Latvia, then and now

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, now in Israel, must help her countrymen come to grips with their past

An official visit by a foreign head of state is always a good opportunity to assess the bilateral relations between Israel and the guest's country. This is particularly important when the visiting president comes from post-Communist Europe or, as in this case, from the former Soviet Union's Baltic republics. All these places were the home of large and vibrant Jewish communities before the Holocaust. All the communities suffered extensive physical and spiritual destruction at the hands of the Nazis and their numerous collaborators. These locals played a critical role in the murders, and it is this factor which makes this week's visit by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of particular importance. Latvia, like its southern neighbor Lithuania, had an usually high percentage of Holocaust victims, a statistic which was to a certain extent a result of the widespread participation of local Nazi collaborators in the murders. During the Holocaust not only were 95% of the Latvian Jews living under Nazi occupation murdered, 20,000 additional Jews, primarily from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, were deported to Latvia to be murdered, in many cases by local killers. In addition, Latvian Security Police units, particularly the notorious Arajs Kommando, which murdered at least 30,000 Jews, were sent to other countries, primarily Belarus and Poland, to assist the Nazis in the implementation of the Final Solution. HOW HAS independent Latvia dealt with this legacy? To date, the record has been mixed, with important progress on easier issues such as commemoration and documentation but abysmal failure as regards the prosecution of Latvian perpetrators. Thus Latvia has established a special memorial day (July 4, the date of the massacre of hundreds of Jews in the Gogol Street synagogue in Riga) for the victims of the Holocaust, has built a few new memorial monuments, and has sponsored considerable research on the annihilation of Latvian Jewry. But to date, it has failed to prosecute a single Latvian Holocaust perpetrator and has refused - with two exceptions - to cancel pardons granted to convicted Nazi murderers. By comparison, it has brought to trial more than 10 Communist criminals, most of whom have been convicted and punished. President Freiberga herself reflects Latvia's mixed record on Holocaust issues. To her credit, she has been a fixture at Holocaust memorial meetings and monument dedications and has often spoken about the tragedy of Latvian Jewry. But she rarely, if ever, mentions Latvian complicity in Holocaust crimes, and has downplayed the need for justice. MORE SERIOUSLY, she has been in the forefront of the efforts to relativize the Holocaust by equating Communist crimes with those of the Shoah, and has on numerous occasions tried to present Soviet crimes against Latvian citizens, deplorable as they were, as genocide, which they were not. Moreover, she failed to speak out forcefully against two extremely problematic phenomena linked to the events of World War II. The first is the annual (March 16) march of Latvian SS veterans in Riga, a stark reminder that important elements of Latvian society still fail to understand the moral implications of the willingness of their countrymen to fight for the victory of the Third Reich. The second is the recent efforts by Latvian nationalists to restore Latvian aviation hero Herberts Cukurs to icon status despite his active participation in mass murder as deputy commander of the Arajs Kommando. Freiberga's failure to condemn the blatant anti-Semitic responses to the criticism leveled against Latvia regarding these issues is another serious failure. President Freiberga's visit is therefore an opportunity for Israeli leaders to stress the importance of these issues and encourage her to take a more honest and courageous stance on Latvian complicity in the Holocaust. When she visits Yad Vashem it is important that the identity of the killers of tens of thousands of Latvian and foreign Jews inside Latvia, and tens of thousands elsewhere, be noted clearly and emphatically. Only by openly confronting its Holocaust past can Latvia truly be a future partner of Israel and the Jewish people. The writer is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research.