On the 4th of March joint exhibition of the Occupation Museum of Latvia and Museum “Jews in Latvia” - The Latvian Tragedy-1941 was opened at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada.
In 1940-1941, caught between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Latvia was occupied by both powers. 1941 was a tragic year in the history of Latvia as successive tragedies overtook one another. Military occupation and crimes against humanity by two brutal totalitarian states – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – took the lives of around 100 000 Latvian citizens, among them children and the elderly. Both occupation regimes attempted to turn Latvian citizens against each other, conscript them into their armies and involve them in crimes against humanity.
This exhibition shows the fate of real individuals and real families. The authors of this exhibition wish to emphasise that
• the victims of the Soviet and Nazi occupation regimes were Latvian citizens, members of all ethnic groups living in Latvia;
• the Republic of Latvia, restored in 1991, condemns all perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the tragic year 1941, and the years that followed, and respectfully remembers all victims.
The exhibition was prepared by historians Ritvars Jansons, Iļja Ļenskis, Ojārs Stepens, and Marģers Vestermanis.
The Latvian Tragedy – 1941 is presented at the Canadian War Museum by the Embassy of Latvia in Canada.
Speakers at the opening of the exhibition included: Kārlis Eihenbaums, Ambassador of Latvia, Jānis Garisons, State Secretary, Ministry of Defence of Latvia, Caroline Dromaguet, Acting Director General, Canadian War Museum, Iļja Ļenskis, Director, Museum "Jews in Latvia", Jeff Mierins, Latvian Canadian entrepreneur, ColdWarCollection.com, OurRights.today and Robert Austin, Associate Professor, Associate Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.
Address by Ambassador Kārlis Eihenbaums
Ladies and gentlemen!
It is indeed a great pleasure to be here!
I am particularly glad that we achieved to bring you all here in Canada’s national War Museum for this exhibit which is a joint venture of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the Museum “Jews in Latvia”.
This is more than a mere symbolic act - remembering and researching our past more thoroughly is essential for a better future for our countries, and for Europe as a whole.
Thank you to all involved – Latvian and Canadian museums, ministries and, most importantly, people.
Thank you to my fellow Embassy colleagues - it is a pleasure to work with you. Together we can do it, and we can do it well!
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the end of the World War II. Earlier this year, world leaders including President of Latvia Egils Levits and Governor General of Canada Julie Payette joined hundreds of Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz concentration camp.
As a respect to previous and future generations, it is our utmost duty to continue to shed light on our common past, to fight disinformation and stand strong against attempts to rewrite history. We stand strong against distortion of history wherever it appears.
This unique exhibition allows viewers to witness events of 1941 in occupied Latvia – cruel Soviet deportations to Siberia, to GULAG on the 14th of June, while in the same year, the Nazis organised the Holocaust, which tragically affected the country, and has left its mark on our nation for future generations.
Both museums preserve the memory of the victims - my countrymen - of the Soviet terror and Nazi Holocaust. They are constantly identifying and finding people who - notwithstanding the real dangers to their own lives and those of their families - demonstrated courage and heroism by saving Jewish lives.
According to the latest research data by Marģers Vestermanis - a historian, Holocaust survivor, and the founder and curator of the Museum “Jews in Latvia” - the number of rescuers is more than 600. And this number continues to grow as further research is conducted on the subject.
World War II destroyed nations, countries. While the war in Europe ended 75 years ago on the 8th of May, for Latvia, and a number of other European countries, the long-awaited victory brought neither freedom, nor peace. Unfortunately, a large part of Europe went on to experience long years of captivity. Any expression of freedom was brutally suppressed in the Soviet-occupied Latvia: people could be put to death for a word. Only in our thoughts could we be free. Yet, the people held on, and had the courage to restore their independence - 30 years ago.
No matter how busy we are - we must take time and remember the world’s greatest tragedy, commemorating the countless victims of appalling war crimes, particularly the Shoah of the Jewish people.
We bow our heads to all those who perished, who fell or died a tragic death, far away from home and their loved ones. We think of the lost generation, the devastating wars and the rise and domination of ideologies that were pitted against humanity, life, and liberty.
Unfortunately, even in recent times, there are places in the world, and even in Europe, that are not at peace and where many innocent people are dying and are under threat. War crimes continued through the last century and they continue to the present day. We can point to tragic events in many places. We also see that those who triggered and instigated the aggression in Ukraine have not understood their history lessons.
The victims, and all those who suffer, deserve our prayers not only for their departed souls. We must be sure also to praise and honour humanity and do all in our own power to not allow the repetition of the horrors of war. Now and in the future, we must stand together bravely and fight for fundamental human values and rights, democracy and the rule of law. Peace, tolerance, inclusivity, the will to work together and the understanding of the value of diversity, in religion in culture and in traditions - these are concepts which contribute to the strength of the foundations for my country and many others around the world - that can ensure growth and security, irreversibly, for all times to come.
Our two countries, Canada and Latvia, enjoy a very close relationship, built on shared values and transatlantic partnerships. We continue to build on this momentum to engage in more projects of common interest and value to our citizens. We are proud that in partnership with the Canadian War Museum, this exhibition will be presented at the Museum from the 4th to the 22nd of March 2020.
Remarks by Director of the Museum “Jews in Latvia” Mr. Iļja Ļenskis
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For me it’s a great honour to be here with you, unveiling our joint exhibition with the Museum of Occupation of Latvia. Our immense gratitude goes to the hosts – the Canadian War Museum, who found the possibility to include it in their schedule, and to our long-time friend Ambassador Eihenbaums, who worked tirelessly to bring the exhibition here.
Working on this exhibition, the team had the goal that is both simple and complex. We wanted to refute the propaganda myths of both Nazi and Soviet regimes, who presented themselves as liberators, bringing Latvia happiness, development and peace. Unfortunately, you still can encounter people, reiterating these false slogans that brought so much suffering and blood. But we also wanted to show how multi-layered is history of Latvia, that it cannot be interpreted in black-and-white terms, that our contemporary understanding of it is very much based on deep and honest discussions, and that it should be told in a way, that is uniting, rather than indoctrinating.
The exhibition deals with just one year of Latvia’s history – 1941 – that truly can be called the „Year of Horror”. During this year Latvia has experienced the most severe blow from the Soviet regime – the deportations of June 14, that were followed by the Nazi occupation, which brought the Holocaust to the Jewish community, but also targeted thousands Latvian citizens of other ethnic backgrounds.
This year the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz, as well as other Nazi camps. Absolute majority of Latvian Jews never saw the gates of Auschwitz that became a universal symbol. By the late January 1942, when the Nazis have decided to fully implement „the final solution”, most of Latvian Jews were already murdered. More than 200 mass graves that you can find next to almost any Latvian town – that’s the legacy of year 1941 in Latvia, that’s what Holocaust meant for Latvia.
But we have to remember that trains, cattle cars, camp gates, barbed wire fence are nevertheless strongly present in Latvian memory – these are the grim symbols of Soviet terror that claimed thousands of lives in 1941 alone, and was invisibly in the air up to year 1990.
But the goal of the exhibition is not to complain, but to explain.
While during the WWII Latvia’s de-facto statehood was terminated, still we praise those individuals, who found courage and strength to make good choices. We have to remember Latvian diplomats abroad, who have joined the Allies; hundreds of people in Latvia, who tried to help the persecuted Jews; members of resistance groups – both armed and moral.
Since the restoration of independence Latvia has in one way or another worked on coming to terms with its past, with the traumas and wounds Nazis and Soviets have left. Discussing the issues of collaboration, with all the pain it brings, has helped Latvian society to look at itself with different eyes. We do not perceive ourselves as mere objects of historical process – we are the nation, that can deal with its past.
More and more research is being done on both Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes. Holocaust in Latvia has been researched better than in many other European countries. In recent years we see also more and more cultural production dealing with these topics – books, plays, movies. Younger generation was able to break the chains of silence, and to speak honestly about the demons, that have tormented us for so long. Now finally we are free.
Dear friends, I hope this exhibition will shed the light on our history, our experience, and will contribute to deepening of mutual interest and friendship between Latvian and Canadian societies.
Thank you !
Remarks by Professor Robert Austin, Associate Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.
Thank you Ambassador and Greetings to all of you. It is a real pleasure for me to be here for this important opening.
At this very moment, in my survey of Europe 1789 – 1989, we just concluded our section dealing with the catastrophic events of the 1930s. My students are often puzzled by my emphasis on smaller states but as I remind them, very often it is the small states that often shape the future in very unforeseen ways and indeed, in the 1930s, the states of Central Europe, shaped the entire fate of Europe.
It is becoming increasing difficult to connect students in Canada to the idea that really bad things can happen and that bad things often happen slowly. The fate of Latvia, with its triple occupation – Soviet-German-Soviet – tells possibly the darkest chapter of Europe’s history during the twentieth century.
What we see in the 1930s is the worst example of rapacious neighbours preying on an extremely vulnerable region. There are so few heroes. I can think only of the Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki who chose to take his own life rather than watch as his country dismembered neighbours and allied itself with villains.
Central Europe, then and now, is a vulnerable region which goes a long way to help understand why states like Latvia are so heavily invested into all things trans-Atlantic – the European Union and NATO. It offsets vulnerability.
In terms of context and the big picture, we need to avoid what are all too common and often superficial comparisons between our era and the one between the wars. We are not quite there yet but we do need to be vigilant as there are clear dangers to the status quo.
In the 1930s illegal border changes were the order of the day. Austria disappears in March 1938, the Sudetenland in September and Hungary gets territorial revision in November 1938 and after.
The key figure in all this if of course Hitler and to a degree Mussolini. By 1938, for Central Europeans the writing was indeed on the wall and the future looked grim, even hopeless. The fate of Latvia was not yet clear by then.
I found the lack of clarity in a telegram sent by John Wiley, a US Foreign Service Officer who left Vienna in Summer 1938 to assume a post in Riga. His optimism tells us many things:
“Irena and I are looking forward enormously to Riga and Tallinn - and to our departure from Vienna. The transition of Vienna from a world capital to a provincial city has been literally vertiginous and ghastly. We now have some 70,000 visa applications on our waiting list. In consequence, we spend our days telling desperate and harassed people that they will only receive immigration visas for the United States at some future and astronomical date. As a job, it is not very satisfying.”
Wiley could certainly not imagine what awaited in Riga where he resided until Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940.
As everyone here knows, 1939 was not much better with occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and the creation of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and of course, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 which is the apogee of greed and cynicism. Even by the very low standards of 1930s annexation diplomacy, the Pact is uniquely diabolical.
There are no serious alternative interpretations to the essence of the pact. It was an extremely favourable bargain for Stalin. He got territory and, in exchange for feeding the German army, got up-to-date weaponry and lots of German-made tools. He reinserted the USSR into world affairs as a player. This story should sound familiar in today’s context. Germany and the USSR colluded to start the Second World War.
Soviet negotiations with Britain and France fell apart not because of Anglo-French collusion with Germany but because of the unwillingness to grant Stalin a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Hitler paid Stalin’s price.
Keep in mind that Stalin was at root a committed Germanophile – he was likely completely mesmerized by Hitler’s project, even jealous of it. But, as you know, it proved to be a blunder and far earlier than Stalin expected, he lost the ability to treat parts of central Europe as a piggy bank. He would, however, in one of the great ironies of history, get a second chance after 1945.
In the run-up to the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, the documents tell an incredible story of lies and deception from the Soviet side.
In September 1939 Molotov notified Baltic States that if they observed favourable neutrality their independence would be respected.
Later in 1939, Latvia had a bilateral mutual assistance pact with the USSR.
By June 1940, Latvia was invaded and occupied. Everyone knew that the occupation was by design and certainly not the provocation that the Soviets insisted upon. Baltic neutrality was destroyed.
Ethnic cleansing by the Red Army commenced with deportation to camps in the east. Let us also recall that Hitler’s need for Stalin’s backing also ensured that the Baltic Germans were sacrificed on Hitler’s orders. They were sent west.
Let me conclude with some thoughts on how this all matters today.
Annexation is back but thankfully not yet mainstream. I am not just talking about Crimea as we see challenges elsewhere in the plethora of fake states – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic and Transnistria. These cases are essentially the result of unilateral aggression.
Russia’s re-writing of the past is not unusual in its quest for usable history and the desire to discredit neighbours, especially Poland we have seen in recent weeks.
Keep in mind as well that the pact still enjoys wide approval among Russians. Moreover, Russia long ago abandoned any pretence of examining its past in a meaningful way. Everyone in this room knows that pact started 50 years of barbarity and misery.
The exhibit tell us that story among others.
Dear friends, thank you.
The exhibition is one of the events of the Public Diplomacy Programme for the centenary of the Republic of Latvia co-ordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia.