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Tracking World War One Refugees

The First World War was a time of chaos across Europe. And yet, there was order as well, at least in Latvian territory and amongst Latvians residing elsewhere. The documentation surrounding Latvian refugees of the First World War is extremely comprehensive, though not easily accessible. But hopefully that will change over time.

During the First World War in Latvian territory, the front lines were mostly around the Daugava river, which mean that the German forces had occupied most of the Kurland province (modern-day Kurzeme and Zemgale provinces). While some residents of Kurland remained, estimates say that roughly two-thirds of the province’s inhabitants went north and east to avoid the war front. They went to the Livland province (modern-day Vidzeme and southern Estonia), but also further afield into inner Russia, Ukraine and points further east. I wrote about my family’s First World War story here. They were not from Kurland, but they lived in Krustpils, which was just on the other side of the Daugava from Kurland, so for safety’s sake, they left as well.

Where does the documentation on these refugees reside? As with most Latvian genealogical documents, at the Latvian State Historical Archives. None of it is currently online, with the exception of some church registers from a “refugee congregation” in Tallinn. The main document collections (fonds) you’ll want to look at at the archives are 5626 (Baltijas latviešu bēgļu apgādāšanas komiteja – Baltic Latvian Refugee Relief Committee) and 3234 (abstracts 1a and 13 – refugee and prisoner of war documents).

The first fond, 5626, has these sorts of documents:

  • Letters written by refugees
  • Newspaper clippings about refugee life in Inner Russia
  • Search requests for missing refugees
  • Alphabetical registers of refugees and corresponding registration books
  • Lists of refugees living in specific locations
  • Requests from refugees looking for work or financial support
  • School records for refugee children and documents regarding refugee children in care

Fond 3234, in addition to having all sorts of other genealogically-related documents (citizenship acquisition/loss, name changes, etc.) has the following types of refugee documents in abstracts 1a and 13:

  • Documentation about illegal migrants
  • Documents regarding people under police surveillance
  • Alphabetical registers and registration books of refugees returning to Latvia
  • Documents regarding refugees from other countries found in Latvian territory
  • Soviet prisoners of war being returned to the Soviet Union, and Latvians who have chosen to go with them
  • Documents regarding prisoners of war being held in Latvian territory
  • Registers of people opting for Latvian citizenship
  • Foreigner registration books

As you can see, there is a whole wealth of potential information. The documents that I have found most useful are the registration books of returning refugees. These will tell you when your Latvian ancestors returned to Latvia, and, often, where they were coming from. Your ancestors could have been living somewhere as close as Moscow, or as far afield as Tashkent or Omsk. If you’re not sure where in Latvia your ancestors were from, these can be pivotal documents – mostly dating from between 1920 and 1923, they will describe the family traveling together back to Latvia, where they were going in Latvia, where in Latvia they were from originally, and often mentions of supporting documents and their registration numbers – this can make life a lot easier when trying to hunt down other records!

However, these documents are not digitized, and the alphabetical registers that direct you to the proper registration book are in very poor condition, so the archival staff are reluctant to give them to visitors on a regular basis. Next time I’m there, I’ll see what I can do about asking them if I can digitize these valuable documents for them, to save on the wear-and-tear and make them more accessible.

Have you made use of the World War One-era refugee documents? Any tips of your own to share? Add them in comments!

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