Monday, 23 April 2012

Whispering trees - Litene, the forest of death

The monument on the left is a small, easily-missed memorial by the side of a country church graveyard but it commemorates a dark day in the calendar of the Latvian army: the execution in spring 1941 of 100 officers by the Soviets at a camp in the forest of Litene, in  Gulbene province to the north east of Latvia.
The killings were a process of ratcheting up control over Latvian society, institutions and its people that began when the Soviets moved to occupy Latvia following the carve-up of the Baltics instituted by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact of 1938 and the occupation of June 1940.

 Valdis Lumans' excellent Latvia in World War Two describes how Soviet Russia carried out this process of physical and mental control. They banned national holidays and the flying of the Latvian flag, made Russian the first language, renamed the streets, adopted Moscow time across the country and even abolished Sunday as the day off, substituting Saturday instead.

The military was absorbed into the Red Army, Navy or Air Force, with the Russian Navy consolidating a major base at Liepaja. According to Valdis Lumans, all personnel now had to swear an oath of loyalty to Russia: "I swear to my last breath to be loyal to my Soviet homeland and worker-peasant government. I am always prepared to follow orders of the worker-peasant government to defend my homeland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Litene forest
Senior officers in the army at the time would have been veterans of the Latvian War of Independence, and younger officers would have come of age in two-decade period of freedom that followed.

Soviet political officers were appointed, to ensure the reliability of the army in the 'socialist spirit'. What this meant was denunciations, disappearances and executions in a purge that reduced army numbers by a half.  Gradually Soviet insignia replaced Latvian badges and Russian political officers replaced the Latvians supposed to be ensuring loyalty to the Soviet ideology. Patrols were accompanied by these Red Army personnel - to prevent desertions.

In spring 1941 Russian generals took over direct command of the army and the 24th Corps were transferred to Litene, a training camp in Latgale province.

On June 11 and 12th 1941, Latvian army commanders were replaced by Russians and sent to a slave labour camp at Norilsk in Siberia instead of being transferred to Moscow for training, as they were told.

On the morning of June 14, 120 Latvian officers were loaded onto trucks and driven into the forest, where they were disarmed, tied up and shot.  The remainder - another 500 - were shot or sent to Norilsk. The lucky ones escaped into the forests.

At the same time as the army was being wiped out, so nearly 15,000 Latvian civilians were being loaded into cattle trucks to be deported to Norilsk, which became a slave labour death camp. These deportations were yet another dark chapter in Latvian history, but they were not alone: tens of thousands of Estonians and Lithuanians shared a similar fate.

 Lumans gives a figure of 4, 665 officers, NCOs or enlisted soldiers arrested, deported or murdered during the period of Russian occupation June 17, 1940 to July 1, 1941, generally referred to as The Year of Terror (see an online collection of gruesome photographs documenting some of the incidents here:

The Litene memorial at the top of this piece can be found at a turn off the road between Balvi and Gulbene. But the site of the shootings in the forest is more difficult to find.  This is half a kilometre further out of Gulbene, then three kilometres down a track to the forest.

It's possible to walk through the woods and come to a clearing where a camp has been laid out next to the only building standing from 1941: a concrete bunker food store.

The forest is a lonely, spooky place and I got the distinct impression I wasn't alone, particularly when it began to snow and hail and the wind whipped the hail into the branches with a strange tortured moan.

It's another of Latvia's forests of death which takes its place in the process of the subjugation of a nation: a process which would take another twist just a matter of weeks after Litene, when the Germans rolled across the border and began liquidating Soviet sympathisers and, as we've seen, Jews.

In their three-year occupation of Latvia the Nazis would also try to assimilate or absorb Latvian men of fighting age into their armed forces by creating 'volunteer' units: the controversial Latvian Legion Waffen SS.

With Latvian flags wrapped round their bodies - secretly concealed under their German uniforms - these men were sent into the fight against the Russians. Their courage in this fight helped stall the Russian advance into Latvia in September and October 1944 along the Sigulda Line and bought valuable time for tens of thousands of civilians to flee to Riga or escape the Red Army's advance but also for countless Germans to retreat back into Nazi Germany.

The Latvians of course had more at stake than helping Nazis flee. They were trying to prevent another Russian occupation of their country. In failing to stop the Red Army, half a century of occupation followed.

All of which leads to my next - again, accidental - port of call in my journey through Latvia's terrible wartime experiences which, in real time, has taken less than three days.

Memorial stone at Litene forest
But before we leave the lonely forest of death, another mystery.

Though the forest is three kilometres along a single mud track, and there's only one house on the way, this memorial stone appeared one night to mark the men who died here... and no-one knows who put it there....

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