[This post was written for the 30th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy on the topic of “Arrival in New Lands”, hosted by Al of Al’s Polish-American Genealogy Research.]
All four of my grandparents came to Canada for the same reason: to flee from the Communist terror that had overtaken their homeland and the rest of Eastern Europe. I have already talked at some length about their experiences in leaving and life as Displaced Persons, so for this post I will look at their arrival and first years in their new home. This is a time period that I initially neglected in my research, but now I am starting to try and learn more about it.
After World War 2 ended, there were millions of Displaced Persons across Western Europe who either could not or would not return to their homes. As a result, refugee organizations had to work to resettle all of these people into new homes across the world. This is a process that took several years, and most DPs departed for new lands between 1948 and 1951.
In numerous cases, DPs were admitted to countries through a variety of worker placement schemes – agreements that they would take up a pre-arranged position of employment that they needed to remain in for at least a year to fulfill the obligations of their contract. These schemes were not perfect, and in some cases exploitation did occur. However, for most it provided a good opportunity in their new country, to already have a steady job waiting for them, which sometimes also came with a place to live for the duration of the contract.
My grandparents participated in such placements upon their arrival in Canada. My maternal grandmother took up a nursing position at the Weston Sanatorium in Weston, Ontario, now a part of the city of Toronto. My grandfather Aleksandrs Francis obtained a contract to work on a farm near Niagara-on-the-Lake while he learned English. They were married in Toronto in 1950, presumably after he completed his contract. They lived in Toronto for several years, and then in 1954 moved to Saint Catharines, Ontario, where they built a home. Aleksandrs died in 1983, and my grandmother moved from this home in 1993, when she and her sister moved north to my family’s town.
My paternal grandfather, Juris Celmiņš, had trained as a civil engineer back in Latvia. He and his wife Zenta (nee Lukins) moved around to numerous places before they settled in Toronto. Juris’ first job was working in a mine in Sudbury, Ontario, but after a few days his supervisors thought “Why do we have this engineer who speaks English working down in the mine?” and gave him a new position. Juris had learned English while working in his DP camp, which had been in the British zone of Germany. After this job, he also worked in Sarnia, and then by 1954 was living in Toronto, where he and Zenta and their three children lived until Zenta’s death in 1959. Juris remarried to Edīte Bulle, a fellow Latvian who had been recently widowed, and they lived in their home in Toronto until their deaths in 2002 and 2003.
The homes they lived in were simple post-war homes. I’m not sure when my paternal grandparents began to own their homes, but I know my maternal grandparents’ first home in Toronto, from roughly 1952 to 1954, was jointly owned by them and another Latvian couple. I have the bill of sale of them selling this property to a young Jewish family (searching the address on Google provided me with several “society pages” articles from the Canadian Jewish Review where the name matched that on the bill of sale). Then they built their home in Saint Catharines, and defied apparent social conventions of the time with the design – instead of putting the living room at the front of the house, they put the kitchen in the front and had the living room with large windows overlooking their beautiful garden. My mother tells me that several neighbours were displeased about this design – I guess this setup made it harder for them to be nosy! The garden had many different plants and shrubs, both for decoration and for food. I have fond memories of eating black currants and red currants straight off the bushes when I was a child.
The worker placement schemes could take DPs to far corners of the country – late 1940s editions of the newspaper “Brīvais Latvietis” (Free Latvian) mentions Latvian clubs in places such as the Yukon. But through newspapers like this, they kept in touch, found lost friends and kept the community spirit alive. Early editions of this paper are available through the website Connecting Canadians. At some point during this time, though I’m unsure as to how it happened, my maternal grandmother came back into contact with her high school sweetheart, who had settled in the USA. They still keep up correspondence to this day.
After the contracts ended and DPs could move to anywhere they wanted, Latvians tended to congregate in larger cities – Toronto has the largest Latvian community in Canada, but there were also communities in Montreal, Saint Catharines, Ottawa and Hamilton. They set up Latvian Saturday schools for their children, organized singing and dancing clubs, created scout and guide troops, organized summer camps and established churches. A prevailing notion that inspired this flurry of activity right from the beginning was that Latvians in the Soviet Union would be systematically eliminated, so it was up to the exiles (“trimdinieki”) to maintain their identity, heritage and language.
Many of these same instutitions continue to exist today. My father and I both graduated from the same Latvian school in Toronto, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. The Latvian summer camp that I attended as a camper from 1993 to 1998, and as a counselor for five of the eight following years, has been operating for fifty-three years.
Now, since independence was regained, there has been a shift – children and grandchildren of exiles, who were born and grew up in the West, are increasingly moving to Latvia to live. Many of my childhood friends have done so, and it is my intention as well. How much of a trend this will be, and how much culture and identity is retained in the West by those who do not return, is yet to be seen.