Despite initial resistance by Latvian President Andris Berzins and his staff to
join President Shimon Peres at a ceremony commemorating Jews murdered by the
Nazis, the Latvian president will now reluctantly participate in the ceremony
Peres arrived in Latvia on Sunday for a two-day state
From Latvia he will proceed to Lithuania where he will spend two
days and will recite kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, for the estimated
100,000 Jews murdered in Ponar by the Nazis and the Lithuanian Security Police
Israel recognized both Latvia and Lithuania in 1991, soon
after they declared independence following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Both countries have full member status in the European Union and Lithuania
currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.
invitation to attend a ceremony in the Rumbula Forest in Latvia – where Nazis
and their collaborators shot dead more than 25,000 Jews – was at first declined
by Berzins, on the grounds that his calendar was too full. His staff said the
president was going on vacation immediately after Peres’s departure for
Lithuania, and there were too many things Berzins had to attend to in the
Peres had offered to reschedule the ceremony, to no avail, and
other influences such as Yad Vashem were utilized. But what may have caused the
Latvian president to have a turn around, despite another excuse that according
to protocol Latvian presidents do not accompany their guests to ceremonies, was
that the refusal received wide coverage in the Israeli and Jewish press and was
picked up by Latvian media.
In the reports, there were suggestions that
Berzins did not want to acknowledge Latvian collaboration in the Holocaust, and
that he could not avoid such acknowledgement when standing in front of the
inscription on the monument.
Engraved in Latvian, German, Hebrew and
English, the text reads: “Here in the forest of Rumbula on November 30 and
December 8 of 1941, the Nazis and their local collaborators shot dead more than
25,000 Jews – the prisoners of the Riga Ghetto – children, women, old people, as
well as around 1,000 Jews deported from Germany.
In the summer of 1944
hundreds of Jewish men from the concentration camp ‘Riga- Kaiserwald’ were
The Latvian authorities upgraded the monument in its
present form in 2002, following drawn-out discussions with representatives of
the Jewish community. Under Communist rule, Latvia was strongly resistant to the
erection of a monument of any kind.
Authorities finally relented in 1965
and permitted the construction of a modest monument with tri-lingual inscription
in German, Russian and Yiddish, with no mention of the fact that the majority of
the “victims of fascism” who were slaughtered at the site were
Berzins officially welcomed Peres Sunday morning at the
presidential palace known as the House of the Blackheads.
presidents laid a wreath at the Freedom Monument, after which Peres proceeded to
a working lunch with Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.
In the late
afternoon the two presidents were slated to participate in the memorial ceremony
in the Rumbula Forest, and in the evening Peres was set to deliver an address at
the State dinner hosted in his honor by Berzins.
On Tuesday morning Peres
will have a working meeting with Solvita Aboltina, the speaker of the Saeima,
the Latvian Parliament. He will then deliver an address at the launch of the
Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum, of which Berzins will also attend. Lipke was a
wharf laborer who rescued Jews from the ghettos and labor camps and found safe
places where they could hide. He has been recognized as Righteous among the
In the afternoon Peres will be the guest of honor at a reception
hosted by the Jewish community, and has been told that there will be a large
turnout to greet him.
Peres will then travel to Lithuania on Wednesday
and will meet with the speaker of the parliament, Vydas Gedvilas, and attend a
State dinner hosted in his honor by President Dalia Grybauskaite.
will recite the kaddish on Thursday for the memorial ceremony at Ponar and later
meet with Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius.
Peres will be welcomed by
the Lithuanian Jewish community and will receive honorary citizenship of Vilnius
from the mayor of the city, Arturas Zuokas.
Although Peres has received
honorary citizenships in other parts of the world, this one will be particularly
meaningful. Vilnius, known in Jewish circles as Vilna, was a seat of great
Jewish learning, and some of the greatest Jewish scholars of the past three
centuries were born there.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Vilna
produced great Hebrew and Yiddish writers and at the beginning of the century it
became a center of Zionist thought and endeavor.
The Hovevei Zion
Movement was founded in Vilna as was the Mizrachi Party, and it was also the
headquarters of the Poalei Zion Movement. The First and Second Aliya migrations
were inspired by the messianic dreams of the Gaon of Vilna and Herzl visited the
city in 1903, a year prior to his death. Partisans who fought in the Vilna
Ghetto and later came to Israel included Chaike Grossman, who became a member of
Knesset, and Abba Kovner, who was one of the great poets of modern Israel and
whose vision led to the establishment of Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the
Jewish Diaspora, located in Tel Aviv.