Saturday, March 18, 2017

When Refugees Were Welcome...

Part of the public debate about recent efforts of the new administration in Washington to limit immigration to the US concerns the fate of refugees, especially those people fleeing the on-going war in Syria. In this context, US immigration policy after World War II has some lessons to teach, and those lessons reach right into Grinnell, where the family of Roberts Lapainis arrived in August, 1948. Roberts, his wife Elisabete (Elisabeth), and their son Egils, were among the refugees admitted to the United States under the authority of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Because of this legislation, refugees for the first time became an important part of US immigration policy, and under the act's auspices (renewed in 1950 for two years) a total of some 400,000 individuals "who were victims of persecution by the Nazi government or who were fleeing persecution...[or] who could not go back to their country because of fear of persecution based on race, religion or political opinions" were admitted to the United States. This is the story of one such family.
Grinnell Herald-Register August 12, 1948
Roberts Lapainis was born in Riga in 1919, hard on the heels of World War I and the creation of the independent state of Latvia. In March, 1942 he married the former Elisabete Kremer, and soon thereafter their first and only child, Egils, was born. This young family came together just as the fate of Latvia was sadly woven into the poisonous fabric of war. Latvia fell to Soviet occupation as part of the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the USSR, then later fell to invading German armies in 1941, then again to Soviet troops in 1944. Both occupiers attempted to purge Latvia of resistance by arresting those suspected of harboring ties to the enemy. Roberts very nearly fell into Soviet hands in 1941, narrowly escaping arrest and exile to Siberia; but when the Germans returned in 1944, they sent him to Germany as forced labor. Somehow he escaped this fate, and, as he told the Herald-Register on his arrival in Grinnell, he worked undiscovered on a farm near Wittenburg until the allied armies arrived. Meantime, Mrs. Lapainis and Egils lived in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Esslingen, Germany; they were reunited in August, 1945, and lived at the Esslingen camp until June, 1948 when they departed Germany for the U.S.
Egils, Elizabete, and Roberts Lapainis (far left) at arrival in Des Moines
Des Moines Register August 1, 1948, p. 17
The Lapainis family crossed the Atlantic on the S.S. Marine Flasher, bringing with them two trunks, two suitcases, and a couple of boxes with which to begin a new life. Apparently the family was interviewed about places where they might settle, and the Lapainis family chose Iowa, where they arrived August 1, 1948. Church World Service (CWS on the S. S. Flasher manifest) sponsored the immigration of the Lapainis family, but in Grinnell it was St. John's Lutheran Church that took responsibility for the family. According to the report in the Herald-Register, Rev. Harold Bomhoff found a job for Robert with Iowa Southern Utilities, but finding them a place to live in Grinnell proved harder. However, as reported in the 1950 Grinnell city directory, the Lapainis family took up residence at 921 Summer Street. By this time young Egils must have been enrolled in school, perhaps at nearby Cooper Elementary. Still, it must have been difficult, since, except for Elisabeth's knowledge of English, almost everything was strange and new.
Passenger Manifest for S. S. Flasher, arriving in New York From Bremerhaven, Germany, July 26, 1948
Lapainis family members appears ten, nine, and eight spaces from the bottom of the page
Numerous DPs (as they came to be known) in letters sent back to Europe confirmed the difficulties of adjusting to a new country. An article in the October Des Moines Register, which was based upon news included in the European DP camp newspapers, quoted a young Pole who had settled in Fulton, MO: "The beginning of life in America is very difficult," he wrote, "since the sight of cars, houses and other things owned by other people makes you yearn to have the same. There are more cars here than bicycles in our own country." A Latvian who ended up in France asked rhetorically, "And are there no disappointments? Good Lord, who does not experience them in the course of starting a new life? Any DP who expects to find everything perfect in his new country is a fool."

What about the Lapainis family? Did they expect everything to be perfect? Evidently not, although, like most refugees, surely they nursed dreams. Robert (as he came to be called), who spoke Latvian, Russian and German fluently, now had to contend with English, of which he knew very little when the family arrived in Iowa. Having attended night school in Riga before the war to become an electrician, he hoped for a job in the US that would match his skills and provide a living for his family. Elisabeth had studied piano at the Conservatory of Music in Riga, and admitted to the Herald-Register in a 1948 interview that she hoped to "continue to play if I have such a job that allows me," demonstrating her mastery of English gained while she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Commission in Germany. "We want to earn our living, find bread, learn the English, go to night school and get the papers to become American citizens," she continued, summarizing her family's hopes for the future.
149 Kenmore NE, Cedar Rapids (2012 photograph)
For reasons that the public record does not preserve, Mr. and Mrs. Lapainis decided to leave Grinnell, and as early as 1951 they may have been residing at 149 Kenmore NE in Cedar Rapids. Robert had gained admission to the electricians' union and had begun work for Iowa Iron Works in Cedar Rapids. In subsequent years Robert worked for a variety of companies: Cedar Rapids Electric Supply (from at least 1954 through 1957); Paulson Electric (1958); Wubbens Electric (1959); Munson Electric (1970); and Acme Electric (1981). Perhaps the multitude of employment options in a much larger town was the main draw of Cedar Rapids.

Sometime soon after 1953 Elisabeth was teaching piano out of the family's Cedar Rapids home. Twice a year the newspaper announced recitals at which her students performed, so that over the more than twenty-five years she taught piano, hundreds of students passed through her front door.
Cedar Rapids Gazette December 13, 1959
The connections with music were obviously important to Elisabeth, and Cedar Rapids offered numerous paths through which she might continue her musical interests. Her piano teaching brought her into membership of the Iowa Music Teachers Association, and she soon joined the local Mozart Club, where she served as an officer for many years.
Cedar Rapids Gazette July 22, 1956
Her ambition to continue performing also found an outlet in the local Beethoven Club where, alongside other musicians, Elisabeth Lapainis often performed on the piano. As with Robert's work options, opportunities to continue her life in music were more numerous in Cedar Rapids than in Grinnell.
Cedar Rapids Gazette January 12, 1964
Egils Lapainis made the transition from Grinnell schools to Arthur Elementary, an old Cedar Rapids school to which a primary addition was joined in 1952. He seems to have made a fairly smooth adjustment, as local news reported him to be involved in school plays and Cub Scout activities.
Arthur Elementary School PTA Cub Pack 25 version of TV's "Super Circus" (Ringmaster Egils Lapainis far right)
Cedar Rapids Gazette May 23, 1953
At George Washington High School, Egils seems to have continued to prosper. The high school yearbook reported that Egils was a member of Adastra (the local chapter of the National Honor Society) and the German Club, and that he took part in Forum, the local student government organization. After graduating from Washington, Egils enrolled at the University of Iowa where in 1965 he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration.
Egils Lapainis, 1961 Monument (George Washington High School Yearbook)
Robert Lapainis died suddenly December 30, 1993, and was buried at Cedar Park Memorial Cemetery. He and his wife were long-time members of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids (then at 2100 First Ave., NE, now St. Mark's Faith and Life Center in Marion, IA) where his funeral was held. Elisabeth lived much longer—more than thirty years after she retired from teaching piano—and died July 14, 2014 at her son's residence in Palm Desert, CA.
Gravestone of Robert Lapainis (1919-1993), Cedar Park Memorial Cemetery, Cedar Rapids
What does the Lapainis family's immigration to the United States nearly seventy years ago tell us and how does their experience illumine present-day immigration preoccupations? 

The Lapainis family history makes clear that they successfully adapted and that they contributed generously to the community that received them. It is true that the family left Grinnell surprisingly quickly—why they moved to Cedar Rapids remains unclear, but there can be little doubt that they succeeded in merging into American culture and contributing to their new country.
Photograph of Elisabeth Lapainis (1917-2014) from her 2014 obituary
At the announcement of Elisabeth's 2014 death, several former students took time to add their appreciations in the funeral home's on-line book of remembrance. Nancy (Spear) Patrick, for instance, wrote that Mrs. Lapainis "taught me discipline, patience, and being true to yourself...." Donette Piering, another former student, noted that Elisabeth's teaching had enabled Piering to begin a journey that took her onward to organ performance in college and beyond. Janet Booth Gerdom recalled that "her tough but loving instruction gave me lots of confidence and I have enjoyed playing in the years since." I am better, she continued, for "having known Mrs. Lapainis."

I don't know if Robert's death summoned similar expressions of appreciation from fellow workers or employers, but his work record makes clear that he contributed to the businesses for which he worked. Moreover, as when he and some others volunteered to straighten out poles bent over Cedar Rapids's Kingston stadium, Robert was giving back to the town that had accepted him and his family. No doubt they were equally valuable to the congregation at St. Mark's Lutheran Church.
Robert Lapainis and others repair Kingston Stadium poles bent by wind
Cedar Rapids Gazette June 22, 1954
Unfortunately, the Lapainis's success does not tell the whole story of the 1948 law, and the fuller narrative invokes some unhappy parallels with contemporary immigration policy. As then-President Harry Truman pointed out when he reluctantly signed what became known as the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, Congress had delayed action on the bill until the very last day of the legislative session, so that, if Truman vetoed the bill, there would be no replacement until Congress reconvened. To avoid keeping DPs in difficult circumstances any longer, Truman signed the bill into law, but not without observing its several objectionable features.

In the first place, Truman observed,
The bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith. The primary device used to discriminate against Jewish displaced persons is the provision restricting eligibility to those displaced persons who entered Germany, Austria, or Italy on or before December 22, 1945. Most of the Jewish displaced persons who had entered Germany, Austria, or Italy by that time have already left; and most of the Jewish displaced persons now in those areas arrived there after December 22, 1945, and hence are denied a chance to come to the United States under this bill. By this device more than 90 percent of the remaining Jewish displaced persons are definitely excluded.
The same deadline had the effect of preventing many Catholic DPs from qualifying for admission to the US, since many of the Catholics who fled the post-war Communist governments of central Europe arrived after the December, 1945 deadline. As a result, the legislation had embedded within it religious preference, enabling protestants like the Lapainis family to benefit, but prohibiting many thousands of Jews and Catholics.

The act further demanded from immigrants guarantees—that their employment would not affect American workers, that they were assured "safe and clean housing"—and insisted upon detailed investigation of each applicant, a combination of expectations that, as Truman noted, reflected "a singular lack of confidence by the Congress in the capacity and willingness of the people of the United States to extend a welcoming hand to the prospective immigrants."

None of this undermines the good done by the 1948 law, which gave new beginnings to thousands of refugees whose options war had reduced dramatically. Like today's refugees from war in Syria, these people found themselves dependent upon the receiving country's generosity—or lack of it. Similarly, Congress's imposition of religious preference (although more subtle than recent efforts) and the insistence upon detailed vetting are themes prominent in present-day efforts to restrict refugee immigration to the United States.

So, although we can hope that the United States will continue to be receptive to refugees, keeping in mind the satisfaction and payback that come from successes like the Lapainis family, we should remain mindful of the biases of religion and race, and the consequences that their deployment has for millions of refugees worldwide.

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