by Agate Nesaule. 1997.
The author is a professor of literature in America who captures as a memoir her journey from living as a child in Latvia during the invasions of the Soviets and the Germans, fleeing the country and living in a DP camp, and then immigrating to the U.S. There is a therapeutic theme as the author draws on her early traumatic experiences to explain difficulties she had in relationships later in life. It is a story of perseverance in spite of awful early experiences, and insights gained over decades that followed. People who shared similar experiences will find it especially meaningful.
Forest of the Gods by Balys Sruoga, translated by Aušrinė Byla. 2005.
Balys Sruoga was a literary intellectual in Lithuania and a professor at Vilnius University. German occupiers sent him to the Stutthof concentration camp in 1943. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Forest of the Gods is written as fiction that tries to present an experience of war, in this case, the concentration camp, as a microcosm of civilization and its absurdities. Sruoga died in 1947, soon after the war. His manuscript (in Lithuanian) was banned, then finally published in 1957. It is a shocking and gripping story of the ordeal of victims of the Nazi invasion.
Fading Echoes From the Baltic Shores by Edward R. Janusz. 2012.
Janusz’s story is told as a memoir left by his mother, of which twenty pages were true and more filled in by him. Alongside the personal story of finding a war arrive on your property, forcing decisions about who/what to trust and what to do to save the life of your family, Janusz also fills in substantial researched history, especially his favored military history. The juxtaposition of highly personal events and the course of World War II as affecting Lithuania are powerful. The book is not perfect and could have been edited and cut for a few things, but it is highly readable, fascinating, and meaningful to émigrés from that era.
We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy. 2012.
The story of Ellen Cassedy’s journey to Lithuania to learn Yiddish and uncover family history is a wonderful and personal story written as a memoir. She meets with a whole spectrum of people, for example, some of the few Jews remaining in Lithuania, and Lithuanians who wanted to “witness” something to her (a Jew) before they died. Like a mystery writer, she uncovers tiny pieces of evidence and puts them together. Like an anthropologist, she captures deep values and prejudices.
Most important and most interesting to me were the moral ambiguities. Did Lithuanians help and even independently carry out genocide for the Nazis? Did Jews who served as police in the ghettos collaborate or protect lives when they delivered up hundreds of ghetto occupants at a time knowing they were being sent to be shot in the forest? Why didn’t Jews fight back? Did Lithuanians help them survive? Who suffered the most, Jews or thousands of Lithuanians deported to Siberia by the Soviets (a question debated in Lithuania)? She captures views from every perspective, whether we like them or not.
If you are Jewish or Jewish-Lithuanian-American, this is an fascinating adventure into horrible events and the views of every-day people possibly including your family. If you are interested in the Holocaust, it is painfully detailed.
Her narrative is told as the experience of a visitor in Vilnius, like a diary. It shows that she is an accomplished journalist. The book filled in many blanks for me. I am glad to see it won many awards.
Many of us immigrated to the U.S. as young children in the wave following World War II. Our parents had to find work, learn English, seek food and housing. Many were too tired or traumatized to sit back and tell tales about the homeland. In fact, they might have been abnormally silent. I’ve met many contemporaries who wish they knew what happened and sought to learn from others what happened.
Now sixty-plus years later, more books are appearing to explain those times. The authors include scholars who’ve taken a long time to pull the research together and retirees who are using their leisure to fill in the history. Here are a few books that brought my mind some rest.
DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman. 1989 and 1998 editions.
Displaced persons, also known as refugees, are a constant in human history. As long as there is conflict and war, there are people who flee for safety and find it far away in a foreign country. In September 1945 there were 1.8 million displaced in Europe still waiting for a place to go. The politics of their resettlement continued for years after. Among them, 200,000 Baltic people knew that Russians had killed and deported about 130,000 of their kind in 1941 and would resume the persecution, so they refused to return. “Some 75 percent of the university, high school and grade school teachers had fled Lithuania,… as well as 80 percent of the doctors and … writers, painters, musicians, artists, etc.” (p. 119)
Wyman describes the “continent in ruins” right after the war, with up to twenty million bewildered people on the move. There were soldiers returning home; POWs, concentration and labor camp internees; civilians escaping intolerable places or expelled due to political antipathy. Most returned to their former homes. The Allied Forces were busy sorting them out and herding them into organized camps.
His riveting narrative describes the history around the DP camps in detail. Stories of individuals bring the experience to life. A chapter on repatriation explains the politics and logistics addressing stateless people who would not go home. He describes the special problems of orphaned children and surviving Jews. The camps became multi-lingual and -cultural communities, struggling to hang onto national identity, to school children, and to apply for asylum, in a limbo that lasted years after the war.
The hair-raising story must not be forgotten. In 2015, over a million refugees from the Middle East entered Europe, and there were 1.3 million active claims for asylum.
Those of us within a generation of the WWII DP experience know that security and prosperity was found by many DPs from this era. What we might not know is exactly how our parents coped at the time, and what lingered in their lives, good and bad.
A recent episode of “This is Us” on NBC (“Memphis”) shows an Afro-American man taking his biological father to Memphis. Randall was adopted and raised by a white couple. They enter a bar, and Randall meets, for the first time, people who are actual relatives of his besides his father. He’s drunk, and he exclaims to his wife on the phone: “Cousins! Cousins! I have cousins! First and second and other cousins!”
Randall grew up surrounded by love. Why is he ecstatic to find total strangers who are “distant cousins,” and blood kin?
Wasn’t the love of his adoptive parents enough? Why do adoptees crave a real blood relative?
Refugees are sometimes like adoptees—uprooted, often cut off from familiar people and immediate family, their “tribe.” They are scattered across the world, reduced to seek physical survival. Having a cozy home is moot, cousins are moot.
If you read about refugees in France who are unaccompanied minors—their parents sent these teenagers across thousands of miles of danger, so SOMEONE in the family might survive.
I have a lot of “virtual family”—people to whom I feel so spiritually connected that they feel like kin, as if I’ve known them all my life. Does it matter if we share DNA?
I think the shared DNA—“cousins, cousins”—is a primal identity. “Where you came from” and “who you are.”
But sometimes an adoptee or a love child reconnects with a biological parent and finds them alien, repulsive, or destructive to them. Unattractive.
Sometimes there are people in our family tree who seem to us awful, undesirable even as friends, immoral, toxic, unpleasant or just plain boring.
Does DNA trump everything? The assumption that “we are family” may not hold, emotionally and/or intellectually. It’s ONLY DNA, in some of those cases. We have nothing in common and we reject the assumption of likeness. “That’s not who I am or who I want to be.”
Many of my friends and I have gone into the search for ancestors. It is amazing and wonderful to find resonance, inspiration, and intrigue. People a century old who indeed look like us. People who did things that we do, who had habits we have, lived like we do, and even thought like we do. Similar struggles. It’s GREAT to call those people “family.” Those are welcome roots.
I asked myself, what are you looking for, in this roots searching? My answer: the feeling of belonging. Deep belonging. Likeness. Resonance.
Instead of picturing family TREES we should picture biological ties as ROOT SYSTEMS. Some plants can have root systems covering hundreds of miles. Millions of branch roots and billions of root hairs. That’s the genetic pool we’re in. They are the SAME PLANT. The parts that show above the ground—the expression—will vary depending on conditions. The “green shoots” are bound together underground. They might look alike. They can look different too. It feels good to be in it together, though.
We are indeed blessed and having a charmed life if we are physically and emotionally comfortable, have access to education and jobs, and are safe from discrimination and oppression.
How many people is that?
On the news last night, a UN official said that 1% of the world’s population was in “refugee status.” I thought, “how close to home is this experience?”
I’m foreign-born, an immigrant. In the USA, 13% of the population is like me. That’s more than one in ten.
Other countries have more foreign-born immigrants: Australia has 27% of population, Canada 20%. Europe is at 7%.
That’s a lot of “displaced people.” Some fled certain death, economic disaster, hardship, oppression.
How many of us are familiar with the “immigrant experience?” A majority of the population identifies as within three generations of an immigrant. Those within three generations may be actually as high as 75% of the population.
You’ll be encouraged that second-generation Americans do very well, almost catching up with “natives” in many respects. That’s almost miraculous—and explains why a LOT of people want to come to the USA.
Remember “foreign-born” can mean: I don’t know the language, I have no house, I have no job or financial security, I don’t know how to get food-housing-jobs-healthcare-schooling. A huge learning curve in a foreign language. The days and months go by as you try to get out of poverty, send the kids to school, provide for the family.
Even so, for the second generation, median income and home ownership are CAUGHT UP with “natives.” And the percentage of college graduates EXCEEDS the rate for “natives.” Immigrants must be desperate for security and basic needs.
My parents were part of the 12 million people wandering around Europe right after World War II around 1945. I won’t repeat all the groups behind the numbers. They were all in misery over some reason they could not “go home” anymore.
There are other miseries besides being “displaced.” We could have the legacies of slavery and racism in our family experience. Native American mistreatments. Or, losing jobs and dropping into poverty, having to move and start over, for reasons other than national politics. “Food insecurity” which means you don’t have enough to eat, even though you may be born here.
There are about 1.5 million people seeking asylum in Europe now.
The numbers seem to say: Don’t be cold-hearted about immigrants. In America, there is probably one in your family tree within three generations.
I traveled to Lithuania to learn more about my family history, with two Swedish women with the same interest. Our families intersected in the period 1920 through 1940.
We hired an English-speaking guide to make it an efficient experience. The guide drove us from Vilnius to Siauliai and back, over three days. He was wonderful.
It was intense, magical.