Some of the bloodiest battles at the end of WWII were fought between the German and Russian forces within the borders of Latvia. In 1944 over 100,000 German soldiers were killed by the Russian army in what is today known as the Courtland Pocket, an area of the Courtland Peninsula situated between Riga and the Black Sea, when German forces were cut off from their battle front. In 1945, Latvia came under Soviet control, and the Russian authorities had no interest in exhuming the bodies of the dead German soldiers, so they lay where they had fallen. When the Latvian people returned to their homes, it was not uncommon to come across dead German soldiers. The local people buried them where they lay so today the Latvian land is a rich picking ground for Nazi relic hunters.
One group of Latvian volunteers called Legenda is trying to make a difference and has become the go-to people when long-buried corpses are found. They take calls from all over the country to come and recover skeletons, unfortunately, many of the graves that they are called to have been desecrated, and valuable information regarding the identity of the deceased has been lost.
Legenda is led by Talis Esmits, and he and his volunteer friends are ready to drive anywhere to collect the bones of long-dead soldiers. Esmits started Legenda with two friends, Viktors Duks, a professor of screenwriting at Riseba University in Riga and Viktors Lelis. They had become friends after helping Duks with the removal of skeletons from his grandparent’s home in Baldone near Riga. They discovered that no-one was interested in assisting, so they undertook the job themselves, and this is how Legenda was born.
His organisation handles around 700 sets of remains every year. For example, he was recently called to the village of Priekule in the Courland Peninsula to recover the bodies of two dead soldiers, when their grave was disturbed by a farmer ploughing a field. Fortunately, when they arrived, the farmer had retained the dog tags, but sadly the bones had been mixed up and placed in one sack. The dog tags indicated that the soldiers were German, and one body belonged to a soldier of the 36th Infantry Division’s veterinary company. The other belonged to a soldier of the 4th company of Infantry Ersatz Battalion 9.
Legenda took both of these bodies and gave a decent burial in the German Cemetery just outside of Saldus. There can be seen a large metal cross, standing atop of a small hill, and stretching from the base of this large cross are hundreds of small crosses. Each of the small crosses represents eight dead soldiers and at this time there are around 30,000 dead German men buried in this cemetery.
In addition to burying the bodies, the information gleaned from the dog-tags would be given to the Volksbund, the German War Graves Commission. This organisation is responsible for trying to locate the bodies of German soldiers that are missing in action and arrange for a suitable burial for them. Also, the information of where they are buried is passed on to their families.
Fritz Kirchmeier, a spokesman for the commission, said, “We believe all people have the right to a worthy grave. There are lots of people who want to clear up their relatives’ fates. Before 1990 we couldn’t work in Eastern Europe, and now many of these descendants are 70 years or older and in a phase where they want to clear up these questions and find some inner peace.”
The work that Legenda undertakes is often hindered by grave robbers. The sale of military memorabilia has always been profitable but with the economic downturn in recent years coupled with the advent of on-line auction sites such as eBay, this practice has exploded.
“When we first started, the market for relics was a local one—you couldn’t even call it a market. Then the internet appeared, and Europe and the world opened up, and many things changed,” said Esmits, during an interview.
In addition to the ease of sales, the airing, on Channel 5 in England, of the television program Battlefield Recovery, exacerbated the practice. This show featured the well-known American memorabilia expert Craig Gottlieb, who with three British co-stars travelled around Eastern Europe digging for Nazi relics and other memorabilia. The program highlighted the hobby of using a metal detector to find relics and the Courtland Peninsula with its sparse population and the rich bounty of war dead provides an ideal location for those that hunt for military memorabilia. Few of these diggers have licenses, so they are very reluctant to report any bodies they find to the proper authorities, and they simply remove any metal artefacts such as helmets, dog tags, belt buckles, pistols, etc.
Vendors at the top end of the memorabilia market, such as Gottlieb, sell items such as the 2014 treasure trove of Hitler’s personal items that went for $3.5 million. However, the bottom end of the market can also make the average hobbyist a fair amount of money selling items such as dog tags and belt buckles which bring around $30 a set, with SS items carrying a proportionally higher price.
It is inevitable that the cost of these items will continue to rise as there will never be any more manufactured. Certainly, replicas and copies will always abound, but there is a dwindling supply of the real thing, and the economics of supply and demand will push the unscrupulous to raid even more, and no grave will be safe from their plunder.