European Memories

of the Gulag


Return to Latvia: the orphanage

In 1946, following an initiative of the Latvian ministry of education, the “orphans and half-orphans” in the special settlements were allowed to return to Latvia. Many children had indeed lost one of their parents during the war years and their surviving mothers realised that despite the pain of separation sending them back to Latvia would increase their chances of survival.

So some 1,300 children, mostly Latvian and some Estonians, returned to the Baltic republics in 1946-1947. Often the escapees could not believe that their return was legal, although it is documented in Soviet archives, and attributed it to a combination of luck and heroic individual initiative. For Silva and her sisters, the orphanage in Riga meant (relative) affluence. After their exhausting journey from Siberia, the children were suspicious of the food they were offered. Only the orphanage doctor understood and said they should be given cooked potatoes, the only food they knew. For these children their early return, compared with other categories of deportee, was a shock that remains in their memories, the rediscovery of their homeland. Austra Zalcmane, her sister Lilia Kaione and Peep Varju received the same exceptional permission. 

1. In the first extract, Silva describes her journey by train with her sisters back to Latvia in 1947.

2. “They took us straight to the orphanage. First the shower, a sort of collective bath, we’d never seen anything like it, we didn’t know what it was, why the water was running down from above.

I remember we were crying, we didn’t know where to stand. Anyway, the staff came and washed us all.

And then they started to give out the clothes. For me as a girl, this was a great moment.

There was a lady sitting there issuing dresses.

So I stood in front of the lady and she said, ‘Look, little girl. Choose the dress you want.’ So I chose a dress with flowers and edging of a different colour, dark red.

Oh my, I remember, I put it on and looked at myself. I was so happy to have that wonderful dress.

You know, in Siberia we had skirts of oilcloth. The oilcloth from the bags the horses were fed from! My mother had cut some out to make me a little skirt that I fastened with a shoelace. That’s what I wore in Siberia.

And suddenly I was given a dress with flowers on it!”

3. The first meal