In 1948 in the Īle forests, partisans from a joint Latvian – Lithuanian group built a bunker, the largest in the Baltic States, in order to continue their resistance against the occupying Soviet power. The group of 27 men was led by a young commander Kārlis Krauja (real name – Visvaldis Brizga).
On March 17, 1949, twenty-four partisans fought their final battle against a 760-strong force from the Ministry of State Security (or the Cheka). Fifteen partisans were killed, nine were taken prisoner and deported to Siberia together with their supporters. The Ile bunker has today been resurrected. A few years ago a forester discovered in the woods the remains of a bunker and had begun to partially reconstruct it to make a place of remembrance. In 2009, on the 60th anniversary of the final battle, the bunker was restored to its original form. Such had been the wish of the two surviving partisans Modris Zihmanis and Alfons Kalniņš, and a former guerilla contact person, head of the Liepāja Section of National Partisans, Biruta Rodoviča. A number of supporters and volunteers helped their wish come true.
In this way, Modris Zihmanis was able to again admire his workmanship. As a young man he had cooperated in the planning and building of this bunker. And he was also present when the Soviet crack troops literally smoked the men out by hurling smoke bombs and lighting fires. Zihmanis survived the deadly final battle with the Soviet forces and also 15 years in a labour camp, followed by exile. In the meantime he was condemned to death as the organiser of a camp uprising, but was later reprieved.
Zihmanis is now more than 80 years old and still very active. He likes to tell his story, laced with wit and with sparkling eyes. He has been writing poetry for decades - about love, beauty, freedom and his time of imprisonment. If you ask whether he has any complaints about his life, he gives a youthful laugh and retorts: "Why? After all, we won."
Biruta Rodoviča lived as a young woman on a farm near the Ile bunker. Like many local farmers, her family provided the Forest Brothers with food, money and, occasionally, a bed. Young Biruta often brought things to the place where they would be picked up by the partisans. No one was to know the exact position of the bunker. They were justifiably afraid of spies. Soon she would often meet with Modris Zihmanis. They made a tryst, and Zihmanis even went to the village festivals so that he could see Biruta. When you see them together today, you can still sense what bound them together. They were able to meet again after long years of detention and exile.
Independently of each other (each now with a family) they turned up in the 1960's back in Liepaja. It was their first meeting since their romance was brutally ended by the capture of the bunker in March 1949. Biruta, like all the inhabitants of the district (from children to the very old), was condemned to imprisonment in a camp in Siberia, followed by exile, because they did not report the existence of the bunker. This was the typical punishment for many who knew about or helped the Forest Brothers.
Modris' friend, Leons Garkalns, had a different fate. He also hid on his parents' farm the partisans who were passing through the forest and also supplied them materials and arms. His brother helped him but they told their parents nothing. Possibly their parents suspected what their boys were doing, but they never spoke about it. Inevitably, Leon would graduate from helping to joining the Forest Brothers in their quest for freedom.
Many young men did this when the Red Army began an enlistment drive in the Baltic States. Yet when he got the call-up papers, the Brothers explicitly requested that he join the Red Army. The reason was obvious: if he failed to appear at the registration his whole family would fall under suspicion. It was no longer safe for the men to hide on the family farm even though it was still necessary. Therefore, Leons had to become a Soviet soldier. He accepted the request but lived in constant fear of being made to hunt partisans – the people he supported and helped, his neighbours, his friends.
As a Soviet conscript he was not stationed in Latvia but remained in the Baltic region. Leons went to Estonia with a tank unit where the Forest Brothers were also fighting the occupying army. Fortunately, he was never sent in to fight them. But Leons' connection to the Forest Brothers at home was never quite broken. Every summer he makes his way with old comrades to a reunion with veterans, together with those from Lithuania and Estonia. Although each year, the number of the original fighters diminishes, their places are filled by their children and sympathisers. At this meeting, Leons introduces us to Antonija Brasla who fought in the forest, a Forest Sister, so to speak. The partisans in the forest were not all just men – women were also involved.
Antonija helped the partisans when they were arrested by the Soviet secret police. After several hours of interrogation, in order to be released, she broke down and signed a paper promising collaboration. But instead of working for the police she went into the forest to help the Brothers fight. She fell in love and became pregnant before her bunker was stormed by the Soviet army. Under interrogation, she was not spared torture and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby. As a prisoner she was supposed to give up the child for adoption, but she refused. After many years in the labour camp, even in exile, she managed to get her son back. Many more years passed before she could return to her country.
The veterans' annual reunion takes place on in a green meadow in the countryside – in total contrast to the sometimes controversial veterans' marches of the Latvian Legion around the Freedom Statue in Riga. Yet some veterans participate on both occasions. While in the West, the Latvian Legion is sometimes associated with the Waffen-SS, they are regarded quite differently by the Latvians. Undoubtedly, there were men among them who were involved in Nazi organized and directed atrocities. However, many men joined the Legion as they saw in it rather less evil than what they had experienced under the first Soviet occupation and they wanted no more Soviet rule of Latvia. Those who joined the Latvian Legion after 1943 certainly did not fight for Nazi Germany. The Nazi party was, after all, responsible for the first Soviet occupation under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Leons' generation was too young to make the decision to join the Latvian Legion. This was fortunate, for the nearer the Front came, the greater the pressure was on the young men to join the army. Leons, judging by his experience, can understand why so many gave in to the pressure.
The occupation of Latvia as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact brought with it the persecution of all who had served the Latvian state, or who were considered a "class enemy" because of their social and political positions. Shortly before the German invasion there was one more great wave of deportations. People were gravely fearful of arbitrary arrest and deportation, because anyone could be affected. Leons' parents hid in the woods with their children when the secret police commandos were searching in their district. Their fear was justified as their names were on the deportation list. Since the searchers could not find them, their neighbours were arrested instead - the quota had to be met.
Everyone was afraid the deportations would continue, but the German invasion stopped them. The German occupation began with other atrocities: the mass shootings of the Jews, which most Latvians were helplessly unaware of or tried to ignore. But some Latvian citizens joined in the killing.
The remainder of the Latvian population tried to return to a normal course of life, given the circumstances over which they no longer had any control. While the occupying Soviet rulers tried to make Soviet citizens of the Latvians, brutally suppressing their national and cultural independence and robbing them, there were some opportunities for development now.
Indeed, this was not a deliberate move on the part of the Nazi occupiers, but was the result of the indecisive policies by the Nazis. The Generalkomissariat in Latvia was part of the Reichskomissariat Ostland. There was disagreement between the various administrative departments and the Ostministerium (ministry responsible for the "Eastern Territories") in Berlin about the fate of Latvia. Subjugation, Germanisation, or some autonomy?
This question was never quite resolved, although the occupation recruited various secondary troops.
Modris Zihmanis did not fight in the Legion. His first acts of rebellion against the unjust Soviet domination of Latvia were purely peaceful. As a student he wrote, printed and disseminated pamphlets. When one of his small group was arrested, the others had to flee. They thought the brutal police interrogation would result in betrayal by their friend. Zihmanis joined the Forest Brothers in a common bond with Lithuanians. He tells many amusing and adventurous tales about that time. For example, how they attacked the Soviet tax collectors in the forest, plundered their booty like Robin Hood, or fooled party functionaries or the secret police.
Yet Zihmanis also tells us how, as partisans, they "liquidated" officers of the secret police or those responsible for deportations. The time for pacifism was past. All four men hoped that the Western powers, after the war ended, would not allow the Soviet Union to keep their prey offered by the pact with Hitler.
Although their hopes were dashed, they continued to assert themselves. About 22,000 Latvians in all were forest partisans. But, after a few years, the resistance against the Soviets began to break up. Many surviving Forest Brothers suffered long years in labour camps. Afterwards they were exiled, and even when allowed to go home they were stigmatised. They were to be socially isolated. During their first years back home, some of them were afraid to meet each other in public.
However, Modris and Leons remained rebels. Modris sometimes went into the forest, this time to meet with people from the opposition groups of the 70's and 80's. When the struggle for freedom and independence took hold on the masses and the People's Front was founded in the late 1980s, Leons, Modris and Biruta immediately became organisers. Leons helped to organise in early 1991 the rebellion at the barricades in Riga, from Auce. He joined the first independent military association in Latvia. But one of his proudest moments was when he raised the Latvian flag for the first time on the castle tower in Auce in 1991.
Modris, on the other hand, is enjoying his freedom as a poet. At last, he can have his poetry printed and published - quite legally.
Looking back over their lives, all four say they do not regret their decision to join or support the Forest Brothers, in spite of all their privations and persecution. However, they also say that their story has not been sufficiently appreciated, and that they fear it could all be forgotten. Only Modris does not allow his happiness to be clouded. After all, he repeats with a laugh, they won. Perhaps only such a person can talk in that way who can state, without pathos, that he never abandoned hope, neither in the crush of the deportation trains, in the camps, nor in exile.
Their stories are an inspiration to everyone – to believe and fight for freedom and justice when the rest of the world has given up the fight. They lived to tell their story and document their incredible fortitude and hope against what seemed like incredible odds.