A new play in Latvia portrays Herberts Cukurs as a national hero - not the cruel killer of Jews that he was.
This coming Saturday night, October 11, a new musical premieres in the Latvian port city of Liepaja, the first stop on a nationwide tour. Such an event would hardly be news worthy were it not for the fact that rather than simple entertainment, the play is a brazen attempt to rehabilitate the image of one of the most notorious mass murderers of Jews in the Baltics during the Holocaust.
The subject of the play is Herberts Cukurs, the deputy commander of the infamous Arajs Kommando, which played a leading role in the mass annihilation of the Jews in Riga and throughout the country in the year following the Nazi invasion of Latvia, and later was an active participant in the killing of Jews in Belarus (most notably from the Minsk Ghetto).
Although Cukurs' role in the atrocities was well-known, like many Baltic Nazi war criminals he was able to escape justice by fleeing overseas, in his case to Brazil. Once discovered there, the Soviets asked for his extradition to face war crimes charges, but the Brazilians refused, claiming that they would only send him back to the country in which he committed his crimes. Latvia, however, no longer existed. The resulting legal limbo which prevented Cukurs' prosecution and punishment, and an impending possible statute of limitations on the cases of Nazi war criminals in Germany, prompted an uncharacteristic response from Israel, which sent a team of Mossad operatives to execute him. Ironically, it was this act of retribution, which took place in Montevideo in 1965, which paved the way for recent attempts by Cukurs' family and Latvian ultra-nationalists to whitewash his crimes.
This campaign began several years ago with the issuing of envelopes carrying Cukurs' likeness, an exhibition entitled "Herberts Cukurs: The Presumption of Innocence," and a documentary film which sought to promote his innocence. To understand it one must be aware of Cukurs' status as a Latvian national hero during the thirties.
He earned his fame as a bold aviator, who built several airplanes of his own design, and flew solo to exotic destinations in Africa (Gambia) and the Far East (Tokyo). He even flew to Palestine and later lectured in Riga to Jewish audiences. It is this fame, paired with the fact that Cukurs had never been convicted in a court of law for his Holocaust crimes, which forms the basis for the campaign to restore him to national glory in Latvia. Along with the current efforts to rewrite the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust in the Baltics, it aims to minimize the highly significant role of local collaborators in the murders, and focus more attention on Baltic victimhood under the Communists.
The most powerful arguments against these attempts to restore a mass murderer like Cukurs to the status of a national hero are the numerous testimonies of Jewish survivors, many which were recorded shortly after the end of the war, but in this respect Cukurs' pre-war fame worked against him. Unlike the large majority of the other Latvian Nazi collaborators, Cukurs was well-known, and hence easily identifiable by quite a few of his erstwhile victims. Thus, for example, Rafael Shub related in a testimony I found in the Yad Vashem Archives, that on July 2, 1941, Cukurs had burned to death eight Jews in the new [Jewish] cemetery in Riga, even identifying his victims - synagogue sexton Feldheim, his wife and four children, and Cantor Mintz and his wife.
Another survivor, Abraham Shapiro, who was interned at the Arajs Kommando headquarters at Valdamaras St. 19, testified that Cukurs had personally murdered two Jews, who failed to follow his orders, and later witnessed Cukurs and other Latvian officers sexually molest and torture a young Jewish girl, while Shapiro was ordered to play the piano. The most damning evidence came from Max Tukacier, who told members of the Legal Department of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in Germany in 1948 that Cukurs had beaten and executed men, women, and children who could not keep pace when the Jews of Riga were force-marched to be murdered at Rumbula Forest outside the city, in the mass executions of November 30 and December 8, 1941. He also recalled how the famous aviator had ordered an elderly Jew to rape a twenty year old Jewess in front of a crowd of Latvian police and prisoners at Arajs headquarters and when he failed to do so, ordered him to kiss the girl all over her naked body again and again. About 10-15 of the male and female prisoners who could not bear the sight of this humiliation were beaten to death by Cukurs.
Needless to say, such testimonies will not be part of the musical, which begins its run this Saturday night. A YouTube trailer for the play, featuring the noted Latvian singer Juris Miller, has elicited enthusiastic responses, but apparently no protests. In today's Latvia, for far too many Latvians, it is Cukurs who earns their sympathy, while his Jewish victims are forgotten, or even worse, erased from the historical record.