Rewriting History in Latvia



B O O K S    /    L A T V I A

by Roland Binet  (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)

Since I became interested in the fate of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Latvia, rather late (2009), I never failed to buy books when I visited that country, first and foremost written by Jewish survivors of these terrible times, but, also, some books written by non-Jewish Latvians in order to see how they perceived these tragic events, how they related to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and how they presented the history of the German occupation and the mass slaughter of more than 95% of the Jewish population of their country (using the figures of Jews on site at the time of the Nazi invasion as the basis for historians’ estimates).

The last time I was in Riga, I bought a small booklet available in Russian (96 pages long) entitled ЛАТВИЯ – ЗЕМЛЯ И СТРАНА / КРАТКИЙ ОБЗОР ИСТОРИИ (‘Latvia – the Land and the Country / A Short Review of History’ published in 2007 by the publisher Nacionālais Apgāds) and written by Janis Straume, then President of the Saeima (the Latvian Parliament). I understand the book’s main edition is in Latvian.

If I had the patience to read it in its entirety, and go through the innumerable condemnations against the USSR, the crimes committed by the organs under Stalin and later under the successive Communist Party bosses — and I do not deny that such crimes existed and I wholly agree they were a horrendous blot on the history of modern mankind in Eastern Europe — what I was in fact most interested in was how someone, a non-Jewish Latvian, who appeared to be an intellectual, someone placed high in the political hierarchy of his country, would write about the fate that befell the Jews of Latvia between 22 June 1941 and the summer and autumn of 1944 when the tiny handful of survivors from these terrible times were freed by the Soviet Army.

Let us look first at what this important and knowledgeable person, high in the political hierarchy of his country, had to say about these terrible times when some 95% of the Jewish population of Latvia were shot (the vast majority), and the rest died of being starved, beatings, torture in the ghettos or on the way to Germany and other camps during the death marches.

This is what he writes in the short passage about the fate that befell the Jews:

By order of the Commissar for Internal Affairs Semion Shustin, the political prisoners were savagely killed.

At the same time, the Communists acted in an unlikely two-faced way – they did not authorize the Jews to flee with the units of the retreating Red Army, thus condemning them to become the victims of the German fascists. (…) Together with the German Army came representatives of the operative Division A (Einsatzgruppe A), which had the task to annihilate the Communists and the Jews. (…) In the Baltic countries, nearly all the Jews were shot [The author only uses the verb растрелать – shoot – to define the manner in which the Baltic Jews were killed], there survived perhaps a few hundred. In Latvia, the Germans built a whole series of ghettos, the Jews were compelled to wear the Star of David on their clothes. At the same time, there was a genocide against the Latvian Gypsies – nearly 2,000 Gypsies were killed, 2,271 Latvian psychiatric patients…

And, finally,

The total number of the Jews killed in Latvia, according to the data by historian Margeris Vestermanis, reached the figure of 120,000 persons. The Jews were shot by the security arm of the SS, which was supplemented by a group of Latvian citizens with unstable psychotic and sadistic tendencies, who guarded the Jews, accompanied them to the killing places, led them to be executed, participated in the genocide.[i]

On page 62, there is a photograph of the old Riga Synagogue (the Choral Synagogue on Gogol Street with the caption

The Synagogue of Riga, burned by the Germans on July 4, 1941 with the people [alive] inside.

Let us now examine in detail what the author wrote exactly or implied in this very short description of the fate that befell the Jews of Latvia during the Second World War.

By order of the Commissar for Internal Affairs Semyon Shustin, the political prisoners were savagely killed.

This statement would appear quite innocuous at first glance. But let us look elsewhere in order to try to understand why such a statement was put here by the author at the very beginning of the passage where he explains what happened to the Jews during World War II.


 

Latvians greeting Nazi troop

Greeting the arriving Nazi troops in 1941


 

Well, let us take a pure propaganda book that I also bought in Riga some years ago (at the Occupation Museum)[ii], published under the aegis of an organization for assistance to the former SS volunteers, the Daugavas Vanagi Inc. In the chapter entitled “A tragedy of False Promises,” the author Frank Gordon writes “Stalin and Beria crowned all that with a Machiavellian decree, appointing a Russian Jew, Semion Shustin, as People’s Commissar (Minister) for State Security in the Latvian SSR. Many of his assistants, especially in the KGB, were local Jews, who knew both Russian and Latvian.’[iii] The author also quotes part of an article by Dov Levin published in 1975 in Soviet Jewish Affairs[iv] “The conspicuous position of the Jews in the new regime and its political and administrative apparatus caused the Letts to identify the whole of the Jewish community with the hated Soviet regime, which had been imposed upon them by the Red Army.” The author goes on in the same vein: “Is it any wonder that the Latvian leader of the infamous ‘Arājs group’ which shot Jewish civilians in July 1941 to oblige the Germans was called ‘Shustin’ by the group’s members?”

Here one can see the first dialectic — and what a bogus line of thought it is —used by Straume, and an old Latvian propaganda trick too: the Jews were working hand in hand with the Russian aggressors, oppressors and killers of poor and innocent Latvians. Thus (perhaps) they deserved what they got later on, because in some way they were the enemies of the Latvian nation. At least some of them or at least many of them or at least too many of them…

At the same time, the Communists acted in an unlikely two-faced way – they did not authorize the Jews to flee with the units of the retreating Red Army, thus condemning them to become the victims of the German fascists.

This has also got a nice touch. The Jews were not authorized to flee to the USSR, thus, the Communists were responsible for what the German fascists did to them. Another dialectic ruse that puts the onus of the slaughter of over 95%of the Jewish population of Latvia on others rather than imply that the Latvians might have played any role at all in the Holocaust.

This allegation is in fact contradicted by serious and knowledgeable historical work.

As soon as the war started (in Latvia, it began the very day when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941), and after the retreat of the Soviet Army, the Jewish refugees began to flee the country, on a massive scale. […] The fighting caused the death of about 5,000 Jewish refugees of Latvia, whereas about 15,000 people reached the non-occupied regions of the USSR.[v]

In Latvia, the Germans built a whole series of ghettos, the Jews were compelled to wear the Star of David on their clothes.

It seems fun! A kind of recreation or holiday center where the Jews only have to wear the Star of David on their clothes!

No word here of the atrocious conditions under which the Jews, who lived in apartments or houses of their own or rented, were forcefully expulsed from these dwellings, taking with them the barest possessions and compelled to live in a vastly overpopulated, unsanitary, unheated area pf dwellings intended for vastly fewer people, sometimes for years. No word about the Jewish members of the Arbeitskommandos who frequently passed through the streets of Latvian cities in order to go to their place of work where they were compelled to work as slaves without any respite and with the barest of nourishment, enduring privations and beatings. No word at all about the famine that began to reign in all the ghettos, with the atrocious result that the feeblest human beings (babies, children, women, the elderly) began to die. No word about the mass groups of Jews who were selected and were herded in rows to the killing pits. That 28,000 persons were killed in just two days in the Rumbula forest on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, thousands others in mass killings in Liepāja (Škęde), all the other mass killings that took place in villages or cities, inside or outside the ghettos, does not deserve any mention by Straume. No regrets that it came to such odious events, nor any form of empathy for fellow countrymen, albeit of a different religion and ethnic background.

This is quite an atrocious mentality evincing complete disregard for the fate of the author’s annihilated fellow citizens.

The Jews were shot by the security arm of the SS, which was supplemented by a group of Latvian citizens with unstable psychotic and sadistic tendencies, who guarded the Jews, accompanied them to the killing places, conducted them to be executed, participated in the genocide.

Note the use of the word ‘genocide’, previously used only when dealing with the genocide of the Gypsies and the one of the psychiatric patients. The use of that specific word allows Latvians to equate the crimes committed by the Nazis with the crimes (a genocide!) committed by the Communists, and this relates to the well-known Latvian (and Baltic) theory of the supposed double genocide.

Another nice touch is to affirm that there was a ‘group of Latvian citizens with unstable psychotic and sadistic tendencies’  who participated in the slaughter. Clearly, here, the author tends to delve into psychoanalysis and excuses the participation of Latvians in the mass murder of the Jews of Latvia by invoking a seemingly deviant mental state. He deliberately ignores the fact that an important part of the Latvian intelligentsia upheld the formation of the Perkonkrusts and Aizsargi semi-military formations, which almost immediately began to arrest, molest, beat, rob and kill Jews in the main cities as soon as the Soviet soldiers had fled.[vi]

What does Zalmanovitch write about these so-called self-defense groups?

The armed units (…) were created at the end of June 1941. They were formed by farmers, workmen, students, members of the local intelligentsia, officers from the professional army. It is thus no wonder that they volunteered to work for the Nazis (…) Availing themselves of the vacuum of power, they entered in the houses of Jews, stealing their possessions, brought the men with them whom they almost immediately shot, insulted and beat the families. At the beginning of the German occupation, the situation got worse. Attacks against Jewish homes were organized, accompanied by pogroms, murders, the burning of synagogues and places of worship.[vii]

This book (see footnotes v and vii) shows pictures of Latvian civilians guarding and accompanying Jews, or beating them, in the pictorial part of the book (see pp. 280-281).


 

Latvians taking part in massacres

A group of Jewish women humiliated before being shot by Latvian nationalist “freedom fighters” . . .


The fact that the Latvian collaborators only had guard duties (a dialectic trick that we also can find in Ezergailis’s book (see my review) is likewise intellectual hogwash, a way to try to diminish participation in the slaughter of about 70,000 Jews and in addition to tens of thousands of Jews from outside Latvia who were deported to that faraway country in order to die there.

[…] the Synagogue of Riga, burned by the Germans on July 4, 1941 with the people [alive] inside.

Several accounts clearly point the finger at Latvian collaborators who were the only perpetrators and killers in most of these early cases of the burning of synagogues sometimes with people alive still inside.[viii] Press even adds that Cukurs put a synagogue on fire and shot with revolvers on survivors in flame who tried to flee the fire.[ix] Cukurs who is still revered a a heroic figure in current Latvian folklore.


 

Latvians honoring SS volunteers, March 16, 2012

Nowadays, ‘patriots’ come out each year on March 16th to honor the Latvian Waffen SS . . .


And, finally, although the author writes about Jan Lipke who saved 57 Jews and tells us that nearly 400-450 Jews were saved in Latvia (page 63 of his book), there is barely any word about active antisemitism that was prevalent in Latvia as soon as the Germans had invaded the country, the role of a barbaric newspaper such as Tēvija which as early as July 4, 1941 appealed to all

nationalist Latvians (…) who wish to participate actively to the purge in Latvia of all its harmful elements.[x]

Either Mr. Straume is not a sharp historian, or, rather more likely, that he has a (not so) hidden agenda.


[i] These excerpts are from pp. 60-63 of the chapter Оккупация Лавии нацисткой Гернией в годы Второй мировой войны (‘The Occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany during the Second World War’, translated from the Russian by myself).

[ii] Unpunished Crimes, Latvia under Three Occupations, published by the ‘Latvian Relief Society Daugavas Vanagi Inc, in 2003, in English.

[iii] See page 106.

[iv] See page  60, preceding paragraph.

[v] In the chapter (in French) “The Holocaust of the Latvian Jews (Brief Survey),” article by Myriam Zalmanovitch, in (in French) “The Extermination of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945,” Conferences Cycle, Director of Publication, Rabbi Menachem Barkahan.

[vi] Cf. Churbn Lettland – The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia by Max Kaufmann; The Murder of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945 by Bernhard Press; ‘И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ’ (and You Saw It) by David Silberman, as well as the book of Conferences Cycle under the Directorship of Publication of Rabbi Menahem Barkahan.

[vii] Myriam Zalmanovitch, see footnote v.

[viii] ) “The Holocaust in Riga,” article by Grigory Smirine, page 78, in (in French) “The Extermination of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945,”,Conferences Cycle, Director of Publication, Rabbi Menachem Barkahan, and The Murder of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945 by Bernhard Press, page 45/46.

[ix] Page 46 of quoted opus, second paragraph.

[x] Article cited by M. Zalmanovitch, p. 48.

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