1. Early Life
Karlis Vinakmens was born on January 1, 1913 in the town of Tukums, Latvia. He was the third son of Vilis Augusts Vinakmens (Wihnstein) and Emilija Karoline Veisbergs. Vilis and Emilija were married in 1904 in Tukums, they had sons Janis Rudolfs in 1905, and Arnolds in 1911.
Karlis was born on the brink of the First World War, and he would be no stranger to wars in his lifetime. In October of 1915, when he was just two years old, Germany invaded Latvia and occupied all of Kurzeme. Roughly two-thirds of the population of this Latvian province fled eastward, either to the eastern Latgale province of Latvia, or further even to Russia.
Karlis and his family were no exception, and they ended up somewhere in Russia, where Vilis worked at a meat-packing plant. A fourth Vinakmens child, Alise, was born in 1916 here in Russia. Unfortunately for the Vinakmens, the political situation in Russia was not very stable at this time, and the Russian Revolution was in full swing by the end of 1917. Many industrial facilities were closed down, and the story goes that Vilis showed up for work at the meat packing plant one day, only to be told to go home, because the factory had shut down.
At the end of the First World War, the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. I will spare you the details, but what it meant for Latvia (after another invasion by both Germany and Russia) was that in 1920, Russia finally agreed to acknowledge Latvia’s sovereignty, meaning Latvia was a free and independent country for the first time in a long time. This time period bred a strong sense of nationalism in most Latvians, a pride in being Latvian.
With the signing of this treaty, many Latvians who had fled from Kurzeme went back home. It is not clear exactly when, but Vilis and Emilija returned to Tukums sometime before 1921, when their fifth and final son Fricis was born. Sometime after Fricis’ birth (or maybe even conception, since I cannot prove he was around for any longer afterwards), Vilis abandoned Emilija and their five children, for whatever reasons. This only seemed to push the Vinakmens children to strive to succeed, and family lore is that the last time Karlis Vinakmens saw his father, he was a poor, broken old man sweeping the streets.
2. Free Latvia
During the period after WWI, Latvia enjoyed a brief period of independence, and an economical boom. New, exciting political parties were formed, and the Latvian people had more freedom than ever before. Latvian nationalism grew strong, and many Latvians who had been handed down Germanic surnames began to change their names to reflect their Latvian ethnicity. Whether out of disdain for their father, or Latvian pride, the Vinakmens children changed their surnames from Wihnstein to Vinakmens (both meaning “winestone”).
Karlis attended elementary school in Tukums from 1921-1927, between the ages of 8 and 14. He was an active participant in sports, excelling in sprinting (articles outlining his sprinting times in different competitions can be found at http://www.periodika.lv).
By 1930, his eldest brother Janis had joined the Latvian army, as an officer in a communications unit (Sakaru rotas?). Karlis himself joined the Latvian army soon after as a Navy aviator, stationed at the large Latvian naval base at Liepaja. While his time of service is not completely known to me, pictures suggest that he was probably employed by the Navy around 1932-1936 (ages 19-23). In his time, he possessed a badge suggesting he had earned merits as a sniper.
In the mid 1930’s, Karlis met his future wife, Berta Helene Ozolins. I’ve been told that she was working at the train station in Tukums and that is where they met. They were married November 23, 1936 and welcomed a daughter named Rasma on September 23, 1937.
As early as 1938 (possibly earlier), Karlis left the military and was employed as a woodcarver (“kokgriezējs”) at a carpenter’s shop located at 12 Elizabetes iela, Tukums. His IRO documents state that his employer was a man named “Teschlers”, however “tischler” means “carpenter” in German, so whether or not this was the man’s true name, or a generalization, I don’t know. Karlis, Berta, and their young daughter Rasma lived in several different apartments in the same area near the train station in Tukums at this time (Rigas iela, then Kaleju iela, then Balozu iela).
3. Latvian Occupation
The next piece of Karlis’ story becomes a little bit mysterious. The Russian army, under Soviet rule (the “Red Army”) invaded Latvia in 1940. All Latvian military units were either disbanded, or conscripted by the Russians to their army. There was an indignant resistance to this communist occupation, and uderground militant partisan groups began to take form, manned by Latvian rebels who sought a free, independent Latvia.
Under the Soviet government, anyone previously involved in the military would have been in grave danger due to the mass deportations carried out in this first period of Soviet occupation (1940-1941). According to his House Register while living at their apartment on Balozu iela, Karlis left his wife and daughter at home in Tukums to reside in Rezekne (his mother’s hometown) at one point during the first Soviet occupation, between March 3, 1941 and July 15, 1941. Whether he was in hiding from the Soviets, or whatever else he was doing there is unknown to me, but he returned to Tukums after the German army invaded and occupied Soviet Latvia in June of 1941. I had originally believed the Soviets may have imprisoned him, but some new documents say he was never jailed.
Many Latvians gave this new German Nazi government the same response as they did the Soviets, and the underground resistance movement was strengthened at this time, forming the “Latvian Central Council” (LCC). The LCC published an outlawed newsletter (Brīvā Latvija – “Free Latvia”) propagating the restoration of a free Latvian democracy after the war.
The German army conscripted many young Latvian men to their ranks, at first by using propaganda, and later resorting to full out forced conscription (as was the case for Karlis’ younger brother Fricis). It is entirely possible that Karlis was conscripted at this time, as family story tells of him being a part of the Latvian, German, and American armies. Any documents supporting this though, I have not found, although one would assume perhaps during his days as a displaced person Karlis would not have wanted to advertise any involvement in the German army whatsoever, so perhaps this is why I cannot find any record of this.
Karlis joined an underground military resistance group called the Kureliesi. His unit was headed by a man named Lieutenant Roberts Rubenis, whose objective was at first anti-Soviet, and later anti-German – they wanted to fight all occupiers and re-instate a free Latvia. Much of what the Rubenis battalion did is still unknown to me (and most historians, too – although the Latvian Occupation Museum is researching these events in further depth). I contacted the Occupation Museum’s historian, and he kindly sent me copies of a Latvian Resistance Movement registration card, a questionnaire/application, and three letters written by Karlis that detail the exact events. To be very brief, these brave men gave remaining Nazi forces a run for their money. To be detailed, I will go over this time period in another post!
On November 20, 1944 Karlis asked his unit commander for a rest period to visit his his wife and daughters – Karlis and Berta welcomed their second daughter into the world in August of 1944. Apparently Berta and the girls had already left their home at Balozu iela in Tukums and were living in Valdemarpils, close to Talsi in northern Kurzeme. When he arrived in Valdemarpils, unfortunately, the Germans began forcibly exiling anyone who did not have documentation of living in the town for 3 years or more. The family was taken to the port town of Ventspils, and on December 8, 1944 left Latvia forever.
5. Displaced Person
Karlis, Berta and their two daughters spent from December 1944 to May 1945 at Gotenhafen, where I believe Karlis was employed as a carpenter (forced labour??). After the Germans were defeated in early May 1945, the family went to Hildburghausen, Germany, for less than a month, presumably while the Allied forces attempted to house and organize all the displaced people. Off to Marburg, Germany in June of 1945, where Karlis was employed as a labourer by the US Army. In Marburg they lived at Andrestrasse (Andree Street) #5. Karlis’ brother Janis, his wife and their 3 children were also here in Marburg. And here, Karlis and Berta’s third and final daughter was born in late August of 1946.
6. Belgian Coal Miner
Belgium was the first country after the war to accept displaced persons who could/would not be re-patriated to their homelands. In 1947, the country accepted 22,000 displaced persons as labourers in their coal mines. Some viewed this as a way to obtain cheap labor. In July 1947, Karlis and his family became 5 of these 22,000. The family immigrated to Chappelle-lez-Herlaimont, Hainaut, Belgium, where Karlis worked in the Mariemont/Bascoup mine.
7. US Army Labor Service Co
It is unclear as to why (maybe he realized this was not as good of a deal as he had previously believed), but in July 1950, Karlis and family returned to Mannheim-Kafertal, Germany, where Karlis joined the US Army Labor Service Co. 7566. Founded in 1947 by American Captain Moxley, the 7566 LSC was a transport unit. In 1949, Captain Reineke was appointed the commander of this unit. Captain Reineke was a member of the “Lacplesa Kara Ordena Kavalieris”, or “recipient of of a Latvian Military Medal of Honor during the Latvian war of Independence”. The unit was briefly stationed at Mannheim-Kafertal, before being moved to Ettlingen, just south of Karlsruhe, Germany where they were housed at the Rheinland Kaserne.
The 7566 LSC men were quite actively into sports, excelling at table tennis and volleyball. Chess was also a favourite game of the men. Culturally, they organized lectures and concerts, and maintaining a large library. They also were the first unit to begin the construction of apartments as homes for their families.
The Daugavas Vanagi (Daugava Hawks) is a non-profit, non-governmental membership organization that has existed since 1953. Basically they are a Latvian cultural organization supporting Latvian veterans and preserving Latvian culture around the world. A chapter of the Daugavas Vanagi existed within the 7566 unit, and in the 1950′s, a lot of their efforts would have been focused on caring for the Latvian refugee community and their veterans. A family story is that near the end of his Labor Service days in Germany (1955/1956), Karlis asked an organization for the funds to buy a farm, and some LSC men lived there and tended the farm. I now know that this was referring to Berzaine, in Freiburg am Breisgau. Karlis and family operated and lived at this facility between 1954 and 1956. More info to come as I research this further…
Although Karlis and family had been cleared for immigration to the USA in 1951, they did not actually leave Germany until July, 1956. As to why exactly they decided to come, and leave their Labor Service days behind is still somewhat of a mystery to me. The Vinakmens family boarded the SS Zuiderkruis, departing the port of Rotterdam, Holland and arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on July 17, 1956. Karlis’ youngest brother Fricis Vinakmens had immigrated to Kitchener, Ontario a few years previous, and this is where Karlis and family settled.
Karlis worked for the Baetz furniture factory in Kitchener for 25 years before his retirement, returning to the trade in which he had originally been working back in Latvia on Elizabetes iela. He enjoyed making decorative woodcarvings as well as furniture, and I can remember all my Latvian family members having various carvings (a favourite was oak leaves and acorns) hanging on their walls, or decorative ashtray holders. I also remember a small, ornate doll’s bed that Karlis had made for my mother when she was small.
Karlis lived to be 88 years old, passing away in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada on January 31, 2001, after a brief fight with cancer. He remained healthy and active up until his sickness, and I remember him bicycling from his house, to visit my parents house across town, even in his 80′s.