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Diggers

by

Viktors Duks


 
"War—a diagnosis of the stupidity of politicians, a disease which mostly cannot be cured...

Sometimes I sit and think about how stupid man is—what all will he think up in order to send someone else to the gods?


When I came out of the forest after the battles, our family was hiding there, I saw them here. At home there were fallen soldiers, around the house. They were blown up, and the smallest breeze brought an unbearable stink of rotting human flesh to the entire region. My father and I rolled them down the stairs, and we tossed them into the grenade-torn ditches that were all around.


I heard that story many years ago. I paid no attention then, but it stuck in my memory.

***


Riga District. November 13, 1999. Early morning.

Soldiers have been buried near a farmhouse. How many? From which army? We don't know. We stand and look at a meadow. Approximately there. The possible location of the grave is somewhere in a territory that measures some 200 square meters. We make two control digs. The sand content of the second hole shows that the black earth has been mixed with yellow sand. Maybe here? maybe? someone? at some time? dug? something? At a depth of approximately 1.5 meters, the shovel hits against something hard. The black sole of a boot appears a moment later. So! It's only a black edge looking at us from the hole of the ditch. We've found the place. Judging from the condition of the boot, we can make some judgments about the condition of the remains of the soldier. After 30 minutes we already can see five half-rotted boots, chaotically dumped. Undeniably these are Soviet soldiers. The tank protectors on their feet are not worn out, which suggests that the last owners of the footwear had just recently received it. We dig up a pile of cloth, pressed together, from a soldier's uniform. We get the feeling that this cloth was thrown in separately. From rotted pieces of uniform three shells fall out, stuck together. Apparently there was a pocket there. Centimeter by centimeter we open up the grave. The sand that is tossed out is sifted once again. The tines of a rake dig out some teeth. There are no skulls, just a few pieces. On a black cellophane sack we gradually arrange black bones—one, two, several dozen. I look at the bones and think about the relatives of these men. Perhaps someone is still waiting for them? They are here, young boys whose still immature bones have in most cases already turned to dust. The unworn soles? Perhaps this was their first and last battle? Everyone says that it was their first battle. No matter—the stupid politicians, strategists and military leaders. A small, nasty piece of metal destroys you in a moment, destroys your thoughts, destroys the destinies of a few dozen other people.

After five hours the work is done. We've found the remains of three lost soldiers. Personal property? Six tank soles and a bit of rotted cloth. That's it.


The same day.

We go deeper into the forest. We stand at the side of the road and look at a place where, according to legend, between five and ten soldiers were buried. There is also a second legend—over the last 30 years this hole has been used to dump everything that is not needed at home. This second story proved itself right away. Under a thin layer of moss I find an old metal bathtub, empty bottles and bricks that were right on top of an old milk centrifuge. There are hills of glass and rusted cans.

My colleagues view my work with skepticism. It cannot be that two stories will prove to be completely true in one single day. From the initial hole, the shovel brings out a Soviet-type hand grenade. I don't mind saying that I became quite uncomfortable. I was replaced by the Communicator who had gained a certain level of professionalism. The next shovel produced another hand grenade, then fragments from a Soviet field engineer's shovel, then a piece of backbone. "See—here they are," the Communicator says quietly.

It's too dark. The work will have to be continued tomorrow. In the bottom jaw of a skull there are eight unformed teeth—they never managed to grow.

***


Who are we? What are we called? Diggers of the Earth, or simply Diggers? I'd like to be known as a collector of war trophies. To women we are known simply as fools. What do we do during "free time"—we work in good companies, we hold various posts. In truth, we're not much different from ordinary men.

Collectors of war trophies, those who rebury soldiers who have gone missing? Why? Looking for rusted pieces of metal, researching various stories—often we find out about tragedies that took place 50 years ago. Many decades ago a soldier's relatives received the information that on such and such a date, your son, your husband, your brother disappeared. Shot, torn to pieces, finally tossed into a bomb crater and covered with a thin layer of soil. Latvian, Russian or German—the stink is the same. There they lie, the enemies, hurriedly tossed into a single ditch, without anything to indicate that there are PEOPLE in there. Bodies have been found! And then the most interesting part starts. One option is to leave the soldier lying there, with one nuance—the bones are scattered in a radius of ten meters. The second option—the skull goes to a snot-nosed student at a medical academy. The third option—the person who finds the skeletons tries to inform organizations that are directly involved in search and reburying schemes.

We dig around in libraries and archives, we buy expensive books at antique shops, we study the press of the day, we collect memories. Like professionally trained dogs we throw ourselves into history and sniff out things, which are, of course, of interest to few people, but which are to us endlessly interesting.

***


Next day. Morning.

The deeper we dig, the less is clear—The Legend

This has almost become our slogan. There is no logic in places that have been crossed by war. There is virtually no point in posing questions to yourself and then trying to answer them. Why, for example, in places where a tank once exploded do we find fragments of an engine that is not from a tank? Why do dead pilots not have parachutes with them?

The continuation of the grave passes under the roots of a large, 50-year-old birch tree. We dig a tunnel. New bone fragments emerge from the earth. We find a skull with shattered temples, and a piece of bone falls from it. A skull? In the lower jaw there are signs of the person's eighth teeth—they did not manage to grow in. In a piece of a coat the size of a man's palm, we find crumbled Soviet bullets. We find the stand for a shaver and rubber shoulder—strap holders that Soviet soldiers used. That's all. We have put five black bags alongside the ditch.

When the work is done, the Classicist will again count and compare the bones, and then we will put them in the bags. They will remain there until May 9 of next year. Then the Communicator will put them in wooden coffins, lay Russian flags on top, and put each coffin in its final yellow sand resting place.

After a week of honest work, my brain gradually went into relaxation. My car rolled into a rural farmstead. The farm was run by a woman who was around 70 years old. This amazing person had been bent virtually in half by age. This is a sure thing—no generation understands those who are older, but no generation of a certain age will ever forget to say, "When we were growing up—sorry, but things like this did not happen."

No matter what, though, I really respect such people very much, and God forbid that I should experience the kinds of events these people have passed through in their lives. Their memories have stored up more information than they know themselves. Perhaps you don't believe me? Ask your grandparents to talk about their youth. Believe me—you will learn the kind of history that you won't find in any textbook.

I wanted to talk about some serious things—the buried weapons, other materiel. I had to meet with her brother.

***


November 27, 1999

"Yes, it was right here." The old man points to a place in the middle of the field. "The trenches come out of the woods and then twist around here, you see."

It's a crazy autumn day—it's snowing and raining on us all at once. Large drops of water fall from the bill of my baseball cap. I'm wearing two windbreakers, but it seems like the wind is blowing right through me anyway.

"I remember when I was little," the old man is saying. "There was a German officer lying dead at the bottom of the trench. He was maybe 50 years old, and I remember that he had a nice face and round glasses. My father buried him here."

The Classicist and I are semi-soaked, but our work is not yet done. The old man has promised to show us another place where between three and five soldiers are buried. We drive into the forest and stop at the crossing of two forest roads.

"It was right here on this corner. I remember that there were white crosses here, but I don't remember how many." I listen to the old man and wonder how many anonymous graves of soldiers there are in all.

The place where the graves are supposed to be is grown over with shrubbery, and there are deep tire tracks in the earth.

"We have to dig them up," says the Classicist. "We can't leave them here, no matter what army."

"We have to register them with the Germans. Let them come. We'll help them dig."

The old man says his farewells. The Classicist and I exchange glances.

"I know a place we should check out," I say to the Classicist. "I think that a tank exploded there."

"You know I'm always ready!"

We arm ourselves with a metal detector, shovels and a few other things and tramp deep into the woods. The wind and rain have calmed down. Perhaps the first fall snowstorm is somewhere up in the trees. We are in complete silence. Nobody is going to come running up to me to announce that the work has not been on time, that the money has not been transferred to the bank—nobody. The metal detector is turned out. Click…click…click. It quietly reports to us. And then it goes faster—click, click, click—beep! The equipment screams for help. We've found something! But what? I slowly poke my probe into the forest moss, pull it away carefully and find empty shells. Judging from everything, at one time somebody was here, shooting from a Soviet machine gun. We keep going. Again! Here it is! Oh, this is something bigger. We dig up a bowl-shaped piece of metal which I have trouble lifting. It's not bigger than a soup bowl, but it is amazingly heavy.

"The ventilation shaft of a tank," the Classicist announces. "From a Russian tank!"

While I look at my trophy, the Classicist has beeped up another location.

"Come look—what's this?"

After a few minutes, with joy in my heart, I lift out a German machine gun, an MG-34. Stop, stop—I know what you're seeing in your head right now with respect to this gun. It was a fragment of a machine gun that had suffered through an explosion, had rusted and had been covered by the roots of various plants. But one thing makes this item attractive. A fragment of the cartridge belt was still there, and an empty shell was, too. A true military trophy!

The forest quickly becomes dark. We feel it, we can barely see the tip of the shovel. With our hands we find a large sheet of metal, five centimeters thick. Truly, this has been a tank, but what kind of tank? Nothing there really indicated that there was military equipment at the site. After the war larger equipment was picked up, and the fragments that were lying around were collected by local farmers. We have to make do with that which is still under the ground, but there is so much of it! Loaded down with trophies we go out of the forest and have to admit that the weapon we found is heavy on our shoulders. How ever did someone fight with it in this place?


We are back at our cars.

"At the edge of the field he said that there was ammunition buried there." I look thoughtfully at the Classicist.

"Let's go!" It is not yet dark on the open field.

The Classicist turns on his metal detector. Clicking way, clicking away. There is nothing to suggest that there is so much as a rusted nail under the ground.

"There's nothing here." The Classicist is disappointed.

"Keep looking—it's there," I tell him, because I know that the legend is true. It came from the original source.

The Classicist keeps walking.

Time passes, but we have found nothing. It's getting darker. And then, suddenly—an unusual sound!

"Let me make a test dig." I can't calm down.

My shovel digs into the ground, and along with the earth, I bring up various roots. I think that we are closer to the metal that we have been waiting for. The Classicist brings the metal detector closer. The signal is far clearer now.

"It's here!" I'm delighted.

"Man, you've got a nose," the Classicist says. "I knew that you could sniff out buried soldiers, but metal? You don't even need the metal detector."

We dig deep, in a place where the last man was seen around 55 years ago. We feel success that even Jack London, who found gold, could understand. My shovel hits other metal. At last! The Classicist reaches deep down into the control dig, and in a minute we are looking at…a rusty nail.

"I think that it's from a box that held weapons," the Classicist says. I agree.

"So the next thing might be more interesting, huh? But what if it is something that might explode?" Even as I'm talking, we realize that autumn is a time of year when it gets dark out while it's still daytime. Our hearts are happy, of course, but the fact is that tomorrow we have to go to work, and then we're going to spend five whole days in the city. This thought is repugnant to me.

***


A week later.

I call the Classicist. "Are you ready?"

"I'm always ready."

It is far later in the fall. We are once again at the side of our ditch, which is half-filled with water. No problem. We bail it out in five minutes and continue our work. We know that we are going to find something that we will bring home, and then we will ask our friends whether they have something like it. No, they will say. But we do, we will say. Nails are emerging from the ditch. This is the first layer. Soon we'll have the next one. I could spend some time on this masochism. Let me skip over it, though, and get to the payoff. We ended up digging a pretty big hole. The content, of course, was nothing modern. Fine! But I can't really bring my fingers to type what it was. It was a garbage dump! There was a part of the roof of some old house, there were some broken dishes. Shit happens.

"Never mind," says the Classicist quietly. "You can't always come up with a machine gun."

Yeah, I forgot. A while back we found a German MG-42 machine gun. It's at my office, soaking in various liquids. What a beauty! If you saw Saving Private Ryan, you could see the shattering effectiveness of this gun at the very beginning.

***


It's 2000!

Fifty years have passed since the Latvian Legionnaires left their trenches in Kurzeme. Some disappeared into the forests, some went to the West, some others suffered their fate in the gulags of Siberia. Today I sat at the wheel of my roaring friend the automobile, and as fast as Latvia's traffic rules allowed me to go, I drove home from Latvia's seaside city. I was on the Kurzeme highway not as a digger, but as a company employee. My white shirt with ring around the collar, my knotted tie pulled down to half-chest—those were signs that the workday was over. I felt like a winner. Oh, how long I spent pretending that I'm some kind of super salesman, but how little it took to get the steely businessperson before me to turn into a gentle and tempting woman. She radiated such sex appeal that my hair almost stood on end.

"I have a proposal to make." I sensed that the director of the company was working with one of my competitors and that she had absolutely no desire to work with mine. "Have you had lunch yet? If not, perhaps you would accompany me? I don't know where you can get a good meal around here." I beamed. The woman agreed, and I could launch a new attack on her brain. My eyes focused underneath her white blouse to evaluate her fine white lingerie.



"Just a second…"—the businesswoman lifted her eyes from a steak that was so rare that the beef almost seemed to be breathing and focused her attention on a song that was playing in the background. "Sorry, I really love this song." My eyes watched the face of the woman who was sitting before me.

***


It's 1997.

"Help me! Please compose some music for my company's advertising jingle! I'm in a hurry!" I rushed in to see my friend, upsetting the decibels of his sound recording student.

"Fuck, what are you talking about?" The musician was half-crazy. "We have a disk to put out! I need lyrics for a song, but you're here with your motherfucking advertising jingle!"

"Aigars, you know that I'm no poet. I write screenplays—for me. You understand, for me."

"Viktors, I do understand, but please try to write some lyrics for this melody," the Composer tried to calm me down. "We'll record the melody on a cassette right away, and later we'll talk about your jingle. Bye!"

A moment later I was standing on the other side of the studio door, stunned. I was still stunned when I got home.

"Robbie, let's go—father is pretending to be a poet today." I heard this sentence from my better half all weekend long. Robbie is my son. My better half is my wife.

At the beginning of the week I went to the studio again and shyly presented the musician with my work.

"You felt the mood," Aigars said, humming the melody along with the nightmarish words that I had produced. "What's the song called?"

"What?" The question caught me unprepared. "I don't know. Maybe 'Shadow.' Maybe you want something else? I don't know—'Shadow.'"

It was very nice when the song was in the top three of the Latvian hit parade for several weeks in a row. What was the song about? My shadow. Quiet and obedient—a dark spot on a surface that proves I'm still alive. No matter how much a shadow might want to become a reflection of some other owner, it cannot. The shadow makes peace with this idea and walks along with me. When I put out my hand, so does it. When I have troubles, the shadow is the only one to understand me.

***


The last note of the song ended. The businesswoman recovered.

"Do you know who wrote the lyrics to this song?"

"No," she replied, watching me slide my notebook toward her across the table.

"Here are the words. They were changed around a bit to fit the melody, and the last verse was omitted, but you are looking at a poet who in his entire life has written precisely one poem."

Quietly, a bit humbly—I had found the right way. I had found my way to a woman's sense of romance, and when brought together with feelings and emotions, this road could allow me to achieve the impossible. I thought that she would always be my client. My heart was happy not because I had found a client, but because I had found someone who recognized my work.

"Did you write it for your wife?" she said quietly, after a long pause.

I simply nodded my agreement.

***


The Communicator called on January 21. He, like I, really wanted to go out digging. All we could do was indulge our memories of the autumn. The forest, the quiet forest. Nobody around to run up and announce to you that a client was causing problems. Oh, how I longed for that place! The clicks and beeps of the metal detector—the question of what will be found under the ground. One cannot put that feeling down on paper, one cannot tell it as a story.

The Communicator's call disturbed my peace.

"We're going to see the Tukums Legend on Saturday," he said, going on to repeat all kinds of legends and stories that he had heard. One got the impression that all of Latvia was covered with buried or sunken tanks.

***


January 22, 2000

I grabbed a bottle of brandy that I had bought the previous day from the kitchen. After all, you're not going to go visit a legend without something in your hand.

I got to the Classicist's house around 1:00 PM. The man who was organizing our search, Anatolijs, was already there. He is one of the few Russians in our group. Interestingly, a man who is a dedicated supporter of Russia's politics and ideology is helping us to dig up German soldiers and Latvian SS Legionnaires. We are men who support the Latvian state and the Latvian Legion with equal fervor, and we will work our hands down to the bone to pick up the pieces of a Red Army soldier. Superb!

Anatolijs went out and closed the door behind him. The Classicist closed the curtains at the windows and told me that he had something to show me.

"You cannot imagine how I suffered when I drilled the hole into the barrel of the gun," the Classicist moaned. My fingers touched a German MP-40 machine gun. I could smell the oil of the gun as it settled, cold and heavy, into my hands.

"I have always said that in movies they throw the machine guns around like teaspoons, as if they weighed 150 grams."

A gun barrel with a hole is the same thing as a man who has been castrated. We went to see the Legend.

"The Legend is out digging. He doesn't give a shit about the snow," the Communicator said to prepare us.

"Did you see the old man at work?" The Classicist, apparently thinking about our last dig in early November, was probably remembering the same things that I was. Logically—why couldn't you dig in the winter if the ground was not frozen. For the Classicist and me, the trip was like a pilgrimage, the same as going to Tibet to talk to the Dalai Lama.

The digger greeted us. When I spotted this legend of diggers, I liked him right away. He was around 45 years old and had a kindly face. I ended up in his barn, but in popular books it would be called a museum. I was left with my mouth completely agape! Pieces of aluminum or tin shot through with bullet holes, soldiers' cooking pots with people's names and army units scratched into the surface, all kinds of military equipment. Oh, and there were all kinds of military helmets, stacked up in a corner one on top of another. And then there were medals and various other military decorations. All of the smaller items were arranged on wood boards or kept under glass. It was clear that soon there would be no more room in the little barn for the war trophies that the Legend had found.

We moved from the "exhibition hall" to the house, we sat down at a table, we uncorked the brandy, and then the talk began. The Legend's wife brought us coffee, and when she passed her husband, she patted his grayed head in a way that was funny but also loving and friendly. "Oh, my little man," she murmured. Our translation: "How nice it is that you are not the only oddball." When we were left alone, we started to talk about various idiots who were interfering with us. Then we turned to tanks and airplanes. Sometimes our eyes strayed to the television set, where there was a documentary, in German, about the war. It was all part of the process. As quickly as the bottle emptied—that's how quickly the time passed.

"Gentlemen, let me tell you something," the Legend interrupted us. "One day I was out digging, and suddenly I saw—a leg bone! It was starting to get dark, so I covered up the spot and went home. In the morning I got ready, I took a flare gun, 100 grams of vodka—everything that I needed, in other words. I went back to the spot and spread out a blanket so that there would be a place to arrange the guy's bones. I dug. I found the other leg. And that was it. Just the legs.

***


January 29, 2000

White snow covers the ground. We are standing at the edge of a field. A swampy forest is 50 meters ahead of us—an outstanding place to wait for an attacking enemy. There is no lack of foxholes, and all we can do is ask our third friend—the metal detector—to get to work in this fight against history. After just a few meters, unbelievably enough, we hear a strong signal from underground. The shovel digs through the frozen layer of earth. I lift out the first chunk of soil. The Classicist puts the metal detector into the hole. The signal is much more distinct than previously. The shovel digs and digs, and a large pile of sand appears.

"Let me dig for a while, take a rest." I give the shovel to the Classicist.

Once again I have to be amazed at how powerful my partner's apparatus is. The ditch which the Classicist has dug is more than one meter deep, and once again this very nice noise, when two pieces of metal touch each other somewhere deep underground, and then you hear that lovely greeting of them rubbing against each other. There it is! Then, of course, the shovel is cast aside. I take a long, thin pole with a sharpened end and poke it into the ground around the mysterious piece of metal. I have bent deep into the ditch, and I feel that I cannot stay that way very long, because the blood is rushing to my head. Of course, just like any normal person, I summon up all of the saints who stand ready to help us at that particular moment in time. Deep in the ditch I see the wings of a mine from a mine thrower. It has been launched, but it has not exploded. Pause.

"We're not going to leave it in the ground, are we? At least let's see whether it's Russian or German."

"Of course," I agree. "We didn't come here to dig potatoes, after all."

The moment is photographed for posterity. If we find more objects like this, we'll call out the bomb detonators and let them deal with it. After all, we're not about to bring a live mine home with us.

There are other places we haven't checked—maybe there's more stuff somewhere else? We move to a different part of the front lines.

Once again the forest. The forest is the best place to hide from prying eyes. Imagine if we were out in the open! The people who live nearby would probably call the police, and it would be very hard for us to explain to the uniformed bureaucrats that we are actually out in the forest in the middle of the winter to hunt for berries. That's not the point, though. We're in the forest. All around us is a dream situation for people who are hunters like us. Foxholes, shelters, holes from hand grenade explosions. What more could we possibly want? All that remains is to go to battle. The metal detector makes powerful noise, no matter where we are going. We find metal everywhere. Soon enough, however, we find that this is wire from an ammunition case, or perhaps it is wire that was used to strengthen the walls of bunkers. In places we find scraps of the famous Soviet bomb, but our collection does not need such stuff, so we leave it for the next generation. We will be back at this spot.

***


Today my son—he's five—asked me a question:

"Dad, did you find grandmother's brother?"

No, I reply.

"Was he a good guy or a bad guy?" I can't collect myself for an answer that he will understand, and then: "Dad, who shot him?"

I sit and think—which one was the bad guy. Grandmother's brother, who was 19 years old at that time and served in the Latvian Legion with the Germans, or my own grandfather, who at the same time and in the same place fought in the Soviet army? My grandfather was injured in the back on March 19, and the Legionnaire fell on March 23, leaving nothing behind—not even a small burial mound. Who was the bad guy? How can I tell this to my boy so that he might understand that they were both good, that neither of them wanted to fight?

Without receiving an answer, he runs off to play with things, which at that moment seem much more important to him.

After what you have read, you probably think that my son does nothing more than play with plastic guns and pretend that he is a movie superhero. Absolutely not. I have blocked Cartoon Network from my television. I cannot accept this violence that is being put into young children's minds. Can I doubt the professionalism of the marketing division of a TV channel? Sure I can. Absolutely. It is a crime what they are declaring. I spent six years working at large companies where the target audience was aged 0-12. I know perfectly well how much money can be earned if you gain a foothold in the brains of children. Those who are impotent denounce sex on the screen, pacifists decry war and violence, and so on and forth. But I seldom hear any complaints about Spiderman or Action Batman. I watch movies about war when my son is far off in dreamland, and I hope that God is allowing him to dream happy dreams. When it comes to superheroes, it would be hard for me to think of anything that my boy has not been yet. We recently watched a movie about Zorro, and I knew that he would be changing his image soon. Sure enough—he was Batman, but he changed into Zorro.

What does he think about my hobby? How nice it was for me to see him asleep in his bed, holding in his little hands a piece of a World War I artillery shell. You are probably laughing, but what if the metal was found in the place where his great-grandfather fought during the war? My boy knows a lot about his great-grandfather, because I have told him. I turn my knowledge into stories. "It was long, long ago, when I was not here, your mama was not here either." "Was grandma here?" he asked. "Grandma was not here either. There was a young boy, your great-grandfather."

***


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 once 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 kilometers 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!


 

END OF SAMPLE



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