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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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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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