German traces in Latvia: legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn is 'quarter Latvian'

Who is the most famous Latvian footballer? The answer is probably: Māris Verpakovskis. But it could have been Oliver Kahn.

Nobody really believed this at first. But then the football titan cleared things up himself. “Yes, it’s true. My grandmother is Latvian, and my father was born there,” Oliver Kahn explained in June 2004, before the game between Latvia and Germany at the European Championship in Portugal.

Kahn’s grandfather Rolf, a Baltic German, was a bookkeeper at the Sea Authority in Rīga and later on at the German marine fleet in Liepāja, where he lived with his Latvian wife, Valmiera-born Ērika Alksne. Kahn’s father, also named Rolf, was born on December 9, 1943. In the Second World War, the family moved to Karlsruhe, where Kahn was born in summer 1969.

“The Kahns. From Liepāja to Karlsruhe” – this was the title of a full spread in the Kurzemes vārds newspaper that was published 30 years later and related the story of the Kahn family. Inter alia, Ērika Kahn used the piece to tell about how, amidst the disorder of war, her family left Kurzeme on a boat with other German civilians, fleeing upon the advance of the Red Army.

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Ērika’s father-in-law Paul Kahn was also on the ship, along with little Rolf. Paul was the owner of the Baltic Lloyd traveling agency. It was once situated in Liepāja’s 11 Rožu laukums, which was destroyed in the war. Ērika’s husband Rolf meanwhile was called up for military service and ended up as a POW. The family could only reunite in Germany after the end of the war.

The news about the Latvian roots of Team Germany’s goalkeeper was a hot topic in other media as well. Around the time of the game between the two teams, pictures of Oliver Kahn and famous Latvian striker Māris Verpakovskis would be found on the front page of Latvian daily newspapers. In Germany, too, press stories referred to Kahn as “quarter Latvian”.

“My parents have visited Latvia twice since the country reinstated independence. They still have contacts in Latvia, to whom they send postcards with Oliver’s autograph,” Rolf Kahn junior told the German press at the time. In Latvia, a friend of Ērika Kahn’s youth related stories about Ērika’s lasting interest in her old country. At some point in time Rolf Kahn senior penned a Latvian-language letter to the mayor of Liepāja, to which he appended family photos and press cuttings about his footballer grandson.

Oliver Kahn himself has been more reserved about this. Asked about his Latvian roots, the erstwhile captain of Team Germany said: “It is true. I do have some connection to Latvia. Especially when I visit my grandparents who still speak German with a Latvian accent. I consider myself German, however.”

Up until now, the three-time IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper and 1996 European champion has shown very little interest about this part of his family history. “In the end, I do not have any memories of Latvia,” Kahn stressed. The land of his ancestors is still waiting for him to visit.

In the championship, held at Porto, Oliver Kahn denied all Latvian attempts to score. The game ended with a tie of 0:0. Nevertheless, a tie against Germany was a “victory” for Latvia and many people still maintain they were denied at least one clear penalty. It was the first-ever point for the team in a European Championship and, to this day, is considered the greatest achievement in Latvian football history.

The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.

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