Erna Pauline Roberts was in her early 30s when she came to the U.S. as a Latvian refugee in 1949. Until recently she refused to talk about her experiences before emigrating. It was only when Roberts’ daughters gave her a tape recorder that she spoke of living under Soviet rule during World War II. Author Janice Whelan transcribed those recordings, and the result is Erna’s Life.
In this memoir written as biography, Whelan takes readers from Roberts’ idyllic childhood in Latvia through her immigration to America. During this time, Russia occupied her home country, then Germany, and then Russia again. As a result, Roberts’ extended family was split apart. By the time the Quaker Church helped Roberts and her husband leave for New York with their four daughters, she saw her mother, grandfather, and brother sent to Siberia. Her was held in a Nazi labor camp. And her own family was forced to live in overcrowded and unhealthy refugee camps.
“This is the story of how war shatters and destroys the lives of the innocent, especially the women and children,” Whelan says. “But it is also the story of one family’s struggle to survive and their ultimate triumph against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”
Whelan is a 1967 U-M graduate and recently told Michigan Today of a unique “Latvian refugee” connection here at the University. Professor Maris A. Vinovski is the A.M. and H.P. Bentley Professor of History in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and a professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He also is a senior research scientist in the Center for Political Studies, Institute of Social Research. Most pertinent to this story? He was a Latvian refugee as a child. Upon learning of Whelan’s book, Vinovski visited Erna and her daughter, and discovered many similarities between their story and his own. He then recommended that Erna’s Life be housed in the Hatcher Graduate Library. “He felt it was an important account of the Baltic peoples’ plight during World War II, which is not often told since at that time Russia was an ally of the United States,” Whelan says.
In yet another Latvian connection, Whelan notes that world-famous architect Gunnar Birkerts also was a WWII Latvian refugee. Birkerts was a professor at U-M from 1959-90 and designed the Allan and Alene Smith Law Library Addition at the U-M Law School. He recently saw his design for the Latvian National Library completed.