Hyman Flaks

Nationality: Latvian
Location: Latvia • United States of America
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust • Family Died During the Holocaust • Served in the Latvian Army • Was a Soldier

Mapping Hyman's Life

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“I remember vividly at one time when the Cossacks of one of the Cossack groups was supposed to come into town, and they just came in and with the sabers they were just cuttin’ heads off of people, just like that. I mean, it was shattering, it was a shattering experience, especially men. Women they didn’t bother so much. If anything, they’d rape them but they would not kill them, and what a choice.” - Hyman Flaks

Read Hyman's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

PRINCE: My name is “Sister” Prince and I am interviewing Hyman Flaks on April 29, 1986 in his office in St. Louis for the Oral History Project of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies. Mr. Flaks is the Executive Director of Vaad…
FLAKS: Vaad Hoeir.
PRINCE: Vaad Hoeir, thank you. Hyman, would you begin by telling what that is?
FLAKS: The Vaad Hoeir, literally translated, is the “Council of the City.” Of course, that is the Orthodox Jewish community, and is a representative group representing the Orthodox congregations and the Orthodox educational institutions. It’s a democratic organization which is governed by representatives of the constituent congregations who elect a Board of Directors and officers. And they then in turn – this is a lay organization – and they engage a Chief Rabbi who is the highest religious authority – Jewish religious authority, the, what we call halakhic authority. And he decides on all matters, all religious jurisprudence and Jewish customs and tradition and all the religious issues that just about compound the whole cycle of Jewish life.
PRINCE: Thank you. Hyman, it’s a beautiful, warm, bright sunny day here and I’m going to ask you to go way back and begin with where you were born and when you were born.
FLAKS: Interestingly enough, the way that my parents were telling me, I was born on a bright, sunny day. It was on a Saturday morning. I was born in 1915, January 16, in a small town in what was at that time Russia, on the banks of the Dvina River. It was about – in mileage it was about 40 miles from Riga, which was the major city at that time. Riga is situated in…
PRINCE: In Latvia.
FLAKS: In Latvia, that’s right. But at that time it wasn’t Latvia, it was Russia, and this was 1915. It was already the first year of the war between Germany and Russia and the Germans were pushing into Russia and the front developed along the Dvina River. So, the Russian authorities evacuated us, the family – the whole family – grandfather and aunts and my family – parents. I was the first child and I was one year old at that time. And we started our trek into Russia and we were in Russia as refugees traveling from one town to another through the Ukraine until we finally came back to a major city, which was Vitebsk. Of course those years of travel – my first year I don’t remember. The trials and tribulations – some of them – I do remember vividly, though I was a very small child. And sometimes one wonders whether this is just because you heard a lot of stories about it and your imagination sort of catches up with it, or this is really your own impressions.
Now, this was the time in Russia, it was very turbulent, of course, a time of the war and then the revolution because we got back to Vitebsk – it was 1919 and that was after the revolution already. And through the Ukraine our trek took us all the way down south to cities like Kharkov and Kremenchug, which is – of course you know to the Americans don’t mean much, but they were important trade centers, industrial centers in Russia. And while there was no aerial bombardment, nevertheless there was a lot of turmoil. And at the time of – shortly preceding the revolution and during the revolutionary years, there were various groups that grabbed power and there was – well I’ll say this in Russian – there was a Batjka Makhno who was a Ukrainian chief of a clan.
PRINCE: Chief of what?
FLAKS: A clan, a clan – Cossacks. And they were fighting others. They were fighting, of course, the revolutionaries. Then there was the Denikin. He was an admiral and he had his group that was fighting. And of course there were the regular Russian Army that was fighting the Red Army, which was at that time already in formation. So, we spent many, many a night in basements and in cellars. And in Russia at that time we didn’t have modern refrigeration, so we had like ice cellars. It was like halfway underground and then like a little mound, and you just walked in there and that was where they kept ice.
PRINCE: Like a cold house.
FLAKS: A cold house, that’s right. And in those little structures we were hiding. Now, of course, the Jews…
PRINCE: Your mother and your father and you and your grandparents?
FLAKS: My mother and my father and I. I – no, I only had – well, I had a grandfather and grandmother and we sort of lost each other. Then we reunited – that was on my mother’s side was a grandfather and grandmother. They were from Lithuania, so they went on another trek and we came from what at that time was – well, Lithuania was also a part of Russia but what was then later Latvia – we came from that part of the country. Well, it was adjoining – see, actually those are called the Baltic States. There are three little countries, Lavia – Lithuania on the south, Latvia in the middle, and Estonia in the north. Now, Latvia and Lithuania, just by way of background, their language is common. It’s called the Baltic-Slavic group of languages. Estonia, which is part of that tri-country area, has an entirely different language. Estonian – they belong to the Hungro-Finnish group of languages and they are kings to the Finnish language. So it’s – I mean, totally different – totally different. Now in Lithuania somebody who speaks Latvian would understand and vice versa. Estonian is different.
Anyway, so they went – another way we got rejoined in Russia – somehow in some miraculous way – the grandfather on my father’s side was with us and two aunts. They were unmarried and we were – let’s see – we were in – in the Ukraine and a couple of incidents really. And I, as a child, I was a sickly child, all kind of childhood diseases. There was no immunization of course in those days. Half of the time I was sick, I could never go to school, could never went to – I, I never went to school until actually fourth grade – in the middle of fourth grade. My mother used to teach me. She was an educated woman and in those days if somebody finished what we used to call gymnasium, which is equivalent, more than high school on American standards. So, she taught me.
And I remember vividly at one time when the Cossacks of one of the Cossack groups was supposed to come into town and they just came in and with the sabers they were just cuttin’ heads off of people, just like that. I mean, it was shattering, it was a shattering experience, especially men. Women they didn’t bother so much. If anything, they’d rape them but they would not kill them, and what a choice. And…
PRINCE: And you saw all this as a child?
FLAKS: Well, as a child, as a child, some of those things I did see and I remember one time, I remember that we – there was like a opening made in the floor and all the men went down the cellar and we covered it with a rug. Not I, but my mother, my aunts, they covered it with a rug and put the table on top of it. And for three days they were there in the cellar, hiding, because if they would find a man, they would kill him.
PRINCE: Let me ask you something. Were you hiding because you were Jews…
FLAKS: Yes, yes…
PRINCE: …or because (OVERTALK) let me just finish for the sake of the tape – or because all these different groups were fighting – but everybody wanted to kill the Jews?
FLAKS: Well, the thing is this. It was one of those things. You see, they – fighting each other, they would fight in a fight, but if they would catch a Jew, they would just kill him. I mean, Hitler killed Jews just because they were Jews.
PRINCE: Right. Well that’s why I asked…was it just…
FLAKS: Yes, yes, because many, especially in the Ukraine, many of the Ukrainians were very antisemitic. And, of course, it was not my recollection because I wasn’t there, but history tells us that many of the Ukrainians – as a matter of fact, this fellow who was just deported from the United States to Israel, Demjanuck, is a Ukrainian and many of the Ukrainians were very antisemitic.
PRINCE: Vicious.
FLAKS: Very vicious. I mean, they, they just did the work before even the Nazis marched in to some of the small communities because they knew the Jews personally, they knew who they are, they knew who they were and dealt with them, so it was easy if they caught them.
PRINCE: Now, when you say you went from place to place in Russia, how did you do that? Did you go by foot?
FLAKS: Well, frankly, I don’t remember by foot, but I understand they would go by foot some of the smaller distances, but otherwise there were horse and buggy, horse and wagon.
PRINCE: Someone else’s or did you…?
FLAKS: No, no, it wasn’t ours, it wasn’t ours. I mean, whatever possessions we had – they were in wicker baskets, you know, and that’s what you went with. The situation was so that, you know, you just lived from day to day, from day to day. You never knew what’s going to happen tomorrow. Of course, nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.
PRINCE: But we think we have an idea.
FLAKS: We think we have an idea that tomorrow is going to be like today, maybe a little bit better. Well, whatever it is, you know, normal. But to say that those days were normal – and then, of course, half of the time we didn’t have enough to eat because of the – but that was the general situation that you didn’t have enough to eat.
PRINCE: Tell me about your father.
FLAKS: My father was a – he was a working man. My grandfather was a bookkeeper – on my father’s side. On the mother’s side, my grandfather was a rabbi. On my – my father – he was a – well, in Russian they call it a Prikashchick. That’s a – how should I say – uh, he had knowledge in two areas. One is that he was, he was not himself in the lumber business but he knew the lumber trade. So he worked for a company where he would go out to appraise certain areas in the forest and then the company would buy it. And he would be in charge of cuttin’ the trees, getting the branches off and then getting them to the river and then they would float down the river in rafts to wherever they went to.
PRINCE: To centers.
FLAKS: Centers, that’s right, to the lumber mills. The other area that he knew was…he was a specialist in determining grades of flax. Now, I don’t know – my name is Flaks – maybe – but it wasn’t because of my father because my father’s name was already Flaks, the grandfather’s name was Flaks, so maybe it had to do something with flax. (LAUGHTER; OVERTALK) Now, that area grew a lot of flax for which, you know, they weave linen clothes. Now, it requires knowledge to know again how to appraise once it’s harvested because they grow like stick – no, not sticks, like rods, you know. And then they break and then the fiber remains. And then when you get all the fiber and tie them in such bunches and then you look at it and you determine what grade it is, depending on the length of it and whatever it is. But he was always working for somebody else.
PRINCE: But, here he was in unusual circumstances. What kind of a man was he? Do you remember as a child?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, he always somehow managed to find work someplace, and, you know, somebody that wants to work, well, if it’s not in your area, so you adapt yourself. You do something else. Now, he was working in the Ukraine. There was a terrible incident happened to him and because of that, that created a problem and that was the following. He was robbed – because he was going, like from town to town, you know, on assignments to do his work in this area. In the Kremenchug area, he was robbed. And he was going by horse and wagon. He was going by horse and wagon. And you know they tell the story about robbers in the woods, you know? That’s exactly what happened. They hit him and to the end of his days he had a mark on his forehead because they found him bleeding. He almost bled to death. And they robbed him. Now, they took all his documents away with them, took all the documents from him. Now that was a terrible thing because, you see, in 1919-1920, when Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia formed the self-determination, became independent countries…
PRINCE: Under Soviet…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no – that was part of the peace treaty and part of the end of the war, World War I…
PRINCE: That they became independent…
FLAKS: That they were given their independence and these countries became totally independent countries with their own democratic structure, with a parliament and with a president, with a army and with the commerce and with agriculture and everything else.
PRINCE: They had it for such a short life, didn’t they?
FLAKS: A very short life. (OVERTALK) Yes, they had an embassy in Washington D.C.
PRINCE: So, okay, they’re independent…
FLAKS: Now you see when they became – when they took away his papers, so what they said – at that time, you see, there was a decree that all those that could prove that they are from there could return back home. Now, my grandfather and my…
PRINCE: Before they had been taken over?
FLAKS: Right, right.
PRINCE: Before the country had been…
FLAKS: No, no, that was in 19 – see, the country was taken over by Russia in 1940…’41.
PRINCE: But if you lived in a certain place before that, you could return home?
FLAKS: That’s right. You could prove that you are from there, that’s your native place of – where you lived.
PRINCE: Residence.
FLAKS: Native place of residence. So, what happened was that he lost his documents and couldn’t prove it. So, my grandfather and my aunts, they went back to Latvia. They went back to Riga. My father couldn’t prove it, so we got stuck in Russia. So, we got stuck in Russia and we lived in Russia until 1928.
PRINCE: Now, at first you were just kind of moving around and escaping a lot, it sounded like. But eventually, did you settle?
FLAKS: Oh yes, we settled in 19 – 1920, we settled in Vitebsk.
PRINCE: And you stayed there?
FLAKS: We stayed there, we lived there ’til about – let’s see – we lived there ’til 1925. Vitebsk was a large city. As a matter of fact, I don’t know whether this is historically, you know. I doubt whether I can consider it as a privilege, but I saw Lenin and I saw Trotsky and I saw this whole hierarchy. On one occasion there was a big celebration and I happened to see them. So, I don’t know. I don’t consider it a – such a tremendous privilege, but anyway, whatever it is, that’s among the things that I did see in my lifetime. (LAUGHTER) Generally, you know, when I look back – I don’t know whether this belongs on this part of the tape.
PRINCE: It’s all right.
FLAKS: But, generally, when I think – I’m 71 years old – and when I think of the years that – the years of life that I lived, what happened and what was going on, I believe that in the past, maybe, I don’t know whether in a thousand years things – that so many things would have happened.
PRINCE: I know, I know. Driving out here today, I thought, “I’m going to ask him to go back and to recreate, you know what things were like so long ago.”
FLAKS: Now, that’s, that’s – Vitebsk was a large community. As I said, it was an industrial city, but of course as modern as Russia was in those days. Anyway, we lived there and then we went – somehow my father felt that going to a small community, a smaller community, we’d have a better chance.
So we went to a small town and the area – how should I describe the area. There is a city, P’skov, which is historically a very old city in Russia in that area, in the P’skov area. Now, that was a little bit closer to the west but it was Russia, it was Russia. Vitebsk was White Russia, so we were in the Ukraine, we were in White Russia, and then our last few years in Russia was in Russia itself and we lived in a small town. And in a small town life was much quieter and it was better because, you know, in the city everything – I mean food things, produce, has to be brought in from the country. That’s where it grew.
PRINCE: So you had enough to eat?
FLAKS: So we had enough to eat, that’s right. Really, that we did not…there we did not suffer any hunger or any deprivation. And that’s where I started school first.
PRINCE: And you were 10 – 11?
FLAKS: Yes, yes.
PRINCE: 11 years old?
FLAKS: Yes – well, 11, 12, about that age. Now, then we – I mean, we knew that grandfather and my aunts were in Riga and we were corresponding with them. Sometimes letters would go through, sometimes letters wouldn’t go through, but we were corresponding with them. So, it’s very interesting – how does one get out of Russia? In the early days, a lot of them ran across the border. I mean there were people who were facilitators, you know. You paid them off and you went across the border. You ran to Poland. That was in this area. The common border…you ran to Poland. Poland was already sort of, again, an independent country, westernized, and from there on you made your way to Latvian border. From Russia – to Latvian border, also some people went across. Now, we weren’t that brave, I mean, my father wasn’t that brave, you know, to do it. Maybe he didn’t have the money to pay off.
So, the – but how does one get out of Russia? You see, according to the Russian, their ideology, it’s paradise. Now, why would one want to leave? We have such a good, sweet life, why does one want to leave? Now, how would they justify to their own population that they would let somebody out? Why is he going? Now, if he wants to go, he must be crazy. That’s why they do put them in insane asylums, those guys that declare all of a sudden that they want to leave Russia, they put them in insane asylums. So, they say, “He went crazy, he wants to go.”
Now, how can you go out? Yes, they are very great humanitarians. Now, they will allow the reunification of families. You see, if part of the family is here, part of the family is – here, that’s how this whole process of the Russian Jews that left now was on the basis of being reunited with somebody.
PRINCE: That’s their excuse.
FLAKS: That is, you see, that they can justify their rationale for letting somebody out. Now, somebody goes to Israel, he’s a traitor, he betrays his country. Now some of the Russians that they let out, their own Russians, they give them only a visa to Israel and then an article will appear in the newspaper that this and this traitor left for Israel. Where else would he go? But this modus operandi was already in existence in those days. They would allow the reunification of families. So, we received an official – in Russian they call it a visov. That means an affidavit, an invitation, sort of difficult to translate literally exactly. This was a means to call out, a call that the grandfather – that means my father’s father is old and sick and he wants to be reunited with his son.
PRINCE: And he had put this through the authorities?
FLAKS: And this went through the authorities. And we got an official permit to leave Russia with a red passport.
PRINCE: Do you remember the day that you found that out?
FLAKS: Yeah – well, I came from school and they said that a letter came that…we can go.
PRINCE: Were they excited?
FLAKS: Well, of course we were excited. Everybody was very excited and we left. Well, of course, my mother couldn’t go. At that time I had already a sister and that was born in Russia.
PRINCE: What was her name?
FLAKS: Her name was Miriam. She and my mother perished in, in the Holocaust.
PRINCE: Where?
FLAKS: In – where? In Rumboli, that’s outside of Riga.
PRINCE: What was your Hebrew name? I meant to ask you…
FLAKS: Chaim.
PRINCE: So your mother and Miriam stayed there?
FLAKS: They, well, they stayed – no, no. They stayed when I came to America.
PRINCE: Oh, I thought you meant…(OVERTALK)
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no. (OVERTALK) Now, wait a minute. Oh yeah, they stayed in Russia, excuse me. They stayed in Russia. They stayed in Russia and within the year we were able to get them out.
PRINCE: Excuse me, why did they have to stay?
FLAKS: Because the visov, the affidavit, was only for me and for my father. Why was this? Again, the rationale was that men they would want to retain more than women.
PRINCE: So…
FLAKS: So, to get us out first. Now when we got out – so, we got out and within a year they came. Now…
PRINCE: I would like to stop you and go back a little bit, and ask you what some of those years were like. I think the tape is – no, I’m sorry. Tell me about your religious life.
FLAKS: Well, we were always religiously observant, even in Russia.
PRINCE: And were you Orthodox, Hasidic?
FLAKS: Yes, well, not belonging to any particular Hasidic group, though my grandfather was of the Lubavitch group. I mean, even within the order of prayer, a number of groups have different groupings of prayers that they say, though most of them are the same but in a little bit different order. So, my grandfather was of the Lubavitch, belonged to the Lubavitch group. But, I really did not grow up in that particular atomosphere. We were just religiously observant.
PRINCE: Orthodox?
FLAKS: Orthodox, right. Well, in those days we did not have any Reform or Conservative. People were either observant or not observant.
PRINCE: I see, and to degrees, I would imagine.
FLAKS: Uh, pardon me?
PRINCE: And to different degrees.
FLAKS: You did not. You see, one did not have to call himself of a different persuasion, a name, not to observe.
PRINCE: I’m glad I asked the question so that you could give the answer, but everybody still did it to different degrees?
FLAKS: Well, to degrees – look, religious observance is something which is very personal and you know it’s a matter of commitment and sometimes circumstances force you to do certain things. You still, even if you – under circumstances you deviate, you don’t look for a rationale to justify your deviation. Let’s put it this way.
PRINCE: Could you describe your observance – what it was for you – for your family to be observant and then how life changed and made you…
(End of Tape 1, Side 1)
FLAKS: See, when I spoke about deviation, I would not say deviation, I would rather call it infractions, not deviations.
PRINCE: Okay.
FLAKS: Because a deviation is already a justified action. Once you know you did something and it’s all right, so you know that you did something wrong. Next time you will not do it. That’s an infraction, I would call it.
PRINCE: Right.
FLAKS: A deviation means that, well, I already found a rationale for it and it’s okay for me to do it.
PRINCE: An excuse.
FLAKS: That’s right. Now, what does it mean to be religiously observant as far as I’m concerned? As far as I’m concerned, to be religiously (OVERTALK)…is what I mean, that’s right, what we did was we kept the Sabbath. We did not write, we did not cook, we did not ride on the Sabbath. Now, for instance, if you have to do, like for instance if we had to save our lives and we had to run away from some place, I mean, nobody ask any questions to save your life, you are allowed to transgress on that particular instance. Now, we kept kosher. We didn’t get any meat; we ate vegetables. We ate fruit; we ate dairy products. We ate potatoes. Many a day that was the only food we could have. Not that everybody else had roast turkey or roast beef. It wasn’t generally available, but you know, under certain circumstances you make do. I mean, if you have your commitment, you have your belief…you stay with it.
PRINCE: Describe the Sabbath.
FLAKS: Pardon me?
PRINCE: Describe the Sabbath in your family.
FLAKS: Oh, the Sabbath with the family was usually the same traditional Sabbath whatever we could keep, as we do now, as we do here. I mean, we had a Friday night meal, we had the prayers and we had the Sabbath meal. In the morning, if there was a synagogue, we went to synagogue. Everybody prayed for themselves. And then we had a Sabbath meal and whatever other things, without doing any work that’s not permissable until the end of the Sabbath.
PRINCE: Where did you have your Bar Mitzvah?
FLAKS: I had my Bar Mitzvah in Russia. I had a, I had – that’s why, you see, that’s why we went to that small town because we felt that in a small town our life will be easier, Jewishly and other ways. And it was.
PRINCE: Do you recall any incidents of personal antisemitism where you were personally involved?
FLAKS: Well, yes, when I started, especially when I – well, look, you play in a yard full of Jews and non-Jews, there are some frictions, you know, for no good reason at all, you know. I was beaten up several times in my childhood. In school, for instance, I started school and there were certain teachers that wouldn’t look favorably at you, you know. But, we managed somehow to survive. We have a long history of endurance.
PRINCE: Tell me, you started school at 11 or 12.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: And what language did you speak at home?
FLAKS: At home we spoke Yiddish and Russian.
PRINCE: Yiddish and Russian.
FLAKS: Right.
PRINCE: And so at school you spoke…
FLAKS: Russian, of course.
PRINCE: And…
FLAKS: I speak fluently Russian now.
PRINCE: Let’s see; wait a minute, you told me you speak…English, of course, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latvian.
FLAKS: Latvian, that’s right. I also took Latin.
PRINCE: And Latin. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: Latin helped me a lot.
PRINCE: Yes, I’m sure. All right, you had a late start in school but it sounds like you…
FLAKS: I caught up with it.
PRINCE: You caught up with it.
FLAKS: Yes, I caught up with it. (OVERTALK)
PRINCE: Do you remember your first day?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, right now it may seem significant. Then it really didn’t.
PRINCE: Did you dress…
FLAKS: No, no, no. Dress was regular dress just like everybody else.
PRINCE: Well, I don’t know what anybody else wore in Russia then. You have to tell me.
FLAKS: Well, look – boys wore pants and they wore a jacket, a sweater, a…
PRINCE: I didn’t know if you wore a caftan or…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We did not wear any caftans.
PRINCE: Okay. What do you feel was important about life at that time that I may not have asked, that you’d like to talk about?
FLAKS: Well, well I’ll tell you. I was always – the kid who used to get excited about things, knew things, you know, things like that. It has nothing to do with, with, you know, persecution or anything else. But, for instance – the first time, for instance, they brought the radio into town. I mean, it was the first time. That’s why I say that we saw so many firsts.
PRINCE: Yes, yes.
FLAKS: Or the first time I saw an airplane, the first time, I mean…
PRINCE: When was that?
FLAKS: Well, it was, it was – probably I must have been five, six years old. You see, even to this day when I see a big 747 get up, I get very excited and what bothers me…
PRINCE: I do too, though. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: I mean, it’s such a tremendous thing, I mean, there must be some kind of a Godly power that picks it up and then, then makes it fly like a bird. And what bothers me that my own children and grandchildren, they don’t have this excitement, the same sense of excitement, you know. Thank God we live in a country of plenty and now I think that some of the problems we have are just because we’ve got too much plenty. Now, where do you go for thrills? When we used to get a new pair of shoes, it was a tremendous thrill. When we used get a new pair of pants, it was a tremendous thrill. Now they get a car and they say, “Oh, so what.”
PRINCE: You’ve hit on something very basic.
FLAKS: “So what?” Now, for instance, here the Jews have a country after 2000 years. To me, this was one of the most exciting things in the world. I mean, for 2000 years Jews lived and couldn’t say that they have a country. And I’m the one who can say, “Yes,” and in my days. Then it happened in the days of my children. It happened in days – I have two children living there, so they probably have the excitement of that. But, in general I think children today grow up without this sense of anticipation and the sense of excitement – something extraordinary, something big.
PRINCE: It’s like it doesn’t have to be a band playing for it to be a good day.
FLAKS: That’s right, that’s true. The best things in life are free. All you have to do is look around, look around.
PRINCE: You have to know it, though.
FLAKS: Oh yes, you have to know it – that’s a blessing.
PRINCE: All right.
FLAKS: It went back to me. (LAUGHTER)
PRINCE: That’s okay because this is what I want, it’s wonderful, and somehow I’ve left you standing and listening to a radio and I have that in my mind. (LAUGHTER BY BOTH) And that’s what I would like to know about.
Well, back to the part where you did see Lenin and you really didn’t know who you were…
FLAKS: Oh yes, yes, that was a tremendous excitement to me.
PRINCE: Tell me about it.
FLAKS: Oh, certainly. It was, it was one of the early celebrations of the…
PRINCE: I really meant – my question was because you were young.
FLAKS: Very young.
PRINCE: So – but you felt that…
FLAKS: Oh, definitely, definitely, because everything – I mean the whole thing was – you see, it was the anniversary of the revolution.
PRINCE: Like a year?
FLAKS: Two years, three years, something like that, you see, and this was before they started to eliminate – when the rivalry started. There were still about – the set was there, the original set was there and…
PRINCE: And the set was Lenin and Trotsky?
FLAKS: Lenin and Trotsky and Budjony and Zinoviev and Kaganovitch and Menshikov and – it was the whole – Bucharin and all the big shots who were really the revolutionaries and who created the revolution.
PRINCE: So where was this?
FLAKS: Now, you see the thing is this, that that whole revolution, that whole revolution, what is said about the revolution, what really is said about the revolution is that the revolution didn’t accomplish anything.
PRINCE: Lenin said that?
FLAKS: No, I’m saying it.
PRINCE: Oh, you’re saying it.
FLAKS: I’m saying that. I mean, Lenin is gone. I can observe it better than Lenin because he isn’t here.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) He’s gone.
FLAKS: He’s gone, you see. Now they have somebody in the Kremlin there, by the Kremlin and I saw that figure there. It’s a mummy. Who knows, by now it could be a doll after so many years; I don’t think that they penetrated into the art of embalming and preserving like the Pharaohs did – I mean the old Egyptians. So, the whole revolution is just a fizzle because it didn’t create a better world. The whole revolution was to create a better world.
PRINCE: But they think so, don’t they?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, only those that live in the Kremlin there and the commissars, the very top guys. Gorbachov probably thinks so because, you know, he’s on top. But not the random pile. You know, I have a really simple question. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter that we started about. You see, we feel that this is – well, we feel that this is a very good country of ours, a wonderful country. And, however, if somebody wants to leave, wants to go – he wants to go to South America, he wants to go to Africa, he wants to to go to Israel, he wants to go to Russia. When you come to the – he wants to go to Canada. When you come to the border, when you come to the immigration officials, when you leave there isn’t even anybody and there is somebody else saying, “Bye, have a good time.” If life is so good in Russia, why don’t they – why are they afraid to let the people out? They are afraid to let the people out because they’ll never come back. Is that what the revolution was about? To create a tremendous jail?
PRINCE: But you’re thinking like we’re thinking and we don’t think alike, so…
FLAKS: I should let you talk to my aunt who was born in Riga and married a fellow from Vienna and was in Vienna when the Nazis took it over and then ran away from there.
PRINCE: Is she in St. Louis?
FLAKS: She happens to be ’til Sunday in St. Louis.
PRINCE: She lives in St. Louis?
FLAKS: No, she lives in Europe. And then the Russians sent her to Karaganda. That’s in Siberia. She was there for six years, building roads, working mines.
PRINCE: Excuse me, but I want to take you back to when you saw Lenin. Would you describe it for me? Was it exciting?
FLAKS: Well, it was – excitement was in the air because it was the day of the anniversary of the revolution and mobs of people were in the streets and everybody was going to the big parade. And I was a little kid who tried to crawl to the front, you know, because I couldn’t look over the big guys standing in front of me. So I crawled out to the back and then the – there was a parade and he rode by in an automobile. Trotsky was on a horse. Budjony was on a horse. He was the head of the cavalry, the Russian cavalry, the red commissar, and that’s it. He had a little beard, you know.
PRINCE: Well, I think that’s something pretty historical.
FLAKS: Yes, historical it was, definitely.
PRINCE: How about prewar political parties? Jewish organizations…
FLAKS: Where?
PRINCE: In Russia. Were your parents involved in anything?
FLAKS: No, no, no.
PRINCE: All right, let us move on, and you’re back in Latvia.
FLAKS: Yeah, we’re back in Latvia.
PRINCE: And how about your mother and your sister and…
FLAKS: Yes, that’s right, they are back in Latvia. We came back to Riga. And then we had a normal life until 19…until I left.
PRINCE: What’s a normal life?
FLAKS: A normal life is – we lived in the country where we could breath, we could eat, we could sleep, we could enjoy the surrounding nature. In the summer we could go to the beaches. We enjoyed the magnificent opera and ballet and maybe a dozen theatres. There was a Jewish theatre, there was a Russian – I’m talking about language – and a German. You see, Latvia was a trilingual country, so everybody spoke three languages. We had an open press up to a point. You see, up to a point.
In 1934, the head of the – by the way, he was educated in America – he was the head of the Agrarian party. He graduated in Agronomy, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and he dissolved the Parliament and he became the dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator. It was a benevolent dictatorship. I was in the army, in the Latvian army two times. The first time I was called in. Everybody had to go at age 21. I had to drop out of college, of my university 18 months, and then I was mobilized when the war broke out.
PRINCE: And how was it being Jewish in the Latvian army?
FLAKS: You know, I’ll tell you. It’s a very interesting question. And I don’t know how interesting the answer is, but…
PRINCE: Very.
FLAKS: I’ll tell you, just like many things, you know, while you are in it and at it, it’s one way – you look at it one way. When you are out of it, it’s in the past, it somehow becomes a little bit glorified or – well, I would say glorified, but you know you look at it in a different perspective. Now, I can’t say really one bad thing about my stint in the army. The only thing, because I was Jewish, I couldn’t go any higher in rank than – I should have had my pictures as a soldier, since I am a nice looking soldier…
PRINCE: Oh, I’d love to see them.
FLAKS: Anyway, you – I would say it’s the same like in any army and I really mean it. You see, if you go in with a grudge and if you go in with an attitude that, “Oh, they’re going to kill me, they are going to make my life miserable,” you’ll be miserable.
PRINCE: You pick up on every slight.
FLAKS: But, if you – if you have an attitude, “Well, look, I’m in it, I’ll make the best out of it, I’ll try to get along with everybody,” it’s not so bad. And in general, I don’t know, I always feel that an army experience is not bad – is not bad. It makes a better individual out of you; it makes you a more disciplined individual. Of course, you know, unfortunately we had this Vietnam experience that made wrecks out of people. But I think they are more at fault than the system. They just let themselves go.
Now, my son, the oldest son was in the army three years. He was one full year in Vietnam. Thank God, it didn’t make a wreck out of him. It didn’t make him mentally deficient; it didn’t put any kind of syndromes in him. He didn’t come back claiming that the whole world owes him something for it. He only serves his country. That’s a duty. In a way you’re repaying your country for whatever the country does for you, let’s you live as a free individual in this country. You see, if you have to be a soldier for the tsar, I would say that was bad news. Why? Because as soon as you’d be out, you’d be again persecuted like you were before.
PRINCE: And they just took you in and kept you for years, I believe.
FLAKS: They kept you for years, that’s right. One time 25 years, then it was four years. But, the country did not consider you an individual that they, they, you know – that you were in it serving the country, that after you are out, you know, you’re an individual like everybody else.
PRINCE: So what rank did you attain? Private?
FLAKS: P.F.C., yes.
PRINCE: And what were your duties?
FLAKS: What were my duties? I was in artillery.
PRINCE: So you learned to shoot.
FLAKS: So, for a while I was a gunner and – of course, you know, learning to shoot is not really the right word because if you have a rifle and you shoot, you learn to shoot with a, with a field artillery piece. There are many functions that bring about a shooting.
PRINCE: Okay, what’s the right word?
FLAKS: You just performed a function for – now my job, for instance, was to look into a – well, like a little periscope and align it to some point that I was directed. That’s all. And then somebody pulled the string and somebody turned it up, you know, whatever it is. So it’s a…
PRINCE: Everybody had their function.
FLAKS: It’s a team, it’s a team, that’s right.
PRINCE: Did you like it?
FLAKS: Oh, well, it wasn’t a question of liking. I didn’t dislike it. I had to do it. I did it; that’s all.
PRINCE: How was the food in the army?
FLAKS: I kept kosher, so my food was – my food was all right. I served in the same community. My – our regiment was in Riga, so I was fortunate I could stay there, so…
PRINCE: So you could eat at home.
FLAKS: I could eat at home whenever I got off and I – otherwise I took some food along. At the beginning, during basic training, food was brought to me.
PRINCE: I want to ask you about your mother.
FLAKS: Okay. She was a wonderful woman, of course, like a mother should be. Highly intelligent and, as I said, she graduated gymnasium in 1910.
PRINCE: What was her name?
FLAKS: Her name was Anna. And she was a housewife, never had any jobs, but she taught me a lot of things.
PRINCE: What did she teach you?
FLAKS: Well, she taught me like when I did not go to school, up to four and one-half grades. That’s a lot of teaching.
PRINCE: And that you could catch up so easily.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: So she was a teacher.
FLAKS: Oh yes, definitely, for me definitely.
PRINCE: Then she must have been – I don’t know the word for it, but if you moved around and she –
FLAKS: It wasn’t easy.
PRINCE: She kept things together.
FLAKS: She sure did.
PRINCE: She must have had something on the table…
FLAKS: Always, always, always, always, always…
PRINCE: And you smiled when I asked you about her, so you (LAUGHTER BY BOTH) – it comes from within…
FLAKS: Yes, yes.
PRINCE: The love and the care were there.
FLAKS: Yes, definitely so, no question about it, no question about it.
PRINCE: So she was many things.
FLAKS: Yes, she definitely was, she definitely was.
PRINCE: Where were you when the war broke out? In Riga, but…
FLAKS: Which one, the Second War?
PRINCE: Yes.
FLAKS: Oh, the Second War – yes, the Second War. Well, see, let’s go a little bit back.
PRINCE: Please do.
FLAKS: Up to the war. I went to…I finished grade school and then I finished high school. And those were very happy years, really.
PRINCE: It was a good time for Jews in Latvia.
FLAKS: It was a good time for everybody. It was really a good time for everybody. It was a – you see, the Latvians are a very educated people. Russia had a tremendous number of illiterates. That’s history, I mean, everybody knows – before, I mean, during the tsar’s time. Literacy was only for the privileged class. The Latvians had a – maybe four percent of illiteracy, 96% literate. They preserved their culture. They preserved their way of life. Riga itself was a cosmopolitan city because it was a port always.
PRINCE: A port?
FLAKS: A port city, yes. And they – sure, it was on the Baltic Sea.
PRINCE: For the sake of the tape, we’re looking at some maps.
FLAKS: Here, I’ll show you where Riga is.
PRINCE: I looked at it yesterday but…
FLAKS: Over here, here.
PRINCE: But it seems to be more in the center.
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no – Riga is right here. See, right here is Riga.
PRINCE: No, your finger is covering it, it’s right there and it was right in the center the other day.
FLAKS: Pardon me?
PRINCE: It’s right in the center, I thought, of Latvia.
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no, no – it’s – excuse me. This is the, this is Riga Bay.
PRINCE: Yes, the Gulf of Riga.
FLAKS: What?
PRINCE: They called it the Gulf of Riga on the map.
FLAKS: Well, no, it’s not a gulf…
PRINCE: Oh, okay.
FLAKS: …it’s the Bay of Riga, and Riga is right here at the bottom of it. You see, it’s right here – is that a menorah supposed to be?
PRINCE: Yes, and that…
FLAKS: It’s right here where this end of the menorah is – Latvia, right here.
PRINCE: I was looking for – oh, here, the menorah, a functioning synagogue.
FLAKS: Yeah – right there.
PRINCE: Oh here, here’s a better map.
FLAKS: Okay, right here at the bottom.
PRINCE: Okay, right there.
FLAKS: And right here was…
PRINCE: And see, it does say Gulf of Riga.
FLAKS: All right, they call it gulf, but we used to call it the bay, all right. Here, see, this is Estonia and this is Lithuania. Latvia consisted of three provinces, Livonia, Latgalia, and Courland. And Lithuania was right here. Now, this was – this was on the Baltic Sea. This was a big port open all winter. This was frozen a lot of times in the winter. It was cold.
PRINCE: Okay, thank you.
FLAKS: So, anyway, because of that and we, we used to, like for instance, movies used to come to Riga within…just as long as it would take them to cross the Atlantic, American movies.
PRINCE: What did you see?
FLAKS: What did we see? We saw, for instance, the first talkie within two weeks after they were showing them in America.
PRINCE: You’re kidding!
FLAKS: Of course. Well, I want you to know that I heard Marion Anderson in Riga, and I heard Paul Robeson in Riga and Laurence Tibbet was in Riga.
PRINCE: You got the best.
FLAKS: Well, that was one of the stops for all the major stars all over. Oh, definitely. We had a beautiful opera house and very, very nice theatres. So that’s why I say life was good. Life was good for everybody.
PRINCE: So how old are you now, you’re 20…
FLAKS: I’m 71.
PRINCE: No, no, not now – then. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: Oh, at that time?
PRINCE: You’ve put me in the past.
FLAKS: Oh, I’m sorry. I was – at that particular time I was – that was the years between like 14, 15, 15 I would say, and 20 – let’s see, I finished high school at 18. I finished high school at 18. In…
PRINCE: But you came back in ’28, so…
FLAKS: I came in ’28, yes.
PRINCE: So you were…
FLAKS: I was 13.
PRINCE: You were 13 and you had already had your Bar Mitzvah.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: And you came back and so…
FLAKS: It was like half a year after my Bar Mitzvah we came.
PRINCE: So, from the age of 13…
FLAKS: ’Til 25 when I came to America.
PRINCE: To 25…
FLAKS: Yeah. But last years were already not, not – I mean there was a lot of tension. Life was still okay, was plenty of everything.
PRINCE: Did Jews only go with Jews or was there a mixture?
FLAKS: I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you – it’s not only Jews with Jews. I always – these are my observations. You see, the religious – you see, for instance, we have in Latvia – we had a strong Catholic community, we had a strong Russian Orthodox community. The strongest was the Protestant because that was the predominant part of Latvians. That was the German influence. That was yet from the Hanseatic days and…
PRINCE: From the what?
FLAKS: Hanseatic days, the Hansa – that was the trade agreement along the Baltic coast, you know, where the merchants.
PRINCE: Hansa?
FLAKS: H –

Tape 1 - Side 2

PRINCE: Explain what Hanseatic means.
FLAKS: Hanseatic means that that was a trade agreement between the countries along the Baltic Sea – North Sea, Baltic Sea, from Germany. The ships would ply the coast, you know, and carry on trade, and then some Germans from Prussia moved especially to the Courland province. Now, there the German language was very prevalent and a lot of Jews spoke at home German. Now, in my wife’s home, German was the spoken language.
PRINCE: She came from that province?
FLAKS: She came from Riga.
PRINCE: Oh, she came from Riga.
FLAKS: That’s right. Well, Riga was a center, I mean, so people were from all over.
PRINCE: More cosmopolitan.
FLAKS: Yeah, oh definitely, definitely, very cosmopolitan. When I came to the United States, I want you to know that there were many aspects of America which disappointed me.
PRINCE: Oh, like what?
FLAKS: Like what? The dirt, the dirt of New York. In Riga they used to wash the streets three times a day. I came to St. Louis to cobblestones on some streets. We had already asphalt all over. We had streamlined streetcars and here they still had those old rattling streetcars.
PRINCE: You know, yesterday, I was looking up and reading about Latvia. In Encyclopedia Judaica they had a group of men sitting there and I said to the librarian, “Aren’t they modern looking?” (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: I have to tell you a joke. That’s okay what goes on the table. I have to tell you a joke. You know, I got off the boat in New York and a cousin met me. Every Jew has a cousin in New York. So, I have a cousin too…she’s gone now. And she met me with her husband and we get our first impressions of New York. On the way we get a flat tire, so she drives into a garage. They throw away the tube. It was an innertube. They throw away the innertube and put in a new one. Gosh, can’t you patch it? “Oh, it doesn’t pay to patch.” You say it doesn’t pay to patch. In Europe it would be all patches. You wouldn’t see the tube anymore.
All right, she takes me home. We have lunch and I say I want to write a letter to my mother, my sister. “All right, let’s go, we’ll buy some stamps.” Where do you buy stamps? At the drugstore – at a drugstore, stamps? That’s when I was introduced to the American drugstore, you know.
PRINCE: They have a soda fountain in the back.
FLAKS: I mean, a drugstore in Europe, you know – well they have an apothecary shop which was only medicines, or a drugstore which was called “drugaree,” which is – like they had already made capsules, medicines…
PRINCE: Over the counter.
FLAKS: Also, only without prescription that you could buy, not that you’d have to get a prescription for.
Then we walk out of there and she meets a girlfriend of hers and she said, “See, that’s my cousin. I just got him off the boat two hours ago.” So, she measures me up from top to the bottom, like this. And she said, “Oh my gosh, and he already put on American clothes?” (LAUGHTER BY BOTH)
PRINCE: She was as ignorant as I was yesterday. But it just looked so modern. It didn’t look like…
FLAKS: I want you to know the fashions reached Riga, you hear, just as fast as only the train or planes – we didn’t have – oh yes, we had little planes there. But it was the same thing.
PRINCE: I know.
FLAKS: We had phones in every home – just about in every home. We didn’t have television, but neither did the Americans have.
PRINCE: Hyman, why do you think we are – why do you think our feelings are that way?
FLAKS: I’ll tell you why our feelings are that way, very simple. You see, the people that came from Europe, a lot of them came from smaller towns, smaller communities, or even the larger communities, and they still had the impression that Europe is the same as it was 50 years ago, but it isn’t. You know, you go, for instance, to Israel – you think it’s an ancient land. Yes, there is some antiquities in the museums and some excavations. Otherwise, it’s as modern as here.
PRINCE: Now, I’m glad that I mentioned that, even if it showed my ignorance again, but it brought out a…
FLAKS: No, no, no, it’s not a question of ignorance.
PRINCE: Well, (OVERTALK)
FLAKS: No, it’s not ignorance.
PRINCE: A stereotype?
FLAKS: Well, it’s conceptual. You know, there are conceptions. You know, you picture that’s the way it was and you glorify it a little bit. Now, for instance, you probably heard the word shtetl.
PRINCE: Um-hum.
FLAKS: Okay, that’s a little town. Now, what was a shtetl? A shtetl was as big that if a horse and buggy would go in, the nose of the horse would be at one end and the back wheels would be at the other, and in the middle it was a big mud puddle. But, oh, the life in a shtetl was wonderful! They had dirt floors. To make it clean they’d sweep it up and put some fresh sand on the floor. That was a beautiful shtetl, you know. But those are concepts that live on and on, but they progress too.
PRINCE: All right. I think we’ll stop for today. Is that all right with you?
FLAKS: Fine with me.
PRINCE: Okay, thank you so much.

Tape 2 - Side 1

This is “Sister” Prince and this is May 13, 1986 and I’m with Hyman Flaks for our second interview, and Hyman has brought some pictures and we’re going to look through the album right now.
FLAKS: These pictures are of the year 1937, ’38, when I was in the Latvian army, and as you will note, those are the barracks and those are the parade grounds. I was in the artillery, as you can…
PRINCE: And this was in Riga?
FLAKS: This was in Riga, that’s right. Well, it wasn’t exactly in the center of town, it was on the outskirts. The barracks were rather comfortable, of course clean.
PRINCE: They’re very dapper looking.
FLAKS: Yes, yes, yes.
PRINCE: The uniforms and the helmets. You can tell that they’re First World War.
FLAKS: Yes, this is all First World War vintage and of course even the cannons were First World War. Now, this happens to be a French cannon and that happens to be a British cannon because they did not manufacture anything themselves, and the motorcycle was the commander. And we did not walk; we were traveling in trucks. Now, then during the time when I was in the army, they changed to a German type helmet because these were French type, because they believed this would protect a soldier more. These are all actual shots of actual…
PRINCE: They are wonderful.
FLAKS: …cannon going off.
PRINCE: And that’s what you were a part of?
FLAKS: Well, I happen (LAUGHTER) to be this fellow here.
PRINCE: There you are.
FLAKS: With a back, a beautiful back.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) You’re sitting up very straight.
FLAKS: Yeah, well, this was actually the moment of shooting when the rifle recoils after this fellow pulled the – we were doing some…
PRINCE: Maneuvers?
FLAKS: Calculations. No, yeah, maneuvers. We were doing some calculations that are necessary in – this is on a country road, as you can see, a dirt road. This is on a parade. And then I became a bugler.
PRINCE: Is that you?
FLAKS: That is me, yes.
PRINCE: Hyman, you were handsome.
FLAKS: And I became a bugler. We had one guy with a harmonica. This guy had a pet cat and this is me, right here. Now, it’s very interesting that…
PRINCE: Wonderful.
FLAKS: …I was Jewish, this guy was Russian, this guy was Lithuanian, and these were Latvians. So it was, it was sort of a cosmopolitan crowd. This is again, this is me.
PRINCE: My goodness.
FLAKS: Regular uniform. As a bugler that was part of my regalia there.
PRINCE: Look at your eyes. You were…Let me see you. There you are…
FLAKS: Same eyes about 50 years older.
PRINCE: Thank you for bringing these.
FLAKS: Now, this is high school days, and, believe it or not, that’s a Chevrolet. (LAUGHTER BY BOTH)
PRINCE: From where?
FLAKS: 50, 50 years ago. I mean, you had 50 years ago in America the same kind of Chevrolets. You see, we were skiing. That was in the winter. Now, as you will note, those are pine trees, full of pine trees.
PRINCE: Now these are just…
FLAKS: Schoolmates, high school.
PRINCE: Were they non-Jews?
FLAKS: No, no, no, those were – well, I attended a Jewish school. I attended a Jewish school. This is again me, and this is now going into our city. Now, Riga, as I told you before, was a port and a lot of big ships used to come in. Now this happened to be, I believe, the Pulsutsky, which was a Polish liner that plied the Atlantic from Europe to America.
PRINCE: It looks like a luxury liner.
FLAKS: Well yes, it was a regular passenger, big passenger boat you know, that went across the Atlantic. Sure, I mean in those days there was no air traffic across the Atlantic and those were the boats that carried the passengers and immigrants and who not. This happens to be the – it was the – well…(OVERTALK) Well, that was the president’s – we’ll have a little bit better look at another picture. That’s where the president of the country lived. Now this is just on the banks of the Dvina River.
PRINCE: Who was the president then? Do you remember?
FLAKS: His name was Olmanis. This was a pontoon bridge went across the river. We had a very interesting contraption there in the middle of the river. Now in the winter this was taken out. The Dvina froze over. This was taken out, put in the bay, in a sheltered bay. In the middle of the river you could walk down steps into a big swimming pool that was in the middle of the river. Now it was a structure that was anchored in the river and it had like a – well, I don’t know what they call it – a false bottom or something like that. But that was on chains on the bottom. So it wasn’t all the way down to the bottom of the river. And it was pretty big. And all around they had little cabins where you could change your clothes…
PRINCE: Like a floating island.
FLAKS: …and showers. Yeah, it was like a floating swimming pool. And that was in the summer as part of the recreation program of the city. And these little boats plied back and forth, you know, carrying passengers across.
PRINCE: It must have been very pretty.
FLAKS: It was very, very pretty. And these are streetcars.
PRINCE: Streetcars, right.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: And you have both. You have trucks, you have streetcars, you have horse and buggies.
FLAKS: That’s right, exactly, exactly, exactly.
PRINCE: It probably was the same with the people. You had modern, you had more old fashioned…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You see, the thing is this, I mean, in those days, you know, the automobile wasn’t as prevalent. There it was costlier and it wasn’t as prevalent, so this was the means of – now here’s a truck for instance, you see. But by the same token, this is – here’s another truck.
PRINCE: A little of each.
FLAKS: Now here is a passenger car.
PRINCE: What year was this taken? This is where you were skiing?
FLAKS: This was taken in 1932.
PRINCE: Oh my.
FLAKS: Now this is – they called it a – well here it’s a commerce…a high school…
PRINCE: That’s like city hall.
FLAKS: No, it’s a high school.
PRINCE: That’s a high school – oh, it’s magnificent.
FLAKS: That was a high school, what they called a commercial high school because basically there were two tracks there. The one was the academic and the other was the commercial. But studies were six days a week anyway and six hours a day, no study halls.
PRINCE: Six hours. When did you start?
FLAKS: From about 8:30 to about 3:30.
PRINCE: Did you stop for lunch?
FLAKS: Yeah, yeah. There was about an hour with small recesses and a lunch recess, about an hour.
PRINCE: Did you bring your lunch or did you eat…
FLAKS: No, no, we brought our lunches, we brought our lunches. This was a magnificent building.
PRINCE: It looks like it.
FLAKS: This is the Dvina River. Now the boat was tied up right here, that big boat, you see? This is the presidential residence and that’s the presidential standard.
PRINCE: It looks like Venice.
FLAKS: Now those are some real – no, those were apartment buildings here. Those are very old churches and they were Lutheran churches.
PRINCE: It’s, it’s – I was about to say that they had a – it looks to me like a Russian influence…
FLAKS: No, no, no…
PRINCE: …because of that little thing on the top.
FLAKS: No, this is more Hanseatic. This is more German. This is the main post office.
PRINCE: Beautiful, a beautiful building.
FLAKS: This is one of the parks. This is opera house. This is a bus and the other are cabs.
PRINCE: And there are the men and women in their suits and dresses. (LAUGHTER)
FLAKS: That’s right, exactly…exactly. There’s a couple of buses right here too, and here is a horse and buggy and a car. So, we had them all. This is the national theatre. That was a, you know, for dramatic…
PRINCE: Were these buildings destroyed or – during the war.
FLAKS: I really can’t tell. I know this stands. Now, the others I really don’t know. This is the conservatory – musical conservatory.
PRINCE: And this is…
FLAKS: This is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Now, that’s Byzantine.
PRINCE: It’s beautiful.
FLAKS: This is a hotel.
PRINCE: Oh my heaven, it looks like a palace.
FLAKS: This is a hotel.
PRINCE: Well then – sure, being on the sea – was it a resort town also – a resort city, rather?
FLAKS: No, the city was city but about 20 miles away was a tremendous resort area and this is the beach. These are the beaches.
PRINCE: Did you like to swim?
FLAKS: Yeah, it was lovely. Now this is a – this picture was taken in 1930.
PRINCE: Okay, let me see. Is this you and your friends…or at school?
FLAKS: No, it’s at school. It’s a school picnic.
PRINCE: Do you know where you are?
FLAKS: Of course, right here.
PRINCE: One of the bigger boys.
FLAKS: That’s right. (OVERTALK) I would never hide behind anyone.
PRINCE: So, 1930 that was.
FLAKS: 1930. This is my grandfather.
PRINCE: Oh my.
FLAKS: That’s it.
PRINCE: That’s it. Oh, thank you so much. They’re really – I’m learning something.
FLAKS: And by the way, I think that the other was…my bedroom too.
PRINCE: It looks like it could be. (LAUGHTER) Thank you, thank you.
FLAKS: Okay. Now this is – this is the book that I was showing you before about…
PRINCE: The Jews in Latvia.
FLAKS: But that goes back to the very beginning when we talked about 1690-1700.
PRINCE: Well, I’d love to take it and look at it. I’d like to begin today by…
FLAKS: Well, you want me to pick up where I left off?
PRINCE: Would you like to?
FLAKS: Frankly, I believe it was with my coming to St. Louis.
PRINCE: Well, we digressed a little bit because we talked about the concept of how we felt about modern Latvia. (OVERTALK) What I would like to do is to go back. We have to catch up before we get to America.
FLAKS: Okay.
PRINCE: We want to talk about the rumblings and the beginning of what you heard about the war and the beginning of it. I think…we’ve left you probably in the army. You went in at – you went in twice.
FLAKS: Well, yes, I…
PRINCE: And you talked about the army. So we want to get into the part where it’s before the war, leading up to it, what you heard, how people were feeling about it. What was going on – the fear. What did it have to do with Jews?
FLAKS: As I have said before, life in Latvia was good. It was good for everybody. And it was good for Jews. Usually if it’s good for everybody, it’s good for Jews. When things turn bad, then people start looking for a scapegoat. Why, why is it getting bad, or why do we have troubles or whatever it is, and you look for a scapegoat. Now, historically Jews have been the scapegoats in many other countries and just a repetition – antisemitism and its consequences. Now, life was good and Jews were engaged in just about every endeavor that there was, and the fact that – to me the most impressive thing in showing that life was good was that the Jews did not want to leave.
Now, Hitler came to power in 1933, and in 1933 Jews started to leave Germany. In Poland there were waves of antisemitism before people wanted to leave Poland. Now a good number of German Jews and likewise Polish Jews, but German Jews mostly, came to Latvia and found a haven there. Now to some it was just a temporary stop on the way to America or to England. Very few went to Scandinavia, to Sweden or Norway. They had very rigid immigration laws. Now – but the Latvian quota – see, coming to the States, one could come to the States either as a visitor on a temporary visa if guarantees would be given. And sometimes guarantees were in the form of some American signing for it that the individual is going to go back as a visitor.
That’s how my wife came to the United States, as a visitor. She graduated high school and she was given – actually with her it wasn’t – it was sort of a normal thing. They were wealthy people, so she was given as a graduation present a trip to the United States. In ’39 was a World’s Fair in New York and she happened to have relatives there, a family. She had an uncle, her father’s brother. So, she came as a visitor to the World’s Fair. Of course, within less than a year the war broke out, so she couldn’t go back. But, really, there was no intention for her to go and not to come back because the whole family was there. If anybody wanted to go – they could have all gone. They had the means to go – someplace.
Now, my family did not have the means. My father passed away in 1933 and my mother was working. I was working and going to school, so we did not have the means, you know, to get ourselves out of the country for money or with money. Anyway, the fact is, however, that up to 1938 the Latvian quota was open.
PRINCE: And anybody could come in.
FLAKS: And anybody that wanted to immgrate to the United States, as long as he was born within the borders of Latvia, that’s how the immigration laws were set up. Whatever they permitted to enter, whether it was 100 or 50 or 75 a year, whatever it was, it was open. An aunt of mine, in 1938, walked into the American Consulate and – by the way, the Consul’s name was Washington – and she got her visa immediately, just on application.
PRINCE: Just on application.
FLAKS: Just on application, right. She had an affidavit from America and she got…
PRINCE: From a relative?
FLAKS: From a relative and she got it on application. Now…
PRINCE: There was something about if you were not likely to become a public charge.
FLAKS: Yes, yes, of course. That was, you see, that you would not become a public charge. That was, a…that was the law. In those days you see, we didn’t have all these welfare programs, and to me the most – well, I don’t know whether I’m digressing but…
PRINCE: Digress. I’ll bring you back.
FLAKS: To me the most amazing thing was that when I came to the United States, you didn’t need a passport. As a matter of fact, you didn’t need anything. You didn’t need a social security card if you were not working. You were not a number.
PRINCE: Strange.
FLAKS: And actually, you were a nobody because you see, you could go in. Well, even today you can go into a hotel and you can say your name is John Smith and you sign up that way. And as long as you pay cash and you don’t have to give them a credit card, they aren’t going to ask for any doucments.
PRINCE: Well see, talking to you right now sounds like getting out of certain places was so easy, and yet for some it was…
FLAKS: No, no, I’ll tell you – see, it was easy…
PRINCE: …so hard. I want that verified.
FLAKS: That’s right. Now, for instance, let’s say a German refugee, a refugee from Germany would come to Riga and want to go to America. He would be on the German quota. He wouldn’t be on the Latvian quota. But for a native of Latvia who was born in Latvia, it was easy, up to ’38, and I know – personally I know three people who went to America and came back to perish in the Holocaust.
PRINCE: Why did they stop it? Why did they make it so difficult after ’38 when the need was so great?
FLAKS: Ah, after ’38, you know, people started to run.
PRINCE: And so they were afraid there would be too many?
FLAKS: It filled up…no.
PRINCE: It’s just that the quotas were filled up?
FLAKS: You mean American government?
PRINCE: Uh-huh.
FLAKS: That’s an old; that’s a long story. I mean, there are many accusations. Even a lot of people are accusing Roosevelt of some not very nice things, you know. When people – people tried to get into America, some boats were turned back. There was a movie made of – of…
PRINCE: Right, “Ship of Fools.”
FLAKS: That’s right, so, you know, they went to Cuba. Cuba wouldn’t let them in and then they, after waiting, maybe they would let them into America and then when a small group came in, they sent them to a camp in Oswego…
PRINCE: I just wanted to bring it up because it was…
FLAKS: But, anyway, let’s get back to…(OVERTALK) So people really did not strive to leave the country because life was good. Of course, everybody had to go to the army. So, I went to the army and – but then in ’38, after – especially after Czechoslovakia, after the Munich Pact, a lot of people saw the handwriting on the wall. And of course listening – almost everybody had a radio – so, hearing Hitler’s speeches and Goebbel’s pronouncements and all the others, you know. And then when Stalin made his pact with – when Molotov met with Ribbentrop and they made their agreement dividing up Poland, then people already saw that things are not looking good at all and some people tried to go. However, a lot of people, and actually – well now, I can’t say most – but a lot, lot of people who could have gotten out one way or another, they did not want to leave. In the first place, look…they lived there, the families lived there for generations. It wasn’t like, you know, you just came there a couple of years ago. Their great-grandparents lived there. They were deeply rooted. They had their possessions there. And, you know, the thought was, “Look, a lot of people lived through World War I and they survived. So they were evacuated, it was this, it was that.”
I mean, nobody in their wildest imagination would think that something like a total destruction of a people would take place. I mean, they would catch the people in the street and because they were Jews, they would shoot them, tear them apart, send them to concentration camps. Now we already, I mean, things started to get uglier as it was getting closer to my departure, and you see what happened was – and then we saw already the viciousness. And some people still didn’t want to believe it and they thought, “Well, it will blow over, it will blow over.”
PRINCE: I’d like to personalize this a little bit. I’d like to…
FLAKS: Now, let me give you my own, from my own again personal experience. You see, what happened was this. When Russia made a pact with Germany, they agreed. They sort of divided their zones of influence. And part of Poland they agreed that that should go to Hitler. Some part would be left for Russia. The Baltic States were left under the Russian influence. Now, what did Hitler do? They issued a decree that all the Latvians – rather the Latvian citizens of German descent…

Tape 2 - Side 2

PRINCE: Okay, say that last sentence again. The Germans of Latvian descent…
FLAKS: The Latvians of German descent – now that could go two, three generations back, four generations back. And a lot of them had these generations behind them because they came from Prussia. Now, and no matter what one’s station in life was, no matter what it was, you had to drop everything and go to Germany. Now, that included everybody. Now there was, for instance – and they assured them that once they get to Germany or wherever they will be sent, they will be restored back to their status.
PRINCE: This was a law, a decree?
FLAKS: For the Germans, that was part of the agreement. Now, Latvia was – though Latvia was not Russia, but this was sort of as a order to the Germans. Now, if one was let’s say a dentist…
PRINCE: An order?
FLAKS: It was an order from the German government though they did not have jurisdiction over Latvia, because it was part of this whole agreement, so everybody had to follow that. Now if one was in the army – for instance when I was in the army, the second time, my top sergeant was a German. I mean, of German descent. They let him go and he had to go. If somebody was, let’s say a dentist, they took him either to Danzig or Gdansk which was in the Polish corridor and they took away the apartment and office of a Polish dentist and they could move in there. That was it.
PRINCE: Now this had nothing to do with being Jewish. This was…
FLAKS: This was not Jewish, that’s right.
PRINCE: What if it was a German Jewish…?
FLAKS: Well, if somebody – well, of course, it was Jewish, there was no question about it, but they would do even to a Polish doctor, they would take away his…
PRINCE: No, no, no, I mean if you were of German descent, if this had to do with Jews and non-Jews.
FLAKS: No, no, no, no, no. No, that was only Aryans.
PRINCE: Oh, only Aryans.
FLAKS: Only Aryans. No, no, no, no, no. Only Aryans.
PRINCE: Only Aryans.
FLAKS: Right. So what they would do is as I said, they would transport them and settle them in Silesia which is part of…
PRINCE: Upper Silesia…
FLAKS: Upper Silesia, which was Germanized. So, they would just throw the Polish people out, out of their apartments or stores and, “Here, this is yours now.”
PRINCE: So, bringing all the Germans into one.
FLAKS: Yeah. Now, they went so far as to not only take the general population, they went to the hospitals, they went to the insane asylums, they went to the jails.
PRINCE: And they took the insane Aryans?
FLAKS: Right, that’s right. They put them on a boat. Those they transported by boat. They took them out in the Baltic Sea and they sank the boat. Now, to me this was as far as I was concerned and the circles I was in, this was an indication, you know, that these people were not humans. I mean, they’ll do something like this. And they can do anything.
PRINCE: What were they doing to the Jews at this time?
FLAKS: In Latvia, the Jews could still live peacefully.
PRINCE: No ordinances, no…
FLAKS: No ordinances. There were – I’ll tell you, there were some, for instance – a Jew for instance had great difficulties getting into universities.
PRINCE: At this time.
FLAKS: At this time. Though the Jews had their own educational system which was supported by the government. As I said, the dictator was a benevolent dictator, you see. They wouldn’t catch Jews in the street, though sometimes they’d beat them up. But this was hooliganism. It was just plain hooliganism. Now, for instance…
PRINCE: You did not – excuse me – you did not have like the Arrow Cross or the Iron Guard that Romania…
FLAKS: Well, we had, we had such an organization; it was like a home guard, a home guard, but…
PRINCE: But the others were antisemitic…
FLAKS: Well, but they did not – they were really – there was nothing that, you know, that we felt we could move – I mean, ’til the day I left we could move around freely and we could travel and we could…
PRINCE: Your fear was not from Latvia, it was from Germany.
FLAKS: No, my – what do you mean?
PRINCE: Was the fear that you felt.
FLAKS: The fear was from Germany.
PRINCE: From Germany, not Latvia.
FLAKS: Of course, it was so close; that’s right. Who knows what’s gonna happen?
PRINCE: But not from your own people.
FLAKS: No, from our own people we did not fear, though later when the Germans came in, Latvians did a pretty good job, you know, of killing the Jews, of pointing out to the Germans who was Jewish.
PRINCE: What was your first inclination that you – that it was really going to be difficult for the Jews?
FLAKS: Well, look…
PRINCE: Your personal…
FLAKS: My own personal, my own, look – I…
PRINCE: What were you doing in your family? What were you talking about when you got home at night? What – how were people reacting?
FLAKS: Look…
PRINCE: Your friends…
FLAKS: Look, people lived a normal life to the day I left. Of course, it was the talk of the town. The war was on already when I left. Was ’40, it was March ’40, so already you know the lowlands were overrun and the Maginot Line was gone and, of course you know, we had radios, we heard everything. We could hear the news, if somebody understood French, we could hear the news from France. If we knew German, we could hear from Germany. If we knew…Poland was gone already, you see. From Russia you know, was in Russian, so we could…
PRINCE: You knew that there were concentration camps in Germany?
FLAKS: Well, we knew that something – so that there are some internment camps. But again, you know – look, in any war there are internment camps.
PRINCE: And you lived in the part of the world where this had happened.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: Pogroms?
FLAKS: Pogroms, you know, that’s right.
PRINCE: “This too would pass?”
FLAKS: That’s exactly – that’s exactly what it is. Nobody, nobody thought that such a calamity would happen.
PRINCE: It’s different talking – living through it and talking about it.
FLAKS: Listen, let me tell you something. I got out of high school. I went to the university. I applied to go to the university. I had my Jewish education parallel. Then I applied to the university. Now, it wasn’t easy. I would have to be a very good student. It was a competitive test. It was like a five-hour test. And, according to grades. If the grades were equal, a non-Jew would get preference. But if your grades were superior, you got in somehow. Medical school was the worst, of course. A lot of people used to go broke for medical school. That was for years, medical school was really the worst. I mean, they had a certain number of Jews that they would take and period; that’s it.
PRINCE: Oh, always.
FLAKS: Always. Well, that was sort of – that was a benign antisemitism.
PRINCE: Okay. So, what made you decide to go?
FLAKS: What made me decide to go? That’s a very interesting question. I had an uncle who lived in St. Louis. He was there in 1936 and he told me he thinks that I should come to America.
PRINCE: He wrote you?
FLAKS: Oh no, he was there.
PRINCE: He was there and came to visit.
FLAKS: Yeah. He said, “I will send you an affidavit; you come to America.” Well, you know, America always has an attraction. All right.
PRINCE: You were about 20, 20…
FLAKS: I was 21 but then I had to go to the army. Once you’re in the army you can’t go to America. So I had to wait until I’m out. By the time I was out, the quota was closed. When the quota opened in January of 1940, I mean, my number came up. It didn’t – I’m sorry, the quota didn’t open but my number came up. My number came up.
There was no – there were already difficulties, physical difficulties of getting out. Why – because the Bay of Riga was frozen over. Besides, the boats that went through with some ice breakers to Sweden were intercepted by the Germans. The Jews were taken off and taken to Stettin. So there was only one way actually open to go, completely open, which was to fly to Sweden. It was just the beginning of the air traffic and the other way was to go with a trans-Siberian train all the way across Russia to Vladivostok with a boat to Japan and from Japan to San Francisco. Those were the options. Normally from Riga would be from Riga to France, to Cherbourg or to Le Havre, take one of the big trans-Atlantic boats and go to New York in six days. Now, to go by the trans-Siberian railroad, that was a whole week on the train.
PRINCE: Well, what led up to it? Did you think about it for a long time or did you always know…
FLAKS: Well, look, look, look, while I was in the army, well there was…there was no tomorrow. I mean, you were just in the army – that’s it. You have to finish the army and…
PRINCE: And how long was that – two years?
FLAKS: No, 18 months. And then when I was mobilized, when the war broke out, then of course you know where you’re at and I was mobilized on the 12th of September, 1939, and about January I found out that my quota number is up and I can go. And at that time there was already difficulties getting out because you had no where to go. There was no means of transportation except to fly to Sweden or to go by way of Russia.
PRINCE: And you were in the army.
FLAKS: No, no, no, when I was out of the army. You see, I was let out at the end of December.
PRINCE: But I thought you said they mobilized you.
FLAKS: They mobilized me the 12th of September and let me go for Christmas of 1939. My category was released and other categories were mobilized.
PRINCE: Excuse me, why would they let you go if the war had just started?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you why, because, you see, Latvia could not fight anymore. It was like, you know, being in the Latvian Army was like playing soldiers.
PRINCE: And you were caught between the Germans and the Russians.
FLAKS: That’s right. And we were afraid, you see – when I was mobilized…
PRINCE: And who were you going to fight?
FLAKS: You know, you know what was our job? Our job was to watch the interned Polish soldiers that ran away, were running away, running faster than the Germans were chasing them. They didn’t put up any resistance. I mean, the whole army was rotten to the bone.
PRINCE: That’s very – I’m learning.
FLAKS: It’s the truth…the truth. So what could Latvia do? I mean, it was as I said, “playing soldiers.” So then what happened, I got out of the army and I figured, “All right, now I’m out of the army, but how do you go and get to America?” There was no way. In the first place, I had a ticket that was sent to me. I couldn’t buy a ticket, couldn’t afford it, so a ticket was sent to me by my uncle on the Cunard Line; but that boat I was supposed to go on was already a troop ship.
PRINCE: A troop ship.
FLAKS: And besides, I couldn’t get across Lithuania, the corridor, which was already German. Germany, from France – and the lowlands to France because that was all war zone. So, the only way was to go by way of Sweden or Siberia.
PRINCE: You flew to Sweden?
FLAKS: Well, it wasn’t so easy either because, you see what happened was that, in the first place, I had to have another boat ticket on a Swedish Trans-Atlantic line. So, telephones in those days weren’t as accessible as now, so I wired my uncle. He sent me a ticket on a Swedish line.
PRINCE: You had – how many brothers and sisters?
FLAKS: One.
PRINCE: Just one. One…
FLAKS: One sister, yes. Now you see, so what happened was…
PRINCE: Sorry, I forgot.
FLAKS: …so I got my second ticket on a Swedish line. Now was a question of flying to Sweden. Tickets were sold already through July and that was in March. So finally what happened is they arranged – and on top of it – see, to go you have to get a passport and I was just out of the military. I applied for a passport and they turned me down.
PRINCE: On what grounds?
FLAKS: On any grounds. See, in America you can go and ask them why and that is America. See, in America you have rights and you can yell your head off. There some bureaucrats cross with a red pencil and that’s it.
PRINCE: Okay, so they turned you down.
FLAKS: They turned me down. All right, so I had some connections, I had some connections and I finally got my passport for two weeks only. I had to leave the country in two weeks. So, lucky enough – I mean, you talk about miracles, you know, in our days. I just can’t describe it in any other way except that this was a miracle. It so happened that the shipping company in Sweden and the airline that’s all one company. So for that boat trip they arranged some special planes to come in flying from Stockholm to Riga to pick up the passengers and immediately take off and go back and on a Thursday I was told that on Friday I have to be at the airport to leave.
PRINCE: How did your mother take all of this?
FLAKS: Well, look, it was a question – you see the reason why I, not my sister, my mother figured, “Well, with women they are not going to be so rough.” I mean, the men, who knows what’s going to do, what’s going to happen. It’ll be an army; it will be on the front, so the man has to be saved first. At that time it was already a matter of rescue, and I figured, all right, whatever. As soon as I come here I’ll start earning some money and I’ll be able to get them out. So that’s the situation, that’s how – that’s to the boat and then once we got to Sweden, we had to spend a week in Sweden, not because we wanted but that’s when they took us out from Riga and the boat was scheduled to leave on a certain date.
PRINCE: How’d you feel leaving Latvia?
FLAKS: I waved goodbye. You see, essentially – now I’m looking back. I really don’t know whether – I don’t think I had real attachments because I, up to age 13, I wasn’t there, so actually anywhere from ’28 to ’40, 12 years. But they were very good years of my life. I can truthfully say so.
PRINCE: Did you, did you…
FLAKS: But you go to the promised land, you go to America.
PRINCE: Did you ever feel like you had more allegiance to Russia than you did to Latvia?
FLAKS: No, I never had any allegiance to Russia.
PRINCE: I thought that was where you did live.
FLAKS: Well, I lived until age 13, I mean, you know, a kid…what allegiance does a kid up to age 13 – and besides you know with the Communism, what kind of allegiance would you have to it?
PRINCE: How did you feel about leaving your mother and sister?
FLAKS: Well, that was a difficult situation. On a personal level it was a difficult situation. But again, you know, you run away from a fire.
PRINCE: And your mother tells you to go.
FLAKS: And my mother tells me to go and sister tells you to go.
PRINCE: All right. Tell me about the trip over. Who…what kind of people were on the boat, the ship?
FLAKS: The ship was a Swedish boat.
PRINCE: What was the name of it?
FLAKS: Drottningholm. To spell it, I’d have to write it out first.
PRINCE: We’ll do that later.
FLAKS: And it was a comparatively long trip. We were almost two weeks on boat because we went all the way north, we went through the most beautiful scenery in the world…
PRINCE: Before we get out of this…
FLAKS: …which is the Norwegian fjords.
PRINCE: I have some questions I just thought of. I don’t want to lose them either. We talked about leaving Latvia; we talked about leaving your mother. What about your friends? Did you have a dog or anything like that?
FLAKS: No.
PRINCE: Your friends, did they, were they…
FLAKS: Well I’ll tell you. One of my close friends went to America before me.
PRINCE: Were they envious? Were they, in the way that they felt you were getting out of something that they…
FLAKS: No, I don’t think that there was any – look, what’s there to be envious about?
PRINCE: Well, saving your life.
FLAKS: I know, but, you know – I really don’t know. I don’t think there was any kind of an envy. I mean, you know, some people…
PRINCE: Well, wishing they could do it too.
FLAKS: Oh yes, yeah, of course. I mean everybody wished they could do it but when we parted, says, “Well, see you in America.”
PRINCE: I’m trying to gauge the fear.
FLAKS: The fear of the people?
PRINCE: The fear of the people that were left.
FLAKS: Well, you know, I’m going to tell you something. Again, I have to emphasize – you see, the people did not – you see, back in Poland they experienced fear. We in Latvia did not experience any fear, you see. And there’s always the thought, “Look, Switzerland is a small country, you know, and they somehow left her alone, and maybe, maybe something will happen.”
PRINCE: There was a lot of denial going on.
FLAKS: What do you mean?
PRINCE: Denial – it won’t happen here.
FLAKS: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right, that’s exactly you see – that’s exactly. So there wasn’t any, there wasn’t any inbred fear that you were afraid, you know, of walking the streets, of doing things, and…
PRINCE: Nothing had happened.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: Okay, all right. Tell me about the people on the boat.
FLAKS: On the boat it was a mixed group of people, a mixed group of people. What they did to me something which I had no control over, they took both tickets. The company took both tickets and they put me in first class which by no means did I wish or desire or wanted it. So, I was sort of in a exclusive company. There were 150 passengers first class and the tourist class had about 700, 650. Well, no, no, I mean, the conditions even in tourist class weren’t bad because I would say probably 75 or more percent of the boat was tourist class.
PRINCE: Did you share a room?
FLAKS: Yeah, I shared a room. I shared a room with a fellow from Rockford, Illinois. His name was Mueller. He was a Swede who came to visit his family, was going back home. He spoke English and Swedish. I didn’t speak neither English nor Swedish, so we sort of signs communicated.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) Did you ever contact him?
FLAKS: No, we couldn’t communicate. I wouldn’t ask him for the address or anything like this. We couldn’t communicate.
PRINCE: Yeah, I mean…because you speak English beautifully.
FLAKS: Well, I learned it here. I did not know any. I really did not know any of the language. My – actually my spelling, and…if you ask me anything about grammar – my wife always laughed. She said, “It’s atrocious.”
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) So are most Americans, though.
FLAKS: But somehow, you know, the ear catches is this – somebody says something wrong and the ear will catch it.
PRINCE: Was there anything outstanding on the boat that comes to mind, that has to do with – were there Germans on the boat?
FLAKS: Well, there were Jews, there were German Jews on the boat.
PRINCE: Well, was there…
FLAKS: I’ll tell you who was on the boat.
PRINCE: Who?
FLAKS: Gloria Swanson was on the boat.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) I’m working so hard to get certain information and you come up with movie stars.
FLAKS: And since I traveled first class (LAUGHTER), I didn’t sit at the captain’s table – she did.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) Tell me about Gloria Swanson.
FLAKS: (LAUGHTER) What can I tell you? Later I saw her in a movie, that’s all. (LAUGHTER BY BOTH)
PRINCE: You didn’t even ask her to dance?
FLAKS: No. And it was a – it was a really mixed crowd. I’ll tell you who was on the boat, though that is sort of note in the Jewish circles. There is one of the Hasidic Rabbis, Lubavitch Rebbe. He came on the same boat from Riga.
PRINCE: His name – what was his name?
FLAKS: Schneerson. He lived – he was a sick man and it was an interesting story. He took a nurse with him – it was destined for her to survive and she was supposed to take care of him. He felt wonderful the whole trip and she was as sick as one can be. She just – she was the sickest person on board.
PRINCE: What were the Germans Jews saying?
FLAKS: Nothing, I mean, they were happy they were going to America.
PRINCE: No discussion of what was going on?
FLAKS: No, no, no, no.
PRINCE: That you were aware of?
FLAKS: No.
PRINCE: Okay. Besides Gloria Swanson and the Lubavitch?
FLAKS: We spent a lot of time playing chess, but you see what happened. We went – we had some experiences on the boat. It was smooth sailing the first – the first…the beginning of the trip. We were going through – we went through Skagerak and Kategat, which are the streams between Denmark and the Scandinavian Peninsula, and everybody was afraid that the Germans mined it. So, one night we had to wear these life belts, just the documents with us. And everybody who could shoulder stations were to hang around for the night, you know, close to the life boats and the boat was all lit up like a lantern and we went very, very slowly, very slowly, because it was a neutral boat. So, that was quite an experience. Then we got into the Norwegian fjords. We went all the way north. It was the northern route that we took to avoid submarines and all that stuff.
PRINCE: U-Boats.
FLAKS: Yeah. And we went through the fjords. That was a glorious trip. Then we went as far north as Narvik. That’s way north. And then we turned into the ocean, into the Atlantic. Twice we were stopped by warships. Lucky enough, it was British warships. So, there were moments of anxiety.
PRINCE: All right, so it took you about six days.
FLAKS: To cross? Oh no, 12.
PRINCE: 12 days.
FLAKS: 12 days to cross.
PRINCE: It took me six in 1955, okay.
FLAKS: Of course, they were going for five, six days. What boat did you go on?
PRINCE: The United States.
FLAKS: Sure, that was a fast one.
PRINCE: See, I’m bringing you up to such modern times. What about the few days before you were landing, a day before. You landed in New York?
FLAKS: We landed in New York. We came in five o’clock, shortly – a few minutes before five.
PRINCE: In the morning or the aft –
FLAKS: No, no, no, no – in the evening, and of course, you know, the Statue of Liberty in all its glory, you know.
PRINCE: Well, how did you – what did you think when you saw it?
FLAKS: Oh, it was an exciting experience, an exciting experience. And then we were told that we’ll have to spend the night there anchored because, according to union rules, they don’t unload boats after five o’clock. So we’re…
PRINCE: When you came in to the harbor – I mean, were people standing on the deck, and were they looking at…
FLAKS: Well, of course everybody was looking. I mean, it was an experience which nobody – I mean hardly anybody if somebody wasn’t before in the States. You know, when you haven’t seen any skyscrapers, that sort of is an awing experience.
PRINCE: All right. So you came in…
FLAKS: …standing and looking at all these things. I mean this is, this is what it is. And then we spent the night there and then we got off in the morning and then I spent a week in New York. Then I came to St. Louis.
PRINCE: Wait – you got off and your cousin – did you have to go through customs?
FLAKS: Ah, it was very casual, very casual. We did not go to Ellis Island or anything like that, very, very casual.
PRINCE: Did they look in your suitcases?
FLAKS: Let me tell you something. I had one little suitcase.
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) Did they look in it?
FLAKS: No, they didn’t because there was nothing to look. Like, like a little hand grip, that’s all I was permitted to take along. The only thing is that when I came here, and I don’t know whether I told you this already, that I wanted to go to buy some stamps.
PRINCE: Yes, you told me – we went through that wonderful story about your…
FLAKS: My clothes, you know, my American clothes.
PRINCE: Hyman, it’s probably a difficult subject, but I’d like to talk with you about the communication you had with your mother.
FLAKS: Yeah. We had an exchange of letters for a couple of months. Well, you see what happened, I came in March, end of March.
PRINCE: In ’40.
FLAKS: In ’40. In June the Russians came in by invitation. The Latvian government invited them, you know, just like I would invite the devil in here, the same kind of invitation. They already had bases that they took over in Latvia. They were visible, but not too visible, the Russian Army, but they had naval bases and also army bases established, right, in some of the other ports. They had a camp outside of Riga but they were not too visible. They were great on buying watches so they cleaned out the city of watches that they were short of, probably in Russia, and everybody wanted to buy a Western watch. And, when the Russians came in, then the communication became very…

Tape 3 - Side 1

PRINCE: Okay, and then Russia…
FLAKS: And then Russia declared – I mean Germany invaded Russia and that was it.
PRINCE: That’s June of 1941.
FLAKS: No, no, June of 1941 the Russians came in into Latvia. The Germans invaded Russia later, not too much later – I don’t remember the chronology.
PRINCE: I think it was June ’41.
FLAKS: June ’41? The Russians came in in June, the beginning of…but it was, it was, it was not too far after.
PRINCE: Back to your mother and…
FLAKS: Then there were no communications. Well, that’s it.
PRINCE: That was it.
FLAKS: That was it.
PRINCE: How did you find out eventually what happened to her?
FLAKS: Actually, I don’t have any proof. She just disappeared.
PRINCE: So you really don’t know what happened?
FLAKS: I do not know.
PRINCE: But she knew where you were?
FLAKS: Of course, of course. There are a lot of people like this, you know. I mean, either they killed them in the city or they killed them in the camp or on the way to the camp, or who knows what.
PRINCE: Did you ever go back to Latvia?
FLAKS: No.
PRINCE: Did you ever meet anybody from Latvia after the war who came here?
FLAKS: Of course.
PRINCE: That you had known?
FLAKS: Of course.
PRINCE: That you knew?
FLAKS: Yes.
PRINCE: And they had no…
FLAKS: They had no knowledge of course. Well, my wife’s aunt, as I was telling you, she was there, but she was also evacuated because she married a fellow from Austria so she was an alien from a, you know, not in the country. So, they sent them to, to, to, to some hard labor camps in Siberia.
PRINCE: That must have been very difficult for you.
FLAKS: It was difficult not knowing anything, of course. Now, my wife does not know exactly what happened. She has some indication that they perished in one of the camps in Rumbele.
PRINCE: Her parents?
FLAKS: Yes. A brother too – she has no information. The – I met in Israel a few people who were my contemporaries. They were with me in the army and I couldn’t get any information whatsoever.
PRINCE: Hard to take, hard to take. All right. Now, you’re in New York and here you are young…
FLAKS: That’s right. I was in New York and start looking up, you know, to the skyscrapers. And after a week – spending a week in New York, I came to St. Louis.
PRINCE: And you’ve been here ever since.
FLAKS: And I’ve been here ever since. Got married here, four children were born here, and…
PRINCE: All right. Your education had not been completed over there.
FLAKS: No, my education – my secular education has not been completed, no.
PRINCE: What did you do when you got here, to St. Louis?
FLAKS: Started looking for a job.
PRINCE: Did you live with your uncle?
FLAKS: My…I lived with my uncle until I got married, yes. I was looking for some work, so…of course the main reason for work was so I could get my mother and sister out, you know. That’s what happened. Then, my wife is a – she’s also from Riga. We got married here. She lived in Cleveland. And I’ve known – I knew the family there.
PRINCE: What was it like coming here? You had relatives, but how did the Orthodox community accept or help or…
FLAKS: You know, I’ll tell you – those were the days where there were no agencies to help. The only thing is the Y.M.H.A. on Union Avenue; they had classes of citizenship. And Soldan High School, they had lessons in the English language. This was the help.
PRINCE: That was the help.
FLAKS: That was the help.
PRINCE: When did you become a citizen?
FLAKS: I became a citizen – I became a citizen as soon as – let’s see, what’s the requirement – five years, three years?
PRINCE: I’m not sure. It could have been different then than now.
FLAKS: But I became a citizen just as soon as I could. I applied like a day after I could. And my wife became a citizen by Act of Congress because she was a visitor here and there were two ways to get her to citizenship. One is she would have to leave the country and re-enter it – I mean physically, which means either going to Mexico for a day and taking the train back, or into Canada.
PRINCE: Yeah, I’ve heard about that.
FLAKS: Now, that would be an expense. So, there was another way that you could overstay your legal permit and then you would be detained, actually arrested. And the reason for this was because there were a lot of people like this who married – I was already a citizen, you see, and we had our first child, our daughter. So the child was a citizen and the husband was a citizen. She wasn’t. So they had a mechanism – that was in Truman’s time – that she became a citizen at that time. And there was also another advantage that, you see, by Act of Congress they would just change the entry in the book of her arrival from visitor to immigrant. Then she could apply within three years for citizenship.
PRINCE: Hyman, you came in ’40. Now, when did you begin or when did the people in St. Louis begin to understand the awareness of what was happening…
FLAKS: In Germany?
PRINCE: In Germany, or in the rest of Europe, to the Jews?
FLAKS: Well, the thing is this – that at that time already there was information. I would say that this was probably…
PRINCE: I’m talking about in a personal way, for you in St. Louis.
FLAKS: In a personal way, well, you know, we started – our anxiety, let’s put it this way – our anxiety became real in 19…I would say, ’42. I would say in ’42 the anxiety became real.
PRINCE: Because of the things you were hearing or the things that you weren’t hearing?
FLAKS: That’s right, because of the things we were and because of the things we weren’t hearing. Now, we, we for instance, were petitioning; we were petitioning Roosevelt they should bomb the camps.
PRINCE: You already were hearing about camps then.
FLAKS: Well, of course, we knew about camps, we knew about Dachau.
PRINCE: Well, Dachau I know, but Dachau was so early.
FLAKS: That’s how we knew about it.
PRINCE: But, did you know about Auschwitz and Treblinka and places like that…(OVERTALK)
FLAKS: Well, places like this, they became sort of the talk of later.
PRINCE: What I’m saying is, when you went to shul, did the rabbi talk about it?
FLAKS: Well, of course. Of course, of course people were talking. They didn’t talk with all the gruesome…
PRINCE: You say, “Of course, of course,” but I lived here and I didn’t hear anything.
FLAKS: No, no, but they were talking – now wait, excuse me, you see the talk wasn’t, we – I mean the talk wasn’t about all the gruesome things. There was a detention camp. All right, but it wasn’t known that there was a slaughterhouse there. I mean, everybody knew of the concentration camp, I mean is not a good place to be at.
PRINCE: But they didn’t know that they were killing people.
FLAKS: But we did not know, we did not know that it was just a slaughterhouse.
PRINCE: But I’m trying to…
FLAKS: You see, stories came back, you know, the behavior of the Nazis in Poland, you know, the way they were shooting women and children in the streets for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Why they would take little children, you know, take them by their legs and, and, and tear them apart. I mean, those stories came back. Again, you know, I’ll tell you, some of the stories were so gruesome and so unhuman that it sort of defied the thought of, “How can that be real,” you see. “How can that be real? How can a human being become such a monster?”
PRINCE: And these stories came in the form of letters because…
FLAKS: They came in the form of letters and then some people, you know – and also personal stories, like…they filtered back. Somebody ran away, or somewhere, somehow…
PRINCE: They weren’t getting out though. People weren’t coming to the United States…
FLAKS: No, no, no, no. And obviously, look, we live in a strange world. We, actually to this day we don’t know what our rations that we are being fed, as far as news is concerned, are. Now you take the story with Waldheim.
PRINCE: Kurt Waldheim?
FLAKS: Yes. Now this morning they announced that there is a professor at North Carolina – Chapel Hills – somewhere – South Carolina?
PRINCE: Chapel Hill is the University of North Carolina.
FLAKS: I think so.
PRINCE: It is. My husband went there.
FLAKS: All right, so they said that this man has evidence that he discovered in those documents that they released finally, that Waldheim was personally responsible for sending 100,000 Italians to concentration camp and many to death. Now you see, where are these documents? They’re all buried…they all come out 20 to 30, 40, 50 years later, you know.
PRINCE: For the sake of the tape, Kurt Waldheim is running for President of Austria.
FLAKS: Oh yes, definitely he’s running, and they’ll probably elect him because, you know, actually the Austrians – I don’t know. I mean, how can one be more antisemitic and one less antisemitic? But, the Austrians are not – the role of the Austrians, let’s put it, wasn’t a very pretty one.
PRINCE: Do you consider yourself a survivor of the Holocaust?
FLAKS: Definitely, definitely.
PRINCE: Do other people consider you that?
FLAKS: Well, I’ll tell you, I’m sort of already like a fixture in St. Louis. I don’t know what they consider. Most of the people don’t even know that I came from Europe. They think I’ve lived here already forever.
PRINCE: If you could change anything…
FLAKS: Ah yes, as far as that goes, I mean I definitely do consider myself as a survivor because my family perished and only by chance, by miracle, that I escaped the gas chamber.
PRINCE: I consider you a survivor.
FLAKS: Definitely, no question about it. It so happened, you know, that it was written somewhere that I’m to live and the vehicle of it would be going to America.
PRINCE: It must make you wonder sometimes, doesn’t it?
FLAKS: Yes it does, yes it does, yes it does. And you know, I’ll tell you something, I also – I also have a strange feeling – we had some Russian Jews, refugees that came now in ’76. By the way, I was in New York yesterday – well, Sunday – yesterday I came back already.
PRINCE: Where…did you see Sharansky?
FLAKS: I did not see him. I got there a little late but we saw the crowd. It was impossible to see him because, you know, the crowd was unreal, was unreal. Anyway, now…
PRINCE: Sharansky was a Jew that – you have to explain for people who will listen to the tape – that was interned by the Russians and imprisoned for nine years for being a dissident.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: Refusenik.
FLAKS: That’s right. And declaring that he’s Jewish and he wants to get out of there.
PRINCE: What a human being.
FLAKS: Yes. Now you see, it’s interesting, I spoke – I spoke last night. There was a gathering at the J.C.C.A. Today in Israel is called Yom Hazikaron. That’s a Day of Remembrance. That day precedes the Day of Independence. Tomorrow is the Independence Day of Israel, 38th year of independence, and the Day of Remembrance is a sad day. It’s remembering all the people who fell in all the wars for the Jewish State and all others who fell in defense of the Jewish people. So, I had to speak and I said, “Well of course, obviously, God – actually God did command the Jews to remember.” We have in the Bible, right in the beginning when the Jews went out of Egypt and when the Amalekites attacked them, when they were totally defenseless and they were refugees running away from slavery. So, it says here that the Jews should always remember what the Amalekites did to them. And, it seems to me that this remembrance has something to do with the survival of the Jews. Like a man like Sharansky. Why did he survive? He survived because he remembered he’s a Jew. He didn’t forget it. If he’d forget it, he’d be all mixed up with everybody else. And that’s why it’s so important to remember the Holocaust.
PRINCE: And to go one step further and to educate.
FLAKS: That’s right, that’s right. Because only by remembering we can prevent a repetition.
PRINCE: If you educate.
FLAKS: That’s right.
PRINCE: Is there anything that I have not asked you that you…
FLAKS: We’ve covered just about all the subjects.
PRINCE: …that you would like to say or…I appreciate.
FLAKS: Well, of course, I mean, needless to say that I’ve lived here 46 years, raised my family and, you know, Jews – ideally, the Jews should be living in Israel because that’s their country. But if they are to live what we call the galut, outside of Israel, America is the best galut the Jews have ever enjoyed.
PRINCE: Yes, as a Jew who was born here, I’m very grateful to my grandfather on one side and my great-grandfather on the other side for coming here. And I’m grateful to you and thank you very much.
FLAKS: Okay.

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