Latvian president backtracks on invitation decline to participate in ceremony

Peres commemorates Rigan Jews murdered in Rumbula Forest in 1941 and 1944, will travel to Lithuania Wednesday.

Shimon Peres 370 (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Shimon Peres 370
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
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 this afternoon.
Peres arrived in Latvia on Sunday for a two-day state visit.
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 collaborators.
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.
An 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 interim.
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 killed here.”
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 Jewish.
Berzins officially welcomed Peres Sunday morning at the presidential palace known as the House of the Blackheads.
The two 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 Nations.
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.
Peres 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.