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Those Crazy Latvians

While I was going to university in the early 90s, I snagged this job covering North America (read Toronto) for an English language weekly newspaper, the Baltic Independent, out of Tallinn, Estonia. The Baltic countries (not to be confused with the Balkans) of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had recently declared independence but were in a sense still occupied by Russia, although Russian troops were in the process of pulling out. At the time, downtown Riga was reminiscent of Chicago during Capone’s reign, as rival gangs and mob leaders staged shootouts to establish territories.
But business people were looking west and a similar paper, the Baltic Times had started up in Riga, Latvia. The gig didn’t pay much and basically covered my subscription, but the editor assured me I could have several good cafeteria meals in Tallinn for what they were paying per story. It was easy, I’d sniff out anything Baltic and fax off copy to Tallinn from the student newspaper office at York—email was just starting to happen, and I don’t think even John G. Smith, editor of Truck News at the time, was using it.
So in the process, I got to interview a Lithuanian poet at Harbourfront, and got a quick interview with the Latvian triple jumper on his way to a doping test after he’d won the silver medal in the World Indoor Track and Field Championships at the Skydome. When the Latvian president came to give a talk at U of T’s Convocation Hall, I was in the front row taking notes.
In case you’re not aware, Latvia is a hockey crazy country of 4 million people. And the most fun I had was attending a San Jose Sharks practice at Maple Leaf Gardens and then driving Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh to their hotel at the Eaton’s Centre in my Chevy Nova. Sandis was tall and gawky and in his early twenties, terribly shy with not much English. But the diminutive goaltender, Arturs (Archie) liked to talk and told me about living in San Jose and his hockey school in Riga. He asked me if my mother had knitted my sweater and gave me a bunch of hockey cards for my kids. Nice guy, wanted to invite him to supper at my parents’ house in Willowdale for some borscht.
The point I’m coming to is that I wrote one book review at the Baltic Independent that I was somewhat proud. I spent a good deal of time on it because I’m Latvian by descent (although I was born in Hogtown) and my parents and sisters shared history with Mody Eksteins. Lastly, if you care to read on, this is pretty heavy stuff, a case study in extremism and world madness and its aftermath, all of which is too common a part of the human condition. This was first published July 2000.
Modris Eksteins captures heart of 20th century in his book “Walking Since Daybreak”
Modris Eksteins was born in Latvia in 1943. That puts him in the bull’s eye of World War II and in the direct line of fire from the two worst extremist forces of the 20th century. A true war-baby, at the age of one his temple was grazed by an exploding shell fragment as Russian and German soldiers battled over a front line that shifted back and forth across his grandfather’s Kurland farm.
So it is fitting that Eksteins has become a historian and chronicled the fevered history of modern Latvia – no easy task and no easy history. Indeed, “Walking Since Daybreak” is more than the story of his family’s escape into exile and the fledgling nationalist aspirations of a group of Sels, Zemgalians, Kurs, and Latgalians on the shores of the Baltic Sea sharing a common language. Part memoir, part historical record and analysis, the author uses the text as a channel to enter postmodern waters. The veins of his manuscript run under the skin of our time.
The narrative is epitomized through the character of his maternal great-grandmother Grieta Pluta. The strong-willed matriarch was seduced, impregnated and cast off by the German baron for whom she was working as a chambermaid. Born in 1834, Grieta’s story is not untypical of many Latvian women of that era. Eksteins sees her as an important figure, more representative of the age than the baron who bedded her.
The author wonders if the curse that Grieta is said to have pronounced has, in fact, come true. Like Artemis of Greek mythology who, after being seen bathing by Actaeon, turned the archer into a stag so that his own dogs would tear him apart. So too, Eksteins surmises, has this wronged symbol of Latvian womanhood exacted a terrible blood sacrifice from the lineage of her colonialist master.
Eksteins plays the folds of history, juxtaposing slices of personal story with uprisings, battles, massacres and the shifting tides of international politics over the last 150 years. His feelers reach
across the decades and borderlands. And the borderlands are usually dark places, says Eksteins, in a century “that swirls in eddies of centrifugal malice.”
“It must be told from the border, which is the new center,” he says. “It must be told from the perspective of those who survived, resurrecting those who died. It must evoke the journey of us all into
The tale is grounded in Germany in 1945. The German cities are mere shells or less, and millions of dispossessed people are milling about– flotsam tossed up by a maelstrom of unthinkable proportions.
“Germany at the end of World War II is the ultimate ‘placeless’ place–defeated, prostrate, epicenter of both evil and grief, of agency and submission,” he writes. “It is here in the swampland of meaningless meaning, that our century has its fulcrum.”
But what a terrible swath it has cut to arrive there. Statistics can only convey more zeros piled on top of corpses. But Eksteins offers some provocative parallels as the decades of slaughter spiral into a vortex of absurdity and terror. “Nineteen forty-five is not our victory, as we so often like to think; 1945 is our problem.”
The story begins and ends with Latvians. A fiercely independent culture, they have never taken to being occupied or coerced. As Englishwoman Elizabeth Rigby writes, in Letters from the Shores of the Baltic (c.1830), the indigenous Latvians were difficult subjects and strongly objected to the enforced Christianity imported by invading 13th century Teutonic knights.
“Contented with their unexpensive deities of forest and dell, they resisted to the utmost; only declaring themselves converts after their huts were razed, their land plundered, and their best hunters slain; relapsing the moment their new brethren’s backs were turned.”
Medieval chronicler Heinrich von Lettland, infuriated by violent resistance shown by the native tribes, presages the centuries of destruction that was to be visited on these people. “They deserve to be killed, rather than Baptized,” he declares.
And so they were. Folklorist Gottfried von Herder equated the devastation wrought by the Baltic crusade with the Spanish conquest of Peru where almost a whole civilization was wiped out.
A few hundred years later, during the Northern War between Sweden and Russia (1700-1721), the land was again leveled. The Russian commander Sheremetyev reported: “From Reval [Tallinn] to Riga everything has been eradicated, root and branch.”
The Baltic states lie in the path of ambitious giants. Napoleon and Hitler both used the region as a stepping stone on their way to attack Moscow. The Russians, of course, have always eyed the Baltic zone covetously since the time of Peter the Great.
Somehow, despite the changing rulers and the moveable borders, the German aristocrats were able to maintain their privileged position as feudal lords and keep title to most of the land. The link between Baltic Germans and Russians was particularly strong during tsarist times.
This Russo-German paradigm is of particular interest to Eksteins. He asserts that the politics of extremist left and right are not that far apart in Latvia, and that various accommodations between the two powers over the years are not surprising, i.e. the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939; the close ties between former East Germany and the Soviets; and the alliance of the German Freikorps and White Russian opportunists after World War I.
At the height of absurdity, 1919 found several forces competing on Latvian soil. The British navy, Bolsheviks, Latvian nationalist troops, White Russian units and German mercenaries fought pitched battles during that year. As always, executions became a by-product of the fighting, especially when things weren’t going well.
The Bolsheviks took hostages and left a stream of corpses in ditches as they retreated from Jelgava towards Riga (and murdered the rest of them in the Central Prison). Overall, the Reds took 6,000 people to their graves in this brief foray and clerics were often a target. “Probably the most dangerous profession in the Baltics was that of clergyman,” writes Eksteins.
Not to be outdone, the German-White Russian alliance headed by adventurer Col. Bermondt-Avalov was equally as brutal. While in retreat from Latvian infantry, the rebels destroyed whatever they could. One of the mercenaries, Ernst von Salomon, describes the action:”We hunted the Letts across fields like hares, set fire to every house, smashed every window. We dropped corpses in the wells and threw bombs after them. We killed anything that fell in our hands.”
In fact, when Riga fell under the rogue army’s control, 50 to 60 people were executed every morning at the Central Prison, and Bermondt started the tradition of having prisoners dig their own graves, a practice that was to be repeated by the Bolsheviks and revived again by the Germans.
No less than the notorious Rudolf Hoss, later to become commandant at the Auschwitz extermination camp, received a bloody initiation during this campaign. By his own admission, he was “turned to stone” while serving in the Freikorps in 1919.”The battles in the Baltic were more wild and ferocious than any I have experienced. There was no real front; the enemy was everywhere. And when contact was made, the result was butchery to the point of utter annihilation.”
After almost two decades of independence and a flirtation with dictatorship, the coming of World War II brought with it a new cycle of death and terror. Ironically, in pre-war negotiations among the Kremlin and English and French emissaries, the Russians wanted the Western powers to guarantee protection of the independent Baltic states, something that the West has never agreed to do.
Following Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania again found themselves trapped between two extremes, and both sides were to be the source of unspeakable horror.
Eksteins cites chilling statistics. “Between 35,000 and 40,000 Latvians were murdered or deported by the Soviets during the occupation of 1940-41, most of them on June 14, 1941,” he writes.
“The homicidal policies of Stalin are burned in the memory of most Latvians. In general, Russian imperialism has a poor record in the Baltics and the “socialist” models of the 20th century have done little to make it better.” Eksteins calls Stalinism “red fascism.”
Moreover, communist collectivization policies and malfeasance fed the flames of nationalism. And in some Latvian minds, the close ties between members of the Jewish community and the communist regime meant that they were one and the same.
In a culture where anti-Semitism has very deep roots, the SS did not have much trouble finding willing natives to carry out their dirty work. One German official described the Latvian peasants’ hatred for Jews and Bolsheviks as “monstrous.” But many of the death squad recruits were university graduates who were active in the Iron Cross, an extreme right-wing organization intolerant of anything non-Latvian. In a photo, the Arajs Kommando (a group of Latvian auxiliary police who drove around in powder-blue buses and were responsible for killing 26,000 Latvian Jews) looks like a university fraternity – a group of freshly-barbered, intense young men.
Eksteins doesn’t hesitate to look under rocks. As Soviet troops pulled back in 1941, Latvian zealots murdered over a thousand Jews before the arrival of the German Einsatzkommando units, actions that the Nazi brass found appalling. They wanted their policy of extermination to be a “scientific cleansing” rather than murder in the streets by hooligans.
An AP news photo flashed around the world on March 17 sticks in the mind. A counter-demonstration in Riga, Latvia, of Soviet World War II veterans has confronted a group of Legionnaires, former conscripts of the Waffen SS, marching to commemorate fallen colleagues. One sign reads, “In the fight against fascism you gave in.” Two old men stand accusingly head to head, with the Freedom Monument visible in the background.
The two men are symbolic of the fracture in Latvian society. Eksteins supplies the figures: “Some 140,000 Latvians fought with the Germans, some 65,000 with the Russians.
Among the last defenders of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and Himmler’s State Security Headquarters were 80 Latvian soldiers – the last commander of this battalion, Lieutenant Neilands, would act as an interpreter for the talks on German surrender – yet another Latvian, the Soviet Col. Nikolajs Berzzarins would become the first commander
of Russian-occupied Berlin.
As the war was drawing to a conclusion, the Eksteins family managed to stay one step ahead of the collapsing Reich and Allied bombing raids. War’s end found them in Flensburg along with the remnants of the Nazi regime.
The last days of Nazism became a pathetic comedy. In an attempt to escape, Himmler shaved off his mustache, donned an eyepatch and changed his name to Hitzinger, while his intimate, SS Gruppenfuhrer Karl Gebhardt, put on a Red Cross uniform. Other former heroes of the “Thousand Year Reich” were also in Flensburg trying to flag a submarine ride to South America. “The fury ended, as always, in farce,” says Eksteins.
With the cessation of hostilities, Europe entered a new phase – the era of the DP, or displaced person. Close to 40 million people were on the move when the war ended. “Collaborators, resistance fighters, SS soldiers, Jews, peasants, professors, prostitutes, children, paupers, bankers, criminals, clergymen. Every nationality, age, social class, type. They were all present amidst the devastation,” he writes.
My Latvian parents also arrived in Germany in 1945, my mother pushing a baby carriage with all her belongings, and my father grenading Goering’s trout pond (a very effective method of fishing) on his way through Austria.
They, like the Eksteins, spent the next six years in a DP camp until they could find a Western country that would take them. For many people, repatriation to the Soviet sphere would have meant imprisonment or worse, and some committed suicide rather than return.
But it was only because of the chilling of relations between the West and the Soviets and the start of the Cold War that the DPs were allowed to emigrate. Even the two flourishing bouts of Latvian
independence, says Eksteins, came about in flukish circumstances that no one had predicted: the vacuum created after the Russian Revolution in 1917; and the putsch by communist hard-liners in 1990 that failed to topple the Russian government.
DPs in Germany after the war were disliked by the German population and by the Allied military authorities. With limited economic possibilities available to them, thievery and smuggling became common pursuits. One raid of a combined Latvian and Lithuanian camp turned up 109 live pigs hidden in three different areas of the compound.
But DPs were more than an assemblage of criminals. These were northern Europeans with strong artistic traditions. A very active culture-in-exile soon sprung up in the camps as opera, dance,
theater, and music productions were regularly staged. Even a Baltic university was set up in Hamburg which at its height in 1947 had 1,200 students.
Canadian High Commissioner to London Vincent Massey was pleased with what he’d seen of Latvians. After inspecting a DP camp in Germany of 1,500 people, mostly Latvian, he concluded, “I am deeply impressed by the quality of these people who appeared to be industrious, clean, resourceful and well-mannered. The camp itself was a model of self-help, and I could not help feeling that of all the Europeans I have seen these Balts would make the most admirable settlers.”
These camp Latvians were part of a great exodus that saw them settle all over the western world, with the bulk of them landing in England, Australia, the United States and Canada. Latvian émigrés were, for the most part, very successful in their adoptive countries and some achieved a degree of affluence. Vibrant and virulently anti-communist Latvian communities formed in cities like Melbourne and Toronto where their presence remains strong to this day.
The Eksteins and my family cross paths again in Toronto where they both arrived in 1952. In Canada “DP” was a pejorative label, and in many ways the new immigrants were made to feel unwelcome. They were frequently told to “speak English” and the new immigrants were routinely considered “second class citizens.” Toronto was a very stodgy British bastion in those days. Some areas of the city were “dry,” no alcohol permitted, and everything came to a stop on Sundays because of the Lord’s Day Act.
Again moving across borders, Eksteins won a scholarship to Upper Canada College, an exclusive boys’ private school, putting him in the league of Toronto’s Anglo-Saxon elite. Later he went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and attended Oxford University.
The Duke of Edinburgh and Field Marshal Montgomery visited the college while he was a student there. One day, the aforementioned Vincent Massey, now in line to be a future governor-general to Canada, arrived to dedicate a new building. In his speech Massey praised the British tradition that allows them to turn disaster into triumph, vis a vis the initial defeat at Dunkirk and their eventual victory on VE day.
This is a bit of a sore point for the author. Yes, the British, Americans and Canadians suffered horrendous casualties (388,000; 295,000; 41,700 respectively), but this is small change compared to the 27 million Russians left dead, 7 million Germans and 6 million Jews. If any one nation can claim victory in World War II, it would have to be the Russians.
Moreover, the arrogance displayed by the Allied occupiers was not lost on the German public. The western powers wanted to publicize the atrocities committed against the Jews. They forced residents to visit the death camps and widely distributed a film, “The Death Mills.”
As Eksteins points out, for most Germans who did not live in a city “the Jew was a myth, not a reality, as Jews were never more than 1 percent of the population and were concentrated in the big cities. But the German people did witness atrocity in the form of Allied carpet bombing and Soviet brutality and rape at the hands of the Red Army. (Although members of all armies participated in raping and looting, Stalin was the only world leader to condone such activities. When questioned by Milovan Djilas about the practices, Stalin replied: “Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”
“When the war was over,” says Eksteins, “the mood in Germany was an indefinable mixture of confusion, fear, and anger, but not guilt, certainly not collective guilt.” Writer Thomas Mann suggested that the Germans even felt some pride in the fact that the greatest tragedy of all time had been theirs.
Eksteins does not indulge in finger pointing. It wouldn’t do any good. Who was the greatest butcher, Stalin or Hitler? Who should be charged with war crimes, a Kalejs or a Kononov?
“We must accept a variety of histories, but we must also accept variety within our history,” says Eksteins. “History should provoke, not dictate meaning. It should be a vehicle rather than a terminus.”
“Walking Since Daybreak” is more than a provocative piece of writing. It is a tool to access a murky and dark past which, too often, has been obscured by rhetoric and ideological agendas.
Eksteins ends the book by saying war poetry is the love poetry of our age, and that his great-grandmother Grieta would probably agree. This gives me a chance to include a poem by the greatest of all catastrophist poets, Osip Mandelstam. The Russian Jewish poet was exiled by Stalin and died in a Siberian prison camp in 1937, ostensibly for writing a poem that ridiculed Stalin and his “cockroach mustache.” The following is from his collection of poems, Kamen (Stone). The heads could be from any genocide, past, present or future.
“Mounds of human heads are gathering / in the distance. / I dwindle among them. / No one sees me. / But in books much loved and / in children’s games / I shall rise to say. / The sun is shining.”
Modris Eksteins lives in Toronto where he teaches history at the University of Toronto. “Walking Since Daybreak ” won the Pearson Writers Trust Award in non-fiction in March of this year. His previous book, “Rites of Spring,” a history of World War I, received a Trillium Award.

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio. With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.
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3 Comments » for Those Crazy Latvians
  1. John Wihksne says:

    Hi Harry,enjoyed your article as I am of Latvian descent also. I have e-mailed you previously re: my friend Andy Craig and regarding the “Hayes” book I am writing. — John Wihksne,North Vancouver.

  2. Harry Rudolfs says:

    Hi John: Great to meet a friend of Andy’s and a Latvian to boot. Let me know more about your Hayes book and I can review it for Truck News. When I was in Vancouver a few years ago I saw a Pacific that was still working as a cement truck. How many Hayes still on the road? I’m in Vancouver at least once a year (usually in May) and it would be great to meet up for coffee. Sveiks ! Harry Rudolfs

  3. john says:

    Hi Harry- When in Vancouver please contact me. — John Wihksne — [604] 929-7149

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