Tag Archives: Holocaust

Great Myths of Latvian History

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As years, decades and centuries pass most important events like wars, regimes and cultural events are starting to lose their initial sharpness. In social memory these events are becoming either more dull, either romanticized or condemned and seen in black and white palette. There is no black and white in history, as events, past, present and future are created by various people regarding their interests that have various means and justifications for their actions. Events are also dictated by circumstances often beyond people’s control. Historical timeline is moved by perpetual rivalry within mankind, when various interests clash in personal, group, state or international scale.

In the process of interpreting these events no matter how old or new, people often create myths, falsehoods and outright lies. This can happen unintentionally as the knowledge about past events is often limited, this is especially relevant to prehistory and ancient ages, when there is lack of good archeological or written material. This also happens because over the decades, many events like wars or despotic regimes are becoming more romantic in people’s memory. Events like Crusades that was a harsh, controversial and bloody struggle, now is even a subject of comedy and the Crusader knights or their Muslim or Pagan foes are idolized. Similarly, many events are made darker than they were seen people at that time. For instance Russian history century long obsession with “Mongolian –Tatar yoke” and general idea about Dark Ages between 5th and 10th century.

Then again history is mythicized on purpose to gain important political goals in the past. “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the past, controls the present” a George Orwell quote from “1984” summarizes this need. Nationalist forces in 19th century on purpose idolized the ancient and medieval past, the Nazi and Communist regimes made great efforts to construct new historical understanding. It’s even present in democratic countries like British nostalgia for great imperial past and US American nostalgia for pre-1950s social order.

There words define historical myths. Nostalgia – for the past that was better than present and bringing it back would improve our present and future. Legendary – that makes events and historical personalities glorified. Condemnation – making events and people worse than they were, making these events and people as a warning from happening again. Also this reflects certain groups of people, like nations, religions and movements whose actions were made blacker then they were a warning from them in the present.

This article attempts to name and describe some of the myths in Latvian history, and seeks answers why they are wrong and what are the reasons for these myths.

Before 12th century ancient Latvians and Livonians had own countries, recognized by Christian countries and brutally uprooted by them.

It’s true that Catholic chronicles like the chronicle of Henry called some of the leaders of the early Latvian tribes kings – rex in Latin and some of their ruled territories –  kingdoms – regnum. Their micro states were set around their wooden fortresses. The civil societies were not as advanced as in other nearby lands like Lithuania and lands of Rus. Some historians compare the early Latvian statehood to Celtic society prior to Roman invasion. Also the Baltic tribes Latgalians, Curonians, Semigallians and Selonians had no common perception that they lived in Latvia and must unite to create such country. In Lithuania the unification of Lithuanian and Belarusian tribes was forceful event by strong warlord Mindaugas. In ancient Latvia there was no such leader. However, even if these rulers were called as Rex in Catholic chronicles does not mean they were fully acknowledged and regarded as sovereign rulers. They simply were not Christian. They had no recognition by Rome and even their conversion to Christianity placed them in vassal status rather than senior. The reason why Lithuanian Grand Duke Mindaugas was recognized was because he converted to Christianity and was strong enough to be accepted as senior. While in case of ruler of Jersika Visvaldis who was Orthodox his conversion was not respected by Catholic crusaders and he lost ownership of his land. So as pagan rulers the Latvian tribal warlords were certainly seen as second-hand rulers to Catholic crusaders, Holy Roman Empire and the Papal State. Their conversion was not enough as they could not be strong enough to hold their senior status. While there was early form of states in Latvian territory it was more a tribal microstate not recognized by Christian countries as weak Pagan states with no hope to gain recognition as senior kingdoms.

Latvian Pagan religion was brutally destroyed by Christian invaders and conversion was forceful

Archeological and written sources gives very light details about religion in Latvia prior to 12th century. There are examples of burial traditions, some items that were used in religion. Often the early Latvians used Christian regalia traded from Christian countries for their own needs. The chronicles give very light details about Latvian pagan beliefs. Apart from Baltic Prussians there is no evidence of ancient Latvian priesthood. The Latvian Mythology as it is known is based on writings, beliefs and folksongs from 15th to 19th century as gathered by folk song studies and observations. That means the pagan religion if such was, rather a tradition was kept for centuries and experienced transformation. And not always the conversion was enforced. In 11th-12th when Latvian territory was visited by traders from West and East many of the local rulers and their families converted to Christianity for benefits that came with it. While their subjects mostly did not or embraced Christian faith rather passively. That just shows how important were the traditional views as they could be easily replaced by another religion for material benefits. Also for many centuries most of Latvian ancestors has very light understanding of Christianity as all rites and writings were in Latin. The Reformation and Enlightenment in 15th -18th century started teaching Christian beliefs in Latvian and Bible and other Christian works were translated into Latvian. Also in many cases the true cause of resistance to Christian conversion or moving back to Pagan beliefs was because becoming Christian meant becoming vassal to Crusaders.

Some authors argue that initially the mostly Germanic traders and Bishop Meinard had no initial intention to baptize Livs and Baltic tribes by force. In 1170 from Segeberg Bishop Meinard first came to Liv land around Daugava and started peaceful mission. He also asked permission to Duke of Polotsk (knyaz) Vladimir who imposed Livs to pay tributes to him, to build small church in Ikšķile. In 1184 such was build and small congregation of freely converted Livs were made. However, Meinards was attacked by Lithuanian and Semigallian riders so he asked permission to Liv leaders to build stone castle in Ikšķile in exchange for baptism. It was done and one part of the Castle belonged to Meinards others to Livs. Livs soon broke the agreement and dropped Christianity and attacked Meinards. Meinards tried to leave Ikšķile, but received warnings of Liv attempt to kill him and remained in castle where he died. Then a monk Theoderich came to Ikšķile and assessed that small Christian congregation is in danger and called for military support igniting the Baltic crusades. The Crusades led by more ruthless Bishops as Berthold and Albert were violent, as Crusaders used force to baptize tribal Balts and Livs if there was no other option. Soon it turned out that the war was not about faith but about the land. Becoming Christian meant becoming Crusader vassal and subject and many resisted resulting permanent loss of land. While it did not mean that Crusaders managed to completely uproot ancient Baltic beliefs, they stayed within peasantry and Crusader seniors did very small effort to counter them. More efforts were done by Lutherans in 15th -18th century. First by educating Christianity in Latvian and second by exporting witch trials that were mostly carried out in Lutheran Swedish Vidzeme. Also Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine movement managed to fully convert Latvian peasants. In 19th century Pagan beliefs were weakened by Christian education. A revival was made by Latvian nationalists who as their commoners in Germany and elsewhere looked for symbols in the ancient times creating a legend of old peaceful Latvian pagan religion destroyed by while Crusaders. In reality the situation was far from simple and the religion, tradition, education and land ownership each played its part.

Battle of Saule was joint victory by the Baltic tribes over German invaders

Voldemārs Vimba created an epic painting to please nationalistic authoritarian ruler Kārlis Ulmanis. In the painting soldiers carrying Latvian and Lithuanian flags charge Crusaders in the Battle of Saule in 1236. While first mentions of flag similar to Latvian national state flag dates to 1279 when Latgalian soldiers came to assist Crusaders who were attacked by Semigallians, the Lithuanian flag as well as Latvian flag itself certainly could not be used in the Battle against Crusaders. Because Latgalians and Estonians fought together with Crusaders against Lithuanians and Semigallians. There was no Baltic unity in the battle, as such unity was not possible. Lithuanians regularly raided Latvian territory and even Estonia. Each tribal leader had their own interests and Semigallians were not always allied with Lithuanians. Lithuanians viewed Latgalians and Estonians allied with Crusaders as enemies and had no intention on liberating them from Crusaders. And the battle was mainly Lithuanian victory as it halted Crusader advance in Lithuania while it not do much for Latvian territory. However, nationalistic minded people has made September 22 as Baltic Unity Day. A day that is required, but September 22 is not Unity Day. Its Victory Day for Lithuania only.

Latvia is native Russian land. Before the arrival of Crusaders many ancient Latvian micro states were vassals of the Russian duchies and converted to Orthodox

It’s true that Russian and Belarusian duchies held influence on Latgalian, Liv and Selonian tribes. In return for protection and trade rights they made them pay tributes and some ruler families like Visvaldis of Jersika converted to Orthodox. Russian traders lived in Koknese and visited other small castles and Crusader Riga. Crusaders often had to deal with Duchy of Polotsk and Pskov because they recognized them as seniors over these tribal leaders. But, it seems hardly that these duchies recognized these micro states as their land. Other than tribute paying and building the church and sometimes hosting a war party, there was no limitations to their sovereignty. Latgalians, Livs and Selonians were simply a client that paid tributes and traded with them. A very limited effort were made to reclaim them from Crusaders and Duchies only cared for their own safety from Crusaders. As yet of 12th centuries the Duchies of formal Kyivean Rus had no Russian or Belarusian identity rather than Orthodox people of Rus. Also amount of people from present Russia and Belarus were very small to call Latvia a native Russian land. The duchies of Rus were in complicated situation as they were invaded by Mongol hordes and were vassals to Golden Horde themselves. There was no interest in conquering the Baltic lands. This interest showed up during the reign of Ivan IV The Terrible who first aspired to seize control over Catholic Livonia.

The Swedish rule in Vidzeme between 1629 to 1700 was generally better for Latvian peasant population

During the Crusader order rule in Vidzeme the Baltic Germans gradually seized all top positions in politics and economy and became the major land owners. Latvians had only few full titled senior land owners in Courland, most were subjects to lands belonging to Livonian Order and the Church. Gradually in 14th -16th century the changes in economic order and advances in agriculture forced the land owners to empower their rights over their peasant subjects and limit their rights of movement and land ownership. Land owners needed full control of the agricultural workforce and that created serfdom that sometimes were exceptionally harsh. This serfdom remained after fall of Livonian Confederation and became harsher under Polish rule. In the result of war between Poland and Sweden in 1621 the Northern Latvia and Riga was annexed by Sweden. What Sweden did in contrast to Duchy of Courland and Polish Latgale was the reduction of agricultural lands. 40 percent of land was given to Swedish nobles limiting the monopoly for Germans. About five-sixths of estates in Vidzeme were reclaimed by Swedish crown. This was done to increase the revenues for Sweden and it succeeded because tax incomes grow substantially. While Swedes tried to improve the life of peasants of building schools, allowed to translate Bible in Latvian, they did not fully abolish serfdom as in 1681 it was rejected by Livonian Knighthood that represented German interests. Swedes also imposed heavier tax and corvee burden and created harsh physical punishments for failing to pay them. Swedish Lutherans also increased witch hunts in Vidzeme. In the end the Sweden managed Vidzeme for their own interests that weakened German nobility, but kept the relations in balance. The serfdom was only abolished in Latvia by Russian Empire in 1817 and 1819 after very long and complicated negotiations with Livonian Knighthood while in Latgale it was only abolished in 1861 with rest of Russia as it was not considered part of Baltic provinces.

The Duchy of Courland is first form of Latvian statehood. 

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was outcome of collapse of Livonian Confederation and its subjection to Poland-Lithuania. The leadership of Livonian Order sought agreement with Poland and the last master of the Livonian Order Gotthard Kettler became Duke of Courland and Semigallia. It was a vassal state of Poland-Lithuania led by Baltic German nobility where Latvians had their secondary roles with no say in politics. In their rule the Duchy was quite independent and also could create their own fleet and colonize lands in Caribbean sea and Africa. While all these colonies were hopelessly lost some romantic inclined people want to claim them as Latvian property. The ownership of Tobago and Gambia may improve Latvian standings in Olympic Field Athletics and Football, but that is more a joke. The Germanic dukes of Courland while sending Latvians to their colonies never saw their Duchy as Latvian state, it was impossible in 15th-18th century. For them the Duchy was sovereign part of former Livonia associated with Polish throne. Even Poland cannot claim these colonies as Polish government did not care about Couronian efforts and did not gave any support and hardly noticed that Duchy had lost them.

The period between 1200 to 1918 was 700 years of slavery, afterwards Latvians won full political and economic freedom

In 1920 when Latvia become independent many noticed very grim appearance in economic and social statistics – while ethnic Latvians held 80% in agriculture, they were minority in finance and industry where major players were Germans, Jews and Poles. Obvious answer was to blame the 700 years of slavery. A time when foreign powers enslaved Latvians, took away their land and abused them in economy and politics. While in 12th -16th century the various peasants and small traders and craftsmen did not identity them as Latvians as whole and saw their subjection as unfortunate social reality that in many cases was not so grim as they still had lot of freedom in income gathering and movement, later in 19th century in result of nationalism a ethnocentric thinking emerged placing Latvians against other nations as victims. This victimhood was even boosted by some radical German thinkers as Garlieb Merkel who in 1796 wrote his epic work “Latvians” where he protested serfdom and accused Germans of gravely abusing poor dark Latvian peasants. As controversial book was it contributed to the abolishment of serfdom and greater German efforts to educate Latvian peasants.

While Latvians were never only a peasant nation. There was small Latvian nobility in Courland, there were Latvian traders, craftsmen and house owners. Latvian only congregations appeared only in 16th century in the result of reformation. Latvian traders had their own guilds and trader unions.

The hash times for Latvian peasants in 16th -18th centuries were favorite subject for nationalistic and Marxist authors while despite of all Latvian peasants had their own schools, churches and some peasants could also gain relative wealth. It’s because Germans cared that Latvians receive education and live in relative wellbeing so they can work better and live according to their standards of modernity. Before abolishment of serfdoms Germans viewed Latvians as their lower-class neighbors, workers and occasional rivals in commerce. In 19th century as Latvian nationalism and social democracy emerged Germans now felt threatened by the Latvians both politically and economically. And it was not because they suddenly became stronger after serfdom was abolished – it’s because they were rivals to Germans all the time and gradually became stronger as their economic and political situation improved.

The confrontation between Latvians, Germans and other nationalities were required for nationalists and Marxists for their own goals. For that the myth of 700 years slavery was essential. In 1905 when in many places Latvian peasants attacked German mansions the revenge for serfdom was called the main reason for these atrocities. That also boosted German hate towards Latvians and this mutual confrontation expressed itself in War for Independence in 1918-1920 while also some German units served for Latvian cause. Latvian fear of German knighthood continued in political battles with Baltic Germans in 1920-1939. Finally, in 1939 Nazi Germany called for repartition of Baltic Germans to Germany and it was greeted by nationalistic Latvians. Later the Soviet Latvia historiography continued to exploit the 700 years of slavery by showing serfdom as feudal atrocity in contrast to progressive communist society.

The idea of independent Latvian state was born even before 1905 and strengthened in the ranks of the Latvian Rifleman during First World War

The idea that four historical regions Courland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale), Vidzeme and Latgale forms united land called Latvia formed in late 19th century. Before for most the land was known as Livonia that Estonia was part of. For Latgalians it was also not so clear as Latgale was part of Vitebsk province and only in 1917 they fully determined themselves to Latvia. Generally the first Latvian nationalists the New Latvian movement fought for Latvian education and culture, equal rights and some local political say within unified Russian Empire. Such demand was high enough for those times as independent small nation in the age of empires was unthinkable. Latvians first needed to improve education, fight against Russification and reluctant German nobility. Russian Empire as senior ruler was only as bad that it first secured the rights of Germans and later tried to impose Russian language. But, independent country was only some could dream off. The early 20th century was filled with Marxist ideas and the New Current movement demanded major reforms for workers and peasants and were one of the first who made claims for Latvian autonomy within reformed Russia. In 1905 the social democrats were the main fighters for autonomy together with anarchists while most nationalists actually demanded to keep current order or at least make Russia constitutional as promised by Tsar Nicholas II in his October manifesto. As revolution was crushed, many came to conclusion that only way for autonomous Latvia is the collapse of Tsar family rule.  The people creating first plans for autonomy were social democrats like Miķelis Valters, Linards Laicēns, ect.

1915 was crucial time as Imperial Germany invaded Latvia and took over Courland and Semigallia and were close to capture Riga. This was a time of nationalistic fervor to call for Latvian Regiment within Russian army to chase Germans away from Latvian lands. Now also nationalists started to call for national autonomy and hoped that Latvian rifleman will serve as example to the Russian throne. Among Latvian rifleman there was nationalistic enthusiasm, but it was as mainly aimed to defeat Germany and rest will follow. After the crushing defeat in 1916 many of them drifted towards Bolshevism as it called Tsar responsible for the great losses and no friend of Latvians and called for peace. In 1917 after the fall of Riga the most of them moved to Russia and fought for Soviet cause.

What happened in Latvia in 1917-1918 was confusion. In February 1917 Tsar was deposed and Russia became democratic republic. If so then Latvia can now ask for national autonomy, however Russian Provisional government never approved this. Future president Jānis Čakste claimed that while he and his commoners were against Tsar they were never against Russia and never wanted to secede and do not want their own parliament, but want to live in common western influenced democratic Russia.  While others like Latvian National Democrat Party called for fully established autonomous  state within democratic Russian federal republic. Social Democrats also called for autonomous Latvia within unified social democratic state of Russia. In 12 August (July 30) Vidzeme Peoples Land Council called for unified autonomous democratic Latvia.

All these calls for autonomy suddenly became obstructed when German army captured Riga on September 3 1917 and gradually took over all Vidzeme and Latgale. Russia had promised nothing and Germany was more willing to create Livonian Duchy. Then Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd. The Latvian right-wing bourgeoise politicians and social democrats had very few options now. In December 2 1917 Latvian National Provisional Council made declaration calling for creation of national autonomous state its important that this declaration no more talked about being together with Russia but Latvia as autonomous state not saying from whom. As such it was pre-declaration of independence. In November 11 1918 Germany had capitulated. Bolsheviks gathered forces to invade Baltic States. There was no more variants for autonomy – Estonia and Lithuania already had declared independence in February 1918. The right wing parties and social democrats gathered in November 18 1918 to declare independence.

Independence was won by solely Latvian efforts/Latvia gained independence only because of foreign countries

When in 1930 Latvia demonstrated historical epic Lāčplēsis on movie screens the Estonians complained that despite showing Estonian army at one episode the movie grossly downplayed Estonian assistance for Latvians. While this movie showed the support from British and French navy. Then in 2008 movie the Guards of Riga completely omitted both Estonians and Allies from the war effort.

Estonian army pushed away the Bolsheviks from their land and marched in Northern Latvia. There at Cēsis in June 22 1919 they together with Latvian forces defeated the renegade German Iron Division and Landeswehr that staged uprising against Latvian Provisional Government. Months before that these same units together with Latvians made advance against Bolsheviks and took back Riga. The Allied navy was stationed in Liepāja and contributed fighting Bolsheviks and later opened fire against rouge Bermondt forces. Then Lithuanian and Polish army helped in Latgale front. Latvia was never alone in the war and without allied forces it would have significantly harder time to gain independence.

Then again was it only because of allied support? The answer is that independence was gained in the chain of events and circumstances. Allied navy was sent to Baltic sea not to support Baltic independence but to stop the Bolshevik advance. Allied countries mainly wanted unified Russia free of Bolsheviks, the new Baltic States and Baltic German factions from there was only temporary allies and the question of Baltic independence should had been settled out with Russia.  Baltic States were only legally recognized in 1921 when it was clear that these countries will actually exist and not be thrown into oblivion like Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. Estonian forces came deep in Northern Latvia and fought against Germans, because first they needed to completely destroy the Bolshevik threat and defeat hostile German forces. Polish leaders wanted restored Poland as big as possible to the extent of 1776 borders. But, Poland needed to completely defeat Bolsheviks so they agreed to take part in liberation of Latgale. So all parties involved had one major interest – defeat Bolsheviks. Latvia until 1920 was question mark – what if Bolsheviks would be defeated by White forces – would they approve such republic? The German forces in Latvia are quite strong – can weak Latvian army defeat them? But, Bolsheviks is a menace so as long this Latvia fights against it we help them – let’s see how long they will last. So in the end it was also up to Latvians themselves to prove their worth in combined battles in Cēsis, Rīga and Latgale. And with Latvians we must not forget Germans, Russians, Jews, Belarusians, Poles and other national minorities fighting in Latvian army.

The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was fascist

In 1960 Latvian soviet historian Aleksandrs Drīzulis published book called “Latvia under the helm of fascism” at first it may look as a book about Nazi occupation. When you began to read it’s actually about the authoritarian Kārlis Ulmanis regime. Kārlis Ulmanis regime was radical in the way that is fully self-centered. All parties including his own Latvian Green Farmers Union was banned. There was no parliament, constitution was stopped. All was in hands of Prime Minister then President Kārlis Ulmanis. There was no party made after the coup, there was no new constitution it was just Kārlis Ulmanis and his government and his bureaucracy. Along with that loyal army, police and National Guard. Was that enough to be called fascist? There were concentration camps for short time in 1934-1935 but the arrested were eventually released. Secret police fought political opponents among the real Latvian fascists and  Baltic German Nazis, but scale or repression was never severe. Press was censured, while one of the themes banned in media was anti-Semitism. While left-wing Jewish movements were banned the  Zionist movements were untouched. Ulmanis government severed rights of national school autonomy but most of national autonomy schools were kept.  While the economy became more controlled by the state the private sector was never fully abolished. In these terms Latvia resembled more an absolute monarchy.

Then there are plans and tendencies that shows Ulmanis Latvia could become fascist. In late 1930’s Ulmanis started planning of creating national party under his name. He also emulated some of the actions of Benito Mussolini like creating chamber (camera) system to control various sectors of economy and similar to Mussolini he made severe changes in Old Riga by destroying city street quarters to create new square around Dome Cathedral. Mussolini did the same when he destroyed whole city district in Rome to create a new grand entry street into Vatican City. Plus Ulmanis also planned to create new massive monumental buildings like Victory Arch similar to Adolf Hitler vision for Berlin. In the end in 1939 -1940 when economy was in shatters and unemployment was growing Ulmanis made steps to create labor duty that would engage large number of people in forced labor camps. His law specially targeted Jews who were less involved in agricultural labor and wanted to force them to work in the field. Ulmanis Latvia had potential to becoming fascist if it would last for another twenty years.

Before the Russian rule Latvia was undeveloped rural economy, most Latvians lived in farms. Russians brought industry and culture

This claim is sometimes seen in some of the Russian forums and comments. The Russian nationalists claim that Latvians before 1940 where low cultured poor people who lived in farmsteads (hutor) with almost no industry in the cities. This is one of the most absurd myths as Latvia had already well-developed mercantile industry in 17th-18th century and yes the industry gradually grew under the Russian empire which by the logic would grow under Sweden, Poland or any other country. Latvian industry suffered a massive blow when in 1914-1915 large portions of factory equipment even whole workers were evacuated to inner Russia. But in first ten years during independent Latvia the industry gradually recovered and it was not just owned by Germans, Russians and Jews – there was lot of successful Latvian owners. One of the most successful Latvian industrial company VEF made a variety of products from nails to airplanes. What is reality that many of the most successful Soviet Latvian enterprises was nationalized and kept by the Soviets in 1940. And about the hutor – the Latvian agriculture while facing issues in workforce fared no worse than later Soviet collective farms that were imposed on people and those who resisted were deported to Siberia.

Before 1940 all Jews in Latvia called themselves žīdi (yids) and not ebreji (Hebrews) and there was no problem with that. Ebrejs is word imposed by Soviets

There are three common names for Jews in Latvian. Biblical Jews are called jūds. Then there are two words. One is ebrejs that is close to word Hebrew and Russian word evrei. And then there is word žīds. Žīds was the most common way the Latvians called Jews, in Poland and Lithuania a similar word is Żydzi and Žydai. However, this word resembles word Yid that is considered offensive. It’s even more offensive in Russia where it’s also means cheapskate and niggard. During the times of pogroms  a popular slogan was “Spasai Rossiju! Bei židov!” (Save Russia! Beat the Yid!) n 1940 the Soviets banned the word žīds and made ebrejs as only word to describe Jew.  What happened a year later was a Pandora’s box. Invading Nazis on quest to exterminate all Jews used the ban of žīds in their propaganda to prove Soviet occupation main power was Jews. As this word was controversial as it was it now got a very dark tone in the light of the Holocaust. After the return of the Soviets the žīds dropped out of common vocabulary and ebrejs was and is common word in Latvian for Jews. While exiles in west still used žīds and for nationalists in underground it was the true word. Then independent Latvia these people came out and asked to restore the Latvian žīds and drop the soviet ebrejs as it was never used before Soviet occupation and Jews themselves did not used to call themselves. While others started to theorize that there is difference between žīds and ebrejs.

What was in reality that word ebrejs was quite common word among Jews themselves before the war. In most official documents written by Jews themselves the word ebrejs is used. While there was no protests against the žīds word, it seems that Jews really preferred neutral word ebrejs because žīds reminded them of Tsarist time anti-Semitic oppression.

Jews were mainly responsible for Soviet repressions of 1940-1941

There are comments in Latvian main internet news sites. And when a news item regarding Jewish issue is published there is nice bet that at least one of them will mention the word
Šustins. Semyon Shustin was Jewish national from Moscow who worked in NKVD was a ruthless soviet officer who took part mass deportations of June 14 1940. He was never from Latvia and during the repressions hundreds of Jews from Latvia were deported to Siberia. Soviet government closed all Jewish organizations and arrested most social and political activists.

In June 22 19141 Nazi Germany invaded and massive anti-Semitic campaign started. Nazi German propagandists many of them willingly Latvian activists like Ādolfs Šilde made countless accusations of Jews as main perpetrators of the soviet occupation. Year later when killing of the Latvian Jews was mostly finished to justify a propaganda book and movie was made to fully summarize Jewish guilt the occupation. The book the Horrible Year was so successful that still this day many including parliamentary speaker describes the 1940 as Baigais Gads  a name for book mainly about imagined Jewish atrocities in 1940.

In reality while many Jews saw Stalin as lesser evil compared to Hitler, if we start a detailed outlook on Jewish participation in Soviet occupation it shows that Jewish presence especially local was limited and marginal. Important people like Semyon Shustin was from Moscow. Majority of the party members, members of various municipalities and soviet organizations were Latvians. Jews were also prevented from reaching high ranks. Jews were involved in repressive structures, but not  in high percentage and are responsible as Latvians who took part in them. While these words may seem pointless for some people for whom seeing two or five Jewish surnames in the list means approval for their world of conspiracy.

During the WW2 large masses of Latvians actively took part in Holocaust without German orders in revenge for Soviet occupation

This claim was first created by Nazi propaganda who wished to portray mass killings as purely local initiative as revenge for Jewish Bolshevik atrocities. After the war some Jewish survivors continued this theme and published dramatic books fully accusing Latvians who killed Jews without German orders or took part in the shootings willingly. Soviets picked this up and published books directed towards Latvian exiles where they accused them of taking part in Nazi atrocities. Russian propaganda continues this narrative.

So far academic research has failed to prove that in time of so-called interregnum – the period between exchange from Soviet to Nazi power a Jewish killings have taken place. This interregnum happened because Soviets were quick to retreat and in many places Latvian national partisans took power. They regarded Germans as their allies and gradually returned authority to Germans. However, most cases show these partisans were involved in attacking retreating soviets while there were events attacking Jewish refugees from Lithuania, however most of these attacks took place after Germans had taken power and ordered Latvians to attack the refugees.

Holocaust in Latvia has been documented very well and shows that killings took place after the Germans had full installed power and taken control over Latvian national partisans or Self Defense groups. These groups and two main Security Police commandos Arājs and Valgulāns group did the most job of killing Jews while all these murders were directed and observed by Germans. As for the tragic events in July 4 1941 when Arājs men burned down the main synagogue that German propaganda portrayed as major pogrom; the official Nazi documents states that local participation was insignificant and unsatisfactory.

However, no light words are said for Latvian propagandists from Pērkonkrusts (Thundercross) movement who voluntary published hundreds of anti-Semitic articles in the press and before the war some of their publications state that they favored the removal of the Jews from Latvia. After the movement demanded Germans to create Latvian national forces, they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Nazi occupation was far better than the Soviet occupation

The massive deportations of June 14 1940 and many other repressions were grave image of the soviet occupation. During the Nazi occupation the national flag of Latvia was flown only for few days and was banned as well as the national anthem and other symbols. In 1941-1942 there was no German intention for restoration of independent Latvia. Instead plan was drawn to colonize Latvia and integrate into Nazi Germany. Rhetoric changed after Stalingrad and Germans needed Latvian support for continuing war effort. Latvian Waffen SS Legion was formed and promises were made of Latvian national government. Never fulfilled.

As off repressions – Nazis killed 9000 Jews in Latvia and also sent Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Nazis killed about 2000 Roma’s. Nazis killed people supporting soviet partisans. Nazis deported whole families from Belarus to Latvia, where many children died from sickness and starvation. Nazis repressed and killed people calling for independent Latvia. There is no need to compare.

Salaspils camp was a death camp

Germans had diverse classification list for their camps. For instance the Kaiservald (Mežaparks) was called a concentration camp while Salaspils was called simply a camp. They also had camps called extermination camps and death camps. Salaspils was simply called camp. It’s this just a guise? During the soviet occupation in sixties some people were inspired by the new memorials in Auschwitz and Dachau so they wanted similar in Latvia. Salaspils was chosen for a new memorial and thousands of people who died there deserved this. However, soviets published books where they called Salaspils a Death camp. Soviets made claims that there was gas machines in the camp. Another claim that camp served as blood repository, that children from Russia and Belarus were used to collect blood for German soldiers.

There are no proof that there was ever a gas machine used in Salaspils.  There was no logical reason for mass blood collecting without determining the blood type that would make blood transfer out of question. On 1943 because of issues the German medical authority canceled the use of blood doses in the Eastern Front instead preferring direct transfer. Also the blood transport to Western front from Latvia would be costly and unreliable process.  Blood collecting took place, but not in large-scale and mostly for medical reasons as doctors tried to limit the spread of diseases that would endanger not only children but also adult workers. The camp was for most as punishment camp for people of various sorts also soviet prisoners of war, anti-nazi resistance and unemployed. People died there because of harsh work conditions, sickness and starvation. It was a horrible place, but soviet claims and their given death toll is gravely exaggerated.

Latvian Waffen SS is responsible for war crimes

Latvian Waffen SS was formed in 1943 after most of Jewish killing took place. Its two divisions 15th and 19th division and smaller adjacent units  took part in combat from Leningrad to Berlin. The Police Battalions, Security Police commandos are not Latvian Waffen SS Legion. Some of the former members of the criminal units later were enlisted into Latvian Waffen SS legion. That is their individual responsibility. Similarly every Soviet soldier who made war crimes or allied soldier holds individual responsibility.

Latvian Waffen SS truly fought for independent national Latvia. The Latvians within Soviet army or Latvian soviet partisans were either just conscripts or trained saboteurs

Latvian Waffen SS carried out German orders. It fought hard battles and many times stopped great soviet offensives and allowed German units to escape onslaught. They never really had time and chance to fight for independent Latvia no matter how each of them wanted it. Only thing they achieved is that they helped many refuges to escape Latvia by halting and stopping advancing soviets.

Most of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion were conscripts. War was seen to each of his own eyes. So as the soldiers in the Latvian Rifleman divisions in the Red Army. Many of its members truly wanted to liberate Latvia from the Nazis. The Latvian Jews in the Latvian Rifleman division had a clear motivation. While there was practice of trained Soviet partisan drops in Latvia, some of them also did war crimes their motivation was either sense of duty or motivation to fight Nazi’s. Both of these sides had plenty of wrong; Latvians had to take part in both sides. There was no Latvian side in the Eastern front.

Latvian national partisans were bandits created by German secret service and then submitted to the allied secret services

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. After the end of world war hundreds of people did not accept the soviet occupation and went into woods. There was hope for allied war with soviets and these people hoped their guerilla will be short. Instead it resorted to hopeless battle until 1956. Soviets called them bandits and accused of atrocities, murders and looting. In some events it was true as partisans were vicious towards local soviets and attacked shops to get supplies. One could say that it was false to wait for allied war with Soviets, however the allied rhetoric made such hopes. In reality the US and UK leadership was always afraid of Soviet attack and feared to attack first. Soviets also made claim that these partisans were created by Nazis to work behind enemy lines. It’s true that Nazis really created such battalions like SS-Jagdverband-Ost that however was almost completely destroyed by the end of the war. Prior to Nazi invasion in 1941 Nazis made contacts with many members of Latvian anti-Soviet resistance and exiles and also direct Nazi supporters and then trained for operations. However, its doubtful that Nazis managed to train large partisan force as large it was during 1945-1956.

Allied secret services CIA and SIS both made efforts to assist the Latvian partisans. These efforts were soon uncovered by Soviets and used against the allies. People were lured in Latvia and captured. Soviets even created fake partisan units to lure allied agents mostly Latvians into the trap. Since the start the allied secret service operation in Latvia was controlled by Soviets. Did partisans regarded CIA and SIS as their superiors? In their desperate war against soviets they needed every help they can get, but since allied efforts were hindered by the KGB there was no significant way to help them.

Russification during Tsarist times were harsher then in Soviet times

Sometimes in mostly Ukrainian twitter shares an old exhibition piece – a pillory sign – “he spoke Latvian” as punishments in school for speaking Latvian during Tsarist times. In the late 19th century such pillory signs and really did exist and Ukrainians use this to their argument against Russian influence. While Russian would probably say that this shows that Russification in Tsar times was more harsh than in Soviet times when it was always nonexistent. During the harshest period of Russification the Latvians had answer – private Latvian schools that became popular. People tried to avoid official state schools where Russian language was imposed. Russification gradually weakened after 1905. During the soviet occupation, Latvian language was taught in schools, Latvian language was on TV and Radio and there was no fines for its usage outside official use. Officially all documents were in Russian, it was official language in army and police. But, was the most crucial – soviets did not forced thousands of immigrants from Soviet Union to learn Latvian. It seemed useless for them and that made heavy shoulder on Latvian language. It was regarded as a language only for Latvians, it was not needed for Russian speakers and Russian speakers did not speak with Latvians in their language. Of course not all of the new soviet residents were ignorant of the Latvian language, but that was long gradual diminishing of the Latvian language rather than brash suppression that only creates resistance.

During the soviet rule, the Soviet government invested millions in Latvian economy and received very less in return therefore its Latvia that owns debt to Russia

When Latvia speaks about large amount of losses created by Soviets and asks for large refund, Russia always reminds of their massive investment into Latvia. Until now such claim was let to pass however now studies conclude that from 1946 to 1991 Soviet Union spent 24,684 million rubles in Latvia while gained 40,645 revenue from Latvia. 15,961 million were spent less than gained. The money gained from Latvia was used for poor areas in Russia and support other soviet republics. Latvia had valuable agricultural and industrial products and was very valuable and profitable captive nation for Moscow. For this reason there is regret for loss of Latvia and plans always in place of how to return it.

During the Soviet times large part of Latvian intellectuals and cultural workers were involved with KGB

Soviet secret service KGB was the most powerful and biggest spy agency in world history. It both held responsibility of foreign and interior intelligence. And as of interior intelligence it was not just counter intelligence it was complete control of the society in every its aspect to counter anti-Soviet activity. That involved recruitment of people from cultural, academic and artistic circles. There are people who are known and who have confessed, then they rumors. The issue is that even partial list of agents is still classified. The KGB documents research commission has made demands to publish the database, however Latvian Constitutional Defense Bureau   is still against it. This claim will stay unverified as long as the lists of agents that is available in  Latvia remains classified. And people will say that there is a reason why it’s still classified.

Soviet times were generally worse than now

The most harshest years of the Soviet occupation was 1945-1953 during last years of Stalin. These years were characterized with another mass deportation in 1949, enforced collectivization, war with partisans and painful economic recovery. Level of living improved in sixties and level of repressions dropped. In sixties and seventies the soviet technical advancement was lacking in comparison of Western level of technology. However, in most part soviet production was still able provide people with good level of living and welfare. The cultural level despite censorship was reasonably high, advancements were made in arts, literature, cinema and music. Censorship even made artists, writers and musicians to be more creative to express themselves so hidden messages were shown. As of all even despite Nikita Khrushchev vulgar attack on modern arts (he later regretted and said he was just confused) and stagnate conservatism of Leonid Brezhnev the culture in Soviet Union was prosperous although it could not completely avoid the banality of the soviet propaganda. In similar way the education while plagued with obligatory soviet ideology managed to provide good level of knowledge.  Medicine was state funded, while it was often slow and not as technically advanced as in west it served its purpose. Also Soviet Union was not fully closed from the west and many of the western culture and education reached Latvia and influenced the people.

The most negative aspects of the post Stalin years was mass immigration, increased pollution created by industry and the military. Still fear from army and KGB was all the time present, the Latvian men were sent to Afghanistan and later Chornobyl. Latvians could not freely travel the world, the contacts with west was limited. In 80s the Soviet economy went into decline resulting deficit of products, increased corruption and technologic backwardness. It seems that if Soviet Union did not collapse in 1991 and never took any reforms it would go into deep recession and would not be able even to challenge the West. If Soviet Union would try to make approach similar to China, by keeping the state order but introduce free market things may turned out differently, but Soviet elite seemed to completely mismanage their reforms and the empire collapsed from the actions of their own rulers.

Comparing to our days while technology is way advanced, almost none of is made in Latvia. The state and private sector cannot provide jobs to all people in Latvia resulting emigration. Culture is almost free from any sign of censorship, but the main issue is state funding that is always lacking and privately funded culture is of many things. Same as education and medicine almost every sector lacks proper funding. Independent state cannot even fully funds its police and army. Cost of life has increased and issues in education and medicine has created discontent in society. Much of this was evident in 1920-1940 and that is a cost for being independent senior state rather part of large empire.

During the restoration of independence the old soviet communist elite made transition to democratic elite and still rules the country

This is claimed by the nationalists some of them members of Helsinki-86 and the Citizens Congress who wanted more radical way of restoration of independence rather than conventional way that was made by Popular Front that cooperated with Latvian communists who reverted to support the independence. That shows how weak and impotent the communist beliefs had become and most of the communist party members except hardliners steadily approved new reality and became capitalists and sometimes nationalists. This claim is partially true, however it seems that hardline nationalists were in no position to fulfil things their way and live on this accusation for rest of the two decades. What is unfortunate that no proper lustration was done and it was not done in any of the former Soviet Union. In Russia and Belarus it led to a rise of Soviet revisionism, in Ukraine and Georgia it lead to revolutions. In Latvia it simply created an unfortunate situation when some of the old elite tries to operate the country the old soviet way, some of not the best of their ability. Some of these people still tries to maintain good relations with Russia or are their agents. Larger issue is post soviet thinking that is characterized by fake nationalism and fake democratism and economic inability.

Majority of Russian speakers supported independent Latvia from USSR and were betrayed by Latvian government later by creating an apartheid state

In March 3 1991 a poll was made asking for supporting the independence from USSR. 1 227 562 voted for 411 374 against. In 1989 there was 1 387 757 Latvians, 905 515 Russians, 119 702 Belarusians, 92 101 Ukrainians, 60 416 Poles and 22 897 Jews. Surely it could mean that large part of Russian speakers were in favor. And Popular Front made posters asking Russian speakers to vote and try engage them. However, 24,69 of people voted against they were mostly ethnic Russians and military servicemen. Those who supported where mainly people who or their ancestors lived in pre war Latvia or who saw possibility of national cultural revival like some of the Jews.

Still  411 374 was large number and Latvian parties started to dwindle away from Russian speakers. After the independence the new ruling parties had a tough decision. Latvia could either start accession to  EU and NATO as difficult it seemed or try to stay close to Russia. And they feared that Russian speakers will not support course towards NATO and EU and vote for pro-Moscow parties. There already were such and wanted Latvia to stay ‘neutral’. Also in 1989 only of citizens were 52,0% were Latvians and it was obvious to try to preserve. So tough citizenship law was made to give Latvian citizenship to people who were born or had parents in pre war Latvia. Thousands of soviet immigrants became non-citizens.  Russia with its new support policy for Russian speakers abroad immediately condemned Latvia and called the situation in Latvia an apartheid.

Ironically the NATO and EU pressured Latvia to ease the citizenship law and it was gradually done. In result every year more non-citizens gained citizenship. In 2015 there was 262 030 non-citizens. Seems most of the Russian speakers do use their citizenship to support pro-Moscow parties as their support has increased since 2010 and in Riga there is ethnic Russian mayor. Was this support caused by staggering citizenship law? That is one of the reasons, while there some another referendum – in 2012 a referendum for two state languages were initiated. 273 347 people voted for. From 1 098 593 overall voters that is as much as opposition to independence in 1991 poll. It shows that for some people their views had still not changed since 1991 and the Latvian political forces were generally right about their weariness of the Russian speaking voters.

During 1990-1999 the government and ruling elite destroyed the Latvian industry and agriculture inherited from Soviet era on purpose

The first decade since regaining independence was hard one for thousands of workers. Large soviet inherited factories like VEF went into bankruptcy. Government in odds in being unable to maintain all post soviet industry decided to give away to privatization. In various cases the new owners were unable to maintain these factories, while others were simply looted. Many believed it was done on purpose for personal wealth of the new national elite. While some persons involved it was true, the collapse of the soviet industry can be explained for myriad of objective reasons. First soviet industry was all tied to Soviet marked that had collapsed, second the Soviet military had lot of grey orders from these factories that were now lost. Third that soviet industry was hopelessly backwards and foreign investors had no interests in them. A vile version that foreign companies saw new rival in Latvian industry and wanted to destroy it. However, it was so weak that they possibly could not rival Western companies for decades. It was far better to be bought by them for low price, but most like VEF old leadership refused. Fourth factor that new Latvian government that for two years was concentrated for almost impossible task of restoring independence now got in whirlwind of economic and social fallout that was caused by collapse of the soviet economy and rapid transition to free market. The government and new state intuitions were amateurs, often clueless of how to save the industry and made mistakes and fell for bates. Nevertheless it was a major social disaster that has not been fully recovered.

European Union continued to destroy Latvian economy, for instance it closed the Latvian sugar industry

When Latvia joined EU many hoped for immediate prosperity that did not come after 1992. However, many were disappointed by many regulations, directives and recommendations. Also EU investment was and is always under regalement and bigger countries still get the bigger cut. Not only that EU contributed to the closure of the Latvian sugar industry. This action however was not done because EU had vile intentions but because in 2004 it lost a case to World Trade Organization that allowed 49 poorest countries to export sugar into EU without fees and tariffs. To rescue EU sugar industry and compensate those who would be now dropped out of the market. EU offered the companies who can’t produce ton of  sugar for 404 euro were asked to leave the market and received compensations for their closure. And Latvian companies of centuries of experience were one of them. Now most sugar in Latvian stores are from Poland and is one of the most expensive in EU. It is rather unfortunate situation, but EU did that for many other countries because it was forced to.

As much of the EU positive and negative effect to Latvian economy there is many factors. EU has contributed to some sectors of economy and has hindered others. EU tries to work for common good and tries to keep balance and that balance is not always good for some countries. However, EU has no vile intention to sabotage Latvian economy if it had such it would let Latvia go bankrupt in 2008-2009, but obviously that would be against the common good and balance.

These were the some of the myths of the Latvian history. Every nation has its own historical myths and explaining them helps understanding the history better.

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Salaspils Camp

"Behind this gate the land cries" entrance in the Salaspils memorial

“Behind this gate the land cries” entrance in the Salaspils memorial

World War 2 was the most tragic event for the Latvian people. Thousands were killed and deported by two totalitarian regimes in short time span of five years. Latvia is full of mass killing sites that serves as memory for the times of terror. Since 1967 one of the most known symbols of the Nazi terror in Latvia was the Salaspils camp. Salaspils was the site of camp run by Nazi SS and Security police SD Salaspils camp was the site of thousands of prisoners including children with great number of causalities. On 1959 a decision was made to build a memorial dedicated to the victims of the camp. It was follow-up to the trend in memorial architecture to mark the sites of Nazi concentration camps started by Buchenwald memorial in Eastern Germany, later memorial in Majdanek Czechoslovakia and Auschwitz in Poland. The result was a large memorial ensemble of brutalist style sculpture and architectonic foundation. The memorial was 25 ha in width and emotionally powerful example of synthesis between architecture and sculpture. The authors were architects Gunārs Asaris, Ivars Strautmanis, Oļģerts Ostenbergs, Oļegs Zakamennijs and sculptors Oļegs Skarainis, Ļevs Bukovskis, Jānis Zariņš.

Since then the Salaspils camp became one of the most known symbols of the Nazi terror in Latvia. Soviet power however, made ideological fallacy by trying to compare the Salaspils camp to above mentioned Nazi camps in Germany and Eastern Europe. Soviet propaganda meanwhile ignored the mass killing sites of Jews and Roma’s and Mežaparks (Kaiservald) concentration camp that was exclusively made for Jews and contained larger number of inmates. Instead Soviet propaganda and official history overly focused on Salaspils camp creating exaggerations that has caused heated arguments between modern-day Latvian and Russian historians. The discussion was again brought to light after new joint research was published this January by Latvian historians that played down many of the Soviet exaggerations especially the number of victims and inmates and the fate of camps children prisoners. Here we take a look on the claims made by Soviet and Latvian historians about the camp in Salaspils.

During the Soviet occupation no major academic work on Salaspils camp was made. Instead it was mentioned in popular texts and newspapers and mentioned in general history publications. The camp was mentioned in Soviet newspapers already in November 30 1944 where it was claimed that Nazis collected blood from children prisoners for the German Red Cross. The newspaper called to avenge every blood of the Soviet children for the blood of the dirty Germans. It was in line of the Soviet war-time propaganda for vengeance against the German nation. But, the thesis of Salaspils as “Blood Factory” remained within Soviet publications for years to come. Many more newspaper articles described the horrors for children in the camp and claimed that Jewish children were used for firing range although no Jewish children were ever known to be there. On 1945 when the war was over the USSR Extraordinary Investigation Commission (EIC) started to gather evidence for the Nazi crimes within Latvia. It concluded that camp had 56 000 death prisoners within them 7000 children.  During the sixties and seventies the camp was now described as death camp. The publications claimed that camp also used gas trucks to murder the inmates. It was claimed that Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer had visited the camp personally. The usual claimed death toll was 100 000 people including the affiliated camps in Latvia with 12 000 to 7000 children. 3500 liters of blood was taken from children. Soviets also added the Soviet prisoners of war to the list of civilian inmates as the Soviet propaganda avoided to mention the large numbers of Soviet POW’S. This trend was continued by Russian modern historians who repeat the Soviet interpretations. The latest attempts by Russian foundation “Historic Memory” was an exhibit “Deported childhood: The fates of deported children from Russia and Belarus to Latvia” that was called a disinformation by Latvian historians and authorities. Later the same foundation tried to do an exhibit in UNESCO headquarters in Paris, but the request was denied.

The Latvian historiography tends to question two main things: the actual number of inmates and victims and the classification of the Salaspils camp. Popular way of calling Salaspils camp is to label it as “concentration camp.” Soviet publications called it a “death camp”. According to German historian Gudrun Schwartz there are 17 categories of the German run camps during the WW2 starting from work labor camps to the death camp. Salaspils was camp where people were imprisoned, humiliated, forced to harsh labor and killed. All these actions took place almost in every of 17 categories of camps. The historian must take two turns of how to categorize the Salaspils camp. The emotionally subjective way of the documentary way based on German and Soviet documents. The emotionally subjective way most often leads to call Salaspils as concentration camp as large numbers of people were concentrated and imprisoned for various reasons; nationality, political affiliations and crimes against the Nazi laws. People in Salaspils died from violence, death sentences, hunger and diseases, however it was a never a death camp where people were killed in industrial manner for the very purpose of extermination. So calling a death camp is incorrect to very least. The Soviet Gulag camps often operated the same ways, but are not described as death camps. The death camp was camp where prisoners were killed right after their arrival namely six camps: Belzek, Sobibora, Treblinka, Helmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Auschwitz the work able people were sent to concentration camp while others killed.

The documentary way is often criticized by supporters of emotional classification who accuse of following the Nazi paradigm. The official German name for the camp was “Extended police prison and work labor re education camp” On 2005 main Latvian historians published book called “Latvia 20th century” where this term was used. When Vaira Vīķe Freiberga the president of Latvia made visit to Moscow on May 9th and gave the Russian translation of the book to Vladimir Putin. It’s doubtful Putin ever read the book, but the Russian propaganda took out the official camp name as a proof that Latvia is “re-writing” history. The wave of anti-Latvian propaganda was followed by books and movies accusing Latvia of rehabilitating Nazi occupation.

The question what was Salaspils camp can be answered how the Germans viewed the camp themselves and what were their plans regarding and outcomes of their plans. The discussion for the camp building in Salaspils was started in 1941 when head of the Einsatzgruppe A SS-Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker raised the issue of overcrowding of prisoners and recommended to build a concentration camp to sort out work able prisoners. The camp would be under direction of Security Police SD. He was granted build such camp on August 4 1941. Month later the Reich Chief Authority sent note that its unacceptable by all means that SD maintains concentration camps and if the camp is made they are to be called extended police prisons  and under jurisdiction of directive issued by SS reichsführer Heinrich Himmler about police prisons and work labor re-education camps.

Local German authorities continued to ask for rights to build a concentration camp and added an argument that camp was needed to host the Jews for they cannot be kept in the Riga Ghetto forever. But requests were written in eased out form calling the desired object as “extended police prison similar to concentration camp” A specialist from Germany was requested to lead the camp building.

On October 11 1941 Stahlecker asked the General Commissioner of Latvia Otto-Heinrich Drechsler to gather large amount construction supplies for concentration camp in between Riga, Jelgava and Tukums for Jews exiled from Germany and occupied Poland. 10 days later the camp site was moved to the site near Riga-Daugavpils railway and was no longer called a concentration camp. As of November 30 the first Rumbula massacre took place taking lives of hundreds of thousands lives of Jews of Riga Ghetto the camp was no longer required for them. Last surviving Jews were taken to Mežaparks (Kaiserwald) camp in Riga that was officially called by Germans as concentration camp by the order of Heinrich Himmler on June 21 1943. Salaspils camp in the process of its existence was never officially called a concentration camp. The classification was important for Germans as it would determine the authority it would subordinated to and laws regarding it. The SD did not want to lose its authority and the Himmler’s requirements to change it to concentration camp were not met. Instead The Chief Authority of the Reich Security issued note to SS court that Salaspils is not a concentration camp but extended police prison with added SD labor re-education camp.

The second main question is the number of victims and inmates. The first victims of the camp were Jews from Germany and Austria who were sent to take part in the camp building. As no expert from Germany was sent the building and design was directed by local Latvians Jānis Irbe the chief of the Riga second building office and technical chief Frīdrihs Mednis. At first the work force was hired locals and Soviet POW’S who were held captive at Stalag 350 POW camp nearby. As of early 1942 the most workforces was now Jews from Germany, Austria and occupied Poland. 1000 Jews were involved in the building on January 5 1942. The harsh winter, rough labor, small food rations and illness lead to constant deaths of the forced labor. 10-12 people may have died within the day. As the ground was frozen it was hard to dig graves and bodies were kept behind barracks to await ground blowouts to bury them. Jews died from harsh punishments, many were killed on spot. The punishments were made for not working, stealing, trying to escape and speculation. People were shot or hanged. The amount of dead Jewish workers it’s not clearly known. The estimates call 1500-1800 Jews to be involved in the camp building and 1000 of them dead from various causes including death punishment.

Salaspils camp drawing by former inmate Kārlis Bušs

Salaspils camp drawing by former inmate Kārlis Bušs

After the main building works were finished the Jews were transported away to Riga Ghetto and new inmates of various categories were sent to camp. Small numbers of Jews for “special reasons” were kept in the camp. They were possibly Jews from Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Jews also were stationed in camp temporally in transit. 100 or Jews may have died in the camp. But the camp was mainly built for non-Jewish persons.

One of them was work truants as Nazi occupation took many steps to combat work truancy and dawdling. Also speculates, thieves, tax avoiders and illegal alcohol producers. These people were sent to camp. 1800 of them were imprisoned at Salaspils. Salaspils also hosted political prisoner’s mostly Soviet activists who also took part in building process. Also members from the Latvian nationalist movement that opposed the Nazis. Members of the Polish nationalist resistance movement were also present. Nationalist Latvian inmates were mostly spared from harsh works by Nazi authority and guards looked at them with ease. Some of them were freed or sent to Latvian Waffen SS Legion. Latvian collaborators within occupation authorities often tried to help their compatriots and German Nazis saw Latvian nationalists as lesser evil. For a short time the leading members of the Latvian Central Council the main anti-Nazi movement in Latvia were stationed in Salaspils and then sent to camps in Germany. More than 100 Latvian national resistance movement members were present in Salaspils. Most women prisoners were political activists either Soviet activists or nationalists. Women were kept in separate barracks and camp guards forbidden men to have contacts with women and severely punished them when such contacts were made. There were woman who gave birth to children in the camp and were forced to live in harsh environment. Before camp liquidation the many women were sent France or Germany, some released under police watch.

Salaspils camp was also prison for sentenced members of the Latvian Waffen SS and Police battalions. These were soldiers who broke the rules. disobeyed orders or tried to desert. Also for avoiding military service. Some reports say that Norwegians, Dutch, Poles, Finns, Danes and even two French from Alsace were in the camp that were sent there for military offenses. On May 1944 the Lithuanian general Povils Plehavičus with his staff was sent to Salaspils. Plehavičus and his supporters were forming Lithuanian Local Brigade to resist the return of the Soviets and was seen as attempt to restore Lithuanian army by the Germans. Pļehavičus who was anti-communist complained that he is in the sane camp with many sentenced for supporting communism and demanded transfer threatening hunger strike.  They were released few months later. While most Latvian and Lithuanian soldiers were given second chance the life in the camp for Soviets POW’s was harsher. Soviet sources say that 47 000 soviet POW’S died at Salaspils without stating how they got that number. On 1942 in Latvia there was 59 805 POW’S and by October 43 0060 as many were sent to Germany. Salaspils camp contained only 10% of the Soviet POW’S of the Stalag-350 POW camp system. So it was nearly impossible to kill so many people at Salaspils camp. However, it’s confirmed that 500 disable Soviet soldiers unable to move themselves were killed at the time of the camp evacuation.

Salaspils served also as transit camp. As from 1943 German army was in retreat in the Eastern front the Nazis tried to sort out refugees and people useful for work. The refugees from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were sent to filtration camps. In Latvia they were settled in Daugavpils, Rēzekne, and Strenči and Salaspils was suggested but then ruled out. However, there was individual case in 1944 when refugees from Belarus were filtrated in Salaspils. On 1943 there was 43 000 evacuated Russians on 1944 152 576. However, Salaspils was mainly a transit camp for captured civilians from Russia and Belarus who were intended by SD to be taken away to Germany.

On 1943 Germans issued operation to combat Soviet partisan movement in Belarus. The order was to destroy the villages around partisan infested zones and deport civilians away from them. The Operation  Winter Magic (Operation Winterzauber) took place from February 15 to early April. Near Latvian-Belarusian border the area was controlled by partisans and order was to clear the 40 km wide zone clear of civilian population supporting the partisans. 7465 people were held captive and then sent to Salaspils for filtration. The work able would be sent to Germany. Not all of them were sent as large numbers of weak and old were shot on the march to Salaspils. In two rounds about 4000 people entered Salaspils. Since the whole families were deported the children were within the prisoners. In February 1943 1100 children entered Salaspils. On second transport 1000 children were sent. Children were often separated from their families sent to nurseries or rural works. Camp authorities tried to sort out and disinfect the captives as fast as possible to send them further so never in camp history all the captives were in camp in one place.

Another anti-partisan operation Winter Journey took place in Latvian eastern region of Latgale to punish and deport the supporters of partisans. 3284 people were taken captive, 985 men, 1285 women and 1041 children. As before children were separated sent to relatives or unknown people.

The main cause of death in most cases around the inmates was diseases and starvation. The living environment was insanitary, food rations were low and work conditions were brutal. People died from typhus that was brought in by captives from Operation Winter Magic. The medical branch of camp was tasked to disinfect, remove louses as fast as possible and process was carried brutally. Children often caught dysentery, measles and other sickness. There was no medication so every sickness was a danger. Typhus epidemic killed more than 100 people. Documentary sources state that 700 people died from malnutrition.

Children in the camp were treated harshly. They were sent to quarantine collectively and treated with brutality. Then the most precarious moment was the separation from their parents. Parents were given only one minute to say goodbye to their children. Many children saw their parents for the last time. The Nazi propaganda made film shots of camp doctors disinfecting the children while barrack guards made children to dance and play music for their amusement.  When children barrack was hit by diarrhea the children went to barrack guards to dance and sing to get diarrhea pills. About 3000 children were in the camps at various times. Many hundreds died from starvation and epidemics and bad treatment. However, after few months of captivity they were sent to nurseries or adopted. The terrible living conditions and treatment separation from family is highest crime against these children. However, there is no sources that confirm the Soviet allegations of mass killings of children and blood removal in large numbers. Soviet investigation placed a lot of effort to investigate the fates of the children in the camp. Soviet reports concluded 7000 children died in the camp and based on testimonies of 33 people there was regular blood taking procedure imposed on captive children. Most of these testimonies  contained many numbers of overall captives, but contained no explanations of how the witnesses knew these facts. Some testimonies contained nearly impossible facts that do not correspond to logic and reality. The Soviet documents contain no information how the investigation committee came to their conclusions and number of causalities and inmates.  The accusations on deliberate blood collection from children were often based on rumors and suspicion from witnesses whose blood was not collected. Many interrogated sanitarians denied the fact there was widespread blood collection from children. Also there are not confirmations of the accusations of children poisoning and experimenting. The story about 3500 liters of blood taken from children for the German Red Cross is probably based on rumors, false stories and errors in investigation. There was no logical reason for mass blood collecting without determining the blood type that would make blood transfer out of question. On 1943 because of issues the German medical authority canceled the use of blood doses in the Eastern Front instead preferring direct transfer. Also the blood transport to Western front from Latvia would be costly and unreliable process.  Blood collecting took place, but not in large-scale and mostly for medical reasons as doctors tried to limit the spread of diseases that would endanger not only children but also adult workers.

Most deaths were in the camp were caused by famine and diseases. However, many died from repeated brutal punishments. People were punished for not working, speculation, gambling and other disobeying orders. Death penalties were issued for trying or planning to escape or planning an uprising. There were few events hangings in front of other inmates. 19 people were killed or injured during escape attempts. There were few mass killings such as at the end of 1943 when 30-35 people from Riga were brought in shot by the SD firing squad. 16 prisoners who were brought in from Rēzekne and Daugavpils prison were shot because they were sick with typhus. There are no viable sources that proof the claim that there were gas chambers in the camp.

The end of the mass sufferings of the Daugavpils camp came to September 29 1944 when because of approaching Soviets the camp was liquidated. By then the camp had already very small number of prisoners and it had suffered a Soviet air strike destroying one of the barracks. Before the liquidation many inmates were released but disabled inmates were shot. Last inmates left the camp on September 29 1944. Camp was burned down before the Soviets could capture it.

Salaspils was camp of suffering and horror and until this day there are still many unanswered questions and discussions about the number of inmates and number of people killed there. The latest research published this year concludes that from 1942 to 1944 the camp had 21 855-23 035 prisoners 11 735 of them were transit prisoners being here for a limited time. 400-500 people died from starvation. 100-150 died from harsh work environment. Four people were hanged. 19 people were shot during escape attempts. 6 were shot after being caught trying to escape. 31 were killed for planning uprising. 80 disabled people were murdered. 11 735 people including children who were sent to Salaspils from Belarus or Latgale died from various causes. 500 Soviet disabled POW’S were executed. The total of 1952 people died in the Salaspils camp.

The research shows that Soviet estimates of number of casualties were greatly exaggerated. Soviet post war investigation although valuable, holds within many inaccuracies, deliberate exaggerations for ideological reasons. Russian media has already condemned these research results as re-writing of history and turning into Salaspils “death camp” into “resort”. However, the lesser number of victims than thought before does not make the camp less horrifying.  It was nevertheless a horrid place ruining people’s lives and comparing to its actual size of inmates it had a very high dead toll. This is not “re-writing” of history as these facts by no means justify the Nazi crimes. Instead these facts make the accusations more concrete against the Nazi regime and downplay the revisionist claims of exaggeration of the Nazi crimes. Today Latvian historians are making the Latvian history more concrete and fact based contrary to Russia where there is actual re writing of history trying to hide the Stalinist crimes.  Let us remember and commemorate the victims of the Salaspils camp and let their fates known in the history.

Sculptures at the Salaspils memorial

Sculptures at the Salaspils memorial

Selected Sources: 

Kangeris, Kārlis, Neiburgs Uldis, Vīksne Rudīte. Aiz šiem vārtiem vaid zeme. Salaspils nometne 1941.-1944. Rīga. Lauku Avīze.2016.

Strautmanis, I, Asaris, G. Padomju Latvijas memoriālie ansambļi. Rīga. Zinātne. 1986.

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Roma Genocide in Latvia 1941-1944

Èigânu masu apbedîjumi Valguma meþâ. Anatolijs Berezovskis un Lûcija Ignis

The mass killing site at Valguma lake near Tukums

One of the less discussed events of the Latvian history is Roma Genocide that took place in Latvia during Nazi occupation. Called Porajmos in Romani language the Roma genocide was part of the Holocaust directed against Jews, mentally ill, homosexuals and Roma’s who lived in significant populations across the Eastern Europe. The death toll of Nazi killed Roma’s  estimated  220,000 to 1,500,000 people. Genocide against Roma took place also in Latvia, where they been living for centuries.

The Roma people have been originated from ancient India and appeared in Europe in Middle Ages as early of 12th century. By practicing nomadic lifestyle they appeared all over Europe including Britain on 16th century. The largest concentrations of them were in Eastern Europe, Poland-Lithuania, Moravia and Wallachia. Roma’s managed to keep their eastern traditions and independent lifestyle often defying the laws of the ruling society. Some Roma communities started continuous settlements. Their differences in looks and culture often sparked hatred and prejudices.

The Nazi movement combined all the prejudices in united policy of hate and persecution. However, Nazis had difficulties labeling all Roma’s as subhuman (Untermenchen) because of their “Aryan origin” that Nazis considered the prime race. Also it was inconvenient that most consequent nomadic Roma’s were those of “most purest Aryan”. To “solve” the problem the racial specialist Dr. Robert Ritter lead research team to determine the racial status of Roma people. By examining 2000 people they came to conclusion that 90% of Roma are mixed with other Europeans and therefore sent to “mischlinge” (crossbreeds) category. They were labeled as anti-social and dangerous to the Nazi regime.  This conclusion now made 90% of Roma’s in danger of persecution. The 1935 Nuremberg racial laws were also applicable to  Roma’s. First group of German Roma’s were sent to Dachau camp  on 1936. The Dr. Ritter’s “research group” considered Roma’s to be sterilized and excluded from the society; that also applied to the “racial pure” Roma. On 1937 all Roma were ordered to move to special containment camps (Zwangswohnlager) and on 1938-1939 even more Roma’s were “preventively arrested” and sent to concentration camps. The start of the World War II opened the extermination phase as Roma’s were deported to the occupied Poland where their extermination begun. On December 16 1942 Heinrich Himmler ordered to send all Roma’s and mixed ones to Auschwitz death camp. Before that on 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union the extermination of the local Roma have already begun.

It’s not known when Roma’s settled in Latvian territory. Possibly after 1561 when former Livonian Confederation became part of Poland-Lithuania. The Romani language in Latvia has four dialects, in Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale) most common is so called “Latvian romani” (lotfitka roma), in Latgale the “Northern Russian romani” (xaladitka roma) and Belarusian and Polish language affected Romani. The last Latvian  national census in 1935 counted 3839 Romas. 234 lived in Riga. Large concentrations of them were in Jelgava, Daugavpils, Talsi, Ventspils, Rēzekne, Valmiera, and Tukums. Large numbers of them lived in regular homes. While encountering usual prejudice; labeling as “horse thieves”, “vagrants” and “tax and army service evaders” no serous acts of violence against Roma were ever recorded in Latvia. Latvians called Roma Čigāni (the gypsies) and this therm was used in press and official documents.

Its possible the Roma population in Latvia was larger then according to the 1935 census data. On June 1941 there could have been about 12 000 Roma people living in Latvia.  The first killings were made by the German Einsatzgruppen and assisting Latvian collaborator units. One of the first killing sites were Baltinava township in Eastern Latvia were 10 Roma families – 43 people were murdered in August 1941.  The Roma genocide really started on December 1941 when Nazis had finished the genocide of the Latvian Jews.  90 people were killed in Kalvene parish near town of Aizpute in Western Latvia. In Liepāja the full list of murdered Roma’s were found, only one such in Latvia. 100 Roma’s are mentioned in Nazi report to be shot in the Ciecere parish. The 1935 data had 176 Roma’s living in Liepāja. Tukums a city located between Kurzeme (Courland) and Zemgale region had large population of Roma. Inconclusive reports from interrogated Nazi suspects states that about 200-300 Roma’s were killed. Tukums had 233 Roma’s on 1935. The town of Bauska near Lithuania border had fairly large Roma population. It’s known that 250 people of all ages were killed in Jaunsaule parish. The people from nearby township of Skaistkalne were also murdered there. Fourth largest city Jelgava had 401 Roma’s 200 of them were destroyed although the data is inconclusive. 200 Roma’s were possibly killed in Ludza district in Latgale region. The heart town of Latgale Rēzekne had 130 Roma’s arrested on January 5 1942 and possibly concentrated in former synagogue or empty shop space nearby and then murdered at Garbari forest near Zvirgzdene township. During the Audriņi massacre on January 2,4 1942 when Germans murdered 215 local villagers for hiding the soviet partisans, several Roma’s were killed who lived nearby. 50 Roma’s were shot near the Valmiera concentration camp. There is very fewer details about the Roma genocide in Riga. It’s possible that Romas were shot in Jugla, Strazumuiža, Biķernieki Forest, Strazdumuiža railway station and other parts of Riga. Similarly fewer details are about the fate of Roma’s in Daugavpils where is known that 5 Romas were shot in the Daugavpils prison. Similar obscure details are about Ventspils.

Current research estimates conclude that about 2000 Latvian Romas were killed during the Nazi occupation. Half of the Roma 3839 population of 1935. As mentioned the real size of the Roma population on 1941 could be more larger than official data meaning the number of victims could be larger than 2000 people.

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

The Nazi policy towards Roma people changed on 1943 when the guidelines now separated Romas in nomadic and non-nomadic Romas. The regular living ones were considered as rural citizens, while nomads were equaled with Jews. That halted the active killing and saved lives of many. However, in some parts of Latvia the killings were avoided because of the involvement of the local populace. The chief of the Talsi district Kārlis Krūmiņš resisted the German order to exterminate all Roma’s for they are required for workforce and bear no danger to the district. Some days after this decision Lutheran Archbishop Teodors Grīnbers gathered all Roma’s to a mass and told they must be thankful to Krūmiņš for rescuing their lives. He pledged them to work hard for the German army. About 200 Roma’s in Talsi district were kept alive this way. Krūmiņš was later arrested by the Soviets where he gave testimonies of how he saved the Roma from the murder. Nevertheless, he was sent to Gulag as traitor. Another Roma savior was Mārtiņš Bērziņš the head of the Sabile city in Kurzeme. According to some reports the Roma’s were gathered at the killing site when Bērziņš in the nick of time rushed with a bicycle and stood in front of the shooters and declared: “If you shoot them; then shoot me too!” Local shooters were unable to do so and about 300 Roma’s were spared. Bērziņš was saved from the 1949 deportations by his Roma supporters and died in Dundaga on 1968. Bērziņš also warned local Jews of coming execution. Later a memorial plate in Sabile was unveiled to commemorate his heroic act. Both Krūmiņš and Bērziņš can be compared to Žanis Lipke the most famous Jewish savior from Latvia.

The facts about the Roma genocide in Latvia is found in the Soviet Emergency Investigation Commission documents. The commission persecuted all the captured Nazi collaborators and disclosed their crimes towards Jewish and Roma people. So far the most detailed research have been made by Aigars Urtāns about Bauska district while general research is still lacking. Jewish historian Marģers Vestermanis first opened the subject on 1993 with his publication about the Roma genocide in Latvia. On 2015 the senior chief Commissar of the International Roma Alliance made publication based on archive documents. More detailed publications are expected in the future. So far there have been no memorial plates and monuments dedicated to the victims of the Roma genocide in Latvia. Despite active calls from Roma community the process of research and remembrance have been very slow by comparing to the amount of work contributed to Jewish holocaust. Its one of the sad parts of the Latvian history that must be researched further and included in our memory of the past.

Selected Sources:

Rudēvičs, Normunds. (2015) Romu Holokausts Latvijā. Konferenču un semināru materiāli 2009-2014. Shamir. Rīga, 2015

Vestermanis, Marģers. Čigānu genocīds vācu okupētajā Latvijā (1941.-1945). Latvijas Vēsture 1993/4 (11)

Urtāns, Aigars (2003), “Bauskas pilsētas un apriņķa čigānu iznīcināšana 1942. gada vasarā”, in: Dzintars Ērglis (ed.), Holokausta izpētes jautājumi Latvijā: Staptautiskā semināra referāti 2001. gada 29. novembris, Rīgā, un 2001.–2002. gada pētījumi par holokaustu Latvijā / The Issues of the Holocaust Research in Latvia: Reports of an International Seminar 29 November 2001, Riga and the Holocaust Studies in Latvia in 2001–2002.

http://www.la.lv/romu-glabejs-talsos%E2%80%A9-krumins/

http://www.ntz.lv/dazadi/mums-nevajag-atvainosanos-tikai-3-faktu-atzisanu/

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Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

On 18-19th century the nationalist movement became popular among many nations among Europe. Nationalist idea presented the unity by ethnic and cultural means and formation of a national state. For each nation the nationalism manifested in different ways. For French and British nationalism evolved into imperialism. For nations under foreign rule like Latvians the nationalism evolved into struggle for self determination. For the Jewish people their unique position in Europe made them create a specific type of nationalism – Zionism. For the nation left without homeland living in Diaspora among many places of the world the Zionism meant many things. First the rejection of assimilation and conversion to Christianity instead openly display their Jewish identity and demand equal rights in countries they lived. Second the ultimate goal – the creation of a Jewish state in their historical homeland in Middle East. Zionist movement appeared in late 19th century and reached Latvia that had significant Jewish population. At first it was rather weak, but after the foundation of the Republic of Latvia it became prominent even among other Jewish movements among Europe. This article is about these Zionist movements in Latvia, who were they and what they meant for Latvians and the Jews.

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The term Zionism was first used by Nathan Birnbum on 1982 in Vienna. The roots of the idea were at least 20 years older and expressed by thinkers including Rabbi from Bauska Mordechai Eliasberg who said people is only possible in their homeland. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who was born the Grīva present day Latvia on 1865. He is regarded as one of the most prominent religious thinkers who developed these ideas further. Ultimately this Latvia born scholar became the first Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate of Palestine. But, the Zionist idea on the political level was raised by Jewish physician from Odessa Leo Pinsker. His book Auto-Emancipation published in Berlin on 1882 outlined the idea of the political Zionism. In his pamphlet he urged his fellow Jewish people to strive for independence and self-determination and reject assimilation and conversion that will not entirely remove anti-semitism. A state governed by Jews in the place of their own was further elaborated by Theodor Herzl in his Judenstaat – The Jewish State on 1896 and made the zionist idea widespread. There was a reason why one of the first proponents of Jewish national idea came from Russian Empire like Rabbi Cook and Leo Pinsker – the Jewish rights were in backwards state comparing to Western Europe. Thats why the ideas of Leo Pinsker where not generally accepted in Germany but praised in Russia.

The first Zionist organization in Russia was BILU society on 1882. On 1884 it was replaced by Hovevei Zion society. They established branches in Liepāja, Daugavpils, Krustpils, Bauska and other cities within present day Latvia. They did not manage to start colonization of Palestine owned by the Ottoman Empire. The boost was given by more practical ideas of Theodor Herzl and formed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland on 1897. Russia’s Jews faced pogroms as early as from 1880ies causing them to look for common political ideology of defiance. Herzl works were known in Latvia and evolved in different movements. Some called them Palestiophiles, among them V Kaplan, L Shalit,  Z Berman J Tron and others. They split up in political and spiritual Zionists. The third movement was Socialist Zionism organized in movement Poaley Zion and Ceire Zion who worked in Riga, Daugavpils, Ludza, Tukums and many other places. They were outscored by the Bund who were Jewish Marxists who played major role in the 1905 revolution and enjoyed greater popularity. As Marxists they rejected national and religious ideas instead focused on social issues and rights of the Jewish workers.

The First World War disrupted the lives of Jews in Latvia. Many were deported from combat areas in false accusations of spying, many took refuge by themselves. Large portion of them ended up in Russia. Together with Latvians, the Jews had the most organized refugee support societies. After the fall of the Russian monarchy on 1917 the Jewish movement split up in many ways. Many joined the Bolsheviks, others stayed true to the social-democracy regarded as Mensheviks. The Bund in Latvia rejected the communist party. Others in the light of the events in Palestine saw chance in revival of Zionism. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” however failed to match the Zionist expectations. The Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann made agreement with Arab leader Emir Faisal for Jewish-Arab cooperation that would give Palestine to Jews, while Faisal receives a united Arab kingdom within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Faisal’s logic was that Jews were wise and rich enough to turn Palestinian desert into garden while Arabs have the great kingdom in Baghdad and Damascus. However, the Allied powers failed his expectations by creating the Palestinian Mandate governed by British, giving Syria to France and Iraq to UK.  Such betrayal to the both to Arabs and Jews created a decades of war and hate still not solved until this day.

Meanwhile for Jews in Latvia there were three choices: support the Bolshevik Latvian Soviet Republic that was hostile to religion and national self-determination.  Support the Germanic Baltic Duchy that may give some rights to the Jewish minority or support the Republic of Latvia that promised equal rights for all nationalities in Latvia. At first the third choice did not seem obvious- the Latvian Provisional Government was weak and seemed short lived. However, some Jewish representatives joined the Latvian Peoples Council from the start. After the victories over Bolsheviks and Germans on the summer of 1919 the third choice was now the primary one. More than 1000 Jews took part in the ranks of the Latvian army. Some were decorated. After the independence was won it was time for Jews in Latvia to make out what is best for themselves.

The Republic of Latvia was a champion of the minority rights in the post war Europe. Jews finally had chance for their own schools supported by state, cultural movements and political parties to elect in parliament and local municipalities. The 93 479 Jews in Latvia (according to 1935 census) were different kind of people. Some of them were traders, shopkeepers, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, workers and poor. And different was their political and even religious views. In 20 years of independence the Jews in Latvia failed to create united organization to represent the entire Jewish community. The zionists were not united among themselves. The socialists and orthodox opposed them and each other. So the Jewish political climate in Latvia was diverse.

Zionism in Latvia had many wings. The Histadrut Chazionist party founded on 1919 represented the general right wing bourgeoisie Jews. They had sections in all Latvia, their idea was to create a national zionist center in Palestine and improve the lives of Jews within Diaspora. Other aspect of their ideology was to increase the Jewish involvement in the agricultural and industrial sector. Party was influential at first but failed to get elected in parliament only in some municipalities. Only the Constitutional Assembly from 1920  to 1922 had one elect Zh Thorn. The party contributed to the creation of the Palestine Bureau that was a center of communications between Zionists in Latvia and the settlers in Palestine. Also it organized the emigration from Latvia to Palestine. Party made many youth organizations Chatio (Hope), Bney Zion (the sons of Zion), and Herzlia. The youth organizations worked in cultural, sports and social fields.

An alternative Zionist movement was the religious Zionism movement Mizrachi. Judaism was the main force uniting Jews around the world. However, Judaism was not primary nationalistic and rejected political solution to the Jewish problems. As mentioned before the two Rabbis from Latvia Mordechai Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac Kook were the ones who promoted the middle way between secular and religious solution. The idea of combining both truths for the common good of the Jewish people created the religious Zionism that accepted secular state as part of the messianic way. The religious values can be kept in the Jewish state, thus for the religious Jew moving back to their ethnic homeland is a obligation and the Zionism is the will of G-d. Not all orthodox   Jews agreed on that, however the Mizrachi party in Latvia was quite influential.

Nuroks

Mordechai Nurock (left) speaks to the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis (right)

 Mizrachi (the Religious Center) party was run by rabbi Mordechai Nurock was born in Tukums on November 7 1879. He served as rabbi in Jelgava, on 1903 he took part in the Zionist Congress. He moved to Russia during the war and played key role in refugee organizations. He also joined the All-Russian Jewish Committee and established a religious Jewish group known as “Tradition and Freedom”. On 1921 he returned to Latvia and was elected in the parliament. He was consequently elected in next three elections until 1934. Nurock was active man, both in Latvia and abroad. He cooperated with many organizations and contributed to their work. He was well recognized among the Latvian politicians, his main allies however were the Social-Democrats who were mostly in the oppositions. The anti-semitic Latvian press always pointed to Nurock as the main patron of the two short lived leftist coalitions. But, Nurock was just and tolerant towards his opponents and supported democracy. The coup by Kārlis Ulmanis on May 15 1934 came to his disappointment and created opposition. In result his movement was rejected by the regime. On 1940 the Soviets exiled him to Turkmenistan. His wife and two children were killed in the Holocaust, while he was freed on 1947 and moved to Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel he was elected in the Israeli Knesset on 1952 he was elected as minister of Postal service, he was also a candidate for the President of Israel. He served in the Knesset until his death on 1962 November 8 becoming the most successful Zionist from Latvia who actually took part in creation of Israel.

However, there were people who rejected the both general secular way and the religious way.  They were the left wing Zionists or Socialist Zionists. Already mentioned  the Poalie Zion (The Workers of Zion) and Ceirei Zion were already known before WWI. In socially unequal Latvia the left wing Zionism was apparently popular. Their leader Max Laserson was elected in many elections and stood united with social democrat organization. One of his main ideas was the Jewish Political and Cultural autonomy in Latvia greatly extending the Jewish rights. Also Baltic Germans and Russians pushed for the same making the Latvian legislators fear the creation of “state within state”. His proposals were not entirely rejected but politely “delayed” in parliamentary commissions. His socialism was not radical but more moderate achieving unity and progress in both national and social means. The left wing Zionists opposed the idea employed by the right wing and religious Zionists that Hebrew language used only in Torah and religious rituals should be brought to life.  Instead they insisted on keeping Yiddish the mix of Hebrew and German that was main language for Jews in the Eastern Europe. Not all Jews in Latvia used Yiddish as primary language. In Courland and Riga some preferred German; in Latgale some spoke only Russian. The both parties argued over the teaching of Hebrew in schools and the common ground was not achieved; some schools taught only in Hebrew, some in Yiddish. But, Hebrew was never used in the daily lives of the Latvian Jews.

On 1931 the Ceirei Zion united with their counterpart Zionist-Socialist party and created the United Party of Zionists-Socialists of Latvia”. But, the new force never made it to elections on 1934 after the coup they were banned by the anti-left wing Ulmanis regime. Max Laserson survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel and was elected in Knesset.

Zeev_Jabotinsky

Zeev Jabotinsky

The Zionist movement was not complete without its far right wing. And Latvia played significant part in it. After the Zionist hopes to achieve statehood with the help of the Balfour declaration failed there was common sense of disappointment. The parties mentioned above continued to work on diplomatic solution and start colonization of Palestine. However, the hostility between Arabs and the new settlers resulted in violence. Palestine was not entirely devoid of Jews before the start of Zionist movement. The small Jewish population living there for centuries were generally tolerated by the Muslims who came there on 6th century. However, now the influx of the new settlers raised hostility boosted by the British inability to control situation in their mandate. This made some to come to conclusion that the only way to achieve Zionist goals is using radical force, by using self defense and armed response both to British and Arabs. This was a radical thinking for Jews in those times, as Jews living in other countries had no real militaristic tradition since the fall of Kingdom of Israel. The main leader of these people was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa 1880 October 18 Jabotinsky started as moderate Zionist. He came to militarism during WWI when he pushed for the Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight the Ottomans. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, he saw action in Palestine as Lieutenant within the 38th Royal Fusiliers. After demobilized he started to train Jewish Self Defense corps. After his unit was repressed by the British he became even more radical. In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren Hayesod and served as its director of propaganda But after having major disagreements with moderate leading Zionists he left the Zionist Organization.

Jabotinsky considered that his political carrier is over. Then he was invited to Latvia and Lithuania to hold lectures. On 1923 he arrived in Riga to speak in  front of student organization Hatiho. As he preached his radical views he was told that he has no rights to preach them if he is not intending to create a political movement. That made Jabotinsky think over his intention the local students of Riga inspired him to start a new political movement called Zionist Revisionism. It was to revise the Zionist policy that failed to achieve its goals on 1917.

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

As Riga was the cradle of the revisionist movement the first of its organization was established in Latvia. The Latvian Union of Zionists-Revisionists came to being on 1925. The main Jabotinsky organization Betar is claimed to be founded in Riga. Betar soon spread all around the Europe and made its way in US and even Australia. In Palestine the Betar was often viewed by the British as terrorist organization. Some more radical offspring’s as the so called Stern Gang  or Lehi and Irgun were responsible for terrorist acts against the British like the King David Hotel bombing and the murder of the UN negotiator Folk Bernadotte on 1948. But, Jabotinsky movement major achievement was the contribution of making strong Jewish military to defend the new state of Israel. The Israeli Defense Force was created from these Jewish self defense units. Also major political parties like Likud and Kadima are followers of the Zionist-Revisionist movement. Without the Zionist-Revisionists the creation of Israel would not be possible and the fact that Riga was the starting point of this movement puts Riga as important place in the history of Israel.

The other wing of Zionist Revisonism active also in Latvia was Joseph Trupeldor movement. Joseph Trupeldor was a charismatic war hero that became famous in the Battle of Tel Hai on March 1 1920 where died in battle. Already famous war leader he was recognized as the national hero. To his honor a youth organization “Brit Josef Trumpeldor” (The Union of Josef Trupeldor) was created and was active in Latvia. The organization employed a militaristic lifestyle, marched in uniforms and often were called the “Jewish Fascists” because of their brownish uniforms. The brown color was to resemble the Palestinian desert and brown British uniform Trumpeldor wore. The organization made major contribution to youth sport and education.

There were two major opponents of Zionists among Jews in Latvia. The Bund that was the oldest socialist party in Russian Empire was still true to their pre-1918 views and rejected nationalism. They also opposed the teaching of Hebrew. Other major opponent was Agudat Isroel lead by Rabbi Mordechai Dubin. Influential politician and businessman was a Orthodox Jew who opposed moving to Palestine and create a new state before the arrival of the Messiah. Instead he pushed for staying in Latvia and maintain the religious traditions. He supported the teaching of Hebrew but only for religious means. Dubin who once even visited the US president Herbert Hover, had great influence on the Latvian politicians even Kārlis Ulmanis. Dubin however broke his principals when he made major effort to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany stranded in Latvia. One part of them was sent by him to Palestine because for Dubin the main prinicipal was to save help his common people regardless of his views.

Kārlis Ulmanis banned all the Zionist parties after his takeover. But, he banned every party regardless their nationality even his own Lavian Farmers Union. But, Ulmanis was not against Zionism in general as he saw nothing wrong of Jews moving away from Latvia and leaving more space for Latvians. Zionists except left wingers worked and non-political movements. The marching Trumpeldor’s were tolerated by Ulmanis. Then came the 1940 when the Soviet occupation closed all the Jewish societies and took over their property. Many of the Zionist leaders were arrested, sent to Siberia or shot. A year later Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population in Latvia.

But the story of the Zionist movement in Latvia does not end with that. While the surviving Zionists worked in Israel, the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement in Latvia appeared again in 1960ies as response to the anti-semitic Soviet policy. But that is another story to be told in future.

Selected Sources:

Волкович, Б. (2012) Сионистское движение в Латвии (1918-1940) 2-е изд., доп. Daugavpils

Sinkēviča, Eva (2014) Reliģiskā cionisma kustība Latvijā: vēsture,organizācija, ietekme. Promocijas darbs. Latvijas Universitātes Teoloģijas fakultāte.

Walter, Laquer (2003) A History of Zionism. From the French Revolution to establishment of the Sate of  Israel. Shocken Books. New York.

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The start of World war II on the territory of Latvia and its occupation by Nazi Germany

After facing brutal Soviet occupation, majority of Latvians celebrated Germans as liberators. However the Nazis got their own sinister plans for Latvians and Jews.

On June 22 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Although the fact that both sides had signed a non–aggression treaty at 1939 August 23 Nazi Germany decided to attack its former partner state. This decision was based on Adolf Hitler mistrust on the Soviet Union and his desires for expansion in the east. The outbreak of war was crucial for Jews since it changed Nazi Jewish policy towards the “final solution”. Before that Nazi leaders had unclear visions how to “solve” the Jewish question. After the Nazi occupation of Poland Adolf Hitler first approved plans for Jewish deportation from Eastern Europe. The desired place was the island of Madagascar in Indian Ocean. This plan was taken for serious consideration until new plans to invade the Soviet Union.  Soviet Union was inhabited by 5 million Jews that made the deportation plan impossible. Thus Madagascar was not even controlled by Germany.  On  March 13 Hitler then entrusted SS to fulfill special tasks for preparation of political administration that allowed SS Einzatssgruppen to operate in the territory of the Soviet Union On June 6 1941, the Nazis issued so called Commissar Order, which ordered to kill all the Soviet officials.  Although Jews were not directly mentioned in the order it laid down plans for further treatment of the whole population of the Soviet Union. At  June 17 chief of German Security Service Reinhard Heydrich met with all four Einzatsgruppen commanders and set out the goals and assignments for the invasion.  Although they knew their goal of destroying all Jews of Soviet Union, it’s not known if they had received direct orders of it. It is however known that on  July 17 three weeks after the initial invasion Heydrich ordered to kill all Jewish POWS.  Already at July 2 he has instructed to kill all Jews that were members of the Soviet Communist party.   However, most Hitler’s orders concerning Jews were oral and documents were written in concession form, leaving vast explanations.  A direct order ordering destruction of Jews of Soviet Union has never been found. Hitler was over optimistic about his campaign and wanted to clear the vast territories of the Soviet Union from people he considered unneeded. The idea of Lebensraum (the living space for Germans) obsessed the minds of Nazi leaders and set bad prospects for nations living in the Soviet Union. In the event of victory Nazi regime would also Germanize Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, but first victims of their blacklist were Jews. Another aspect of this order was Hitler’s belief that the Soviet Union is controlled by Jews and Marxism was invented by them. So the destruction of Jews was an important aspect of Hitler’s struggle against Marxism.

First battles in the territory of Latvia started in  June 23 in Liepaja. The city was taken in hard street fights in  June 28. German army reached Riga at  June 29, and captured it on July 1. The city was taken with fewer fighting then Liepaja, but suffered sustained damage on parts of Old Riga. On June 26 German 56 Tank group led by general Erich von Manstein captured Daugavpils. The Red army failed to recapture the city and Germans gained control over the right coast of River Daugava so Soviets were forced to retreat. German tank formations crushed trough Soviet lines and on  July 2, Soviets began a chaotic retreat to the East. In  July 5 military activity in Latvia was over.

German invasion in 22. June 1941.

This study will discuss problems of the start of war in Latvia from June 22 to July. The first part describes various Latvian nationalist organizations and their preparation for the destruction of Jews. The second part will take a look on pro–nazi underground in Latvia, was there such in how it was involved in the destruction of Jews.

German plans for Latvia

Adolf Hitler already stated in his book “Mein Kampf” that Russia must be new living space for Germans. All Eastern Europe must go through radical ethnic reforms to fulfill the domination of the German race. Jews, Slavs and Baltic peoples were supposed to go through ethnic cleansing to make the Soviet Union a “garden of Eden” for “superior German race”. Hitler did not consider the independence of Latvia, as it should be added to German Lebensraum.  Baltic German Alfred Rosenberg – the Nazi philosopher had large affection on Hitler’s ideas. He made Hitler believe that Jews and Bolsheviks are one in the same. He also taught Hitler about Baltic peoples, in  July 11 1941 Hitler had said that Estonians are “elite” of the Baltic people, then comes Lithuanians, last are Latvians.  Hitler also said that Stalin used Latvians for his executions that Russian dreaded to do themselves. Latvians were also in charge of killings in old Russian Empire according to him.

Latvia was designed for colonization, and Latvians were thought as the “dying race” and should be replaced with more energetic Germans. About 10 to 30% Latvians were considered eligible for Germanisation but the rest must be deported.  Such intentions are found in Dr. Wetzel letter to Heinrich Himmler where he strives for mentioned goals,   Also more detailed Nazi view on Latvian problem can be found in head of the political department of Ostland Trampedach report,  The designed plan was called General Plan Ost. Modern German historians call it the racist utopia.  Luckily, the Germans wanted to that with Latvians after the victory, but since it never came Latvians escaped a bitter danger for their survival. Ultimately, Latvians would meet the same fate as the Jews.  However, Jews were first on the German list, and they had to be destroyed before the victory.

German plans for “spontaneous” anti-Jewish pogroms

There is no direct order known for killing the Jews in Latvia. However, we have a set of SD chief Reinhard Heydrich instructions to General Walter Stahlecker and other Einsatzgruppen leaders to conceal the killings and to make it appear as that the “natives” were doing it.  These instructions were spoken in  June 17 1941. The unambiguous plan was to induce “spontaneous” anti-Jewish pogroms by the local peoples. Also a part of concealment was to film and photograph the killing actions performed by the “natives” but to avoid doing the same with the Germans.   Those instructions can be found in Einsatzgruppe A report on October 15 1941.  It was a sign that “spontaneous” “self-purification” actions done by Latvians were a cover-up by Germans.

The Latvian Nationalist organizations

To do such devious plan Germans required local collaborators from national circles. Not all nationalists are necessarily radicals and anti-Semites. Such people can be found in radical nationalist parties and organizations. From 1919 to 1939, nationalism was the popular ideology across Europe and was no stranger to Latvia. In fact, Latvia itself was built on national principles. However, the constitution of Latvia (Satversme) clearly stated that the rights of citizens belong to all people living in Latvia not just Latvian nation. Minorities were accepted in culture and politics and had a visible presence in national affairs. Such form of nationalism is to be called “democratic nationalism” that was official state ideology throughout the years. More radical national groups that often showed xenophobia and chauvinism objected such concept. These men called themselves “active nationalists”. They were strongly against Bolshevism, democratic party system and most visibly against national minorities. While Latvian nationalists had always despised Baltic Germans, Jews became even more targeted by them. Anti-Semitism was a rather new phenomenon among Latvians. First anti-Semitic references were published late 19th Century where Jews were accused of treachery and doing harm for Latvian economy.  However at that time more serious was Russian imposed anti-Semitism than Latvian. The swift rise of anti-Semitism appeared after 1920. Anti-Semites accused Jews of takeover of Latvian economy and attempts to seize control over the politics of Latvia. Another accusation was the large amounts of Jewish immigrants who entered Latvia together with war refugees from Russia. Such claim has been false since the majority of those who returned lived here before. However, because of citizenship law that granted citizenship to those who had lived here since 1914 about 23% Jews were without it. However, until 1925, 83% Jews were citizens which meant that most of them had applied for citizenship. Jews also were accused for close corporation with the Communist party and the Soviet Union. But the amount of Jews in Communist party was small and became larger only because of the rise of anti-Semitism.
First visible radical nationalist party who became the seed of all nationalist organizations was Latvian National Club (LNC). The club was founded in 1922. It was formed by mostly young age students. The club was sympathetic to Benitto Mussolini Fascist Regime in Italy and sent greeting letters to him personally.   Club despised parliamentary struggle and instead preferred aggressive demonstrations that often resulted in violent incidents. LNC had an influence on anti-Jewish violence at the University of Latvia on December 1922. Radical students who supported LNC caused student riots in University rooms.  Because of radical methods and use of violence club  became more dangerous until it was banned in 1925. The reason was murder of young Jewish social democrat agitator Alexander Massak.

LNC had many follow up parties who existed until 1934. Most of them were marginal and could not reach the LNC fame. But in 1932 new radical movement “Ugunskrusts” (Fire cross ) appeared. This organization will have part in the Holocaust. Because of their anti-governmental agenda and violent acts, it was banned in 1933. However, it was renewed as “Pērkonkrusts” (Thunder cross) at the same year but was again banned by Karlis Ulmanis regime in 1934. The party remained underground trough out the years of Ulmanis regime and was a sharp enemy against it. It had the same ideology as LNC but was even more xenophobic towards minorities. The party was sympathetic towards Nazi Germany and praised its actions against Jews. However before the war they were as much against local Germans as Jews and declared that in the event of takeover of power they will kill Germans along with Jews .  Pērkonkrusts called for expulsion of Jews from Latvia but had no clear plan how to do it.  They declared that if they came to power, they would not spare anyone and destroy the Latvian democracy. Radicals even came to violent attacks against Jews. In February 7 1933 group of radicals attacked the Cionist club in Riga calling “Heil Hitler!”  Similar attacks were made against Jewish shops and individuals. Luckily, radicals killed no one. Pērkonkrusts was also anti-German but their anti-Semitic stance was more visible. During the Ulmanis regime “Pērkonkrusts” became even more grotesque when their members moved around masked in hoods and burned swastika signs on their right elbows.  The leader of the movement was Gustavs Celmiņš. By the German data Pērkoņkrusts had 5, 000 to 6, 000 members.   The LNC and Pērkonkrusts were the main radical forces in the pre–war Latvia.

The leader of Perkonkrusts Gustavs Celmins

However, after one year of Soviet occupation much had been changed, and Latvian nationalists were divided into many groups. Andrievs Ezergails has given definitions for them and set their goals at the start of the war. Ulmanieši (the supporters of Ulmanis) was largest part of the Latvian nationalists at 1941. In ranks of them were many who wanted to collaborate with the Germans. Oskars Dankers, Alfrēds Valdmanis were among those that had the elite position in times of Ulmanis and wanted to regain it with help of Germans. However, it’s worth to note that the majority of these people had hopes for restoration of independence, and they hoped for German help. The Germans, on the other hand, viewed them with suspicion. Another group was Kalpakieši a set of high rank military officers who survived Soviet occupation. They were named after the first commander of the army of Latvia Oskars Kalpaks. Lt. Col. Aleksandrs Plensners and Viktors Deglavs were agents of Abwehr (German intelligence service). Their main goal was the restoration of Latvian national military forces. Such intentions were viewed with hostility from Germans.

Special group was Aizsargi – the civil defence guard. It was formed in 1919, to protect rural areas and fight brigandage. Guards became extra powerful when they allied with Karlis Ulmanis regime. After the occupation, they were dissolved and repressed by Soviets. At the start of the war, many former civil guards entered the partisan movement. Under German occupation some of them entered Schutzmannschaften and also some were part of the Arajs commando.  It appears that Stahlecker first choosed the Aizsargi for collaboration. The behavior of these men is explainable because of Soviet repressions enforced especially against them. Smaller group was Officers of former Latvian army who however did not rush to join German formations. Some of them did join Arajs commando but the count was very small.

Already mentioned Pērkonkrusts had high success at first months of the war. Yet Germans could not forgive their anti-German stance. The main guilt of Pērkonkrusts in Holocaust was the spreading on anti-Jewish propaganda before and after the start of the war. Their connections with murders are unclear but some members are known to taken part in the killings. It is known that Viktor Arājs himself was a student member of Pērkonkrusts but as a policeman in Ulmanis regime, he could not maintain his relationship with the organization.

The preparation of nationalist collaborators for Holocaust

The main forces behind gathering participants for Jewish destruction were: 1, Abwehr– the military intelligence service, Himmlers men and RSHA group, 2, Security Police and SD, 3, civil government and Alfred Rozenberg men.

The agent of Abwerh Curt Greb made contacts with colonel Aleksander Plensner and colonel-lieutenant Viktor Deglav. V. Deglavs was military attaché in Lithuania when Soviet Union occupied Baltic States. He escaped to Germany. A. Plensners was recognized war veteran and intellectual who apart from his military carrier wrote poems. He was attaché in Germany from 1937 who stayed in Berlin after the occupation and in 1941 became an agent of Abwerh. Before the start of the German invasion A. Plensners gathered 200 Latvians living in Germany. In May 1 1941, A. Plensners met with Abwerh in Marienburg in a friendly atmosphere. Abwerh promised that in case of war Latvians would have a chance to form their national forces. A. Plensners men were scattered among many German army units. Abwerh used them for “defense and sabotage tasks”. After Nazi occupation of Latvia A. Plensners and V. Deglavs was quickly removed away from ruling structures. They reached Riga only in  July 5 when Stahlecker’s men already had started to operate.  Unaware of German betrayal Plensners and Deglavs still demanded for the formation of national forces. In the July 18 1941, V. Deglavs was killed in the stairway of A. Plensners apartment.  A large funeral at Latvian main war cemetery were done for Deglavs  and his death was commemorated in main newspaper Tēvija,  but the reason for his death was never revealed.    This event was a clear sign that Germans used Latvian officers as puppets and had no desire to give them more freedom.

Latvian Army war officer Viktors Deglavs killed by Germans because of his demands about restoration of Latvian armed forces

SD worked with the members of Pērkonkrusts. They allowed them to takeover Latvian press. Pērkonkrusts leaders Gustavs Celminš and Evalds Andersons were present in Germany before the war and come back together as Sonderführer under the aegis of Abwehr.   The Pērkonkrusts did notable “intellectual” work on promoting anti-Semitism in their ranks was writers like Raimonds Čaks, Teodors Zeltiņš Mārtiņš Vāgulāns, Artūrs Kroders and Ādolfs Šilde. A. Šilde was best known for his propaganda against Jews and promotion of Holocaust in newspaper Tevija.   Later after the war he completely changed his position and became a notable democratic author.  Known Pērkonkrusts members that took part in Arājs commando was Arnolds Trucis, Valdis Didrichsons and Kārlis Deglavs.

The third agency searching for potential collaborators was the Ministry of the East, Alfred Rozenberg’s purview. The ministry needed a coterie of puppets a group that would play a public role yet allow the Germans to do everything they wished. The puppets had to be men of importance within Latvian community and had accommodated with the Nazis. Chosen persons were Pastor Dr. Visvaldis Sanders from Liepaja, and Arturs Freimanis a retired army officer. These persons, however, was not widely known in the public. But Germans found the support of Oskars Dankers a retired army general with prominence within the society. He, however, was described as a dull man.

There were certainly a sizable number of Latvian collaborators who decided to work with Germans. One side of them took part in Holocaust. However, the others had no anti-Semitic intentions; their motivation was the restoration of Latvia in which they could have some power. While Pērkonkrusts certainly wanted to realize their goal of Jewish expulsion, they also wanted more power in their own hands. Leader of Pērkonkrusts Gustavs Celmiņš made a detailed application for Germans to form Latvian national armed units in German army that would be very common to the future Latvian Waffen SS Legion,   Germans supported none of these intentions. Nazi Germany had an expansionist agenda based on racism and the independence of Latvia was not in these plans. Latvian collaborators were used as puppets; Germans deceived them all. Pērkonkrusts survived Ulmanis and Soviet regime but were smashed during the Nazi occupation. On August 17 1941, German authorities banned Pērkonkrusts. Some members still worked with Germans others turned to resistance. Main leader Gustavs Celmiņš was arrested in 1944 and thrown into concentration camp.

Nationalist collaboration with Nazi Germany is unacceptable; a true nationalist and patriot would never support any occupation regime and fight for only behalf of its country and people. The persons that choused to support Nazi occupants were careerists and criminals not nationalists. However its must be noted that one year of Soviet occupation made an illusion that Germans will support and restore the Latvian independence and therefore many rushed to ally with Germans.
National partisans and their role in the first days of war

Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941 was shocking time for many Latvians. Even more blowing was the deportation to Siberia at June 14 1941. It widened the will of resistance against Soviet regime. On  June 22 German invasion and their quick success made way for spontaneous resistance against Soviet troops. Armed groups that called themselves “national partisans” attacked retreating Soviet troops and made sabotages.  First partisan regiments formed soon after  June 14 but became active after June 22. Former army officers, civil guards (Aizsargi), and deserters of 24, Rifleman corpus joined the armed struggle.  Armed units had random numbers from few men to many hundreds. They were armed with rifles, sometimes with machine guns, mortars and even tanks. Partisans were present in 20% of Latvian parishes. The amount of national partisans was between 6000 to 8000 partisans.  Ex Latvian army member Lieutenant Colonel Voldemars Veiss and Roberts Osis enlisted 5, 000 men to show up.  Most active they were in Vidzeme, less active in Latgalia. Partisans attacked weapon storages, retreating army men and NKVD agents. Other than that they also were accused of opening fire to evacuating Jews, who fled Nazi army. However, there are no documentary proof on that.   Partisans did many atrocities against communist supporters; there were rumors that partisans hanged a boy only because he had a pioneer uniform.  In Riga during two days of war partisan activity was very high, Red Army was shot from rooftops. Partisans did everything to prevent the escape of fugitives; many Jews could not make out safe because of them.  In combat actions about 120 national partisans lost their lives . Latvian public was exited to meet Germans as their new liberators. Streets of Riga were filled with armed men awaiting their arrival.  Some thought now it’s time to set scores with the Jews  but most were just exited of “liberation of Riga”. A sudden rise of national partisans can be described as sense of revenge against soviet occupation and their crimes especially the deportation of June 14 few days before the war. Most of simple Latvians who joined national partisans were motivated to fight soviets not specially Jews.

Latvian national partisans on the streets of Riga at 1 July

When Germans finally captured Riga, a large crowd went to greet German army. A large demonstration with national flags was set to offer flowers and bread to German soldiers. Latvian national anthem “God bless Latvia!” was sung along the way. However, a day after all flags were removed and anthem was prohibited to sing.  Germans wanted to exclude the usage of words “Latvia” and Baltic states”.

Germans had a dilemma on what to do with these people. Hitler on July 16 1941, banned non–Germans to bear weapons.   However, a year earlier Himmler, on May 28 1940, noted that non–Germans could become town majors and policeman.  When Germans met local partisans, they renamed them to self-defense forces. They appreciated their help fighting Red army but feared from their will to set vertical networks reaching towards every pagasts (parish) of Latvia.

On  June 30 German military command set out main points on what to with the national partisans.  The formation of these forces was encouraged, but at the same time they were limited to cleansing land from Bolshevik terror and Russian stragglers. But they were banned from the political initiative and only set as auxiliary forces. National army was disallowed. Regiments had to be commanded by local rulers under jurisdiction on German military command. In so national partisan units were organized in Selbstschutz (self-defense) regiments.  Germans organized 700 self-defense commandants’ offices across Latvia. These were armed structures that were responsible for the law and order. Wermacht and SD controlled them. All orders came from them although in some cases self-defenders could make their own moves.

Instructions from Heydrich made it clear that existence of these units should be temporary and their role only should be limited on pogroms against the Jews. At  July 8 Stahlecker dissolved all national partisan units. Those who he trusted were included in auxiliary police under his control.  It’s important that the term for new regiments was not Latvian, military, nor police but auxiliary police. Later they were renamed to Schutzmannschaften on October 1941.

From National partisan units Stahlecker also organized several Security police and SD auxiliary units and teams sometimes refereed to as Sonderkommandos. These commandos on whom the largest was Arājs commando were under Stahleckers own guidance, and when he left their supervision was entrusted to the leadership of the Eiznatzkommando 2. These units were directly involved in killings of Latvian Jews.

Only after the establishment of Self-defense forces Germans started mass murders all around Latvia.  This means that Germans only used national partisans for this purpose. Some men from national partisans were not inclined to kill the Jews, but now Germans gave them such task. It could be seen, as tragedy for those men who wanted to fight for Latvian freedom became the perpetrators of Nazi crimes. Nazi propaganda however managed to convince many Latvians that the Jews were the blame for the Soviet occupation and atrocities.   German plans for spontaneous pogroms failed, einzatsgruppe A reported that only few thousand Jews were killed by the locals.

The Arājs commando

It is not exactly known how many Latvian Jews fell in the hands of the Arajs commando. The number may be at least 26 000 people. Commando was formed from radicals, members of student fraternities and simple people who applied to join.  The official name of the commando was Latvian SD police but because of notable presence of Arājs it was mostly called Arājs commando.

Viktors Arajs the head of SD commando that took thousands of Jewish lifes

The main face of the commando was Viktors Arājs. He was born on January 13 1910 in Baldone, a small town near Riga. He was a son of the Latvian blacksmith Teodors and German–Latvian Berta. German was often spoken in his parental household. However, he felt himself as a Latvian. First world war separated his family; his father joined the Imperial army. He returned to Latvia, by a way of China, bringing along a Chinese woman. Arājs was forced to live in poor conditions and work hard during the wartime.  He received education in Jelgava gymnasium and in 1930, was enlisted into the army. In 1932 he applied to join a law faculty of Latvian University.   He joined nationalist organization Viestura savienība (Viestur’s Society) at 1930. He also looked for more possibilities and entered the student fraternity Lettonia, the most oldest and respectable of all.   In 1935 he attended police school and was sent to practice to Zaube parish. In 1937 he married Zelma Zeibots a Zaube local. Because of these departures he could not finish university. He dropped out but returned in November 1940 under Soviet occupation. His study results were average from very good to bad. There are three CV’s written by Arājs in 1935 1940 1941. In first he shows how he makes his carrier and hides his material difficulties. In January 7 1941, CV he conforms his life completely to Soviet standards. This CV is most detailed and shows Arājs as a good Soviet citizen.  This means that Arājs could collaborate with any foreign regime on the behalf of his personal carrier. He received a lawyer’s diploma in March 1941 and stated that he starts to believe “that Bolshevism was the best of systems. Indubitably, I was then a communist.”   This remark, however is doubtful because is hard to tell when he was telling the truth or lie. He also had remarks about anti-Communist feelings in his trial. He told that he joined partisan movement at the start of the war.

Arājs declared that when Germans entered Riga, he had gathered about 400 to 500 men under his command and had occupied the police headquarters.  Such claim is credited false. However it could be that such group of ex–soldiers and policemen may have “spontaneously” gathered. A radio call on 1, July asked all policemen to return to their police stations. He met Stahlecker at 1, July and 2, July, he was appointed to head a commando.
Arājs was a typical opportunist. He came from poor family and had limited chances to start a successful carrier in independent Latvia. So he looked for opportunities in ranks of foreign invaders. He could well work together with Soviets as he did in 1941, when he received degree. To hide his shameful communist past, he joined partisans and then Germans. Sadly, he was most successful with Nazis.
The exact conditions of establishment of the commando are still unknown. The persons involved are SD agent Roberts Štiglics a Latvian political police functionary under Ulmanis, Hans Dressler, a Baltic German, who was a member of the EG and Stahlecker’s cohort. Dressler knew Arājs from Jelgava gymnasium and the Latvian army.

Arājs gathered members for his commando. His closest associate was lieutenant Fēliks Dībietis who helped Arājs to make the structure for his commando. Arājs used his fraternity membership to attract more members. One of them was Herberts Cukurs a famous pilot and adventurer. Before the war Jews once knew Cukurs as very friendly to them when he took journey to Palestine and presented his adventures to Jewish public, at main Jewish club.  Also members from Pērkonkrusts, and Aizsargi (civil guards) were asked join. However, not only members from these social groups entered the commando. Most of the commando members were simple workers and farmers.  The motivation for joining was different for many. Some had political motivation while others wanted to find a good job. This means that commando was not generally made of radicals and anti–Semites; some who joined probably may not expect that they had to kill unarmed civilians.

First task of the commando was the organization of “spontaneous” pogrom. On July 4, they burned all the synagogues in Riga including main Horal Synagogue at Maskavas street. Many people burned alive in synagogue the number of the perished is unknown.
Arājs commando was not the only Latvian formation that took direct part in the Holocaust. In Jelgava Jews were killed by Vāgulāns commando. Latvians recruited in Hilfspolizei lead by lieutenan colonel Veiss and members of Selbstschutz also were involved in the killings. But the Arājs commando was the most notorious and most lasting killing squad of all. Commando was deformed in 1944, when it was no longer useful.
Latvians who wanted to collaborate with Germans in order to fulfill their carrier became a part of Nazi crimes. Some of them may not want to kill Jews, not all national partisans attacked Jews at first days of war, and neither, they joined Nazi formations after it. But those who joined and took active part in Holocaust are criminals despite their motives and intentions.

The leader of Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler made a decision to attack his former ally – Soviet Union. Modern research shows that Hitler made the decision to kill Jews right before the operation Barbarosa. The two main planers of this action was chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler and SD chief Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich who devised a plan of “spontaneous” pogroms to make  appear that the locals did the killings. To do this Germans found enough Latvian collaborators, radicals and opportunists to do this. Some of them were radical anti-Semites like Perkonkrusts. Others like Viktors Arājs were opportunists who could fare well in NKVD as well they did in SS. Most of these people were lees of Latvian nation not the elite.  It’s not objective to accuse all Latvian nation in Holocaust because of these killers. Simon Wissenthal has said “Already a year after the war I washed away a thought about collective fault, because I know history who shows that we Jews in our thousand year time always been victims of collective fault”

But the fault of these Latvian collaborators must not be forgotten. Although they called themselves nationalists, it’s not the nature of true nationalist to support foreign invaders. Especially if they have plans for large–scale crimes. It is a question of morale of every person who is involved in such actions. Holocaust was the collective tragedy for Latvians and Jews because both became victims of German imperialism. It was only the German defeat in Eastern front that saved Latvians from German plans of Germanization.

It is also worth to remember that whatever the crimes committed by non–Germans it was the Germans, who established a pattern of systematic persecution.  Independent Latvian state was not capable and had no desire for the killing of Jews. It was only the Nazi Germany, who opened doors for radicals and opportunists to realize their darkest intentions.

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
Bleiere, Daina, Ilgvars Butulis, Inesis Feldmanis, Aivars Stranga, Antonijs Zunda. (2008) Latvija Otrajā pasaules karā (1939–1945).Rīga: Jumava

Felder, Björn M. (2006) Lettland im Zweiten Weltkrieg : zwischen sowjetischen und deutschen Besatzern 1940–1946. Paderborn; München; Wien
Biezais, Haralds. (1992). Latvija kāškrusta varā : sveši kungi – pašu ļaudis.   Īstlansinga : Gauja.
Browning, Christopher R. (2005) The origins of the final solution, The evolution of Nazi Jewish policy 1939. –1942. London.
Documents of the Holocaust. Jerusalem Yad Vashem, 1999.
Латвия под игом нацизма: сборник архивных документов. М.: Европа, 2006.

Mēs apsūdzam: Rakstu krāj.: Dokumenti un materiāli par hitlerisko okupantu un latv. buržuāzisko nacionālistu ļaundarībām LPSR : 1941–1945. Iev. aut. un red. kol.: A. Kadiķis (atb. red.) u. c.; sast.: R. Skrābāns, L. Stonāne, M. Vestermanis] ; LPSR Ministru Padomes Arhīvu pārv. LPSR Centr. valsts vēst. arhīvs. LKP CK Partijas vēst. inst. PSKP CK Marksisma–ļeņinisma inst. filiāle. Rīga: Liesma, 1965.

Kaprāns, Mārtiņš, Zelče, Vita. Vēsturiskie cilvēki un viņu biogrāfijas. Viktora Arāja Curriculum vitae Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīva materiālos. In: Latvijas Arhīvi, 2009. Nr. 3.

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Holocaust in Latvia

Memorial Site at the mass killing site at the Biķernieki forest in Riga

Memorial Site at the mass killing site at the Biķernieki 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 marks in 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 that 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 anti-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 local Latvian self-defense units 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 them up.  The previous leader Walter Stalhecker left Latvia to 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 men killed 33 00 Jews from Kiev.

Memorial Site at the Rumbula forest

Memorial Site at the Rumbula forest

Jeckeln gathered all Jews from Riga Ghetto and with help of German Security 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.

Germans also killed mentally ill people and Roma people in Latvia. People were taken from mental hospitals and killed. Roma killing were 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 Romani 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. Massive Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation and incited hatred. 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 Auxiliary Police took part.

The main Latvian unit was the  Latvian SD commando lead by Viktors Arājs. 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 Nazis carry out their crime. Nazi aim was to make create image that killings was done solely by Latvians without much German assistance based on their hatred towards Jews. 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. Holocaust took part in Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and and whole Eastern and Western Europe where locals were involved in actions against the Jews. Collective blame should not be placed on any of these nations as well no collective blame should be placed on Jews.

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 Latvian SD Arājs commando burned down the  Jewish synagogues in Riga.  As long as there is a Jewish community in Latvia this crime will not be forgotten.

The site of the Riga Grand Choral Synagogue burned down by Nazis on July 4 1941

The site of the Riga Grand Choral Synagogue burned down by Nazis on July 4 1941

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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The Jews in Latvia

Main Jewish Synagogue in Riga 1870-1941.

Every nation has its own historical territory that has been inhabited by them for centuries. Unfortunately because of wars and other calamities some nations have lost their homeland and are forced to scatter around the world. Most notable of them are Jews. Jews originated from the Middle East and settled in Palestine. There they established the Kingdom of Israel that was ruled by such notable leaders such as David and Solomon. However, the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and Persians. The first Jewish Diaspora was deported Jews from Palestine to Babylonia. They later returned and had autonomy. But when the Palestine was conquered by Romans Jews had a hard time. Jews were known for their specific religion- Judaism. They worshiped only one god while others had many gods. Jews disobeyed all attempts of converting to pagan religions. Therefore they caused bitter hate by the Romans who could assimilate other cultures with ease. Roman attempts to ban Judaism caused Jewish revolt from 66 to 73 CE. The war ended in the tragic destruction of Jerusalem and caused Jewish exodus to Roman Empire.

Since them Jews have settled in all continents around the world. The State of Israel founded in 1948 is too small to hold all Jews living on the planet if they ever want to come back all at once. Jews have left a notable heritage in Western culture. Christianity has long roots in Judaism. Jews have great influence in academic fields, culture and finances.

When Latvian land became part of German controlled Livonia, Jews were banned to enter its territory. Crusades made the rise of antisemitism in medieval Germany, first antisemitic violence occurred there. The situation changed after the end of Livonian war when Livonia was added to Poland-Lithuania. Poland was generally friendly to the Jews so they settled there in large masses. In 1559 Bishop of Courland Johan von Munchausen allowed Jews to settle in the district of Piltene. In 17 century 3 thousand Jews from Germany entered the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. They were craftsmen, traders, money lenders and also official employees.  Jewish presence was disliked by German nobles who asked to expel Jews from Courland. However no expulsion was ever realized.

In 18 century more Jews came to Courland because of favor of future Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna who ruled the duchy in 1710-1730. She appointed German Jew Levy Lipman as her financial advisor who brought foreign credits and specialized Jewish workforce.  Furniture designers, glass makers and Jewellers helped duke Johann Biron to build a marvelous castle of Rudale and the Academy of Peter in Mitau (Jelgava). Biron invited over 200 educated Jews to his duchy. Courland Jews spoke in Yiddish with German accent but could speak well in German. In 18 century 9000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia most of them in rural areas. Such towns as Jacobstadt (Jekabpils) and Friedrichstatd (Jaunjelgava) had a large Jewish population.

After Courland was added to the Russian Empire, Jewish rights were downsized. The Russian government after annexation of Poland suddenly got problems with a large Jewish population. Jews had to pay more taxes and live there only if they were registered. About 2500 Jews from Courland went to inner Russia in Volga and Uralian region. However many Jews came to Courland from Poland and Lithuania. In middle of 19th century the province of Courland was inhabited by 23000 Jews. They established schools and build many synagogues in the large centers. They organized their societies to help each other. According to the census of 1897 51000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia a 7,6% of the whole population. In Friedrichstadt they were a majority of citizens. Jews had a large part in economic and owned many fabrics. Most of Courland Jews spoke in German that’s why they were mistrusted by the Russian government in 1915 when 40000 Jews were deported to Ukraine and Inner Russia.

Notable Jewish presence was in Latgalia. In 17 century mass migration of Jews in Latvia took place because of bloody uprising led by Ukranian cossack Bogdan Chmelmnitsky. Cossacks massacred hundreds of Jews in Ukraine, South Poland and Lithuania. Those who migrated were refugees from Ukraine. In 18 century 5000 Jews lived in Latgalia where they established their self-governments qahals. They could settle minor offences and cast taxes.

After Latgalia was added to Russia all Jews were made to move to cities. Russian laws harmed Jews by forcing them to move to Southern Russia and make Jewish man to enter army from 12 years. They could leave army only when they reach 25 years. It was done to convert Jews to Orthodox Christianity. Jews tried to escape army by hiding and bribing army officials. To prevent this government banned qahals in 1844. Despite this Jews kept their religion. A popular among Latgalian Jews was a Hasidic movement that offered a more positive way of practicing Judaism. Jews had large families and in 1897 there were 64239 Jews in Latgalia. The main Latgalian city Dvinsk (Daugavpils) had 50% Jewish population while Latvians were minority. Many other Latgalian cities had a Jewish majority.

Because of tough policies met by Czar Alexander III revolutionary movements were popular among Jews. In 1898 a Jewish Marxist party Bund was founded and operated in Daugavpils. During the revolution of 1905 Jews were active in the revolutionary movement. After the defeat of the revolution they were forced to emigrate to US and Canada. Because of first Zionist sentiments some left Latgalia for Palestine.

In Riga and Vidzeme even after the collapse of Livonia Jews was forbidden to enter. Riga town council however allowed Jewish traders to enter Riga for a small period of time. They were allowed to live in a special building outside city walls. After Riga was captured by the Russians the wartime Governor Alexander Menshikov allowed the family of Hirch Israel to live in Riga. Others were allowed to live outside the city walls in a Moscow suburb. In 1727 Empress Katrina II issued to expel Jews from Riga but because of resistance from Germany and Netherlands such step was never taken. There were 60 Jews living Riga at that time.

However in 1742 Empress Elizabeth Petrovna ordered to expel Jews from Riga and despite the resistance of town council the order was met. Things changed when empress Katrina II allowed Jews to come back. 36 Jews from Germany entered Riga but were forced to live outside the city wall. In 1780 the first synagogue was built in Riga. In 1784-1785 many Jews came from Courland city Sloka to Riga. Sloka was added to Vidzeme province. Sloka Jews could live in Riga for 6 weeks. In 1811 736 Jews lived in Riga a 429 of them came from Sloka.  When Napoleons army invaded Latvian territory they were deported as “unchecked foreigners” but after Napoleons retreat were allowed to come back.

In 1840 the first Jewish state school was opened in Riga. Because of rapid industrial growth more Jews came to Riga from Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.  In 1871 the Large Horal Synagogue was built-in Riga. Also many other synagogues were built in Riga most notably in Old city district in 1905. In 1897 21963 Jews lived in Riga.

Because of the rise of antisemitism in Russia and the pogroms that happened there Jewish nationalism sparked in Riga. In 1890 Zionist group was founded in Riga. Also Marxist Bund operated in Riga that had close ties with the Latvian Social Democratic party. Jews took place in armed attack on Riga Central Prison and other revolutionary activities. In 1906 a right-wing Jew founded Jewish constitutional democratic party led by Paul Minz. In 1907 Jews opened newspaper “National Zeitung” written in Yiddish. Because of First World War about 11 000 left Riga for Russia.

In Vidzeme Jews came only in the end of 19 century because of strict laws that allowed to arrest Jew if he comes near Cesis. Before the war Vidzeme was inhabited by 6000 Jews.

New era for Latvian Jews came in 1918 when the Latvian Republic was proclaimed. New state granted equal rights for all minorities. On December 8 1919 Jews were allowed to have school autonomy. However at first, Jews did not believe that the Latvian state could properly function. Only Jewish National Democratic party sent Izak Rabinovich  to represent the Latvian Peoples Council. About 100 Jews joined the German Landesver army. Leftist Jews supported the Latvian Soviet Government led by Peteris Stucka. But the soviets harmed many wealthy Jews and pursued Zionists.

After Latvian victory of Cesis in 1919 democratic Jews supported Latvian government. Paul Minz became State Controller. 14 Jews took part in Peoples Council. More than 1000 Jews took part in the war for independence on the ranks of Latvian army. 4 Jews were decorated with Order of Lachplesis, 11 received the Order of Three Stars.  50 Jews died in action.

Democratic laws allowed Jews to have Latvian citizenship. In 1935 92,46% Jews were citizens of Latvia. After the war 95000 Jews lived in Latvia. For the first time Jews had unrestricted civil rights to participate in politics and the economy. 60% of Latvian bank capital belonged to six Jewish banks. I. Friedman and Doctor B. Zivs were finance advisors that helped to establish national value- Lats. 20, 2% of industrial companies belonged to Jews. Jews also owned 28, 5% of shops and 36% of stock companies. Despite the fact that almost 40% taxpayers were Jews a large of part of poor people was Jews, especially in Latgalia.

Leader of Latvian Jewry Mordehai Dubin

Jews were active in politics.  The most prominent Jewish politician was Mordehai Dubin who led the religious Orthodox party Agudat Israel party. He took part in all Latvian Parliaments and had a large influence among Latvian Jewry. Dubin fanatically defended the rights of every Latvian Jew. His greatest effort was rescue of famous Hasidic “Lubavicher” Rebbe Yosef Shneersonh from Soviet imprisonment and Nazis in Poland. He also helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape Nazi repressions. He had close friendship with Karlis Ulmanis and achieved high prominence during the Ulmanis dictatorship. Also Mordehai Nurok a religious Zionist was presented in all parliaments. Zionists were active in Latvia. Maxis Lazerson led leftist Zionist party Ciere-Cion. Right wing Jewish Revisionists led by famous Zeev Zhabotinsky were active in Latvia. Militant Zionist organizations Betar and Brit Trumpeldoor were core for future army of Israel.  About 4500 Jews left Latvia for Palestine.

Visible Jewish presence in the Latvian economy sparked minor rise of antisemitism among Latvians. In 1920 Jews were attacked by hooligans in Riga parks. In 1922 Jewish students in the Latvian University were attacked by antisemitic study mates. In 1922-1925 a national-radical organization Latvian National Club sparked antisemitic propaganda. After members of the club unintentionally killed young Jewish social democrat, the club was banned. In the thirties a national-radical party “Thunder-cross” made some attacks on Jews. It was banned by Ulmanis regime. Antisemitic remarks were common among Latvian press however antisemitism never reached a critical point. After Ulmanis took power by coup antisemitism was officially banned, but the Ulmanis government suppressed many Jewish organizations and made limitations on school autonomy. Ulmanis was friendly to Orthodox Jews and Zionists but repressed Jewish leftists. Because that some of them started to support communist party that was illegal in Latvia. Ulmanis also tried to suppress the Jewish presence in the economy but Jewish businessmen mostly kept their place in company director seats.

Soviet occupation in 1940 was celebrated by leftist Jews. Many Jews took place in  June 17 Riots when Soviet tanks entered Riga. The people that came to greet the tanks eventually started a biggest riot in Latvian history. However, the majority of rioters were actually local Russians. Jews took place in occupation regime and took responsible seats. Among them Alfon Novik and Simon Shustin were part of the local NKVD that organized deportation of  June 14 1941. However, the Jewish presence in Soviet government has been exaggerated, only a small number of Jews took most important offices. Many of them were not locals, but from Russia that came along with the Soviets. Jews hoped that Stalin’s regime will be friendlier to Jews than Hitler’s but on June 14 1941 1200-1300 Jews were deported to Siberia.

Memorial Site for killed Jews in Rumbula forest Riga 1941

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Invaders planed to exterminate all Jews in Soviet Union. In Latvia the extermination was led by SS brigadierfurer Walter Staleker. The director of German SD Reinhard Heydrich ordered to use antisemitic Latvians in killings to make look like it was done only by them. The Germans gathered 200 Latvian emigrants with antisemitic notions to make contact with locals. The Germans already had a list of 700 Latvians that needed to take part in the operation.

About 16000 Jews escaped Nazi occupation.  Many Jews did not know about Nazi intentions and stayed. First Jews were killed on  June 24 in city of Grobina in Courland. After all Latvia was occupied by Nazis, the killings were done in all Jewish inhabited places. They were done by SS einzac-groups and local self defense units. Latvian shooters were strictly controlled by German authorities. Most notorious Latvian unit was Arajs commando led by Viktors Arajs. Large killings took place in Riga and Liepaja. Synagogues were burned in all Latvia sometimes with people inside. In July 1941  Germans ordered to build Ghetto in Riga to enslave those Jews that were still alive. In September Heinrich Himler ordered to bring Jews from Germany to Latvia to destroy them. On November 30 2600 Jews were killed in a forest of Rumbula in Riga.

73000 Latvian Jews were destroyed in Latvia. After the return of Soviet occupation 14000 Jews returned to Latvia. Soviet regime suppressed the Jewish national movement. Jewish schools and organizations were banned the use of Yiddish was disliked. Many Jews came along Soviet immigrants that entered Latvia during Soviet occupation.  They spoke only Russian and had little connection with Latvian Jewry. However many among them were well-educated and took part in the Soviet elite.

Soviet government was also antisemitic. In the 1949 campaign against cosmopolitanism hit Latvian Jewish intelligence, many writers, artists and scientists were arrested.  In 1953 “Doctors Plot” triggered massive antisemitic campaign. Leaflets saying “Beat the Jew!” was found in Jurmala. Many historians say that Stalin ordered massive deportation of Jews to Siberia. There are documents that reveal that also Latvian Jews were intended for deportation.  However his death in 1953 cancelled these plans and campaign against Jews were halted. However throughout the Soviet Era Soviet government was generally hostile to Jews. In seventies campaign against Zionism sparked waves of antisemitism.  Publications describing the Zionist conspiracy were published in masses. Holocaust studies were excluded from academic fields and remembering the Holocaust was illegal.

Jews resisted by organizing underground Zionist organizations helping Jews to leave the Soviet Union. 400 Latvian Jews illegally left the Soviet Union in 1945-1946 Religious activity was also underground and repressed by the KGB. Israel victory in Six Day War 1967 sparked rise the of Jewish national awakening. A 40% of demands to leave the Soviet Union for Israel came from Latvia. Because of foreign attention Soviets were forced to allow Jews to leave. 16000 Jews left Latvia to Israel and other Western countries. In 1989 22900 Jews remained in Latvia.

Jewish community divided on the question of restoring Latvian independence. Jewish journalist Mavrik Vulfson was first to publicly call the events of 1940 as Soviet occupation in 1988. Jewish 1st congress supported Latvian Peoples Front and called for democracy. Latvian Jewish Culture Society supported the fight for Latvian independence. However those Jews who came from Soviet Union supported the communist party and Interfront movement.

In 1989 Jewish High School was founded. In the stormy events in 1991 when independence movement was in danger Jewish organizations supported Latvian independence. After restoration of independence Jews once again had a free hand. 12000 Jews left Latvia for Israel. The Latvian Jewish community was founded in 1992. Also important Jewish organization is Shamir that is publishing books on Jewish history. Religious movement was restored in Riga and Daugavpils. In the times of independence Holocaust studies has taken an important role in Latvian historiography.

Jews have taken a role in Latvian politics. Most of them are taking part in left pro-Russian parties. Notable Jewish politicians are Boriss Cilevics from Harmony Center and Jakovs Pliners from PCTVL. Jews still have the role in Latvian economy; Valerie  Belokon is owner of English football club Blackpool. Kirov Lipman is president of the Latvian Hockey Federation and owner of pharmaceutical company Grindex. For a long time largest national Latvian bank Parex was owned by Valery Kargin and Victor Krasovitsky. The current leader of the Latvian Jewish Community is Arkādijs Suharenko. The center of Jewish community is located at Riga Skolas Street 6.

Antisemitism in modern Latvia has been mostly marginal. Antisemitic remarks have been visible in the radical nationalist press and internet. The synagogue in Riga has been bombed by unknown forces. There are unproven theory that the synagogue was bombed not by radicals but by members of organized crime, who were trying to disgrace the minister of interior to stop his crackdown on them. Relative rise of antisemitism has been caused by bankruptcy of Parex bank that triggered financial crisis in 2008. Bank was owned by Jewish bankers. Since 2006 discussions about the return or compensation of the lost property of the Jewish organizations, has been unsolved problem, sparking even governmental instability.

By the census 0f 2000 there were 10336 Jews living in Latvia. The last census in 2011 counted 6437 Latvian Jews.  . Most of them are in senior years, speaking in Russian and are atheistic. Original Latvian Jewry has been mostly extinct. However, because of the active support from Israel a new generation of Latvian Jews are emerging who are rediscovering their religious and national identity.   Jews have left notable signs in Latvian history and will not be forgotten.

Only working synagogue in Pietava Street in Old Riga

Selected Sources:

Mendels Bobe, S. Levenberg , I. Maor  (Eds.) (1975). The Jews in Latvia.  Tel Aviv: Assoc. of Latv. a.

Dribins, Leo. (2002) Ebreji Latvijā 2., papild. izd. Riga : Elpa.

Bobe, Mendels. (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Riga: Shamir.

Stranga, Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā : no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam : 14. gadsimts – 1945. gads. Riga: LU žurnāla “Latvijas vēsture” fonds

Dribins, Leo. (2007) Antisemītisms un tā izpausmes Latvijā : vēstures atskats. Riga: Rīga : Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.

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

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

 

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