The Progress Report of
Latvia's History Commission: Crimes against Humanity Committed in the
Territory of Latvia from 1940 to 1956 during the Occupations of the
Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany
Historical Background and Summary
The decision to annihilate the Jews was made by German occupation authorities. Latvia was not a sovereign state, and there were no Latvian institutions in existence that could have influenced the decision of the occupation authorities one way or another. Latvian civil society had been inflicted severe wounds by the brutal terror of the preceding Soviet occupation (17 June, 1940–end of June, 1941); it encountered German occupation physically and morally weakened.
The number of Holocaust victims comprises the largest single group of people who lost their lives because of occupation regimes from June 1940, the destruction of independence, to May 1945, the end of the war. More than 70,000 Latvian Jews and more than 20,000 Jews brought to Latvia from 1941 to 1944 from other occupied countries of Europe (Austria, the annexed parts of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania) and Germany proper were killed.
The total annihilation of the Jews and the killing of Jews from Latvia outside the territory of Latvia continued until the defeat of Germany in May of 1945. Shortly before the Soviet Army entered Riga on 13 October, 1944, Nazi authorities transferred some 1500 Jews from the concentration camp “Lenta” and other camps to Liepaja. By March 1945, most of the prisoners had been transferred from Liepaja to Hamburg in Germany. Only a small number of the “Lenta” prisoners remained in Liepaja until the capitulation of Germany. Some 50 Jews who had escaped from the concentration camp in Dundaga hid out in the forests of Kurzeme; by the end of the war about half had survived. For those still living, the end of the Holocaust came on 9 May, 1945. The same is true for those Jewish prisoners who had been transferred from the concentration camp “Kaiserwald–Riga” to the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany.
The Holocaust in the territory of Latvia is characterized by the fact that there were two periods of annihilation. During the first period, at the beginning of German occupation (July and August 1941), the annihilation was not always directed and administered centrally by the Nazi occupiers. The German Security Police (SD) was engaged primarily in general oversight and urged Latvian collaborators to carry out the murders. Local collaborators, especially in the provincial areas and towns, played an important role in the Holocaust. In the second period, from the fall of 1941 to May 1945, the annihilation was carried out by Nazi German occupation authorities as part of a planned, centralized and systematic policy.
One of the characteristics of Holocaust research in Latvia, especially concerning the first period in the summer of 1941, is the necessity to rely on sources whose evaluation requires particular caution and a critical approach: the investigation carried out by the Soviet Security Committee (KGB) during the second Soviet occupation in 1944–45, documents of Soviet court cases, the daily reports (Ereignismeldungen) and the semi-annual activity reports of the Nazi Operative Group A (Einsatzgruppe A) of the Security Service and SD. Another significant source, though of lesser importance, is Latvian provincial press from the Nazi occupation period.
Aims of the Sub-Commission
Holocaust research and education in Latvia has two very important aims:
To inform and educate the inhabitants of Latvia, especially the youth, about the Jewish tragedy and to keep alive the memory of the innocent victims.
To inform the international audience about the Holocaust in the territory of Latvia and to correct misinformation and erroneous stereotypes about it. To mention only three of the most widespread errors: (a) the stereotype that in independent Latvia there existed, before June 1940, a deep-seated anti-Semitism that was directly responsible for the annihilation of Latvia’s Jews. Thus David J. Goldhagen in his bestseller Hitler’s Willing Executioners asserts that radical anti-Semitism had informed Latvian culture in general. (b) The failure to note the fact that Latvia as an independent sovereign state ceased to exist in Latvian territory on 17 June, 1940, as a result of Soviet military aggression. Thus the erroneous assumption is made that the Holocaust took place in the Latvian state with the acquiescence of independent Latvian institutions. (c) The assumption that in German-occupied Latvia widespread participation of the local population in the Holocaust took place. This opinion is openly stated in the works of the Holocaust classic author Raul Hilberg, including his latest monograph on the topic.
During the Soviet occupation, from 1944–45 on, Holocaust history was not a research object. A negative attitude toward research concerning the annihilation of Jews became even more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s when the USSR actively promoted the “battle against Zionism” and supported the anti-Semitic resolution of the UN, which equated Zionism and racism. Research about the Holocaust in the territory of Latvia has been the topic of more than 25 books published outside Latvia, beginning with the second half of the 1940s: in the USA, Israel, Germany, Great Britain and other countries. Most of these books are memoirs.
Scholarly studies have been published by Gertrud Schneider (USA.), Dov Levin (Israel), Hans–Heinrich Wilhelm and Helmut Krausnick (Germany), Margers Vestermanis (Latvia). The most significant work with lasting historiographic value is the monograph by Wilhelm and Krausnick about the role of the SD operative groups—the Einsatzgruppen—in the annihilation of Jews in Latvia. The most significant work completely devoted to the Holocaust in the territory of Latvia is the monograph by Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia. This is the first work that presents the overall picture. The Latvian edition is especially significant because it contains a new chapter detailing the annihilation of Jews in a provincial district of Latvia, Ilukste. This chapter is co-authored with Rudite Viksne, a researcher at the Institute of Latvian History of the University of Latvia. The most significant part of Ezergailis’s work is the detailed description of the role of Latvian units in the Holocaust, especially the so-called Arajs Commando. Many scholarly works point out the indisputable criminal role of leading Nazi figures in the annihilation of Latvian Jews. These were the commanders of the security agencies of the occupying forces: Walter Stahlecker. Hans Adolf Prützmann, Friedrich Jeckeln, Heinz Jost, Rudolf Lange, as well as Latvian criminals: Viktors Arajs, Voldemaºs Veiss, Roberts Stiglics, Martins Vagulans. The role of Veiss, Roberts Osis, Karlis Lobe and others in the first phase of the annihilation in the summer of 1941 needs to be investigated further. It must be noted that there had been little research concerning the Holocaust in the provinces.
Owing to years of dedicated work by historian Margers Vestermanis the Documentation Centre and Museum Jews in Latvia was established long before the Commission came into existence. Here, significant research and educational activities were carried on. The most extensive collection of testimonies by Holocaust survivors was collected here, and Museum staff members were the first to analyze KGB data concerning the murderers of the Jews. Already since 1989 Vestermanis has regularly published his findings in German academic publications. A part of the Museum’s exposition was shown in Germany.
Work of the Sub-Commission
The formation of the Commission and the financial support by the state made possible a multi-faceted and broad investigation of the Holocaust in the territory of Latvia, involving several foreign scholars as well. During the present term of the Commission, two international conferences were organized: on 1–2 April 2000 in Ligatne, which included papers on teaching the Holocaust in the course on Latvian history in high schools, and on 16–17 October 2000 in Riga, on Holocaust research problems. The materials of the Riga conference have already been published. Several research papers are in English and all papers have been summarized in English so that the materials are available to a wide readership. Margers Vestermanis, a member of the Commission, presented an analytic paper at the Riga conference concerning the entire historiography on the Holocaust in Latvia, including works written in Yiddish and in Hebrew that had been mainly overlooked up to then.
During the present term, the following research work has been completed and published. (1) Dzintars Erglis, “Several Holocaust Episodes in Krustpils: Beila Bella Veide.” This work represents the newest Holocaust research direction in Latvia: investigation of the annihilation of Jews in small provincial towns. (2) Aivars Stranga, “Jewish Refugees in Latvia 1933–1940.” (3) Rudite Viksne, “The Typical Member of the ‘Arajs Commando’ According to Soviet Court Records: Social Status, Education, Reasons for Enlistment, Court Sentence.” (4) Margers Vestermanis, “An Overview of the Saviours of Jews in Latvia.” Vestermanis has determined that a total of 450 Jews were kept in hiding; of those 400 were saved and survived. Leo Dribins has completed a monograph History of Anti-Semitism in Latvia, which will be published in 2002.
During the Commission’s tenure, the teaching of the history of the Holocaust in Latvian schools has considerably improved. The Commission cooperates in its educational efforts with the Latvian History Teachers’ Association. Teacher exchanges between Israel and Latvia have been arranged.
The museum Jews in Latvia has obtained new, considerably larger exhibition space and has opened a new, improved and enlarged section dealing with Holocaust history. The Museum’s staff members have produced three video films, a trilogy Glabeji un izglabtie (The Saviors and the Saved).
The Holocaust topic has also been taken up by provincial museums and their researchers. The work of Aigars Urtans, Head of the History Section of the Bauska Regional History and Art Museum, deserves special mention. Regional history research has begun in Valdemarpils (Eriks Propokovics), in the Saldus area (Aldis Belsons) and in Pavilosta. Maijers Mellers has begun collecting materials about the annihilation of Jews in the small towns of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).
The attitude of the general public toward Holocaust research has considerably improved since the beginning of the Commission’s work. At this time, Holocaust research is taking place at all of the academic history research centers in Latvia: in the History Institute, the Faculty of History and Philosophy and the Jewish Studies Center (Project: “Oral History of Latvian Jews”) of the University of Latvia; in the Museum Jews in Latvia; in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (1940–1991); in Daugavpils Pedagogical University (Dmitrijs Olehnovics). It is important to note that this research involves several promising young scholars (Svetlana Bogojavlenskaja, Dzintars Erglis, Dmitrijs Olehnovics, Aigars Urtans and others).
Rudite Viksne will continue research on the topic ”The Holocaust in Latvian Provincial Towns and Districts.” This topic will also be addressed and materials collected by Maijers Mellers, Aigars Urtans and Dr. Grigorijs Smirins.
Margers Vestermanis will continue his three research topics: (a) “Resistance of the Inhabitants of Latvia against the Holocaust”; (b) “Jewish Resistance against the Holocaust”; (c) “The History of the Concentration Camps Kaiserwald and Jungfernhof.”
A Latvia-wide project will be started to ascertain and list the names of all Jews murdered in Latvian territory. This has already been done for Liepaja by the US scholar Edward Anders and Latvian scholar Juris Dubrovskis. Professor Ruvins Ferber of the Centre of Jewish Studies of the University of Latvia has led preparation of a research project to survey of all Jews murdered in Latvia.
Co-operation with the History Teachers’ Association will continue with the following aims: (a) preparation of a collection of methodological teaching materials (author: Ieva Gundare, consultant: Margers Vestermanis); (b) preparation of an audio-cassette The Songs and Poetry of Ghettos and Concentration Camps in Latvia as an aid for teaching the Holocaust in the schools (authors: Margers Vestermanis and Vladens Sûlmans).
Further research topics include: (a) reactions of the inhabitants of Latvia to the mass annihilation of Latvian Jews under Nazi occupation; (b) evaluation of the attitudes toward Jews perceivable in Latvian press during Nazi occupation, especially articles condemning the “sympathisers of Jews”; (c) an encompassing research project concerning the attitudes of Latvian churches (Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Orthodox and Baptist) toward the annihilation of the Jews.
 David Johan Goldhagen,
Hitler’s Willing Executioners (London: Abacus, 1996) p. 409.
The Progress Report of Latvia's History Commission: Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia from 1940 to 1956 during the Occupations of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany