Below is an extract from a transcript of an interview I carried out with a first generation Latvian woman living in West Yorkshire who I interviewed in 1997. The individual has given permission for their interview to be published.
How did you come to Great Britain?
Well, we were in Germany and we had erm, I came to work here. I came to work in the hospital. I was going to…I mean we realised, to start with, I realised we won’t be able to return to Latvia so we had to go somewhere else and more or less, this was nearer, it was in Europe, it was a bit nearer Latvia and there was an opportunity to work in hospital so I came like that.
Right, so were you in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany?
I was. Yes I was in Displaced Persons Camp in Germany but I actually did work for British forces while I was in Germany I was, I could speak English and I was working for British forces.
I was a tracer.
Tracer, what’s that?
(Laughs -shows what a tracer is)
Yeah, that’s what I was. So I was familiar with the…well I could speak English and it was erm, I didn’t speak all that well English when I started well I think I was young and young people take more erm, sort of risks and opportunities and I thought you know, well I’ve got to learn something, you know I’ve got to learn a language and its very…
Right, so how old were you when you came over then?
I am born in 1923. How old was I? Erm, ’47. I came here in 1947 so that makes me twenty what…?
Yes, something like that. Yes, I’m 24, yes. And then I worked…you see I was married already, but I lived…my husband…he worked for the British forces as well. We both were. And he stayed in Germany and I came to work in a hospital in London. I was just a domestic, because I have no set of medical training and he came, my husband came to England as well and then I joined him later on and I worked for, erm, as I could speak English there was a camp, a transit camp near York and I worked there for a couple of years, really till they closed the camp down. And that was it.
So, how did you end up living in Leeds then?
Well they closed the camp down and I looked for a job and I came to Leeds then, just sort of to look, and I found work in, It was a wholesale chemist. I worked near a railway station, the buildings pulled down now. I worked there for a few years.
Right, can you tell me how you went from Latvia to the Displaced Persons Camp? Could you tell me the story about that?
From Latvia, we were sent to work from Latvia. The Germans sent us to work in Germany.
Right. Why did you decide to accept the offer to come to Britain rather than wait on?
Erm, there was nothing to wait…we knew there was no chance to go back to Latvia. There were Communists – Russians. We didn’t want to go there. There was no chance whatsoever, so we had to take the opportunity to go somewhere. We could have stayed in Germany perhaps but it was…I didn’t want particularly to study and again when you are young you are probably a bit more adventurous and why not do something about it, you know sort it out?
So, did you come under the Balt Cygnet scheme or the Westward Ho! scheme?
Since coming to Great Britain have you maintained a strong Latvian identity and culture?
Erm, I have maintained some. I mean you can’t forget your past. But, erm, and I don’t know really whether I’m…what to call myself now. Well, I’m very fond of England now and I’m very, very fond of Yorkshire and I…I mean I get on with people, with English people very well indeed and I like the countryside. I do lots of walking. For a while I was volunteer warden in Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Yes, so I know the area very well indeed, and so erm, but I still, I know I wasn’t born here. I was born somewhere else and whereas people talk well it was like this when I was a child, well when I was a child I was somewhere else. I wasn’t here. So there is some identity. So there is something left isn’t there? But I’ve never been back, mostly because I haven’t any relatives left, any close relatives left in Latvia. That was probably main reason. And again, I was happy while I was there and they always say you should never go back where you’ve been happy and its been too many years and so I’ve never been back really now. That’s it.
Do you feel fully integrated into British society?
Like I say, in a way I do yes. Erm, I suppose I do really. I don’t know really. What does it mean are you integrated?
Do you feel like you are an outsider or do you feel like you belong here?
I think I belong, yes. Sometimes, you see when I was working for this walking club you know and I said ‘why have I got this accent?’, and they said ‘what we don’t think of your accent, you know, you’re you’, you know like that, and erm, on the other hand I’ve heard Yorkshire people say, some have very sort of erm, very strong feelings about being Yorkshire and I sometimes think you can’t really be really Yorkshire if you’re not born in Yorkshire. Have you noticed that?
That again is there. But I suppose I am integrated as much as is possible. Yes I think so.
Do you think you a stronger or weaker sense of Latvian identity now that you did when you first came to Britain?
Weaker, weaker, much weaker now, yes. Oh yes. I think I would probably feel an outsider if I went back to Latvia, I would feel an outsider there definitely.
So you would feel an outsider in Latvia?
Yes, I think so. Oh, I think so, yes. I don’t think I would fit in any more. No way. I’ve been over 50 years now in England, in Yorkshire longer than anywhere else.[Laughs]
Are there times when you are especially aware of being a Latvian and when?
Not any more, no. Not any more.
What about in the past?
Oh I remember past, yeah, and past is dead, and like I say I was happy when I was home and my parents were there but that’s all gone really. Sometimes, I still feel, yeah, I still go to this…you’ll probably ask that question as well, I go to the club and I quite enjoy that as well, but then again I sometimes think oh I can talk more with English people. We discuss things better.
So, are most of your friends are English?
English, yeah, yeah. I’ve still got some Latvian friends as well but nothing sort of…yeah, I would say probably more, because there are not so many. English people go walking and you sort of develop friendships and there are some people I have known for years and years and you know, we still keep sort of up.
Right. Do you often forget about your Latvian identity, the fact that you are a Latvian, and you just don’t think about it or is it always there at the back of your mind?
Erm, I tend to forget…It’s probably, erm, you haven’t forgotten really, I don’t know really how to say. I’m not often reminded of it really. I just, yes, sometimes I feel, I know, like I say, I know where I come from and I know, sort of you know, I would never deny that. I would still have the accent anyway. But, I don’t think of it often really and sometimes I ask my friends, ‘Well, how do you take me? What do you think of me?’, well they say, ‘You’re [her name]'[Laughs]. So that’s what I am you know and they sort of accept me like that and you know, I feel comfortable you know, it depends on the people I’m with, not really who they are.
Can you tell me a bit about the Latvian community in Leeds and how its changed in the last 50 years?
We aged. It was a very strong community and at first it was very good for us because it was somewhere to go, somewhere to meet people, we weren’t, erm, I missed Latvia very much when I first came here, very much for quite a long time and just to meet somebody Latvian, it was like sort of meeting a close relative really right at first, the first years, and so it was nice to go, to meet, to do something, and to take part in something various activities, that was quite important to start with. Now, when children were born I knew, well sort of we knew really that we probably won’t be going back to Latvia quite soon really, but for a long, long time it wasn’t possible.
When was it that you realised that you wouldn’t be going back?
Oh, we realised straight away we wouldn’t go back as long as there was a communist government. We wouldn’t go back no way and then it’s only sort of later when it was possible so you know, erm, but you can’t really change what you are, you can’t sort of come to this country and say look I’m not Latvian any more I’m English or something. You can’t do that. You’re not, you know, you’d be kidding yourself, you’d be cheating yourself. And then my children were born I wanted them to feel a home here since we weren’t going back I was going to help them to feel them to belong here, to belong somewhere. They’d have to have a home somewhere. And of course that did change my attitude and well I was always sort of, you know, I always liked England. I’ve never been unhappy really. I always liked it. I missed home and I sometimes used to think, well why, wouldn’t it be nice if I could go back to visit and then come back here, but I was never sort of well I can’t stand it here I didn’t like it, I never felt like that really. I sort of came with open mind and I thought well we’ll accept good things and bad things, erm, that’s how it was.
So the community was very much larger and more vibrant to begin with and then it gradually sort of changed?
Yes, gradually, gradually, yes, it changed gradually, it didn’t change suddenly, it was quite a few years I was feeling, I was feeling quite homesick at times really.
How did the Latvian community help you in the first few years?
It was sort of a little home from home, you know. Yes, there were people with similar feelings and you know, we were together and erm, sort of various activities, it helped a lot in those early years really. It was really very good for me anyway, and yes, I used to have quite a lot to do, I still do if anythings needed, but I feel a bit different now (laughs).
How has the restoration of independence changed your life as a Latvian in Great Britain? How did you feel?
Oh, yes, it was…I don’t know it has changed. At first I was very happy and people used to come from Latvia to visit and it was, erm, sort of nice to know that they are free, they’ve got their independence now. Well, then I realised its not for me any more because I didn’t have anybody there any more. They were all dead. My parents were dead. I’ve got a brother but he’s in England and my husband’s mother died. He didn’t have anybody. There was nobody there. There was nobody to go to really so we were going…and of course I had my children, my two sons here, they were both married, married English girls so they wouldn’t go back. They wouldn’t want that. So it was out of the question and I wasn’t, by that time I wasn’t really missing it any more. That was it, that was finished more or less then. But it was nice to know that they had, that its changed things, things have changed for them over there but I still never really considered going back. Like I say its too long, I’ve been away too long really. [continued….]