RIGA - Latvians who helped to save Jews during the Nazi occupation of Latvia received Israel's highest award to non-Jews on Feb. 2, marking the Jewish community's celebration of 100 years since the birth of Latvian Janis Lipke on Feb. 1. Lipke is credited with saving 55 Jews.

Ronit Ben Dor, interim chargťe d'affaires of Israel's embassy to the Baltic states gave the Yad Vashem to Olga Kruzmane, still living, and the members of the Pukis and Susters families, descendants of other Latvians recognized at the Jewish Community Center for their valor and self-sacrifice to save others during World War II.

In her address, Ben Dor cited Lipke as one of the brightest examples of those who risked their lives not for gain, but as "human beings" who hid Jews in the "dire hour of truth." 

"There is absolutely no question of what would have happened to them if the authorities would have found out about their actions," Ben Dor said. 

Zanis Lipke lived on Kipsala island among Jews and Roma. When the war began, Lipke was recruited to the German army, Ben Dor recounted. While he served as a driver, he had an opportunity to employ people from the ghetto. 

"In this way, he was saving their lives," said Ben Dor, as he understood very well what awaited them in the ghetto."

With the help of two women friends, Maria Keller and Maria Lindenberg, who hid around 20 people, the total number rescued by Lipke was 55. 

Olga Kruzmane was present at the ceremony. Born in Latvia in 1917, Kruzmane met Yakov Schneider in 1939 and a year later became engaged to him. 

When the German occupation began, Schneider went to live with Kruzmane in a Riga suburb. For a year and a half he spent most of the time in her flat, venturing out only to meet friends he could trust. In January 1944, he brought to Kruzmane's apartment his uncle, Kopel Schneider and his friend, Abraham Spungin for an unknown reason returned to the Riga ghetto.

On Dec. 10, 1944, five Latvian policemen appeared in Olga's apartment and arrested her and Schneider. They were held in separate cells at the Gestapo building where during an interrogation, Kruzmane saw Schneider for the last time. From there she was transferred to the central prison, then to the concentration camp at Salaspils, ending up in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck where she was released in 1945.

The Pukis and Susters families hid Jews in an especially designed, 4 meter by 4 meter chicken coop.

Ieva Dzene had three daughters, Elza, Anna and Emilija who married and lived in Aizpute in the Kurzeme region. Elza and Anna were married to Pukis' brothers while Emilija married Gerhards Susters and had a son aged 10. Anna was pregnant. Elza's husband Karlis Pukis was a tailor but worked in the peat marshes near Aizpute where they used slave labor during the Nazi occupation. 

In 1943, he met four Jewish convicts of the Riga ghetto and agreed to help them run away. At the beginning they were hidden in Ieve Dzene's attic and then to the home of the Susters' where they hid in a hen coop especially engineered for them, Ben Dor said. 

The four could leave the coop only at night, but one night a neighbor saw them and informed the police. Susters' house was searched, but the people and the coop were not found. Still, the whole family was arrested except Emilija because her handicapped son could not move without her help.

As the police left, Emilija told the four hideaways to leave, giving them a gun with bullets. A short while later, the Jews were caught in the forests and killed. "The fate of the saviours was bad," Ben Dor said. Gerhards Susters was executed. Karlis and Elza Pukis, Janis Pukis Janis Susters and Ieva Dzene were sent to a concentration camp in Schtuthoff. Only Elza survived the camp. Anna was released from a prison when she was due to give birth.

In giving the awards, Ben Dor said that acts of heroism and acts of atrocity are
individual choice.

"There exists a stereotype to transfer either heroism or shame of certain individuals on the entire nation," she said. "It's a fallacy, a wrong notion which has to be broken, because every act of heroism, as well as every atrocity committed by a human being is an individual choice and individual responsibility. It bears neither fame nor shame on the entire nation.

The service was attended by High Rabbi Natans Barkans and a leader of the Jewish community, Grigory Krupnikov.

Asked whether the timing of the event related to the Holocaust conference in Stockholm on Jan. 26-28, Krupnikov said that he had no control over Zanis Lipke's birth on Feb. 1.
Ben Dor alluded briefly to Latvia's tangled past brought to the foreground once again by the controversy over the extradition and trial of accused Latvian war criminal Konrads Kalejs.

Latvia should be proud of people like the Lipkes, Kruzmanes, Susters and Pukis, "and Latvia is being faced with one of its courageous hours, but will it be able to face its past openly and honestly? 

"One of the most painful things is that there were criminals among the Latvians. Of course, there will always be criminals, but the crimes of the Holocaust period stand out as particularly horrible, because they were perpetuated in the name of an ideology, the main aim of which was to annihilate members of the human race whose identity was considered different," said Ben Dor. "As her excellency, the president of Latvia said, 'our readiness to regard a fellow human being as a brother shows the difference between barbarism and civilization.'"

Under provisions of the law, Yad Vashem, enacted in Israel in 1953, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority has located and honored some 15,000 persons all over Europe, who saved Jews during the Holocaust, risking their own lives. Their names are inscribed on the wall of honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.

The Baltic Times

Crimes Against Humanity Holokausts Latvij‚ The Holocaust