Andrew Ezergailis. The Holocaust in Latvia

As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.

Amos 5:19

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8:32

The memory of the Holocaust in Latvia has alternated from denial to exaggeration, from the impossible to the impossible. The purpose of this work is to bring the debate and the memory towards the center, the realm of the reasonable.

Historians of the Holocaust in Latvia face two formidable barriers. They need to break through the fog that the propaganda agencies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union created. Both, for their own reasons, were intent on misleading the world about the killing of the Jews in Latvia. These information barriers do not exist for Latvia alone, but, as the Demjanjuk case has shown, are endemic to the lands that the Soviet Union controlled after the war. The Holocaust historians of events in western Europe had an opportunity after the war to double-check Nazi propaganda, to determine the guilty and the innocent. Historians could not do the same for events that had occurred in subsequently Soviet-controlled lands. This means that the whole first phase of the Holocaust—what we could call the pre-Wannsee phase—still has to be studied and many of its details confirmed. A primary duty of the new historians will be to cut through the obfuscation, regardless of what the source is, and go to the primary documents, which, with the demise of the Soviet system, have started to become available. The Holocaust must be confronted as it really happened. The relativism of Ernst Nolte is not acceptable, nor is the revisionism of the total deniers. Neither is Arno Mayer's unsustainable reading of Eastern Europe. None of these corresponds to the East European truth.*

Perhaps no historian, not to mention journalist, writing on the Holocaust in the East, as yet has been free of prepackaged thinking. There seems to be little awareness that not only sources but also emotions predetermine conclusions. For recent debate about the Holocaust see Baldwin, Peter (ed.), Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians' Debate (1990). For Amo Mayer's version of the Holocaust in the East see Why Did the Heavens Not Darken ? The Final Solution in History (New York, Pantheon Books, 1988). Ernst Nolte has labored at the question of German guilt for an extended period of time and among other writings his version of the Holocaust can be found in European Civil War, 1917-1945: Nationalism and Bolshevism (1987) and numerous other works, including Heidegger: Politik und Geschichte im Leben und Denken (1992). Also see Donald Niewyk, The Holocaust (1992).

The Nazi agencies responsible for the killing of the Jews in Latvia started a misinformation program about the killing even before the killings took place. Hitler's refusal to attach a signature to his order is an early indication. Thus a vacuum of information was created at the very top. The paper trail, as to who ordered whom, was broken, and that has allowed for a variety of interpretations ever since. As there were no written orders from above to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, so there were no written orders from the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen to the commanders of the Einsatzkommandos or any of the subsidiary Sicherheitspolizei und SD (in the future referred to as Security Police and SD or simply as SD) units: Teilkommandos, Schiefikommandos, Rollkommandos. Nor are there any written orders from the German commandos to the Latvian commandos or police forces. The irony is that the rules of omerta held firm for orders and information flowing down, but the system broke down in the flow of information from the field to the Main Office of Security Police and SD in Berlin, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA). Owing to the breakdown of secrecy, we have inherited the Ereignismeldungen (EM) (frequently translated as Situation Reports), summaries of the Einsatzgruppen daily activities. In addition to the Ereignismeldungen there are also the two Stahlecker's Consolidated Reports (15 October 1941 and 30 January 1942) that reveal the murderous Nazi design in Latvia.

The Soviets, on their part, dealt despicably with the Holocaust consequences: they hid the evidence, frequently misused it, and on occasion persecuted the survivors in the name of anti-Zionism. The Soviet approach was frequently to broaden to Soviet political opposition the responsibility for killing the Jews, regardless whether their opponents had anything to do with the atrocities or not. In the Soviet realm, friends or foes of Nazism, if they did not cooperate with the NKVD, were equally accused of collaboration. During the long occupation of eastern Europe, the Soviets managed to dissolve the difference between the guilty and the innocent, the victim and the murderer. During the era of high Brezhnevism even Jews in state-sponsored publications were accused of being accomplices in their own death. Revisionism, altering the judgment of Nurnberg, in some aspects originated within Soviet propaganda agencies.

I began research on this book about ten years ago, but now that I have finished it I realize that I have been working on it since 1941.1 was ten years old when the Germans occupied my country, and the killing of the Jews began. As I was growing up, I had no Jewish friends; there were none living in our vicinity or going to our school. The closest Jewish community was in Nereta, a crossroads market town about eighteen kilometers away. In a horse-and-buggy culture that was a considerable distance: my mother or father visited the market only about three to four times a year. I have no clear memory of Jews moving about, as they must have, in the market. I must have eaten Jewish buns, bagels, and sausage, but I recall no awareness of them as Jewish. More clearly in my memory is etched a Jewish peddler, a throwback from an earlier age, who, with a cart pulled by a nag that had seen better days, visited the farmsteads along our road. We lived on the second stwy of a cooperative dairy, a modern masonry structure, the only industrial installation in the vicinity. The peddler did not stop at our house, but I ran to the neighbors and looked at his wares.

Of my life's early contacts with Jews, the most significant one occurred in late July 1941, after, as I piece the information together now, the Jews of Nereta and of Viesite (another market town) had been killed. A man from Viesite in an Aizsargs (civilian guards) uniform, whom my father knew but who was a stranger to me, arrived in our house on a rainy evening. He had telephoned earlier in the day saying that he had found in the synagogue of Viesite, as I recall it, some Jewish ritual paraphernalia that would prove that Jews engage in the murder of Christians, use their skin, hair, and blood in their rites and worship. The man arrived later than he had promised and, without much ado, from his briefcase pulled out two, what we call Jewish "horns" and placed them on the table. Now I know that the right name for them was tifilin (phylacteries), the leather boxes, that orthodox Jews use in morning prayers. Our interest was piqued, the "horns" were opened, and about five or six pieces of parchment with lettering on them were scattered over the table. "Where is the blood?" someone asked. We were especially interested in the blood. But there was no blood—we examined the papers—but there was no sign of blood. There was no hair. The human skin turned out to be parchment. We all, young and old, recognized parchment. There were tons of parchment in the dairy, and the quality of it found in the Jewish "horn" was about the same quality as the butter maids used to wrap export butter with English lettering on it.

The explication de texts that took place on the rainy July day in 1941 demolished the evidence presented on the table. I learned of deceit in the world. It took me many decades to get back to the problem of lies about the Jews that the anti-Semites have loosed on the world.

In our journey through the mass of details, testimonies, court procedures, reminiscences, and archival materials we will see emerge a clearer picture of what actually happened in Latvia during the German occupation from 1941 to 1945. Finally we can place the Holocaust in Latvia in its social and historical context. The situation was far more grave and complex than journalists and Holocaust historians thus far have realized. Indeed, many complex webs of relationships between the principals of the Holocaust— Germans, Latvians, and Jews—remain to be untangled, and many events are still deep in the shadow of the past. The objective of the work has been to investigate the Latvian guilt in the killing of their countrymen. No stone has been left unturned in pursuit of the evidence. Lies have been questioned and truth has been confirmed.

In the introduction I present an analysis of the historiographical and research problems that a historian of the Holocaust in Latvia faces. The obstacles are formidable because powers hostile to Latvia and Latvians during the extended years of occupation had hidden and misused documents about the Nazi era. Whatever the ultimate truth about the Jewish tragedy in Latvia, it is also true that the Soviet state used its considerable resources to misinform the world about what really happened and how it happened. Only now with the opening of the archives is the extent of the disinformation becoming apparent. Only now do we know how many Jews from Europe were brought to Latvia and what Jeckein said or could have said at his Riga trial. By misinforming the world about the Nazi occupation, the Soviets opened up the possibility for revisionist historians:

those who wanted to undo the judgments of Nurnberg, and say that it was not the Nazi policy to kill the Jews and that there never was a Fuhrerbefehl. This work rebukes those historians who argue that the Jews of Latvia were killed because of local initiative, even against the Germans' will and intentions. An interregnum in Latvia, a space of time between the retreat of the Red Army and the arrival of the Einsatzgruppen, did not exist as Soviet propaganda has claimed. The Wehrmacht entered Riga on July 1, 1941, at 1 P.M. and Brigadefiihrer Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, was talking to Arajs only a few hours later.

A line of misinformation was begun by the Nazis themselves. This study shows that the troops of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Einsatzgruppen, upon entering Latvia were ordered to induce the Latvians to kill Jews and then to photograph them doing it. The Einsatzgruppen were followed by Lohse's administrative structure, the civilian government of Ostland. Lohse behaved as if the Germans had not wanted to kill the Jews at all, but only to use their labor to enhance German war aims. The German attempt to obfuscate the issue of responsibility is abundantly clear from Stahlecker's Consolidated Report of 15 October 1941 and even more so from his letter of 6 August 1941 (see Appendix 1) that for decades was hidden in the Latvian State Historical Archives (LVVA). That letter shows that Stahlecker was acting in accordance with fundamental orders and thus confirms the Nirnberg judgment that it was the Nazis who started and finished the final solution.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the historical and social context of Latvia before and during the Nazi occupation. The power of the past over the future is always a mysterious amalgam. I know that an individual and a nation must live with the past, but there is no knowing what is determined by it. History can liberate as readily as it can enthrall one. Only the philosophically naive will find in their reading of the past that the murder of Jews in Latvia was predetermined.

Chapter 2 traces the history of Jews in Latvia from the sixteenth century to our times and searches for indigenous Latvian roots for the tragedy of 1941. The special focus of the chapter is the period of the first Latvian Republic, 1918 to 1940. The themes of Chapter 3 are related to the previous one. It examines the history of anti-Semitism and its contribution to the Latvian participation in the killing actions. My argument is that historians of the Holocaust have been too one-sided in relying on anti-Semitism as an explanation for the murder of Jews. The anti-Semitism model of explanation may work for other European countries, where anti-Jewish attitudes have been engraved in popular consciousness and art since the Middle Ages, but for Latvia a more pluralistic explanation is needed. Our intention is not to deny anti-Semitism's role among the organizers of the Holocaust—Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich and Eichmann—or in the Nazi ideology, but rather to question anti-Semitism as a motive for the level of participation at which Latvians were induced, ordered, and allowed to participate. It is a matter of empirical record that the fiercest Latvian anti-Semites did not take part in the killing actions.

Chapter 4 examines the Nazi policy and administration in Latvia. The chapter refutes the mistaken notion, of Soviet and revisionist origin, that among the Nazi-occupied countries Latvia was especially favored. Latvians did not rank very high on the Nazi racial scale (they were considered closer to the Jews than to the Danes), and consequently the policies designed, though not fully implemented, were commensurate. The expressed goal of the Nazi policies, articulated on many levels, was the full and final germanization of the Baltics—cleansing Latvia of Latvians. By establishing the Ostland as a new political entity, the Nazis expunged the name of Latvia as a country, and thus confirmed the Hitler-Soviet Pact of 1939. During the occupation Latvia was in the grip of several overlapping administrative levels: the police, mainly SD under Stahlecker, Lange, and Jeckein; the civilian structure commanded by Lohse; and various military authorities. In addition, Latvia was also a sphere of activity for Goring's economic planners. The German rule of Latvia is peculiar in the uniformity of overall policy between the various administrative levels in suppressing the natives, and at the same time for the ongoing furious feuds amongst the Germans themselves.

Chapter 5 examines the presence and activities of the SD—that is the Reichssicherheitshauptamt's troops—in Latvia. The SD, headed by Heydrich, was the organization that was responsible for security in the rear and the killing of the Jews in Soviet territories. Although Heydrich's orders were to kill Jews expeditiously by inducing natives into pogroms against the Jews, the Einsatzkommandos found that genocide was a much more complicated undertaking than they had envisioned. After the failure to induce pogroms, Stahlecker commenced to organize native SD units that were frequently used to kill Jews. In the beginning the SD, the Einsatzkommandos, were led by Stahlecker. When German civilian administration took over Latvia, a resident SD structure was established that was headed by Rudolf Lange. Lange's superiors in Latvia were, at first, Hans-Adolf Prutzmann and, from November 1941 until the end of the war, Friedrich Jeckeln. In June and July 1941 Stahlecker established several indigenous Latvian auxiliaries, of which those of Viktors Arajs and Martins Vagulans were the most notorious. These commandos were initially intended for one purpose only: to kill the Jews. With the rise of the Soviet partisan movement, the life of the Arajs commando was extended for the duration of the war.

Chapter 6 examines the Arajs commando, its activities and structure. I trace the commando's history from its origins to its end in 1944. Stahlecker at first intended the unit to be temporary, intended only for the murder of Jews. But as the German difficulties in Russia multiplied, the commando acquired new assignments. Arajs' personal biography is examined. Appendix 2 contains a roster, to the degree that it could be determined, of the Latvian SD men.

Chapter 7 examines the killing of Latvian Jews and describes the organization of the killing apparatus and the methods used. The particular focus is on the general patterns and policies of the killings in Latvia. The more specific cases are examined in Chapter 8, where the Rumbula massacre is considered, and in Chapter 9, where the killings in the larger cities—Liepaja, Ventspils, Daugavpils, and Rezekne—are described. The relative responsibilities between the Germans and the Latvians are assessed and described. The total number of Latvian Jews killed perhaps did not exceed 61,000, that is about 65 percent of Jews living in Latvia in 1935. It is reasonable to assume that between 4,000 and 5,000 Latvian Jews in 1944 were transported to Germany.

Much misinformation has been propagated about the Latvian Schutynannschaften. It was a large and amorphous organization with a variety of police and military functions. The participation of the Schutzmannschaften in the atrocities is assessed in Chapter 10. They were locally-based police formations, and as such they had a role to play in the killing operations, usually as guards. In comparison to the Arajs commando, they played a minor role and the whole multi-faceted organization can not be painted with the same brush.

Chapter 11 describes the ghettos and concentration camps in Latvia. Initially the Nazis planned to establish only temporary holding camps where the Jews would be concentrated before being killed. The RSHA plan was to kill them as quickly as possible. But the murder of Jews in the numbers that Germans found in the East, especially since the natives did not participate with the intensity that Himmler and Heydrich had hoped, had to be slowed down. Thus, the idea of permanent and semi-permanent camps and ghettos was born. Chapter 11 also describes the fate of the Reich Jews in Latvia. The number of Reich Jews brought to Latvia as yet has not been determined with documentary finality, but the data unearthed so far indicates that the numbers did not exceed 22,000.

The ghettos in Latvia, in the main, were organized by Lohse and his civilian government. About 10,000 to 12,000 Latvian and Reich Jews survived the camps in Latvia, which, considering the imperatives of the final solution, was a high percentage.

The work also contains four appendices. The first contains Stahlecker's August 1941 letter to his organization, a letter that lays down the SD policy towards the Jews. The second contains the rosters of German and Latvian SD members operating in Latvia. In Appendix 3 is compiled a variety of statistical information about the Jews of Latvia, including their places of residence in 1935. Appendix 4 contains documents relating to Latvian Schutzmannschaften and their encounters with Jews in 1941.

Though much has been accomplished, much still needs to be done. The killing of the Jews was a murder of unprecedented proportions in world history and consequently no single work or paradigmatic conception can answer all questions. The purpose of this work will be more than fulfilled if it inspires further research, if instead of agreeing with the tenets of this study scholars will challenge them. I am persuaded that no single individual can explain an event as complicated as the Holocaust, but that we must rather return to the Socratic wisdom that truth emerges in the forensics of a debate.

In writing this work, more so than ever before, I was fortunate in obtaining advice and help from colleagues and friends the world over. In the list of the many who have contributed to the completion of this work, I must include the following colleagues: Dov Levin (Jerusalem); Efrayim Gordon (Tel Aviv); Jack Efrat (Johannesburg); Karlis Kangeris, Haralds Biezais, Uldis Germanis (Stockholm); Vilis Skultans, Adolfs Silde (Germany); Vilis Samsons, Indulis Ronis, Maris Zvaigzne, Margers Vestermanis (Riga); and in this country Janis Kreslins, Viktors Neimanis, George Longworth, Gertrude Schneider, Rudolfs Turks, Janis Vitols, Sander Gilman, Robert Ryan, Paul Hamill, Nikolais Balabkins, and the late Edgars Andersons. At all junctures of research the help of archivists and librarians in Jerusalem, Koblenz, Munich, Berlin, Palo Alto, New York, Cincinnati and Riga has been indispensable. Serendipity in finding the "right" document is as much the doing of the archivists as it is of the researcher himself. Among the many archivists on whose help I have depended, I must especially thank Sarmite Pijole from the Latvian State Historical Archives in Riga.

My editors: my daughter Anna and George Bumgardner spared no effort to "wright" my angular English into acceptable prose. My special gratitude goes to Benton Arnovitz, Director of Academic Publications, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who invited me to associate the publication with the Museum and gave polish to the final manuscript. The readers, however, should understand that the Museum does not necessarily support every assertion, argument and conclusion that I have made about the Holocaust in Latvia.

Liga Lapa, lize Antena of the Historical Institute of Latvia prepared the manuscript for publication in Riga. Inara Jegere did the cover and the graphics of the book.

I was fortunate, as I was doing my research, in having the KGB system of controls over archives and libraries in Riga collapse. Although I do not claim to have exhausted the secrets that the archives in Riga and Russia still hold about the Holocaust in Latvia, had the controls continued, the work would have been less complete than it is now. The KGB's cover-up of the evidence about the atrocities in Latvia has been in a smaller way matched by many Latvian emigres who frequently could have, but did not, clarify my questions.

For all the errors of fact and concept, I take full responsibility, and no friend or colleague should be blamed for them.

Although the study is an integrated one, on occasion, from chapter to chapter, to make the individual topics comprehensible, there is an element of overlap. And, finally, I do not want to pretend that I have written a sanitized, value-free study. Up to now the major spokesmen about the Holocaust in Latvia have come from imperial powers, whose goal had been to obliterate Latvia. This is the first work by one of the natives (Einheimische), as the Nazis preferred to refer to Latvians. I hope that I have avoided the more obvious moralizing that the topic invites. Try as I may, in conceptualizing the work I could not avoid showing my Latvian past and colors. Although some of my countrymen will disown me for having written this work, other readers may be irked by the Latvian perspective. A reader, however, should have no problems in adjusting to the work's implicit premises.

I want to acknowledge the following grants that have helped me to complete the work. I am especially grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant that relieved me from one year's teaching duties. The American Philosophical Society and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture provided smaller grants. I also received a summer grant from the Society for Humanities at Cornell University and a travel grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ithaca College, especially the provost's office, has been forthcoming in matching some of the grant monies and financing some of my travels.

Andrew Ezergailis
Ithaca, New York

 Noziegumi pret cilvçci   Crimes against Humanity