Dream Team 1935 to be screened at Gaŗezers in July

The film Sapņu komanda 1935 (Dream Team 1935) will be shown at the Latvian Center Gaŗezers on July 20th.  Directed by Aigars Grauba the film chronicles Latvia’s national basketball team, that improbably won the first European championship in May, 1935.  This first-time event was sponsored by the just formed International Basketball Federation, more commonly known as FIBA, from the French Fédération Internationale de Basket-ball and was held in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dream Team 1935 is heading toward being the most watched Latvian language film ever.  It has become a phenomenon and has been universally celebrated.  It will be screened for the European Parliament and at the Cannes Film Festival.  The film centers on the team, the championship and Head Coach Valdemārs Baumanis.

Baumanis will be returning to Gaŗezers twenty-one years after his death in 1992.  We need to wait to find out more about the team and the championship, however we already know quite a bit about the head coach.  His friends and colleagues in organized Latvian sports compiled a collection of essays about him after his death: Karavīrs un sportists Valdemārs Baumanis 1905 – 1992 (Soldier and Athlete …). I gained the most insight from Ilmārs Dumpis’ contribution. 

Baumanis arrived in Chicago in 1956 after having spent the immediate post-war years in France.  He was almost immediately selected to lead the Midwest region of the Latvian Sports Council and continued in that position for the next thirty-five years.  He simply had a burning passion for Latvian athletics and not just basketball. 

Scrolling through old editions of the Latvian Newspaper Laiks, it is obvious that he looked at Gaŗezers as fertile ground.  In 1969 he toured the Latvian Center with Jānis Lindmanis from Australia.  Lindmanis, also known as “Kapteinis Džeks” (Captain Jack) was a star of Latvia’s 1935 basketball championship team.  There was talk that the administration of Gaŗezers was committed to developing a sports infrastructure, including a basketball court and Baumanis had plans. He is associated with all the early tournaments in volleyball, basketball, tennis, soccer and track and field.

Dream Team 1935 is a very Latvian story, which means it’s complicated and has an overabundance of drama. For Baumanis this meant that getting to Geneva was a larger hurdle than winning in Geneva.  He had to navigate all sorts of obstacles, mostly due to friction between the Army Sports Club and the University of Latvia.  Unbelievably, he was removed as head coach after Geneva.  I guess the sports establishment wanted to go in a different direction, which they succeeded in doing.  Baumanis made it to the 1936 Olympics, but as a referee.  The team from Latvia was eliminated early with a record of 1-2.  He returned to lead the national team in 1938, but by that time Lindmanis had given up basketball and devoted himself exclusively to soccer.

Baumanis personal story is a very Latvian story, which means Soviet occupation and World War II brutally changed everything.  He was back on top in 1938 and a year later attended basketball seminars at Long Island University in New York.  He wanted to better understand the American style of play.  He was an active duty army officer when the Soviets invaded.  Fortunately, he was able to avoid arrest.  Baumanis served in the German-formed Latvian Legion.  He led a supply unit and rose to the rank of Major. At the end of the war he successfully insured that his men avoided capture by the Red Army and gladly surrendered to U.S. forces. 

Baumanis joined the Daugavas vanagi veteran’s organization in 1947.  At the first opportunity he organized basketball and soccer tournaments in displaced person camps in Germany.  He formed a Latvian team that toured post-war France.  The French were impressed and this led to his accepting an offer to coach basketball in Lorient. 

Ilmārs Dumpis notes that the shadow of occupied Latvia weighed heavily on Baumanis.  Word circled back to Baumanis that he was given a death sentence, in absentia by the Soviets in 1946.  He chose to avoid any contact with relatives or friends and never responded to their letters, as he was concerned that this could only cause them complications. 

The film will be shown in Latvian, with English subtitles. 



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.

During NATO visit, Latvian officials should remember Gen. Jānis Kurelis

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.

When Latvian officials come to Chicago in May for the NATO defense alliance summit, they should consider paying their respects to Kurelis.

A few episodes of the general’s military career should be noted.

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 an 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, Latvian President Andris Bērziņš, along with the defense minister and other officials, will be attending the NATO summit in Chicago. NATO is simply the gold standard for “third-way” solutions to securing Latvia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. This seems an appropriate time for these leaders to pause on the northwest side of Chicago and honor this Latvian Army general, who twice retired after serving his country, as best he could.

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.

Review of White House schedules shows Zatlers visit with Biden unusual

Latvian President Valdis Zatlers visited the White House on April 1. He was on a tour of the United States that took him to Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

His visit was covered by the Latvian press, where some mention was made that Zatlers did not meet with President Barack Obama but instead met with Vice President Joe Biden. One prominent political commentator in Latvia suggested that without a meeting with the U.S. president, the trip could be classified as tourism.

To help bring clarification to the controversy, the public schedules of both the U.S. president and vice president, which are posted on whitehouse.gov, were reviewed from Jan. 1 through April 15. The president and vice president conducted 23 publicized meetings with foreign leaders at the White House, as follows:

Head of state Head of gov’t
or other high official
Obama 8 8 16
Biden 1 6 7
Total 9 14 23

The president and vice president also made foreign trips. In January, Biden had an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. Obama visited Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, while Biden traveled to Finland, Russia and Moldova, in March.

Biden represented the administration in meeting one head of state, in the White House: President Zatlers. He had separate meetings with the president of Israel and the amir of Qatar, however, these were coupled with additional sessions with the U.S. president. Obama received or conferred with eight heads of state and eight other foreign leaders. The trend clearly indicates that Obama greets presidents and other heads of state. In addition, the U.S. president received government leaders from China, Lebanon, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Slovenia, Ireland and Greece.

Press coverage of these meetings can be separated into three categories: public statements and questions, simply a photo opportunity or closed to the press. Only one scheduled White House event involving a head of state was closed to the press: Biden’s meeting with Zatlers. In addition, meetings by the foreign minister of Japan, the prime minister of Lebanon and the vice president of Colombia were closed to the press. An unscheduled meeting between Obama and Kyrgyzstani President Roza Otunbayeva on March 7 was also closed to the press. Obama joined a meeting between his national security advisor and the Kyrgyzstani president. Denmark is Latvia’s closest neighbor on the list. Obama received Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in the Oval Office, where they also delivered public statements; a video was posted on whitehouse.gov.

Politico.com published a light-hearted April 1 article, “Hey, where’s Biden? Receiving Latvia’s highest honor!”, regarding the vice president’s meeting with Zatlers. The author, Julie Mason, implied that the White House did not seem to know that Valdis was the first name of President Zatlers and wondered what prompted the vice president being awarded Latvia’s Order of Three Stars. Under the heading of “Statements and Releases” whitehouse.gov posts “readouts” of contacts with foreign leaders. This is the information that Mason used to construct her article and briefly characterizes the nature of meetings with foreign leaders. The statements and releases, the public schedule and the White House blog were reviewed for the period in question. Neither the president nor vice president received similar honors from any other visiting foreign leader.

In grouping and categorizing whitehouse.gov information regarding visits by foreign leaders, it is clear that the meeting between the president of Latvia and the U.S. vice president was unusual, to say the least. It seems that requesting a White House meeting was overreaching and probably consumed quite a bit of goodwill and political capital. The Obama administration was more accommodating than welcoming. President Zatlers is standing for uncertain re-election this summer and this enterprise should be viewed in that context.

Description of image

Latvian President Valdis Zatlers presents the Order of Three Stars to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their April 1 meeting in the White House. (Photo by Toms Kalniņš, Chancery of the President of Latvia)

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.