While Latvia has made progress in coming to terms with its tortured history of collaboration, it still has a long way to go. Too many Latvians continue to believe they suffered at least as much as their murdered Jewish co-citizens.
Like its Baltic brethren, Holocaust memory in Latvia remains a work in progress. Soviet and
Nazi occupations often continue to be mentioned in the same breath. Controversy
remains over the scale of Latvian collaboration and resistance to acknowledge it remains.
Each year, growing numbers march in memory of the Latvian SS unit responsible for killing many of the country’s Jews.
Progress is visible. Books, newspapers, and plays including discussions of Holocaust
collaboration. Most Latvians interviewed agreed that the public has been introduced to the
subject, and that the concept of a joint Latvian and Jewish history is beginning to spread.
Research is trickling down into general conversation. A new Europeanized young generation demonstrates interest in grappling with the hard questions and difficult dilemmas raised by Latvia’s guilt in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust in Latvia
At the beginning of the Second World War, Latvia’s Jewish population was in decline. From a high of about 190,000 on the eve of World War I, emigration caused the number to fall to about 80,000 in 1939. By the end of the war, when the Soviets re-occupied the country, only a few hundred remained.
German units entered Latvia on the night of June 22, 1940 and the killing of Jews began. The Latvian fascist Perkonkrus Thunder Cross Party and other Latvian nationalists took part in rounding up, humiliating, and murdering Latvian Jews, especially those considered close to the Communist regime, such as lawyers, doctors, and professionals. While many were beaten to death or shot, others were herded into synagogues, locked inside, and set afire. The most well- recorded atrocity took place on July 4th, when Jews, including Lithuanian refugees, were herded into the great Choral Synagogue of Riga and burned.
Germans imposed anti-Jewish laws and arrested Jews for violating them. Latvian gangs killed several Jewish inmates. When the Gestapo took over the prisons, they imposed a reign of torture and starvation. By October 1941, some 34,000 Jews in Latvia were dead. The remaining 32,000 squeezed into ghettos.
Nazis commanders received orders to liquidate the Riga ghetto, as well as the nearby Dvinsk and Liepaja ghettos. Between November 30 and December 8, Germans murdered 25,000 Jews in the Rumbula forest, just outside of Riga. The Arajs Kommando assisted the German SD in their killings. They served as guards at various concentration camps, and appeared in Nazi propaganda. In other mass killings, Latvian collaborators and the Nazis killed most of the country’s remaining Jews, as well as some 21,000 foreign deported Jews.
Latvians manned their own unit in the Waffen SS. These Latvian Legionnaires were conscripts given the opportunity to either to fight as Wehrmacht auxiliaries, members of the SS, or be sent to slave labor camps. Only about 15-20% of the members were volunteers. Anti-Soviet fervor and a desire to regain Latvian independence motivated many volunteers. Others, especially those who had previously been members of the Perkonkrust party, fought because they sympathized with the Nazis. The questions of which motivation dominated, as well as those of whether or not the Legion committed war crimes, continue to provoke historical and political controversy.
Similar debates are taking place in Latvia’s Baltic neighbors, particularly in Lithuania, which long had been a center of Jewish life and culture.
- 1946: Soviet War Crimes trials begin
- 1946-49: Members of Einsatzgruppen A are tried in Nuremberg
- 1961: Jewish Activists begin creating graves at the Rumbala mass killing site
- 1964: Jewish activists obtain permission to put up a memorial stone at the Rumbula
- 1965: Mossad assassinates Herberts Cukurs, the “Butcher of Riga.”
- 1979: A West German court tries Victors Arajas, leader of the Arajas Kommando.
- 1988: The first study on the Arajas Kommando published
- 1989: Museum and documentation center “Jews in Latvia” founded.
- May 1990: Latvia regains independence.
- July 1990: Commemoration Day of Genocide against the Jews observed for the first time
- September 1990: Latvia adopts a declaration condemning genocide and anti-Semitism
- 1993: Latvia issues a proclamation condemning the Holocaust
- July 1998: Judaic studies department founded at the University of Latvia
- November 1998: Commission of the Historians of Latvia established alongside similar
commissions in Lithuania and Estonia
- 2004: Latvia joins IHRA
- 2008: “Names and Destinies” project launched by the Center for Judaic Studies
- 2010: Latvia begins sending teachers to training at Yad Vashem
- 2012: The Center for Judaic Studies launches the project “Education in Jewish History
and Culture in Latvia”
- 2013: Zanis Lipke museum opens in Riga
- 2016: Candle lighting at the Freedom monument commemorating those shot at Rumbala
held for first time
A reconsideration of Latvian Holocaust memory was set in motion by a need to join NATO and the EU. Today, the Latvian government is committed to preserving the memory of the
Holocaust. While it emphasizes the positive – for example, the Latvia’s Righteous who saved Jews - it has made strides in acknowledging Latvian guilt. It needs to take additional measures to make academic research more accessible to the public.
Latvia’s recognition of its responsibility is tied to its membership in the European Union. “We recognize collaboration” because our “older brothers in Europe, United States are watching us,” says Ilya Lensky, director of the Museum “Jews in Latvia. In his opinion, “Latvia 2018 is a good place for Latvian memory.”
In 2014, the Latvian government passed a law prohibiting “glorification of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace or war crimes, including glorification, denial, justification or gross derogation of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace or war crimes against Latvia perpetrated by the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.”
During the early years of independence, few hate crimes cases were prosecuted. Prosecutions under section 78 intensified from 2004-2006, with the most recent prosecution taking place this August. Much like similar Lithuanian legislation, this law makes no mention of collaboration.
Holocaust education is compulsory in all schools, including the minority Russian-language
classes. Teachers spend four classes covering the Holocaust, two about the large Europe-wide picture and two focusing on the specific Latvian Holocaust. Although not mandatory, some schools take students to memorial sites. Discussion of the Holocaust begins in the 9th grade, where students study the Holocaust in the context of World War II, the beginnings of the Latvian Republic, and the interwar period.
Like its fellow Baltic countries, Latvia sends teachers to Yad Vashem in Israel and the Memorial de la Shoah in France for training. Some 125 teachers received training trained between 2010, when the program began, and 2015, with an additional 45 teachers in 2016. Many of the teachers trained at either Yad Vashem or the Memorial de la Shoah teach other teachers.
The Latvian government holds extensive commemorative events. These include January 27, international Holocaust remembrance day, May 8, German surrender, July 4, the burning of the Riga’s Great Choral Synagogue, and the November 29 for the Rumbala massacre.
The July 4 commemoration takes place in front of the ruined foundations of the Choral Synagogue in Riga. In 2018, under a clear blue sky, an assortment of government leaders,
scholars of Holocaust memory, and leaders of the Jewish community gathered. Brightly colored bouquets and wreaths of flowers were laid on the foundations behind a row of speakers, and even more were laid at the nearby monument to those who sheltered Jews. Each leader delivered a speech honoring the fallen and those who helped them, condemning the atrocities of the Nazis, and either pledged that it would never happen again or, in one case pointed to concerning modern day attempts at revisionism and anti-Semitism.
Other commemorations are are similar, but sometimes have problematic overtones. On June 16, the first Sunday in December, the government remembers victims of “Communist Genocide” celebrates the “Commemoration Day of Victims of Genocide Against the Latvian People by the Totalitarian Communist Regime,” and on March 16, an unofficial ceremony honors those who fought in the Latvian Volunteer division of the Waffen SS. On August 23, Latvia honors victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Along with the other Baltic countries, Latvia pushed the European Union to mark this day and note the impact of “totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.”
In Latvia, the mention the Soviet occupation often comes in the same breath as that of the
Nazis, even in speeches commemorating Nazi massacres of Jews. A genocide is the attempted extermination of an ethnic, religious, or racial group, and while the Soviets targeted political and social classes for extermination, it does not seem as if they were trying to eliminate Latvians (or Lithuanians, or Estonians) as a people. About 150 Holocaust death sites exist in Latvia. While major gravesites, particularly Rumbula, host new memorials, smaller sites often still have the old Soviet memorials, either a plaque or sculptures, which commemorate “victims of fascist terror.” and neglect the Latvian role in perpetuating the Holocaust.
An effort is being made to correct this legacy. The government is working with the Baltic Mass Graves Project to mark and build monuments on the over 300 sites on Latvian soil. It
anticipates completing the memorial building project within the next few years. On the local level, regional authorities are encouraged, though not mandated, to monitor and care for the “main Holocaust sites.”
Two decades ago, Latvia established a historical commission to evaluate and research the
crimes of both Nazi and Soviet regimes. Since then, this commission has produced 28 volumes both the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
The commission is divided into two sub commissions, one dedicated to each occupation. It
employs more than 30 historians, split between native Latvians and assorted international
historians.The commission faced divisions between its Latvian and international members. And the reports themselves are academic, with limited readership.
In 1998, the government established a Judaic studies program at the University of Latvia. It
offers classes on both the history of Jews in Latvia and the Holocaust. Since 2000, the
department has been publishing student research and essays. This body, in conjunction with the History Commission, are organizing international events highlighting the dangers faced by those who aided Jews in their efforts to protect Latvian Jews. Less mention is made of collaboration.
Although Latvia has a program for restitution of Jewish property, it has expired, with little money paid out. A large proportion formerly Jewish property tends to be heirless. Legislation is now making its way through the Latvian Parliament to address the issue of heirless property, developed in consultation with the Jewish community and the relevant local municipalities.
Latvia’s large Russian minority - ethnic Russians make up more than a quarter of the country’s population - impacts the country’s push for Holocaust memory.
Latvian nationalist parties, most notably the National Alliance, are staunchly anti-Russian and tend to equate Russian and Nazi crimes. Anti-Russian attitudes affects the Jewish community, since many are descendents of Russian Jews who came to live in Latvia post Holocaust. Sometimes those who push especially hard for controversial topics, such as collaboration, are branded as Russian agents.
A far greater proportion of the population has first-, second-, or third-hand experience with the Soviet occupation and deportations than with the Holocaust, and many still see those who joined up with the Nazis as national heroes who fought against Soviet oppression. As a result, few large scale organizations mobilizing people to memory beyond the Jewish community.
Non-official commemorations stoke nationalist fires. Ever since 1998, Latvian Waffen SS
veterans and supporters have marched on November 30th, the anniversary of the Rumbula
massacre According to historian and activist Monica Lowenberg, the marches have been
growing in size.
The Latvian government allows the march under the European Convention of Human Rights. It officially offers no support for the march, stating that “the chapters of history are not written only in black and white. It is vital that a difference be drawn between those who perpetrated crimes and soldiers that fell in combat at the battlefront.”
Government waffling shows a certain discomfort. The language in the government’s position on the issue also makes frequent reference to both the Nazi and Soviet occupation. This would make sense in a general discussion of history, but it seems odd that it appears in a discussion of a march dedicated to SS veterans and their supporters.
In contrast, the other major civil society action commemorates the Rumbula massacre.
Launched by civic activist Lolita Tomsone, it began in 2016 and consists of a laying of candles at the base of the Freedom Monument in central Riga, followed by a vigil. Tomsone is the director of the Janis Lipke museum, an institution dedicated to the memory of the dock worker Lipke who saved dozens of Jews. Tomsone says she wanted to “not just let Jews mourn Jews, but let’s commemorate them at the most Latvian site there is...they were ours too.”
Another positive development is the construction database, known as “names and destinies,” which provides indexed information on the pre-war Jewish communities of Latvia, as well as an archive of their fates. This project, run by Ruvin Farber of the Centre for Judaic Studies of the University of Latvia. These projects have saved more than 90% of the Jews who died in the Holocaust from oblivion, ensuring that their names, at least, survive.
In recent years, two books, Adieu Atlantis, by Valentina Freimane and The Taste of Lead, by
Māris Bērziņš about collaboration. They discuss the experience of living through first Soviet then German occupations, and either the experience of persecution at the hands of the occupation or of the forces driving an individual towards collaboration, respectively. Adieu Atlantis, in particular, received high praise and attention, in part due to the high regard Freimane was held in Latvian society and in part because of its adaptation into the opera “Valentīna.”
This success follows the presentation of a musical Herberts Cukurs, celebrating the life of a
mass murders. Cukurs was deputy commander of Arajs Kommando, a unit which killed around 26,000 Jews. A Mossad agent assassinated him in Uruguay. The musical celebrated Cukurs as a hero for resisting the Russian invasion and occupation during the Second World War. Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičsriticised the musical on behalf of his government, but emphasised that it is the responsibility of an independent producer and falls within the bounds of free speech.
After the Soviet Union reconquered Latvia, Russian Jews began settling there. Numbers peaked at almost 37,000 in 1970. Latvia's Jewish population significantly declined in the 1990s after the fall of Communism when many Latvian Jews left and moved to other countries, especially they made aliyah to Israel and the United States.
The Jewish community is engaged with local Holocaust memory projects and documentation. The community itself between two different factions, each of which is associated with one of the major Holocaust museums in Riga. One runs the Riga ghetto and Latvian Holocaust museum. The other is aligned with the Museum “Jews in Latvia,” which is housed in the former Riga Jewish Community Center. “It’s very unfortunate,” noted Einars Mikelsons, the deputy head of Latvia’s IHRA delegation. “Memory is not an issue to have this type of competition [over].” He notes further that the competition is a source of “confusion” for Latvian society.
-Author: Justin Jin