Ilze Jermacane on Remembrance Day for Victims of the Communist Genocide in Latvia

14 June 2023

Source: Memorial Society 

When I was small, maybe eight or nine, I saw a movie, Long Road in the Dunes, and just couldn’t understand why the main heroine Marta and her small son suddenly wound up somewhere in Siberia. What she was doing there and why she wasn’t going back was incomprehensible to me.

I don’t really remember when I first learned about the deportation from Latvia. I was probably about 15 when it happened. It was summer, 14 June, and I was still a schoolgirl and listening to the radio, Latvian radio. They were doing a reading of a play, Letters from the Homeland. The writer Valdemārs Kārkliņš, who lived in the United States after the war, had written a book, Letters from the Homeland  (Vēstules no dzimtenes).

I heard some fragments. An actress read from this book about how, as a former officer in the Latvian army, he’d been deported on 14 June 1941 from Litene. That’s in Latvia, not far from Gulbene. In 1941, there was a camp in Litene, and the 24th Territorial Riflery Corps was already there, former officers of the Latvian army were there who had been transferred to that corps. I also remember in Letters from the Homeland about how one officer was deported from that camp, and his wife traveled to Gulbene, where they were taken away from the rail station. Around 430 former officers of the 24th Riflery Corps were deported from that camp in Litene. I also remembered that on that day, 14 June, it was raining, and somehow it’s always linked for me that way: 14 June, that book, those audio fragments, and rain.

This made a big impression on me. Those were powerful, emotional excerpts, and I was still a schoolgirl, and not only that but this was not far from Gulbene, my hometown. Somehow I was very touched that one fine day people—just all those former officers—could be picked up and taken away. And those officers, while they were waiting in the train cars, tossed out notes, and other people tried to let their family know what had happened, that your husband had been or was about to be taken away.

None of my relatives were deported in 1941. But after the war, in 1945 or 1946, my grandfather spent a few years in exile in Siberia. I learned that later. When I was a child my parents didn’t tell me about it. Maybe my grandmother said something. For instance, I knew that Stalin was bad. This was already at the end of the Soviet era.

For Latvia, the Soviet deportation was a painful and sad event. And it determined the further actions of thousands of people. Eight days after 14 June 1941, World War II reached the territory of Latvia, and then many Latvians started collaborating with the Germans, they joined police battalions because their relatives had literally just been taken away to Siberia. And in 1943 many voluntarily joined the Latvian Legion. In autumn 1944, thousands of people fled to the West because they didn’t want to go through what had happened in 1940 and 1941 again.

In the early 1990s, monuments to the victims of the deportation began appearing. In Riga, for example, at the Torņakalns rail station, they erected a monument in 1990 and also a freight car in 1996. There’s a monument to the deported at the Šķirotava rail station, from which they also took people away. Also in Gulbene there is a memorial to the victims of repression: a small flagstone on the station wall saying that people were deported from there on 14 June 1941.

In Latvia, 14 June is Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Communist Genocide. Flags with a black ribbon are always flown on buildings. There are various events, including official ones. Previously, events were held at the Freedom Monument, but on 14 June 2021, at the Museum of the Occupation, they opened a wall of sorrow (Vēstures taktīla). I think this is an entire history, the memorial. On 14 June both in 2021 and last year, the president and other high-ranking leaders of the country laid flowers there, and this year that will happen, too. After that, the people who gather there go from this memorial to the Freedom Monument.

On 14 June 2021, people all over Latvia gathered and read the names of the deported. The same thing happened this spring, on 25 March. There is also a map that has two parts: the names of the deported and memorial events. You can see where the name readings took place.

About 10 or 15 years ago, a commission of Latvia’s historians organized several different scholarly conferences on the deportation. Among the 15,000 people who were deported, there are also the 560 or so former officers in the Latvian army. And almost every year in Litene there are events attended by the leaders of our armed forces and the defence minister. I was there in 2011, when there was a round anniversary of the event. Also in attendance was the then-president of the country—that kind of official event. People who had been deported or children who were born in deportation also participate. In the cemetery in Litene there is a monument, a white one. And after the events in the forest where the camp was, they light a bonfire.

There is also the Children of Siberia foundation, which is headed up by Dzintra Geka. Every year they try to put out a new film (I think there are already more than ten), publish books, and hold conferences and exhibitions. Last year, their book came out, Mothers of Siberia (Mātes Sibīrijā). I read that 4,000 children were deported from Latvia in the summer of 1941, and there were interviews with mothers and the children who were left, who had survived.

I also know that every year the Museum of the Occupation tries to mark the date somehow. This year on 14 June, at the Museum of the Occupation, there will be a one-man play by actor Erik Wilson, My Magadan. At the base of the performance lie his childhood memories of the deportations (he was born in exile) and his mama’s letters and poems written in exile.

I think nearly every town, every locale in Latvia was affected by the deportation, and I know that memorial events are held almost everywhere when everyone gathers at the monuments.

Recounted by Ilze Jermacane, historian, Latvia

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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