Guiding Questions:

  • How did the beginning of World War II in 1939 affect Latvia and Latvians?

  • How did Joseph's personality and skills influence his experience in the Latvian army?

  • Which country invaded and took over Latvia? Why did the Latvian army not fight back?

Life continued more or less normally for Jews in Eastern Europe while those in Germany were experiencing a gradual unraveling of their reality. Everyone, however, was aware of a growing possibility of war although those in the Baltic states never knew if the threat came from from the east (Russia) or the west (Germany). World War II began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, which bordered Latvia to the west. The Latvians prepared, imagining they were next. Either Russia or Germany (or both) would invade, thereby putting Latvia in an extremely risky position.

On February 29, 1940 (Leap Day), Joseph joined the Latvian army. He attempted to maintain a kosher diet in the army, which wasn't easy. It seems his mother sent him food. When he went on a training exercise in the desert, somewhere, there was no mail. So he had to eat non-kosher food for the first time in his life. "It was tasty," he thought to himself. 

He worked as a barber in the army and was popular with those in charge. His talent as a joke-teller always came in handy...but sometimes it worked against him. Those on night duty would sometimes wake him at 2:00 a.m. to ask him to tell a joke to pass the time. He was probably less funny then.

Joseph knew how to work the system. Periodically he told the captain that he needed a new clipper and he got a pass to Riga to visit Tshillah, his girlfriend. One time Tshillah sent him a letter that his grandmother had died (although she had actually passed away before his birth). He got a pass to Riga to visit her again.

His battalion was stationed in Daugapiltz near the Russian border. It was a motorized unit, which used skis in the winter and bicycles in the summer. They were given 90 mortar shells and prior to the Russian invasion slept three nights on cobblestone streets near the border. As the Russians advanced, they thankfully received the notice to stand down and avoid a fight with an army that would annihilate them. 

The army experience was one of the first times that Joseph really spoke Latvian and lived as a member of the larger nation, rather than as a yiddish-speaking Jew in the Jewish neighborhood of Riga.