Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book review of Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity

It's time for another book review.  Since my Internet sucked yesterday, I finished reading a book I've been working on for awhile.  Harry G. Kapeikis published his book, Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity in November 2007.  I see the book, which is the first in a three part series, is now no longer available on Kindle.  I think that's a pity.

I really enjoyed reading Mr. Kepeikis's story of his Latvian childhood interrupted by the invasion of the Russians and subsequent liberation by the Germans.  Kepeikis and his family left Latvia and moved to Bavaria, where they eventually ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp operated by the Americans, who were occupying Germany post World War II.  Although Kepeikis now writes in a very fluent, conversational English, in the 1940s, he was a young boy who spoke Latvian.  He did not speak German.  He did not speak English.  And there he was in a strange land with his family, trying to assimilate and survive.

Harry Kepeikis offers a unique perspective on history, albeit one that is definitely slanted by his own experiences.  His family rented land in Latvia, where they had rabbits and chickens and a big garden. It was their home.  When the Russians invaded, they began to round up Latvians and send them to Siberia, where they were forced to work.  Many people died of exposure, exhaustion, and starvation.  Kepeikis also writes of Latvian children being rounded up by Soviet authorities and sent to a "camp", where they would learn about the "benefits" of being in the Soviet Union.  Kepeikis writes that many of the children who were rounded up never came home again.  His mother, whom he explains was very protective, hid her son in the cellar for days while the authorities came through their town looking for kids to send away to camp.

Germany, it seems, was equally frightening for the Kepeikis family, especially at first.  Kepeikis writes of seeing American soldiers, some of whom were black.  He had never seen black people before and was bewildered and, perhaps, afraid of them.  They spoke a language he didn't understand.  But they also gave him chocolate.  He brought the chocolate home and his mother, being protective, told him not to eat it because she feared it was poisoned.  Of course, it wasn't poisoned and Kepeikis eventually tasted it and loved it.  He sang the praises of American chocolate, which at least in the 40s, might very well have been superior to what one could find in Europe.

Because of the language barrier, Harry and his family often found themselves often confused, especially when it came time for them to go to a DP camp.  While the idea of being sent to a "camp" may sound sinister, Kepeikis makes it sound like it wasn't so bad.  The families were put up in apartments that had running water and kitchens, which was a huge upgrade over camping out.  The kids were able to attend school.  They made friends.  Eventually, in 1950, the families who were in DP camps were allowed to move to one of several countries willing to receive them.  Some people went to Australia.  Some went to Canada, England, or Argentina.  Many ended up in the United States.

Because it was 1950, Kepeikis and his family took a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  I have done a few cruises in my day and I know I have a tendency to get seasick.  Imagine being on a naval ship crossing the Atlantic in a time when the ships had no stabilizers.  Yes, there was rampant seasickness.  However, there was also plenty of food and companionship.  This part of the book is at the end, as Harry and his family are headed for their new home.  As I finished reading about their first glimpses of New York City, I found myself wishing the book was longer.  But, as I mentioned at the start of this review, this is the first book in a trilogy.  I want to read the other two books to understand how this man eventually assimilated into the United States.

What I liked about Exile from Latvia, is the firsthand account of what it was like for a man to change countries as a young child who didn't understand everything at first.  I also appreciated, as an American, how grateful Harry was to the American soldiers who ultimately helped his family.  In a time when a lot of people have overwhelmingly negative things to say (and write) about the United States, I found this attitude very refreshing.  Of course, Harry's family didn't always trust the Americans... and rightfully so, given what they'd already been through.

I also think this book is extremely timely reading for many reasons.  First off, I live in Germany and have extensive experiences with the U.S. military as a "brat" and a spouse, so I can relate on many levels to Kepeikis's impressions of the military and Germany.  Secondly, Germany is currently home to many refugees from Syria.  While Syria is a very different place and has a vastly different culture than any in Europe, reading Kepeikis's account gave me an inkling of what it must be like for some of the refugees who had fled the Middle East, some of whom are now living in what used to be housing for U.S. military troops.  And thirdly, the United States is currently entertaining electing a man who has some disturbing similarities to Adolf Hitler.  While Kepeikis and his family ultimately came out of World War II in a better place, many people did not.  Actually, Kepeikis doesn't focus much on Hitler.  His enemy was Josef Stalin, yet another toxic leader.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I recommend Harry Kepeikis's book, especially if you're interested in reading about what happened to people who survived Soviet occupation and World War II.  I'm glad I read it and will have to read the next book.  Kepeikis is a good writer who spins a good story-- and even demonstrates a vivid imagination as he writes about how he used to daydream in his garden as a child.  He also seems like a genuinely good man who reminds us that immigration and immigrants are a large part of what makes the United States the United States.




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