The following are excerpts from a transcript of an interview I carried out with a Latvian man in West Yorkshire in the mid 1990s:
How did you come to Great Britain?
‘Came 1947 in October. Came as European Volunteer Worker. 1947. Worked in Selby on agriculture on farms, sort of thing.’
So were you in a DP camp in Germany?
‘DP camp in Germany yeah.’
Do you remember which one?
‘Gestacht, near Hamburg. Yeah. There was I think…1946-47 I was a year in DP camp’.
Were there just Latvians in the DP camp or were there other nationalities?
‘There was mostly Latvians, mostly Latvian. But nearby there was another Lithuanian camp and a couple of miles further up the road was Estonians – mixed like. But our were only Latvians’.
Were there Latvian cultural activities in the camp like folk dancing and choir groups and things like that?
‘Well, yeah, yeah. There was yeah. There was all sorts like you know a traditional sauna, you could learn a trade – tailoring, motor mechanics, shoe-making. Things like that. You know what you usually do when you have nothing else to do’.
So you worked in agriculture for how long?
‘Till 1949 I was on the farms and then I got TB, galloping TB’.
Galloping TB – What’s that?
‘That means no chance to survive. Yeah. I worked in London Brick Company then went in Farrows – Farrows what makes all sorts – honey, Gales Honey, victoria plums, conserves, conserves -all things like that and in 1949, I think end of November, end of November when I collapsed at work, I was in hospital until 1950. In January I was transferred to Norfolk, Kelling, Kelling Sanatorium (today it’s finished) but then I could have stayed there after….After 9 months I could have stayed because if I didn’t have nowhere to go, no friends, I can’t go back to the camp ‘cos they don’t accept you if you don’t go to work, so I could have stayed there to work as orderly, but I had some friends in Bradford and they said I can come to live with them. So I lived in Bradford till 1952 when I came to ’.
So what sort of jobs have you been doing?
‘Well, been on buses. I worked a couple of months in engineering, spent 12 years in merchant navy. I came out 1978 and worked in  hospital as porter in operating theatre.’
So why did you choose to accept the offer to come to Britain?
‘Well, because Britain offered straight away to accept the DPs on condition that they will stay where the labour exchange so to say, jobs in queue. America was a long waiting list. And Canada, Australia, Argentina they all had the same. You had to wait 6 months up to a year, whereas Britain only 2,3 months, so we choose nearer home, nearer home. That’s how we choose to come to England.’
Did you think that you would be able to return to Latvia?
‘Yeah, one day, sooner or later, but it didn’t matter much did it?’
Since coming to Great Britain have you maintained a strong Latvian identity and culture?
‘Well I never changed my nationality and I think I’m Latvian even if I changed my nationality. If I change my nationality, takes a naturalized – British that wouldn’t help me much.’
So you’ve not taken up British Citizenship?
‘No, no, no, no. Because from experience seeing some people had problems. They’re going to abroad and getting trouble, and I said, Ah you’re a foreigner, so it makes no difference so…. I never considered to take. Well, nobody bothers me much here. So. I can travel and when I travelled, with the travel documents. And that’s it. I didn’t have no problems anywhere. As long as you keep your nose out of trouble then you are okay’.
Do you feel fully integrated into British Society?
‘Well I don’t go out and say, ‘ Look I don’t like this. I don’t like that’ and no. Yes I am integrated. No objections whats the law, what government comes, just follow the rules.’
So when did you go back to Latvia?
”92. I went just spur of the moment I decided. There was a seat free – chartered plane. I went home and well I didn’t expect to meet anybody, any relations, but as it happened I found some been to Siberia, come back, broken mentally and physically by it. Died. Just last year one died, two of them died. So. Sister still is okay. Shock, when erm, seen her before the war and when I saw her now. You…shock – like you know, like you can’t overcome. Well, that’s how it is.’
So you didn’t keep in contact during the Soviet Period?
‘I tried. I tried in – I came to England 1947. In 1948 and 1949 I tried to write home letters. Some of them letters came back. Some of them didn’t come back. Them letters that didn’t come back I thought that people are alive but letters that came back I knew that they are dead, or in Siberia or something like that. And so I didn’t write anymore, because it was no use to question, question people that could be made, made to persuade me to go back. And they tried to – the Russians came to the DP camps in Germany in 1946, they tried to persuade people to go back. They say communism is changed, it’s not the same as 1939. Well! Some went home. They lived 6 months. Hung from a lamp-post, displayed on the street for, what do you call, being against your, what do you call? Motherland or something like that. Yes, quite a few of my friends went back. Said they’d received letters. One went home from Germany and another one went from here, cos he got a letter that say that his wife is living by herself and the government, the Russian government put a Russian family in his place and they took his name, so on the spur of the moment he went home. Never heard from him. We had a code who was writing home. He said ‘Green peas this year, green peas are growing, and real good crop.’ ‘Green Peas’ – that meant that a lot of people are in partisans fighting against the communist regime in Latvia, so we knew what’s going on. A bit like – you know just coded messages. And erm, that’s only erm, way we could get to know what was going on. Very little information came out because nobody told like you know what’s going on. Every letter you wrote was opened, skilfully opened, copied and sent to you, and a copy was kept in Moscow for KGB to put in front of you if anything happens to you.’
So how did you feel when you went back?
‘As shock, surprised, shocked. Didn’t expect to see the place. There used to be buildings – they’re down and they just put soil on, put some trees, planted some trees and that’s it. Flowers – there was a building, house, shops, business. Now there’s a mound of soil, couple of trees growing and flowers around.’
So was the house where you used to live still there?
‘That’s still there. I didn’t expect.’
[Shows photos of visit to Latvia – in 1992 and old family photos]
‘They rebuilt it.’
So do you feel like an outsider?
‘Yeah, yeah. Your’e outsider. Your’e outsider. If nobody talks directly to me I don’t approach people to, to like you know, talk. I can like you say a joke or anything like that. Well if I know the person but a stranger I won’t. But if they ask talk to me, I talk, yeah, friendly. Course as soon as I open my mouth, ‘Oh you’re a foreigner’. Okay, I’m a foreigner.’
So people do make comments?
‘Oh yeah. Oh I. Talk about racial discrimination. Everywhere you went you, ‘Poles, Pole’. You say, ‘I’m not a Pole, I’m Latvian’. ‘Oh what’s the difference? Poles, Latvians – it makes no difference. They’re all the same.’ So. I’m used to it. It don’t upset me any more. Before it did upset. Work – when we worked in Peterborough, Leicester, Grantham. You went in weekends. You worked till 12 ‘o clock weekends, Saturday. You went home, had a shower, change into better clothes, went to pictures. That’s the only place you went. And in cinema you come out. Your jacket is ripped, burnt, or cut with a razor. And if you went in your wellies, overalls and dirty wellies, everywhere, you were one of them. Peterborough – you got lost, you asked for directions – send you other way round.’
Do you think you ever suffered any discrimination at work because you were Latvian?
‘Err, you had a job. You did the job. Foreman was there. He tell you if you did wrong, says you do it like this way and you did. No, never, at work like. Says, oh, Dumb-boy – he’s a bloody Pole. He don’t understand. You tell me how to do it or you want to do it yourself. You do it.’
So when was the last time that somebody made a comment?
‘Oh, they always do. They always do. I don’t take no notice. Just laugh.’
So when you went back to Latvia did you fell like you identified with the Latvians in Latvia today or did you feel different to the people who are living there now?
‘Felt different. Even if I speak to them, they look. It’s not the same accent or…. You speak Latvian but it’s not Latvian accent. You speak foreign accent. So, it makes me a bit mad when they say that. I’m born here, even if I lived many years away from here. I still speak the same language. Yeah.’
Many thanks to all the Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians who participated in this project, Emily Gilbert
(photograph of Latvians working in agriculture in Britain, courtesy of Sarah Dauksta, also featured in my book Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian refugees in Great Britain, 1946-1951, Pen and Sword, 2017)