Friday, 10 October 2014

The music man who mends accordions ... and brings the past back to life

 It’s raining as I step through a heavy wooden door into a workshop in the middle of the countryside. 

Lining the walls are shelves laden with a multitude of accordions - squeezeboxes, garmoshkas - call them what you will. It’s part-sickbay, part-museum, part-stage, part-celebration. Some have buttons, some have keys: all have stories.

Some of the boxes are top of the range and beautifully finished – there are famous names I recognise.  Some have intricate inlays of mother-of-pearl. Others are fairly rudimentary; mechanically adequate but not exactly showcase items. They have the look of Soviet workmanship, if I’m honest – a little basic.. but that doesn’t mean they’re not great instruments.

The man for whom this space is home, work and almost a place of worship is Gunars Iguanis, a musician who has turned collector and then, over time, slipped into a role akin to a saver of lost musical souls. Now, instead of simply playing instruments and performing for people, he rescues them, and then makes them sing again.

I can understand why he does this. I’ve tried to do it myself on certain occasions. I know that musical instruments are not simply pieces of wood with wires on. They have characters and personalities, and can make indelible impressions in peoples' lives.

Sometimes human beings and musical instruments can be inseparable, fitting together like a hand in a glove. 

At other times, perhaps at the end of one’s life, an instrument may be discarded. “I’ll never play that thing again,” a person might say. “What good is that to me now?”

Gunars Iguanis is a collector of these memories. He’s become a receptacle for discarded musical instruments that have outlived their owners or their welcome. 

Sometimes they are gathered in house clearances: sometimes they are traded with those who now prefer the music of bottles being unscrewed.
Gunars takes them as they are, sometimes with photographs of their former owners. 

On this left wall there are the stringed instruments Gunars has collected, restored or made himself.

Mandolins of all descriptions, a lovely semi-acoustic guitar; a classic, if battered, triangular balalaika.

This workshop is like a crossroads of music, where Russia meets Latgale, where travelling instruments meant to end up somewhere else but didn't.
It’s like an encyclopaedia of obscure varieties: a dulcimer, a Latvian kokle, an American autoharp, a mandolin-zither hybrid.

There's even a weird four-stringed mandolin-like instrument shaped like a cobra. I've never seen one like that before.

To engage and encourage the youngsters, Gunars makes a variety of whistles and percussion instruments for them to play while he persuades their parents to bang drums and strum along
as he knocks out tunes everyone knows: a bit of Beatles here - O Bla Di - a classic Latvian folk tune there .. Kur Te Tetse.

Gunars is a famous man in these parts. He’s appeared on television with his family band and is well known for his music. 

He loves to get his visitors playing along with him as he demonstrates his instruments and tells their stories, playing a different song on each one and by doing so, bringing them into his own musical family. 

As he takes each squeezebox from the shelf and plays it, the long dead people in the pictures look on, windows onto happier, black and white times: a dance in full swing, accordion at full stretch, wide smiles to be seen everywhere ..  and how times have changed since then.

There those same instruments are, placed gently on shelves lining this big room, carefully cleaned and polished with missing or broken parts replaced, played again, brought back to life by Gunars, wheezing at first to clear the dust of half a century but then finding their voices and soon belting out tunes that once everyone knew, that had toes tapping and skirts twirling ... and just for a moment it’s like the old times again.

The notes die away, echoing gently off the concrete walls, and a gentle silence replaces the gaiety.

For a few moments their former owners live again, beaming out from the photos on the shelves, alongside the instruments they loved so much. 

Now, thanks to Gunars, they will never be parted from them.

Gunars Iguanis
Musical museum and workshop
Bikava 2,  Gaigalava,
Latgale, Latvia.
+ 371 287 287 90

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Last stand at More.. the Latvian Legion

In the space of three days over Easter 2012 I had been as far east as Latvia's border with Russia and made my way back west towards Riga, passing through Rezekne, Gulbene and now coming to rest overnight in Sigulda, a popular tourist town.

In that short period I had stumbled inadvertently on the horrors of the Holocaust, visited woods where the cream of the Latvian Army was executed, walked through the forest of death at Ancupani and stepped into the massacre village of Audrini, where a mother's love for her Soviet soldier son led to 200 people being wiped out.

Here, in the tourist map of the Sigulda region, I came across mention of a spot called More (pronounced MORE-RAY), where the Latvian Legion fought a battle which, it said, changed history. Now I was about to confront the historical complexity of the Latvians who fought alongside the Nazis.

What I didn't know then was that More would be an heroic defence of their country's capital against a wave of invaders already with blood on their hands from their previous occupation just four years before.

Latvia's wartime experience is confusing, tragic and brutal and the truth about what really happened is probably lost for ever.

The Soviet Union occupied Latvia and assumed control of the country after the carving up of the Baltics in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. In the Year of Terror that followed, 26,000 Latvians were killed, arrested or deported.
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941 and by July 8 Germany had occupied Latvia. Now began one of the periods in history which still causes problems today: that of Latvians fighting for the Nazis.

Of course it's understandable that after two decades of Latvian independence (1919 - 1939) were extinguished by Soviet occupation - followed by mass deportation and brutal massacres, with death often the penalty in this class war for singing Latvian folk songs - that some might want to get a little revenge, or fight to ensure that the Russians didn't come back. Volunteer police forces were formed and Latvians sided with the Germans to fight Bolshevism, encouraged by German promises of a return to independence when the war was over. Latvians, I'm told, quite understandably pursued a policy of 'Stop the Russians first then turn our guns on the Germans.'

There was a significant element of Nazi-sympathising thugs though, especially in the notorious Arajs Kommando, which, fuelled by unlimited supplies of vodka and a pitiless attitude towards their victims, helped the Germans wipe out Latvia's Jewish population almost as soon as they completed their occupation of the country. (see earlier post 'Rivers of blood in Rezekne' and below for more on the Arajs Kommando.)

See this statement on the position of the Legion in the war years from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

In February 1943 Hitler ordered all Latvian men of fighting age to be conscripted into the German Army. Because doing this directly violated international law, the Latvians were described as 'volunteers'. In effect, according to descendants of Legionnaires, this choice involved joining the new force...  or being shot on the spot.

The resulting 15th and 19th Waffen Grenadier Divisions of the SS fought in battles near Leningrad and into Russia but were deployed in defensive lines across Latvia as the Russians gained the upper hand and pushed the Nazis back.

Things came to a head on either side of the field in central Latvia pictured at the top of this blog entry in late September and early October 1944.

But first a word about the Arajs Kommando, gathered from Wikipaedia:

The Arajs Kommando (also: Sonderkommando Arajs), led by SS-Sturmbannführer Viktors Arājs, was a unit of Latvian Auxiliary Police (German: Lettische Hilfspolizei) subordinated to the Nazi SD. It was one of the more well-known and notorious killing units during the Holocaust.

This group, composed of Latvian men, made contact with the leader of Einsatzgruppe A, Walter Stahlecker, in early July 1941, immediately following the German capture of Riga. All of the Arajs Kommando members were volunteers, and free to leave at any time.[1]

The Arajs Kommando unit actively participated in a variety of Nazi atrocities, including the killing of Jews, Roma, and mental patients, as well as punitive actions and massacres of civilians along Latvia's eastern border with the Soviet Union.[1] The Kommando killed around 26,000 Jews in total.[2] Most notably, the unit took part in the mass execution of Jews from the Riga ghetto, and several thousand Jews deported from Germany, at Rumbula on November 30 and December 8, 1941. (ED: Vilani is another:

Some of Arājs's men also served as guards at the Salaspils concentration camp.[3] (ED: see this obit from The Guardian:

As can be seen in contemporary Nazi newsreels, part of a documentation campaign to create the image that the Holocaust in the Baltics was a local, and not Nazi-directed activity, the Arajs Kommando figured prominently in the burning of Riga's Great (Choral) Synagogue on 4 July 1941. Commemoration of this event has been chosen for marking Holocaust Memorial Day in present-day Latvia.

The unit numbered about 300-500 men during the period that it participated in the killing of the Latvian Jewish population, and reached up to 1,500 members at its peak at the height of its involvement in anti-partisan operations in 1942.

In the final phases of the war, the unit was disbanded and its personnel transferred to the Latvian Legion.

It's important to distinguish between Nazi killers like the Arajs Kommando and regular Latvian youths forced into frontline battalions on pain of death following the huge losses suffered by the Germans at Stalingrad and in the push east.
Scene of the Legion's stand against the Red Army at More

As the Russians forced the Germans back the Latvian Legion was increasingly in the front line defensively: the Russians put their Latvian soldiers up against them so in some places there were Latvian-on-Latvian clashes. Valdis Lumans (author of Latvia in World War Two) puts the number of Latvians in German ranks at 110,294, including 31,446 in the front line Waffen SS battalions, with Legionnaires totalling 87, 750 and the rest police, border guards and auxiliaries.

Though fighting for Hitler, these men were not short of courage. Of 67 men who received the highest German military decorations, 33 were Latvian. The remaining 34 came from ten different nations. (source: Janis Vejins, publisher, in an introduction to 'Battle at More' by Legion commander Rolands Kovtunenko)

The number of Latvians fighting for the Red Army against the Germans (and their fellow countrymen) increased considerably as the Soviets occupied the country: Lumans puts this figure at around 100,000 as well. The Russians awarded 17,000 military commendation medals for valour to the Latvian Red Army brigade, which shows they did not take a passive role in this conflict.

The Legion faced the Red Army from this wood
In September 1944 the Red Army launched an assault towards Riga against the German-built defensive line at More, about 60k north-east of the capital. The extensive trench positions in this wood were filled almost exclusively by soldiers from the 19th Latvian division, outnumbered almost ten to one by Soviet forces.

Artillery, aircraft and tanks supported the assault, across that stretch of no man's land in the top picture. The wood became a hell as men fought hand-to-hand, shells burst, tanks fired machine guns at close range and positions changed hands and then back. Heavy fighting continued for ten days until More was abandoned by the German army on October 5-6 and occupied by the Soviets, who lost 2,000 men in the action.

There were indeed historical consequences: the Germans used the delay won by the Legion to withdraw from Riga and the Russian march into the city met with no resistance, so the capital was not destroyed.

At More there's a memorial stone which lists the 186 Legionnaires who fell or whose bodies were never recovered from the wood - or who perhaps slipped away in the night to take their chances as deserters.

There's also an informal and informative museum about the battle just nearby, which includes military hardware and weapons recovered from the wood and surrounding swamps, including a T-34 tank.

(More Museum is at information leaflets which I've quoted from here are available in Latvian and English).

A little further down the road is a cemetery containing the remains of 117 of the Legionnaires killed at More between September 25 1944 and October 6, 1944.

In 1988 the veterans' organisation Daugavas Vanagi organised the reburial of their remains with information about their grave sites, together with a monument, which was unveiled on November 11, 1990. Soviet special forces blew the monument up on December 5th, 1990.

Undeterred, the sculptor made another.

Memorials to the Legion have proved controversial, and modern politics have hijacked the memorial day of March 16, when fascist and anti-fascist parties demonstrate either for or against the Legion, while others simply lay wreaths and remember the dead.
(More on Legion Day at:

The war wasn't simple then, and it isn't simple now, and even remembering the dead has become twisted and difficult. Surely no-one wants to honour psychopathic brutes drunk on vodka and Jewish blood..  but isn't it time Latvians got a grip on this and sorted it out? It's twenty years since the end of the Soviet era and while today's recession may focus minds on day-to-day survival, there's a very twisted and painful past to straighten out.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Whispering trees - Litene, the forest of death

The monument on the left is a small, easily-missed memorial by the side of a country church graveyard but it commemorates a dark day in the calendar of the Latvian army: the execution in spring 1941 of 100 officers by the Soviets at a camp in the forest of Litene, in  Gulbene province to the north east of Latvia.
The killings were a process of ratcheting up control over Latvian society, institutions and its people that began when the Soviets moved to occupy Latvia following the carve-up of the Baltics instituted by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact of 1938 and the occupation of June 1940.

 Valdis Lumans' excellent Latvia in World War Two describes how Soviet Russia carried out this process of physical and mental control. They banned national holidays and the flying of the Latvian flag, made Russian the first language, renamed the streets, adopted Moscow time across the country and even abolished Sunday as the day off, substituting Saturday instead.

The military was absorbed into the Red Army, Navy or Air Force, with the Russian Navy consolidating a major base at Liepaja. According to Valdis Lumans, all personnel now had to swear an oath of loyalty to Russia: "I swear to my last breath to be loyal to my Soviet homeland and worker-peasant government. I am always prepared to follow orders of the worker-peasant government to defend my homeland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Litene forest
Senior officers in the army at the time would have been veterans of the Latvian War of Independence, and younger officers would have come of age in two-decade period of freedom that followed.

Soviet political officers were appointed, to ensure the reliability of the army in the 'socialist spirit'. What this meant was denunciations, disappearances and executions in a purge that reduced army numbers by a half.  Gradually Soviet insignia replaced Latvian badges and Russian political officers replaced the Latvians supposed to be ensuring loyalty to the Soviet ideology. Patrols were accompanied by these Red Army personnel - to prevent desertions.

In spring 1941 Russian generals took over direct command of the army and the 24th Corps were transferred to Litene, a training camp in Latgale province.

On June 11 and 12th 1941, Latvian army commanders were replaced by Russians and sent to a slave labour camp at Norilsk in Siberia instead of being transferred to Moscow for training, as they were told.

On the morning of June 14, 120 Latvian officers were loaded onto trucks and driven into the forest, where they were disarmed, tied up and shot.  The remainder - another 500 - were shot or sent to Norilsk. The lucky ones escaped into the forests.

At the same time as the army was being wiped out, so nearly 15,000 Latvian civilians were being loaded into cattle trucks to be deported to Norilsk, which became a slave labour death camp. These deportations were yet another dark chapter in Latvian history, but they were not alone: tens of thousands of Estonians and Lithuanians shared a similar fate.

 Lumans gives a figure of 4, 665 officers, NCOs or enlisted soldiers arrested, deported or murdered during the period of Russian occupation June 17, 1940 to July 1, 1941, generally referred to as The Year of Terror (see an online collection of gruesome photographs documenting some of the incidents here:

The Litene memorial at the top of this piece can be found at a turn off the road between Balvi and Gulbene. But the site of the shootings in the forest is more difficult to find.  This is half a kilometre further out of Gulbene, then three kilometres down a track to the forest.

It's possible to walk through the woods and come to a clearing where a camp has been laid out next to the only building standing from 1941: a concrete bunker food store.

The forest is a lonely, spooky place and I got the distinct impression I wasn't alone, particularly when it began to snow and hail and the wind whipped the hail into the branches with a strange tortured moan.

It's another of Latvia's forests of death which takes its place in the process of the subjugation of a nation: a process which would take another twist just a matter of weeks after Litene, when the Germans rolled across the border and began liquidating Soviet sympathisers and, as we've seen, Jews.

In their three-year occupation of Latvia the Nazis would also try to assimilate or absorb Latvian men of fighting age into their armed forces by creating 'volunteer' units: the controversial Latvian Legion Waffen SS.

With Latvian flags wrapped round their bodies - secretly concealed under their German uniforms - these men were sent into the fight against the Russians. Their courage in this fight helped stall the Russian advance into Latvia in September and October 1944 along the Sigulda Line and bought valuable time for tens of thousands of civilians to flee to Riga or escape the Red Army's advance but also for countless Germans to retreat back into Nazi Germany.

The Latvians of course had more at stake than helping Nazis flee. They were trying to prevent another Russian occupation of their country. In failing to stop the Red Army, half a century of occupation followed.

All of which leads to my next - again, accidental - port of call in my journey through Latvia's terrible wartime experiences which, in real time, has taken less than three days.

Memorial stone at Litene forest
But before we leave the lonely forest of death, another mystery.

Though the forest is three kilometres along a single mud track, and there's only one house on the way, this memorial stone appeared one night to mark the men who died here... and no-one knows who put it there....

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Rivers of blood - the Holocaust in Rezekne

Rezekne is a city with happy memories for me. It's where my wife went to university and where I discovered the charming habit of celebrating your marriage by locking a padlock onto a bridge. With several of those college friends to see in Rezekne, I was happy to check into the Kolonna Hotel and explore the city.  This is the point at which our friends suggested we visit the Ancupani Hills and our tour of massacre sites began (see previous two posts).

As we arrived back in town for a tour on foot, I hoped we might discover happier tourist attractions. Not so.

Having climbed down from the remains of the 13th century castle, where local youths now congregate to drink - because they can see the police coming - we took a left along the river, with the Cathedral high up on the other bank.
It's an untidy river bank with little development along here: the odd wooden house, old cars and wood yards, until you reach the bottom of a cobbled street.

And there at the corner of the street there's what looks like a black marble gravestone. It reads: '120 Rezekne's Jews were shot down on this place by the local Nazis on July 15, 1941.'

While marking the scene of what would have been (by my standards) terrible carnage, this stone also implies that local people who were either Nazis or working for the Nazis were involved. 

And so it proves to be. In this instance, research shows that the massacre of Rezekne's Jews is well-documented and turns out to be - sadly - an unexpected window onto the Holocaust in Latvia that reveals such barbarity, savagery and cruelty that it's difficult to imagine.

But these things happened, and we have an obligation to ensure they are remembered. Those who want to forget the past - for fear it will upset the present, or the future - ignore the hindsight that history brings.

I knew that Latvia's Jews were more or less wiped out in the war. I read about that in the Occupation Museum in Riga on my first visit to the country. But here in Rezekne, there's barely a word.

What follows are eye-witness accounts or testimonies taken from the Yad Vashem archives on the Jewish Holocaust in Europe.

The Jewish community of Rēzekne (called Rezhitsa until 1917) dated from the end of the 18th century.
During the period of the independent Latvian republic (1919-1940), several Jewish schools with different political and cultural affiliations operated in Rēzekne. In 1935 3,342 Jews lived in Rēzekne, comprising approximately 25 percent of the town’s population.
After the Soviet occupation of Latvia in June 1940, all private enterprises were nationalized and Jewish community institutions were closed. Some Rēzekne Jews were arrested during the night of June 14-15, 1941 and exiled to locations deep within the Soviet Union.
During the first week of the German-Soviet war the old border between Latvia and Russia was closed for everyone except Soviet workers and their families. Nevertheless, many Rēzekne Jews who had fled from the town gathered in the frontier area until the border was opened again on July 4. Many Rēzekne Jews managed to flee into the Soviet interior.
The Germans occupied Rēzekne on July 3, 1941 and, with the assistance of Latvian collaborators, began murdering Jews almost immediately. On July 4 the Germans ordered all Jewish men from the age of 18 to 60 to assemble on the market square. Latvian policemen rounded them up and took them to the local prison. On July 8 the town’s Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge and banned from walking on the town's sidewalks and from wearing hats. On July 9 (according other sources, July 5), about 30 able-bodied young men were sent to the NKVD building and were murdered after being subjected to public humiliation. On August 3 the women, children, and elderly were rounded up and taken to the same prison, with the exception of women with little children, who were moved to ”the old prison.” 

Most Rēzekne Jews were killed by the Germans between July and November of 1941 with the active assistance of Latvian policemen, including the Arājs Kommando, in three main locations in the vicinity of the town: the Jewish cemetery, Leščinska Park, and the Ančupānu Hills. Several dozen Jewish craftsmen were forced to work until they were killed in the autumn of 1943. Only three people from the entire Rēzekne Jewish community survived – the child Motya Tager, 57-year Chaim Izraelit, and his teenage nephew Yakov Izraelit. 

So this massacre happened within two weeks of the Germans occupying Rezekne, with the thugs of the Nazi-supporting Latvian militia, the Arajs Kommando, doing the dirty work.

Early in the morning of July 15, 1941 members of Einsatzkommando 1b (of the Einzatzgruppe A), commanded by Erich Ehrlinger, with the assistance of local policemen, took between 100 and 120 Jews to the town’s park, situated not far from the Leščinska mill. The owner of the mill, together with his family, had been deportated to the Gulag by the Soviets in June 1941. The local authorities considered the killing of the Jewish workers from the two main factories of the town to be revenge for the deportation. The Jews were shot at the site and buried in a pit that had been prepared in advance. In April 1944 the bodies of the victims were exhumed and burned by the Germans from Special Unit 1005.


Here's an account of a Wehrmacht soldier who was stationed in Rezekne.

The report of Johanes Becker, witness from Wehrmacht headquarters:
Rezekne's river of blood
... About fourteen days after we came to Rēzekne, the SS appeared. They belonged to the “famous” Security Police. They had SD initials on their sleeve. We, from local garrison headquarters, lived right across from the city [town] prison. We could, after the arrival of the SS, observe in detail the happenings that took place in the prison. At first the Jews from Rēzekne and the vicinity were brought together. There were people of all ages, the gray ones and babies. Among them were also women and children. The people were pressed together like sardines in a can. They were so closely compressed that nobody could topple over.
One day, it was about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., we were awakened by shots. We ran outside and then to the headquarters. From there we went to the place from where the shots were coming. We saw there that people had dug a pit (a huge grave), and that people had to kneel before the ditch. Then they received a pistol shot from the SS in the back of their heads. Those that were not dead the Latvian soldiers had to finish off with rifle shots. The people were killed by the SS with pistol shots. As we found out, the people were subordinated directly under the Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin.
I did not see the number of the dead in the pit. At the side of the ditch, there were still some fifty living people. They were gradually pushed by the SS men to the pit.
Finally, about ten victims were left. They had to shovel up the ditch, and then were brought back to the prison. There they told the other inmates about the killings. This brought on an intolerable wailing ....
From Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944: The Missing Center, Washington, 1996, pp. 282-283.

The killing became so intense the river ran with blood and local people urged the Germans to stop the executions in that area because it was becoming polluted. This account gives some idea of the situation in Rezekne at the time:

On July 9, 1941 (according to other sources, July 5), members of Einsatzkommando 1b collected local policemen at the former NKVD building. About 30 strong young Jewish men were then brought from the prison. On orders of the SD the Jews dug up between ten to thirty bodies of local people, including members of the local Latvian intelligentsia and former Latvian policemen, who had been killed by the NKVD before the Soviets left the town. The Germans wanted people to believe that Jews had killed these people and to encourage local policemen to actively participate in the ensuing murder operation against the Jews. One member of this group of Jews, 18-year Yosl Silno, jumped over the fence and tried to swim across the river, but was shot. Boruch Veksler, a 30-year old pharmacist, poisoned himself. The SS-men beat the other Jews to death. The murdered Jews were buried at the same place where the NKVD victims had been buried. In accordance with the order of a German officer, only Khanon Izraelit, a dental technician, was returned to prison.

Research and testimony gathered after the war can even put names to alleged killers and outline the horror endured in this city.

The following report of the ChGK from October 9, 1944 contains a description of the mass murder of the Jews in Rēzekne:
Testimony of Ivan (Jan) Matusevič, who was born in 1906, a Righteous Among the Nations (he rescued Chaim and Yakov Izraelit):
… In 1941, while working in the forge of the roads department on First of May Street, number 74/84, I heard a conversation between three local policemen, Pavel Pavlov, Ivan Kraul, and Petr Petrovskiy. I didn’t know where the two first lived, but I knew that the third lived on Lyutsin Street number 52. They bragged about shooting 110 Jews in the park near the Leščinska mill. The grave is located southwest of the mill, about 100 meters from the mill.…

The following report of the ChGK from September 29, 1944 contains a description of the mass murder of the Jews in Rēzekne:
Testimony of Petr Boiko, a Latvian who was born in 1892:
... In 1941 I worked at the Leskovskii [Leščinska] mill. I was there on July 15, 1941, when Germans shot between 100 and 120 Jews in the park near the mill and buried them there. Before the Red Army arrived on July 2 [27], the bodies were exhumed and burned....

The killing went on and on..

During July 1941 the Germans and local policemen took groups of Jewish men who were incarcerated in the prison to the Jewish cemetery, where they were shot. On August 3, 1941 the Jewish women, children, and old people who had remained in the town were also imprisoned. On the next day the Germans began taking them in groups from the prison to the Jewish cemetery. Over a period of ten days, under guard by local policemen, they were taken on foot or by truck to the cemetery, where they were forced to undress and then shot. Approximately 2,000 Jews, a majority of Rēzekne's Jews, were killed in the cemetery. In April 1944 the Germans opened the mass-grave and burned all the bodies.

...with no mercy for men, women or children:

The fascists burned all the synagogues in town. When an old Jew tried to save a Sefer Torah, a German kicked him in the stomach and the old man died immediately. 

The Germans did not spare 25- [sic, for 75]-year-old rabbi Chaim Lubotski. At the end of July the fascists came to take the rabbi. He refused to come with them. “Tell me where to go, and I will go there myself,” he insisted. He was ordered to go to the Jewish cemetery. The Germans brought ten more Jews there, and murdered them along with the rabbi. Before his death the rabbi said: “Our end has come, but every one of your crimes shall be avenged…” then he started saying the confession [that a Jew says before his death]….
When the cemetery was filled with bodies, the Germans moved their killing site to the Anchipanski [Ančupani] Hills, five kilometers from the town. At that location they shot to death 18,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Over one hundred Jews were murdered at the Yaskivski [Leščinska] Mill.
The women’s turn came on the day of Tisha b’Av. The Germans forced their way into the houses and took the women and children to prison. Many of them were taken directly to the cemetery and shot. Twenty women were taken to a brothel and were shot a day later.
Horrifying sights took place at the prison. In the morning the executioners would pass through the cells and take several children at a time. The poor mothers begged, screamed, and fought the Hitlerists, but to no avail. The children were loaded onto trucks, taken to the cemetery or the hills, and buried alive.
On August 23 all the women from the prison were taken in 33 trucks to the Anchipanski Hills and were shot. Only a few Jews remained alive in Rezhitsa after this killing: the tailor Lotz, the tinsmith Treyzon, the brothers Yizhak and Zalman Peyris, the tanner Kopilov, the engineer Mulya Lifshits and his father Zalman (who died later at the age of 85). In 1943 they were also murdered. Before the Red Army arrived, the Germans exhumed and burned the bodies.
B. Hertzbach

... and continued for months,  a nightmare gathering in intensity:

From the diary of I. Kolosova (Mikhaylovskaya), who was born in 1926 and lived in Rēzekne during the war:
November 10 [1941]. … Today, Jews who fled from Rezhitsa [Rēzekne] were brought back again….
November 16, Sunday: Indeed! Either matters are getting worse for the Germans, or they have been driven absolutely crazy by blood. Yesterday they eliminated the last Jews [in town]. They gathered all of those who remained, even wives and children of Christians. They didn’t spare Tanya and Vera Mikhailova [two sisters age 22 and 18 whose mother Lyubov Mikhailova (née Polak) had been Jewish but was baptised].
The murders continued all day yesterday at Ančupāni. This morning 22 Red Army political instructors were shot. An orgy of bloodshed is taking place. Now the policemen are carrying away the clothes that were taken off, but the people are no longer here. Human life costs nothing – only one rifle shot….
November 19, Wednesday: Is this the Western culture that is being hailed in all the papers? With the temperature outside 12 degrees below zero, they brought people (women and children) to a field, forced them to take off their clothes (including socks or stockings) and shot them. Their brutality must represent some kind of record…. One policeman said that, after she had to undress, Vera Mikhailova had voluntarily stepped into the first line of victims….
From Yuliya Aleksandrova, “Rezhitsa literally flows with blood, the houses are intact but the people are gone" (in Russian),” published in Relga, November 16, 2005.

Again the Ancupani Hills are used as a site to murder innocent civilians, this time in the systematic killing of the Holocaust.

In August 1941 a large number of Rēzekne Jews who had been incarcerated in the town’s prisons were murdered in the Ančupānu Hills - about four kilometers from the town. On August 23 the final local mass murder operation against the Jews began. The Germans and their Latvian collaborators took a large group of Jews, some on foot and some by truck, to the site, where they were forced to undress and then shot. On November 15, 1941 an additional group of Jews was taken to the site and shot. Among them were a woman who had been baptised and her two adult daughters from a mixed family. Jews from other places in the area were also killed in the Ančupānu Hills, as were many people of other nationalities, including Roma and Latvians, along with Soviet prisoners of war. In April 1944 the Germans exhumed the bodies of the victims and burned them.


The stench in April 1944 with the Germans exhuming all these bodies and burning them to destroy the evidence must have been nightmarish. And having murder on this scale taking place on your doorstep, with a blood-crazed local Nazi commander ordering the mass execution of Jews, Russian prisoners of war and Roma, it's possible to see how little a human life would mean if that human is a Soviet partisan or escaped POW seeking refuge in the nearby hamlet of Audrini. A megalomaniac wielding such power of life and death would surely think nothing of ordering a village of 200 people to be wiped out.
Another unmarked massacre site in Rezekne?

The systematic extermination of Jews ended when Red Army liberated Rēzekne on July 27, 1944.  But in our tour of the city, our friend added a footnote. 

As we passed a site in the centre, next to the Kolonna Hotel, bordering on the excavations for a new concert hall and arts centre, down the hill from the statue celebrating Latvian freedom, he said: 

"When the Russians pulled out of Rezekne as the Germans moved in (in 1941), they rounded up all the people they didn't like.. and shot them."

The wartime horrors of Rezekne go on and on, unnoticed and mostly unremembered.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Latvia's tragic war 2: The silent scars .. Audrini's secrets revealed

From the sombre killing field of Ancupani, we drove two kilometres down country roads to Audrini. Ahead, on the right, a large statue marked the turn off for the town.

As in Ancupani, there's no public explanation of what happened here, or what this statue marks. Those who want to know have to do some research.

In December 1941, while Germany and the Soviet Union were at war, Soviet partisans hiding in the Latvian village of Audrini, then under German occupation, killed at least two Latvian police officers. As a reprisal for those killings and as a warning to other villages not to harbour Soviet partisans, the Nazis ordered swift and brutal retaliation: All the villagers of Audrini, some 200 to 300 men, women, and children, were arrested and shot, and their village was burned to the ground. 

Boleslavs Maikovskis, a Latvian native, had been installed by the Nazis as chief of a police precinct for the area that included Audrini. Maikovskis ordered his Latvian police officers to assist German soldiers in arresting the villagers and burning their town. It is not clear whether he or his police officers played any role in shooting the villagers.

At the time of the Nazi Germany invasion of the Soviet Union, Maikovskis lived in Rezekne. In July 1941, German forces reached Rezekne and established a local Latvian police unit under the command of the SS. Maikovskis volunteered for and obtained the position of Chief of the Second Police Precinct of the Rezekne District for the Nazi-created police force, a full-time job he held from about July 1941 until 1944.

Maikovskis was responsible for an area that included the village of Audrini, which had an ethnic Russian population of the Orthodox faith believed by the Germans to be inclined toward Communism. In December 1941, altercations occurred between Latvian police and Soviet partisans believed to be harbored in Audrini, and at least two Latvian police officers were killed.

Nazi authorities ordered that action be taken against Audrini, and, on or about December 22, 1941, Maikovskis ordered his Latvian police to join with German soldiers in arresting all of the Audrini villagers, totaling 200-300 men, women, and children; on or about January 2, 1942, pursuant to Maikovskis's orders, his policemen assisted the Germans in burning the village to the ground. 

Maikovskis testified that he had had no choice but to order the mass arrests and burning of the village because the Nazis, through his Latvian superior, had ordered him to do so. Subsequently, in events with which Maikovskis denies involvement, about 30 of the Audrini villagers were publicly shot in the Rezekne market square, and the remaining villagers were transported to the nearby Anchupani Hills where they too were shot.

(from an appeal against deportation to the US Appeal Court, Board of Immigration 1985 by Boleslavs Maikovskis: 

There's a plaque in the town square - in reality, little more than a small car park - which details the bare facts of the Audrini incident, along with a map which shows the road that the villagers would have been marched along to their deaths. As I remember there's also a plaque by the Post Office (now closed) which lists the names of the villagers, but in Russian, and that at least a dozen of the victims, maybe more, had the same family name.

I asked our friend who lived in Audrini nowadays. He said: "Russians".. but not knowing the facts of the massacre, we didn't stop any of the few people around to ask them what it's like living in Audrini today.

It's a strange place: a mixture of ancient wooden houses - probably dating back to 1945 though, no later - with a scattering of three to five storey Russian-built flats. 
It would be inapppropriate to say the town has seen better days, but the recession has forced the closure of the Post Office and the nearest place to get a stamp is all the way into Rezekne. There's not much going on, apart from the odd dog barking.

In one final research sweep for this article, to try to confirm the number of Soviet POWs executed in the Ancupani hills (18,000 according to one contemporary account), I came across this Russian website:

which may hold the secret to all this. It gives perhaps the simplest account of why such a terrible fate befell Audrini.

The village of Audriņi in Eastern Latvia, populated chiefly by Russian Old Believers, was burnt in January 1942 by local collaborators, and 215 of its inhabitants were shot. The reason for this bloody act – one of the women from the village, Anisya Glushneva, had concealed her son, a Red Army soldier, and five of his comrades. When they were discovered by policemen they put up resistance, killing several of them. The chief of the German security police gave the order to ‘wipe the village of Audriņi off the face of the earth’. The Nazi policeman-collaborant Boļeslavs Maikovskis was put in charge of this action. 30 residents of Audriņi were shot on the market square in Rēzekne, the others in the Ančupāni hills. The village of Barsuki in the Lūdza District suffered a similar fate.

So in its simplest terms, a mother's love was the catalyst for Audrini being wiped out.

Reading about Lidice I saw a sentence which said the Nazis chose to boast about Lidice to show the brutality of their reprisals against those who chose to act against them (1,300 deaths for the assassination of the very senior Nazi Heydrich), but - tellingly - other massacres were kept secret. 

Because of the Nazi propaganda, Lidice was picked up immediately by the Allies. The liquidation of Audrini was known locally but doesn't seem to have reached a wider audience. Try googling both.

So why is this? Perhaps amid the horrors of the discovery of the concentration camps, the euphoria of the ending of the war, the division of Europe between Russians and Allies along pre-agreed lines and the probably daily discovery of yet another act of barbarism, the wiping out of 200 men, women and children suspected of harbouring Soviet partisans was a mere drop in the ocean on the atrocity scale.

My Latvian friend's resigned sigh - "but this happened everywhere" - seems to be borne out. But awful as it is, Audrini is nothing compared to the horrors of the Holocaust to be uncovered in Rezekne.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The forests hide deep secrets...Ancupani

I think it was my sixth visit to Latvia when I realised that I was actually quite puzzled that there was very little evidence of all the terrible things that have happened there in the past century. There are very few memorials, for instance. And on closer inspection, the ones there are don't tell either the full or the true picture.

Most of them, like this liberation monument in the eastern city of Rezekne, were put there by the Russians. This one reminds Latvians who it was that liberated them, in a tone suggesting they would do well to remember that.

While the Russians certainly pushed back the Nazis and ended the wholesale slaughter of the city's Jews (more on this later), it ushered in fifty years of suppression which smothered discussion of what really happened in Rezekne (more on this too.)

The truth is that Russians and Germans alike slaughtered Latvians in their tens of thousands. I'm not Russian and I'm not German: I don't have an axe to grind or points to score against this or that murderous totalitarian regime. I'm an English journalist married to a Latvian and in my visits to a country I never expected to go to I have stumbled across episodes of history that have shocked me. And I might add, I've seen a few things already: Rwanda, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany.

I was shocked firstly because of what happened in Latvia - virtually everywhere - and secondly, because no-one seems to want to remember.

I said to one Latvian friend: "Why isn't there a memorial there to this shocking thing that happened?". To which she replied: "It wasn't the only place that it happened. These terrible things happened in lots of places."
I guess that might be one explanation.
A friend in Rezekne offered to show us round the city. After we'd looked at the castle and the market and the bus station he said: "Would you like to see the forest where the Germans took a whole village and shot everybody?" A little taken aback, because this wasn't something I knew about, we drove a short way out of town. He led us along a path and into the forest for a short way until we reached a clearing.

"Here it is," he said. "Here WHAT is?" I replied, not sure what he'd brought us to.
"This is where the Germans machine-gunned all the villagers," he said. There were fresh roses and floral tributes - at Easter 2012, seventy years later.
But no information.

"This is Ancupani," he said. "The Germans marched 200 people from a nearby village, including children, and shot them."
At Ancupani, there's not a word of this. Ancupani was where the inhabitants of the nearby village of Audrini paid the price for Soviet partisans shooting two Latvian policemen, in January 1942.
The chief of police Boleslavs Maikovskis ordered everyone to be arrested after the two policemen were shot, and the village was burned down. The 215 villagers, including 53 children, were then executed here.
The savage reprisal was ordered because Audrini was known to harbour Soviet

On the wall of the memorial garden at the end of the execution site are mounted the words 'Vini mira lai dzivotu tu' - They died so you can live.

The doorway leads through to a staircase rising to a stark, simple garden, with no flowers or decoration, simply a statue of a mother with a baby holding an apple in her hand.

The child's outstretched hands seem to emphasise the brutality of what happened here.

And again, there's no explanation of why this statue is here. Not in Latvian, Russian, German or English, like the information boards you find outside Catholic churches or manor houses in some Latvian provinces.

One of those wreaths by the feet of the mother mentions Lidice, the Czech town wiped out in June 1942 in a Nazi reprisal for the killing of the brute Heydrich. The whole world knows of Lidice: its very name a byword for terror, synonymous with mass Nazi murder and cold, callous reprisals. I've never heard of Audrini but the same thing happened here - five months before - by murderers reporting to the same bosses.

Ancupani's forests of death

It's like this all over Latvia. There were massacres everywhere but the fact that Audrini and Ancupani don't rate even a matter-of-fact plaque left me feeling quite shocked. Surely people can't just shrug and say: "Well, this happened everywhere. There's nothing particularly special about this." Can they?

Ancupani was the accidental starting point for my brief journey into the wartime horror of Latvia, with killers German and Russian alike, who divided the country up as the spoils of war then set about murdering everyone in it, or deporting them to slave labour camps.

The sad thing that makes it all so much worse - and I haven't even mentioned the mass murder of possibly 18,000 Russian PoWs, thousands of Jews and an uncounted number of Roma here yet - is that there's not a word that says what happened here.

Time and again, when I see those trees, I know that Latvia's forests hide deep and very dark secrets.

SOURCES: Latvia in World War II By Valdis O. Lumans