Second World War Refugees

Reprisals, arrests and deportations during the first Soviet occupation of Latvia from 1940 to 1941 deeply shocked many Latvian inhabitants.  As a result, in 1944 when the Soviet army was once more approaching Latvia with the threat of repeated occupation, more than 200 000 (around 10%) Latvian inhabitants left their homes, risking their lives to search for a safe place in the West.  Many refugees headed for German-controlled territory, because they were not convinced that the communists would not send them to Siberia.  Around 160 000 of those who left were civilians, most of them refugees; 30 000 of these were soldiers, which had been drafted into the Latvian legion, while 10 000 of them had been sent as workers to Germany.  Many refugees lost their lives in transit: some were surprised by the advancing Soviet army, and as a result around 114 000 Latvians were caught in previously German-controlled territory.

Not all refugees ended up in Germany.  Around 3000 Latvians arrived in Sweden after undertaking secret trips in small fishing boats over the Baltic Sea.  Later these refugees were joined by other Latvians who traveled to Sweden from Denmark and Germany.

When leaving their homes, many of the refugees believed that their absence would be short-lived: that the Allies would continue the war until the communist-occupied countries were liberated.  Thess hopes did not come to fruition, however, and over time a majority of the refugees had to search for permanent homes outside Europe.