Easy Judgments and Hard Documentation – 1949 American Film Documents Latvian DP Camps

Originally published here on October 1, 2014.

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Anne, a blonde teenager played by the actress Lenka Peterson (who bears a remarkable resemblance to modern-day movie star Natalie Portman), takes her homework seriously. Assigned an essay for civics class, she is determined to do a good job. Her research takes her to countless interviews all over town, and even earns her a walk-in meeting with the mayor. These seem like odd lengths to go for a mere 500-word essay, especially considering that she pads her final product with all 105 words of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus.” But we can be thankful for Anne’s tenacity, for without it there would be no plot to the 40-minute movie Answer for Anne (1949). The film is particularly noteworthy for Latvian-Americans, because it features a scene where Anne sits down with her Lutheran pastor to watch actual footage of Latvians in DP (Displaced Persons) camps in Germany at the end of Word War II.

On September 21, 2014, members of the Latvian Evengelical Lutheran Church of Washington, DC, gathered for a viewing of the film in honor of the 75th anniversary of LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service), with all proceeds going to the organization. Theoretically the event should have been held on World Refugee Day (June 22), but since the Latvian calendar is crowded with Jāņi, Dziesmu Svētki, and the start of various summer camps and schools around that date, the church decided to push back the screening until a less busy time.

It’s no mystery why Latvians in America would want to pay tribute to LIRS. “How many of your families arrived with the help of a religious organization?” the event’s host, the Very Reverend Anita Vārsberga Pāža, asked the assembly. Almost all hands in the room flew up. As the pastor in the film explains to young Anne, taking in World War II refugees in the United States required two major commitments:  Congress passing the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, which opened the nation’s doors to Latvians and other DPs, and religious organizations and their members taking up the actual work of welcoming immigrants into their neighborhoods and homes. The Latvian-American community’s gratitude for the generous opportunities provided by organizations such as LIRS resulted, in 1982, in a partnership between LELBA (the Latvian Evengelical Lutheran Church of America) and LIRS; this partnership has given Latvian-American society the opportunity to pay it forward.

Answer for Anne was a fitting choice for the commemoration of LIRS’s formation. Created by LIRS’s predecessor, LRS (Lutheran Resettlement Service), the short film follows Anne as she gathers opinions on the essay’s topic: whether or not her town should accept DPs into its community. Unsurprisingly, she finds her answer by turning to her local Lutheran church, where she is reminded of Christ’s call to love thy neighbor. While at times a bit heavy-handed and oversimplistic in its depiction of the issue, the film does an effective job of urging Christians to open their hearts to refugees, and pulls no punches in stating that ignoring the plight of DPs is selfish.

With this year’s controversy over Central American refugee children showing up at the U.S. border, it’s hard not to notice how little has changed since Anne struggled with questions of immigration more than six decades ago. Anne spends the first half of the film approaching various members of the community and asking for their thoughts on DPs; any of their responses could just as well be heard in present day: “Sure, I feel sorry for all the trouble they got over there. But they’re their trouble[s]. We got enough [of our own].” The respondents worry that Americans will lose their jobs to the flood of new workers, that resources and housing are stretched thin, that the country should instead be focusing on its returning veterans. “Who comes first?” one man asks Anne. “GIs or DPs?”

This barrage of excuses is dismissed by Anne’s pastor, who comforts the distraught teen by saying there are plenty of jobs and space for everybody. Today’s economists and talking heads would no doubt be interested in seeing the pastor’s never-presented proof, but they would miss the greater point made by the film, which asks for common empathy. “When couldn’t this giant country bear a burden, when that burden is people?” the pastor implores. The Lutheran Church–produced film, created for viewing by churchgoers, even goes a step further, stating again and again that it is the duty of every Christian to care for those in need–in this case, DPs.

Though Answer for Anne bears the marks of its era and the approaching 1950s–obvious messages, clear moral guidelines, almost comical simplifications–it also employs subtle moments (perhaps intentional, perhaps not) to get its point across. Among Anne’s interviewees are an Italian shoemaker and an Irish police officer–both apparently recent enough immigrants that their non-American accents are still intact–who wish to turn away those who could benefit from the very opportunities that were at some point made available to them. Similarly, this weekend’s audience chuckled as a noticeably well-fed and well-dressed woman (filling her shopping cart to the brim with edible goodies) explained to Anne that there simply weren’t enough resources in America to clothe and feed all the potential new arrivals. Yet today, cannot most of us, DPs and their descendants, honestly say that we do not sometimes resemble this woman when we go up and down the aisles of our Costco or Whole Foods?

The film also starkly juxtaposes its happy, smiling, good Christian Americans with the desolation of those less fortunate on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1949, the film’s audiences were supposed to relate to Anne and her father, who, honest to God, lights a match on the bottom of his shoe, then merrily puffs on his pipe while talking to Anne about her school project and filling her bedroom with smoke. An American today might watch this film and think, “Wow, this is what we were really like back then!”

But those watching in the room at the Latvian church most likely related to another character: Frīdriks Freimanis. Freimanis and his two newly motherless children appear in the filmstrip shown to Anne by her pastor. The pair watches as the Latvian family wanders lost through a bombed-out Germany, are picked up by Lutheran aid workers, and are brought to DP Camp Valka. The filmstrip includes actual footage from the real-life DP camp and its inhabitants, a couple of whom were in attendance at the screening this weekend. It is not clear whether the Freimaņi were a real Latvian family or to what degree they were acting, but the shots of the camps are all authentic, complete with signposts for Brīvības Bulvāris (Liberty Boulevard). American viewers in 1949 saw the actual bombed-out, overcrowded barracks that DPs called home. They saw children playing games and going to school, families working hard to provide what little they could for one another, and parents scouring bulletin boards for emigration announcements, only to watch as their single young male friends leave for manual-labor jobs abroad. “The plain ordinary truth is, nobody wants them,” sobs Anne.

It’s anybody’s guess how effective this particular film and its Latvian stars were in convincing American Lutherans to sponsor DPs for immigration. But the fact that such a robust Latvian community exists in the U.S., and that most of the people at the screening could specifically thank LIRS and other religious organizations for their presence in America, is a testament to how effective these groups’ efforts were. LIRS in particular was instrumental enough in Latvian refugee resettlement that in 1998, Howard Hong, who became the director of LIRS’s refugee service in 1947, was awarded a Triju Zvaigžņu Ordenis, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Latvian government.

The Latvian postwar emigration is long over, and many DPs and their family members are, thankfully, well-off in the U.S., light-years away from the hard conditions depicted in Answer for Anne. But the lessons from this simple film are still relevant today. LIRS continues its work with refugees from other countries, and we find ourselves on the other side of the table, just like the Italian shoemaker, the Irish police officer, and the thriving grocery shopper of Anne’s small town. It is in our nature, perhaps, to resist change or differences. “Mēs esam cilvēki kādi mēs esam,” (“We are people as we are,”) remarked Rev. Vārsberga Pāža at the screening, and we have been this way since Adam and Eve.

But before we judge or dismiss others who are new or struggling, let us remember the words of Anne’s pastor as he viewed us, Latvians, at a moment of great vulnerability: “DPs are everything that we are.”

For more information about Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and their history, visit the LIRS website.

Answer for Anne” can be viewed for free on YouTube.


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