Tone and Moral Judgment in a Famous Book on the Latvian Holocaust


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


I became interested in the Holocaust in Latvia during my first visit there in 2009 and, above all, after having visited the Museum of the Jews in Latvia with its detailed exhibition of the tragedy that befell the Jewish population of that country. I had earlier read some books about the massacres that took place in Latvia between 1 July 1941 and the re-conquest of that country by the Red Army in 1944. Books written by survivors depicted a horrific environment including mass slayings, pogroms, denunciations, refusal of help for someone still alive. For those few who survived as slaves (roughly one out of ninety), there were living conditions far worse than what Dante could ever have imagined in his own time.

Thus, after a number of years, it was with great expectations that I began to read Andrew Ezergailis’s renowned book, The Holocaust in Latvia (first edition, 1996).[1]


Andrew Ezergailis’s “The Holocaust in Latvia” (1996)

Having just now read this well documented and highly detailed work, I was somewhat puzzled, even truly disturbed by something about the “tone” of the book. Furthermore, I got the impression (because I took abundant notes while reading) that some of Ezergailis’s statements flagrantly contradicted the moral state of affairs and atmospherics I had read in the eyewitness accounts.

And, my question is simple: in such a horrible tragedy, can there be two different sides of the same history? Can the view of a historian researching, working on the basis of documents, accounts, reports, verbatim transcriptions of trials, be different from what the real victims (of the same events) saw and experienced?

This is what Ezergailis wrote in his conclusion to the chapter Antisemitism:

“Is there another way of looking at the problem? Antisemitism has been a pervasive attitude in many, if not all, countries of Europe, yet only in Germany, in modern times, has it led to mass killing. The fighting of antisemitism is a desirable and moral stance, but is antisemitism sufficient to explain the Holocaust? ‘Antisemitism kills’ is a true enough proposition, but people are killed for many causes, sometimes epic, sometimes petty ― a handful of change, a cigarette, an insult, or a drink. In the case of Latvian participation in the killings of the Jews, no single motive emerges. Antisemitism was certainly present, but taking the social situation as a whole, it does not seem to emerge as a clear-cut, single motive. The participants in the Arājs commando frequently drew a distinction whether they had stood guard, participated in the transport, or actually pulled the trigger. Those distinctions may not seem significant for us, but the participants felt that there were levels and degrees of involvement in the killings. Can these levels be calibrated with the levels of antisemitism?”[2]

What does Ezergailis try to imply in that concluding statement with regard to antisemitism in Holocaust-era Latvia?

(1)   that antisemitism was in fact widespread in nearly all countries of Europe but only in Germany did it lead to mass killings.

(2)   that in the case of Latvian participation in the killing of the Jews, no single motive emerges. Antisemitism was certainly present, but taking the social situation as a whole, it does not seem to emerge as a clear-cut, single, motive.

(3)   that here are distinctions to be made among the men who committed atrocities. Some of them “only” stood guard, some “only” participated in the transport, some of them “only” pulled the trigger.

Historians agree on three basic facts that contradict that statement: (1), there were no mass killings in Germany, (2) most of the killing factories (death camps) were situated in Poland, a country that had been known for its rabid antisemitism, thus it was thought by the Nazi hierarchs that the local Polish population would remain silent; (3) most mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen took place in the then recently annexed former USSR’s republics because it had been known by the Nazi bosses that these countries had been fundamentally antisemitic, including in some cases (not all) some of the pre-World War I pogroms, discriminative measures toward the Jews had been existent in these regions, and, as a consequence, not only did the local populations remain silent about these mass massacres of Jews but it was also in some of these regions that the Nazis found the highest proportion of collaborators who took it upon themselves to lend a helping hand to the Germans in killing their fellow Jewish citizens. And, if we may speak of some antisemitism in countries such as France, the Netherlands or Belgium before World War II, it was mostly steeped in diatribes by writers, politicians or intellectuals. It never came to equivalent levels of discrimination or, in modern centuries, to pogrom-like massacres.

Let us look at what Jewish survivors from the Holocaust in Latvia thought and wrote on that matter.

Ella Izrailevna Medalye (maiden name Gutman, one of the four known survivors of the Rumbula massacre) had this to say about the first day of the occupation by the Germans:

“Already on the first day of occupation late at night, there was a knock at the door. I went to open it. On the staircase in the corridor, there was a small gang of Latvian youths, about 16-17 years of age. They were led by a neighbor of ours, I knew him well. From the first days since my arrival in Riga, in the old house on Thomson street 13 (now Michurina Street), he always flatteringly greeted me, taking off his cap from the distance. But now, having burst into our apartment, he acted like a real beast and coward to perform his dirty job. He ordered my husband to get dressed and follow him to ‘work.’ We said ‘goodbye’ to each other. I saw Pinchas was trying to overcome the fear for the unknown, pretending to be cheerful. For a moment, we were both trying to hide the pre-sentiment, that we were parting forever. I never saw him again. Only after the war, did I learn that my husband along with many other young Jewish men who might have provided resistance to the murderers were led out that night to the Bikernieki forest and shot.”[3]

Elmar Rivosh, another survivor, had this to say:

“Latvian volunteers materialized from somewhere, wearing armbands with the national colors. In groups of several men, sometimes accompanied by a German, they began to make rounds of people’s houses. The caretakers had to point out the Jewish homes. They came in, beat the inhabitants, confiscated valuables, and took away most of the men. […] In the morning I ride to the Daugava (…) The ferry is thronged, there is a swarm of people, I barely made it on. Everyone is talking about ‘liberation’ and blaming….the Jews, of course. The Jews have burned Riga and blown up the bridges, St. Peters’s Church, and so on. A group of tipsy men is singing ‘Now look lively, mates/Let’s throw the Yids into the Daugava.’

“In Jacobstadt [Jekabpils], the Nazis were particularly considerate. All the Jews of Jacobstadt and Kreuzburg were taken out to a field, and the adults were murdered. They took pity on the children, who were poisoned by the local medical attendant and veterinary. Such a touching display of compassion. In short, the Germans have no reason to complain about the fervor of Latvian patriots, after all they are related by blood and race. In comparison, what careless and shoddy work they had done in Czarist Russia! There, they had plundered and murdered in a haphazard, unsystematic fashion, in isolated towns and villages, randomly and sporadically. Some were staging a pogrom, while others saved the Jew, hid them and expressed their outrage. Not here, though! Everyone is listed and accounted for, down to the last Jew. No one will be able to get away. The population too is conscientious and efficient. The German stock, the iron discipline, the 20th century culture!”[4]

Another example of the willing participation of some Latvian civilians emerges in an excerpt from a historical work written by Latvian historians and funded by the European Union:

“On July 28, 1941 the first act of the tragedy befalling the Jews of Preiļi was initiated. During the morning, members from the self-defense militia gathered on the market place. They were given weapons to proceed with the execution of the Jews. The other armed policemen were in position to avoid that troubles might happen in the town, because all inhabitants were not in favor of that execution […] The unfortunate [i.e. the Jews] were ordered to stop at a stone quarry. They were ordered to take off their clothes and remain in underclothes, then they were led to the edge of the pit by groups of 8-10 persons. The executioners killed them by firing at their backs, as if they were afraid to look in their eyes a final time. After all, they were neighbors. The killers were conducted to the killing ground by carts driven by the farmers I. Prikulis, J. Litaunieks, as well as others…”[5]

Bernhard Press, a survivor, gave several examples of antisemitic and violent behavior by Latvians at the time:

“…That night several horse-drawn carriages full of students drove up to the front of the house [19 Gogol Street]. The students wore their fraternity colors and were armed. Guns in hand, they drove thirty-six inhabitants of the house into the street and shot them on the spot.

“[…]That was followed by the expulsion of all Jews from the center of town [Bauska, according to M. Vestermanis’s account of the events in that town] and, after that, the implementation of one of the most appalling, maniacal ideas that National-Socialist ideology ever had: the castration of fifty-six Jewish males, including ten boys aged from eight to fifteen years. There is documentary evidence of the participation in this heinous crime by the Latvian doctor Steinharts, his medical orderly Plavinieks, the town’s police chief Druveskalns…”[6]

Valentina Freimane, a Jewish survivor, wrote this about the last Minister of Finances of independent Latvia, Alfred Valdmanis, a business acquaintance of her father:

“At the end of the 30s, my father often consulted with the last Minister of Finance of independent Latvia, Alfred Valdmanis. Always pleasant, a well brought-up gentleman, he brought flowers for Mummy and paid her complements […] Recently I discovered in the documents for the preparation of the works for the ‘Commission of Historians of Latvia’ [2010] the text of a letter the ‘Conference of Latvian organizations’ had sent to Adolf Hitler; it began with words of greetings and thanks. Among the list of thirty matters of that document ― with the assurance, and indeed, a petition with regard to the independence [of Latvia] also, under the aegis of Great Germany ― was point 10: to free Latvia from all Jews, and, as a matter of principle, from all Russians and Poles. One of the main speakers at that conference was A. Valdmanis.”[7]

By contrast, Ezergailis had thisto say about Valdmanis:

“Though he participated in the Nazi-established General Directorate of the Land Self-Administration, he and his followers did provide a certain counterforce against the thoroughly quisling types, and were even at times active in the outer fringes of resistance.” (page 45)

 One question for the historian: is advocating for Latvia free of Jews (knowing perfectly well in which beastly way the country was being “freed” of them) a way to be active in the outer fringes of resistance?

This is what Bernhard Press wrote on a related question:

“It was not only a sea of hatred that surrounded us, it was also a sea of silence. Tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands were witnesses of the most horrible crime in human history and remained silent about it. The politicians also remained silent, the same ones who had granted us our civil rights twenty-three years before […] Why didn’t they try to bring their own countrymen to their senses? This would have been the task of the country’s intellectual leadership. But, it was just this leadership that did nothing. Why not? Because most of the intelligentsia, together with the majority of the Latvian people, were entirely in favor of the ‘elimination’ and not only encouraged the mob to shed blood but also actively participated themselves.”[8]

But Ezergailis claimed:

“The participants felt that there were levels and degrees of involvement in the killing.”

First of all, what credit can we give to the words of murderers? It would seem logical for some of these men to try to exonerate themselves from the awful crimes they had committed. In common criminal law, many countries do not make any distinction of “degree” between the different accomplices who are accessory to murders, in bands or associations that together commit the crime. But, to be clear about that matter, let us revert to what Jewish survivors from the Rumbula Forest massacres near Riga felt, experienced and had to say on that matter, bearing in mind that there were only four known survivors. Ella Izrailevna Medalye wrote:

“The crowd pushed from behind, on the sides the schutzmänner hit with their bludgeons; we only could go into one direction, to the pit […] The second schutzmann began to push him toward the first one, with blows from his bludgeon […] Suddenly, I heard a harrowing cry, everybody looked behind. A woman had been taken from under a heap of coats. She had tried to hide. Some policemen ran to her, and as enraged beasts, hit her until she died.”[9]

One of the other survivors from the Rumbula massacres, Frieda Michelson, writes as follows:

“Not a few people stayed on the road alongside the column, especially small children, who were afraid because of the racket in the dark. And the schutzmänner bellowed and chased them ‘quickly, quickly or we shall shoot!’ and at the same time worked ruthlessly with their bludgeons […] ‘Look [said Frieda Michelson], I am a specialist, a dressmaker, I can be of benefit, this is my diploma’ I said, showing the document to him. ‘Go to Stalin with your diploma’ the schutzmann bellowed and with a curse he hit my hand with his bludgeon.”[10]

These accounts from direct witnesses would tend to prove that the differences in crime between guards, escorts and trigger-men, are in fact rather more tenuous that Ezergailis would like to say. And, is there a reason why we should ever accept that escorting people to a pit where they will be shot naked or half-naked, hitting unarmed Jewish civilians, women, children, elderly, constitutes some relatively minor detail?

More of Ezergailis’s troubling sentences come to mind, for example:

“The Jews of the ghetto did not go gently to Rumbula.”

This, I think, is a possibly denigrating statement unworthy of a historian. The use of the adverb “gently” has no place in a historical work about the Holocaust when one ponders how these people had had to live in the ghetto, how they were being rounded up to walk all the way to the pits of Rumbula and what horrible fate awaited them there. This, though, is also in flagrant contradiction to what others, among them Grigory Smirine, also a well-known historian, wrote on the matter of the Jews from the Riga Ghetto taken to the Rumbula Forest in order to be killed there:

“Generally, the prisoners from the ghetto refused to obey. Many refused to leave their home.”[11] (Page 249)

But it is possible that the gem of moral conclusions is the one about — alcohol…

“It is tempting to speculate that without alcohol there would not have been a Holocaust; assuredly there would not have been an Arājs commando. It was alcohol that broke down the inhibitions of the young men and enabled them to kill for the first time, and it was alcohol that brought them to the killing pits.” (Page 105)

This statement is aberrant, smacking of a degree of exoneration. This is an attempt at popular psychology that lacks any intellectual and psychiatric foundation. This is simply beyond understanding. From my different readings, mostly of works by witnesses or survivors from the Holocaust in Latvia but also in the other countries where the Nazi killers and their accomplices were at work, but also of works by noted historians of different nationalities, I retained one overall impression: most Nazis, most collaborators, did what they did, killed, tortured and beat the Jews because they believed at that time that the Jews were a kind of pest, a scourge, a kind of sickness (cf. several such statements by Hitler in Mein Kampf), and the only cure was in making them disappear, physically and for eternity, because they were supposedly part of the Jewish-Bolshevik worldwide conspiracy that had caused World War I and so many problems to Germany. Alcohol was, for the men of the different self-proclaimed or sworn-in militias, Schutzmannschaften, Hiwis, Police Battalions, the Einsatzgruppen, the guards in death camps and ghettos, an adjuvant, a palliative, a drug to forget the “brutality and hardship of their work” (Himmler spoke of the duty of the SS to bear that hardness toward eternity), while helping to build the Third Reich. We have all seen many people drunk in different settings: Did that make them kill their neighbors of a certain race or religion Alcohol never was, never has been and will never be the motive for the Holocaust.

There are other aspects of Ezergaili’s work that call for closer scrutiny. Among them:

(1) Ezergailis expresses many doubts about the spontaneity of the pogroms in Latvia committed by Latvians. He often argues that they were Nazi-induced or committed by organized bands such as the Arājs Commando (pp. 209, 211 for example). Is this an absolute all-encompassing truth? Given the enthusiasm with which the Germans were welcomed in Latvia, the hatred of the Soviet Union and the erroneous idea some Latvian “patriots” had that most Jews were in fact Bolsheviks, is it difficult to imagine that some segments of the Latvian population were so heated up that they reverted to spontaneous pogroms? What about all the eyewitness accounts?

(2) What was the real role of the 22nd and 272nd Police battalions in Warsaw (“They served as guards,” according to his statement, p. 327)? What were their exact duties? Did it go beyond the simple guarding of the walls and accesses to the ghetto or were they enforcement troops helping the Germans in rounding up the Warsaw Ghetto Jews fated to die at Treblinka during the summer of 1942? The Yad Vashem photo archive website has for example a picture of some of these troops, either from the 22nd or 272nd Police Battalion with the caption “Warsaw, Poland, Latvian auxiliary police and Jewish ghetto police prepare for a deportation action in the ghetto, 22/07/1942-12/09/1942.”

In his chronicle of the events of the Warsaw Ghetto, as a conclusion written in October 1942 after the roundups of Jews during the summer, Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote:

“Why did the executioners not have any loss? Why could 50 SS troops (even less, according to some) helped by 200 Ukrainian guards and as many Latvians, lead this operation to its successful conclusion?”[12]

Thus, why does Ezergailis try to exonerate these police battalion troops by stating for instance  that “Warsaw was a city of black market and violence” (p. 327). As if blackmarketeering were a crime committed by people living in conditions of utter starvation for many, when the black market was one of the only means to have people survive? And why does Ezergailis insist so much on the “guard duties” of these accessories to murder knowing well that the men “merely” guarding Jews to be deported to Treblinka were accomplices to major crimes against humanity;

(3) Ezergailis reiterates the well-known statement by the “US Immigration and Naturalization Service” of 1950, exonerating the Latvian volunteers who fought for the Nazis on the Russian front as part of the two SS Divisions (p. 42, and note 17) from being considered as criminals. The Nurenberg Trials of 1945-1946, though, judged that the SS in its entirety, including the Waffen SS units was to be considered as a criminal organization. Repeating just the flawed postwar US statement is what“revisionists” often do in order to diminish the civil and moral responsibility of men having fought under the SS uniform, men who fought as parts of a gigantic killing machine. One thing is clear to me, those Waffen SS troops, German and foreign, who fought so tenaciously against the Red Army (mostly on that front) prolonged the war unnecessarily and thus, permitted more human tragedies to occur, thus allowing that hundreds of thousands of Jews (from Hungary, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, etc.) would be sent to killing factories in Poland, thus allowing that dozens of thousands of men and women were shot as so-called partisans or as hostages during “reprisal” measures, thus allowing that thousands of people more would die of starvation or health hazards (in Leningrad, western Netherlands, Greece, etc.).

Many parts of Ezergailis’s major work are well-researched and interesting, but in some passages, I seem to detect a tone, a wording, a choice of equivocal words or phraseology, questions, conclusions, that are not on a par with the reality and the extent of the tragedy that befell the Jews of Latvia, as unanimously described in survivors’ memoirs and byWestern historians. And in a historical work with regard to the massacre of 80,000 Jews in Latvia, with regard to the massive direct involvement by Latvians in the Holocaust (Ezergailis himself says that about 120,000 Latvians were used in police and military purposes, p. 123), I would have hoped for a work more neutral in tone, objective, showing more consideration to the Jewish victims of that immense tragedy, and treating with more respect the survivors’ memories.

After having read, just now in 2013, Andre Ezergailis’s  The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944, I felt anger. I felt as if the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Latvia had been to some degree slighted by a wish to clutch any straw that might mitigate the unmitigatable local participation.

[1] Andrew, Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944, Historical Institute of Latvia, Riga 1996.

[2] ibid, pp. 105-106

[3] David Silberman, The right to Live (A documentary Eyewitness Account of a Survivor), Riga 1966; New York 2005. This excerpt appeared too in “И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ” by David Silberman as well as in the French translation published in France in 2011 by “The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation” (translated from the French).

[4] Both quotations from by Elmar Rivosh, Memoirs, published by Riga Jewish Community – Museum of the Jews of Latvia.

[5] Menachem Barkan, director of publications, L’Extermination des Juifs en Lettonie 1941-1945 (the Extermination of the Latvian Jews 1941-1945), Riga, pp. 257-258.

[6] Bernhard Press, The Murder of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945, pp. 47-48.

[7] Valentina Freimane , ПРОЩАЙ, АТЛАНТИДА, Farewell, Atlantide, pp. 261-262.

[8] Press, The murder of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945 , p. 52.

[9] David Silberman La Fosse – la Ferme aux Poux et autres témoignages sur la Shoah [The Pit and the Lice Factory, and other testimony from the Holocaust], Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, p. 120. This excerpt also appeared in David Silberman, И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ and The Right to Live (A documentary Eyewitness Account of a Survivor), Riga 1966, New York 2005.

[10] Frieda Michelson, Я ПЕРЕЖИЛА РУМБУЛУ (I survived Rumbula), © David Silberman (1973, 2005, 2011).

[11] Menachem Barkan, director of publications, L’Extermination des Juifs en Lettonie 1941-1945, page 88

[12],/photoarchive/en-us/41680.html and “Chronique du ghetto de Varsovie” (Chronicle of the Warsaw ghetto) by Emmanuel Ringelblum.

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