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Address of the Latvian State president in the ceremony dedicated to the Remembrance Day of the Victims of Genocide against the Jewish Nation in the Synagogue
4 July 2002

Honourable Chief Rabbi Barkans,
Honourable Rabbi Baker,
Distinguished Senators,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear Convocation of the synagogue!

Today, on Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, the people of Latvia solemnly commemorate the innocent victims of the Shoah. Sixty-one years ago, on July 1, 1941, Nazi German occupying troops marched into Riga. Three days later, on July 4, the Germans and their local collaborators set fire to a synagogue on Gogoļa iela, into which they had locked a group of people whose only “crime” was belonging to the Jewish faith. These sufferers were among the first victims of the Holocaust in Latvia, which represents one of the most tragic periods in the history of this country.

Every year on July 4 – as a sign of respect and remembrance to the tens of thousands of Jews who were brutally murdered in Latvia during the Nazi German occupation – a Latvian flag with a black ribbon is flown from every building across the land. This year, on the 4th of July, we are honoured by the presence here in Latvia of a distinguished delegation of senators and other US officials and citizens, who have kindly consented to share this day with us. In the United States, the 4th of July is a day of joy and celebration. It is also a day on which the American values of human rights and justice for all are reaffirmed and remembered. I thank you for being here with us today, for taking part in our commemoration and for lending us your moral support by your presence.

 Ladies and gentlemen,

Before the Shoah, Latvia’s Jewish community had been thriving. Latvia’s Jews were actively participating in the country's cultural and political life, and were making important contributions to the country’s economy, as they had done since the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in the early 16th century. Until the Second World War, Latvia’s Jewish community was also among the few in Europe not to have experienced pogroms and violent repressions.

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 a prosperous Western nation closed its frontiers to the flow of desperate Jewish refugees.

This period of peace for the Latvian Jewish community came to an abrupt end during the Second World War. The burning of the Gogoļa iela synagogue in July of 1941 by the Nazis took place only three weeks after first mass deportation of Latvian civilians to Siberia by the Soviets, who had been occupying Latvia for a year. Among those Latvian citizens killed or deported to Russia during the first Soviet occupation were 3000 Jews, who represented the first Latvian Jewish casualties of the country’s occupation by foreign powers.

The Nazi German occupation that followed was even more disastrous for Latvia’s pre-war Jewish community, of whom over 90% perished during the Holocaust. 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 2 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 sent an additional 21,000 Jewish prisoners to Latvia from other parts of Europe, and over half of these were then executed on Latvian soil.

Through an aggressive campaign of racist anti-Jewish propaganda, the Nazi German regime succeeded in recruiting or coercing several hundred Latvian men to collaborate in their crimes to their internal shame and eyes. At the same time, scores of other Latvians, in spite of the grave risk to their own lives and those of their 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.

We in newly freed, independent Latvia denounce the mass murders of the Shoah as particularly heinous crimes against humanity. Latvia holds no statute of limitations on these acts of genocide and is committed to the severe punishment of any and all individuals found to have perpetrated such crimes. We welcome any additional evidence that could help us to initiate criminal proceedings against any untried individual suspected of committing war crimes in Latvia.

 Ladies and gentlemen,

Latvia knows from its bitter experience under the occupation of foreign totalitarian states what it means to lose one’s freedom. Latvians have seen – at their expense – what happens when human rights and the rule of law are not respected. We know the value of security, and having regained our independence, we are investing considerable resources to ensure that our country never again becomes the peripheral province of an occupying power; to ensure that it is never again is used as a killing ground of innocent civilians. We are also working hard to prevent our country from becoming a base for terrorist operations. Terrorism in all its forms poses a serious threat to the security of all civilized nations and we are fully commited to the international coalition to combat it.

Precisely because we know so well the value of security, we – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Presidents of which are present here - are applying for membership in the NATO Alliance. We wish to contribute to its capabilities, and we wish to uphold and defend the values that NATO stands for: democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights. Our wish is 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 finger-pointing, and on blaming the Other for our own ills. Barbarity feeds on paranoid suspicions, it wallows in sadism and the psychopathic enjoyment of power over others. Barbarity lies deep within the phylogenetically reptilian recoils of our human brains. We must ever be alert to ensure that the watchful human being is always in control over the sleeping reptile. We must use training, education and culture to help us in this task.

Since I took office in 1999, I have made it one of my top priorities to promote the remembrance, education and research of the Holocaust in Latvia. We need to remember the past and to understand it. We need to re-evaluate it, so that we may learn its lessons, and ensure that its worst errors may never again be repeated. We pledge to remember the dead, to honour their suffering and to reassert their dignity as human beings.

We undertake to combat racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance, and to cultivate compassion, empathy and mutual understanding. We undertake to teach our children that every human life is unique, precious and irreplaceable, and that we each reinforce our own dignity as human beings by the respect that we offer to the dignity of others. With God’s help, we intend to do our part to build a world where these fundamental principles are understood and respected.

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