RIGA, Latvia – In the heart of Riga’s picturesque Old Town stands a stark black rectangle, the Museum of the Occupation. It is an intentionally ugly and oppressive building, which tells the story of the small Baltic country’s double occupation.
In the first panel of the main exhibit, the portraits of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin face each other beside massed ranks of identical-looking armies. The message is clear: Latvia had two equal oppressors, the Nazi and the Communist.
Latvia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union beginning in the summer of 1940. Within a year, however, in July 1941, the country was overrun by the Nazi war machine rolling into the USSR.
It was during this Nazi period, from 1941 and the Soviet reconquest in late 1944, that 67,000 of Latvia’s 70,000 Jews were killed, a percentage killed higher than any conquered country except Lithuanian. Another group of almost 20,000 Jews were killed in Latvia after being shipped there from central Europe.
While much of the killing was conducted by German units, including most prominently the Einsatzgruppe A, tens of thousands of Jews were also murdered by ethnic Latvian units, including up to 30,000 killed by the infamous Arajs Commando.
“At [the massacres of] Rumbula [Forest, November 30 and December 8, 1941], the Arajs Commando, the Riga municipal police and the Nazi units were all involved in the operation,” says Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a historian and Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Over 25,000 Jews were killed at Rumbula, where, according to Zuroff, “it is very difficult to distinguish [Latvians from Nazis] in the chain of command.”
At the Museum of the Occupation, the murders at Rumbula are detailed, and the extermination of the Jews is not hidden, but the museum goes to great lengths to explain that it was the Nazis, not the Latvians, who committed the murders.
The Rumbula Forest massacre was “directed by Supreme SS and Police Commander in Ostland and North Russia Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln,” according to the exhibit. Little to no mention is made throughout the museum of the responsibility of the Arajs Commando.
Indeed, the museum exhibit includes the “Comprehensive Report up to October 15, 1941,” of the Nazi Einsatzgruppe A.
In the report, the Nazi unit charged with the elimination of Latvia’s Jews complains that “it was difficult to start organized pogroms in Latvia. However, after exerting appropriate influence on the Latvian Auxiliary Police, it was possible to initiate a Jewish pogrom in Riga, during which all synagogues were destroyed and approximately 400 Jews were shot. Since the population of Riga calmed down very quickly, further pogroms could not be carried out.”
In the document, the Nazi invaders explain that they had to go to great lengths to encourage Latvian pogroms.
“It had to appear to the outside world that the indigenous population reacted ‘naturally’ against decades of oppression by the Jews and against the terror created by the Communists in recent history, and acted on its own accord,” the Nazi report explained.
That recent “terror created by the Communists” refers to the 1940 annexation of the country by the USSR. In the year-long rule of a Soviet puppet government, some 980 Latvians were killed.
THE NAZIS were not the only ones to link the Communist occupation with the Jews. Walking through the Museum of the Occupation, you come across the picture of State Security Commissar Semjon Shustin, whose signature “suffices to condemn anyone to torture and death.” Shustin was part of the Communist security apparatus responsible for the political murders of the new government’s enemies.
But while several Communist officials are named in the exhibit, only one has his personal file in the well-lit display, in which, on the third line, we read, “Nationality: Jew.”
Why are Shustin’s Soviet identity documents an important part of the display, Jewish visitors might wonder. And why not anyone else’s from the period?
The question of responsibility is a crucial one, believes Zuroff.
“In Latvia, like in Lithuania, the Nazis could never have succeeded to the extent that they did – the rate of murder in both countries was over 95% – without the active zealous assistance of numerous local collaborators. In other conquered countries, like Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Greece and Norway, the local administration and police shipped the Jews away, but didn’t carry out the murders themselves. In Eastern Europe, including Latvia, Lithuanian, Ukraine, Croatia, and others, the locals were part of the mechanism of murder.” Until this reality is acknowledged, says Zuroff, the Latvians “are signaling a reluctance and unwillingness to face their own complicity in Nazi crimes. They talk about the Holocaust as if they had nothing to do with it. And since the Latvian ethnic population didn’t bear the brunt of these Nazi crimes, they then talk about how the crimes of the Communists were worse.”
LATVIA IS a small nation, with a population of just 2.2 million. Like many of its Baltic and East European neighbors, it watches the growing assertiveness of its neighboring giant Russia with worry. Memories of over four decades of Soviet occupation are still fresh in the country’s political discourse.
According to Jewish groups, the debate over historical culpability is actually a debate over the country’s sense of victimhood, the feeling that Latvia was the victim of both Nazism and Communism – and Communism more acutely and for a longer period.
It is difficult to support this narrative if the Latvians themselves are culpable in a near-total Nazi genocide of Latvia’s Jews.
“There is a question here that calls to high heaven: Can you use historical terms as a cover for present-day geopolitics?” asks Leon Greenberg of the World Congress of Russian-speaking Jewry, which held a conference in Riga this week on this issue.
The Holocaust of the Jews, he says, was a unique event that was not equal to Communist oppression. The Holocaust was not deadly as an outcome of a broader policy. Its original purpose was the annihilation of the Jews.
“Was any nation in Europe annihilated in a systematic way only because of its identity? Were millions of Ukrainian killed intentionally, systematically, only because they were Ukrainians?” he asked.
Only the Jew “had no escape from victimhood,” he continued. “It wasn’t about his politics or his ideology. It was his existence that was the problem. Everyone was liable to be harmed in that war, but only the Jew had no escape. He was the absolute, ultimate victim.”
In response to what it is calling “a new historiography” in Eastern Europe that seeks to equate the crimes of Communism and Nazism, the WCRJ, headed and funded by Russian senator and pharmaceuticals tycoon Boris Shpiegel, founded in Riga a new organization called the Anti-Fascist Movement.
The initiative is “a struggle for rehabilitating and fortifying historical truth,” Shpiegel told The Jerusalem Post
at the Riga conference where the movement was announced.
“We are worried,” he explains, about a revival of far-right ideologies throughout Eastern Europe that are working to “launder” the history of Nazism.
“We see that in many nations around the world, the Nazis’ ideology is undergoing rehabilitation and renewal, alongside a revival of skin-head groups.” This process is being abetted, he says, by “people in the highest political leadership of their countries.”
As an example, WCRJ officials pointed to the January awarding by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko of the “Hero of Ukraine” to WWII-era nationalist fighter Stepan Bandera. While Bandera fought against the Soviet occupation of his country, he was also closely collaborating with the Nazis, saw Jews as the originators of Communism, and was an inspiration to Ukrainians who actively joined in the murder of Jews and Poles during the Nazi occupation.
“Unfortunately, many people don’t have good access to their history. No one gives them the tools to construct a national identity [without far-right ideology], so they receive their history from warped sources. It is terrifying when young people begin to walk in the footsteps of nationalistic fascists and Nazis,” said Shpiegel.
His own country, Russia, is no exception, he adds. “No country is outside the bounds of this concern.” In Shpiegel’s vision, the new organization will be “a human rights group that will discover expose those who glorify Nazism, even – I’m not afraid to say – people at the highest levels of government.”
The group also plans to investigate the funding sources for far-right groups and, where possible, turn to international tribunals when there is suspicion of incitement or outright racism. It will also develop activities related to education and campaign for legislation against permitting the dissemination of pro-Nazi or neo-Nazi symbols and rhetoric.
For Shpiegel, the new group is the most important of his many activities.
“I am not speaking here as a Russian senator, but as the president of the WCRJ. If my status as a senator will interfere with making these demands [of the Russian government], I will resign my position as senator. My grandfather was killed fighting the Nazis. My parents were refugees of war. As long as these irreversible processes continue to occur in the world, this will be my calling. This is the work to which the remainder of my life is dedicated, because I am first and foremost a Jew.”