Monthly Archives: July 2011

Holocaust in Latvia

The Holocaust memorial in Bikernieki forest in Riga

Throughout the history many nations had become victims of mass killings. The slaughters made by the Assyrians, Mongols and the destruction of native Americans have its bloody mark in the history. Then there was genocidal actions by the Christian church against non-believers and enemies of the church. The massive scale of the Communist genocide has not yet been fully witnessed. But the most “famous” genocide was a Nazi Germany action against the Jewish nation. Its large scale the industrial character of the killings was the most extreme genocide in the 20th century. In every part of Nazi captured lands Jews were predestined for destruction. Their age, gender or social status did not matter every Jewish person had to be killed. It was different from other genocides that often had a random pattern of killings.

National socialist  antisemitism was based on many false beliefs. The concept of superior Aryan race was German ultra nationalism. Adolf Hitler personally blamed Jews for German defeat in 1918 the so-called “stab in back legend” that was created by the German military to put the blame on others for the their defeat. Also Nazi antisemitism was based on economic reasons, the belief that Jews share an unequal portion of state market.

In Latvia antisemitism was mostly marginal before 1920. Latvians and Jews lived together and shared the same national status while Baltic Germans and Russians had ruling rights. After 1920 Latvians became the main political nation in the country. Despite of this Jews had influence in finance, culture and politics throughout the years of Latvian independence. That was met with resentment from Latvian nationalists. Latvian – Jewish relations were not violent but very tense in the questions of economy, politics and traditions. By reading the newspapers of provincial towns you can see that in places where Jews and Latvians lived together; they often had quarrels and disagreements.

However the radical anti-Semitism was rather low. It was mostly present in radical newspapers. But they were radical nationalist groups like the Latvian National Club and the Thundercross that sparked violent actions against the Jews. Both of these organizations were banned. They were popular among the youth but never gained enough popularity to tackle the  ruling regime. Before 1940, Latvia was ruled by authoritarian president Karlis Ulmanis. While he tried to make certain nationalist policy and repressed some Jewish organizations, he was generally friendly to Jews. He helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape from the Nazi regime and suppressed antisemitism in state media. In so the independent Latvian state was never capable to make direct actions against the Jews, it was the Nazi Germany who set the necessary climate for such actions.

The Jewish killings started on  June 22 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded in the Soviet Union. The task was entrusted to four special security  service groups the Einsatzgruppe EG. In Latvia the Einsatzgruppe A with 990 members took action. The large number was intended for the Jewish community of Leningrad. The commander of the Einsatzgruppe was Walter Stalhlecker. Also all local German power structures such as police and army took part in the actions.

First killings begun in June 22 near Grobina Courland. 6 Jews were killed by Germans. Soviet army was retreating rapidly so German military set command posts and issued ant-Jewish orders. Jews were prohibited to appear on the streets, go to the shops and all were registered and marked. After that the murders begun in Durbe, Priekule, Asite and Riga, nearly every place captured by the Germans.

However the systematic killings only begun a few weeks later. The Germans needed to take complete order of Latvian territory. First days of the war were rather chaotic, the battles with Red army and increased activity of Latvian paramilitary formations. Jews were first killed in towns and villages and the first wave of murders continued till August. Germans used local Latvian collaborators to assist the crime.  Local administrations registered the Jewish citizens, the self-defense and Latvian SD units took direct action the crimes.

In June- August approximately 30 000 people were killed. However SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was not pleased with “rather slow” temps of the killings and sent SS obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln to boost up the killings. The previous leader Walter Stalhecker left Latvia in Leningrad front where he was killed by Soviet partisans in 1942. The obergruppenfuhrer H. A. Prinzmann was removed from office because he wanted to spare a quantity of Jews for slave work. Jeckeln was known for his actions in Babi Jar in Ukraine where his man killed 33 00 Jews from Kiev.

Jeckeln gathered all Jews from Riga Ghetto and with help of German order police and four Latvian units killed 24 000 Jews of Riga in Rumbula forest in  November 30. Only 6000 Latvian Jews were kept alive after it for slave work. They were stationed in the remains of old Ghetto and various concentration camps. In 1944 what was left by then were sent to camps in Germany. Along the way Jews from Western Europe were sent to Latvia and murdered there.

Riga Ghetto 1941

Germans also killed mentally ill people and Gypsies in Latvia. People were taken from mental hospitals and killed. Gypsy killing was not systematic, because Nazis could really sort out whether Gypsies were members of lower race or not. Because they originated from India, they could be Aryans either way. They were killed until 1943 when Himmler changed his mind and issued that Gypsies have positive racial element. The killings of Gypsies in Latvia were not consequent, they were killed in Liepaja, Kuldiga, Tukums, Ludza and other places.

One of the bitter questions of the Holocaust is local Latvian involvement in the crime. The Jewish saviors were minority because of tough sentences for such actions. A majority of Latvians were neutral and did not take any action in the crime. Those who were involved were either shooters or guards who escorted Jews to killing spot. Others took part in registration of the Jews. Many people robbed the houses of their Jewish neighbors.

The self- defense   (Selbsschutz) units were gathered from Latvian national partisans who took arms in the first days of the war. They were man lusting for revenge against the Soviets and had a desire of restoration of Latvian independence. The scale of Soviet crimes in 1940 – 1941, was so high that the majority of Latvians greeted the Germans as liberators. The Germans had no intention for Latvian independence, Latvia was to become part of the Nazi empire. So Latvian units were put under German control and used for their crimes. In August 1941 almost all of these units were disbanded because they were no longer useful. Also the Latvian Support police took part.

The main Latvian unit was the  Latvian SD commando lead by Viktors Arajs. They were the main Latvian killers who traveled all Latvia to kill Jews in various places. The typical scenario of Latvian involvement was such: local self-defense units “gathered” all Jews to one place. Then the Latvian SD unit arrived and killed the Jews. Even if all the orders were carried out by the Germans, it was rare that Latvians resisted to take part in the killings. A known exception was the head of the local self defense guard at the town of Aknīste Jānis Valdmanis. He refused to take part in the killings and directly asked: “Is this  the order by the state of Germany?” In result he and his unit was replaced by other Latvian unit who carried out the killings instead of them.

Latvian involvement was necessary for Germans carry out their crime. It may be several thousand Latvians who were involved in those actions. However it’s not right to give the collective fault to Latvians and Latvia for the Holocaust. The intention came from Germany and those who were involved in this were pure criminals a shame of the Latvian nation. Every nation has their criminals and they should not be compared with the whole nation.

From 1941 to 1945 a 90 000 Jews were killed. Among them Latvian Jews, Lithuanian Jews and Jews from Western Europe. It was the largest criminal act ever done in Latvian history. Today is the remembrance day of the Jewish holocaust in Latvia. July 4 was the day when the Germans with Latvians burned down the  Jewish synagogues in Riga.  As long as there is a Jewish community in Latvia this crime will not be forgotten.

The Ruins of main Jewish synagogue in Riga

Selected Sources:

Ezergailis, Andrievs. (1996) The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944 : the missing center. Riga : History Institute of Latvia ;Washington, DC : US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ezergailis, Andrievs. (2005)Nazi/Soviet disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia : Daugavas Vanagi–who are they? Rīga : Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds.

Barkahan, Menachem (Ed.) (2008) Extermination of the Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945. Riga : Society “Shamir”.

Nollendorfs, Valters. (2007) The hidden and forbidden history of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi occupations 1940-1991 : selected research of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia. Rīga : Institute of the History of Latvia Publishers.

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