Margers Vestermanis
Director of the "'Jews in Latvia" Museum/Documentation Centre
EXTERMINATION OF THE LATVIAN JEWS IN 1941
Remarks on the time periods of the history of Holocaust and on the "white spots" of historiography

Similar to other Easter European countries that have regained their independence Latvia is now seeking to "conquer its past". One of the peculiarities of this complex and sometimes controversial process in the postcommunist Baltic states is the massive confrontation of the society with the crimes of Stalinist past, at a time when neither the scholarly research nor the ethical assessment of war-time history have given clear answers as to the tragic legacy of the Nazi occupation. This legacy concerns not only the Holocaust extermination of 75.000 Latvian Jews and several thousand Jews from Western Europe, Lithuania and Hungary) but also the political terror spread by the extreme nationalists who used the change of occupying powers for the purpose of eliminating the "politically undesirable elements" (12.000 - 15.000 victims). The persecutions of their fellow-nationals animated the extremists to direct the same kind of actions against the Jews. Nazis exploited their readiness to violence in order to engage a significant number of the nationalist activists in the Jews' termination program. The current tendency to allow these events only a marginal place in the national history gives rise to concerns as to how democratic is the process of'"conquering the past".

Two time periods should be clearly distinguished in the history of extermination of the Latvian Jews. The first period covers the summer of 1941, with massive killings of Jews in the rural areas and selected killings of male Jews he cities (in Riga alone at least 5.000 victims; around 35.000 victims in the lie of Latvia, as of October 15, 1941). The extermination of the Jews in this phase is not yet strictly centralized, the commandos of the Security Police and carry out individual bigger actions on their own responsibility (in Jelgava, Riga,Daugavpils, Rezekne etc.). A significant role was played by the anti-Jewish atives undertaken by the Kommandanturs of Wehrmacht. The largest number murders was committed by a local volunteer killing unit (the Arajs commando). Occasionally the execution campaigns were assisted by the Wehrmacht, German marines (in Liepaja), and individual subunits of the 9th, 13th, ', and other police battalions. There is no evidence to the frequently-heard assertion that the annihilation of Jews in Latvia was already under way before the man invasion. However, there is no denying that without the complicity of local units of self-defence (later, auxiliary police) in the actions against the s, the rural areas of Latvia would not have been "cleansed" as rapidly and as thoroughly as they were, nor would it have been possible to carry out the massive imprisionment actions in the cities on such a big scale.

The second period of the total ethnocide began in November - December, 1941. The elimination of Jews by now had become strictly centralized, led and overseen by the Higher SS and Police Leader in Ostland in accordance with the instructions from Berlin. There was no place anymore for "local initiatives", the participation of the Latvian police and Schutzmannschaft in the massacres was held under a strong German control. By the end of December, 1941 the "final solution" for Latvia was practically achieved: out of the total of 75.000 Jews living in Latvia before the occupation only some 6.000 persons had escaped death, mainly in the "Small ghetto" of Riga and in small camps in Liepaja and Daugavpils. When the transfer of the surviving Jews to the "Kaiserwald-Riga" concentration camp was completed in autumn, 1943, their number had further decreased by 1.500. In a year, when they were deported to the concentration camps in Germany, no more than 4.000 persons had remained. Out of these only the fourth part survived the war. Some 350 Jews were saved in Latvia by the non-Jewish nationals.

The history of Holocaust in Latvia on the whole is well known. 26 books of memories have been published. A number of historians (G. Schneider, D. Levin, H.-H. Wilhelm) have published researches on specific aspects of the theme. In 1997, A. Ezergailis published a significant study, first of its kind, on the general history of Holocaust in Latvia. This allows us to have now a clearer perspective on the "white spots" of the history of Holocaust.

One of the questions still unclarified concerns the content of the orders received by the SD Einsatzgruppen. Were they from the very start secret "Fuhrerbefehl" which demanded immediate and total extermination of the Jews? If that is the case, it is not clear how the Wehrmacht' s "Wirtschatskommando" and later, the Nazi civil administration could manage to slow down the pace of extermination on the grounds of necessity to preserve the Jewish labour force.

An important issue for the national historiography is the mechanism of engaging the self-defence units in the massacres: was it an order given directly by the SD, or did the SD only encourage such involvement? In accordance with the infamous instruction of the RSHA, it was prohibited to "leave traces" and to give written orders. Other sources, like the Soviet Extraordinary Commision, KGB interrogation protocols and memories of the participants of the massacres do not confirm the hypothesis of forceful submittance to the orders. The Jewish historians, on their part, are more interested in the tragedy of their kinsmen, but there are very few authentic testimonies on the extermination of the Jews in the rural areas; there is only one diary that describes these events (Seine Gram from Preih).

Little investigation has been made on how the victims reacted to the direct threat of death. The Jewish Documentation Centre has gathered information on the waves of mass suicide, on the efforts of the victims to preserve their national consciousness and human dignity (police reports, ghetto folklore, diaries), on the attempts of resistance. The Jews have been often criticized for their fatalist attitudes but one should bear in mind that the Jewish capacity to resistance was dependant on the support it received from the society.

The indifference of the overwhelming majority of the Latvian society to the tragedy of the Jewish people is best illustrated by the underground literature circulated around in the occupied Latvia: the Holocaust was not even mentioned neither in the publications issued by the Latvian Central Council, nor in the procommunist and other underground publications.

The question of the reaction of the Latvian society towards the Holocaust has been touched upon only by A. Ezergailis. The conception of Latvia as a country plunged into general anti-Semitism should be unequivocally rejected. The mass passivity was rather determined by the weakness of Latvian democracy, undermined by the Ulmanis authoritarian regime, and the Soviet deportations which affected the liberal intelligencia and social democrats. The Nazi terror delivered the last blow to the democratic forces. Considering these circumstances, the courage of the people who supported the Jews and concealed them at the risk of their own lives deserves even greater appreciation. The number of the non-Jews who saved the Jewish people together with their family members and confidants could have reached several thousand persons. The materials gathered by the Documentation Centre show that the acts of solidarity and saving were religiously motivated. Baptists and Adventists were the most responsive in this respect, followed by Catholics and members of other confessions; as to their social background, the rescuers belonged predominantly to the middle and semiproletarian classes. From the geographical point of view, the people of Latgale displayed comparatively greater readiness to help the Jews than the people of other regions.

Up to now the researchers of Holocaust have mainly concentrated on the mechanisms of extermination and the balance of the victims. In the future investigations more attention should be devoted to the moral demeanour of the individuals under the extreme conditions of terror in the context of social reaction.


 Noziegumi pret cilvēci   Crimes against Humanity