tour of the Museum of the Occupation in Latvia is coming
under fire for not fully acknowledging local complicity in
RIGA, Latvia – In the heart of Riga’s
picturesque Old Town stands a stark black rectangle, the Museum
of the Occupation. It is an intentionally ugly and oppressive
building, which tells the story of the small Baltic country’s
In the first panel of the main exhibit, the portraits of Adolf Hitler and Joseph
Stalin face each other beside massed ranks of identical-looking
armies. The message is clear: Latvia had two equal oppressors,
the Nazi and the Communist.
Latvia was occupied and annexed by
the Soviet Union beginning in the summer of 1940. Within
a year, however, in July 1941, the country was overrun by
the Nazi war machine rolling into the USSR.
It was during this Nazi period, from
1941 and the Soviet reconquest in late 1944, that 67,000
of Latvia’s 70,000 Jews were killed, a percentage killed
higher than any conquered country except Lithuanian. Another
group of almost 20,000 Jews were killed in Latvia after being
shipped there from central Europe.
While much of the killing was conducted
by German units, including most prominently the Einsatzgruppe
A, tens of thousands of Jews were also murdered by ethnic
Latvian units, including up to 30,000 killed by the infamous
“At [the massacres of] Rumbula [Forest,
November 30 and December 8, 1941], the Arajs Commando, the
Riga municipal police and the Nazi units were all involved
in the operation,” says Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a historian and
Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Over 25,000 Jews
were killed at Rumbula, where, according to Zuroff, “it is
very difficult to distinguish [Latvians from Nazis] in the
chain of command.”
At the Museum of the Occupation, the
murders at Rumbula are detailed, and the extermination of
the Jews is not hidden, but the museum goes to great lengths
to explain that it was the Nazis, not the Latvians, who committed
The Rumbula Forest massacre was “directed
by Supreme SS and Police Commander in Ostland and North Russia
Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln,” according to the exhibit.
Little to no mention is made throughout the museum of the
responsibility of the Arajs Commando.
Indeed, the museum exhibit includes
the “Comprehensive Report up to October 15, 1941,” of the
Nazi Einsatzgruppe A.
In the report, the Nazi unit charged
with the elimination of Latvia’s Jews complains that “it
was difficult to start organized pogroms in Latvia. However,
after exerting appropriate influence on the Latvian Auxiliary
Police, it was possible to initiate a Jewish pogrom in Riga,
during which all synagogues were destroyed and approximately
400 Jews were shot. Since the population of Riga calmed down
very quickly, further pogroms could not be carried out.”
In the document, the Nazi invaders
explain that they had to go to great lengths to encourage
“It had to appear to the outside world
that the indigenous population reacted ‘naturally’ against
decades of oppression by the Jews and against the terror
created by the Communists in recent history, and acted on
its own accord,” the Nazi report explained.
That recent “terror created by the
Communists” refers to the 1940 annexation of the country
by the USSR. In the year-long rule of a Soviet puppet government,
some 980 Latvians were killed.
THE NAZIS were not the only ones to
link the Communist occupation with the Jews. Walking through
the Museum of the Occupation, you come across the picture
of State Security Commissar Semjon Shustin, whose signature
“suffices to condemn anyone to torture and death.” Shustin
was part of the Communist security apparatus responsible
for the political murders of the new government’s enemies.
But while several Communist officials
are named in the exhibit, only one has his personal file
in the well-lit display, in which, on the third line, we
read, “Nationality: Jew.”
Why are Shustin’s Soviet identity
documents an important part of the display, Jewish visitors
might wonder. And why not anyone else’s from the period?
The question of responsibility is
a crucial one, believes Zuroff.
“In Latvia, like in Lithuania, the
Nazis could never have succeeded to the extent that they
did – the rate of murder in both countries was over 95% –
without the active zealous assistance of numerous local collaborators.
In other conquered countries, like Belgium, Holland, France,
Italy, Greece and Norway, the local administration and police
shipped the Jews away, but didn’t carry out the murders themselves.
In Eastern Europe, including Latvia, Lithuanian, Ukraine,
Croatia, and others, the locals were part of the mechanism
of murder.” Until this reality is acknowledged, says Zuroff,
the Latvians “are signaling a reluctance and unwillingness
to face their own complicity in Nazi crimes. They talk about
the Holocaust as if they had nothing to do with it. And since
the Latvian ethnic population didn’t bear the brunt of these
Nazi crimes, they then talk about how the crimes of the Communists
LATVIA IS a small nation, with a population
of just 2.2 million. Like many of its Baltic and East European
neighbors, it watches the growing assertiveness of its neighboring
giant Russia with worry. Memories of over four decades of
Soviet occupation are still fresh in the country’s political
According to Jewish groups, the debate
over historical culpability is actually a debate over the
country’s sense of victimhood, the feeling that Latvia was
the victim of both Nazism and Communism – and Communism more
acutely and for a longer period.
It is difficult to support this narrative
if the Latvians themselves are culpable in a near-total Nazi
genocide of Latvia’s Jews.
“There is a question here that calls
to high heaven: Can you use historical terms as a cover for
present-day geopolitics?” asks Leon Greenberg of the World
Congress of Russian-speaking Jewry, which held a conference
in Riga this week on this issue.
The Holocaust of the Jews, he says,
was a unique event that was not equal to Communist oppression.
The Holocaust was not deadly as an outcome of a broader policy.
Its original purpose was the annihilation of the Jews.
“Was any nation in Europe annihilated
in a systematic way only because of its identity? Were millions
of Ukrainian killed intentionally, systematically, only because
they were Ukrainians?” he asked.
Only the Jew “had no escape from victimhood,”
he continued. “It wasn’t about his politics or his ideology.
It was his existence that was the problem. Everyone was liable
to be harmed in that war, but only the Jew had no escape.
He was the absolute, ultimate victim.”
In response to what it is calling
“a new historiography” in Eastern Europe that seeks to equate
the crimes of Communism and Nazism, the WCRJ, headed and
funded by Russian senator and pharmaceuticals tycoon Boris
Shpiegel, founded in Riga a new organization called the Anti-Fascist
The initiative is “a struggle for
rehabilitating and fortifying historical truth,” Shpiegel
told The Jerusalem Post at the Riga conference where the
movement was announced.
“We are worried,” he explains, about
a revival of far-right ideologies throughout Eastern Europe
that are working to “launder” the history of Nazism.
“We see that in many nations around
the world, the Nazis’ ideology is undergoing rehabilitation
and renewal, alongside a revival of skin-head groups.” This
process is being abetted, he says, by “people in the highest
political leadership of their countries.”
As an example, WCRJ officials pointed
to the January awarding by former Ukrainian president Viktor
Yushchenko of the “Hero of Ukraine” to WWII-era nationalist
fighter Stepan Bandera. While Bandera fought against the
Soviet occupation of his country, he was also closely collaborating
with the Nazis, saw Jews as the originators of Communism,
and was an inspiration to Ukrainians who actively joined
in the murder of Jews and Poles during the Nazi occupation.
“Unfortunately, many people don’t
have good access to their history. No one gives them the
tools to construct a national identity [without far-right
ideology], so they receive their history from warped sources.
It is terrifying when young people begin to walk in the footsteps
of nationalistic fascists and Nazis,” said Shpiegel.
His own country, Russia, is no exception,
he adds. “No country is outside the bounds of this concern.”
In Shpiegel’s vision, the new organization will be “a human
rights group that will discover expose those who glorify
Nazism, even – I’m not afraid to say – people at the highest
levels of government.”
The group also plans to investigate
the funding sources for far-right groups and, where possible,
turn to international tribunals when there is suspicion of
incitement or outright racism. It will also develop activities
related to education and campaign for legislation against
permitting the dissemination of pro-Nazi or neo-Nazi symbols
For Shpiegel, the new group is the
most important of his many activities.
“I am not speaking here as a Russian
senator, but as the president of the WCRJ. If my status as
a senator will interfere with making these demands [of the
Russian government], I will resign my position as senator.
My grandfather was killed fighting the Nazis. My parents
were refugees of war. As long as these irreversible processes
continue to occur in the world, this will be my calling.
This is the work to which the remainder of my life is dedicated,
because I am first and foremost a Jew.”