THE 50th anniversary of the end of World War II May 8 was observed without celebrations in Latvia as a solemn day to honor the victims of the war. In explaining why he wouldn't be going to Moscow to participate in ceremonies there, Latvia's President, Guntis Ulmanis, pointed out that, for Latvia, the end of World War II in 1945 simply meant the reimposition and consolidation of the Soviet occupation. It was our third occupation of the war: first, by the Soviets in 1940; second, by Nazi Germany in 1941; and again, by the Soviets in 1944. By May 8, 1945, the Soviet Army had reoccupied most of Latvia and had begun mass deportations of Latvians to Russia.
The war ended before I was alive, but you could say that the Soviet occupation of Latvia is directly responsible for my existence. My parents did not know one another in 1944 when they separately fled West to escape the second Soviet invasion. They, along with thousands of other Latvian refugees, ended up in Allied-controlled displaced persons camps in Germany. It was there that my parents met and married.
I was born in 1949, in a US-controlled camp in Munich. I was born in a barracks -- a Latvian citizen who had never seen Latvia. My family emigrated to the United States in 1951. I returned to my parents' homeland -- Soviet-occupied Latvia -- for the first time in 1978 as a tourist. By then both of my parents had died, so they never knew their son would one day see the land they had fled.
Over 150,000 Latvians fled our homeland in 1944-45 and became politically active in their new countries of residence. They formed exile organizations with one goal in mind: the restoration of Latvian independence. Those who fled Latvia did so not just to save their own lives but to use their freedom in the West to fight for the freedom of the Latvians that stayed behind. Organizations like the American Latvian Association (ALA), formed in 1951, played a pivotal role in keeping hope alive and providing invaluable support to the Latvian independence movement.
I worked for the ALA in Washington from 1985 until Latvia's independence was restored in August 1991. Then I joined the Latvian diplomatic corps.
Today, out of 100 deputies in the Latvian parliament, 17 are from the West; 13 from the US. The Cabinet of the present Latvian government includes five ministers who are Latvians from the West, including two women who were born in the US after the war. Countless other former refugees -- and their sons, daughters, and grandchildren -- are in Latvia today, helping rebuild the country.
While the conflict in Europe ended 50 years ago, World War II ended in Latvia on Aug. 31, 1994, when the Russian Army, successor of the Soviet Army that invaded Latvia in 1940, finally withdrew from Latvian territory.
The rebuilding that began 50 years ago in Western Europe has only just begun in Latvia. On May 8, Latvians paid homage to those who suffered and died during World War II; almost every Latvian today had relatives that were killed in the war, either in battle or in Nazi or Soviet camps.
In the basement of our chancery on 17th Street in Washington, D.C., is a suitcase containing the personal belongings of Julijs Feldmans, Latvia's former envoy to Switzerland. Over 50 years ago, he was forced to leave his post in Geneva because the Latvian mission he headed had been taken over by the Soviet Union. He came to Washington and served as charge d'affaires of the Latvian legation until he died in 1953.
The memorabilia in this suitcase has enormous historical value and belongs in the Latvian History Museum in Riga, our capital. But we haven't had time to ship it back. We've been busy with other matters. As I said, for us World War II has just recently ended.