What the Latvian Museum of Occupation tells us

Both Nazis and Soviets caused unbearable suffering to Latvia, and comparing them is valid.

May 3, 2010 12:10
4 minute read.


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As a member of the Latvian Museum of Occupation, I could not remain indifferent about the impressions from the museum shared by Jerusalem Post Jewish World correspondent Haviv Rettig Gur (“Facing the music?” March 19) nor Efraim Zuroff’s opinion on its exhibition.

What is it then that visitors from around the world can see in the Latvian Museum of Occupation? Its standing exhibition portrays Latvia’s history under the Soviet and Nazi occupations from 1940-1991. It is therefore a witness of the history of the Latvian state, the destiny of its majority people – Latvians, as well as of all the minorities that have lived in the country during a time period of more than half a century.

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The tragedies of Latvia and its people began with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23, 1939. Soviet forces occupied the territories of the Republic of Latvia on June 17, 1940. Only a year later the country was taken over by another occupier – Nazi Germany. In less than four years, its previous occupier – the Soviet Union – took over Latvian territories yet again. This time, Soviet rule over Latvia lasted until August 21, 1991.

The Latvian Museum of Occupation thus represents a time period comprising the lives of two generations. Naturally, the comparatively short rule of Ostland therefore cannot constitute the main emphasis of the exhibition.

Gur, as well as others, for instance, the Russian ambassador in Latvia, appear confused over the equal size of Stalin’s and Hitler’s portraits “greeting” visitors as they enter the museum. Yet, indeed both of these totalitarian regimes – the red and the brown – were equally dreadful. Both killed and placed inhuman suffering upon millions of people. Knowing and fully recognizing the horror not only my people, the Jews, but also other nations have been through, I will not step away from this comparison.

Gur and Zuroff do not wish to acknowledge the fact that on Skolas Street 6 in Riga, there is a museum “Jews in Latvia,” where much of the standing exhibition is dedicated specifically to the history of the Holocaust. It also holds a wonderful exhibition on the Jewish community and its upswing in Latvia during its years of independence between the two World Wars. Margers Vestermanis, Holocaust survivor and director of the museum, continues to cooperate with the Latvian Museum of Occupation.

ON JULY 4, 1941, as the Nazi occupation of Latvia began, the Great Synagogue in Riga was burned down. As soon as Latvia regained its independence, July 4 was announced as the day of rememberance of the genocide committed against the Jewish people; it is still commemorated as such. Moreover, in the place where the synagogue used to be, now stands a monument dedicated to all those Latvians who saved Jewish people from Nazi forces. Furthermore, in the very center of Riga, behind the central market area, a new museum on Riga ghettos will be created.

Another Holocaust survivor, American scientist Edward Anders, who was born in the city of Liepaja, Latvia, has given  excellent input in the formation of the standing exhibition of the Latvian Museum of Occupation. Its Holocaust section surprises visitors with a photograph of half-naked women awaiting execution in the dunes near Liepaja. The same photograph shocks visitors at Yad Vashem every single day.

The Latvian Museum of Occupation does not hide the participation of Latvians in the killings of Jewish people. However, those who visit the museum also learn that these horrid events would not have been possible without the bloody solution to “the Jewish question” decided upon by Hitler and Himmler. Nor would it have been possible without SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, who organized the implementation of their orders.

Zuroff questions why Belgian, Dutch and French collaborationists only helped send Jewish to the concentration camps, while Nazi henchmen in the Baltics and Ukraine participated themselves in the actual shootings, as well. The reason behind it to me seems rather obvious – in Western Europe, the occupiers tried to maintain a certain illusion of legitimacy, whereas the occupied territories of the USSR, including the Baltic states, were nothing but lawless areas to them, where a full celebration of bloodshed could be organized, cynically disguised behind the local desire for revenge.

Gur also asks why the museum’s exhibition quotes the nationality of Semion Shustin, former head of the Soviet security service in occupied Latvia from 1940 to 1941. Indeed, it was probably unnecessary, even though the ethnic origins of this man were not a secret to anyone. The acknowledged historian Aivars Stranga points out that Shustin was sent to Latvia directly from Moscow; he considered himself a communist, not Jewish. Similarly, other KGB workers of Jewish origin interrogated and eliminated Zionists and their compatriot Trotskyites alike.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that every nation has had its tragic history and resulting pain that it bears to this day. Yet victims of totalitarian regimes should not be categorized. The Holocaust has its specific, dreadful history; meanwhile, the “Latvian action,” for instance, which was carried out by the Soviet forces in 1937 and 1938, and in the course of which 16,000 people, including women, were shot, was also an ethnically motivated genocide.

The writer is a Latvian-born Jewish journalist and lecturer. This article was first published in Latvian in the Latvian daily Latvijas Avi¯ze.

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