Thursday, 1 August 2013

Who is Peteris Čirkšis?

Peteris Čirksis as a young man

As some of you will know, for about a year now I have been trying to discover what happened to my lost uncle Peteris Čirkšis. As with many things in my family history, I neglected to ask questions of my family members while I had to opportunity. Perhaps I was too young to care about history, perhaps like most young people, I thought I knew everything already. But also I think I was probably too young to know what questions to ask.

So what do I know about Peteris?

I know he was the son of a farmer who was able to acquire a small patch of land after the Latvian war of independence.  He was born in 1922 in Nīca near Liepājas, Latvia and died in 1941 at the hands of the NAZIs. These are the facts. But who was he really?

The only account I have of Peteris' life comes from what I remember my father telling me about him. But memory is a fragile thing, second hand memory is even worse. As a researcher what I want is confirmed and verified facts. State documents, personal diaries and letters to verify personal accounts. With that in mind, this is what I know about Peteris, the person.

While my father was always very practical, Janis used to tell me that Peteris was more academically minded. He achieved very good results in school and was accepted into university. While at university he became involved in the Communist movement and when the Russians invaded Latvia, he would have viewed this as a positive thing (at least initially).

But then came "Baigais Gads" the "Year of Terror". Tens of thousands of men women and children were woken in the middle of the night before being forced into cattle trains bound for labour camps in Siberia. Many didn't survive the journey, many more died in the harsh Siberian winter of their first year of forced labour.

I don't know the extent of Peteris' involvement in the Year of Terror but I know he was disgusted by the actions of his comrades. Far from the ideallic promise of a utopian society, the communism Russia brought to Latvian was Hell on earth. He felt trapped, now involved in the movement, if he tried to leave he and his family would no doubt be themselves, deported or killed next.  Peteris told Janis that he would have to move to Russia so that at least he would not have to subject his own countrymen to such brutal oppression. 


Peteris Čirksis' confirmation?
When the NAZI's invaded in 1941, Peteris was one of the many Latvians who were ready to greet the Germans a liberators from Soviet brutality. Rather than retreating with the Russian army as other communist supporters did, Peteris decided to stay in Latvia. To me, this indicates that Peteris' involvement in the communist party was minor. 

Sadly, this was to prove to be a fatal mistake. Janis told me that Peteris was shot my the NAZIs in a case of mistaken identity. Apparently Peteris Čirkšis shared his name with another person who was involved in the mass deportations of innocent people to Siberia.

It is interesting to note that whether the story is completely factual and verified or not it has formed a powerful part of the Čirkšis family narrative for me. Thus, it is one of the aspects of the family story that I have been seeking to verify. Who was Peteris? Where and what did he study? How and why was Peteris killed?

This week I may have at least part of that answer. The International Tracing Service has been helping me try and track down the fate of my uncle for about a year now and it seems we now have something of a result. A few days ago, they forwarded some information found by the Red Cross:

Peteris Cirksis, born in 5th December 1902 in Nica parish, Latvia. Occupation – peasant, family – married, citizenship – Latvian, place of living – Nica parish, Liepaja district, “ Smilgas”. He was involved in Red Police and the Executive committee, was the election commission director, was involved in the deportation of families. Punished (in the original document-Exekutiert) with death in 1941 (no concrete information given, the document is damaged).
At first I was disappointed, was the story I was told about my uncle untrue? But then I noticed a very important detail. The person mentioned in this record matches my uncle's description except the date of birth is completely wrong! Not only are the day and month out by miles but the person mentioned was 20 years older than my uncle! This means that there was another Peteris Čirkšis who was, by the sounds of it, deeply involved in the Russian puppet government in Latvia. If this is the death record of my uncle, it appears that he was indeed killed in a case of mistaken identity!

So that is where my research is at now. I have made other enquiries into the details of Peteris' life and I will continue to do so. I plan to republish this post each time I receive more information - the Letters from Latvia series will no doubt eventually contain some details of Peteris' fate. In the meantime here is a copy and translation of a poem by a famous poet given by my uncle to my grandmother:

A poem originally written by Pavils ROZITIS that my uncle gave to my grandmother. Transcription below.


The book with the cross on it, by Pavils Rozitis
Mother, from your dear hands,

Carried through the torments of life,
I got the book with the cross on it
So that I would feel pain more deeply. 
An equal fate binds us,

And therefore your gift is beautiful,
You bequeath you pain
To me, who has the thirst for torment in his heart 
May over your greying head

The light of the sun shine from now on,
For you lived in pain too much
Then, when my strength was small. 
Now I can break iron with my hands,

My heart is like steel in all torment
Mother, you will believe, and let me
Hurry on in life. Your steps are slow. 
But place the book with the cross 

In my heart, so that it is not lost
Your pain, which is on every page,
Will bless me even in my grave.

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