I know this was yesterday’s blogging prompt, but I don’t have much to say in terms of my female ancestors and newsmaking, since it was my male ancestors who were the newsmakers, but I do on moments of strength.
Today’s prompt: Share a story where a female ancestor showed courage or strength in a difficult situation.
When she was twenty-five years old – the same age that I am now – my grandmother, along with her elder sister, left Latvia in the midst of the Second World War. The war was nearing its end, and it was clear that the Soviets would be victorious. Having experienced the first Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941, they had no desire to experience it again.
They were nurses with the Red Cross, having initially worked in the hospital in Rīga, and then traveling across Europe. Their journey took them across Europe by many methods, including trains and boats. They were on one of the last ships out of Gdansk, where bombardments were happening regularly and numerous boats were lost.
By war’s end, they found themselves in Copenhagen, Denmark. Displaced persons’ accommodations over the next four years were varied – the manor house “Gurrehus” west of Helsingor, army barracks near Kastrup airport, apartments on Prags Boulevard, even temporary accommodations in Christiansborg Palace.
Initially, displaced persons were not meant to work in the community, but eventually these rules were relaxed. The sisters took jobs as maids in the rich community of Vedbæk, north of Copenhagen. After time, they also secured long-term positions as seamstresses at the fashion house Modepalæet on Østerbrogade in central Copenhagen. During this time, they also met the men who were to become their husbands. My grandfather was the DP leader at Gurrehus. However, they only married in Canada.
In 1949, the opportunity came to emigrate to Canada, and they took it. The sisters boarded the SS Samaria on June 30th, 1949. Documents conflict as to whether this was in Cuxhaven or in Bremerhaven – emigration documents say one, immigration documents the other. They arrived in Quebec City on July 11th, 1949. When my grandmother first set foot on Canadian soil, she was twenty-nine years old. The uncertainty of the years since the war began now over, she and her husband-to-be (who arrived in Canada a month later) were able to pursue life as it should have been before the war interrupted – building a home (literally) and having a family.
My grandmother is now 90 years old, and her sister is 98. I have always admired the strength and courage of these formidable women, and the bravery it took to leave their family and the only home they’d ever known to journey across a continent in the midst of war, and then onwards to a country with a new language and culture to build new lives.
I retraced their steps this past fall, visiting Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Gdansk, and seeing the places that they told me about. I also went back to the village they grew up in and the property where they lived (only the root cellar of their home still exists, there is a new home on the property now). I visited their parents’ graves. It was all an extremely moving experience.