Latvian Veterans Honor SS Comrades
About 300 veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS walked slowly through Riga on Thursday to honor their fallen comrades in a ceremony bitterly criticized by Russian and Jewish groups.
The former soldiers, most in their 70s and 80s, said they weren’t making a political statement but remembering 50,000 comrades who died in battle.
Many Latvians say the Latvian Waffen SS, also known as the Latvian Legion, was a conscripted, front-line army and wasn’t the same thing as Germany’s SS--Adolf Hitler’s elite force that carried out the Holocaust and other atrocities.
“We are not Nazis. But thousands of our comrades lost their lives fighting,” said 76-year-old Visvaldis Lacis, a key organizer. “Why can’t we remember them?”
The veterans, some in wheelchairs, others carrying canes, gathered at a church to sing and pray before filing across cobblestoned streets and laying wreaths at an independence monument. Many strained to walk the short procession route. One collapsed from an apparent heart attack and was rushed to a hospital, the Baltic News Service reported.
Russia said the march showed contempt for millions of Soviet war dead.
Members of Latvia’s 11,000-member Jewish community also said the march was an affront to the memory of 80,000 Latvian Jews killed during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.
Many Latvians accept veterans’ claims that they were patriots fighting for Latvian independence against Soviet invaders. Some Latvian onlookers clapped as the marchers passed and shouted, “Long live free Latvia!”