David P. Boder Interviews Valerius Michelson; September 26, 1946; München, Germany

  • David Boder: [In English] Munich, September the 24th, 1946, at the UNRRA University in the Deutsches Museum, a university for displaced students from all over the world; about more than a dozen nationalities.In August 1945, DP students and professors began organizing university courses at the Deutsches Museum DP camp in Munich. The UNRRA University grew out of this initiative, officially opening in February 1946. It was named after the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the international relief agency created by the Allies to assist victims of the war. Michelson was the president of the UNRRA University Students' Union. He helped to define the university as an international institution. He discusses his goals for the university later in the interview. On the history of the university, see Bernhard Zittel, 'Die UNRRA-Universität in München, 1945-1947,' in Archivalische Zeitschrift 75 (1979); Anna Holian, 'Displacement and the Postwar Reconstruction of Education: Displaced Persons at the UNRRA University of Munich, 1945-1948,' in Contemporary European History 17:2 (May 2008); and Nina Bschorr, '"Wir wollten alle so gerne lernen..." Die UNRRA-Universität im DP-Camp Deutsches Museum in München,' in Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung 17 (2008).1 The interviewee is a gentleman, Valerius Michelson...
  • David Boder: [In German] How old are you?
  • David Boder: [In English] 30 years of age, a student at the university, and he is [to Michelson] Lithuanian? Or Latvian? Or... or he is Russian!
  • David Boder: [In Russian] Then perhaps we could continue in Russian?
  • Valerius Michelson: But of course.
  • David Boder: And he will talk to us in Russian [this last sentence was apparently intended in English, but was said in Russian]. Turn around [apparently referring to the microphone]. Take it this way. Mr. Michelson, I should like to ask you [pause] to tell me where you were and what happened to you . . . ehh . . . from the moment either when the war began or when the movement of Soviet armies started towards the west.
  • Valerius Michelson: At that time I was in Estonia.
  • David Boder: Where in Estonia?
  • Valerius Michelson: In the city of Revel. Or Tallinn.Revel is the Russian name for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.2
  • David Boder: Right. And . . . ehh . . . since what time did you live in Revel?
  • Valerius Michelson: I lived [there] since the year '19 [1919].Michelson and his family were part of the substantial Russian émigré community that developed in Estonia after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922, there were approximately 14,000-16,000 unassimilated (i.e., non-citizen) Russian refugees in Estonia. On the history of the Russian emigration, see Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).3
  • David Boder: That means right after the first revolution.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: Did you live there with your parents?
  • Valerius Michelson: I lived together with [words not clear].
  • David Boder: And so in what year . . . ehh . . . did the Soviets come to Revel for the first time?
  • Valerius Michelson: In the year '39.Under the terms of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, Estonia was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence. In September 1939, seeking to make good on its claim to Estonia, the Soviet Union demanded that the Estonian government sign a mutual assistance treaty and allow the Soviets to establish military bases on Estonian soil. The Estonian government felt compelled to accede to this demand. In June 1940, claiming that the Estonian government had not fully complied with the treaty, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Estonia.4
  • David Boder: Good. What happened to you? What were you doing then, and so forth?
  • Valerius Michelson: At the time I lived in Revel and [pause] occupied myself with drawing, et cetera. I was preparing myself to graduate soon from the technical school in Revel.
  • David Boder: Right. You were then a student?
  • Valerius Michelson: I was a student.
  • David Boder: Begin with that. Then you were a student of the technical school in Revel and were near graduation.
  • Valerius Michelson: I was near graduation.
  • David Boder: Well, what happened to you personally, and to your immediate family, when the Soviets arrived in Revel?
  • Valerius Michelson: At first we were waiting for the Soviets, as Russians [pause], and for that reason we were glad about their coming. [Footnote: Estonia belonged to Russia for centuries. It became independent after the first world war, but there were always certain elements, no necessarily communistic, who desired a reunification with Russia.] But [pause] in a very short time we became convinced that there was not much to be especially glad about. My father was the editor of a Russian [language] newspaper in Revel.
  • David Boder: What was the name of the paper?
  • Valerius Michelson: The name of the paper was Freedom of Russia.Freedom of Russia (Svoboda Rossii) was a socialist literary and political newspaper published in from 1919 to 1920. Although Michelson implies that his father's association with the newspaper lasted up to the period of Soviet occupation, in fact he is describing his father's work during the very beginning of the emigration period.5
  • David Boder: [With surprise] In Revel? And it was called Freedom of Russia?
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: How did the Estonians permit such a newspaper? Or what was it? Oh, it was [meant] the freedom of Russia and implied the freedom from the Soviets?
  • Valerius Michelson: No. It was a rather leftist paper.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: But it was 'undercover' and on it were working communists [??].
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: And it was so secretive [unintelligible], my father worked as an economist.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . ehh . . . I specifically mentioned this newspaper because it was of very leftist views.While the political spectrum among Russian émigrés was very broad, most leading émigré institutions were of a monarchist or rightist orientation. Michelson here stresses that the politics of his father's newspaper were outside the mainstream.6 It was constantly under attack [?]. My father was at one time an SR and therefore sympathized with the movement in Russia and thought that, if not directly Bolshevism, then, in any case, the socialist revolution in Russia is necessary.SR: Socialist Revolutionary. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP) was one of the leading socialist parties in Russia in the period leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. Founded in 1901, it grew out of the Russian populist movement and focused on the plight of both peasants and industrial workers under capitalism. In contrast to the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Mensheviks and Bolsheviks), which called for the nationalization of the land, the SRP advocated the socialization of the land: its transformation into public property that would be worked individually by peasant tenants. Socialist Revolutionaries, most notably Alexander Kerensky, held important posts in the Provisional Government formed after the Russian Revolution of February 1917. The SRP won the most seats of any party in the election for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917. However, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 caused a split in the party, with a new left wing siding with the Bolsheviks in calling for a communist revolution. After the Bolsheviks definitively seized power, many members of the mainstream SRP went into exile.7 I was brought up on these same viewpoints, and I always considered myself . . . ehh . . . not a person . . . anyway not . . . ehh . . . of Fascist, nor even capable of capitalistic persuasion. [Pause] In spite of all that, after the arrival of the Soviets in Estonia [pause], in a short time, my father began to experience problems [pause] and at the end . . . the beginning of 1940 . . . upon establishment of a Bolshevik government [these sentences are not clear; the recording is poor] . . .
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: And by the end . . . that is at the beginning of the year '40 . . .
  • David Boder: Right.
  • Valerius Michelson: he was called . . . he was twice called by . . . by the NKVD.The NKVD (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) was the secret police organ of the Soviet Union. Created in 1922, it took over the functions exercised earlier by the Cheka, the state security organization formed by the Bolsheviks shortly after the October Revolution.8
  • David Boder: What is the NKVD?
  • Valerius Michelson: This is . . . ehh . . . uhmm . . . Peoples' Commissariat.
  • David Boder: Soviet police or something?
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . of Internal Affairs of the republic. Some kind of . . . yes, some kind of a Soviet Gestapo. [Chuckle.]
  • David Boder: Intelligence.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: What did they call the GPU?Created in 1922, the GPU (Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie or State Political Directorate) was the state security organization of the Soviet Union and was intermittently part of the NKVD. In 1934, it was succeeded by the Main Directorate of State Security (Glavnoe Upravlenie Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti or GUGB). This is presumably the organization to which Michelson refers.9
  • Valerius Michelson: I don't know. At one time it was called GPU, and then it was renamed. When [that was done] I don't know exactly. At any rate, when they [father and others?] came there, there were [people from] the border forces and some kind of a secret police, et cetera. They were all under the same name, . et cetera. [Pause] And afterwards [pause], in March of the year '41, the father on his way to work in the morning . . . Of course, he did not expect not to return home. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Well . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: He disappeared, and since then I have not had from him any information.Michelson's story about his father, while not strictly speaking true, is likely grounded in fact. According to one obituary for Michelson, his father was the victim of a Stalinist purge (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 5 August 2006). While Michelson's father met his fate in the Soviet Union, purges did take place in Soviet-occupied Estonia. During the first year of occupation, Soviet forces deported or killed some 60,000 persons, under the guise of eliminating "anti-Soviet elements." Although most of the victims were ethnic Estonians, Russian émigré intellectuals and community leaders were also targeted.10
  • David Boder: Neither you nor your mother, nobody?
  • Valerius Michelson: Not I . . . My mother had died already before.
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: And I did not receive any more information.
  • David Boder: Who in your family was [unintelligible]?
  • Valerius Michelson: I had an aunt, who brought me up, [pause] and who managed to leave for Finland. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Did you hear from her [?]?
  • Valerius Michelson: I . . . ehh . . . received a letter from her sent through my cousin in Belgium. I have three [male] cousins who are in Belgium, and through them I have received these letters [about her], because there is no direct communication at present with Finland. [Pause] Well, after that episode, you know, . . . ehh . . . in the fall, rather in the early fall, [pause] in August, at the end of July, at the beginning of August the Germans arrived.The Nazi occupation of Estonia began in July 1941, with German troops reaching Tallinn at the end of August. Michelson's vacillation here may have to do with the fact that he was not in Estonia when the events occurred.11
  • David Boder: Right. [Pause] So your father did not return? You couldn't make inquiries, ask around . . . ?
  • Valerius Michelson: I endeavored to inquire, but I received no information. I was even twice summoned, and I was questioned about alleged anti-Soviet views of my father and work, which [unintelligible].
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: But I was released, because I was at that time sufficiently on my own. I did not live together with him [the father], and so they did not find me in anything especially guilty. I . . .
  • David Boder: [Unintelligible]
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes, yes. I personally think that [pause] my father hardly had committed any anti-Soviet acts, because first of all he was quite old, and second, it is my personal belief, I think he could not have been an enemy of Soviet authority.
  • David Boder: What is your religion?
  • Valerius Michelson: Orthodox.
  • David Boder: I am asking your faith because I have encountered an Orthodox priest [Father Kharchenko, Chapter 15] among the . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes. Now then. I told you that I am Orthodox, but I don't want to assert it definitely. I am baptized as a Orthodox, but . . .
  • David Boder: Well, I understand. It is your family. The family background [this word was said in English] is Orthodox.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: That I understand.
  • Valerius Michelson: Entirely correct. Well, afterwards [pause] when they started calling to the NKVD, et cetera, et cetera, it did not give me in peace and . . . ehh . . . our financial situation was bad. [Pause] I had to work a great deal. Mainly I made all kinds of drawings, pictures, et cetera, in order to earn [something] for myself. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Well, continue then . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: I continued to do all of this until the moment when the Germans arrived. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Wait please.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes
  • David Boder: I am interested in this. The Soviets were then in Revel.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: How was life going on? You, for instance, were working. You yourself could sell your work, receive money for it? The stores were open? How was all that going on?
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes . . . ehh . . . It was thus: such abundance that prevailed before in Estonia as well as in the other Baltic countries was no more. But . . .
  • David Boder: You are talking about the economic organization?
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: Were there private stores?
  • Valerius Michelson: Private stores had remained, but started to close up [liquidate]. At that time there were already attempts to proceed with a kind of socialization—- I don't know how to call it. At any rate . . .
  • David Boder: [Unintelligible]
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . ehh . . . state . . . ehh . . . [They proceeded] to convert all the separate businesses into state enterprises. At the same time . . .
  • David Boder: But not at once?
  • Valerius Michelson: Not at once. At the same time establishments were opened in which . . . uhmm . . . in which people traded who arrived from Russia.
  • David Boder: How was that? They traded on their own?
  • Valerius Michelson: No. In the capacity of government enterprises.
  • David Boder: Like cooperatives?
  • Valerius Michelson: Like cooperatives. Or I would even say that it was actually favorable . . .
  • David Boder: You would say what?
  • Valerius Michelson: I would say that they were . . . ehh . . . that they were not cooperatives, because a cooperative implies the existence of members, shareholders, et cetera, which did not exist in these establishments.
  • David Boder: [In English] This concludes Spool 153, in the middle of an interview with Mr. Valerius Michelson, age 30, a student of the UNRRA University at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. September the 24th, 1946. An Illinois Institute [of Technology] wire recording.
  • David Boder: [In English] Spool 154. We continue from Spool 153. The interview with Mr. Valecius Michel-...[correction] Valerius Michelson. Mr. Michelson is apparently an important person in the life of the university, and he has an urge to talk about it [apparently there was some non-recorded conversation while the spools were changed]. Well, we shall try to see what we can get [recorded] in this short program, because we have changed our rule, and instead of letting everybody talk as long as possible, we are taking them in one half hour turns, because it simply would be a very great hardship to them of [my] not having listened to the representatives of each nationality. Maybe scientifically this would not be immediately convertible into useful material, but we just have to do it.
  • David Boder: [In Russian] And so, it means, Mr. Michelson, let us start thus: It means . . . ehh . . . your father disappeared during the time of the Soviets.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: You made ends meet by making drawings and . . . ehh . . . pictures too?
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: For whom did you do it?
  • Valerius Michelson: I created them for sale.
  • David Boder: Right.
  • Valerius Michelson: I sold them . . . in part to acquaintances. And in part through them I would reach people who had an interest in them. And I continued to do this also when the Germans arrived.
  • David Boder: Good. Now tell us, how did the Germans come in? How did that change [of power] proceed?
  • Valerius Michelson: You see, I cannot tell you the details, because we . . .
  • David Boder: I don't want generalities. How . . . The environment you were located in.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: There were people who fled? There were people who were evacuated? How did all that occur?
  • Valerius Michelson: Those people who had come from the Soviet side—there were quite a few of them; I had some acquaintances from there [pause]— they nearly all had fled before. There remained a very small number [of them].
  • David Boder: Right.
  • Valerius Michelson: What concerns the so-called old Russian immigration ['old time' refugees from the Soviets] who were there—they, in the majority, remained, and to some extent were even glad about the arrival of the Germans. But not all [of them]. I, of course, at that time was absorbed in preoccupations for existence, because [chuckle] with the departure of the father our [economic] status had become much worse. . . . ehh . . . The aunt with whom I lived together was already very old, and she, of course, in no way was able to help me, and I had to feed her and myself. And for that reason I had but little chance to get into conversations with strangers, only incidentally.. At any rate up to the arrival of the Germans I expected that there would be fierce battles, and endeavored together with my aunt, since we lived in a suburb, to penetrate still farther away from the suburb of the city of Revel to [name of the locality not clear].
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: And there we weathered through the whole [laughter] German advent. There were no big battles in Revel at that time, and everything proceeded rather quietly . . . ehh . . . Just not long before the march forward of the Germans I was astonished by the great confusion of the Soviet . . . Soviet soldiers, the army, and the few ships which were lying in the bay of Revel.
  • David Boder: How did the confusion manifest itself on the ships?
  • Valerius Michelson: Ehh . . . they . . . ehh . . . , as far as I know, were unable to get out, because they had no fuel. I had the opportunity to hear literally on the streets when they were yelling to each other, of course, in Russian, about, 'Where should we obtain fuel? We are not given any. there is no [word not clear].'
  • David Boder: What kind of fuel or oil?
  • Valerius Michelson: I don’t know. Oil, probably oil or kerosene, et cetera. I was on the very coast . Ehh . . . on the coast of the gulf I could observe how . . . what do you call it The phrase Michelson uses here, 'это самое,' is a filler with no real meaning or direct translation.12 . . . the ships maneuvered several times, how at night they would send [launches] ashore in order to obtain fuel from the shore, because at that time the German planes already endeavored to bomb these ships. The same occurred with the military forces below . . . ehh . . . meaning not below but on the coast where . . . ehh . . . in a very strange way [human] figures were running back and forth, individual figures, like messengers, or something like that, who made the impression of greatly frightened and perplexed people.
  • David Boder: Well, this is a general picture of [hasty] evacuation. Well, then the Germans came, and you continued working on your own [?].
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: Now what happened to you?
  • Valerius Michelson: To me personally? I returned to my apartment, to the two rooms, with my aunt, and we continued to live there together, and I continued to draw [paint] little pictures, et cetera, and did not experience, especially . . . ehh . . . at the beginning, any special inconveniences on the part of the Germans.
  • David Boder: What happened afterwards?
  • Valerius Michelson: Afterwards? This lasted about up to . . . ehh . . . the beginning of the year '42, that is, nearly a whole year, no, less than a year.
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: After that I was called . . . ehh . . . to the Arbeitsamt Michelson uses the German word for labor office here.13 in the center of the city. I arrived there, and they asked me a series of questions as to what my occupation was, et cetera, et cetera. And told me that actually . . . I spoke German satisfactorily, because at one time I had attended a German Gymnasium Michelson uses the German word for classical high school here.14 [the name not clear] Schule.
  • David Boder: Where? In Revel?
  • Valerius Michelson: In Revel. Yes.
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: And . . . ehh . . . meaning . . . ehh . . . they [said] that was unimportant work, et cetera, et cetera. They asked me who I was by nationality. I told them I was Russian. They filled out a proper [index] card and suggested that I come around in another week. When I came in a week I was handed . . . ehh . . . some kind, how to say [chuckle] . . . they handed me a paper, in general, with a content or an order about me having to journey to Austria or they did not say Austria, just named the city of Linz . . .
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . where I indeed went after three days.
  • David Boder: Hm. They called this [Linz] Ostmark [name for Austria after the annexation by Hitler].
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: And so you went alone or with an echelon?
  • Valerius Michelson: No. there went a rather large number, and some of the people were even . . . ehh . . . my acquaintances . . . ehh . . . from Revel.
  • David Boder: And how were you transported? What kind of train cars, and how were the conditions?
  • Valerius Michelson: Ehh . . . the conditions of travel were rather satisfactory. To be sure, the train cars were freight cars, but with plank beds, et cetera. Moreover . . . ehh . . . , we were given food on the road [pause] of average quality. At any rate we did not go hungry.
  • David Boder: Was anybody beaten?
  • Valerius Michelson: No. [Pause] The only inconvenience was that we hardly could get off [the train] except for . . . in such . . . ehh . . . instances when we stopped for a long time. And that was for me the cause of an accident.
  • David Boder: How come?
  • Valerius Michelson: Near Vienna . . . ehh . . . I went out . . .
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: I don't know the name—a little hamlet, just in the immediate vicinity of Vienna.
  • David Boder: Hm.
  • Valerius Michelson: There we stood for three days, and we were getting off to wash and get cleaned up. And near the water tower . . . ehh . . . next to which [laughter] we were washing,, during the re-arrangement of the rolling stock I was hit by a train car. I fell and broke a leg.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: And for that reason I was [not?] transported farther with the echelon, but was sent from the start . . . ehh . . . to some small hospital or something of the kind in that little hamlet or suburb of Vienna. And afterwards I was transferred to Vienna proper, to the Samaritan Hospital. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Well.
  • Valerius Michelson: After I . . . I was put in a cast, and I remained there for quite a long time. And there . . . ehh . . . they took rather good care of me, and more so when I afterwards requested some paper and started to draw everybody who was there, my nurses, afterwards the doctor—surgeon, a young and very handsome physician who was taking care of me. And I and this doctor became afterwards such friends that he proposed that I remain in—the doctor was an activist—and he proposed that I remain in Vienna and help his wife, who was doing some Kunstgewerbe Michelson uses the German word for handicrafts here.15 with her work. In this manner I remained in Vienna. Through the acquaintance [influence] of this doctor I succeeded in arranging with the Arbeitsamt See fn 13.16 [so that] I was considered . . . ehh . . . how to say, an independent professional man, and I was able to occupy myself during the following three years with the same activities with which I occupied myself already in Revel, that is, drawing all kinds of little pictures, et cetera.
  • David Boder: Yes. You came to be . . . ehh . . . , so to speak, a colleague of Hitler. He too was an artist. Hitler spent most of his youth in and around Linz. In comparing Michelson to Hitler, Boder seems to be giving voice to his misgivings about Michelson's character, as evidenced by the latter's activities in Nazi-occupied Vienna.17
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes, in some way. With the difference that [laughter] I occupied myself with the drawing of pictures, while he occupied himself . . .
  • David Boder: Well, go on.
  • Valerius Michelson: And this is . . . now so.
  • David Boder: And so, where were you at the moment of liberation?
  • Valerius Michelson: At the moment of liberation . . . I was in Vienna all the time, up to the moment when it . . . the Bolsheviks started approaching Vienna. Soviet forces arrived in Vienna in mid-April 1945.18 Since I knew the Soviets from my experiences in Revel, or rather from the experiences of my father, because these were just [personal] experiences and not final complete conclusions—such knowledge I did not have—I did not want to remain in Vienna, and got out of there with a whole stream [of people] running away from Vienna. What Michelson of course neglects to state is that as a Red Army soldier who surrendered to the Germans and served in the German army, he had his own reasons for wanting to avoid an encounter with Soviet forces.19 And moved from there to the West. [Pause] Ehh . . . At the beginning of May, about the 6th, I crossed the Bavarian border [pause] and [unintelligible]
  • David Boder: Tell me, you legally went over to the West?
  • Valerius Michelson: I went illegally together, as I told you, with those innumerable echelons. And, moreover, I managed to travel part of the road with my compatriots, who were running away from somewhere in Russia, from near Smolensk . . .
  • David Boder: Right.
  • Valerius Michelson: with whom I managed [laughter] to chat during the journey, and who told me about Soviet Russia a multitude of sad things [stories], about how they were left . . . left without a homeland, without anything. And when I asked them how come they are abandoning their homeland, they answered that for them it would also have been hard to sta . . . remain . . . How to say it?
  • David Boder: To live.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . as hard to live as here in a foreign country. I parted afterwards from them, and together with another man I proceeded through devastated Munich. It was thus. Barely did I cross the border between . . . ehh . . . Austria and Bavaria when I met the first American forces.
  • David Boder: It was as simple as that.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: Well, and afterwards, how did you get to Munich? Or . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: I . . . ehh . . . moved on to southern Bavaria and arrived partly on foot, partly on conveyances, in Kempten. A city in southwestern Bavaria where UNRRA established a camp for displaced persons.20 In Kempten I went to a camp . . . ehh . . . for DP's where I remained for eight days. The life in the camp was very hard for me.
  • David Boder: Well, what did you eat en route? How did you . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: En route I sustained myself in the most varied ways. Until I reached the American forces I sustained myself by going to various peasants, and asking for something, et cetera. And it must be said that in Austria the people in this respect were much kinder than afterwards [the people] in Bavaria.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: But in Bavaria I spent one day without the Americans. There was a frightful confusion, and . . . ehh . . . I was not surprised that nobody cared to feed me, because all people were in frightful agitation and fear.
  • David Boder: Germans?
  • Valerius Michelson: Germans.
  • David Boder: And where were the troops?
  • Valerius Michelson: The troops? . . . ehh . . . I happened to meet only in one of the villages which I passed. I endeavored not to walk on the main highways . . .
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . because I proceeded without documents, and that was dangerous, and I think that I managed to pass through because of the reign of a peculiar and tense mood. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: Ehh . . . At any rate, I attempted not to march on the large highways, but tried to walk from farmhouse to farmhouse through the little villages.
  • David Boder: Right.
  • Valerius Michelson: And in this way . . . ehh . . . I sustained myself until the instant when I met the first American division. And this first American division supplied me with dry [food] packages, and on these dry packages I managed to get to southern Bavaria to [the city of] Kempten.
  • David Boder: On foot or . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: Part by automobile, a short distance across from the border of Bavaria and as far as . . . ehh . . . Munich, and through Munich, a short distance past, I covered by automobile, on an American . . . a truck. And afterwards I still walked a short distance, and in fact this was the most interesting part of my recent life. At that time I had paper with me, I had watercolors, and I sketched all kinds of particular . . . ehh . . . buildings which had impressed me and aroused my interest. I sketched pictures of Bavarian life. That was most interesting, and I felt myself truly—for the first time after many years—free and gained . . . full of hope for the future.
  • David Boder: Right. Well, tell me this. [Pause] . . . ehh . . . You told me that you wanted to tell me something about your . . . the UNRRA University. What faculty are you personally attending?
  • Valerius Michelson: The faculty of architecture.
  • David Boder: Architecture. I kind of suspected it, but did not want to jump to conclusions. Well let us take ten minutes, and tell me something about the [UNRRA] University.
  • Valerius Michelson: Good. I really did not want to talk about the university. I wanted to talk about that which interests me personally . . .
  • David Boder: Yes, that is not in the university.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . concerning the university. I told you already that in Kempten I got into a camp [apparently for non-Jewish DP's]. I . . .
  • David Boder: Kempten?
  • Valerius Michelson: Kempten.
  • David Boder: Where is it [located]?
  • Valerius Michelson: That is in the Allgäu in southern Bavaria. In the DP camp [unintelligible]. I withstood this camp for exactly eight days, because to live doing nothing, to get help for nothing, it was so painful for me . Life itself with a kind of people who do not see for themselves a way out, do not see that they could become useful to other people by starting to work [see Jacob Oleiski, Chapter 30], and [with] people who rely on . . . ehh . . . getting help from somewhere without deserving it in some way, that was very difficult for me [see Note 1 at the end of this chapter].
  • David Boder: Do you mean to say without deserving [being worthy] or without earning?
  • Valerius Michelson: Without earning.
  • David Boder: There is a difference.
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes. Without earning.
  • David Boder: You understand that people who were for years in Buchenwald . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: I would say thus . . .
  • David Boder: . . . and who . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: People who were in Buchenwald, people who worked hard for the Germans, worked very hard—because I know many people who had to do things which hardly any other nation could compel [a person] to do—. . . ehh . . . such people, of course, deserved a rest, and, of course, earned the opportunity to . . . ehh . . . for some time, really relax, so as to be capable again in the future . . . ehh . . . of creativity and work . But [pause] I, however, want to say that I not only earn but in addition deserve, because I have seen these camps [for DP's], and particularly in the camp where I had a chance to be, an enormous number of people who by their psychology [personality], by their [pause] . . . ehh . . . [some distance of silence on the wire] were no sufficiently high morally and . . . ehh . . . [pause], how to say ethically . . . people who took advantage of the possibility of being supported at the cost . . . ehh . . . of somebody else's wealth . . . ehh . . . , took advantage in the sense that they attempted to organize all kinds of [unintelligible] in the sense that they tried to arrange any kind of sale [pause][black markets], or . . . ehh . . . [pause] devoted themselves to all kinds of love affairs, and simply rob the peasants in the vicinity, et cetera.[See again Jacob Oleiski, Chapter 30.] I understand the burst of anger, the burst of hatred towards people who oppressed us for a long time , but to enrich yourself at the cost of these people, in my opinion, is shameless and immoral [unscrupulous]. And these circumstances compelled me to leave the camp. I left and told myself that never again shall I enter into such a camp.
  • David Boder: Hold on, let us ask you another question. It is very interesting for us because. You say 'to become enriched' . . . ehh . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes.
  • David Boder: You were . . . you had a chance to earn all the time. During all that time you probably were not struck [beaten] a single time. Were you struck [beaten] at any time during your whole stay in Germany?
  • Valerius Michelson: No, no.
  • David Boder: And now you take people who were searched, whose things were constantly taken away. These things were distributed among the Germans [pause] as gifts, and [or] were sold. [unintelligible]
  • Valerius Michelson: I understand.
  • David Boder: And then, meaning, if we assume, entered the village and took away [their] trunks, took away [their] things
  • Valerius Michelson: That is not theft . . .
  • David Boder: Then how could you say 'to enrich themselves at the cost of the population of the region'?
  • Valerius Michelson: I shall say something else. That I understand. And I said that I understand the burst of anger and I understand the hatred for the Germans. And I would say that I do not like the Germans. And they are obnoxious to me. And I wanted to talk about it then, when I thought of talking about it, why I am with this university, why I work in this [UNRRA] university as my social activity [public service]. But I would say [that] in order to answer your question about the methods they use . . . I know that there were a large number of purely criminal elements, partly from Soviet Russia—because I am in good command of the Russian language. I talked to them. I saw that they had remained . . .
  • David Boder: Were these war prisoners?
  • Valerius Michelson: Not necessarily war prisoners. People of all kinds. I talked to them, and I saw to what kind of psychological depths they had sunk. What were they thinking about? They did not think of taking back what was taken from them by force. What they thought about was that in Soviet Russia they had no chance to steal, they had no opportunity to rob people, to kill. Here they literally organized in gangs in order to promote their own [selfish] business, and not for the purpose of having avenged the evil which the Germans had done to them. No. And precisely these people I consider people who under no condition are deserving of the help of any nation.
  • David Boder: And were there many such people?
  • Valerius Michelson: I reckon that from among those people . . . I reckon that from among those people who came from the East [pause], predominantly from Soviets regions, only a small part of those not belonging to the intelligentsia was not of that kind. All those who came here honestly, who were dragged over here [to Germany], who were compelled to work here, peasantry, [industrial] workers from Russia, they have returned. However, those who have remained here, in most cases, were people of a criminal bent of personality, and I figure that there are no reasons whatsoever to lend support to such people. Only those people who have felt a kind of spiritual oppression—and these are for the most part the intelligentsia who had come from Soviet Russia—they have remained honest, and for that reason poor as well. And [pause] in the majority, they did not want to live together with these [criminal] elements. [pause] I now meet these people rather often. I know they are people from Soviet Russia, but I associate with them, I like to talk with them, because in them I see the real characteristics of intelligent [pause], understanding people, who know why they are here. I divide . . . ehh . . . the Russians, those who have come now from Soviet Russia, into two categories. They are either people who knew why they are going away from there, [pause] because there there was no opportunity to develop their creative abilities. There was no . . .
  • David Boder: You mean they took advantage of the invasion of the Germans to get away from there?
  • Valerius Michelson: To get out of Russia, or, if they were taken out by force from Russia, to remain here. Or in part [the second category] they are the element which left Russia, because they did not have there a chance to make use of the other . . . the other one's [person's] property, the other one's possessions, and live here day in, day out by a chance to live on the labors of others. [Pause] Those people who have come from there or were taken out of there [by force], who were accustomed to work there, those also went to work here. And these are mostly the intelligent . . . the group of the intelligentsia—in part, of course, not only the intelligentsia. And these people are also working now. They, in most cases, don't conglomerate in [DP] camps, but endeavor to make a living in some other way away but away from those people [the criminal element].
  • David Boder: And the Germans? Do they permit them to work here?
  • Valerius Michelson: In some instances, yes. It is very difficult, but possible. I know quite a few cases where people live . . . ehh . . . outside the [DP] camps and work, say, for the American forces and
  • David Boder: Mm hmm.
  • Valerius Michelson: or work for American camps. This the Germans cannot prohibit. In general, displaced persons had few opportunities for paid work, with the U.S. Army serving as the main employer in the U.S. zone. DPs who lived 'on the German economy,' as the phrase went, tended to lose their DP benefits.21
  • David Boder: And where do you live?
  • Valerius Michelson: I live near [name not clear].
  • David Boder: In a dormitory?
  • Valerius Michelson: Privately, like the majority of our students.
  • David Boder: Not with UNRRA?
  • Valerius Michelson: Not with UNRRA.
  • David Boder: How? Were you billeted with the Germans?
  • Valerius Michelson: Yes. That was done nearly for all students of our university.
  • David Boder: Does anybody pay for their apartments?
  • Valerius Michelson: According to the latest . . . ehh . . . orders . . .
  • David Boder: The Germans?
  • Valerius Michelson: The German government has to pay, or rather the Bavarian government, to be exact. Up to now we paid ourselves, and we ourselves earned the money. But I have to say that now . . .
  • David Boder: How did you earn?
  • Valerius Michelson: I earned all the time in the same way. Like before, I was drawing, make all kinds of . . . ehh . . . sketches for coloring, and sold them in German stores. And the German stores accepted them. In this respect the Germans did not exercise any special pressure over me. [Pause]
  • David Boder: Yes, and?
  • Valerius Michelson: For some time I worked here and for one firm. In a firm, however, managed by a Russian. Ehh . . .
  • David Boder: What Russian?
  • Valerius Michelson: A certain engineer of [the] Kaiser . . .
  • David Boder: How can he manage a firm?
  • Valerius Michelson: Here are quite a few firms which are managed mostly not only by Russians but by many foreigners. Construction firms and engineering firms.
  • David Boder: Are these, so to speak, new firms?
  • Valerius Michelson: These are firms which were founded after the Americans had arrived and liberated prisoners . . .
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: . . . because there were quite a few [businesses] here either taken out of Russia or taken our of Czechia, or other countries occupied at one time by the Germans, who [the employees] have remained here and endeavored, at any rate, to work in some way so that they could make a living.
  • David Boder: And they intend to remain here?
  • Valerius Michelson: In the majority of cases, no. I don't know a single case when the foreigners wanted . . . [correction] would have wanted to remain.
  • David Boder: Now why is that?
  • Valerius Michelson: Why? I will tell you about that right away together with our talk about the university in order to . . .
  • David Boder: Yes, yes, yes, I won't interrupt you.
  • Valerius Michelson: I myself [pause] found out that a university is being organized in connection with UNRRA [pause], and I went to that university not withstanding [in spite of] my knowledge of the German language and not withstanding my knowledge that here is a definite norm for the admission of foreigners into the Germans educational institutions. In the U.S. and British zones, 10% of all university places were reserved for displaced persons.22 I considered that to go to people who have started this war, and who according to their psychology, as previously, hate foreigners, that would mean to go into an environment known to be hostile. On the other hand, during this war, especially here, I had the opportunity to meet not only with Russians who had come from the East, but also with Poles, in part war prisoners who worked with farmers, in part . . . ehh . . . people taken out of there [Poland], and with Ukrainians, and most recently with Balts. And in all of them I noticed one common [character] streak, a streak of desire, after the war [pause], in some way to build, life on a new foundation, especially among the young people. On the basis of understanding each other, and friendship with each other . And it appeared to me that if this university, which is just now being created, would gain strength, if this university [pause] will come to be an entity which could really live and exist, then it could bring about a real collaboration of work with one with another, and especially for us, the people from the East who, as I observed for the last three years, could never come to terms to be friends with each other. They wanted it, but always continued thinking, 'No, I am a Ukrainian.' 'I am a Pole. We can't be together,' or 'I am a Ukrainian, and you are a Muscovite, a Russian. You . . . ehh . . . are oppressing our nation,' et cetera. And it appeared to me that in this university we, the youth, who after [pause] sufficient preparation will become the leaders in their own countries, in their own lands . . . if we should be friends among ourselves we would be able to create a rapprochement between our countries to an extent necessary in order that there will be neither wars nor these horrible totalitarian regimes which humiliate man and [oppress] his abilities to think and to create for the good of other [his fellow] men. And with this idea I came to the university. The first thing that I noticed at the university [pause] was that there was no such idea, that people have come here after the long years, during which they were torn away from learning, in order to study. That was good. But [pause] that was not all. What was missing here was unity, and for that reason the scholastic, academic spirit was also missing. [Pause] And already during the first month [pause] I, we, meaning, at the faculty started to talk thus: That in order to live actually in friendship, and in order to create academic conditions not akin to an average DP camp, which very many have experienced and which very many have left for the same reasons that I have left, we have to hold together and demand toward ourselves a different attitude, different than accorded to the average masses [of DP's], an attitude toward us as students, as studying youth.
  • David Boder: Now what kind of a special attitude toward students at the university [are you talking about]?
  • Valerius Michelson: This I can describe by means of an example which not long ago happened among us in a camp. I think that would interest you. We had here a strike, a very real hunger . . . hunger revolt, I would say. Ehh . . . That may appear strange. However, there were reasons for it. When the students once arrived in the morning at their university, they were not permitted to enter the university by the so-called DP police, that is, DP's who were organized to maintain order.
  • David Boder: By DP you mean displaced persons? [The interviewer was apparently surprised that he used the English term.]
  • Valerius Michelson: These DP . . . this DP police aroused the indignation of the students by their sheer appearance, because it is proper that there be no police in the university. But what was most strange was that they permitted themselves first to push and chase students from corner to corner, and when our professors arrived, after detaining the dean of the university, they submitted him to a meticulous . . . ehh . . . search, compelled him to present all kinds of documents, and treated him most impertinently. This aroused the students most of all. Afterwards quite a few professors of advanced age, in order to get into the university, had to jump over benches, among them a lady . . . ehh . . . , a microbiologist, most respected among us as a professor, was obliged to do the same and this was the reason that the students started a frightful noise and literally were beside themselves [Pause]. For me as the president of the student organization of our university it was very hard to quiet down the aroused students. After assembling them with great difficulty in the yard of the university, I asked the people to calm down, not to cause great debauchery, and if they want at all to do something . . . I agreed to the demand of the majority of the students to decide not to take any nourishment, not to eat, until we would be promised that the police will be removed and police method will not be used in our university. The strike lasted, all together, one day, only two times [meaning twice they staged a hunger strike] but it proved that during the six months which we had spent in the university all the students, without distinction of nationality or creed, had united into such a family that all went out on such a risky venture as a strike. There was complete solidarity. This is just an example, an example of that which we consider a wrong attitude towards students, and which arouses our indignation. That is precisely why we are talking about the academic spirit and relationships.
  • David Boder: Now permit me. How did they explain it to you? How did that whole police episode come about?
  • Valerius Michelson: It had come about by mistake. By a big mistake . . .
  • David Boder: But since it was a mistake [?] . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: Entirely correct. But it seems to me that concerning students such mistakes are not permissible, [as if correcting himself] and in general concerning people, not only students. After all, there exist different norms of conduct . . .
  • David Boder: Well, yes, but here is a theater of military operations . . .
  • Valerius Michelson: That is correct. But in spite of that I don't think that we have given any grounds for such treatment. We endeavor [unintelligible] always to behave correctly, and [pause] I personally consider that the strike was a very bad thing. I . . . personally do not like it, because it is not proper to do such things.
  • David Boder: What was improper?
  • Valerius Michelson: It was improper to organize a strike, et cetera. I think it would have been possible to come to terms without it. But it was provoked, because that was not the first time, and that is why it occurred, due to the mood.
  • David Boder: You see, I think we have to give here some explanation. Deutsches Museum is not only a university. You have here also a center for the registration of DP's.
  • Valerius Michelson: Entirely correct.
  • David Boder: And it is possible, when the police was posted, they . . . [apparently coughs] police were posted, they were not exactly told which points . . . ehh . . . to say, to guard and which to open.
  • Valerius Michelson: Unfortunately this did not take place. The fact of the matter is that there are entrances from two sides. At one side the DPs enter, and this was directed definitely against the students, because on that day . . . ehh . . . there was a check-up on the attendance of the lectures, which the student body exercises on its own, on its own initiative, since we don't want to have idlers in our university, or people who would come to the university solely to take advantage of the privileges given by UNRRA, and for which we are very grateful to UNRRA, but only . . . ehh . . . [people who would come] to study. And people who study we want in our university. And that is why we maintained through our student organization such registrations, and we were able to furnish information about who the people were, et cetera.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Valerius Michelson: At this time an error occurred.
  • David Boder: Well, [pause] is there anything else that you would like to tell us or you would like to tell the American students?
  • Valerius Michelson: To the American students I should like to say this, that the students, the foreigners who study in our university and who in a very large part study in German universities, all of them endeavor to rally together, endeavor to overcome all the hatred among nations, which is still up to now very strong in Europe, in order to work towards the construction of their countries in the spirit of cooperation [friendship] with the rest, in the spirit of actual all-human friendship, so that there be no more events like the past war, that here would be no more events similar to Hitler’s state. And we want the creation of an international university. We know that what we have here now in Munich is not an international university. Or better, it is international, but not yet a university, because we are short of very many things. Even we ourselves, in our own views about the world, [and] in our . . . ehh . . . opportunities, needed to call ourselves a real international university. But we think that we could serve as a kernel for such a cooperation, and for such a university in which would be brought up the intelligentsia of the future. That is about all.
  • David Boder: So. [In English] This concludes the interview of Mr. Valerius Michelson, a student of architecture at the International University of UNRRA. Munich, September the 24th, 1946. We had here quite some interruptions of some very important visitors which [whom] I could not stave away, and from that standpoint we have lost at times quite a bit some time [of material]. An Illinois Institute of Technology wire recording.
  1. In August 1945, DP students and professors began organizing university courses at the Deutsches Museum DP camp in Munich. The UNRRA University grew out of this initiative, officially opening in February 1946. It was named after the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the international relief agency created by the Allies to assist victims of the war. Michelson was the president of the UNRRA University Students' Union. He helped to define the university as an international institution. He discusses his goals for the university later in the interview. On the history of the university, see Bernhard Zittel, 'Die UNRRA-Universität in München, 1945-1947,' in Archivalische Zeitschrift 75 (1979); Anna Holian, 'Displacement and the Postwar Reconstruction of Education: Displaced Persons at the UNRRA University of Munich, 1945-1948,' in Contemporary European History 17:2 (May 2008); and Nina Bschorr, '"Wir wollten alle so gerne lernen..." Die UNRRA-Universität im DP-Camp Deutsches Museum in München,' in Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung 17 (2008).
  2. Revel is the Russian name for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
  3. Michelson and his family were part of the substantial Russian émigré community that developed in Estonia after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922, there were approximately 14,000-16,000 unassimilated (i.e., non-citizen) Russian refugees in Estonia. On the history of the Russian emigration, see Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  4. Under the terms of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, Estonia was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence. In September 1939, seeking to make good on its claim to Estonia, the Soviet Union demanded that the Estonian government sign a mutual assistance treaty and allow the Soviets to establish military bases on Estonian soil. The Estonian government felt compelled to accede to this demand. In June 1940, claiming that the Estonian government had not fully complied with the treaty, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Estonia.
  5. Freedom of Russia (Svoboda Rossii) was a socialist literary and political newspaper published in from 1919 to 1920. Although Michelson implies that his father's association with the newspaper lasted up to the period of Soviet occupation, in fact he is describing his father's work during the very beginning of the emigration period.
  6. While the political spectrum among Russian émigrés was very broad, most leading émigré institutions were of a monarchist or rightist orientation. Michelson here stresses that the politics of his father's newspaper were outside the mainstream.
  7. SR: Socialist Revolutionary. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP) was one of the leading socialist parties in Russia in the period leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. Founded in 1901, it grew out of the Russian populist movement and focused on the plight of both peasants and industrial workers under capitalism. In contrast to the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Mensheviks and Bolsheviks), which called for the nationalization of the land, the SRP advocated the socialization of the land: its transformation into public property that would be worked individually by peasant tenants. Socialist Revolutionaries, most notably Alexander Kerensky, held important posts in the Provisional Government formed after the Russian Revolution of February 1917. The SRP won the most seats of any party in the election for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917. However, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 caused a split in the party, with a new left wing siding with the Bolsheviks in calling for a communist revolution. After the Bolsheviks definitively seized power, many members of the mainstream SRP went into exile.
  8. The NKVD (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) was the secret police organ of the Soviet Union. Created in 1922, it took over the functions exercised earlier by the Cheka, the state security organization formed by the Bolsheviks shortly after the October Revolution.
  9. Created in 1922, the GPU (Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie or State Political Directorate) was the state security organization of the Soviet Union and was intermittently part of the NKVD. In 1934, it was succeeded by the Main Directorate of State Security (Glavnoe Upravlenie Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti or GUGB). This is presumably the organization to which Michelson refers.
  10. Michelson's story about his father, while not strictly speaking true, is likely grounded in fact. According to one obituary for Michelson, his father was the victim of a Stalinist purge (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 5 August 2006). While Michelson's father met his fate in the Soviet Union, purges did take place in Soviet-occupied Estonia. During the first year of occupation, Soviet forces deported or killed some 60,000 persons, under the guise of eliminating "anti-Soviet elements." Although most of the victims were ethnic Estonians, Russian émigré intellectuals and community leaders were also targeted.
  11. The Nazi occupation of Estonia began in July 1941, with German troops reaching Tallinn at the end of August. Michelson's vacillation here may have to do with the fact that he was not in Estonia when the events occurred.
  12. The phrase Michelson uses here, 'это самое,' is a filler with no real meaning or direct translation.
  13. Michelson uses the German word for labor office here.
  14. Michelson uses the German word for classical high school here.
  15. Michelson uses the German word for handicrafts here.
  16. See fn 13.
  17. Hitler spent most of his youth in and around Linz. In comparing Michelson to Hitler, Boder seems to be giving voice to his misgivings about Michelson's character, as evidenced by the latter's activities in Nazi-occupied Vienna.
  18. Soviet forces arrived in Vienna in mid-April 1945.
  19. What Michelson of course neglects to state is that as a Red Army soldier who surrendered to the Germans and served in the German army, he had his own reasons for wanting to avoid an encounter with Soviet forces.
  20. A city in southwestern Bavaria where UNRRA established a camp for displaced persons.
  21. In general, displaced persons had few opportunities for paid work, with the U.S. Army serving as the main employer in the U.S. zone. DPs who lived 'on the German economy,' as the phrase went, tended to lose their DP benefits.
  22. In the U.S. and British zones, 10% of all university places were reserved for displaced persons.
  • Contributors to this text:
  • Transcription : Olga Collin, Yan Mann
  • English Translation : David P. Boder, Yan Mann, Anna Holian
  • Footnotes : Anna Holian