Old Ethnic Rifts Run Deep in Latvia
Shards of glass lay scattered on the cobblestone street. The synagogue’s heavy oak door and stained-glass windows, destroyed by a bomb, were sealed with wood and plastic against the cold. And as police guarded the building this weekend, four dozen Jews met inside to pray and discuss why, once again, they had become the target of hatred in Latvia.
“This was clearly an anti-Semitic act,” said Lubavitch Rabbi Mordechai Glazman. “We will not be intimidated. We will go forward with even more strength and determination in rebuilding Jewish life here.”
The bombing early Thursday of the only surviving synagogue here in the Latvian capital and a parade through the city last month by 500 Nazi World War II veterans have revealed how deeply this small Baltic nation remains divided by historical ethnic rivalries.
The participation of top government officials in the Waffen SS veterans’ march--along with rough police treatment of Russian protesters in a separate incident last month--has brought a deluge of international criticism and threatened to isolate Latvia as it seeks closer economic and military ties with the West.
President Guntis Ulmanis, who at first was slow to condemn the Nazi commemoration, took steps Friday to fire the commander of Latvia’s army for marching in full uniform with the Latvian Legion veterans. The president also announced the dismissal of the country’s police chief for failing to prevent the synagogue bombing.
“The government’s action was clear and decisive,” Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs said Saturday. “We should continue to prevent any kind of political extremism.”
Latvian officials and Jewish community leaders say the recent events do not reflect a resurgence of Nazism in Latvia but instead illustrate how slowly the wounds from half a century of Soviet and Nazi occupation are healing.
“What you are seeing is the remains of the past 60 years,” said Rabbi Natans Barkans, who was asleep in the synagogue when the bomb exploded.
The Soviet Union invaded Latvia in 1940 and deported thousands of civic leaders and intellectuals to Siberia. When the Germans seized the country in 1941, many Latvians welcomed them and joined the Nazi ranks. With the help of Latvian collaborators, the Nazis exterminated more than 66,000 of Latvia’s 70,000 Jews.
In the closing years of the war, Germany formed the Latvian Legion under the Waffen SS to fight the attacking Soviet army. Some of the legion’s 140,000 men saw it as a patriotic mission, while others were drafted at gunpoint and forced to fight.
The Latvian Legion incorporated into its ranks hundreds of Latvians responsible for war crimes against Jews. Among them was one of the most brutal Latvian Nazis, Viktors Arajs, who headed the feared Arajs Kommando unit before becoming a major in the legion.
The legion’s two divisions lost 60,000 men but helped Germany prolong the war by defeating the Soviet army in several battles. When the Communists regained control of Latvia in 1944, they sent captured legionnaires to prison camps in Siberia. Today, about 8,000 legion veterans--all at least 70--live in Latvia, where they are regarded by many as patriots and heroes.
“We should feel great support for these people, who suffered from not only the war but also exile to Siberia,” said Peteris Petersons, a playwright and Riga city councilman.
When the veterans paraded in mid-March through Riga’s old city to mark the 55th anniversary of the legion’s founding, they were joined by army commander Juris Dalbinsh, as well as by the head of the navy, the conductor of the military orchestra and five nationalist members of Parliament. The army chief was among those who carried white carnations to place at a monument in honor of the legionnaires.
On Friday, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had harshly criticized the officials’ participation in the parade, welcomed the president’s decision to fire Dalbinsh. The dismissal will become final once it is ratified by Parliament.
“It is a very wise and courageous step on the part of the government,” said Efraim Zuroff, head of the center’s Jerusalem office. “It is the right lesson to send the Latvian public that it would be irresponsible to allow a person to hold a position of such power if he identified in any way with individuals who supported the Third Reich’s efforts in World War II.”
During the Nazi occupation of Riga, the synagogue in the old city was the only one of more than 60 to survive; the close proximity of other buildings in the historic town center made the synagogue difficult to destroy, so the Nazis used it as a stable.
In Soviet times, the Jewish population gradually grew as Jews moved here from elsewhere in the Soviet Union--in part because Latvia had a reputation for being less anti-Semitic than other regions of the Communist state. Today, about 15,000 Jews live in Latvia, many of them in Riga, but only a handful regularly attend services at the synagogue.
Rabbi Barkans was sleeping in his quarters on the second floor when the bomb exploded at 1:20 a.m. Thursday, blowing out the window in his room but not injuring him.
The bomb, made with about half a pound of plastic explosives, apparently was thrown over a locked gate and landed near a main door of the synagogue. In all, 36 windows were destroyed or damaged, nearly all of them stained glass and dating from the synagogue’s construction in 1906. The 200-pound oak door was blown inward. Damage from the blast has been estimated at $60,000.
Two days after the explosion, officials said, a monument to victims of the Holocaust was defaced in the port town of Liepaja by vandals who poured black paint on it.
The synagogue bombing was the third attack on the building in recent years. It was bombed in May 1995, resulting in $30,000 damage. Then, in December, someone painted three swastikas on the outside.
After the second incident, officials ordered the installation of surveillance equipment, but the order was never carried out--an omission that contributed to the firing of Police Chief Aldis Lieljuksis on Friday.
Barkans praised the government’s quick response. Within hours, the president had called him personally. The prime minister and other officials visited the site, as did the U.S. ambassador. The government immediately sent workers to clean up the mess and seal off the door and windows.
On Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the Baltics, Oded Ben-Hur, joined in discussing the bombing with members of the synagogue, who said they will respond to the attack by becoming more active and visible in the larger community.
“There are people who will say the bombing was state anti-Semitism,” Barkans said. “But it’s not so. It was anti-Semitic provocation, of course, but who was behind it?”
No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, and no suspects have been identified. The U.S. government said it was sending FBI agents to help in the investigation.
While some observers suspect right-wing nationalists inspired by the Latvian Legion march, others hint darkly that Russian secret services might have plotted the bombing in order to damage Latvia’s international reputation as it seeks to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
In recent weeks, Russia has been highly critical of Latvia, and it threatened to impose economic sanctions after a March 3 protest by ethnic Russian pensioners in which police allegedly used excessive force to clear the streets.
Since Latvia attained its independence in 1991, relations between ethnic Russians and Latvians have been strained because of the government’s effort to reinstitute the Latvian culture and language.
Latvian law denies citizenship to those who moved to the country during Soviet times unless they can pass a Latvian language test. The ability to speak Latvian is required for many jobs, and the government is considering toughening the language requirement. One-third of the country’s population of 2.5 million--most of them Russians--remain noncitizens who face discrimination in employment and difficulty in obtaining documents to travel outside the country.
Resentment over the perception that Russians receive unfair treatment has been exacerbated by the actions of Latvian prosecutors in pursuing political cases from the past.
In recent weeks, the government has arrested two Soviet-era officials for genocide against the Latvian people and has brought genocide charges against a third, a former KGB officer. But so far, prosecutors have taken no steps to obtain the extradition of a documented Nazi war criminal, Konrads Kalejs, who was deported from the United States in 1994 for lying about his wartime past.
Kalejs, 84, who now lives in Australia, is accused of committing atrocities as a company commander in the Arajs Kommando unit; he later served in the Latvian Legion. In December, he was caught at Los Angeles International Airport apparently trying to sneak back into the United States and was returned to Australia.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has pushed Latvia to prosecute Kalejs as a way of acknowledging that thousands of Latvians took part in the Holocaust.
Responding in part to the pressure, President Ulmanis went in February to Israel, where he apologized for the participation of Latvians in killing Jews and praised those Latvians who helped save Jews from death.
For many Latvians who grew up ignorant of their countrymen’s role in the Holocaust and thought of the Latvian Legionnaires as heroes, this new view of history has proved unsettling.
“Latvians see themselves as victims,” explained Nils Muiznieks, a Latvian American from Claremont, Calif., who heads the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga. “Faced with the complicity of some Latvians in victimizing others, it’s hard to make the psychological shift and say, ‘I’m to blame too.’ ”