An interview with a member of the Latvian SS Legion

After I was graduated from medical school, I was sent to work at a hospital that at the time was full of German soldiers who had been injured on the Eastern front. The stench of rotting bodies and the suffering of the patients were too much for me to bear. I had to decide whether to stay with the slowly dying men or to go to the front lines. I had to go to the front lines no matter what the Russians had determined my destiny in 1940. Through quick thinking, my family and I escaped our persecutors.

How? I was home alone, my mother had gone to the store for some bread. A truck drove up to our house. After a moment someone was knocking on the door. I opened up. There was an officer along with a soldier who had a gun with a bayonet.

“Does so and so live here?”

The question was about my father. I answered yes. They pushed me aside and rushed into the apartment. I knew I had to flee. I ran down the stairs, where my bicycle was standing. I jumped on the bike and rode off to warn my mother. As I was departing I could hear someone yell “Halt!” behind me. I turned into the yard of a home and, through a circuitous route, I finally got to a place where I saw my mother coming. I could not talk for long. She told me to go to another town.

The front lines. I was at Leningrad. Russia! Piles of bodies from fallen Red Army soldiers. The dreadful site of war three rows of corpses and the endless arsenal of soldiers. It was winter, and the piles of bodies were frozen in unnatural poses. The fallen soldiers were covered with snow, and the view was not as atrocious.

When the spring came, however, everything started to melt, and the dead men appeared again. Against the background of the dead, one could see pieces of the white clothes that were used for winter camouflage. The front lines were frozen in place, and both sides had time to dig trenches and shelters. I was 20 years old.

The only time that we ever saw the Russian soldiers crawling out of their foxholes was when we were gathering spring water from the ditches. That was a period of an unwritten truce. There were constant battles, if not with the enemy, then with water, wet feet and rats. This was a dreamland for the horrible animals the soldiers who were dead had been gnawed to the point that they could not be recognized. The rats started on earlobes and then turned to everything else. Orders were that we had to sleep in our boots, but how long can you keep your feet damp? After wearying battles, sleep always takes you in its power, and only when I got up I found that my socks had been gnawed, although the rats happily had not touched my toes. Along with the spring came the terrible stink of rotting human bodies. Can you get used to it? Never! The Russians who had run across our trenches and had fallen behind our lines were gathered up by a special team that piled them up in huge piles and burned the bodies.

The wounded Russian soldiers? Did anyone come for them? No, if you could not get to the medic yourself, nobody came after you. I remember one night after a battle when I heard noises and occasional shots nearby. I organized a team of scouts and sent them to look. They came to tell me about Red Army soldiers who were shooting their wounded under cover of night. I myself saw Red Army units that were stationed behind the front lines. They were dressed in blue uniforms, and they shot anyone who fell to the ground because we were shooting at them or who tried to retreat. It was not possible to survive with the Russians! I remember one officer who so much wanted to remain alive that he jumped into our trenches with his hands raised. We did not even notice him approaching, we did not load our weapons. He wanted to survive.

Close-up fights? Yes, there were many different ones, but I have never seen the kind of fight that they show in the movies the Russians fighting with shovels and such. Both the Russians and we had bayonets on our rifles. A close-up battle was when we could see the whites of their eyes, so to speak. What was our attitude toward injured men from the enemy’s ranks? I never saw any of my soldiers behave cruelly toward a wounded opponent. If we captured a wounded man, we delivered him to the medics sometimes we carried him ourselves. Later they were taken to a military hospital (of course, if there were free places in the truck if not, the Red Army men had to wait their turn).

Why was the Latvian Legion founded? There was an official version of the story one that continues to exist today but the truth was hidden.

The thing is that after the Russians occupied Latvia in 1940, the Latvian army was completely destroyed. Latvian officers were either shot or deported. Those who remained understood that the situation was becoming very similar to the one that existed in 1918 the Latvians had to be armed so that they could find military units in order to restore and protect Latvia’s independence. It didn’t matter under which organization these units served the police, the home guard, whatever. The thing that was necessary was to give weapons to the Latvians. This was not a plan disclosed to the public at large, I learned about it from Colonel Kocins.

To this day I cannot understand why he entrusted me with the information. We got to the point where, on March 16, 1943, the 15th and 19th divisions met in a single area of the front lines. The German army’s commanders sensed our purpose, and the 15th division was shipped off to Germany. I moved from the 15th to the 19th division. My unit, forced to fight serious battles during the retreat, eventually got back to Latvia. We were still in Russia, at a large village called Krasnogorotskoje, when we were suddenly surrounded, and in order to get us out, a nighttime corridor was formed. I don’t know how many kilometres we ran, but we did run all the way down that corridor some 300 men in all. Then we saw the Latvian Legionnaires who had been holding on to our route of retreat. What were we fighting for? For Latvia, nothing more. It is entirely foolish for anyone to say that the Legionnaires were Fascists or Nazis. If you offend the Legionnaire, you offend all of Latvia. We fought on our own soil. We were well armed and morally strong soldiers.

Were there traitors? It is difficult for me to say this, but yes, there were although so few that it is not worth remembering them. I remember a day when I was sent two new soldiers, and I felt immediately that they were up to something. I split them up. They disappeared the next night. The Red Army sent men who had defected to them to agitate among other Legionnaires, calling on them to give up and stop the battle. My boys heard the challenge, crawled over to them and shot them dead. That’s war.

I never had to force my men to select volunteers for a scouting expedition. They knew what they had to do. When we went on scouting raids, we could not reveal ourselves, our aim was to collect information about the enemy. I was a young commander, I was commanding men who were older than 30 men who were experienced soldiers. I tried to be honest and modest, and I earned their respect and their trust.

When it comes to the men I captured, the most disgusting ones were the Communists they were the ones who were the haughtiest. Among them were Latvians who had departed along with the Russians in 1941 those who had taken part in the deportations of Latvians in 1940 and later. I have no hatred against men who were mobilized in 1944 the Red Army, I mean. They had no choice. The defense of Riga. The decision was taken that Riga was to be defended. I was ordered to take over well-prepared positions at the Jugla paper factory. Those who were authorized to represent the Latvian state ensured that Riga was declared a free city, otherwise it would have been wiped off the face of the earth, just like Jelgava had been already.

We left Riga with the hope that we would soon return. The monument to the Soviet army by Kisezers is a nightmare. The Russians rowed across Kisezers without any problems and entered the city without a fight.

The heroism of the Legionnaires? They were all heroes. Each man did his work. Was I injured? My trousers were full of holes from bullets and pieces of metal, but I did not hide behind the backs of my men, I was not somewhere far behind the lines. I fell to the ground under fire only so that I would not stupidly become fodder for the bullets. A piece of shrapnel caught me in the leg once, but once the wound was treated, I remained in place. The fight for Kurzeme found me at Dzukste. I was sent to the front lines at Dzukste and told to “bring order” to the second company of the second regiment. I met the men on an open field when they had just left their trenches and were fighting and retreating. I took over the command, organized a counterattack and won back our positions right away. It was a lousy situation in that area there were no foxholes, and the best that men could do was hide behind trees. It was a very low-lying area, and it was hard to move around. Then I was sent to military school in Germany.

Did the Germans understand that they had already lost the war? Yes, they did. I once found myself at a gathering of German officers where I really should not have been. There were 500-600 officers there. The one who was up on the podium was saying: “We have lost the war militarily, but we will win politically!” The German command, led by Himmler, negotiated with the Americans and the British over the idea that one government would be overthrown and another, with Himmler’s people, would come in its place.

Capitulation! When the capitulation was announced, both armies were supposed to stay in their positions. The idea was that the British might land on the shores of Kurzeme, and then we would have fallen into their hands, but the Russians violated the agreement and occupied Kurzeme themselves.

The first days were very confusing everyone was running in a different direction, in many places men did not pay any attention to one another. If you did not have a weapon you were often simply ignored. It was a time of change, and the Russians themselves didn’t really know what they were doing. I was in a group of some 30 Legionnaires from different units. We were prepared to continue the fight. Our idea was to get into the forest as quickly as possible not in Kurzeme, but in woods that were farther away.

We knew perfectly well that the Russians would comb the Kurzeme forests very, very carefully. We had a truck with a closed bed, and we loaded up some weapons, ammunition and food. We got in ourselves and drove straight behind the Russian lines. We hung a white flag on top of the truck. At the first checkpoint we announced that we had no weapons, and they let us go with no problems at all. At the second checkpoint some Russian officer asked us whether we had weapons, and we said we did not. He let us go, too. When it was time to start the truck, though, the driver could not.

I think he was doing it on purpose, and he kept trying for about half an hour, with no success. Then another Russian came running up and announced that he needed the truck. He told us to get out, and we were allowed to take the food. We were wearing heavy jackets, and each of us stuck a machine gun under it of course we did. When the checkpoint was behind us we started to argue some wanted to go one way, some wanted to another way, some wanted to go still another way.

My friend and I departed alone. We walked across the Abava River Bridge and then somebody called out from behind us. They were Russians, and they were about to post guards on the bridge.

I do not know what would have happened if we had crossed five minutes earlier.

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