Latvia is one of the three Baltic States. Covering an area of 64,589 sq. km., it borders the Baltic Sea and is sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania. Its population of approximately 2.3 million is made up of a number of ethnic groups of which 57.7 percent are Latvians, 29.6% Russians, 4.1% Byalarussians, 2.7% Ukrainian, 2.5% Polish, 1.4% Lithuanian and combined others 2%.
Prior to World War II, there were 80,000 Jews in Latvia, with 45,000 living in Riga, the nation's capital, where they made significant contributions to the cultural and commercial life of the city.
Jews had lived in Latvia since the second half of the 16th century, frequently persecuted, but never as cruelly and collectively as by the Nazis, who occupied Latvia from 1941-44. On July 4, 1941, they locked 300 Jews in the Great Synagogue of Riga, and then burned it to the ground. There were no survivors.
Later that year - on November 30 and December 8 - 25,000 Jews were taken from the Riga Ghetto to the Rumbula pine forest some 10 kilometers away, where they were murdered by the Nazis. The Rumbula forest is thus sometimes referred to as the "killing field."
There was also the notorious Salaspils concentration camp 20 kilometers from Riga, where tens of thousands of people, including Jews who had been brought from other parts of Nazi occupied Europe, were murdered.
After the war, only 150 Jews remained in Riga. In total, the Nazi's killed 90% of Latvia's Jewish population.
There were several Latvians who collaborated with the Nazis, but who have never been branded as war criminals by any Latvian government. This issue has been frequently raised by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which demands that all Nazi collaborators be brought to justice.
In a Holocaust commemoration address in July 2000, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said that any Latvian citizens who had participated in crimes against humanity should be prosecuted.
When asked during her state visit to Israel why this has not happened - especially in view of the fact that Latvia has instituted a Holocaust education program in schools - Vike-Freiberga said that the Latvian Prosecutor General's office has been in touch with the Israeli, Canadian, US and Australian authorities to ask for information. No specific complaints were filed, she said, although a team of special prosecutors has been sifting through records to see if anyone alive in Latvia participated in crimes against humanity.
All evidence has been carefully examined, she said, but no suspect has been found. One such person who was charged in Australia died during the trial. Others were killed by the Soviets in reprisal for having aided the Germans and others simply died of old age.
Some 120,000 Latvian men were killed during World War II, noted Vike-Freiberga. Half of them were drafted into the Soviet Army and half into the German Army and sent to the front as canon fodder. Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia, and an estimated 200,000 went into exile.Thousands eventually returned, but there are no exact statistics.
Just as the majority of Jews returning to Israel had to learn Hebrew which was a foreign language to them, so many Latvian citizens have to learn Latvian. Under Soviet occupation, everyone living in Latvia had to learn Russian, said Vike-Freiberga, "but the Russians didn't learn Latvian."
Today, she said, there are free lessons in Latvian for the Russian-speaking population.