In November 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 27 January, the day when the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated in 1945, as an annual International Day of Commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. Latvia actively supported the resolution five years ago, and also today urges the international community to facilitate its implementation with responsibility and tact.
After 1990, the restored state of Latvia disassociated itself from the legacy of the Soviet totalitarianism. At the same time, our country embarked upon research into the most sensitive issues of its history, which was a prerequisite for strengthening a democratic state, rooted in Europe. Ever since the renewal of independence, Latvia has been paying highest tribute to the Holocaust, to the research and memorialising the tragedy. Latvia commemorates the Holocaust victims on 4 July, the day when the Nazis burnt down the Riga Big Synagogue.
The History Commission of Latvia, established by Guntis Ulmanis has been working since 1998 and has published 25 fundamental research papers about Latvia during the Soviet and Nazi occupation. A major focus of the study was also the holocaust problem in the occupied Latvia. This research does not just remain on the pages of a series of volumes: its conclusions and valuations have been incorporated into the history curriculum of Latvia's schools.
This year sees the 65th anniversary since the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. That was the time when the occupation effected by the USSR had returned to the Republic of Latvia. The Red Army had forced the troops of its former ally, the Nazi Germany, out of the territory of Latvia, and remained there to watch over the crime begun by the Soviets in June 1940.
At the same time, the Red Army banished the Nazi occupation forces from Central and Eastern Europe. The sacrifice brought by the Soviet soldiers should have become an inspiring landmark in the history of entire Europe. However, it soon became clear for the people of the liberated countries that one occupation power in the region had been replaced by another. We have to bear in mind that the Berlin Wall divided not only the nations of Europe but also the troops of the allies which had won World War II. Liberation had different context.
On 27 January 1945, the Soviet army units fighting in Poland entered the Auschwitz concentration camp thus saving more than seven thousand prisoners. Between 1940 and 1945, more than one million Europeans, mostly Jews, were murdered in the extermination camp of Auschwitz.
The Holocaust is a non-precedent event in the world history both due to the number of victims and due to the fact that the power at the disposal of a modern industrial country was used for a premediated and deliberate extermination of one particular nation – the Jews.
Latvia was embroiled in the tragedy due to the World War II which would not have been possible without the pact between Hitler and Stalin. Of all the people killed in the territory of the country during the World War II, 80 000 were former residents of Latvia that lost its independence in 1940 - people whose only "sin" was to be Jewish. In the early days of the war, about 20 000 Jews deported from other European countries perished at the sites of mass murder in Rumbula and Biķernieki.
As generally known, those crimes were perpetrated by the civil and military administration of the occupying power which co-opted individual Latvians to become accomplices to the Nazi regime. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the residents of Latvia were not part of those atrocities is cold comfort vis á vis the fact of the crime and its scope. However, as indicated by the well-known historian Marģers Vestermanis: "The message of the Holocaust in Latvia will be incomplete if we do not remind of those among our compatriots whose conscience could not come to accept the role of a bystander to the Jewish tragedy." The legendary Žanis Lipke is not the only one of those 400 Latvians whom Vestermanis lists as rescuers of Jews in the Nazi-occupied Latvia, and this can be regarded as a substantial number in comparison to other European countries.
The history of any country may include pages which one would be reluctant to open. Nevertheless I am convinced that the ability of talking openly and honestly about history is a litmus test presenting clear evidence of processes in any country. The evaluation of history builds trust among nations and draws them closer. The more a country has suffered during the World War II, the better it can understand also the tragedy of others. Therefore today, paying tribute to those who perished in the tragedy of the Holocaust, it is an appropriate moment to give credit also to the creative powers and energy contributed by many of Latvia's Jewry to the formation of the state of Latvia born in 1918. Also during the years of the Atmoda (The Awakening), representatives of Latvia's Jewish community were among the most active supporters of the re-born Latvian state. It is our duty not to forget these facts when reflecting about the past and this day, and contemplating future.