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Kennedy + assassination + Latvia

mamantovPresident John F. Kennedy was assassinated 54 years ago in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. I saw a headline that noted this fact and was taken aback. I have some dim childhood memories of the events surrounding this tragedy.
I decided to put kennedy+assassination+latvia in my search engine and was surprised by the result: several hits came up. I shouldn't be, but I continue to be surprised about the probability defying frequency of Latvian and Latvia connections, in almost any matter or subject.
Dorothy (Doroteja) Gravitis was seventy-four years old when she gave testimony for the Warren Commission. A week after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, established a commission to investigate Kennedy’s death. The commission was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974). Her testimony was facilitated by translation by her son-in-law Ilya Mamantov, who had given his own testimony a month earlier in March, 1964.
According to her testimony she was born in Latvia and married in 1913. From 1915 to 1919 she lived in Petrograd (St. Petersburg, Leningrad) with her husband and later daughter. She returned to Latvia in 1919 with her daughter but her husband was not allowed to leave Soviet Russia until February, 1923. She taught mathematics and Russian in Zilupe. He was employed as a railroad station manager until 1941, when he was arrested after the Soviet occupation of Latvia. Mrs. Gravitis stated that she had recently received a letter from her sister-in-law stating that her husband had died in Siberia, without any further details.
In 1943 she left Zilupe, a small village that borders Russia and moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in Riga. They joined the refugee stream and fled to Germany in advance of the returning Red Army the following year.
Ilya Mamantov, his wife and her mother were all interned in the Guenzburg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp for Latvians. Even though he was an ethnic Russian he was active in the camp's self-government and Latvian Boy Scouts.
Ilya Mamantov was born in February, 1914 in Estonia. His family moved to Latvia during his childhood. According to his Warren Commission testimony Mamantov graduated from the University of Latvia and was also fluent in Russian and English. Mamantov, his wife and mother-in-law emigrated to the US and settled in Dallas in 1951. Mamantov, who studied geology worked in the local petroleum industry. Both Gravitis and Mamantov were active in the local Russian speaking community and he helped found the Dallas area Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ilya Mamantov had also came to know Jack Chrichton, who was a local reserve officer in US Army Inteligence and also worked in the petroleum industry. In fact, Chrichton help establish the 488th Military Intelligence Detachment in Dallas and served as the unit's first commander. Many of the unit's reservists were also Dallas police officers. Mamantov and Chrichton were both fervent anti-communists and traveled in some of the same circles.
On Nov. 22nd 1963 at around 5:00 pm Ilya Mamantov's life changed. He was called first by Chrichton and minutes later by Dallas Deputy Police Chief George L. Lumpkin.The police needed an interpreter in order to interview Lee Harvey Oswald's wife Marina, who spoke Russian but had limited English. She married Oswald during his short lived defection to the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States with him. Mamantov was transported to police headquarters by a cruiser with sirens and lights. This wasn't so much a rendezvous with destiny but rather a rendezvous with the enduring Kennedy assassination conspiracy industry.
Mamantov was deposed by Albert E. Jenner, Jr., and Wesley J. Liebeler, assistant counsels of the President's Commission. Chicagoans will probably recognize the former. He was a name partner at the powerhouse law firm of Jenner & Block. The transcript is a bit confusing with Manantov recalling the police and FBI interview of Marina Oswald. He offered some personal insight in a few spots. He made a distinction between communists and nationality:
“As you know, Communists are in Latvia, Communists are in Russia, and Communists are in Germany, and nothing to do with the nation. I am using this as an occupational force I'll put it this way.”
Kennedy assassination conspiracy enthusiasts exploited the Mamantov angle. Various researchers have reached the most sinister conclusions, by suggesting that:
  • Mamantov and Crichton, who were acquainted shared a right-wing orientation centered in the Republican Party.
  • That Crichton was a central player in a military/intelligence conspiracy.
  • That there was a strong military intelligence and local police linkup.
  • That Mamantov's translations were skewed toward Marina implicating her husband in Kennedy's assassination.
  • That Mamantov knew James Herbert Martin, a purported associate of Jack Ruby, a stripclub owner who fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, while Oswald was in police custody.
  • That fleeing the Red Army made him a pro German fascist.
Ilya Mamantov had heard of Lee Harvey Oswald before that day in Dallas. The local Russian speaking community was small. His defection and quick change of heart and arrival with a wife he married in Minsk was beyond unusual and certainly suspicious. He was at the dentist's office when he heard the name Oswald over the radio. He felt compelled to call the FBI to report his limited information. That was a half-hour before the Chrichton/Lumpkin calls. He testified that, “I felt it is my duty to notify the FBI that I know of him and knew fairly well his background here in Dallas.”
I don't doubt that Ilya Mamantov was a strong anti-communist and deeply connected to Latvia. He also appears to have been a very descent person. His mother-in-law moved in with him and his wife in Riga, Latvia in 1943 during the German occupation and they lived together, through difficult times until her death in 1978.
Dorothy Gravitis' touched on some interesting and nuanced matters during her testimony. She was born in in 1890 and obviously was a strong-willed woman for her period. She was educated during the Czarist period and studied in Moscow. She was teaching in the port city of Ventspils, during WWI, when she evacuated to St. Petersburg, as the result of German military gains. She experienced the Bolshevik takeover in Russia and returned after Latvia achieved independence and continued teaching. She lived through the Soviet occupation of 1940, when her husband was arrested and simply disappeared.
Mrs Gravitis taught private Russian language sessions at the local Berlitz School. In addition, she took on teaching Mrs. Ruth Paine and came to somewhat know her. Ruth Paine in-turn was well acquainted with Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina. Gravitis never met the Oswald's but spoke twice on the phone with Marina. She was suspicious and uncomfortable. She wondered how Marina Oswald was granted a Soviet exit visa. But, she was particularly concerned about what Marina told her about her American born husband. Based on one or more things that were mentioned, Mrs. Gravitis considered Lee Harvey Oswald to be particularly dangerous: a devoted communist without a party card:
 “I mean that this is the most dangerous stage, because this person or during this stage, they are spying on other people. They are spying on other people to gain personal reward from the communistic people ........ When I was  teaching from 1940 until 1941, people like this, who were in this particular stage, who were not yet members of the Communist Party, were spying on me, listening behind the door when I was teaching in the class, and this way it is my experience from that.”
I don't know what was gained from the recollections and insight provided by Dorothy Gravitis and Ilya Mamantov. Neither one had ever spoken to Lee Harvey Oswald. Their testimony is reflective of the Cold War and quite understandably their weariness of anything Communist or Soviet. Mr. Mamantov's grave marker prominently includes the inscription Latvia, even though he was born elsewhere. He also was loyal to his new homeland. He was part of the generation that believed they were duty-bound to warn the American public about the threat of Soviet Communism. ----  Artis Inka
http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/russ/testimony/gravitis.htm 
http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/russ/testimony/mamantov.htm 
Laiks, Nr.23 (20.03.1968)
http://spartacus-educational.com/JFKmamantov.htm
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/71575045#

 

He had faith in the future of Latvia

Jānis Kurelis died Dec. 5, 1954, in Chicago. He was 72 years old and had bladder cancer, which he suffered with for nearly two years. His death certificate listed Kurelis’s occupation as a retired general in the Latvian army.
During World War I, Kurelis was a lieutenant colonel in the 5th Latvian Riflemen Battalion. At the end of the war he, along with over 70 officers and 1,000 soldiers, found themselves in Vladivostok, Russia. Kurelis, other military officers and local Latvian civic leaders formed the Siberia and Ural Latvian National Council. An immediate outgrowth was also the formation of the Imanta Regiment. This was all done under the auspices and support of the local French mission and France’s embassy in China. Kurelis allied himself with a western power searching for a “third way” out of a precarious situation. 
In return for France’s support, the Imanta regiment escorted military transports and performed policing functions. The regiment wore French uniforms with the addition of Latvian national colors. Instruction and communications were in Latvian. A commission was created to develop Latvian language military nomenclature. In February 1920, Vladivostok fell to the Bolsheviks. Latvia’s nascent Foreign Affairs Ministry arranged for the evacuation of the regiment with the assistance of Britain and France. Three ships during a six-month period left Vladivostok for the long journey back to Latvia. Later Latvia was billed and paid 8,500,017 francs and 130,000 pounds sterling for services rendered.
Kurelis was recalled to Latvia in September 1919. He served in various headquarters and Defense Ministry positions during the War of Independence. This conflict was chock full of shifting alliances, intrigues, misadventures, miscalculations and, more generally, simple chaos. During one period three separate governments, with significant military resources, claimed legitimate rule over the country. Latvia gained independence through grit, determination, patience, political maneuvering and good fortune. Critical assistance from France and Britain was leveraged against weakened German and Russian forces. During the defense of Rīga in 1919, peacekeeping naval ships from France and Britain turned their artillery guns against an attacking formation of Germans and monarchist Russians, known as the West Russian Army or Bermontians. The Latvian Army was then able to counterattack and eventually defeat this enemy and turn its sights eastward. With help from Poland, Soviet Russian forces were expelled from Latvia followed by a peace treaty in August 1920. Amazingly, Latvia slipped the leash.
In order to gain western support Latvia needed to demonstrate an unambiguous commitment to the cause of independence. This was done on the international stage by Zigfrīds Meierovics, the nation’s first foreign minister. Among other accomplishments, he secured British recognition of Latvia’s sovereignty a full week before a formal declaration of independence. Latvia also needed a credible national army. 
From 1922 until 1940, when he reached mandatory retirement age, Kurelis served as commander of the army’s Technical Division. He was promoted to general in 1925. Like many other retired military officers, he was not subject to arrest immediately after the Soviet occupation of June 1940. The first wave of repressions was directed at active duty personnel, among many other groups of citizens. During the German occupation, which began a year later, he was the director of a security guard firm. The firm employed disabled persons to check locked doors and otherwise secure buildings.
In 1943 the Germans allowed the reestablishment of the paramilitary Aizsargi (Protectors) organization, which was originally created after Latvia proclaimed independence as a volunteer formation with both policing and military functions. Kurelis joined the 5th Rīga regiment. In September 1944, the Kurelis-led group left Rīga for Kurzeme in western Latvia. German forces were retreating and Soviet forces re-entered a virtually undefended Rīga on Oct. 13, 1944.
That German forces were retreating was not a surprise to the Latvian Central Council (LCC). This group was formed in August 1943 to coordinate pro-independence Latvian resistance during German occupation. In March 1944, the LCC promulgated a political manifesto that was ostensibly addressed as a memorandum to Gen. Rūdolfs Bangerskis, the inspector general of the German-created Latvian Legion. The title was more ministerial, as he did not exercise command authority. The document begins: “The enemy from the east is once again menacingly approaching Latvian territory”. It called for the proclamation of reestablished independence and renewal of the constitution and national army. The manifesto had an eclectic list of 189 signatories, including eight retired generals, one Lutheran archbishop, one Roman Catholic bishop, former politicians, government officials, academics, poets, literary figures, businessmen and others. Kurelis, who was head of the Council’s military commission was also a signatory.
The LCC’s practical activity revolved around creating a bridge to the west through Sweden. The LCC organized boats to transport refugees and move information back and forth. The group attempted to coordinate its activities with Latvia’s prewar embassy in Stockholm, which was still legally recognized and functioning. They maintained periodic radio contact with Swedish authorities.  The LCC also published an underground newsletter.
Many LCC members were arrested by the Gestapo, including Konstantīns Čakste, the son of Latvia’s first president. The circumstances of his death are not completely clear, but it appears he died in February 1945 either in or near the Lauenburg or Stutthof concentration camps. 
By late 1944 the ranks of the Kurelis group (popularly known as the Kurelians) swelled to 3,000 men. Serious external and internal problems developed. German authorities were becoming increasingly wary of the motives of the Kurelians. Also, the group was being flooded with deserters from the primarily conscript-based Latvian Legion. Within the group, discipline problems and divergent views among officers were prevalent. 
The discipline problems and divergent opinions had much to do with what the Kurelians were trying to accomplish. The goal was clear: reestablishing Latvia’s independence. How to get there was completely unclear and any strategy revolved around a 1919 solution: Assistance from the west would be leveraged against weakened German and Russian forces and Latvia would slip the leash. Latvia needed a national army to demonstrate the true will of its people to western countries. The Kurelians primarily wore Latvian army or Aizsargi uniforms. They considered themselves the core of a reestablished national army. 
They prepared for German defeat by trying to stay out of the Germans’ way. What the end-game was is simply unclear. Some possibilities include guerrilla warfare against the Soviets or an organized seaborne retreat to Sweden. The Latvian Legion’s 19th Division was almost entirely in Kurzeme and could, when circumstances allowed, defect en masse. Looming in the background was hoped-for intercession by Britain, Sweden or the United States. 
Beginning in October 1944, the Germans increasingly were making demands and trying to rein in Kurelis. Deserters needed to be turned over, German direct and complete control established and all Kurelians identified. SS Lt. Gen. Friedrich Jeckeln took part in some of the ongoing meetings. Jeckeln controlled all Nazi forces in Latvia and is closely associated with the most horrific crimes perpetrated during German occupation, particularly against Latvia’s Jewish community. Jeckeln made some suggestion that Germany would agree to Latvian independence after the war and Kurelis asked to see it in writing. In response to German demands, Kurelis’s Chief-of-Staff Capt. Krišs Upelnieks created a list of 500 military personnel, which was an obvious undercount.
Deserters need to be understood in context. Elements of the Latvian Legion’s 15th Division, still in Kurzeme, were being redeployed to Germany. Some of these soldiers wanted to remain on Latvian soil, while deserting 19th Division soldiers probably joined the Kurelians for either patriotic or other reasons.
The officers in the group reached a consensus to avoid any incidents with the Germans. The Kurelians’ encampment was poorly guarded. Some have speculated that this was an attempt at lowering the group’s profile. On Nov. 14, 1945, they were surrounded by a large and well-armed German force. Proclamations were read formally disbanding the group. Jeckeln arrived and it was all over. On Nov. 20, eight officers were executed, including Upelnieks. Others were sent to Stutthof concentration camp or interned in local prisons. Many perished while under German arrest.
Lt. Roberts Rubenis died on Nov. 18, 1944, at the age of 27. Rubenis commanded a battalion of about 600 men that was associated with the Kurelians. Upon hearing the news of the arrests he prepared for battle. Rubenis died during the first days of German attack. The battalion continued to fight and relocate and dispersed on Dec. 8. The Kurelians were able to inflict serious losses, including killing Major Kurt Krause, who had been the commandant of the Salaspils concentration camp southeast of Rīga. 
Kurelis was arrested and sent to Bangerskis’s headquarters in Danzig. One can only speculate on why he wasn’t treated more harshly. Killing a respected Latvian general could have inflamed an already precarious situation. Maybe Bangerskis interceded. Kurelis arrived, wearing his Latvian army general’s uniform, with his wife and two young children. He had married late in life, at age 54, to Elsa Rozenvalds, eighteen years his junior. He was repeatedly questioned and a report was prepared. In January 1945, the headquarters was evacuated with the approach of the Red Army. Kurelis requested that he and his family be allowed to evacuate with the others; he was told to walk.
With hindsight, the goals, strategy and tactics of the LCC and Kurelians seem fanciful, with no possibility of success. However, Kurelis did not have the benefit of hindsight and had never exhibited a fanciful moment during his 45-year military career. The literature universally credits Upelnieks as the driving force behind the Kurelian movement. He was one of the officers at Vladivostok who formed the Imanta regiment.
After the Soviets reestablished control the hunt for LCC activists and Kurelians began. In some cases prisoners stayed in place, as German rule passed to the Soviets. Various sentences ranging from execution to extended or limited deportation to the Gulag were meted out. It seems that Germans were the adversary, but independence-minded Latvians were the enemy.
The subject of the Kurelians was controversial for many years in the Latvian émigré community. Unfortunately, a false dichotomy developed between the Latvian Legion and the Kurelis group. Things were much more complicated than choosing one side or one way out over the other. No amount of grit, determination, patience or military or political maneuvering could have significantly altered events. 
Kurelis’s funeral on Dec. 7, 1954, included an honor guard formed by members of the Daugavas vanagi (DV) Latvian Legionnaires veterans organization and veterans from World War I and the War of Independence. He was cremated and his ashes were interned at Acacia Cemetery on Chicago’s northwest side. Various condolences were placed in the Latvian immigrant newspaper Laiks. Former Kurelians in England wrote: “If sons of the homeland can give their lives, then one can’t regret lesser sacrifices”.
The LCC and Kurelians deserve recognition for their ideals and convictions. In May, 2012 Latvia's Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks and Gen.Raimonds Graube, Commander of Latvia's Armed Forces attended a ceremony at Acacia Cemetery. A plaque authorized by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga was unveiled that honored Kurelis' service. Both officials were in Chicago to attend the NATO Summit.
The plaque included the following inscription:
Even in the bleakest times, he had faith in the future of Latvia.
I organized the event in 2012. I thought it was appropriate to honor Gen. Kurelis utilizing the backdrop of Latvia's participation in NATO. NATO is simply the gold standard for “third-way” solutions to securing Latvia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Artis Inka is editor of the Chicago-area Latvian website, cikaga.com. Latvia's Defense Ministry in 2005 awarded him its Commemorative NATO Membership Medal.

 

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