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Folklore versus History: A Problem in Holocaust Studies
Andrievs Ezergailis

The Third Reich is such an inconceivable phenomenon, that when it is over nobody will believe it.
Attributed to Admiral Canaris

The Holocaust in Latvia was a German organized project that can, as I have shown in my book “The Holocaust in Latvia”, be documented if not to perfection, but still in detail and in a variety of ways. There are Russian, German, and Latvian provenance sources, many of which have come to light only after the fall of the USSR, that can be called upon to support my thesis. Latvians had a role to play in the murder of Jews, but because they lived at the time under the German occupation regime they could participate in it only as an auxiliary force, that is acting under German supervision. In the large cities of Riga, Liepaja and Daugavpils the killings began within two days of the start of the German occupation. In the countryside towns, the killings began only when the localities were pacified and a structure of auxiliary forces were in place,(1) which was about three weeks after the occupation. As a document-driven study, my work has links to the work of Raul Hilberg, the patriarch of Holocaust scholarship. However, there is an alternate school that contends that the killing of the Jews was a chaotic, unorganized, and spontaneous undertaking of the indigenous Latvians. This view asserts that the Germans had little – if any – role in the murder of Latvia’s Jews. In some versions it is even asserted that in Latvia there was a separate native indigenous Holocaust, that it started before the Germans arried in Latvia, and that it was more brutal than the one perpetrated by the Nazis. Although this view cannot find support in archives, documents, or published sources, it has shown an unusual capacity to overcome the lack of supporting evidence. The German policy of dissimulation and deception was itself a folklore enhancing factor. In fact, it may not be wrong to say that the view today of the Holocaust without Germans represents the viewpoint of many statesmen and diplomats in number of countries, notably Sweden, Israel, and Germany. This study is in part an attempt to trace the genealogy of this “Germanless Holocaust” thesis and in part a refutation of it.

Eyewitnesses and the Germanless Holocaust

The late Latvian writer Miervaldis Birze was arrested on a bogus charge in early July 1941. First, he was incarcerated in Cçsis then he was moved to Valmiera, later to Salaspils and finally ended his prisoner career in Buchenwald. As most contemporary eyewitnesses he has left some concrete and accurate descriptions about life behind barbed wire and prison walls. At the same time he has also exercised his writer’s and, human “all too human”, prerogative to write about things that were outside of his actual field of vision. While the descriptions of his direct experience can be appreciated, a historian must find his generalizations about Nazi occupation to be faulty. It was not possible for Birze to see through the prison walls; far less that could he have heard what the German Commandant of Cesis and Valmiera said and ordered the Latvian Commandants to do.

Categorizing Birze’s views one can say that they are similar if not identical to a mighty river of viewpoints that insist that the Holocaust in Latvia took place without the participation of the Germans. It is part of an interlocking mesh of stories that is shared by many Latvians, Jews, Germans, Swedes, and Russians, among others. One can also say that this view is or has been shared by several war crimes prosecutorial offices in several countries up to the present time.

There was a German occupation, Birze allows – the Wehrmacht did enter Latvia, but it moved so fast that it had no time to organize Latvians or issue any orders to them. He goes as far as to deny that in the towns in which he himself was incarcerated there was any German presence. Since he did not see the Germans, the German commandantures did not exist. To sum it up, Birze believes that all of the atrocities that occurred during the German occupation were perpetrated by the Latvians and nobody but the Latvians. From his “eyewitness” vantage point he was right.

It is my contention that Birze’s was a story generated by trauma and he became a user and purveyor of folklore. Birze was engaged in an imaginative recreation of reality, which the prison walls prevented him from seeing directly. His investment in the story was total as it was emotional. He defended his “reality” peevishly. Birze spoke in the name of humanism, but unlike humanists of ages past, he was not willing to entertain alternatives to his narrative. The great scholars of myth and folklore, Claude Levi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, would support my characterization of Birze’s views as myth and folklore. As in myth and folklore, Birze’s view of the German occupation was totalized and sacralized and thus did not allow for any revision, not even any nibbling at the edges. Birze did not dissimulate: his belief was authentic, deep-rooted, and heartfelt.

One finds a similarly constructed narrative in the recent book by Boris Kacel, a survivor, called “From Hell to Redemption: A Memoir of the Holocaust”. About the beginnings of the Holocaust in Riga Kacel writes:

“I could never imagine the hidden animosity the Latvians had for their Jewish neighbors. [..] the Latvians saw themselves as messengers of Nazi evil and began to govern the city as if they had received consent from Berlin to do so [..] Trucks appeared carrying small vigilante groups of ten to fifteen Latvians, who wore armbands in their national colors of red, white, and red. These men intended to kidnap Jews off the streets and take away their personal belongings. The prisoners then were forcibly loaded onto the trucks, taken to the woods, and killed. It was terrifying to go outside, as one had to be aware of the vigilante groups that drove around the streets. The mobile killing squads, as I called them, were in full command of the city, and nobody challenged their presence or their unconscionable killings.

The Jews soon had to seek German protection from the vicious Latvian hordes. The Germans were well informed about the crimes against the Jews in the city but chose not to stop them until the Jews went to work for them and sought their help.”(2)

In the eyewitness literature there are also several subthemes. First, there is the theme of the “good” German. At a critical moment there materializes a good German, a “savior”, who rescues the Jew from the hands of brutal Latvians. As causal motifs ever present are anti-Semitism and revenge. It is asserted that Latvians killed Jews not only for reasons of anti-Semitism but chiefly because of revenge. The cause for this revenge however remains unspecified.

The original memoir account that contains these folklore elements is also the earliest “eyewitness” account of the Holocaust in Latvia: Max Kaufmann’s “Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands”, a 1946 publication. Kaufmann’s view is less extreme but the basic narrative is the same as in Kacel:

“The Latvians [on June 30] were already preparing for the reception of the enemy. From the archives they pulled out their red-white-red flag and also had the swastika flag prepared. The “Perkonkrusts” already were working out plans for our destruction and did not doubt that the enemy would be in agreement with them. [..] On the same day the Latvians announced on the radio that all nationally thinking Latvians must that very day on July 1 report in for the purpose of fighting the inner enemy. [..] the announcement addressed to the nationalistic Latvians is connected with the name of Captain Veiss.

[On July 2] I established contacts with my friends and acquaintances and found out that Latvians had begun arresting Jewish men. They went from house to house and found my comrades in faith and hauled them to the Prefektura, the precincts, and the prison.”(3)

After detailing how he was hauled away to the Prefektura, Kaufmann observes:

“Until then no uniformed German had appeared.”(4)

The long and short of Kaufmann’s tale is that the first phase of the Holocaust in Latvia was Germanless. Part of his story involves a good German, who rescued him and gave him a job. Kaufmann thought that he saw everything there was to see, but as Birze’s eyes could not penetrate the walls of his jail cell, so Kaufmann could not see inside the Prefektura. He thought that the Prefektura was the center of the Latvian police, but he had no way of knowing that at the time it was the headquarters of Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker, the head of the Einsatzkommando A. On July 1 Stahlecker ensconced himself in a second floor office of the Prefektura, from where he could observe and coordinate the street scene.

The difficulty of seeing, knowing, and telling the “truth” is exemplified by Gabriel Ziwian’s (Gunars Cirulis) account of 1942. Ziwian was a Latvian Jew who escaped to Switzerland and was the first one to carry out of Latvia the news about the killings of the Jews in Latvia. His deposition was given to US Consul Paul C. Squire at Geneva, Switzerland (1 October 1942). The information in Ziwian’s report though sketchy was reasonably accurate; but almost everything that he testifies to, even though he was a resident of Riga, especially about the first days of occupation was second hand.(5) If this future writer of detective fiction while living in the midst of atrocities could not “scoop” out the “facts” of the Holocaust, it indicates that the information about the killings was far from accessible. It also indicates that not only Jews but the whole populace lived in a vacuum of information.

Around 1960, the “Germanless narrative” passed into the KGB propaganda literature. For example, the Nazi educated journalist, Kriegsberichter Paulis Ducmanis in his 1962 pamphlet, “Daugavas vanagi. Who are they?” wrote:

“Already during the first days of occupation, before the Germans were able to issue any directives and before the Gestapo network was established, these Latvian fascists were active in liquidating peaceful inhabitants. Striving to prove that their mentality in no way differs from the German fascists, that they understand Hitler’s program of “New Europe”, without any hesitation and orders killed their countrymen and began to solve the “Jewish question”.(6)

Bernhard Press in his 1988 publication “Judenmord in Lettland” follows closely Ducmanis’s text and even sharpens it by – as if – “eyewitness” observation. He describes what he, standing near the Freedom Monument, purportedly saw on 1 July 1941 only a few hours after German arrival in Riga. Press reports seeing a column of Jews escorted by armed young Latvians turning in from Rainis Boulevard onto Brivibas Street passing the Freedom Monument. Press wrote:

"The thirty to forty Jews silently passed us. The crowd applauded and some loudly yelled out that it is time for the Jews do something useful. I stood as if numbed. What would the people do with me, if they knew who I was? What I saw here was the first step of mass murder of Jews that became a blood bath of a scale that in the history of the world had not been seen. But what I saw, may give a false impression, when one considers, that most of Latvia already for some days had been under German hands and that there “Perkonkrusts” and Aizsargi, the organizations already mentioned, had began slaughtering Jews and here in Riga was only its continuation. Had the “Perkonkrusts” and Aizsargi planned out the murder of Jews before the war and they coordinated it with the Gestapo? We do not know that. If there had not been any coordination with the Gestapo, it means that the Aizsargi,Perkonkrusts”, and certain student fraternities, began the murders spontaneously, without any directives from the Gestapo.(7)

The most recent use of Germanless paradigm is found in Professor (University of Toronto) Modris Eksteins’s award-winning book “Walking since Daybreak”:

“In Latgale, the eastern province of Latvia, revenge massacres of Jews began immediately after the cessation of Soviet counterattacks, on 29 June, 1941, days before the German Einsatzkommando units, police, and security officials arrived. In Daugavpils on that second to last day of June, all male Jews between the ages of sixteen and sixty were ordered to assemble in the market square. Some of these were summarily shot in the train station garden behind the prison, the rest incarcerated. More than a thousand Jews would be murdered here before the German killing squads arrived. Some Latvians probably aimed to please their “liberators”, most, however, aimed to satisfy their own impulses.”(8)

The most outré story in this genre is told by Mike Getz, about his parental home town of Subate. According to Getz, Latvian neighbors began arresting Jews one day prior to that of Operation Barbarossa on 21 June 1941 and clubbed them to death on June 23 on the second day of the war. “This date corresponds to the Yahrzeit,” Getz writes, “commemorated in Israel since 1942, when details, including the names of the killers also arrived in South Africa.”(9) The remarkable part of Getz’s tale that will become obvious later is that the information had reached South Africa in 1942.

For the producers of folklore it does not matter whether a person has been in Riga or not: the narrative goes along the same lines. For example that is true about Alfred Winter’s recent “memoirs”. He was a German Jew who was brought to Latvia on 10 December 1941, but he writes about the events in July as if he himself had been there and witnessed the events.

“The Latvian nationalists and the Perkonkrusts Party started an uprising against the Russians. [..] A major Arreis [sic!], from Perkonkrusts, took over the reins of the police and formed an auxiliary police of ardent, anti-Semitic Latvians. They started a regime of terror prior to the arrival of the Germans on July 1, 1941. Jews were arrested without any rhyme or reason and accused of being Communists. They were taken to the police station, beaten up, and many were killed. Others were taken to the Central prison and never seen again. Jewish stores were plundered and many Jews were robbed of their possessions and left destitute. The Latvians were killing Jews regardless of sex or age. The stored-up anti-Semitism of Latvians now showed its real face, and the Germans were appalled over the fury which the Latvians had unleashed. With the arrival of the Germans, the radio went back on the air. The commentator welcomed the Germans. At the same time, he gave a speech. He said that the time has come to clean Latvia from all Communists and Jews.”(10)

As a counterexample to the Germanless variant of tales one can cite a 1943 Soviet version. It comes from Swedish Communist organ “Arbetartidningen – Ny Dag”, and the article, “The Germans in Latvia,” was penned by A. Jablonskis, a Kirhensteins’s government official. Jablonskis wrote:

“The Germans celebrated their arrival in the Latvian Soviet Republic with mass executions. In Riga all those were executed who did not strike the fancy of the Germans. First of all such persons were killed in their apartments or in the streets who had some official position during the Soviet regime, socially active persons, Stakhanov workers and Jews. Later the Germans introduced a special system. The executions in the streets and in the apartments ceased. Instead they took place in the Central Prison and the Prison of Trial, and in the forest areas at Bikernieki, between Katlakalns and Bisumuiza and at the Lubansk highway. The air in these areas is still polluted by the cadaverous odor, and admission is strictly prohibited to the public.”(11)

 This sampling of stories could be extended.(12) The important question, however, is to unravel the origins of the Germanless paradigm and its subthemes. Although from the documentary point of view it is an absurd contention, the question is why and how did it come into existence at all. First, I do not think that the Germanless archetype was a creation of Communist propaganda or of evil people who were bent on perpetrating lies about Latvians. I think there has been some unscrupulous use of the ideas, but in general it is my opinion that, especially the survivors truly believe that they saw what they think they saw.

 There are at least two reasons for the genesis of the Germanless narrative. First, during World War II murder of Jews on an unprecedented scale took place in Latvia as it did elsewhere in Europe. A Holocaust did take place, and for the people on the streets, to say nothing about those in jails and camps, there was no explanation for it. Especially because the people murdered were innocent of all crimes, the Holocaust was a trauma of an unprecedented complexity. Because defenseless people were murdered, there was a human necessity to find an answer for the event. Since perhaps all explanations seemed absurd, all answers became equally valid. Especially from the victims’ viewpoint, chaos appeared to have descended on the planet. The world had turned upside down. Utter bewilderment and confusion surfaces in many survivor accounts, also in Boris Kacel’s book: “I could never imagine the hidden animosity the Latvians had for their Jewish neighbors. [..] the Latvians saw themselves as messengers of Nazi evil and began to govern the city as if they had received consent from Berlin to do so [..]”(13) The dilemma that confronts Kacel and many other survivors is why life in Latvia which they thought had been good before the war, was suddenly thrown over upon the Nazi occupation, the Latvians turning on them. The reliance on folklore in place of attempting to solve the dilemma, confounds it.

 The second reason for the emergence of the Germanless paradigm is that the Nazis willed (ordered) – the Germanless paradigm – to happen. The root of it is traceable to the very center of Nazi power, the headquarters of Hitler himself. It is to be noted that the following conversation between Hitler and Croatian Marshal Kvaternik took place at the very beginning of the killings, 22 July 1941. After the killings began Hitler spoke little about Jews, but the one time he did, he spoke about the killings in the Baltics. Was there a linkage between the first and the second set of causes? The linkage to be sure was not one of affect but most concretely of time. All threads of information, including the rumor mill, were in the hands of the Nazis. They were in position to leak information to the Jews as they could also do it to the Latvians. It is to be noted that for Hitler it was significant to emphasize that the Baltic peoples killed Jews because, first, anti-Semitism and, second, revenge.

 Hitler’s Diktat

 Führer’s conversation in his headquarters with Croatian Marshal Kvaternik on 22 July 1941. Present: Foreign Affairs Reichsminister and Generalfeldmarshal Keitel.

 Hitler speaking: The mighty Mongolia is pressing towards us. The old school books knew nothing about racial science and therefore there was no clarity about Russia’s racial composition. The proof from the POWs shows that today 70 to 80% of Russians are Mongols. They are short in body structure; among them there are some Slavs and few members of other races. The Marshal interjected that the situation now is much different than during the War. Then the army was made up of Russian peasants. They were destroyed by the Bolsheviks, the Führer said. The way it was done we know from the Lithuanian experience. On the second day when they [Soviets] entered there, in order to cleanse them, they ordered all shopkeepers to assemble on the street at 7 o’clock in the morning. Automatic weapons were positioned on street corners with which all of the people were killed; then the Jewish commissars took over the shops. Jews are the plague of mankind. Therefore now the Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians are wreaking bloody revenge on them. The Soviets from these countries deported children; it is to be noted and made clear that they did the same thing in their own regions. When Jews have free hands, as it was in the Soviet paradise, they carry out the craziest plans. That is how Russia became the plague of mankind.(14)

 There are many people in the world who will say that all Hitler’s pronouncements are false, except the one he makes about the Baltics. Among the people who would take Hitler at face value are the revisionist historians.

There are several things that Hitler says in the above quotation:

  • he admits that the killing of the Jews has begun,
  • it is happening within his territories,
  • the killing is Germanless,
  • the murder was a collective enterprise of the Baltic peoples,
  • the motive for killing Jews was anti-Semitism, and
  • especially revenge as a payback for Jewish leftism.

We, however, must also say about this quotation:

  • it is contrary to the information sent by the Einsatzgruppen men to Berlin,
  • Hitler’s gambit to conceal German role in the Holocaust is confirmed in Stahlecker’s reports.

Whether one likes it or not, Hitler’s statement is a synopsis of the folklore version of the Holocaust that I analyzed above.

 Hitler’s conversation took place in a formal context – during a foreigner’s visit and in the presence of his two highest officials: Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and Fieldmarshal Keitel. This is about as official and high as it can get. Hitler was making state policy as he was propagandizing a guest. Considering the people present, we can say the policy was intended for both domestic and international consumption. But Hitler committed a misstep: he got entangled in his own prevarications. Estonia at the time was not as yet occupied. This means that Hitler’s monologue was a prepared propaganda package: the whole nine yards – his pronouncements about Jews, Russians, Mongols, and the Baltic peoples.

 International distribution. How Hitler’s Diktat was disseminated to foreign countries as yet we can not fully document. It must be noted that the Nazi left two versions of the massacres in the Baltics. Hitler’s version, discussed in this paper, was one; the other was Stahlecker’s version that he sent to Berlin in October 1941 that in many, if not all, particulars differ from Hitler’s tale. It is noteworthy that it was Hitler’s version that first reached foreign countries. Stahlecker’s version became known only during the Nuremberg trials after the war. Marshal Kvaternik, of course, was a foreigner, and he could not have but carried the message to the Balkans.

 A pro-German Swedish journalist Fritz Lönnegren, whom the Nazi had invited to visit occupied territories, carried information about a massacre in Kaunas to Stockholm, as early as 14 August 1941. Lönnegren’s story followed Hitler’s dictate and was published in a pro-Nazi newspaper “Aftonbladet”. It was one of the earliest, although ignored by the West, news stories about the massacres in the East.(15)

 Though Mike Getz’s story, see above, falls on its face, one can note that he heard it first in South Africa already in 1942.(16)

 In May 1943, the major parts of the Hitler’s Diktat concerning Lithuania reached the US diplomatic corps in Stockholm. The American Ambassador in Sweden, Herschel V. Johnson, in sending up the report to Washington described the report’s trail of custody. The Stockholm Embassy had received the report from S. Adler-Rudel, who represented the Jewish Agency for Palestine in England. Adler-Rudel had received the report from a confidential source in Switzerland. The ambassador speculated that the report was written in early 1942 and its author was a Lithuanian resident in Switzerland or Berlin. Though the report contains some skeptical commentary, it emphasizes in a variety of ways that the early killings were “Germanless”. The widely publicized and photographed massacre in the Lietukis garage in Kaunas is described thus:

 “June 28th. The first public execution of Jews in Kaunas, in the Lietukis garage in the Vytauto street. Over forty Jews are beaten with shovels and with iron bars until they become unconscious. Then cold water is thrown on them and they are again [beaten], but this time they are beaten to death. A political prisoner released from prison by the insurgents seated himself on top of the heap of dead bodies and began to play a polonaise on the harmonica.”(17)

 The good German theme appears thus:

 “When a passing German officer expressed his anger, a former prisoner – a chauffeur by profession – answered him as follows:

 “We are all human beings as are you, but the Bolshevik prison has transformed us. I have just killed my Jewish prison guard. You have not the faintest idea how much pleasure that gives me.””

 The report also contains a bizarre Hitlerite attempt to distance Germans from the killing operations and influence public opinion (specifically that of Jews). On September 17 a column of Jews slated to be killed was escorted by Lithuanian auxiliaries, when the road was blocked by an automobile. Out stepped a German officer who read a statement in which he accused the Lithuanians for killing Jews.

“From now on the Lithuanian terror against the Jews will have to cease, since the German Army could not permit a part of the population of the country from being treated with such cruelty and inhumanity. The Jews who are still alive should be grateful to the German Army that the Lithuanian annihilation action against the entire Jewry of the country was now being ended.”

 The entire happening was filmed by a German PK correspondent.(18)

 The internal circulation of the story was instantaneous. Hitler’s Diktat became the mantra of Nazi officialdom within the Baltic and the Reich offices.

 Upon appointment as the Reichskommissar für das Ostland Hinrich Lohse participated at a meeting with Reichminister Alfred Rosenberg on 1 August 1941 (i.e. eight days after Hitler’s Diktat). At the meeting Lohse was called to report about the situation in his satrapy. In the main his statement follows Hitler’s formula although it is also to be noted for minimizing the scale of the Jewish problem:

 “A weighty problem is the Jewish question. Up to now about 10 000 Jews have been liquidated by the Lithuanian people. These executions are still continuing every night. For the Jews labor camps have been erected. Jewish women will also be drafted into labor service. The Reichsführer SS will decide the fate of the three thousand Communists that at the time are found in jails.”(19)

 Soon thereafter when Lohse’s subordinate Freiherr von Medem arrived in Latvia, assuming the position of Jelgava Gebietskomissar on 12 August 1941 in his first report after a trip through his Jelgava District he wrote: “Brutalities and resettlement [German euphemism for killing] first of all came from Latvians and was directed against local Jews and Communists. The Latvian people liberated themselves from the Jews in spontaneous hatred, and there was also a bloody reckoning with local Latvian elements.”(20)

 Rosenberg’s emissary Trampedach traveling through Latvia in a report of 12 August 1941, with an emphasis on the revenge theme, wrote:

 “The hatred of Bolsheviks and Jews by the part of the Latvian population especially the owners of a large farm that had suffered from the Bolshevik terror, was monstrous. The self-defense groups that were organized from this class killed the Jews and the native Bolsheviks, so far as they had the power and opportunity.”(21)

 Hitler’s design also appears in a report by WHA von Brummer, a Foreign Ministry information official, that he wrote after a trip to the Eastern front:

 “The Jewish question was solved radically. The enraged Latvian people, after the German takeover had killed countless Jews. Of the estimated 100 000 Jews that lived in Riga, 10 000 fled to the Soviet Union, next 10 000 had run away to the countryside and 10 000 were beaten to death. The remainder which is still considerable, will be moved to a ghetto. In the small Latvian towns, the local inhabitants had completely rooted out the Jews, including the children.”(22)

 A similar tale, but with a self-revelatory twist, was left by Consul Dr. Otto Eckert, a Foreign Ministry official. He arrived in the Baltics with one point of view and left it with another. He took his assignment to report the truth seriously and thus broke the spell of Hitler. After arrival in the Baltics, Eckert discovered that Hitler’s story, the mantra of the Foreign Ministry, was true only in part. He discovered that Jews were killed in the Baltics but it did not happen without the Germans. He considered the find disturbing and he saw it as an international public relations problem.

 “In the beginning the Jewish liquidation in some places was carried out by local Lithuanians, and as it was often told to me, on German orders. By far, most had been liquidated by a twelve-man commando of German policemen. As it was told to me, they traveled through the countryside killing Jews in specific towns. I will not evaluate this fact from a moral point of view, it is important to assess it from the political perspective, because this information is public knowledge not only among the Germans but also Lithuanians who often speak about the matter in all its unpleasant details.

 In any case the Jewish question already now casts a shadow over the German policy in Lithuania.”(23)

 It must be noted that Consul Eckert’s “discovery” confirms the correctness of Einsatzgruppen leader’s Stahlecker’s statements, especially those found in the Consolidate Report of 15 October 1941.


 Discussion about the Holocaust in Latvia, especially that emanating from the land of Fritz Lönnegren (Sweden) has shown that Consul Dr. Otto Eckert’s worry about German reputation concerning the Baltics has proven in large part to be baseless. Upon Hitler’s orders, in spite of Consul Eckert’s worries, with the help of revisionist historians, the Germans have almost gotten away with murder of the Baltic Jews. Who killed the Jews of Latvia? For those who have wanted to listen, it is a question that has been answered numerous times before. It has been answered by the Nazis in their on site dispatches as the Holocaust was happening; it has been answered by the KGB and SMERSH agents after the war, whose records only since the 1991 have become available; it has also been answered by the Nuremberg, and a series of war crimes trials in Germany. It has also been answered by me in the book “The Holocaust in Latvia”. I am not saying that the traumatized survivors at the end of their lives should consult the archives to get their story “straight”. Eyewitness accounts have their place but they should be corroborated with material from other – then unavailable – sources. I do however expect the foreign government spokesmen who want to pronounce on these tragic events that before they do so become acquainted with some of the above sources.

 Anyone who has followed the recent “discussion” about the Holocaust in Latvia, if “discussion” is the right word for it, will have noticed that there are, like oil and water, two incompatible tales, two ships passing in the night. There is the viewpoint that I have characterized as folklore, that originated already during Nazi occupation and started in large part with the Führer’s conversation with Marshal Kvaternik on 22 July 1941. And there is history that bases its conclusions on a variety of sources that include Nazi and Soviet documents and does not exclude the eyewitness accounts of survivors. Unlike the survivors, however, especially with the opening of new archival materials historians can penetrate prison walls, can leap over concentration camp fences, and can enter the chambers of power where decisions were made and orders issued.

 The telltale folklore clues are the following assertions:

  • There was a Latvian uprising prior to the German arrival.
  • The Latvians started killing of Jews prior to German arrival.
  • That Jews were clubbed to death.
  • The Perkonkrusts party organized and carried out the massacres.
  • Colonel Veiss was the inspirer and leader of the massacres.
  • Veiss and Arajs were Perkonkrusts members.
  • Veiss announced on the radio that all patriotic Latvians must start the killing of Jews and Communists.
  • The Latvians were more vicious than Germans.
  • Latvians were killing Jews and Germans were saving them.
  • It was a collective action by the Latvians.
  • Naming Aizsargi as the murderers.
  • Calling Latvian auxiliary police of 1941 “SS”.
  • The use of the German phrase Lettische Rechtsextremisten.

The latter is a favorite cliché in Germany, especially among “Der Spiegel” writers.

 The quarrel between historians and the folklorists is not about the fact of the Holocaust. The debate is about timing and orders: who ordered whom, to do what when. The disagreement is about documents and the power of documents as opposed to folklore and the power of folklore.

What have I said and haven’t said? I have said that all human events, and they do not need to be epochal or traumatic, create folklore. It is the nature of our species to spin tales and embellish our experiences to make sense out of them. That is true about Jews, Latvians, and Germans or anyone else, people living in the bush and those residing in plush big-city apartments. It cannot be emphasized enough that we do not speak here about normal times, but about a brutal occupation when martial law prevailed and a news blackout was the rule. It was a time when many people, not only Jews, lived in fear. A special category of “eyewitnesses” were German Jews who in late 1941 and early 1942, from their comfortable domiciles in Berlin, Hamburg, and Vienna were transported to Latvia. They underwent a special measure of disorientation because they arrived in a situation for which they were ill prepared. They did not understand Latvian, and coming from countries with an imperialist mindset, they carried along with them peculiar German/European attitudes about Eastern Europe. If the Holocaust experience was disorienting for Latvian Jews, it was doubly so for West European ones.

 As folklore is inevitable, so in modern times is history. I have said that those views that I have characterized as folklore are earnest narratives, one can even say, in most cases, guileless ones. The stories are part of writers as much part of them as are their limbs. I do not want to disturb them or challenge their integrity. Every person, whether atheist or not, acts in accordance with his/her inner light. As a historian I must, however, say that folklore exists in a separate realm from that of history. Historians, of course, are not omniscient. But their reporting is not limited by their personal field of vision. Historians could help the eyewitness memoirist to penetrate prison walls and leap over barbed wire fences, but the affective distance between historians and memoirists is too wide to be bridged. Every attempt to mix the two genres has turned out to be unsuccessful and I do not foresee a possibility for a compromise.

 One problem with the folklore history of the Holocaust in Latvia is that it is not pure folklore. One major source of its origin, as we have seen, is Hitler’s headquarters and the bevy of officials who spread Hitler’s version of the Germanless Holocaust throughout his realm that included the ears of hapless Jews in concentration camps. Revisionist history began on the same day as did the Holocaust, 22 June 1941. In this regard one cannot ignore the Nazi “news” carrier, Fritz Lönnegren, who planted Hitler’s tale in Stockholm.

 P. S. In as much as the Holocaust has become an international and a diplomatic problem for the state of Latvia, the resolution of the problem, the dispute between the folklorists and historians, may need to be submitted to a legal proceeding, hopefully an international one. Since the issue is a matter of international comity between states and peoples, perhaps the International Tribunal at the Hague is the right forum. In as much as some international voices have demanded that Latvia deal “correctly” with the Holocaust before admission to the European Union, hopefully the same voices will also support a legal and an international resolution of the problem.


 (1) For the correct dating of the killings in Latvia see: Ezergailis A. Holokausts vâcu okupçtajâ Latvijâ, 1941–1944. – Rîga, 1999. – Correct dating of the atrocities in the town of Preiïi is also found in: Bogojavïenska S. Holokausta upuru atceres dienâ // Diena, 2000, 4. jûl.

(2) Kacel B. From Hell to Redemption: A Memoir of the Holocaust. – Colorado, 1998, p. 6, 8.

(3) Kaufmann M. Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands. – München, 1947, S. 48–50.

(4) Ibid., S. 53.

(5) Gabriel Ziwian’s Deposition before US Council for Geneva District Paul C. Squire at Geneva, Switzerland (10 January 1942). He dates the first murders of Riga on July 20th and completely misses the burning of the synagogue. He mentions no live victims in the burning of the synagogue, and does not support the Germanless thesis.

(6) Ducmanis P. Daugavas vanagi. Who are they? – Riga, 1962, p. 11.

(7) Press B. Judenmord in Lettland 1941–1945. – Berlin, 1988, p. 39, 40.

(8) Ekðteins M. Walking since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century. – Boston; New York, 1999, p. 147, 148. – Ekðteins bases the conclusion on: Vestermanis M. Der lettische Anteil an der Endlösung, Versuch einer Antwort // Die Schatten der Vergangenheit: Impulse zur Historisierung des Nationalsozialismus / Red. U. Backes et al. – Berlin, 1990.

(9) Getz M. Another view: Ezergailis speaks at USHMM // Latvia Sig. – 1997, April, p. 16.

(10) Winter A. The Riga Ghetto and Continuance. – Monroe, Ct., 1988. – Actually when the author gets into materials that he himself experienced, the book is better than most other “eyewitness” accounts.

(11) Although Jablonskis is greatly misinformed about the early episodes of the Holocaust, in general he is more correct than the “Germanless” myth makers. The article was translated into English and is found in the US State Department documents. – National Archives (NA), M 1177, roll 16.

(12) Zvonov M. Po evreyam – ogon! – Riga, 1993. – The booklet is a compilation, almost a plagiarism, of materials from a variety of KGB booklets, especially “Kas ir Daugavas vanagi”.

(13) Kacel B. From Hell to Redemption .., p. 12.

(14) Akten zur Deutschen Auswärtigen Politik 1918–1945, Ser. D: 1937–1941, Bd. XIII. 1; Die Kriegjahrige, Bd. 6, Halbbd. 1, 23. Juni bis September 1941, S. 835–838.

(15) As cited in: Bruchfeld S., Levine P. A. Tell ye Your Children… // A Book About the Holocaust in Europe, 1933–1945. – The Swedish Government Offices, Living History Project, 1998; See also: Svenberg I., Tyden M. Sverige och Förintelsen: Debatt och Dokument om Europas Judar, 1939–1945. – Stockholm, 1997, p. 222–224.

(16) Getz also knew to say that the information was also available in Palestine.

(17) In some versions it is said that the Lithuanian anthem was played.

(18) NA, M 1185, roll 5.

(19) Bundesarchiv (BA), R 6/300.

(20) Latvijas Valsts vçstures arhîvs (LVVA), P-69. f., 1. apr., 17. l., 162., 163. lp. – Von Medem’s prevarication is evident from the materials found in the case of Alfred Becu and Wilhelm Adelt. See: Abschlusbericht, Ludwigsburg, 18.01.1971. – Concerning the murder of Jews in Medem’s territory, German judges concluded: “From the German side the ones responsible for NS-Crimes first of all were the members of the Einsatzkommando 2”, p. 2.

(21) BA, R 90/115. – Originally found in the Archive in New York: Occ E 3bß. For an additional citation of the same Hitler’s theme, see Wehrmacht Chaplain’s Walter S.’s report in: Ekðteins M. Walking Since Daybreak .., p. 148.

(22) Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, XIII, Bd. 12/I.

(23) Ibid., Bd. 19. – Eckert writes his report from Siverskaja near Gatchina on 2 October 1941. The report is entitled: “Stimmung in baltische Länder”

Latvijas Valsts prezidenta kanceleja

Andrievs Ezergailis
Folklora pret vçsturi: holokausta pçtniecîbas problçma 

Visi pasaules notikumi, arî tie, kas cilvçci traumçjuði mazâk nekâ holokausts, rada folkloru. Holokausts ir radîjis vairâk nostâstu nekâ lielâkâ daïa citu notikumu. Holokausts norisinâjâs informâcijas vakuumâ, un to vadîja hegemoniska vara, kas bija nolçmusi maldinât gan novçrotâjus, gan upurus, gan slepkavas. Par ebreju ðauðanu Baltijâ pastâv divi uzskati – vçsturiskais un folkloriskais. Vçsturiskais tiek centrçts uz dokumentiem, novçrojumiem un aculieciniekiem. Folkloras ìençze ir izdomâ (sapòos un murgos) un personiskajos vçrojumos. Pirms pierakstîta, folklora izplatâs mutiski. Folkloristi atðíirîbâ no vçsturniekiem ne tikai iztiek bez dokumentiem, viòi ir pat karastâvoklî ar tiem. Folkloras versija par holokaustu Latvijâ vçstî, ka ebreju slepkavoðana Baltijâ norisinâjusies kâ vietçjo tautu kolektîva darbîba – tâ bijusi spontâna, bez vâcieðu iejaukðanâs. Daþos folkloras variantos ir teikts, ka vietçjie nosituði ebrejus ar mietiem. Esmu vçsturnieks un savâ grâmatâ “Holokausts vâcu okupçtajâ Latvijâ, 1941–1944” rakstîju, ka holokausts Latvijâ norisinâjâs pçc vâcu plâna un tas bija organizçts notikums. Referâtâ argumentçju, ka folkloriskâ varianta izcelsme rodama vâcu okupâcijas laikâ un ka svarîgs faktors tâ izaugsmç bija Hitlera pavçle saviem padotajiem noliegt vâcu lomu ebreju slepkavîbâ. Hitlera pavçle atstâja ietekmi uz pçckara laikiem, un tâ vçl ðodien dzîvo ïauþu apziòâ.

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