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Love of freedom, bravery characterize Baumhammers' family history

Sunday, May 14, 2000

By Andres Martinez and Tracy Collins, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Richard S. Baumhammers, a self-avowed anti-immigrant accused of killing three Asians, a black man and a Jewish woman on April 28, also attacked his family's own history.

The story of the Baumhammers family this century is a real American dream: a flight from oppression to establish a better life in a new world. That dream was irreparably damaged in two hours of killing.

Baumhammers' parents and grandparents were among the tens of thousands of Latvians who fled their country in advance of the Soviet Army in 1944. Having already experienced Soviet occupation as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 -- through which the Nazis and Soviets essentially split control of the countries that lie between them -- Latvians were not eager to relive those days.

Not that three years of Nazi occupation had been much better. But the refugees had a clear goal: reaching the Allied troops advancing into Germany from France. It was a common flight throughout Eastern Europe, including eastern Germany, in the war's final months.

So, Richard Baumhammers' grandparents, Arturs and Margrieta Anna Baumhammers, packed up their two children and whatever they could carry and started on a trek that would leave them as citizens of nowhere for 11 years.

Difficult journey

This was no easy flight for Arturs Baumhammers. Born Jan. 6, 1893, the son of Albert Baumhammers, he was an office worker in Riga when, at age 21, he was drafted into the Russian Imperial Army to fight against Germany in World War I.

He completed officer-training school and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Seventh Bauskas Latvian Rifleman Regiment. On July 3, 1916, his war and his life nearly came to an end.

According to an official published account of that day, Arturs "led half a company under fire and crossed a marsh and this resulted in the success of the entire assault. After a short rest, they crossed Smerdeklu Marsh and broke through the German fortifications and captured the positions in a bayonet fight. He was wounded and continued to command his company. He then was wounded very seriously the second time and suffered 20 wounds to the head, both arms and legs."

The wounds would require that he undergo surgery 16 times, and he was left disabled, forced to wear leg braces to walk.

After Latvia gained independence from Russia in 1918, it began recognizing its war heroes. In 1921, Arturs was awarded the Lacplesa Cavalier medal for bravery, Latvia's highest military honor.

A family of Lutherans, Arturs and Margrieta Anna had two children, including Andrejs -- Richard's father -- who was born Oct. 12, 1935, in Riga, and Andrejs' older sister, Ilze. By the time of the Soviet occupation of 1940, the family was living in a nice apartment at 8 Pulkveza Brieza, one of Riga's finest addresses at the time. Arturs worked in a prosthetics manufacturing and fitting department for the Latvian Red Cross -- a department kept busy by the escalating war.

Following the invasion of France in 1944 and Germany's decisive losses to Russia on the Eastern Front, the Nazis' defeat was inevitable.

So refugees across Europe had to decide whether they would be better served being "liberated" by American, British and French troops coming from the west or by Russian troops from the east.

In nations as far east as Latvia, the only chance of ending up under American control was to go to the Americans. And so the Baumhammers and an estimated 150,000 others did.

Liberation meant moving into ramshackle buildings in refugee camps run by the United Nations Refugee Organization. For the Baumhammers family, that meant the Fischbach Displaced Persons Camp in the Bavarian region of Germany, then to the nearby Wurzburg Displaced Persons Camp.

On to America

The Baumhammers would be refugees until 1950, when they made their way to North America and to the Pittsburgh region.

Sponsored into the country by First Presbyterian Church in Wilkinsburg, the Baumhammers changed their denomination when they moved to the borough. Arturs worked as a janitor at the church and also made and sold Latvian crafts. Andrejs was an honor student at Wilkinsburg High School, while Ilze studied to become a medical technician.

They were living at 735 Franklin Ave., Wilkinsburg, when they became naturalized citizens on Nov. 9, 1955. Arturs was 62, Margrieta Anna was 57. Andrejs was a 20-year-old liberal arts student at the University of Pittsburgh.

An exceptional student, Andrejs graduated summa cum laude from Pitt in 1959, finishing his liberal arts and dental degrees the same year. In dental school, he met Inese, whose parents also were post-war Latvian immigrants. They married in 1959.

While Inese was finishing at Pitt, Andrejs went into the Army, serving four years in the Dental Corps and reaching the rank of captain. During Andrejs' final year in the service, Inese was an instructor at Pitt's dental school and practiced dentistry in Monroeville.

Andrejs was discharged in 1963, the year the couple's first child, Daina, was born. From 1963 to 1965, the family lived in Rochester, N.Y., where Andrejs earned his certificate in periodontics and a master's in dental research. That same year, the family had its second child, Richard Scott Baumhammers, born May 17, 1965.

By this time, Arturs and Margrieta were living in Rockville, Md., with their daughter, Ilze, and her husband and three children. Arturs died March 29, 1967, when his grandson, Richard, was less than 2 years old. Margrieta died Sept. 11, 1971. They are buried in the Latvian section of Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

After teaching at Temple University in 1965-67, Andrejs, along with Inese and their two children, returned to Pittsburgh.

Andrejs joined Pitt's School of Dental Medicine faculty in 1967, with Inese following as an instructor in the department a year later.

She has been an assistant professor at the school since 1972, the same year Andrejs became a full professor. The family has operated a practice in the city since 1967, moving to its current Fifth Avenue location in 1969.

Puzzling beliefs

This kind of immigrant success story has led the family to decry the beliefs associated with their son's crimes.

While still not wishing to speak to the media, as indicated in a written statement released on May 4, the family did allow their attorney, Fred Thieman, to prepare a statement in response to inquiries regarding this story.

"This is a family that experienced repression and fear in Europe," Thieman said. "As a result, it's a family that understands that the freedom and opportunity they found in America is meaningless unless it's available to all people, regardless of race, origin or creed."

Responding to a question about the anti-immigrant Web site Richard Baumhammers posted on the Internet, and the fact his site was linked to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-rights group, Thieman said:

"In this day and age, the sources of influence on individuals -- especially vulnerable people suffering from psychological illness -- is limitless. What I can assure you is that any philosophy of exclusion found no origin or encouragement in the Baumhammers' household."

Post-Gazette staff writers Mike Rosenwald and Jonathan Silver contributed to this report. Also contributing was Nil Ushakov, a free-lance writer in Riga, Latvia.

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