Displacement: Baumanis Grant Report from Krista Svalbonas

May 13, 2022

AABS is pleased to recognize Krista Svalbonas for her completion of the project “Displacement,” for which she received the Baumanis Grant for Creative Projects in Baltic Studies.

“Displacement” focuses on preserving the history of former WWII Baltic Displaced Person camps and the stories of refugees who were held in the camps. The work consists of photographic documentation, portraits, oral recordings, and archive data, which will be compiled into an art book format for publication.

©Krista Svalbonas, 2022

Krista Svalbonas holds a BFA in Photography and an MFA in Interdisciplinary studies. Her work has been exhibited in a number of exhibitions including at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Spartanburg Art Museum in South Carolina, Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, Klompching Gallery and ISE Cultural Foundation in New York.  Her work has been collected in a number of private collections, as well as the Cesis Art Museum in Latvia, the Woodmere Art Museum and Temple University in Philadelphia. In 2022, Svalbonas will exhibit solo exhibitions of her Displacement series at the Copenhagen Photography festival in Denmark and the Museum of Photography in Tallinn, Estonia. She is an associate professor of photography at St. Joseph’s University.

 

The Impact of an Award: Report from Krista Svalbonas

After the completion of “Displacement,” Krista Svalbonas submitted a reflection to AABS.
We thank her for her permission to publish her thoughts, which have been lightly edited.

 

As the child of immigrant parents who arrived in the United States as refugees, ideas of home and dislocation have always been compelling to me. Born in Latvia and Lithuania, my parents fled Soviet occupation and spent many years after the end of World War II in Displaced Person (DP) camps in Germany before they were allowed to emigrate to the United States. My parents’ childhood memories of “home” were of temporary structures appropriated from other (often military) uses to house thousands of postwar refugees.

For the past five years I have been researching and documenting former WWII Baltic DP camps in Germany. With the assistance of previous grants and individual funding, I was able to make three trips to Germany and photograph forty-eight camps that existed in the former US and British zones. Each camp was extensively documented through still 35mm photos and aerial drone footage. Although many of the town names where these camps were located are known, their exact addresses are not. I have spent hours in archives throughout the US and in Germany leafing through 75-year-old documents searching for clues to the exact locations of long-gone dismantled camps. During my research I happened to come across several plea-letters sent by refugees. The letters were sent to various governments and organizations in countries all over the world, asking for asylum, requesting aid, or simply trying to communicate their stories. The documentation process was emotional and exciting for me as I discovered things I had not expected. For instance, upon documenting one of the remaining buildings in the Fischbach DP camp, I met a woman who was born in the camp and now lives in the camp’s former hospital building. My travels in Ansbach lead me to two kind and generous historians who were able to help me locate an elusive burial site of twenty displaced persons who did not survive the journey to a new homeland. Also, upon finding the location of one of three camps in Wurzburg, I was surprised to discover that the same buildings that gave shelter to Baltic displaced persons over seventy years ago are now the temporary home to a large group of Syrian refugees.

In 2019, I began traveling through North America to interview and photograph former Baltic displaced persons who were housed in the camps I documented. With the generous support of a Baumanis Creative Projects grant I was able to travel the United States and Canada this summer for these interviews. My journey began in Cleveland, from there I traveled through Michigan into Illinois, to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Oregon, Washington State, California, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. In Canada, I started in Toronto and made my west to Banff stopping in several cities along the way. To date, I have met, recorded, and photographed 100 individuals in their homes in the US and Canada who were WWII Baltic refugees, including 80 interviews conducted this past summer. I am now taking the footage, photographs, and recordings and transcribing the interviews, processing the images, and cataloguing the archive data to create a publication that preserves this history. This publication would bring the history of the DP camps to a larger, more global audience. There is a photobook publisher in Canada actively interested in publishing this work who is eagerly awaiting a draft of all this material.

There have been films, books, and oral history archives about Baltic displaced persons, but this is the only project that has representation from all three Baltic countries. Once resettled, refugees who had lived in the DP camps were often reluctant to discuss this period of their past. Over 70 years later, the effects of the crisis are still being felt. The historical events and political turmoil surrounding the Baltic diaspora is little known in the West and even less in the former soviet occupied countries. The psychological toll of prolonged displacement and of growing up in inhospitable institutional settings is, sadly, not a problem exclusive to postwar Europe. Given the current refugee crisis, it seems timely and appropriate to bring attention to this segment of history.

Photographing Juris Macs. Aberdeen, Washington. ©Krista Svalbonas

Final Portrait of Elmars Dirikis. Winnipeg, Canada. ©Krista Svalbonas

There have been films, books, and oral history archives about Baltic displaced persons, but this is the only project that has representation from all three Baltic countries. Once resettled, refugees who had lived in the DP camps were often reluctant to discuss this period of their past. Over 70 years later, the effects of the crisis are still being felt. The historical events and political turmoil surrounding the Baltic diaspora is little known in the West and even less in the former soviet occupied countries. The psychological toll of prolonged displacement and of growing up in inhospitable institutional settings is, sadly, not a problem exclusive to postwar Europe. Given the current refugee crisis, it seems timely and appropriate to bring attention to this segment of history.

The documentation of the history of displaced persons in Europe is critical as this generation is passing away and first-hand witnesses of this time period are steadily vanishing. Time was of the essence as I traveled the United States and Canada to capture the fleeting stories of refugees and the DP camps.

As there is no address database for the camps, I find myself answering a multitude of messages every month from displaced person families who have questions about their relatives’ experience as refugees. Many individuals, my grandmother included, chose not to share their stories of life in the DP camps and fleeing the Baltic countries. This has left the younger generations with many unanswered questions. Completing my research and compiling it into a book would be the first publication to offer a comprehensive look at the displaced persons’ history from all the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). The book will include important archive data such as plea letters from the refugees, maps, and diagrams of the DP camps, official documentation of the camps from various government archives as well as my portraits of the refugees and my images of the former campsites. I am also planning to collaborate with a historian and a curator for the forewords of the publication. I am choosing to use the portrait photographs of former displaced persons as a vehicle for those outside of the community to access and understand this history. In my experience, both in the US and in Germany, little to nothing is known about the DP camps outside of the Baltic community. I see this work as a way to change that.

My goal is to give voice to this nearly forgotten history, while also addressing the impact of contemporary forced migrations. As I present my work in the US and abroad, I am always amazed at how few people know about the post WWII refugee camps. I feel, especially given the refugee crisis today, that it is imperative to disseminate this history.

What is the Baumanis Grant?

The Baumanis Grant is an award made to honor Velta Marija Baumanis of Mount Brydges, Ontario, who left a generous bequest to AABS at the end of her career as an architect. An award of up to $7,000 is available for any creative project (e.g., book, film, exhibit, etc.) that promotes Baltic studies. Preference is given to topics with a pan-Baltic or comparative aspect. Applicants must be members of the AABS at the time of application.

Applications for the past cycle were evaluated by the AABS 2021-2022 Grants and Awards Committee consisting of AABS VP for Professional Development Dr. Ineta Dabašinskienė, AABS President Dr. Daunis Auers, AABS Director-at-Large Dr. Andres Kasekamp, and AABS Treasurer Ugis Sprūdžs, CFA.

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