It was not Camp Granada
Our next destination was a move to Northern Germany, not too far from Hamburg, one of the cities that had suffered numerous bombardments. Here we remained until the end of World War II. Thus we were situated in British Zone, after the spoils of war were subdivided. This was really a blessing for us. Had we stayed in the Eastern part of Germany near Dresden, our fate would have been sealed and we would have been in the Soviet Zone under Communist Regime, rather than British Zone.
As our situation improved in relation to survival, we were no longer driven into shelters at the sounds of wailing sirens announcing impending air strikes. We were placed into DP (displaced persons) Camp. Here we had to establish home, find productive work and getting children schooled. The children were more or less complacent with the new life style, since their being uprooted, understanding of home was vague.
After World War II we found ourselves in camps that had been either concentration camps or barrack lodging for soldiers during the War.
Most of the camps were enclosed with 12 foot wire fence sporting razor wire at the top, much like prisons. By the way the camp was called “Lager”(Lah-gher) which means Camp in German; however it gives me pause to think perhaps “lager” was selected for its relationship to Lager Beer, lager meaning a large storage place for fermentation.
There was an attempt made placing DPs of like nationalities together.
That often did not materialize as several nationalities were placed in the same camp. Passports and dog tags were primary documents used for identification and placement into Lager. The diversity of camp residence visited special hardship on school children; they had to adapt to the dominant language spoken in particular camp. They did adapt.
After conclusion of World War II there were four Zones, the American, the British, the French and Russian or Soviet zone, which later was known as Soviet Socialistic Republics or CCP (SSR) under the banner of red flag with a hammer and sickle. Those emblems were actually practiced by Soviets. They were apt to cut down with the sickle and whack you on the head with the hammer as those in power saw fit. Soviets acquired the major part of War spoils which included a block of sovereign nations, who are still struggling for independence since after the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as East Germany. The other three zones had merged into West Germany until 1989.
Most of the camps did not have flush toilets, but rather a common out houses, which accommodated a dozen or so seats. Men were segregated from women by a common wall at the back of the seats.
Sanitation was something as we know it was minimal. There was occasional sweeping of the facility and lime sprinkling to reduce the pungency.
In the summer months the stench was nearly unbearable, but more repulsive were the maggots crawling on the floor. One had to be careful to wear some footwear especially at night in order not to step on crawly things.
Upon leaving the common out house one could proceed to the end of one’s barrack where there were several deep sinks with gooseneck spigots, where one could wash ones hands or wash out some personal items.
There was never any hot water. If one desired to have hot water, he had to heat it up on the pot-belly stove usually situated inside the room where people were staying. The large barrack rooms were divided by Army blankets to garner privacy to several families who were living in the same room.
In trying to establish home atmosphere, some of the ladies would cover crates that served as storage bins and night tables, often placed family photographs and even vases of flowers (fashioned out of tin cans) to give the appearance of home. In the rooms there were bunk beds up to four heights. Upper ones had metal guards, since they were usually dedicated to children.
Each Camp had a “Commandant,” who was an ultimate authority over the camp. Part of one of the barracks or a Quonset hut was designated as a place of worship. Services were held whenever clergy was available; otherwise a lay person would read the scripture and say a prayer. Another such facility was used as school. Teachers were recruited among willing and able in camp. This was not either a summer camp or retreat. We lived there all year long, unless we were reassigned to a different camp at the pleasure of the powers that be.
Most of the children seemed to learn all they could; of course they were prodded by their parents. It seems that education is most valued when least available. The parents gave utmost support to the teachers. I still remember my father’s bidding that I must do well in all subjects offered and our Grandmother’s admonishing that “Learning is light and lack of it is condemning one to darkness.” This came out of the mouth of a woman up in years and only second grade education under her belt. In as much as father insisted on academics, the paramount statement was “you may not always achieve the top grades in any one subject matter, however, anything but excellent is not acceptable in deportment” (behavior or conduct).
Part of attending school in DP Camp was maintaining the facility. Maintenance included keeping the building in good condition, clean and orderly as well as heated. That responsibility was put upon family or students. War produces splintered families and orphans. Most of the classrooms were fortunate enough to have a blackboard and chalk was inexpensive. Pot-belly stove had to be lit very early in the morning before students arrived. It was up to the parents to provide wood and or coal or peat and have the room heated. For those children who either did not have parents or whose parents were disabled or otherwise unavailable, responsibility fell upon the students.
Many mornings my older sister Vera my younger sister Irene and I were roused by our grandmother before the crack of dawn and were told to tidy up and heat up the school room. Our grandmother was up in years as well as somewhat disabled by arthritis, our father usually left for work or was looking for employment in the early hours of the day.
Since our mother was left behind in Latvia it was up to us girls to fulfill our obligation.
Many times the weather outside was bitter cold, we had to bundle up with what meager clothing we had and go sweep the class room, bring in the wood along with a bucket of water for safety, build a fire so that it would warm up the room enough to hold class.
In the DP Camp our obligation did not stop with the school, we also had to take a turn to prepare vegetables such as peel potatoes, carrots, cabbage and beets or whatever vegetables were available for the main meal of the day. This task had to be done before we went to school which started at eight o’clock. From time to time we also took our aunts’ turn whenever they were not up to it. The Camp vegetables were acquired by Camp authorities from locals. But the majority of bulk food came from United States, such as dehydrated eggs, dry milk, canned goods, flour, sugar, coffee and other nonperishable items. Great Britain was not in position to feed the DPs, because it had suffered severe destruction and loss of life through air-raids.
School supplies were scarce and we treasured every little scrap of paper, we never abused the books, which from time to time were permitted to be taken home overnight. Memorizing and poetry was one of the primary tools of the teacher.
Committing to memory was one of the most useful tools that we were given. With few books and fewer school supplies, paper was used sparingly therefore important dates and mathematical issues and general knowledge had to reside within our heads.
It still puzzles me to hear someone say “Learn by heart.” Really? Heart can’t learn, it is the brain that resides within our head where memorization happens. Those who could were encouraged to sing. My singing was limited to solo, so low that no one could hear me. I for one was good at poetry.
Life in DP camps was far from luxury. More often it bordered on sheer existence, with unknown always near at hand.
It was a lesson in living and a reminder that life is what one makes it. Human beings have great tenacity and resilience to adapt to necessity. As long as one keeps his hope alive, his destiny is bound to find him.
Val Hoover is a Marietta resident.