Baltics' refugee saga applauded

  • 2000-08-31
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - A United Nations-funded documentary portraying the experiences of those who fled the Soviet regime from the Baltic states has been highly praised, even if it dealt with some disturbing aspects of the subject a little hastily.

The program, broadcast in all three countries last week, opened by recreating escapes by boat across the Baltic Sea, as Soviet troops and NKVD special forces approached for a second time in 1944. Those held in German refugee camps later recalled their experiences. Several spoke of the effects their dislocation has had on them since.

While not ground-breaking in content, "The Baltic Saga" would give people a historical understanding of life in the Baltic states, said Abrams Kleckins, a film critic and lecturer.

"It explained people's lives and destinies in a very progressive way. It was not cliched, ideological or political," he said.

Juris Calitis, a Lutheran pastor in Riga interviewed in the program, was impressed. As a child he spent the end of World War II in a German camp before being sent, with his mother, to Scotland.

"I was surprised by how accurately the director grasped the experiences and feelings of the refugees," he said.

"I appreciated the film not taking a sentimental route. It didn't put a foot wrong."

The shock of abandoning one's home was evident when a Latvian, who made several rescue missions by boat, recalled brandishing a gun at his passengers and demanding of them: "Do you want to live or to die?" when they refused to jettison luggage from the dangerously overloaded vessel.

Others spoke of how, once the Allies had taken over the German refugee camps, those fit for work were selected for relocation to the Allies' countries.

Several described the difficulty of life in exile. "The other side of the world," was how one woman had imagined Sweden, where she was to settle.

Calitis, speaking to The Baltic Times, added another dimension - the guilt felt by those in his profession who fled.

"Pastors felt guilty. As men of faith, should they have left? But those who stayed were killed or deported," he said. "Guilt was mitigated by the fact that everyone thought they'd be back very soon. They thought the Americans would help."

The film showed difficulties encountered by those who have returned to the Baltic states in the post-Soviet era. Jonas Kronkaitis recalled the resentment expressed by a Lithuanian MP when he, rather than a non-emigre, was appointed defense minister.

"Those the Soviets targeted were the intelligentsia, the creme de la creme," Calitis explained to The Baltic Times. "They left a leaderless population. Now there's a problem to do with jealousy and humiliation. The local population felt put upon when the émigrés returned. I understand this, but at official levels not much generosity is given to the emigre group."

The sometimes fraught relationship between returnees and ethnic Russians, whose numbers grew while they were away, was touched upon in the film by Biruta Ozola. Revisiting the site of her childhood home, she encountered a Russian-speaking woman with whom she was unable to communicate for lack of a common language.

The film attempted to draw parallels with the plight of present-day refugees around the world, an aim it succeeded in, said Kleckins.

"There's an attitude here that if it doesn't affect us it's not our problem. This has created negativity towards refugees," he said. "Latvia is quite provincial in outlook, but this film shows the connection."

Calitis was less convinced by this wider message, which consisted of interspersed footage of refugees of unstated origin, with few words of explanation.

"The connection with the refugees worldwide could have been more organic. I think it was put in because of the sponsors, but I'd have been embarrassed if it hadn't been there," he said.

"I wasn't making a propaganda film," said Antra Cilinska, the documentary's director.

"I don't know how to make a propaganda film. The film's purpose was to help people understand the Baltics' former refugees. We misunderstand them because they're well-off and smiling, so we think everything's okay and they didn't suffer," she said. "As long as people are forced to flee, mankind can't be proud of itself."

An English version of "The Baltic Saga" is currently being produced. Copies may be obtained by contacting the United Nations or the Juris Podnieks film studio, Latvia.