Grava, now 95 and better known to his American neighbors as a retired chemist, appeared on the list of almost one hundred Latvian legion veterans unveiled this week by a group of Russian historians at the Rossiya Segodnya International News Agency. Former legionnaires live in Europe, Canada, South America and Australia, with nearly 30 of them residing in the United States.
The Latvian legion, part of the Nazi military machine, committed well-documented war crimes in Russia, Belarus and Poland, but Grava said he had joined its ranks in the later years of the war and against his will.
"The youngest draftees, we had no real war experience", he says.
Grava, one of seven children of a countryside teacher, received a mobilization order in February 1943, but, eager to complete his school education, he opted for an alternative service with German labor force units and was busy filling bomb craters on airfields until August 1944.
"I was able to drag my feet and evade the induction for a year and a half. Until finally they sent me from the work in Germany to the training camp", he says. "I was drafted. I was simply put from the place where I worked and lived and sent to a training camp without asking any questions."
The boot camp kept the 20-year-old off the front for another six months.
"The training was proceeding very, very slowly. They lacked instructors, materials, weapons, everything. The Latvians got from the Germans a promise that Latvian soldiers would not be engaged in combat activities before the completion of training and equipment", Grava says. "We were not sent until the German front collapsed in January 1945", he adds. "Then we were organized into fighting units. They’d send us to one place, put in secondary units, then again came no orders, send somewhere else. I actually saw front service in February 1945."
Grava’s unit fought battled-hardened Soviet forces who were rapidly advancing westwards.
"Yes, if you can call that fighting. It was sort of withdrawing, pulling back from the front, shooting a little, retreating, taking new positions, sort of fortifying there until a new attack came. It was not a fixed front line, it was a retreat from one place to another", he says.
His war was over in March 1945. Grava was wounded and "partially by walking, partially by transport" he made it to a hospital in western Germany.
"There I was sort of captured by the American army – in the hospital. That’s my experience", he says.
Grava admits that Latvians’ collaboration with the Nazis was a mistake but adds that many things were unclear back then.
"I try to look at it with the eyes I had at that time. If one could have predicted the outcome of the war then, of course, it was a mistake", he says.
But without the benefit of hindsight, people expected the repetition of the World War I scenario when the collapse of the Russian and German empires granted statehood to Latvia, he explains.
"We actually expected the same thing will happen after World War II. That was our motivation. We felt we had a duty to resist the Soviet Union, which destroyed the Latvian independence and arrested a lot of people. That was an opportunity, at least imagined, to regain the independence", he says.
Grava said that "some distant relatives" and a number of his classmates got arrested and deported to Siberia under pre-war Soviet rule, but his own family was spared.
"My family directly did not suffer. At the beginning of the war, they put us under house arrest, searched our house and put a guard in front of the house. When the Germans came, we fled. I mean, such very, very minor things. No real repression", he says.
When asked if he was aware of the fate of thousands of Latvian Jews brutally murdered by the Nazis and their local sympathizers, Grava replies, "Yes and no".
"I knew Jews had been shot, I knew that. I didn’t know the extent. I didn’t know how complete the destruction was", he recalls. "It’s a terrible crime, I would say."
The former legionnaire said he had been thinking if he could have helped the Jews in his home country.
"And, actually, I see no way. It was really impossible", he argues. "Jews in Latvia lived in - isolation would not be really proper - but socially they had their own life, they did not integrate in the Latvian society. They had their own schools, they had their own cultural institutions. Their home language was either Yiddish or Russian. The Latvians and the Jews had no personal ties or acquaintances."
Moreover, a war-time life of a family of nine was too hard and lean to even think of sharing scarce resources, Grava says.
His post-war life in the United States was significantly better-off. Grava studied chemistry, obtained a PhD degree and worked as a research chemist. He is now enjoying his retirement in Ohio. The former legionnaire has visited Latvia three times after it regained independence and keeps in touch with several former "comrades-in-arms" now living in the US and Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.