Why did we cry at ‘Eslingena’?

Why did we cry at the close of the musical “Eslingena”? Because we were happy that Andrejs and Ilze stayed together, allowing their love to rise above selfish desires to emigrate to America? Because we recalled just how good life was for some in the Displaced Persons camps? Because we remembered departed friends and relatives, lost forever in the tragedy of the Latvian people?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter why we cried, or that we cried at all. The woman to my left did. She took out a tissue, removed her eyeglasses and wiped away a tear. I wiped away a tear from the outside corner of my right eye, realizing for the first time that that’s where I always get misty. I’m not sure if my daughter felt the same emotion, but I know she enjoyed the show, even singing the refrain as we left the theater: “Eslingena! Eslingena!”

Why did I cry? It wasn’t for the love story that was the underlying theme of “Eslingena.” It wasn’t longing for life in the DP camps, because I was born a decade too late. It was for once again catching a wave in that collective memory we as Latvians share, one that we perhaps too often forget.

We hadn’t ordered tickets for the show until late, after the first three performances had already sold out. But then officials of the 12th Latvian Song Festival in Canada added a fourth performance, which, as it turned out, was to be the premiere, scheduled Friday morning, July 2, in the Isador Bader Theater in Toronto.

I’ll admit I went to the show prepared not to be impressed. My last encounter with a song festival musical wasn’t wonderful. But “Eslingena” convinced me that there’s a great deal of talent on stage and behind the scenes to pull off a good show, one that not only entertains but also gets the audience to think.

A trio of talented singers carried the bulk of the show. Artūrs Rūsis from California, who some might remember from the West Coast Latvian Song Festival’s “Kabarē” show last year, played Andrejs Bērziņš, an ex-Latvian Legionnaire who finds his way to the DP camp at the German town of Esslingen after World War II. Linda Maruta Kronberga, better known as a Toronto-area rock performer, played Laila Ozola, a single woman who becomes Bērziņš’ love interest as he figures he’s lost his girlfriend back in Latvia. And New Yorker Jūlija Plostniece… Wow, what a voice! She played Ilze Krāmena, the missing girlfriend who one day shows up in Esslingen.

Directed by Gunārs Vērenieks, with libretto by Alberts Legzdiņš and Andris Ritmanis and music by Legzdiņš and Lolita Ritmane, “Eslingena” offered the audience a fairly traditional musical. The show had comedy, pathos, a love story and an ultimate message (we Latvians have to stick together). It had a dance number with three couples jitterbugging to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” and a chorus line number of sorts, with Latvian men singing about how they were leaving to work in Britain’s coal mines.

Putting on a musical about the DP camps was a bit risky because not everyone in the audience would have firsthand knowledge of the period. (Most Latvian schools in North America still don’t teach about the DP camps.) In fact, Legzdiņš and Ritmanis used two narrators to weave the historical thread for the audience. Played by Laimonis and Brigita Siliņš, the couple represented Andrejs and Ilze today, having returned for the first time to Esslingen and remembering what it was like in the late 1940s. At times the narration seemed more like a lecture, but it was needed for context.

Stage decoration was sparse, but was aided by a large television screen that showed photographs from the Esslingen camp at the start of each scene. I only wish the screen could have been hidden during performance of the scene, because it just sat there like a big gray rectangle in center stage.

The story of Esslingen as presented in “Eslingena” was fairly objective. We saw the good times and rich cultural environment Latvians had there, but we also saw snippets of the problems: the initial unfriendliness of the local Germans, the efforts by the Soviet government to convince DPs to repatriate, the luck-of-the-draw that sometimes were the decisions officials made about who could emigrate.

“Eslingena” brought to life a bittersweet moment in Latvian history. Their time in Esslingen, as well as in the dozens of other DP camps that dotted Germany and neighboring countries after the war, is remembered by many older Latvians as wonderful. From the stories I’ve heard and read, for those who were young back then it certainly was a wonderful time. But older Latvians may also remember the anxiety of camp life. After all, Esslingen, Hanau, Meerbeck, Wiesbaden, Insula and all the others were only temporary. Leaving—parting—was the goal. But when and where to?

At the end of “Eslingena,” the audience joined hands and, led by the actors and crew, sang again the closing song: “Vai tu vari mani tagad pateikt, Kas mums dzīvē notiks?” Can you tell me now what will become of us? It is a question that is as relevant now as it was in the Esslingen DP camp, and as it has been in much of Latvian history.

We don’t know the answer. That’s why I cried.

Scene from Eslingena

At the end of the musical, the cast of “Eslingena” gathers on stage to reprise the closing song. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

13 thoughts on “Why did we cry at ‘Eslingena’?

  1. Why did we cry? The final words to the final song says it all …. “Vai tu vari mani tagad pateikt, Kas mums dzīvē notiks?” It’s gaining an understanding of the loss our families faced leaving Latvia during the war, an unknown future and unknown “what if’s if Latvia had not been occupied. My parents never really expanded on “life” in the camps, and being a part of this play (I was one of the actors in “Eslingena”) helped realise what people went through. To be a part of the musical, was an expierience i’ll never forget – an honour even. The youngest actress was 6 years old, and the eldest – 88 years young.

    For me, I shed more then a few tears simply from the expierience of togetherness – that 50 Latvians from 4 generations can come together and perfom as one – in the musical “Eslingena” ….. but the final words still haunt me …. “Vai tu vari mani tagad pateikt, Kas mums dzīvē notiks?” This reflects not only on us personally, but as a culture and a nation …..

  2. Please let me know where are the records for the Meerrbeck Camp. Where was registerred if a person married or died there?
    Is it possible to cotnact someone who lived in that camp?

  3. One who lived in some DP camps in the 40’s and early 50’s, I remember how we worried what would happen to us.

  4. Paldies, loti jauka izrade. Latv. tautas vestures dala. So deretu paradit Latvijas latv., kuri maz zin – jeb nezin neka – par beglu nometnem un izcelosanu. Pati atstaju (ar mati Minsteres nometni 1961. g. janvari, Minsteres Latv. gimnaziju beidzu 1960 nometne.
    Ari es butu pateiciga, ja vienu dienu varetu iegadaties video (lietojamu Eiropa) jeb dvd filmu.

    Paldies visiem Esslingenas darba rukiem, Aija Ebdene, Brunis Rubess

  5. I would have liked to see more actual photos of people in Esslingen
    on the background screen even while the action on stage was going on,
    rather than an empty screen. For those of us who remember( even
    slightly) our early childhood in Esslingen, these photos added
    an immense feeling of nostalgia.
    And that is why we cried….how quickly life as gone by

  6. We vistied Meerbeck a few years ago and found that there is a retired German school teacher who has kept excellent records of the DP time there including copies of the Latvain newspaper, photos, etc. For the person who inquired about Meerbeck, I will try to find the name for you.

  7. If you’d like to keep upto date on “ESLINGENA” the musical – please see wwww.eslingena.com

    Esam sadzirdejusi tautas lugumu vel redzet so izradi – jaunakas zinas http://www.eslingena.com

    Paldies visiem, visiem atbalstitajiem!

    Ansambla “Eslingenas” Atbildigais Vaditajs

  8. LATV (LATVIEŠU VIDEO STUDIJA KANĀDĀ) had the exclusive rights to film the play Eslingen at the Toronto Song Festival. We have just finished editing the play and it is available on VHS tape in either PAL or NTSC formats. It will be available in DVD format soon. This is not an advert, this is information only. Feel free to email if you are interested.

  9. Es arī beigās (un arī pa vidam) raudāju :) Vakar noskatījos izrādi Rīgā. Paldies par brīnišķīgo mūziku un visiem tiem sirsnīgajiem cilvēkiem, kas piedalās izrādē. Paldies, ka atbraucāt!

  10. Hi !
    I would very much like to have a DVD of “Eslingena”. How could I purchase it?
    Many thanks,
    Zaiga Arthur, Melbourne, Australia

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