Ilze Kalnins strained her eyes as hard as she could, in the darkness that night. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make out that island with the cows that her father swore was there. It wasn’t her fault. She was four and a canvas sheet covered the boat carrying the Kalnins family to protect them from the sea water.
“I remember getting on that boat and I was seasick. I thought I was just going to die,” Kalnins said. “I kept shouting, ‘Stop the boat! Stop the boat! I’m going to get out.’”
But the goal was accomplished. She stopped yelling.
It was 1944. Ilze Kalnins and her family were fleeing Latvia, which had become caught between the clashing Soviet and Nazi armies during the Second World War. Their boat was headed for the relative safety of Sweden. Over 100,000 other Latvians did the same, rather than face deportation to Siberia or Nazi concentration camps.
The boat carrying Kalnins arrived safely in Sweden, the passengers stiff and wet, but otherwise unharmed.
“They separated the men and the women and we had to go to be deloused, washed and given clothes,” Kalnins said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh great, I’m big. I’m going to wash myself.’ Then along came somebody who picked me up and the next thing I knew I was screaming because there was soap in my eyes and I couldn’t tell anyone because, I didn’t speak Swedish.”
In Sweden the family moved from a displaced persons camp and was soon billeted in an old hospital.
“We had three beds – one bunk and one single – and then there were great blankets around all of that,” she said. “The next family had the next beds and the next ones and so on. And we had a ball. I mean we played hide-and-go-seek among all these beds and blankets. It was just wonderful,” Kalnins said. “I’m sure my parents didn’t think so.”
As inviting as Sweden was for Kalnins, the family decided to cross the Atlantic because Sweden had begun extraditing Latvians to the Soviet Union. Ultimately the family survived the war and emigrated to Canada.