Bankovics’ debut memoir chronicles Latvia’s plight during World War II and his own experiences as a conscript and prisoner in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Though Poland’s history during World War II is much better documented than Latvia’s, the two countries suffered similarly because of their proximity to both Germany and the Soviet Union. The independent Republic of Latvia declared its neutrality in World War II in 1939, but Stalin ignored this and invaded in 1940. In 1941, the Nazis invaded, driving out the Soviets, occupying Latvia for the rest of the war, murdering the majority of the country’s Jews (with the help of Latvian collaborators), and forcing most of the nation’s young men into service. Bankovics, who was a teenage student in 1941, had to choose between serving in a German military “helper battalion” or joining the State Labor Service. He chose the latter, nonmilitary option. Eventually, however, he was pressed into military service with the German army, fighting on the eastern front toward the war’s conclusion. The Soviets captured him on the battlefield, confined him in a prisoner of war camp for the remainder of the war, then transferred him deeper into Russia to a gulag, where he was imprisoned for years after the war. Bankovics unflinchingly recounts these experiences. He writes with compassion of the people whose lives were destroyed by the war and of the absurdity of serving in the army of a country he was neither from nor supported. Bankovics’ account includes an introduction by the chairman of the board of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, who provides important historical context that American readers might lack as well as 30-plus black-and-white images, including photographs, maps, and sketches. Throughout the book, Bankovics’ sense of compassion endures. “We kids saw dead soldiers for the first time in our lives,” he writes of the Russians killed during the German invasion of Latvia. “ ‘They have mothers too,’ said our own mother under her breath.”
An affecting, plainspoken memoir of a Latvian man caught in the chaos of World War II.