Returning to Esslingen. Remembering. Part Two.

When I wrote my post about journeying to Esslingen to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first Song & Dance Festival held outside of Latvia, I never imagined such an over-whelming response to my story.

My mum was 15 when her family fled Soviet occupied Latvia in 1944.  The family members who were unable to escape the encroaching Red Army were deported to Siberia.  Three generations gone.  Eleven members of my family that I never had an opportunity to meet.  A grandmother and grandfather whose only “crime” was to be Latvian born.  A bedridden aunt who was deemed “unfit” for harsh labour and abandoned at the side of the road by the Red Army somewhere in the Siberian tundra.  A six year old child clutching her mother’s hand, unaware of the horrors that awaited her in a Soviet labour camp.

This is my story, but it is also that of the thousands of Latvians who were forced to either flee their homeland or risk possible deportation to Siberia.  Leave everything and flee west towards freedom and an uncertain fate.  Not all survived.  My mum’s family fled from Tukums to Liepaja.  West towards Danzig, Germany.  Across the frigid sea in a German ship, with the roar of Russian artillery hovering overhead.  Into the hands of an unknown future.  They ended up having to escape twice.  The first time from Soviet occupied Latvia.  The second time from the Soviet occupied zone in Germany.

Esslingen was the largest of the displaced persons camps and “home” to over 7,000 Latvian refugees.  My mum’s family was sheltered in a much smaller camp, in the north of Germany, hundreds of miles from Esslingen.  I grew up hearing about life in the camp.  About rationed food, limited medical supplies, schools, folk dance and theatre groups, the spirit of community and the burning desire to forge on, re-build and start anew. 

The road to freedom is paved with determination, tears, loss and sorrow, yet the Latvian soul is resilient and strong and soldiers stoically on.

Maintaining strong cultural traditions is ingrained in the Latvian psyche.  Literature, art, music and song are tantamount in sustaining as well as providing much needed nourishment for one's soul.

And this is why travelling to Esslingen so moved me. 

I stepped back into the past and understood the magnitude of their sacrifices.  I longed for my parents to tell me more and more and more of what they had been through, even though I had heard their stories hundreds of thousands of times before.  Yet, it wasn’t enough.  It’s never enough.  There is always so much more to be heard as well as told.

As quick as a blink of an eye and my parents were gone.  It's been well over thirty years.  Were they ever here?   Or, are they somewhere, still mired in the quicksand of the past?

Yet, what remains is significant.  Important.  Lives lived and lost.  Freedom fought.  Precious memories and so much more...

It is my obligation and duty to remember for them.

This is now my story and I am the keeper of their histories.

Next post:  Stay tuned!!

Returning to Esslingen and re-tracing the past.

It’s been 70 years.

I’m returning to a town where I’ve never been.  Returning to memories that are not mine.  Returning to re-trace footsteps from so very long ago.

I’m about to step foot into the past.

To remember.  To honour.  To celebrate.  And to sing.

Esslingen.  June 2017.

I am here to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first Song and Dance Festival held outside of Latvia.  Choral singers, folk-dancers, amateur performers and spectators from all over the globe have journeyed to this medieval German city to reminisce and celebrate.

To unite in song.  To uphold tradition.  To appreciate.  To understand.

Latvia.  1940 – 1941.  Soviet Occupation and the Year of Terror (Baigais Gads).

A reign of horror, mass deportation and unimaginable suffering is unleashed upon this Baltic nation.  Cattle cars herd grandmothers, children, the crippled and infirm, to re-settlement camps in Siberia.  The men are either shot or imprisoned in the Gulag.  No one is spared.  The start of Soviet aggression, annihilation and ethnic cleansing of the Latvian populace had begun.

Latvia.  1944.  My mum was 15 years old when she and her family were forced to flee their homeland.  They fled west to Germany.  Towards an unknown fate.  The rest of our family who were not able to escape Soviet occupied Latvia were deported to Siberia.  Eleven beloved souls.

Esslingen.  1947.

World War II had ended nearly 2 years prior, yet thousands of Latvians were refugees, sheltered in displaced persons camps scattered all over Germany.  Administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the camps provided the essentials for survival – food rations, medical supplies and shelter.  Esslingen was the largest of these camps and “home” to approximately 7,000 displaced Latvians.

The creation of makeshift schools, churches, theatre troupes, choirs and folk-dance groups were paramount in establishing a sense of “normalcy” to camp life whilst maintaining a semblance of daily routine.  Preserving the rich cultural heritage of what it meant to be a Latvian was not only an obligation that must be passed on to future generations but was an integral part of one’s identity.  Woven into the fabric of the Latvian psyche was the necessity of maintaining strong spiritual and cultural traditions, with art, music, song and literature providing sustenance and nourishment for the soul.  United in tradition and song, Latvians have, for centuries, endured and persevered.

Esslingen.  June 15th to 18th, 2017.  The 70th anniversary of the first Song and Dance Festival held outside of Latvia.

I am here.  Singing with my ancestors.  Their voices, loud and clear, are joined with mine in melodic harmony.

This is their story.  Now it is mine.

Next post:  The weekend of May 19th/20th!  Stay tuned!

Next stop! Würzburg . The castles, baroque statues and vineyards we never had a chance to see.

You know that it’s going to be an extraordinarily long day when you inadvertently hop on the wrong train, disembark in a strange town and end up squandering the remainder of the afternoon away miles off the beaten track.  Nothing like hoisting and hauling your cumbersome baggage up and down dozens of stairs – all the while enduring countless stares – as you frantically race up and down and all along the station in search of some helpful information.  And just where oh where is that dratted kiosk located?  Of course.  Conveniently situated at the farthest corner of the edifice, tucked away in some secret location, where only the locals know to go.

So, let me not bore you with mundane details of Schlepping on the Go, and get right to the point of how best to whittle your time away whilst stuck at track level with no place to go.  After all, an unplanned sojourn via detours and roadblocks should be part of the course for any serious globetrotter on the Go.  Why put up with ho-hum routine when you can instead experience the far from ordinary – a holiday that’s clearly gone off the rails, not to mention the charts.  Charts?  There are charts?  More on that later…

So, there we were.  The cuckoo from the choo choo and Travel Bud Oz contemplating our next plan of action on how to get back on track to Stuttgart.  Problem being, the next train was not scheduled to depart for at least two hours, leaving us trapped (and there’s always a trap!) in the train station somewhere in Bavaria.  Würzburg, to be exact.  A picturesque German town and the perfect place to sojourn, dine and explore – but alas, we were only passing through, with nary a smidgen of time to stop and review.

Nestled in a basin along the river Main, this baroque influenced town offers UNESCO World Heritage sights, French-themed gardens and countless palaces, to name just a few.  The list of places to visit are endless, so here’s a run-down of all that I never got to see or do.

  • A must-see is the Residenz, the Palace of the Prince-Bishops.
  • Hofgarten - The impeccably manicured French-themed gardens located on the grounds of the Residenz.
  • Marienberg Fortress - Positioned high above the banks of the river.
  • Kapelle Würzburg - a Russian Orthodox style chapel in the woods.
  • Alte Mainbrucke or Old Main Bridge - Baroque statue lined bridge which connects the old city to the left bank.

Did I mention that Würzburg is also the starting point for many of the romantic road excursions that trail along the river Main?  Had I known that we were knee-deep in wine country, I would have high-tailed it lickety-split to a vineyard and delayed my impending trip to Stuttgart by a day or two.  The tempting thought of jumping ship and scampering off along paths unknown on an impromptu wine tour sampling Chardonnay was but a fleeting idea, best saved for another holiday detour.

So, scrapping that plan, we had more urgent tasks at hand, such as squandering the remainder of the afternoon away, languishing at track level for Train #02! 

Next stop!  Stuttgart (we can only hope!).

Where are we?  Guess Not Stuttgart!

Catching a few rays waiting for the next train!

Stop!!  Let me off this train!!

Yikes!  Looks like this train is NOT going to Stuttgart.

Finally!  Out of the tunnel...and there's scenery!!

The vineyards that we never got to see.

When in Wurzburg, might as well indulge in a Wurzburger or two....

Catching up with my stories, snippets and snaps.

Next post!  In three/four weeks!  Saturday, March 3rd!!