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Speech by H.E. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, President of Latvia,
Remembrance and understanding of the Holocaust in Latvia

Stockholm, 27 January 2000

     Europe has been a major cradle of civilization on our planet. It has also been the scene of many episodes of barbarity, fit to rival in this any other part of the world. Not just in the dim, remote, uncivilized past, but also within the living memory of generations still living. The Holocaust, an indelible stain on Europe's escutcheon, has left deep scars on Latvia as well.

     Beginning with the 16th century, the first Jewish traders and craftsmen arrived in the territories that are now Latvia. Fleeing from repression in other parts of Europe, they were accepted there and found their place in the local economy and cultural life. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Latvia could pride itself as one of the few dominions of the Russian Empire where pogroms simply did not happen.

     Latvia's first period as a nation-state, from 1918 to 1940, was a time of peace and prosperity for our Jewish population. Together with other ethnic minorities, the Jews enjoyed a degree of cultural autonomy that would be considered as progressive even by today's standards. It certainly surpassed that offered by Latvia's Western neighbours to their minorities at that time. Latvia's Jews were entitled to state-subsidised education in Hebrew and in Yiddish. They were active participants in the country's cultural and political life and made important contributions to its economy.

     Most notably, during the late 1930s, Latvia chose to implement an open-door policy and provided sanctuary for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Latvia is proud to be one among the very few countries to have done so, while many others closed their frontiers to the flow of desperate Jewish refugees.

     Unfortunately, in 1939, the signing of the secret Molotov-Ribentropp Pact paved the way for Latvia's occupation and annexation by Soviet Russian forces in June of 1940. Over the following year, a period known as the Red Terror ensued. Arbitrary arrests, torture, executions and deportations cost the lives of tens of thousands of Latvian citizens, including 3000 Jews.

     Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazi German occupation forces planned, organized and oversaw the mass murder of over 100,000 Latvian citizens, out of a pre-war population of 1.5 million. At least 60,000 of those killed were either fully or partly of Jewish origin. Another 18,000 were ethnic Latvians, 2000 were Roma, and 3000 were mentally handicapped with no recorded nationality. The Germans shipped an additional 21,000 Jewish prisoners to Latvia from other parts of Europe, and over half of these prisoners were then executed on Latvian soil.

     As a result of the Holocaust, Latvia lost over 90% of its pre-war Jewish population. This is an irreparable loss. This is an enduring sorrow. In spite of the grave risk to their personal safety and that of their relatives, scores of Latvian families managed to save the lives of more than 300 Jews during the German occupation. A number of those who provided shelter to their Jewish friends and acquaintances were discovered and executed for their defiance of Nazi ordinances.

     Through an aggressive campaign of racist anti-Jewish propaganda, the Nazi German regime succeeded in recruiting local collaborators to carry out some of the worst crimes ever committed on Latvian territory. The precise number of Latvian citizens who participated in the murder of Jewish and other civilians under Nazi German command is not known, but is estimated to exceed 1000.

     Latvia as a country having ceased to exist at the time, the Nazi German occupying powers bear the ultimate responsibility for the crimes they committed or instigated on Latvian soil. We as Latvians denounce the mass murders of the Holocaust as uniquely heinous crimes against humanity, we condemn genocide as a horror and an abomination, we condemn and unconditionally renounce the individuals having perpetrated such crimes. We accept no excuse for their actions. We accept no mitigation to their guilt.

In 1990, shortly after officially declaring our intention to secede from the Soviet Union, Latvia's parliament openly condemned the events of the Holocaust in Latvia and expressed deep regret that Latvian individuals had participated in it.
     Latvia has assumed its sacred responsibility of condemning the Holocaust. Our criminal code specifically condemns genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, regardless of the ideology in whose name such crimes were perpetrated, - whether Nazi or Communist - and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator. Latvia holds no statute of limitations on these crimes and is committed to the prosecution and punishment of those found guilty through the due process of law. We stand ready to receive any additional evidence that will help us to initiate criminal proceedings against any individual suspected of committing war crimes in Latvia.

     At this moment in history, Latvia is engaged in consolidating a free, open and democratic society. For only democracy allows us to shape our future, and to make our own free choices. We need to remember the past, to understand it, to tame it, to make it truly ours. We need to reevaluate it, so that we may learn its lessons, and ensure that the worst errors of the past may never ever be repeated.

     We wish to live in a civilized society, renouncing barbarity and the rule of brute force. Barbarity stems from a refusal to identify with others, from blindness in recognizing the brotherhood of mankind. It thrives on excluding the Other, on branding, finger-pointing, name-calling, on blaming the Other for our own ills. Barbarity feeds on paranoid suspicions and delusions of grandeur, it wallows in sadism and the psychopathic enjoyment of power over others. Barbarity lies deep within the reptilian recoils of our human brains. We must ever be alert to maintain the civilized human being in control over the sleeping reptile. We must use training and education to help us in this task.

     In Latvia, we intend to do this through a wide variety of means. In 1994, a memorial dedicated to those killed during the Holocaust was erected by the ruins of a synagogue, which the Nazi and their collaborators incinerated on July 4th, 1941. Since 1990, this date has been officially designated as Holocaust Memorial Day in Latvia, when Latvian flags with a black ribbon are raised in front of every private and public building in the country.

     In 1998, my predecessor President Guntis Ulmanis, founded the Latvian History Commission, an international body assigned to investigate those crimes against humanity that took place on Latvian territory under both the Nazi and Soviet regimes between 1940 and 1956.

     Among its projects are:
     The translation into Latvian of a Swedish textbook on the Holocaust, Tell Ye Your Children. This in co-operation with the Embassy of Sweden in Latvia;
     The organisation of a conference on the Holocaust in the Baltic countries;
     A conference for Latvian schoolteachers on the events of the Second World War, including the Holocaust, and on teaching methodology.

     In 1999 the Latvian Ministry of Education has sent two history teachers to the Yad Vashem Centre in Israel. While the Holocaust is already taught as a subject in Latvian schools and included in elementary and high school graduation history exams, Latvia's teachers believe its treatment should be even more thorough than it is at present.

     May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Swedish, British and US Governments for their initiative in establishing the "Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research"? I am pleased to affirm Latvia's readiness to take part in its activities.

     At the memorial to the Holocaust in Salaspils there is an enormous symbolic gate bearing the inscription: "Behind this gate, the earth moans". Latvian soil, slaked in innocent blood, will continue to moan forever and ever. The sacred duty of the living is to remember the dead, to honour their suffering and to reassert their dignity as human beings. We pledge ourselves to this task. We undertake to teach our children that to be truly human means to accept every other human being as your blood brother or sister. No one is to be excluded from the human race. No one can be spared. Each human life is unique, precious and irreplaceable. We must build our civilisation and our future on the firm acceptance of that sacred trust.


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