A sad attempt to hide the truth

Why does one Latvian town reject a memorial to residents murdered in the Holocaust?

By J.L. FEITELSON
April 30, 2011 23:23
3 minute read.
Warsaw Ghetto monument in Poland

Warsaw Ghetto monument Poland 58 (R). (photo credit: Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

When I, a Holocaust survivor and a former resident of Bauska in Latvia visited my hometown 10 years ago, I was shocked to find the site of the once-splendid synagogue at 35 Rigas Street seriously neglected, unkempt and overrun with weeds. Nothing, not a single plaque, even today, commemorates the terrible events that occurred in the town 70 years ago.

At the Bauska historical museum, where I met with Director Mr. Aigars Urtans, we decided that a memorial should be erected at the site to Bauska’s 600 Jews murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators during the summer of 1941.

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On September 27, 2001, the head of the Association of Jewish communities in Latvia met with the Bauska town council, which agreed to the project.

But several obstacles blocked implementation. A local citizen tried to buy the plot, and the town council raised technical issues. After lengthy discussions, litigation and the intervention of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the municipality agreed on July 1, 2007 to lease about 400 square meters of the plot to the Association of Jewish Communities.

On April 25, 2008, the municipality issued a request to the Association to prepare a plan for “a memorial to the history of the Jews of Bauska,” and to include various technical details. This was signed by Mr. Michulis, head of the engineering department.

When Mr.Yehudi Gaffen and myself – the two co-chairmen of the committee for the erection of the Memorial – visited Bauska in mid-May 2008 – we met with Mr. Michulis and Ms. Vanaga (then heading the local town-planning department), and discussed the project, which had already been authorized in principle by the Bauska municipality.

However, when the architect submitted the requested plans, the local town planning department’s new director announced that other plans were being prepared for the site, and therefore the memorial was unacceptable.

We protested this decision and the municipality accepted our appeal.

Now the Town Planning Commission claims that we, the lessees, violated the terms of the lease by not properly maintaining the property, and is threatening to cancel the lease agreement.

IT SEEMS to me that such behavior contravenes accepted norms. Nowhere else in Latvia have reasonable requests by survivors of the Holocaust to memorialize its victims met with such callous rejection by an official who feels he can override a decision already taken by the municipality he serves. I would remind the Bauska municipality that what happened to the Jews of the city was as much a crime against Latvia, as against the Jews who were Latvian citizens.

Bauska was once home to one of the most thriving Jewish communities outside the capital, Riga. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, a Latvian Jew who went on to become chief Ashkenazi rabbi in British Mandate Palestine, served the congregation here in the late 19th century.

In 1941, following the Nazi invasion, the remaining Jews of Bauska were murdered in pogroms along with the Jews of other towns. Unfortunately, lack of living witnesses has allowed many Latvian to deny any responsibility for this blot on Latvia’s history. Thus many Latvians claim the synagogue was bombed by advancing Soviet troops in 1944, though remarkably not a single neighboring building was damaged.

We consider the objections to a memorial to be a shameful attempt to suppress historical truth, reminiscent of the behavior of the Soviet regime that a restored, free Latvia is rightfully proud to have deposed.

The writer is a survivor of Ghetto Riga and presently professor emeritus of the Hebrew University.

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