I wake up at six. I’d slept restlessly and had long, crazy tangles of dreams all night.
Room service knocks, right on time. Up out of bed, thick white hotel bathrobe wrapped around me. Hair every which way, undoubtedly, and circles of makeup around puffy eyes. I open the door to a cheerful face delivering my coffee and wishing me a good day in a thick accent. Back into bed, and I bring the tiny white cup to my lips. They don’t do American-sized coffee cups in Europe, but it matters not; that first taste of coffee every morning is one of my favorite things in the world. Thick with lots of honey and milk. Sweet, bitter, and straight into the soul. Good morning world, I’m slowly arriving again after a restless night.
I began to prepare myself for the day. So many layers of clothing required: A few shirts plus a sweater and thick camo jacket. Thick down coveralls over jeans and leggings. Wool socks, two pair. Rubber boots, hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. Hat. Gloves. Scarf.
Off I go.
Today, I am seeking the bones.
Somehow, when you find a piece of a fallen soldier, you find a piece of yourself, as if a part of you, too, was hastily buried in an unmarked battlefield grave.
The bones of the dead teach me from an echo grooved deep inside their disintegrated, long-gone bellies. The echo reaches into me with unseen fingers and traces truth down my spine as I curl over a freshly dug pit to retrieve them.
When you carefully collect bones nestled in the earth, it’s like something clicks inside you, puts you back together. Like a visceral, palpable synergy between you and the bones you hold in your hands, forming a pure connection. Purer than pure.
It changes you, inside and out.
Makes you feel yourself in ways you can’t describe.
You feel the wide-open spaces of humanity, with all of its inhumanity, in ways you can’t believe.
A sacred union between you and the remains of this human, it has no words and remains a secret for all of time.
You long to share it, to tell it, to describe it, but you can’t.
So you just return again and again, to hold the bones.
I walk out of the hotel, turn right, and head down the cobbled Riga street still drenched in lamplight. I see a familiar form waving at me from beside the white van that carries volunteers and bones back and forth, back and forth across the Latvian landscape. Over muddy fields and highways, this trusty van travels endlessly, ferrying the living toward the dead.
I smile and wave back. What we are about to do is my favorite thing in the world. And I’m doing it with some of my favorite people in the world: the tight-knit community of volunteers that forms Legenda.
I climb into the front seat and say a warm, excited hello to the men in the van. It’s a grand ol’ reunion. I haven’t seen these guys in months.
I’m sitting next to Talis, the leader of the gang. He’s been seeking the lost soldiers of Latvia for decades, working closely with the Latvian War Graves Commission, the Latvian government (which gives him the necessary permits), the landowners (who give him permission to dig on their property), and the governments of the fallen soldiers. Talis often reaches into his own pocket to pay for the equipment and fees necessary for exhuming and burying the lost soldiers with a proper military service in a proper military cemetery.
Duksi is second in command and, like all the diggers, possesses a huge amount of knowledge about the war and its soldiers, equipment, battles, and politics. I constantly besiege him with questions, and he always provides the answers.
I love this ragtag gang of diggers like brothers.
I met them last summer when I was invited to fly to Latvia to join them on an expedition. I had arrived in Latvia devastated, with my sense of community shattered. Believe me, this was the last place I expected to find a holy bond. In fact, I was a little terrified. I’d had plenty of experiences as a female that contributed to a sense of ominous distrust about going deep into the forest with a few dozen men I didn’t know. My fear seems funny to me now because this group of men — and a few women who also dotted the ranks — were wholly welcoming and treated me with kindness and respect that provided a soothing salve for my soul’s fresh wounds. These metal-detector-wielding folk who gathered from all over Europe welcomed me wholeheartedly into their circle.
They helped me remember what true brotherhood — or sisterhood, or humanhood — is.
The digging community was straightforward, no bullshit, get out there and dig and help each other as you go along, then eat and drink together all evening, then start again.
Those days spent with the living and the dead soothed my soul at exactly the right time, when the loss of my world was crashing down around me.
They don’t really know any of this — and they are the humble sort who would shrug it off if they did — but Legenda provided me a place to fall, and my loyalty to them and the cause we share is indestructible.
My days as a military historian ensure I’m surrounded by plenty of humans who happen to be male. They help me learn, appreciate my intentions, and have become soul mates of sorts.
Conversely, there are plenty who disregard me, talk over me in a presumptive way, and misinterpret my interest.
I’m used to it.
Not infrequently, my knowledge on the subject is dismissed. Maybe it’s the blond hair; most certainly it’s my gender.
A couple of years ago, I stepped up to a vendor’s table at a military fair in the UK. He was selling a large variety of photo albums from the war, the kind I crave because they overflow with a variety of human moments in the midst of tragedy. Taken by the soldiers themselves, the black and white photos in these albums give you an intimate glimpse of mostly very young men hanging out drinking and goofing off. These shots are sandwiched between images of enemy KIA soldiers, women standing on porches watching the occupiers march by, lines of POWs or refugees marching along a dusty road, and homes exploding and burning.
I collect these photos, and they are my Muse. I reproduce them in my artwork, and they are a tool in my learning - and prized features of my ever-growing collection of items from the war. When the vendor behind the table stacked with albums approached me as I was flipping through one of them, my eyeballs absorbing the soldiers and their war and my money burning a hole in my pocket, he said: “I have a nurse’s album over there”, and shook his thumb back and forth over his shoulder toward another table of items.
There never has been the slightest hint or suggestion of that sort of thing from the gang who descend on Latvia, or the Latvians themselves.
After a cheerful round of catching up, the guys fill me in.
Where we will dig today is a perfect illustration of the complexities that surround Latvia’s involvement in the war. The Soviets occupied the country in 1940. The Latvians were subjected to massive oppression, including executions and deportation to Siberia. Because of this, when the Germans rolled over the borders in 1941, the Latvians viewed them as liberators. A rather complex scenario unfolded over the next few years. To the best of my understanding, some Latvians were conscripted into the German forces, some were conscripted into the Red Army, and some volunteered for both sides.
There were, and still are, mixed feelings about those war years in this country tucked so far into northeastern Europe. No one true Latvian path existed back then. Jewish Latvians were forced to march to their deaths along the old highway, into a forest where executioners waited with guns. Some Latvians pulled the triggers that sent their Jewish countrymen tumbling into mass graves. Some Latvians were forced into the ranks of the German army as members of the SS Latvian Legion. Some signed up willingly and proudly wore its death’s head insignia. Many died in the name of communism, forced to fight for the Red Army and a regime they did not believe in. Others fought proudly and carried the victory of their side into the next iteration of Latvian history.
All were affected — and all lives were sent further into terror and dissaray.
Although the Latvians perceived the Germans as their liberators initially, by the time of the formation of the Legion, their opinions of the Germans had dulled significantly.
The SS Latvian Legion was not tried or convicted of crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trials, due to the conclusion by the Allied powers that they were forced into conscription. As a whole, they were trusted by the Allies, noted for their difference in ideology and purpose from the Nazis or the SS. Some historians say that, at the time, they were considered freedom fighters (against Communism), and not fascists.
During the war they were a front line combat unit. After the war, they served as guards beside the Americans; their duty was patrolling the area surrounding the cells of war criminals like Goering and Hess during the Nuremberg trials. They also worked with the Americans on their bases in Europe in the years following the war.
While it is true that some of the men who participated in the massacres of the Jews eventually served in the Legion, the massacres were not committed by the Legion itself. They occurred in the year before the formation of the Legion.
On this exact day — December 30 — in 1944, a harsh battle raged between the Red Army and the Germans, with Latvians fighting on both sides. On the field where we all stand with our shovels, around two thousand Latvian men serving in the Red Army died. They rested in peace for months in piles stacked around the battlefield. The Germans had gathered up their war dead, but the Red Army had not. When the springtime thaw came, the families arrived to try and identify the bodies of their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands. The bodies they identified went home and were buried. Those not identified were hastily buried in unmarked mass graves.
Today we look for those soldiers.
We drive in the dark toward our destination. With the chatter of Latvian behind me and the smell of gas station sausages and donuts filling my nose, I watch the sun rising over roads, forests, and fields before me. A quiet simplicity fills my vision as the countryside flies past my window.
Endless rows of broken stalks jaggedly trace the curvature of the field. Half-rotted ears of corn, the remains of a harvest, lie strewn about. Colorful textures of rot and mildew splash the pale yellow kernels with deep pink and inky Payne’s grey. They catch my eye, and I am transfixed. I photograph them endlessly; they mimic my favorite colors from my own painter’s palette.
Trees, a farm, a lake, a monument to the fallen and the lost. Duksi and his son, Roberts, explain to me in detail the battle that scourged the earth and destroyed lives here, where we stand. We set up base camp. The men begin to march off, shovels and metal detectors over their shoulders, hats on, smokes out. Ready for a long day of mud and, hopefully, collecting the bones that can finally be sent home.
Mud everywhere. The sound of the tractor groaning. Men, roaming in the field and in the clusters of trees dotting the landscape here and there, their location given away by the beeps of metal detectors.
The soldiers wore various types of metal on their uniforms and carried metal items in their gear; the beep of the detector gives a clue that there could be a man lying there with a helmet or buttons from his uniform.
A whip of the wind bites at my face, which is the only exposed skin on my body. I wear a pair of heavy synthetic leather gloves I bought yesterday at a Latvian version of Home Depot. Occasionally, I allow my right hand to break free so I can take photos, but skin freezes quickly in these conditions. I take to heart the words of warning about frostbite and shove it back into its heavily cushioned home in my glove.
The sun is still rising at 9:00 a.m. I wonder if it will be light enough to actually absorb vitamin D today. All of Europe these past eleven days, so overcast. Will I ever see the sun?
Every time Talis sees me, he calls me over. “America!”, as he has nicknamed me, in a thick accent. “Amer-ee-kuh!” He pulls off my gloves, checks my hands to make sure they are warm enough, then slides my gloves back on.
Duksi and the other guys bring me treasure after treasure they’ve found in the earth. This is only possible because we haven’t found any human remains: removing any items from a digging site in which a soldier has been found, or from the soldier himself, is considered grave robbing, which is strictly forbidden and results in severe consequences.
The earth churns forth the evidence of war. Bullet casings. Cartridges still stuffed full of glistening gunpowder. Helmets. Communication wire. Shrapnel-shredded meal tins. Artillery. Grenades. Pieces of a gun. A tiny gold star from a Red Army officer’s shoulder boards.
All items that have been buried for seven decades. Decaying in the earth. Each holding a story of humanity’s inhumanities. Holding an individual human’s history.
Each item both a witness to life and a watcher of death and man’s need for domination.
I wander off from the group and venture into a petite, narrow forest. Fallen trees. Moss. A huge puddle of water. Brambles and branches everywhere. I lean over, hunch down, and take photos of the marks made by bugs on curling tree bark, peeled off in wide swaths and undulating across the ground in every direction.
I feel the men.
The men who were sponges for propaganda from tyrannical governments. The ones who saw it all as oppression and craved a simple kind of peace. Perhaps there were some who believed that fascism or communism were the only ways. And of course the men who didn’t even want to be there. All of them, guns in hand, mutually existing as killers on the front lines, hell-bent on surviving this damn war.
I think of them as fathers. As lovers. As shopkeepers or scholars. Men who may not have even had two decades under their belts. A fluid, invisible line undulating on the battlefield between them, every effort made to completely annihilate one another.
I think of my grandfather. He was a musician, a cowboy, an eccentric. He was in this same war, though his conflict was with the Japanese on another side of the world. He was tormented for life by what he saw and maybe by what he did. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about my Grandpa Bill and his war. But I do know he wasn’t really cut from soldier cloth. He did his duty, and he paid for it dearly. My whole family did. My father did. I did too, in the way these things trickle down.
I think of the women.
Their vulnerability without the men to protect them. The things they endured. The decisions they had to make. Their worries about feeding themselves and their families under wretched occupation by two consecutive armies doling out rules and vengeance on repeat. I think of them waiting.
I think of a woman.
Waiting for her man to return. In one piece. Wondering if he’s been harmed. Does he have enough to eat? Is he warm at night? Does he miss the way my fingertips trail across his chest as he drifts off to sleep? Why hasn’t he written? Has he been killed?
I think of the women. Combing this field in the spring of 1945. Looking for the bodies of their men. Their brothers, fathers, cousins, sons among the piles of rotting bodies the Red Army left behind. Were tears spilling out of their eyes, or had they run out? What about the women who didn’t find their men? What did they do when they never came home?
There’s one more thing about finding the bones. They don’t tell you the whole story, or allow you to draw those in-a-flash yet often woefully incomplete or incorrect conclusions we humans are so good at.
You don’t usually know who this man was, and you can’t peer into his skull and deduce his particular blend of ideology. You don’t know whether or not he committed war crimes. Sometimes you don’t even know what ‘side’ he fought on.
He’s just a human.
Having explored the individual stories within this war for several years now, I find myself fascinated by how it teaches me to hold a space in the spectrum of grey that exists somewhere in between the black and white. In a nutshell, humans are humans — flawed, nuanced, complicated — and everyone has their own perspective and motivations. Everyone.
The Latvians teach me how important it is to hold up to the light the individual stories that men and women bring to war, and to life, before knee-jerking judgment onto their decisions or behaviors.
Wartime or not.
It’s hard work, hanging out in the grey area, the space in between. It’s much easier to let our worlds revolve around the rigidities and deeply carved patterns and belief systems that calcify themselves into thrones in the land of black-and-white thinking. All or nothing. Either or. This or that. But it stifles life. Possibility. Fluidity. And connection.
If there’s anything I know right now, it’s that connection keeps us enlivened, breathless, and excited about this one precious life we have.
Duksi told me about a Red Army soldier they dug up from this same field a while back. They had found a medal with the bones, and the medal had a registration number on it, so the guys were able to work in conjunction with the Russians to trace his identity. They found his daughter, still alive.
She remembers being a young girl and sitting on her father’s lap before he went off to war. Then nothing, for seven decades, until these diggers, with their crusty metal detectors, set out across the field to bring him home to Russia and to his daughter.
Duksi approaches me. He often feigns that he can’t speak English, but what he says next proves him wrong. “You are not like other people, Erin. I can see it in your face. The way you look at the battlefield. You don’t just stand here today, right now, and look at what there is to see. You feel the history.” Here, he gesticulates with his big hands and makes the sounds of anguish, artillery, and explosions, with shooting guns as extra effect. Then he stops, looks at me, and says, “You experience it like it was happening here, right now.”
“Yes,” I say. “That is all true.”
We dig for hours.
My mind absorbs every nugget it can about their culture, and those who speak English patiently answer my million questions about their heritage and the fascinating, tragic history of Latvia during the war years.
To think about the thousands of men still lying under our feet, waiting to be exhumed and returned home if they can be identified, is mind-boggling, and a sense of awe rushes through me. I am lucky to be included in this quest and honored to touch the bones when they reveal themselves to us.
Every moment digging in the earth brings me closer to my own self and eases the shadows that have been skulking in my soul these last few weeks. Every moment spent asking questions and absorbing answers fills the holes in me that have been blown wide open.
I feel the glow and, at the same time, my own emptiness. I stop and consider how moments like these, strung together like tiny bulbs that create ambient light, make a huge difference in my world these days.
The sky begins to darken as the sun slides down its face rapidly. The tractor turns back, and so do the men with their gear.
No soldiers found. With every shovelful of dirt, there is always hope of finding the bones.
The Latvian sun is straight ahead — just above the horizon, still hidden but trying to peek through the clouds.
It’s Talis, the boss, waving for me to follow him. He wants me to walk back with him to pick up some gear. I follow him and watch my feet muck through the mud, feeling it pull heavily on my heels with each step. There’s a cob of rotten corn, a delicate skeleton snapped in half by the heavy footfall of one of the guys. I hear the tractor behind me, finding its way to base camp. Talis is gesturing again, telling me in a mixture of Latvian and German about a gnarled piece of machinery they pulled out of the earth. I’m smiling, nodding, interested. He soon walks away, satisfied that he has — somewhat — shared his knowledge with me.
I am alone. The day floods through me all at once, and my emotions fire in every direction.
The sun breaks through the clouds, joining me and the soldiers on the vast battlefield. Quite suddenly there are streams of the brightest light beaming every which way.
I pick up the gear and walk back to meet the guys, soaking up the present day beauty spilling out of the historical ugly.
There are still a hundred thousand missing soldiers in Latvia. The men and women of Legenda will continue their mission until all the soldiers are found.
Here’s a short film of my first expedition with Legenda in the summer months: https://vimeo.com/224728554
This is an excerpt from Erin’s book The In Between, a travel memoir through some of WW2’s most harrowing locations. You can view more of her work or watch her short films at www.erinfaithallen.com.