This biography is largely based on an oral interview with Mirdza and David Palmer conducted in March 2022 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Cindy Farquhar.
Childhood on the Farm in Latvia
Mirdza Palmer (nee Robins) was born on 21 January 1930 in Ligatne, Latvia. She was the younger of two daughters. Her parents’ farm was situated 60 kilometres from the capital city, Riga in rolling country with a large forested area. The farm had agriculture, livestock and orchard areas. Farming was of more interest to Mirdza than her schooling. The winter in Latvia was cold with snow on the ground for as long as five months of the year whereas the summers could be very hot. Usually five farm labourers were employed during the winter with additional seasonal workers during the summer. During the winter the livestock, horses, sheep, cows, pigs and poultry including turkeys were housed in barns. Mirdza remembers that the straw, which had to be freshly layered each day, could be as much as two to three metres deep by the end of the winter. During the summer, the seasonal workers who had been temporarily employed in forestry for the long winters returned to the farm. Tasks now included spreading the compacted straw on arable land, more frequent milking of the cows, tending the other animals now grazing in the fields, maintaining the large orchard which included berries, and the harvesting of potatoes, apples, vegetables and grain. Winter feed for the animals had to be prepared at this time. From an early age, when not at school, Mirdza enjoyed being out with the farm workers particularly if she could take over a horse drawn cart or reaper. She had her own horse and was to learn that a kick in the face was best avoided. Her greatest joy was grooming and riding her horse whenever she had the chance.
Mirdza’s mother spent part of her time with farm work as well as with her household duties. She did employ household help. In comparison to Mirdza, her older sister’s interests were domestic when not at high school. Mirdza’s father supervised the farm work; but was largely involved with his duties as mayor of Ligatne and manager of the local bank. Mirdza remembers her father as being a very fair minded man who regarded all as equals. The farm workers sat at the same table as the family and shared work and leisure hours with them. This aspect was to have an important outcome during the Russian invasion.
The Russian Invasion 1940 – 1941.
In 1940 when Mirdza was 10 years old, the Russian army invaded Latvia from the east. The farm was confiscated and communal farming was to be established; but in the interim, the family were able to continue living and working on the farm. At this time many people who were in responsible positions were imprisoned or sent to Siberia and many just disappeared. The populace learned very quickly that criticism of the Russians was not to be tolerated. At this time the farm workers were interviewed by Russian officials. Rumours were wide spread that that there would be deportations to Siberia.
One night, the family received a telephone message: “You should visit Mr Forest or Grandma.” The family knew that this meant that they should leave the house and hide in the nearby forest. This they did; but no raid eventuated. However, in various parts of Latvia, Russian soldiers arrived in vehicles and told the inhabitants that they had to be ready in ten minutes and that they could take one suitcase each for their belongings before being taken to the railway station where they were packed like sardines into goods wagons and sent on the long journey of several days to Siberia. Some 50,000 Latvians from the total population of two million were deported at this time in this way. Some committed suicide on the way, some simply died on the journey or later. Mirdza comments that she does not know exactly why the family escaped deportation, but suspects that the covert communist family of her sister’s best friend were able to intervene on the family’s behalf. However a further mitigating factor seems to have been the result of interviews by the Russians with the farm workers who reported that they were treated as family members in their work and leisure times and meals. Between 1945 and 1991 when the Russians again were occupying Latvia, some 180 thousand Latvians were deported to Siberia. After some years in Siberia some were allowed to travel back to their homes only to be expelled a second time.
German Invasion 1941 – 1945
These were the years when Mirdza was 11 – 14 years of age. In 1941 the German invasion with its Nazi elements drove the Russians out of Latvia. The people in responsible positions during the time of the Russian invasion who had been put in prison simply disappeared. Latvia had had a significant Jewish population who were professionals or trades people. They now met the same fate as Jews in Germany and other occupied territories.
As the war progressed food and other goods became scarce and were rationed. Sugar however, was replaced by sugar from growing sugar beet. As more and more Russian prisoners were captured by the Germans a shortage of prison camp accommodation developed and many were placed on farms. Four such prisoners were placed on the Robins’ farm to be housed, fed and given work. They were not allowed to leave the farm and fitted in well with the rest of the farm workers. On Sundays all would often join together for sport and games.
Escape from Latvia September 1944.
Towards the end of 1944 the German army was retreating westward out of Russia and passing through Latvia. By September the front line was just 40 kilometres from the farm. The sounds of war with bombing was all around them. One night a family friend, his wife and three young daughters were killed by Russian sympathizers, which precipitated Mirdza’s family leaving the farm. Two horse drawn carts were loaded with food and belongings. Mirdza’s father, standing in their courtyard, said, “If it was not for the two girls we would not be starting this journey. We need to give them hope for life”. The family joined some thousands of refugees making towards the port city of Liepaja. It was autumn with frosts, intermittent rain and sunshine. There was only the shelter of the carts for sleeping at night. Cooking was on an open fire. It took two days to travel the 60 kilometres and reach the capital city of Riga. The family had to wait there for four days because the streets were blocked by units of the German army and movement could only occur at night. Mirdza remember passing the Latvian monument to liberty with the golden stars near its top shining in the moonlight.
After another four weeks of travelling the family reached the outskirts of Liepaja where they settled with some two thousand other refugees. Here there was an incident that was later to be very helpful. The family met a twenty year old wounded German soldier named Wolfgang who was recovering in a field hospital. He seemed to develop a friendship with the older sister and gave the family an envelope addressed to the mayor of a township in Austria where he had inherited a house. At this point the family were lucky enough to be allowed on to a cargo ship carrying wounded German soldiers back to Germany. This ship joined with several others to enable air and submarine protection. With Liepaja being bombed in the background and one of the accompanying vessels being hit and sunk by the Russians, the flotilla carrying Mirdza’s family left at sunrise. Of a total population of just two million some 250 thousand Latvians left for Germany.
The ships arrived in Lubeck, Germany without further mishap and all passengers were sent off to be disinfected and showered. They were then put on a train to Stuttgart and placed in a large refugee camp of some one hundred thousand persons of multiple nationalities. From here the refugees were being sent to smaller camps around Germany. After another 10 days during which Mirdza can remember the same midday meal each day – a piece of bread with some watery cabbage and kale soup – it was announced that anyone who had an address allowing them accommodation should present themselves. They remembered Wolfgang’s letter, presented it to the authorities, were given papers permitting them to travel and were allowed to leave the camp with thirteen additional new friends. They were transported to a rail station and onto a goods train; their destination was Reichenau. It was a long journey because of delays at rail junctions, air raids, and line damage. The group finally arrived at Reichenau on a beautiful moonlight night at 2am. The station master approached the group and offered a side rail for the carriage. Unexpectedly, there was a knock on the wagon’s door by the manager of a small refugee camp in the vicinity. He found that the group was not the one he expected; but nevertheless offered accommodation in the camp. This was gratefully accepted.
The next morning Mirdza’s family found Wolfgang’s house and presented Wolfgang’s letter to the suspicious mayor. The next day, the mayor having confirmed the validity of the letter handed over the house key which had been in his custody. Not long afterwards, two of Wolfgang’s aunts got in contact with the family and enquired whether or not they had had contact with Wolfgang because they had not heard from him recently. Word of mouth had reached the family that the field hospital and surroundings had been destroyed by bombing and later it was confirmed that Wolfgang had been killed. The aunts later came to visit the Robins family and brought with them Wolfgang’s piano music as a gift to Mirdza’s sister who had shared her love of music with Wolfgang. The aunts were comforted by the fact that Wolfgang had spent his last days in such company.
Mirdza’s mother and father were sent to work in a factory while both girls attended the local high school although air raids caused many interruptions.
After a further three months (February 1945) the Russian army was again closing in. The group of seventeen left with their belongings in yet another train wagon travelling west towards the American front line and settled again in a small township. The front line was close at hand. At one point, a shell went through the upper storey of the house. Finally there was a pounding on the door and American troops burst into the basement with guns pointing at those sheltering there. They were looking for German soldiers; but finding none they left.
After several more months and the finish of the war, the International Refugee Organisation, IRA established DPs (Displaced Persons’) camps. Initially the family were in a mixed camp for all DPs. After a couple of months the Latvians were shifted to one of the Latvian only camps at Hersbruch, which was about 25 kilometres from Nuremburg. The family of four had one small room of some 12 square metres in a wooden barrack. There were two double bunks one above the other, parents below, sisters above, a small table under a square window, one chair and a small pot-bellied stove for cooking. Showers were aligned in one huge room which women and children could use three days of the week and men likewise on the three other days of the week. The toilets were communal and allocated separately for men and women. In 1946 Mirdza’s father died after three months in hospital. Mirdza remembers his final message to her, “We have lost our country, our home and farm; but remember whatever knowledge you acquire in your head you will never lose.” Mirdza always remembered that and applied herself to her school work.
Latvian primary and secondary refugee school teachers taught voluntarily in their own language with primary classes in the morning and secondary in the afternoon. Books were scarce and shared and whole classes were taught assembled. In 1949 Mirdza’s older sister finished high school and was employed as a secretary by the IRA.
Between 1948 and December 1951 various countries, including New Zealand were accepting refugees. Having already completed her schooling, Mirdza’s sister chose to go to the United States. Mirdza and her mother stayed behind to allow Mirdza to finish high school in December 1949. The syllabus had been broad without the specialisation which would have been possible in New Zealand. It included four languages, maths, chemistry, physics, history, geography and arts. Unfortunately, Mirdza realized that she was becoming unwell and, no doubt as the result of the conditions under which she had been living, was found to have tuberculosis. She was admitted to a sanatorium; but deteriorated over a six month period. Fortunately in mid-1950 the first anti-tuberculosis drugs became available (Streptomycin and PAS). Mirdza responded dramatically. In the meantime, her mother had been transferred to an emigration camp in Munich where Mirdza joined her early in 1951. New Zealand called for 500 applications. Mirdza and her mother applied and after health, political leanings and general suitability were assessed, they were interviewed by the NZ counsel. Mirdza had to confess that she had only attended school up until this date; but convinced the counsel that she would have no other alternative but to work in New Zealand. After signing a two year contract, both were accepted.
In August 1951, the five hundred accepted started their journey to NZ leaving by ship from Naples. Six weeks later they arrived in Wellington Harbour at 10pm on the 13th of August 1951.
Mirdza was now 21 years of age and her mother 49. They had one US dollar between them, each had a suitcase and importantly, Mirdza had her high school certificate in her pocket. From the boat they could see lights and moving cars; but did not suspect that this was the capital city! Mirdza’s mother and those who had been cooking meals on the trip were taken by truck to the Pahiatua refugee camp to prepare the evening meal for the remainder who were to follow by train. Labour Department representatives at the camp offered jobs all over New Zealand from which the refugees could make a choice. Normally it took 5-6 weeks for this process and adaptation; but the matron from the local hospital arrived and asked if the group contained any from Latvia. Already five Latvians had worked at the hospital and the matron wanted to replace the two who had completed their two year contract with two more Latvians. Mirdza and her mother were invited to the hospital where both accepted the invitation to work and take the accommodation included, which consisted of one big room furnished as a living room and bedroom plus their own bathroom and conveniences, with full board and wages. Her mother took the position of first cook and Mirdza matron’s maid, which included the work of the nurses’ dining room. They enjoyed the positions very much, were able to save and stayed the full two years as contracted. Everything earned was saved apart from the cost of visiting the 89 Latvians who had settled in Wellington.
About a month before these jobs were due to end, both visited Wellington and decided to buy a house at 64 Coromandel St in Newtown. Mirdza’s mother returned to Pahiatua; but Mirdza stayed behind and finalised the purchase. Through a window, Mirdza could see a sign for “Ewart Hospital”. Mirdza found the hospital and, explaining their position, asked after a cook’s position. The position of first cook was offered, which Mirdza accepted on behalf of her mother. A month later, when the actual shift to Wellington had taken place, her mother was able to start work immediately, much to her satisfaction. In the meantime, as Mirdza was unemployed, she began work on their home. One day, she visited the Wellington Gas Company’s office in order to have a califont installed upstairs so that this spare space in the house could be rented. The gas company’s manager was curious and enquired after the pair’s circumstances. As a result, Mirdza was serendipitously offered a junior office job which she accepted, as maths had been her best subject. She started work here two days later. With two incomes and rent to come from the upstairs’ section of the house, both were financially secure for the first time in eight years. Mirdza enjoyed her work very much and became so proficient that she was soon able to stand in for any other worker who was ill, including those senior to herself. She was promoted to work which was math’s dependent, replacing an older man who then retired.
Eighteen months after their move to Wellington, Mirdza applied to Victoria University to begin the units for Medical Intermediate and was accepted with her High School Graduation certificate. Mother and daughter now felt financially secure enough for Mirdza to leave the Gas Company and study. (It is to be remembered that all family wealth had been lost in escaping from Latvia.) Mirdza, however found that she had great difficulty in understanding the scientific jargon and was often depressed and tearful at home. Her mother kept encouraging her by saying “You will get there don’t give up.” Mirdza visited her friends at the Gas Company and got further encouragement, including a very nice letter from the general manager understanding her difficulties and telling her that if she ever did give up would she come back to the Gas Company. She made a friend in the class called Beatrice who would lend her class notes to Mirdza, which she would copy that night. She found her first term exams extremely difficult, as she could not understand the meaning of the questions. When the exam results were posted she found to her amazement that a third of the class had lower marks than she had. This was very encouraging. At the end of the year Mirdza passed her exams with a C grade average; but this was not high enough for entry into the Otago Medical School.
Mirdza decided to repeat the year; but chose subjects she was familiar with – Maths, German and Russian – in the hopes of getting A grades. The Professor (Richardson) of Zoology called her to his office and asked what her intentions were. When Mirdza said that it was to get higher marks for Medical Intermediate, he told her to enroll in the appropriate subjects of the previous year, get high marks and get to Dunedin. She achieved this at the end of this repeat year and remains extremely grateful for that sage advice.
Dunedin and Medical School
Mirdza was 27 years of age when she entered the Otago Medical School in 1967. She was one of just six female students. So that they could make the move to Dunedin together, Mirdza’s mother had transferred to Wakari Hospital, again as first cook. Her friend Beatrice who had also repeated the first year was with Mirdza; but after facing the dissection room Beatrice promptly gave up. Mirdza herself disliked experiments on animals in the Physiology classes. Lorraine Smith became her closest classmate. With her mother Mirdza bought a house with two flats in Roslyn. The lower flat was then rented.
Mirdza now felt that she was at no disadvantage in class apart from residual language difficulties and each year her position in class improved such that in the subsequent professional exams she finished in the top quarter. She did however, feel distanced from her other class mates who were several years younger than she was, partly because she was not living with other students and partly because of her background and accent. In her final pathology exam, the Professor asked her to tell the external examiner from where she had come and why her handwriting was so bad. The first was answered and the second she attributed to the six years in a displaced persons’ camp having to do her school homework in the top barracks bunk with insufficient room to sit up!
Mirdza was able to buy a car after the first professional exam and was able to drive herself and others between the two teaching hospitals. During the holidays Mirdza always found work and during the break after third year, the matron from Pahiatua Hospital, now matron of Frankton Hospital in Queenstown invited Mirdza to join her for two weeks to take a job in the hospital and to be shown the local sights.
For the fifth-year thesis, Mirdza joined with Lorraine to study the difficulties faced by blind people in the community. With the clinical teaching and patient allocation, Mirdza found that she was in her element and gained much personal satisfaction.
Throughout her time at University, Mirdza belonged to a small group of Lutherans. When the minister came down from Christchurch he would stay with Mirdza and her mother in Dunedin. The group was primarily of Latvians, but over time others joined the group.
Mirdza graduated in 1961, ten years after she had arrived in New Zealand. She felt that she had achieved her father’s wish; but acknowledged that without her mother’s help she would not have succeeded to this point.
Mirdza’s Medical Career
After graduation Mirdza was accepted to work at Dunedin Hospital and progressed through the usual steps of junior house surgeon, then senior house surgeon, junior and then senior registrar. Patients told her that she was the first female doctor that they had ever had and would ask her from which part of Holland had she come from! This required some lengthy explanation. She enjoyed her work with patients, but rather neglected her reading. As a result she did not pass stage one MRACP papers; but achieved well on the clinical side. She was awarded a grant to visit hospitals in the USA which included The Mayo Clinic as well as hospitals in Berkley, Sacramento, Seattle, New York and Washington DC.
By this point in her career, she had met Dr David Palmer, who at this stage was a Rheumatologist at Dunedin Hospital, later Professor in Medicine. A few months after Mirdza had returned to NZ they married and in the course of time, Mirdza had three sons to look after. During this time she worked part time in the Medical School’s Audio-Visual Department for student teaching. This was followed by a part-time Clinical Assistant’s position in Rheumatology which was created for her. This involved outpatient clinics and student teaching. Mirdza reflected that she had never felt any discrimination either for being a woman or having been a foreigner. Her words were, “I’m so thankful to New Zealand and to the tertiary education sector for accepting me and for the education that I received. I do not feel that I would have achieved as much in any other country.” Mirdza retired in 1990 and her husband two years later.
The couple subsequently shifted to Nelson and now live there in a retirement village. In 1991 Latvia was freed from Russian domination with thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s enlightenment. Mirdza with her husband returned to Latvia for a visit. About this time the farm was able to be returned to its original owners – Mirdza’s mother who was still living. Legal conveyance papers were drafted transferring the farm to the two daughters. Returning to the farm was a very emotional time for Mirdza whose eyes filled with tears as she stepped out of the vehicle that had brought them. Outbuildings had been destroyed and the farmhouse was in an advanced state of disrepair although occupied by three women in obvious poverty. Subsequently the farm was gifted to a farming neighbour and is again productive.