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18th battalion

Annas iela order of No. 121 showed that 18th Battalion left for Minsk on May 4, 1942. It consisted of 430 men: staff 42 men, 1st Company—109 men, 2nd Company—139 men, and 3rd Company—140 men. The Battalion was lead by Captain Friedrichs Rubenis. The German liaison or overseeing functions were performed by Captain: Sichert and from July 27, 1942, Captain Erzum. In Minsk the Battalion was housed in Russian armored barracks. Keeping Minsk as a base the 18th Battalion was sent out in a variety of sorties to fight the partisans. Then they were sent to the town of Stolbtsi.[1] The critical time for the 18th Battalion came on August 18—22, 1942. The Battalion on August 17 was dispatched to Slonim, a skeleton crew remaining in Stolbtso.

What happened in Slonim is one of the greatest controversies of Latvian soldiering in World War II. In March 1961, the Soviets in Rīga placed on the trial nine members of the Battalion: Commander Capt. Rubenis, Lt. Jānis Bumbērs, 1st Lt. Francis Eglājs, Lt. Osvalds Lapiņš, Corp. Jevgenijs Lüsis, Corp. Edgars Vilnis, V. Ogriņš, Eduards Šķeters, Valdemārs Širmachers, and Jāzeps Zlamets. They were charged with atrocities committed in Byelorus, specifically the killing of the Jews of Slonim. The first five were sentenced to death and the last four sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. The death sentences were carried out on May 31, 1961.

But that was the start, not an end. Directly thereafter, post-trial, the KGB engaged a Latvian journalist Paulis Ducmanis[2] to write a pamphlet about the Latvian exile war veterans organization Daugavas Vanagi. His assignment was to tie the purported crimes of the 18th Battalion to the Daugavas Vanagi and the Latvian emigre society. KGB agents Borgs and Rupeika assistednDucmanis in writing the pamphlet, entitled Kas ir Daugavas Vanagi (Who are the Daugavas Vanagi). It appeared in 1962. In the following year the pamphlet was translated into English by a Canadian translator, Gladys Evans, under the title of Daugavas Vanagi, Who are they?. The true name of the authors is concealed by a trio of pseudonyms: E. Avotiņš, J. Dzirkalis, and V. Pētersons.

The crucial passage in Ducmanis is:

In the early summer of 1942, the German Security Police (SD) handed over the little town of Slonim, in Byelorus, to the 18th Latvian Battalion. Slonim is about 70 kilometers from the town of Baranovitchy, and lies between Grodno and Brest. The first job given the 18th Latvian Police Battalion was the extermination of all the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Slonim. Rubenis, the battalion Commander, called for volunteers and men stepped forward. The slaughter began. From then on, steady staccato bursts of gunfire could be heard from early morning till late at night. The Latvian execution squad wearing German uniforms, vied with one another to see who could kill the greatest number of inmates from the ghetto.[3]

Ducmanis followed on to pile up the atrocities committed by the 18th Battalion, including robbery and the killing of children. Without getting into any deep analysis of the Ducmanis text, one can note that it contained two fundamental factual errors:

  1. the records indicated that a killing (about 4000) of the Slonim Jews took place on June 29, 1942,[4] but the 18th Battalion arrived in Slomin only on August 18th 1942; and
  2. the Latvian Battalion soldiers were dressed in Latvian Army not German uniforms. The record further shows that the 18th Battalion on June 29 was stationed in Stolobtsy, about 100 km distance from Slonim and on that very day, the Battalion was partisan hunting near Nalibotski.[5]

Access to the Soviet trial records as yet is closed, but a significant piece of evidence about the trial was provided by Imants Lešinskis, a KGB Major who defected to the USA in 1979. He wrote a set of memoirs in Latvian, entitled ”The Years of Servitude” and in there he tells us about Ducmanis, his book and the trial of of the men of the 18th Battalion.

In 1962 Imants Lešinskis headed the Committee of Cultural Relations with Latvians Abroad and in that capacity he attended the trial of the 18th Battalion. His conclusion was that the trial was staged, that its purpose was not to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the accused: that it was a KGB operation with little to do with justice, and that it violated some very basic Soviet laws. The trial was proclaimed to be ”open”, but only those with KGB passes were admitted. All of the accused had become prisoners of war at the time of capitulation in Kurland and had been punished for an extended period, having been deported to Siberia. At the time of the Khruschov amnesty, the men had returned to Latvia. In 1961 they were picked up again and tried for the crimes of Slonim. Lešinskis saw the trial and the accusations contained in it, as part of a larger pattern, a series of trials also taking place at the time in other Soviet occupied territories.

Lešinskis allowed that the soldiers of the 18th Battalion had been in Slonim at some point, but that on the evidence and the testimony of witnesses presented at the trial, there was no reason to condemn the members of the 18th Battalion to death.[6]

The final truth about the Slonim case is yet to be pieced together. To fully do so, one would need to have access of the trial records and make an inquiry among the people of Slonim. Would a full and impartial examination of the records exonerate the men of the 18th Battalion from the accusations found in Ducmanis book and the 1961 trial? Perhaps not fully and perhaps not with finality. There is no doubt that the 18th Battalion were in Slonim on August 18-22. The records of the 18th Battalion found in the Hoover Institution testify to that fact. There is no mention in the records, nor would one would not expect it, about the killing of the Slonim Jews. We need not necessarily assume that all of Slonim's Jews were killed on June 29. However, we must also consider that the July 31, 1942 report of Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube indicated that regardless of any action by the 18th Battalion in Slomin, most of Slomin's Jewish population had been exterminated prior to their arrival.

Two pieces of evidence, one speculative the other concrete, speak against the possibility that the 18th Battalion did the actual killing, assuming that any Jews were left in Slonim to be killed. First, it would have been contrary to established SD practice to ask a Schutzmannschaften Battalion to do the killing. If so it would have been the only known case of Latvian Schutzmannschaften having done so. At the time there were some Latvian SD units in the vicinity of Minsk.[7] The likelihood is that if a Latvian Schutzmannschaften unit was asked to participate in the liquidation of the Slonim Ghetto, following practice it would be in the capacity as guards only.

Second, 18th Battalion Corporal K. Zirnis has left us his reminiscences of his soldiering, which are found in the Hoover archives. In many ways he corroborated the official Battalion records, but in about six sentences he also told us what he did and saw in Slonim. On the top of the third page of his handwritten reminiscences he wrote:

”We were transferred to Slonim, where we had to stand in guard, because the SD men were liquidating the ghetto.”[8]

Zirnis also adds that he was a witnesses to the atrocities of the SD men:

”…some ghetto inmates had had the fortune of escaping from the ghetto, who and two other women were later caught. This man, for the purpose of some laughs was beaten with a whip, was forced to copulate with the two women. The man said that he was too old for it, but being beaten he finally had to do it.”

We wish that Zirnis had written more about his time in Slonim, but he left no doubt about the nature of his experience, and what he said dove-tailed with the general information what we have about the relationship of the SD with Latvian Schutzmannschaften. Zirnis' brief sentences confirmed the above speculation, that it was not likely that the SD would have asked a Latvian Schutzmannschaften unit to kill Jews.

The final conclusion about the 18th Battalion in Slonim cannot be reached on the basis of the available evidence, but for a provisional conclusion, however, it appears that Zirnis was certainly closer to the truth than was Ducmanis. It is also noteworthy that Zirnis, although he did not date his days in Slonim, corroborated the Hoover archives records that the unit was in Slonim in August 1942, rather than early summer of 1942, as in Ducmanis version. There is no question that an atrocity took place during the time when the 18th Battalion was in Slonim, more evidence is needed about the date and the level of the 18th Battalion's participation in it.

The 18th Battalion records at the Hoover Institution contained two further pieces of evidence, that, although does not fully exonerate the Battalion's record at Slonim, they certainly dilute the Soviet judiciary's judgement of 1961. The records showed that Corp. Valdemārs Širmachers, one of those punished to 15 years of labor, could not have in any capacity been present at the Slonim massacre, for on August 17, 1942 he was sent to a hospital in Minsk and he did not return to the unit until late August. And, second, the Battalion's Order No. 97, dated August 22 in Slonim, indicated that on August 21 the 1st and 2nd Companies fought a fierce battle at Ostrovo village, near Slonim, where several members of the battalion were killed and wounded.

[1]  Among the partisan units, as the record noted, in late July, near Stolbtsi, some Battalion's units were engaged in a battle by a Jewish partisan formation.
[2]  Paulis Ducmanis is a man of a very speckled past. He comes from a bourgeois Latvian family, worked in the Nazi propaganda apparatus during the German occupation, was nabbed by the KGB after the war, sent to Siberia, where he was coerced to work in the Soviet propaganda establishment. He is alive and working in Latvia.
[3]  I am using the Gladys Evans translation of the book.
[4]  Helmut Krausnick/ Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, Die Truppe Des Weltanschauungskrieges, Teil I, Helmut Krausnick, Die EG vom Anschluš Österreichs bis zum Feldzug gegen die Sowjetunion Enwicklung und Verhältnis zur Wehrmacht. Teil II. Hans-Heindrich Wilhelm, "Die EG A der Sicherheitspolizei un des SD 1941/42, Eine exemplarische Studie," Deutsche Verlag-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1981, p. 595.
[5]  The movements of the 18th Battalion, in addition to the Battalions orders found at the Hoover Institution, are confirmed by the deposition of Johannes Feder, in the records of of the Heuser Process.
[6]  Imants Lešinskis, ”Kalpības gadi”, Latvija Šodien, 1986, p. 63-69.
[7]  Among Latvian SD units that operated in the region was one lead by Alexander Ozols. Vita of Ozols found in the Berlin Document Center.
[8]  K. Zirnis, LCK Box 1, Hoover Institution of War Revolution and Peace. Zirnis wrote his reminiscences on August 14, 1945, while in a British POW camp, when he had no reason to lie or dissimulate.