The struggles of refugees haven’t changed much over the decades. What also hasn’t changed is that Lutherans have been there to help.
Take the story of Rev. Harry Kapeikis. Harry was born in Latvia in the mid-1930s. In 1944, when
he was only nine years old, his family fled into Germany to escape the brutality of the Russian army. It was not much safer there. In the last months of the Second World War, Harry and his family faced starvation and narrowly escaped death several times as they travelled west by truck, train, boat and even on foot in search of a safe haven. They had left Dresden only two hours before that city was destroyed and thousands killed. On another occasion, they made it to an air raid shelter within seconds of an attack. The train station where they had planned on staying the night was reduced to a crater in the ground.
“You sort of accept that people are dying, and houses are being destroyed, but every morning you get up, you’re still alive, and you celebrate that. It’s kind of strange, because you’d think, goodness, you’d be terrified every morning, but you’re not. When people find themselves in circumstances like that, you don’t think of yourself as being singled out to suffer all these things… there’s a strange acceptance of these terrible circumstances and you even learn to share.”
Thankfully, the war ended, and although the struggles did not end there, life improved greatly. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) took Harry’s family into a displaced persons camp.
“The camp was like heaven. There we had a roof over our heads and we were provided for,” says Harry.
That’s when they first started receiving care packages containing food like jam and peanut butter, and supplies like pencils, paper and erasers: “all things that you can use that can enhance your life a little bit.”
Although they weren’t sure at the time where the packages came from, Harry now knows they came from church organizations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief in Canada and the United States.
“My thanks to you goes all the way back to 1946 for all those beautiful little things.”
Harry and his family spent four years in the camp near Augsburg, Germany, which was run by the International Refugee Organization (IRO).
“So, as a nine-year-old boy I left Latvia, and I was thirteen when we left the camp to come to America. But you know what, as I think of it now, it really was a good life.”
Harry and other children had the opportunity to go to school and participate in Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. To this day, he treasures the support he received from adults in the camp.
“Our professionals were not allowed to work in their fields because they were not licensed by the Germans nor the Americans. They devoted much of their time to mentoring the children. My literature teacher was an actual writer and poet, and in Boy Scouts I was taught first aid by an experienced surgeon.
“My friends from the camp are all professionals now…some of us were even crazy enough to become pastors,” Harry says.
Lutherans were also responsible for helping Harry start a new life in North America. The IRO had to close the camps by June 1950, so they needed to resettle refugees like the Kapeikis family in other countries. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) helped make this possible.
The LWF created Lutheran welfare offices in countries like the United States, which were responsible for finding employment for immigrants from the camps. Harry’s family was settled in Tacoma, Washington, because his father was a machine molder and a job in a foundry became available there.
Support from a Lutheran church made all the difference for Harry and his family when they arrived, just like it does today for newly arrived refugees in cities across Canada. Just like today, Harry’s family was welcomed into their new church community.
“The welcome we received from the Lutheran welfare workers…was a fantastic thing,” says Harry. “They found a duplex for us, and when we moved in it was totally furnished. They provided us with immediate food, and the pastor was very much involved. He invited us to stay at his parsonage until they could get that little house ready for us, and it was wonderful. It was heaven.
“The thought was, by golly, these people have done so much for my family. I want to be a part of them.”
Like the experiences of any newcomer, it was difficult for Harry’s family to adjust to a new country, language and culture, and there was much sadness about leaving behind their home and people they loved. But there was joy and excitement at the new opportunities being provided to them. Harry remembers wanting to become an American very much.
Harry believes that if he had had to stay in Germany as a refugee, he would probably be dead.
“The people did not accept us there. There was minimal medical help. How long could you go before your health would give out? I don’t think I would have ever lived to an age of 79.”
-by Jennifer Clark, CLWR Community Relations Assistant
Rev. Harry Kapeikis is a retired Lutheran pastor in Penticton, British Columbia. To learn more about Harry’s remarkable journey, check out his three memoirs: Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood from Survival to Opportunity; Beyond all Dreams: Coming of Age in Post-War America; and Sensing the Call: Our Journey into God’s Ministry