Almost 80 years after the Holocaust, a restitution law passed by the Latvian parliament after years of negotiations recalls the horrific events in this Baltic country, when Nazi Einsatzgruppen (killer squads) aided by Latvian auxiliary forces wiped out 90 per cent of the Jewish community, a population of 94,000.
The proposed law, backed by the World Jewish Congress, the United States and Israel, had long been opposed by the national-conservative ruling party, National Alliance. But last week, the equation shifted as the 100-seat parliament voted 64-21 to approve the “Law on the Compensation of Goodwill to the Latvian Jewish Community.”
The bill provides for compensation payments of 40 million euros (about $46 million) over 10 years, to remedy “historical unjust consequences” of the Holocaust and provide material assistance to Holocaust survivors, according to the Jerusalem Post. The repayment amount was calculated based on the current assessed value of about 250 buildings and lands that once were communal property of the Jewish community.
The bill also includes funding to revitalize Latvia’s tiny Jewish community of 10,000, including funding for “Jewish schools, restoration and cultural projects.”
The new legislation states that the Latvian state is not responsible for actions taken when it was occupied by Nazi forces, a declaration that contradicts the historical record.
Shortly after German troops entered the country on July 1, 1941, the Nazi occupation authorities incited Latvian nationalists to commit deadly pogroms, testified survivor Max Kaufmann in The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia. On July 2, at the instigation of the Germans, Latvian armed youths wearing red and white armbands went about the city dragging Jews out of their homes, arresting and assaulting them.
Many were later taken out of the Central Prison and driven in trucks to Bikernieki Forest where they were shot. Within three months, more than 6,000 people were killed in Riga and the vicinity by local thugs, Kaufmann wrote.
Evidence presented at post-war crimes trials supports the charge that up to 1500 Latvian gunmen, operating in the Arajs Kommando under Nazi collaborator Viktors Arajs, aided Nazi Einsatzgruppen in the mass murders of Latvian Jews.
The Nazis recruited several auxiliary units from Latvian locals to extinguish any possibility of flight or survival during the killing operations. The unit commanded by Viktors Arajs, aided by deputy Herbert Cuckers, operated the longest and gained the greatest notoriety for its cruelty and its abuse of the victims. The group began operations in 1941 with some 300 members. At its peak in 1942, when additional members were recruited to take part in Nazi atrocities along the eastern border in Russia and Belarus, the unit numbered some 1500 members.
In 1941, the large German industrialized death camps had not yet been opened. Instead, a much cruder method of genocide was employed. Groups of Jews were ordered to be shot in Riga, Daugavpils (Dvinsk) and in many smaller towns. Research shows that all these mass murders were meticulously organized by the German authorities, but often carried out by Latvian auxiliaries without direct German involvement.
The Arajs Kommandos played a central role in the mass execution of Jews from the Riga Ghetto on November 30 and December 8, 1941, herding more than 25,000 men, women and children to the edge of giant pre-excavated pits in the Rumbula forest. There the victims were forced, with methodical brutality, to lie face down in the pits where they were shot to death by German marksmen.
Negating today’s narrative of Latvian “innocence,” the country’s first post-Soviet president, Guntis Ulmanis, “spoke at a reception at the home of Israeli President Ezer Weisman in Israel in February 1998, apologizing for Latvian participation in the Holocaust,” reported JTA at the time. Ulmanis addressed similar remarks to the ADL during a trip to the United States to attend a U.S-Baltic summit in Washington, the article noted.
Justice For Whom?
Notwithstanding its false representation of Latvia during the Holocaust, the parliamentary bill passed last Thursday was hailed as a “historic step” by Arkady Sukharenko, chairman of the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities. “Finalizing this process demonstrates that even 77 years after the end of the Holocaust, it is never too late for justice,” he said.
“Justice” in this context has a markedly limited framework; it does not include the returning of stolen property to the original owners not does it acknowledge any degree of guilt in the actions of Latvian war criminals, some of whom have resided comfortably in Latvia since the end of the war.
Researchers studying the role of Latvian paramilitary units assisting the Nazis in murdering Jews note that no collaborator from the Latvian SD Auxiliary Security Police or Latvian police battalions was ever convicted by Latvian authorities, despite several of the perpetrators being explicitly identified in eyewitness accounts by survivors.
Latvia was occupied at different stages by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II. When the country regained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, property was denationalized and Latvians rushed to reclaim it. Rationalizing that most Jewish owners had been killed in the Holocaust and with little incentive to acknowledge the rights of heirs, Latvian officials decided that the majority of Jewish homes, slaughterhouses, orphanages and shuls should become state property.
“We’re not going to ask the properties to be returned,” said Dmitry Krupnikov, head of the Latvian Jewish Community Restitution Fund. “It is impossible to return them 25 years after privatization was finished. Somebody’s been using them, somebody’s been renovating them, somebody’s been improving them. Taking that property from them would be incorrect.”
While the wickedness of the killers and their barbaric crimes are beyond earthly punishment, and the victims beyond any fitting compensation, restitution activists say they feel vindicated. “This law cannot bring back the destroyed communities or synagogues,” said Gideon Taylor,” chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “But what it does is recognize what happened to Latvian Jewry and this is important.”
Holocaust Of Bullets
After invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis launched systematic operations to wipe out the Jews of Eastern Europe. In Latvia, over a period of 15 months, SS Einsatzgruppen units and their auxiliary force of Latvian volunteers methodically fanned out across the region, rounding up the Jews in Riga, Daugavpils (Dvinsk) and many smaller towns – often with the help of local police and under the guise of “resettlement.” They then brutally massacred the victims before moving on to the next city, town or village.
According to documented sources, the Nazis first incited “spontaneous” pogroms by the local population in the Baltic territories. Within three days of the Nazi occupation of Riga, the Great Choir Shul on Gogol Street, was burned to the ground with twenty Jews locked inside as the building was set ablaze. Historian Gertrude Schneider in Journey Into Terror identifies the victims as mostly women and children. The burning of the synagogue was filmed by the Germans and later became part of a Wehrmacht newsreel.
Historian and eyewitness Bernard Press in The Murder of the Jews in Latvia writes that Herberts Cukurs, a Latvian air force officer, and his gang of thugs, burned another shul on Stabu Street in Riga, first dragging Jews out of the neighboring houses and locking them inside the shul. Eyewitnesses heard the victims screaming for help and saw them breaking the synagogues windows from inside and trying to escape. Cukurs shot them with his revolver, Press writes.
According to historian Alexander Feigmanis in Latvian Jewish Intelligentsia – Victims of the Holocaust, among the Jews killed in the shul massacres were the renowned Chazzan Mintz and his whole family, and Rav Yisroel Moshe Kilov, son-in-law of Rav Menachem Mendel Zak, the Chief Rabbi of Latvia. The sifrei Torah were dragged out of the shuls and burned before the buildings were torched. According to Press, Jews fought their way through the flames to save the scrolls but were all killed.
Racist and dehumanizing German propaganda justifying the annihilation of Jews was unleashed in the very first days of the occupation, organized by a special propaganda unit from Germany. This material included posters, exhibitions and articles in newspapers vilifying the Jews as pro-Communist traitors guilty of atrocities and murders during the one-year of Soviet rule in 1940–41.
In addition, Jews were forced to exhume Latvian victims from mass graves and to then pose behind the decayed corpses, while being photographed as the murderers. These and other ruses were used to incite public rage against the Jews.
Jews were publicly ostracized, humiliated and targeted with discrimination. They were ordered to wear the Star of David—one in front and one in the middle of the back—and to clear rubble, clean toilets and perform all sorts of degrading work. They were forbidden to walk on sidewalks, frequent public places, use public transport, shop and take part in any aspect of civil life.
On October 25, 1941, roughly 29,000 Jews were forced to live in a sealed ghetto in the “Moscow” district, where a sizeable Jewish community was already established. Those able to work, about 4,000 people, were sent to a segregated section within the ghetto.
Days of Doom
The first mass murders of Latvian Jews started in July and continued until September. In the days leading up to the massacre, the local Jews had been separated according to age and gender, with able-bodied men screened out and ordered to pack their belongings, each entitled to 20 kilograms. The carrying of luggage was part of the sham to create the impression among the victims that they were being resettled.
Before dawn on November 30, the terror began.
Survivors recall drunken German and Latvian thugs bursting through their doors in the wee hours of the morning with wild shouts, shoving residents outside, hurling children out of windows, driving columns of people through holes cut in fences, and herding them by the hundreds on foot through frigid temperatures to the forest site.
The killers kept up the terror by beating the Jews with their rifle butts to force them to run faster. Dozens were shot after stumbling and falling down.
In her memoir “I survived Rumbuli,” Frieda Michelson describes the horrific scenes: “Corpses were scattered all over, rivulets of blood still oozing from the lifeless bodies. They were mostly elderly people, pregnant women, children, handicapped – all those who could not keep up with the inhuman tempo of the march.”
12,000 people–one thousand to a column—were marched from the ghetto to the Rumbula forest, on the outskirts of Riga, forced into three giant pits and gunned down with rifles and submachine guns. A week later, the remaining 11,000 inhabitants suffered the same fate at Rumbula.
“The first column was led by the lawyer, Dr. Elyachow,” recalls survivor Max Kaufmann. “The expression on his face showed no disquiet whatsoever; on the contrary, because everyone was looking at him, he made an effort to smile hopefully.” Next to Dr. Elyachow was the distinguished Rav Menachem Mendel Zak. Other well-known citizens of Riga lined up behind them.
Kaufmann continues his account, naming the Latvian guards herding the Jews along. Among them were “Altmeyer, Jager, and Herberts Cukurs, a world-famous aviation expert who had joined the Latvian SD. This murderer got out of a car wearing a leather pistol at his side. He approached the Latvian guards to give them various instructions regarding the people being driven along. He had obviously been informed in detail about the atrocity that awaited us.”
The genocide was carried out under the direct supervision of Higher SS and Police Chief Friedrich Jeckeln, who had previously organized and overseen mass murders of Jews in the Ukraine, including Babi Yar and the Kamienets-Podolsky massacres. This monster had perfected a vicious method of murder called “sardine packing” (sardinenpackung) as a means of avoiding the extra work associated with having to push dead bodies into the grave. The barbarity of the “Jeckeln method” was later noted in the verdict against the Einsatzgruppen commanders at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal.
Under Jeckeln’s orders, more than 25,000 Jews were herded on foot for about six miles to Rumbula Foresta nd murdered there in two operations— on November 30 and December 8, 1941.
Latvians performed guard duties; Jeckeln’s SS men shot the victims. Each person was shot once, in the back of the head, and often as the day wore on and the light grew worse, the executioner would miss, meaning that victims often survived.
The perpetrators of this atrocity simply buried them alive, and many people died due to being crushed by the sheer weight of soil and corpses above them. Once this was done, the Germans stationed Latvian guards around the area, to gun down anyone who managed to dig their way out of the pit.
Among the victims of the massacres were the illustrious rabbonim, Rav Menachem Mendel Zak, Chief Rabbi of Riga and head of the Riga Yeshiva, and Rav Dovid Budnik, founder and rosh yeshiva of a network of Novaradok yeshivos in Dvinsk and nearby Latvian cities. These noble leaders went to their death with their wives, children and grandchildren as well as scores of students and followers.
Frieda Michelson, who was driven along with the crowds of terrified Jews on this fateful night, writes: “As we came near the forest, we heard shooting again. This was the horrible portent of our future… Nobody had a doubt as to what awaited us. We were all numb with terror and followed orders mechanically. Surrounded by armed murderers, we were incapable of thinking clearly… Some people wept, others prayed and recited Shema. Handicapped and elderly people were helped into the pit by other sturdier victims.”
Taking advantage of the chaos and deafening shouts of the German and Latvian soldiers, Michelson instinctively threw herself face down in a pit, feigning death. Of the 12,000 people driven to the Rumbula execution site that day, only she and two others survived. Another Aktion the next morning added 500 more victims to the mass graves. Close to thousand people who either resisted, walked too slow or made too much noise weeping or shouting, were shot down during the roundups.
Just one week later, on December 8, 1941, a third Aktion began, and this time, the terrified Riga ghetto occupants knew the terrible fate awaiting them.
‘The Earth Still Heaved’
Max Kaufmann, a ghetto survivor, reported that “the earth still heaved for a long time because of the many half-dead people.”
In his historical work, “The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944,” Prof. Andrew Ezergailis, a Latvian-American, wrote that “the pit itself was still alive; bleeding and writhing bodies were regaining consciousness. … Moans and whimpers could be heard well into the night. There were people who had been only slightly wounded, or not hit at all; they crawled out of the pit. Hundreds must have smothered under the weight of human flesh. Sentries were posted at the pits and a unit of Latvian Schutzmannschaften (guard units) was sent out to patrol the area. The orders were to liquidate all survivors on the spot.”
Of the 12,000 people forced out of the ghetto to Rumbula that day, three known survivors–Frieda Michelson, Elle Madale, and Matis Lutrins—later gave accounts that helped convict some of the murderers.
Michelson survived by pretending to be dead as piles of shoes discarded by the victims fell on top of her, half-concealing her from sight. Elle Madale claimed to be a Latvian. Matiss Lutrins, a mechanic, persuaded some Latvian truck drivers to allow him and his wife (whom the Nazis later found and murdered) to hide under a truckload of victims’ clothing that was being hauled back into Riga.
The ‘Butchers of Riga’ Killed
The Rumbula killings, together with other mass murders, formed the basis of the post-World War II Einsatzgruppen trial where a number of Einsatzgruppen commanders were found guilty of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Jeckeln himself described the killing process at Rumbula at his trial before a Soviet war crimes tribunal in early 1946.
Prosecutor: Who did the shooting?
Jeckeln: Ten or twelve German SD soldiers.
Prosecutor: What was the procedure?
Jeckeln: All of the Jews went by foot from the ghetto in Riga to the liquidation site. Near the pits, they had to deposit their overclothes, which were washed, sorted, and shipped back to Germany. Jews – men, women, and children – passed through police cordons on their way to the pits, where they were shot by German soldiers.
Thousands of Latvian collaborators fled east after Germany surrendered, including Victors Arajs, chief of the Latvian killer commandos. Arajs evaded capture for a long time in West Germany, but was finally caught, brought to trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1979.
Eduard Strauch was convicted in the Einsatzgruppen case and sentenced to death, but died in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Herberts Cukurs, known as the Butcher of Riga, escaped to Brazil through the infamous “ratlines,” where he lived openly under his own name. He was murdered in 1965, reportedly by agents of Mossad who lured him to Uruguay on a sham business deal.
Friedrich Jeckeln was publicly hanged in Riga on February 3, 1946.
The Rumbula Massacre In US Court, 38 Years Later
A New York Times article printed on January 10, 1979, describes how “an elderly and ailing Latvian émigré, at a deportation hearing here [in Baltimore] today, confronted a former Latvian policeman whom she accuses of aiding Nazi executioners in 1941 by herding Jews to their deaths before a machine gun.”
“Speaking assertively in German, Frieda Michelson, 72 years old, a former dressmaker in Riga, Latvia, testified that Karlis Detlays, now a retired factory worker here, had struck her and ordered her toward a Nazi execution pit in the Rumbula forest outside Riga on Dec. 8,1941,” the article said.
Detlays was one of 12 accused Nazi collaborators facing deportation actions brought by the Justice Department. Mrs. Michelson, who had a heart ailment, had to retire from the witness chair almost hourly to rest. Having emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel in 1970, she had tried to put the past behind her. But hearing that her testimony might be critical in the deportation case, she agreed to be flown from Haifa to the United States by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in order to testify.
“Government attorneys said outside the hearing room in the United States Courthouse here that 30,000 Jews in the Riga area were believed to have been gunned to death on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, in one of the worst mass murders of World War II,” the Times article noted.
The Justice Department had announced in October 1976 that it was seeking the deportation of Detlays, 67, and other accused Nazi collaborators in Connecticut and New York on the basis of testimony of recent Soviet émigrés.
The article went on to detail Mrs. Michelson’s testimony “at a packed hearing before Immigration Judge Emil Bobek” that if it had not been for Israeli‐West German cooperation in a separate case, the Detlays case would never have come to the Justice Department’s attention. She disclosed to the judge that she had been summoned to a police station in Haifa two years earlier as a prospective witness in Germany against Viktor Arais, a former chief of secret police in Latvia, and was shown photographs that included the face of Karlis Detlays.
“The sight of that man’s face — a face that I will never forget,” she testified today — “was like an electric shock.” After studying it, she confirmed his identity, swearing that Detlays, who settled in Baltimore in 1950, was the same Nazi collaborator who had ordered her to remove her clothes and valuables as she was herded to the Rumbula execution ditch with scores of fellow Jews.
Frieda’s compelling testimony expedited the US Dept. of Justice deportation action against Detlays.