Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV  To a Far Shore


The Germans Arrive

Riga became eerily quiet with the departure of NKVD goons and their death committees. The wave of deportations was over for the moment. However, peace was uneasy. World War II continued to devastate Europe, and nobody knew how the war would turn out, and whether our tiny country would ever be free again. We gathered around the short-wave radio straining to hear the crackly messages for scraps of hope.

Hope did come, in the form of broadcasts from Helsinki, Finland, a German ally. They announced to the Baltic people that important events would soon take place. A broadcast originating in Prussia assured us that help was on the way. It did not say what kind of help, but we took it to mean that Germany would soon attack Russia.

And so it happened. Hitler’s men made a devastating strike against the Soviet Union in June, and in a matter of six days Nazi troops had crossed the Daugava River, three hundred kilometers from the German border, and entered Riga. The day was July 1, 1941. The last communist troops had left in disarray three days earlier. A few days later Estonia was also freed when the last blockaded troops of the Red Army were chased out of Tallinn.

It is impossible to describe the joy with which we welcomed the Germans marching in from the south. Latvians welcomed the Germans as saviors—after all, the brutal incorporation of Baltic States into the USSR was still fresh in our minds. Moreover, Germans were widely regarded as kin, more civilized than the Russians, as Europeans rather than Mongols. Latvian flags popped out of windows like bulbs in the spring, there to remain for a whole month of celebration. Strangers hugged each other in the streets. The simple action of walking out in the open without fear filled me with gratitude as I wandered into the churchyard. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to hold a thanksgiving service? But this was a weekday, and I had no way to let people know. Even as I rued the impossibility of rounding up my congregation, people began to appear out of nowhere. I guess they wanted to see if the Golgotha Church was still standing. Soon we were fifty or so, and together we knelt down in the temple, shedding tears of joy over the departure of the Russian oppressor.

Meanwhile, “liberation” to the contrary, Latvian hopes of an independent national government were soon dashed. The new maps issued by the Nazi occupiers showed the Baltics as part of the thousand-year Reich, a dubious honor for people who had not been consulted. Quality of life deteriorated rapidly. Food went to feed the troops, and civilians starved. A black market in foodstuffs and all manner of goods sprouted like bulbs in spring. I had to put food on the table for my family, so I became something of a speculator, and not exactly ethically either, I’m ashamed to say. But I trusted that the Lord knew my motives, even as He saw exactly what I was doing.
Economic hardships dealt a new blow to church life, even though we were free of religious persecution. Mere survival took all our energy, and we left spiritual matters behind for the time being. Even though we still held our regular Sunday services, the congregation lost motivation and focus.

Soon enough, the Nazi occupiers began to show their dark side in other ways. Initially, they desecrated the Jewish cemetery. Not long thereafter, our streets began to bear witness to the Holocaust: groups of ragged men, women, and children, wearing the yellow star of David on their sleeve, were flushed like rats from hiding places and marched through the city at gunpoint. Their destination was initially the barbed wire ghetto in the eastern part of Riga. Our hearts went out to them, but to approach in any way was now strictly illegal, a criminal act punishable with imprisonment or death. In spite of that, I gave them food under cover of darkness—usually bread wrapped in a newspaper and placed in the gutter. As the group passed, someone invariably bent down to retrieve the parcel.
I felt devastated when, quite by accident, I personally witnessed Hitler’s Final Solution at work. It happened early on a Sunday morning, as I set out for my usual walk through the city. Walking usually helped me clear my mind for the Sunday service and the message I was about to offer. This particular time I wandered by the Jewish ghetto in the eastern part of the city. To my surprise, the gate was open, the place deserted, the guards gone. I followed the road leading east toward Bikerniek Forest, still wondering about the change in the ghetto, when my disbelieving eyes took in a sight I will never forget. The road was strewn with shoes, clothes, toiletries, love letters, photos. I stopped to talk to one of the residents along the route. His tale raised the hair in the back of my neck: the Jews had been roused from sleep, forced out of the ghetto at gunpoint, and led down the road to a clearing in the forest, where, he said, gunshots rang out all night long. The man described a scene out of Dante’s Inferno: a hellish procession of hundreds of people marching to their death howling, weeping, yanking at their hair, cursing the executioners, cursing God.

That day I entered the church in a state of great agitation. The inhumanity taking place among my beloved people became more than I could bear. As I climbed behind the pulpit as usual, for the first time I could not find any words to speak—my soul and my spirit were in a state of shock beyond words. I apologized to the congregation and merely asked them, “Let us fall to our knees and plead with God for mercy.” That was our service on that Sunday.
Still, I could not find peace. I had to go back to the harrowing scene. On Monday, I rode out to Bikerniek Forest with two fellow ministers, Lambert and Korps. As we negotiated a bend on the road, the clearing came into view. But rather than the piles of dead bodies we had braced ourselves to see, in the distance we could see a small army of uniformed men with shovels, busily digging pits in the ground. We needed to see no more. The Nazi executioners would surely dispatch witnesses as efficiently as they did the Jews. We dove into the woods with our bicycles and ran, stumbled, and pedaled out of there as fast as we could.

A week later we rode out again. This time the pits had been filled and covered with fresh dirt. The Germans had apparently gathered and burned the pitiful trail of belongings the Jews had strewn on the road. From a thick pile of ashes my colleague Lambert picked up a charred passport belonging to a pretty Austrian woman. He eventually brought it with him to the United States as a reminder of the utter insanity of those days.

Even had I been somehow immune to the pain all around me, my heart was not at peace regarding my family and my profession. I could still feel in my bones the rumbling of Red Army tanks. The front was now several hundred kilometers east of Riga, but should the Russians ever return—and deep down I knew they would—then my direction was clear: we must leave. My arrest and interrogation a few months earlier had erased what few doubts I still allowed myself. The insight that I must get out had come to me two years earlier, in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. As I stood on the pier of the Daugava harbor, I clearly heard God’s message: “You shall be tossed out to sea and cast upon faraway shores.” So, in the midst of widespread rejoicing, my question remained the same: not whether, but only when to turn my back on the country of my ancestors.
At the first deacons’ meeting, I haltingly shared my foreboding, not an easy task. Everybody wanted to believe our good fortune. People were still hugging and kissing German soldiers in the streets of Riga. A stunned silence followed my brief speech. After a long pause, one of the deacons, Brother Katrozis, made light of my somber thoughts:

“Many waters will flow under the bridges of the Daugava before the return of the Reds.”

I replied, “I wish in my heart it were so. But let me remind you that the headwaters of the Daugava are in Moscow. That water always reaches our bridges in due time.” History would prove me right.

The Brave and the Infamous (footnote)

In hopes of being granted independence by the conquering Germans, Latvia put together the “19th Division,” essentially a separate military force operating within the German army. The 19th Division wore a special armband with the Latvian colors. When the Germans were driven back, this division retreated as far as Kurzeme, where they successfully held back the Russian tanks until the very end of the war. Janits, Otilija’s son and Robert’s nephew, was part of this resistance effort. They were called “Courland Festung,” or “Fortress of Kurzeme,” by the German High Command. Latvia hoped, in vain as it turned out, that bravery would be rewarded. It hoped that the Allies would take this triangle of Latvian territory into account at the end of the war and force Stalin to recognize Latvia’s independence. But it was not to pass. The Bastion of Kurzeme eventually laid down its arms and was butchered by Stalin, Janits among them. A few survivors formed a scattered band of guerrillas who hid in the dense Latvian woods for another decade. The body of an Ozolins was displayed in the center of Gulbene with green leaves stuck in his mouth, with a sign, “Does anyone recognize this forest brother?”

As for infamy, some Latvians, in a sorry chapter of the war, actively participated in Hitler’s Final Solution. The most lethal Latvian unit, the Arajs Commando, killed some 30,000 Latvian Jews. During the first days of the occupation, Latvian civilian nationalists fully cooperated in savage attacks on Riga’s Jews, arresting, beating, torturing, and raping them while burning synagogues with people inside. The Germans then forced the remaining 32,000 into an overcrowded, dilapidated ghetto. In November they sorted “productive” workers from the rest, setting up two separate ghettos. Throwing all available German and Latvian manpower into the action, the SS transported over 27,000 “unproductive” Jews to be shot in Rumbula Forest.

In the first six months of the German occupation of Latvia, nine out of ten of the country’s 95,000 Jews were annihilated. In the capital, only 4,800 Jews were still alive by the end of 1941, out of 40,000 living in Riga when the Germans invaded in July of that year. The dead would be replaced, temporarily, by Jews brought in from Germany. In November of 1941, the first of 19 deportation trains arrived in Riga to refill the ghetto—MT

A Difficult Decision