Usmas Pagast, 1944

When the war was over and my great grandfather Karlis Vinakmens and his family were living in Allied occupied Germany, my great grandfather wrote a letter outlining the details of his final days in Latvia before becoming a Nazi POW. I am not sure exactly to whom the letter was addressed, but it was probably some Latvian authority. This original letter is kept in the archives of the Latvian Occupation Museum in Riga. The museum’s historian Uldis Neiburgs was kind enough to send me copies, and a wonderful lady named Ilze translated it to English for me.

After the war, Latvia remained under communist rule until 1991. Talking about these events would have been extremely dangerous, and much is unknown about the events discussed here. This might even be one of the only eyewitness accounts of the what happened, and to have been written down in 1946, while still so fresh in my great grandfather’s mind makes this letter significant. Without further ado, his words:

“When I found out about the Latvian partisans I immediately wanted to join. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to avoid being conscripted into the German army and I could no longer stand the way that the Germans were operating in our country.
12/10/1944 Lt Rubenis battalion arrived at Ilziki near Usmas. My wish was met by the battalion commander Rubenis who enlisted me with the Minumetaji as a strelnieks (rifleman). As Ilziki didn’t have many rooms and our numbers were growing each day there was nothing else to do but build bunkers in the forest around Ilzikiem. My section settled into a bunker but others moved into the houses called Irbi and Vanagi which were part of the settlement of Ilziki.
At the start of November I fell ill with malignant tumors (that is the correct translation but surely he means something less serious, perhaps boils or ulcers?) so I was moved to Irbi where the battalions ambulance was billeted. There I was living with the mechanics group from the battalion, and I stayed with this group when the Germans started to annihilate Latvian partisans.
Even though we came from different areas of Latvia, we managed to get along and live together because we all carried in our hearts the love of our homeland.
Even though initially the Germans tolerated the partisan groups in Kurzeme, later they started to eradicate them. The Germans had hoped that the groups would provide them with the highest possible numbers of recruits for their own army, therefore they allowed them to flourish. But the partisans refused all German commands to join the German army and this caused the change of heart of the Germans.
Then the Germans asked the partisans to hand over all Latvians who had deserted the German army. They replied that they were Latvians within their own country, were not guilty of any crime against their own country and would not be given up. Seeing that the Germans were not getting anywhere with the partisan leaders their response was to annihilate the groups.
From 13/11/1944 to 14/11/1944 the Germans broke into all the houses where the partisans were sleeping to arrest or kill them. From the news it was apparent that only our battalion had succeeded in avoiding the attack. It was decided to go into the forests of Ilziki pagast to save our freedom. We followed forest trails around the eastern shore of Usmas Lake in the dark, moving towards Renda.
15/11/1944 we were not far from Lielbrenda and in the morning light we couldn’t dare continue marching. We rested through the day so that we could move again under cover of darkness.
15/11/1944 – 16/11/1944 we moved on without incident and in the morning we were near the Upati Forest guards house. There we fed the horses and we ourselves also rested as we still had a long way to go. As we were now tired we stayed well away from main roads moving only on forest trails and this enabled us to travel in daylight.
Not far from Perkonu house we were overtaken from behind by two German vehicles, a truck and a car. It turned out that in the truck were ?French? soldiers who were going to arrest two deserters.
After a while 2 German officers arrived. So it was that we took away the pleasure of these two thieves of Kurzeme (direct translation to give you the heartfelt emotion with which this is written). We stopped them as it was not in our interests for them to continue either their journey to arrest the deserters or to return to their command post.
Initially the German officers were very worried but in later talks with our commander they said that here around Kuldiga partisans had not been outlawed. It was only around Talsi where General Jekelns had given the command to annihilate partisan groups. They even named the houses in which local partisan groups were living. They suggested our commander drive back with them to their command post to discuss which houses the battalion could occupy and live here.
As it happened, our battalion commander accompanied the Germans to their post for discussions, our battalion stayed where we were, awaiting the outcome of the talks. In the first day of talks no decisions were made because the senior German officer was not there, so discussion continued for a second day.
17/11/1944 When the battalion commander arrived at the German post he was surprised to come face to face with Jekeln. Jekeln was very put out that the partisans had earlier evaded him but now he had caught them and for a final time he was ordering them to lay down their arms and surrender or they would, without exception be exterminated.
In a quiet calm manner Lt Rubenis answered, and they were his final words on the matter: “I want you to drive me back to my men in the forest, they have no intention of laying down arms nor of surrender.” Jekeln smirked “You are surrounded by SS battalions and you will be wiped out to the last man.”
Our battalion commander returned fairly crestfallen, the choices open to him were not that good, driving back he saw columns of Germans marching towards our area. Our lookouts also reported the German presence and movements. Our battalion commander called for our attention and in a few words told us what had happened. He told us to form up in readiness for battle that would come with the German attack. It was not possible to guess when this attack would come.
Already at 17:00 hours on 18/11/1944 German “starki” (artillery? rockets?) fly over us. In the forest at night they found no targets.
Dawn on 18/11/1944, the sunbeams are shining through the spruce trees, it’s a beautiful emotional scene of the men sitting together sunbeams playing over them as they sit around a campfire discussing what has happened in the previous year and todays celebrated/heroic acts that they anticipate are still to happen.
Seated are Briedis, Zarins and Kapastins with his wife, who would not be separated from her husband even in this difficult path of walking in the footsteps of the partisans. The battalion’s mechanic group Adjans, Aire, Zigurs, Ozolins, Kalnins and me had our flag flying here under the grey spruces of our homeland that the SS are so determined to destroy.
That was what 18/11 was like for Latvian partisans in 1944 on the left bank of the Abavas not far from Lielbrendes.
The morning was quiet, even so the battalion prepared for the fight. At 9:30 the first German “starki” (rockets) appeared and that revealed the position of the German heavy and light artillery, that started firing. The gunfire echoes in the forest and the fronds of the spruce rain down like snow flakes falling on the fighters clothing.
At 10:00 they started to advance their attack with German foot soldiers and their automatic fire. From the partisan side can be heard about 10 shots that are not without result. The partisans are not attacking, only taking defensive positions. As the Germans were not trying very hard, relying on their superior numbers and fire power they did not achieve their desired result. Some Germans lost their way and ended up being taken by the Latvian fighters.
As darkness was falling the Latvians started to push back the German attack and in places quite quickly the Germans in retreat found themselves on the banks of the fast flowing Abavas River and in their rush they couldn’t find a way to cross. The strongest partisan weapon fire forced those still left alive into the current and here now the fast flowing Abava achieves its goal and the majority drown. The German soldiers are driven by the current to the Venta River. Lots of German corpses litter the forests of Kurzeme and their losses are heavier than the partisans.
The most painful loss for the partisans is the loss of their commander, Roberts Rubenis, who not long after being wounded in the stomach and leg, died of his wounds. The command is taken over by v.v. Druvins. After the German encounter the battalion moves on as there is no reason to wait here.
Again a couple of times through the night there are a couple of encounters with landmines left behind by the houses that the battalion used. The strongest resistance is around the ‘Novadnieku’ houses. Even so v.v. Sulcs who is at the front of the column finds them.
On the 19th we camp in a swampy forest to rest and decide that our commanders, Lt Rubenis funeral will be carried out at Usmas cemetery. Having taken command Druvins gave a short speech in memory of our fallen and also mentioning our country’s National Day (18/11 is Latvia Day). He thanked us all for our heroic fight now so fatefully linked with 18/11.
Doubly significant is this day because it brought us victory over a superior enemy. Finally Druvins invited us all to sing the Lords Prayer(?) As many hundreds of mens chests/hearts overflow with prayer and their eyes blink back tears even after years of fighting – for those who are lost. In the distant forest there echo the songs last words, silence rules the moment as in a holy place, our homeland forest, we fighters stand, heads covered only by the grey spruces, bitter sweetness overlays the silence.
Again v.v. Sulcs recounts the conversation between our fallen commander and the German officers. With what arrogance the Germans dealt with the Latvians. Latvians can only fight, there are no other steps that can be taken against the German occupiers said v.v. Sulcs. They have taken our brothers, our sisters, and parents to their country not for some festivities but for hard/cruel work. They have destroyed our fields and pastures, our towns, stolen from our homes, we have to take the fight up to these invaders to the end even if it costs us our lives. And we will show no mercy to these, thieves of our country concluded v.v. Sulcs.
Over the night 19 to 20/11/1944 the battalion marched further and during the day of 20/11/1944 we came to Diskiru house in the region not far from where the Abavas joins the Venta and here we stay.
Making use of this rest period I ask permission from my commander to visit my family which is living in the small village of Valdemarpils, and having been granted permission I take to the road.
To avoid the areas in which partisans are being hunted and where Germans have put up strong control points I travel in a long diversion through Kuldiga along the Kuldiga and Tukums pagast boundary through Talsi and finally arrive at Valdemarpils.
Here at Valdemarpils is another bit of bad luck. Everyone who has come here from elsewhere, if they haven’t documented evidence of having lived here for 3 years, they are being forcibly removed to Germany. As I’m not on the residents list I was stopped and together with all the exiled, including my own family, we were taken to Ventspils and then by ship to Germany. It should be noted that in Valdemarpils this action was undertaken by communists with the help of Germans. They didn’t even allow the town council to distribute food parcels from those who had relatives who had somehow escaped deportation.
In this way on 8/12/1944 we left Ventspils. I have no further knowledge of my fighting comrades and have had no further news.”

52 Ancestors, Week 2: Karlis Vinakmens

Click HERE for last week’s ancestor

Disclaimer: this could quite possibly be the longest, wordiest post of my 52 ancestors challenge, but if I cut this story any shorter, it would be unjust!

My great grandfather Karlis Vinakmens was born on January 1, 1913 in the town of Kandava, Latvia. He was the third son of Vilis Augusts Vinakmens (Weinstein) and Emilija Karoline Veisbergs. Vilis and Emilija were married in 1904 in Tukums, nearby to Kandava, 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 the western province 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. The political  situation in Russia was not very stable at this time, and the Russian Bolshevik Revolution (The one with Rasputin and Anastasia!) 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 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 modern history. 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 have no evidence that he was around for any longer) 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.

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 Weinstein 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.

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).At this 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. 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).

The next piece of Karlis’ story becomes a little bit mysterious. As World War Two started heating up to the West, the Russian army under Soviet rule (the “Red Army”) invaded Latvia, breaching their previous treaty recognizing Latvia’s sovereignty 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 underground 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 of determined “Enemies of the State” (read: nationalistic Latvians) 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 World War Two came to town and the German army pushed back the Soviets,  invading and occupying Soviet Latvia in late June of 1941.

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 battalion 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 – he had welcomed his second daughter into the world in August of 1944. Apparently Berta and the two 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 boarded a ship and left Latvia forever. Karlis, Berta and their two daughters spent from December 1944 to May 1945 at Gotenhafen (Gdansk, Danzig), where I believe Karlis was employed as a carpenter (perhaps this was forced labour, since the Germans still controlled this city??).

After the Germans were defeated and World War Two came to an end 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 Andreestrasse (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. Europe at this time was filled with people displaced from their homes by the war. 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 for 3 years.

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 military barracks. 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.

Although Karlis and family had been cleared for immigration to the USA in 1951, they did not actually leave Germany until July, 1956. 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’ headstone can be viewed HERE

Veisbergs Migration

My great great grandmother Emilija Karoline Veisbergs was born in 1885 in Rezekne, the second child of Mikelis Veisbergs and Line Brugis, who  lived in nearby Struzani estate at the time. Mikelis and Line were married in 1882 in Rezekne. What is noteworthy is this family migrated WEST after Emilija’s birth, at a time when most Latvians were migrating EAST to avoid conflict during the Russian Empire’s 1905 revolution. Emilija married Vilis Vinakmens in 1904 in Tukums, halfway westward across the country.

I had given up hope in finding any more information about Mikelis and Line, seeing as they “disappeared” from the records after Emilija’s birth, when I stumbled across them at Slokenbekas estate near Tukums, where I was looking for my Vinakmens relatives. In 1896 and 1900, they baptized two children at Tukums Lutheran church while living at Slokenbekas. That left an 11 year gap between Emilija’s birth and the next child. Again I did not expect to have my questions answered about their whereabouts during that time. And again! I stumbled across two children baptized by MIkelis and Line Veisbergs, at Dobele parish in 1890 and 1891.

So, they were married in 1882. First child in 1884 at Rezekne. Emilija in 1885 at Rezekne. I next found children in 1890 and 1891 at Dobele. And then two more at Tukums in 1896 and 1900.

The Brugis surname can be found in a few parishes in Latgale and Vidzeme. But the Germanic background of the name Veisbergs suggests perhaps Mikelis originated in Kurzeme and had migrated east to Rezekne for a short period, to return later.

New clues!

Virtual Latvian Occupation Museum

I have been thinking recently of my Opa Karlis Vinakmens’ time in the Latvian Resistance movement, reading more about the kureliesi in general, and trying to understand the flow of events for him and how he managed to escape Latvia at the end of it all. I stumbled upon the Latvian Occupation Museum’s virtual site - and found what would have been genealogical gold to me a few years ago. Opa’s name is mentioned, along with a quote by him that had been given in the 1950’s and collected in a book called “Kureliesi” by Haralds Biezais.

Many elaborate, exaggerated stories are handed down about ancestors by word-of-mouth (likely in every family tree!), and I have discovered many of them to be exaggerations in my time researching genealogy. If you ask, it seems everyone is related to some kind of king or prince or war-hero or native American “princess”. I try to take all stories lightly until I find real supporting evidence and documentation. As more information about the kureliesi and Lt. Roberts Rubenis’ battalion surfaces after so many years of fear and silence under the Soviet regime, it seems all of what’s been said about my Opa is true, so far! I can’t help but feel some pride that Karlis was part of such a brave, fierce, nationalistic group as Lt. Roberts Rubenis’ battalion was…

Now, only to corroborate the story of his squashing a German attack on the battalion by hearing a bird sing at night, which was actually a signal being used by the Germans… and winning a medal for it.

Amanuensis Monday: The Baptism of Rasma Vinakmens

My mother had found an old suitcare that belonged to my grandmother recently, and let me go through it to see if I could find anything of genealogical value. While I didn’t find much new information, I did find her German Reiseausweis, Caandian Citizenship certificates and 3 different copies of this curious document:

Certificate of Birth and Baptism

Rasma Lilija Vinakmenis, daughter of Karlis Vinakmenis and his wife Berta Helen Vinakmenis nee Ozols-Ozolins was born on 23 September 1937 at Tukums, Latvia and baptized on December 25, of the same year by the local paster the Rev. Alberts Virbulis at the Evang.Lutheran Church of Tukums according to the Ev. Lutheran ritual.
This statement is based on the Parish Records of the Latvian Ev. Lutheran congregtion at Esslingen.
Esslingen/Neckar Oct. 21, 1954
Pastor Elmars Rozitis
Minister of the Ev. Luth. congregation at Esslingen/Neckar

(Seal)
Secretary to the Archbishop of the Latvian Ev. Luth. Church

Signed by Adolfs Donins, 28. October 1954

This seems to be some form of birth certificate/identification for my grandmother, who turned 17 in 1954 (Where was her original birth certificate?) 

The first interesting thing that caught my eye was the stamp of the Commanding Officer of the 7566 Labor Service Engineer Dump Truck. This confirms that my great-grandfather Karlis was still a part of this Labor Service unit in 1954. Until now, besides handwritten, I had never seen “official” anything from the 7566 LSC.

The second interesting thing is now I know my grandmother was baptised on Christmas, by Dean Alberts Virbulis. Mr. Virbulis was also Dean of neighbouring Kandava parish. I found a picture of Virbulis, at the altar of ther Tukums Lutheran church on the site Zudusī Latvija.

Another name of note is Elmars Rozitis, of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran church of Esslingen am Neckar (who appears to still be alive??).

The last, and perhaps most interesting name is Adolfs Donins. Adolfs Fricis Donins was the OBERSTURMBANNFÜHRER, or Commanding Officer of the 19th Latvian Legion during WWII, until it’s surrender in 1945. Why would an identification document of my grandmother’s bear his signature? Is this perhaps a hint that her father, Karlis Vinakmenis DID serve in the Latvian Legion? I bear in mind that he had been in the Latvian Navy, and then probably jailed in Rezekne by the Soviets until the Germans invaded and “liberated” him. Did they conscript him?? (More on Karlis’ military service.)