Briefing papers of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
BRIEFING PAPER 03
The Holocaust in German-Occupied Latvia
The Holocaust of the Jews and the Roma instigated and carried out by German Nazis upon occupying Latvia in 1941 was a premeditated, deliberate and merciless act of annihilation for purely racial reasons. The murder of Latvian Jews began immediately after the occupation army had entered the territory of Latvia and was completed by the end of 1941. Individual Latvians were co-opted to participate in the killings, which were oftentimes manipulated to look like they were carried out without German participation..
Jewish history in the territory of Latvia dates back to the sixteenth century. It can be viewed in all its variety in the Jewish Museum in Rīga. Among the 2 million inhabitants in independent Latvia, according to the last census of 1935, about 94 000 (5%) were Jews. Jews and other historical minorities in Latvia enjoyed liberal minorities rights. There were neither pogroms nor ghettos. Anti-semitic bias existed in the society, but anti-Semitic ideology and rhetoric was restricted to radical groups, among whom Pērkonkrusts (Thundercross) was the most notorious. The autocratic Kārlis Ulmanis regime, which came to power in 1934, however, banned the organisation and persecuted some of its leading members. Although the Ulmanis regime favoured Latvians in terms of economy and culture, it also carefully maintained minority rights, and in the late 1930s even gave refuge to several thousand Jews from the Reich and issued them Latvian passports. As a result of secret agreements between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Hitler–Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939), Latvia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940; and there was no sovereign Latvian state or local authority at the time of the German invasion in late June and early July 1941; the Nazis never re-instituted Latvian sovereignty during their occupation 1941–1945..
Holocaust Research in Latvia
There was no Holocaust research during Soviet rule in Latvia (1944–91). The victims of the Holocaust were subsumed under the rubric "Nazi murder of peaceful Soviet citizens," usually with unsubstantiated and highly inflated numbers. Research in the West was mainly based on accounts of survivors and court cases against Nazi criminals. Only after regaining independence in 1991, could Latvian historians begin to assess the situation and make use of documentation available locally. Detailed Holocaust research was given a major boost with the establishment of the Historians' Commission of Latvia under the aegis of the President's office in 1998. Its first task was the investigation of crimes against humanity committed during the Soviet and Nazi occupations in the limited time span from 1940 to 1956. A sub-commission was established to deal specifically with the Holocaust. In the years since it began its work, a great amount of basic research has been carried out and consensus has been reached on many aspects previously distorted by both Nazi and Soviet misinformation and propaganda.
The Holocaust in German-Occupied Latvia
Einsatzgruppe A Organises the Holocaust. In the Baltic region, the Holocaust was organised and supervised by a special Operational Unit of the Nazi Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst—SD) commanded by Major General (Brigadeführer) Walter Stahlecker. This unit arrived with the advance troops of the occupying army. From November 1941 on the command was assumed by SS and Police General Friedrich Jeckeln, the Supreme Commander of the SS and Police in Northern Russia and Ostland.
Co-optation of Local Auxiliaries. According to documented sources, the Stahlecker Operational Unit A was directed to initiate spontaneous pogroms by the local population in the occupied Baltic territory. The attempts to do so were not successful. However, individual Latvians were co-opted to become accomplices in furthering the Nazi aims. Several SD auxiliary units were formed. The unit commanded by Viktors Arājs (the "Arājs Commando") existed the longest and gained the greatest notoriety. In 1941 it numbered some 300 men and participated in the Holocaust in Latvian territory; additional men were recruited in 1942 when the unit was involved in punitive actions and Nazi crimes along the eastern border in Russia and Belarus.
Anti-Semitic Propaganda. Racist and dehumanising German propaganda justifying the annihilation of Jews was unleashed already in the first days of the occupation: posters, exhibitions and articles in newspapers. Jews were accused of Communist atrocities and murders during their one-year rule in 1940–41. Victims found in mass graves were used to incite anti-Jewish sentiments. Propaganda was organised by a special propaganda unit from Germany. The Jews were publicly ostracised, humiliated and discriminated against administratively: they were ordered to wear the Star of David, ordered to clear rubble and to exhume the victims of Communist atrocities, forbidden to walk on sidewalks, to frequent public places, to shop, etc.
The First Phase of Annihilation July–August 1941. The first mass murders of Latvian Jews started in July and continued until September. Groups of Jews were ordered shot in Riga, Daugavpils and in many smaller towns. Recent research shows that all these actions were organised by German authorities but usually carried out by Latvian auxiliaries without direct German involvement. In September, the remaining Jews in Riga were herded into a fenced-in ghetto in the city's Moscow Suburb and forcibly kept there under guard.
The Second Phase of Annihilation November–December 1941. From the Riga Ghetto, under the direct supervision of Friedrich Jeckeln, about 25,000 Jews were driven on foot to Rumbula, on the outskirts of Riga, and murdered there in two operations— on 30 November and 8 December 1941. Latvians performed guard duties; Jeckeln's SS men shot the victims. About 3000 Jews from Liepāja were murdered between 15 and 17 December. This was practically the end of the mass annihilation of approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews. In addition, some 25,000 Jews were brought from Germany, Austria and the present-day Czech Republic, of whom around 20,000 were killed.
The Fate of the Remaining Jews. The Riga Ghetto was closed in 1943. Those Jews still alive and able to work were transferred to nearby concentration camps, the largest of which were located in Rīga (Mežaparks/Kaiserwald) and Dundaga. In 1944 most of the remaining Jews were transferred to Germany where some of them survived to the end of the war.
Latvians Saving the Jews. The unprecedented, extensive and swift persecution and murder of Latvia's Jews evoked expressions of empathy. Such reactions, however, were officially condemned. Nevertheless, fellow citizens of Latvia saved more than 400 Jews. Several of them were punished by the Nazi authorities for harbouring Jews.
Misrepresentations of Latvian Role in the Holocaust
There was widespread killing of Jews by the local population without German involvement. There is no record of virulent anti-Semitism before the arrival of Nazi Germans. The Nazi German policy was to make it look like Latvians were spontaneously killing their own Jews; they co-opted and manipulated individual Latvians to do so in their stead. Jewish survivors, not knowing the command mechanism, oftentimes assumed that the Latvian collaborators were acting on their own. Soviet propaganda later found it convenient to continue the impression created by the Nazis as a means of intimidation and suppression. Eventually, accusations of Latvian complicity with the Nazis, most but not all of them unfounded, were used against leading exile Latvian figures.
The Latvian Auxiliary Police Battalions and the Latvian Legion were involved in the Holocaust. The murder of Latvian Jews was basically completed by the end of 1941. The Schutzmannschaften Battalions were formed by the German authorities in late 1941 and 1942. There were two controversial Soviet trials against members of two of the battalions, which resulted in convictions. It is also known that two battalions were involved in guard duties at the Warsaw Ghetto. However, the "Latvian SS Volunteer Legion", as it was officially called despite the fact that most of the soldiers were conscripted, was founded by Hitler's decree of 10 February 1943. It included some of the front-line police battalions and eventually some members of the Arājs Commando, but the Legion's two divisions, manned basically by conscripts, were only involved in military combat actions. Latvian legionnaires taken prisoner in the West were considered illegal conscripts and not members of Hitler's criminal SS.
Sources in Latvian and English
Anders, Edward and Juris Dubrovskis. Jews in Liepāja, Latvia 1941–45: A Memorial Book. Burlingame, CA., 2001.
Ezergailis, Andrew. The Holocaust in Latvia 1941–1945: The Missing Center. Rīga, Washington, DC. 1996.
–––. Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia. Daugavas Vanagi:Who are They? Revisited. Rīga: OMF, 2005.
Ērglis, Dzintars et al., eds. Holokausta izpētes problēmas Latvijā / The Issues of the Holocaust Research in Latvia. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 2. Riga, 2001.[Conference materials mostly in English.]
Nollendorfs, Valters, ed. Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]
Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.
Prepared by: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs.
© Latvijas Okupācijas muzeja biedrība (formerly Occupation Museum Foundation) 2006.
With proper acknowledgment, materials may be reproduced and published without prior permission. Mar-06