New Zealand director reveals Latvian grandparents' World War II fates

After coming across the trailer for the film Kurzeme Fortress, Latvian Radio contacted director Kelly Hetherington, discovering that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after learning the story behind the miraculous reunion of his Latvian grandparents. 

Kelly Hetherington is a New Zealand actor and film maker living in Australia for 20 years now. He has appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean and discovered he's half Latvian only when he was a teenager.

Hetherington's grandparents were separated during the war, and his grandmother, living in New Zealand, was reluctant to discuss the hardships of times past. However a miraculous reunion fifty years following their separation inspired him to become a director and produce his first film, a ten-minute short titled Kurzeme Fortress, which will hopefully appear on Latvian silver screens soon.

What follows is a partial, lightly edited transcript of a Latvian Radio interview with the director.

A reunion after 50 years

How did you learn that you were half Latvian?

I probably started to realize around my mid-teens. Around when I was 12-15 I started to hear whispers of stories of my grandmother and her original husband Voldemārs. And also when my grandfather Aleksandrs Kārkliņš, who met my grandmother right here in New Zealand - he was from Latvia as well - was passing away.

He was telling some strange stories to me and our family about wearing a German uniform and his time in different countries. It was a very unusual experience, but it was quite special and made me curious to find out more.

I would eventually go and investigate about where Latvia was and what Latvia was, and the culture and the history.

I had an unusual experience of having to read and learn about Latvia, until I went to Australia and would eventually meet some more Latvians who would share their experiences and stories about their families. And because I'd studied some acting and would be moving into filmmaking, I thought that the story of my grandmother Millija and her losing her first love Voldemārs was a special story. I wanted to tell it for myself and I wanted to share it with people.

Can you tell me more about what happened to your grandmother Millija?

Millija would have been around 26 in 1940. Voldemārs was in the Latvian Army before the Soviet Union came in. When the Soviet Army came in, he was forced into the ranks of the Red Army. While on some brief leave in 1940, he met Millija at a dance. They fell in love.

While all these terrible things were happening in Latvia and the Baltics, they got married and, in 1941 when Germany came through, he was in the Abrene area. He escaped into the forest, was caught and put into a POW camp in Lithuania. At this time Millija was pregnant with his child. He hadn't seen his son yet. He was pushed into the German uniform, as was common as I understand. He fought in two different armies. Eventually, in 1945 he would disappear in the Kurzeme area.

My lovely grandmother had to escape at the time. She caught a train out of Latvia and waited in a displaced persons' camp for four years for him, and he never came back. She took Andris and went to New Zealand where she met my grandfather Aleksandrs. 

The end of the story, as I'm happy to reveal, is that Millija and Voldemārs do get to meet - fifty years later. 

(Listen to the rest of the interview in audio form.)

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