To Ukraine and Germany

Before the refugee period in Ukraine: Albins Simsons (10 years old) with his sister in Latvia in 1909

Albins Simsons’ father was a butcher in Bauska. At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, the Tsarist government issued an order to evacuate the inhabitants of Kurzeme.  As a result, Albīns’ family, the same as three quarters of a million other Latvian inhabitants, left their homes and fled or were evacuated to territories to the east of Latvia. Albins’ family arrived in Odessa, Ukraine in 1914, where his father died soon afterwards. At the age of sixteen, Albins had to leave school and become the family’s breadwinner. He lived through the Russian Civil War and the beginning of the Communist regime. He and his mother were only able to return to Latvia in 1921.

Soon after returning, Albīns became a Latvian railway policeman. He worked at the Zemgale Passport Control Station and also near the Polish border where he met Zelma, a teacher. They married and were soon raising a family of five children.

Their peaceful life was interrupted by the Second World War. Zelma remembers:

In this way our pleasant life, and the life of the Latvian nation, ended.
Troubling times also began for the Simsons family, as a number of times Albīns had to look for a new job and they had to find a new home.

When the front line inescapably approached Latvia again in 1944, with the threat of repeated occupation by the Soviet Union, Albins Simsons arranged permission for his family to travel to the West, but he himself remained in Latvia, because he had not been given leave from his post. At that time they lived in the Pārventa suburb of Ventspils. Zelma recalls:

My husband had already lived in Ukraine with the communists. His motivation was to get the family to safety by any means, because we knew that the communists would take us to Siberia… That was in the autumn of 1944. The Germans were burning warehouses; they burned down the sugar warehouse at Dundaga and were preparing to retreat. We knew that the end was near. Then I boarded a boat with the five children, it was a fairly small boat, and we sailed to Gotenhafen. My husband remained in Ventspils.
Simsonu ģimene Latvijā, 1943. g. vasarā

The Simsons family in Latvia, summer 1943

For Zelma and their five children, fleeing Latvia was full of hardship. The youngest daughter was two years old, and the eldest was ten. They had no safe destination in Germany. Transportation was overcrowded, throngs of refugees were everywhere and it was even difficult to get food. A number of times, a child was almost lost. Zelma relates:

We were in Schwerin. There were straw mattresses in a row in the tavern of a former hotel, the “Kolonna”, and this is where the refugees slept. Every night the American and British airplanes flew over Schwerin to Berlin. The air raid sirens began. Everyone grabbed their child and ran down to the basement. I thought to myself, how will I do this with five children… it’s the middle of the night, all of them are asleep. I covered them with a blanket, kissed each one of them, tears streaming. But they didn’t bomb us.

The older children helped the younger ones, lugging suitcases and their other possessions. Zelma remembers:

Simsonu ģimenes fotogrāfija 1949.g. Ziemassvētkos, kas tika sūtīta iespējamiem sponsoriem ASV.

A photograph of the Simsons family at Christmas 1949, which was sent to possible sponsors in the USA

What did we take with us from Latvia? – Books! Like an idiot I packed books into my suitcase! Because my husband had said that the thing they had missed the most in Ukraine were Latvian books. If they got a hold of a newspaper in Latvian, then everyone would run up and try to read it. But our box of books was useful. A teacher from the camp high school borrowed all of the school books. We also took some clothes, dishes, and a fold-up bed

Albīns with the "melnie" at the Herrovica camp, c. 1946

Zelma wrote to the Red Cross in Berlin, notifying Albīns of their location. They were lucky. In December Albīns had already found them, and once again the whole family was together. This was followed by life in DP camps in Germany where the children also went to school. Albīns got work in the so called MelnieMelnie” were the English, American and French occupation forces' assistance brigades, that helped with transport, security and other jobs. They typically wore black uniforms and lived in caserns, visiting their families on the weekend. and worked in Bochum, in the English Zone. Zelma taught children in the camp schools.