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Research on DP Camp “Insula”

The US-American John Plume spent a four-day visit at the archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS) conducting research on Displaced Persons from the "Insula” Camp near Berchtesgaden in the post-war years. “My brother and I wish to retrace and reconstruct as many people’s lives as possible”, Plume outlines his project. In October 1945, as a five-year old boy he had lived himself in the camp with his family.

Plume’s father who was listed for arrest by the Communists after the Hitler Stalin Pact in 1941 already, left Latvia for Germany with his family in the summer of 1944 fleeing the Red Army. “I can hardly remember our flight”, tells Plume. “From narratives I know that we were lodging in the most various locations at the time, stations and camps, etc.” After they had spent a whole year in way stations, DP Camp “Insula” became their provisional home. In the camp, mainly Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians were accommodated, most of whom had been former forced labourers, others Nazi collaborators or escapees from Stalinist rule.

At the camp, ‘normal’ life could start afresh, recalls the 71-year-old. “Food supply and dwelling were all right. We children passed a wonderful time, playing and going to school.” The parents were assigned to work in the camp itself or in companies in the surroundings. “For a long time they were undecided about their future, about how to go on”, Plume describes their feelings. “For the adults, immigrating to another country completely unknown to them was a huge, adventurous step. We children, though, were naïve and had an open mind about everything new.” In March 1949 the family ultimately left for the USA on board of the ship ‘Ernie Pyle’. “Once arrived there, I changed my Latvian first name Janusz to its American equivalent John.”

His parents passed their first American years working on a farm near Minneapolis. After graduating from school, John took up work in an insurance company and started a family. “Year after year passed”, says the American. He and his family hardly busied themselves with their past. It was not until his brother began researching and writing down the family’s history about ten years ago when their flight and life in camp “Insula” came alive again. “We started collecting names, photos and stories of Latvian Displaced Persons who had been living in Insula back then,” explains Plume.

The network of the emigrants is a well-knit one in the USA, in Canada and in many other states, said Plume, which is why more than 500 names could be found and researched. “The collection swelled developing into a book titled ‘Insula Displaced Persons Assembly Center – A Latvian Memoir’.” Since its publication in 2005 further names and biographies could be added. At the ITS, too, Plume discovered both, details on individual fates and new names. “Meanwhile we have identified 700 former ‘Islanders’, he rejoices. “It will be hard for me to suspend the project.”