Speech by Prof. Paulis Lazda at Luncheon for Guests of Honor, Liepāja, 9.6.2004

 

Honored Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen!

 

I feel profoundly honored and privileged to be able to address this exceptional gathering on this auspicious occasion.

 

Sixty years ago I stood with my parents on a dock in Liepāja to board a ship that would take us away from the advancing Soviet Army and the expected Stalinist occupation with the terror and Siberian exile that many Latvians—including members of my family—had experienced three years earlier. I had spent the summer as a herd boy on a farm, but now understood from the conversations of the adults that I may never again see the land of my fathers. Before climbing the ramp to the ship, I bent down to pick up a few stones as a talisman in my exile. Over the weeks of seemingly endless travel by ship and train interspersed by delousing showers, these small connections to the land of my childhood slipped out of my pockets and were lost. From time to time I felt a pang of pain remembering the loss. But then as the wheel of history turned in 1991, I returned to a free and democratic Latvia. In place of the pebbles that I had taken away, I brought back to Latvia my children, who had grown up in exile, and university students who were anxious to study the land which had been isolated and had fallen into a “memory hole” for half a century. But a larger part of my baggage was the burden of history and with it the responsibility to understand that which had been hidden and twisted for 50 years and to share that understanding with my students, the people of Latvia, and whoever would care to know. With that concept the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was founded.

 

For Latvia, its misery began on June 17, 1940, when the Red Army occupied the country and robbed it of its independence. The existing moral authority was destroyed, giving license to the violent and brutal instincts of some members of society, who participated in the taking the lives of thousands, and destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands. In Vizma Belšēvica’s words: “Long was my life, but my life’s waking short”. It is appropriate to remember that a disproportionate number of Latvia’s Jews were victimized by the first Soviet occupation. More than twice the number in proportion to their part of the population were sent to the Gulag on June 14, 1941—singled out for their class, for their politics, for their religion.

 

Today we are gathered here to remember, to honor, to share the pain, to regret and, above all, to share a national sorrow: the grief inflicted by the Nazi occupation of Latvia from 1941 to 1945. Already in 1927, Hitler had announced his intention to expand the frontiers of Germany to Russia and its “vassal states,” Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. He had also made clear his hatred of Jews. In June 1941, the armies of the Wehrmacht came not as liberators but as conquerors and members of the master race intent on carrying out ethnic cleansing and transforming the Latvian lands into part of Ostland. Most Latvians were likely to fail the racial test (some 5,000 young men and women were recruited to work for the Reich (the Reichsarbeitsdienst) and be tested for racial acceptance, but most were destined (according to Generalplan Ost) to be deported to Russia and condemned to extinction as a nation. More than 5,000 Latvians who opposed the Nazis were sent to Stutthof and Neuengamme concentration camps, where many perished.

 

The rapid extension of the Holocaust to Latvia in the summer of 1941 brought mass slaughter not yet witnessed in history. The killings soaked the soil with the blood of more than 70,000 Latvia’s Jewish citizens.

 

Liepāja and its Jewish inhabitants were the first targets of the Wehrmacht, which was followed by the German Nazi commanders of the SD, the Einsatzgruppen, and the zealous killers of the Arājs Commando.

 

The killing ground at Šķēde has become a metaphor for the worst horrors of the Holocaust. Ironically, among the victims were several hundred Jews from the Soviet Union, Germany, Austria and Poland who had found refuge in Latvia. 

 

The Holocaust is a part of the history of Latvia, as the victims were Latvian citizens, their blood was spilled on Latvia’s soil, and many of their executioners were Latvians. Their memory must not be lost either through sins of omission or through the worse sins of commission—the distortion, denial or mocking of their suffering. Nor can we permit their martyrdom to be diminished by the great ocean of pain and horrors of humanity toward humanity in our times.  We cannot permit the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Nazis in Europe or the 70,000 victims in Latvia or the 7,000 in Liepāja to become impersonal, cold statistics. The Jewish American philosopher Hannah Arendt has written that, contrary to our expectations and fears, the totalitarians (Soviets or the Nazis) never succeeded in instilling the system of beliefs of their ideology in their subject populations, but they were successful in destroying the capacity to believe. The residue of anti-Semitism is, to my mind, evidence of this disbelief, or emptiness, where any easy, simple slogan can find a home (and it is of course easier to hate than to love).

 

But there must be understanding and a shared sorrow, a shared grief by all Latvians for the cold, merciless, mechanical, total destruction of a part of our nation. To ignore, to neglect, and to disparage the victims of this monstrous crime diminishes us all. For this to happen (for every inhabitant of Latvia to share the grief) this Holocaust Memorial dedication today in Liepāja should be only a beginning of our efforts to breach each heart in Latvia to the pain and evil that walked our land in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 , and continued to cast its shadow until 1991.

 

To achieve this, there must be an effort to make clear and evident the crime. In Poland, for example, there is hardly a street in a town or village where one does not find a memorial plaque explaining an execution, a massacre that happened on that spot during Nazi rule. There, no one can remain oblivious to the past. I propose that in Latvia there should be a comparable, but even more complete, reminder of the victims of the Holocaust: an appropriate memorial plate at every dwelling, every apartment house from which a Jew or a Jewish family was taken to their imprisonment and death. The effort should involve young people, encouraged and organized by schools, clubs, boy scouts, church groups, and student organizations.

 

A worthy precedent for such an effort is a project started in 1999 by young Czechs in Moravia. Several dozen young men and women have worked during their summer vacations, restoring and cleaning old Jewish cemeteries and an abandoned German graveyard in the town of Jirice and its environs. The project has expanded to include volunteers from seven countries working on the project. It has become an opportunity of commitment, redemption and engagement with history.

 

In Latvia, it could be another effort toward the spiritual integration of our society as well as another step in drawing Latvia closer to Europe. This commemorative project should have a parallel project to identify the sites of the victims of Soviet terror. Every homestead, every dwelling must bear a remainder, a plaque that tells the fate of the more than a hundred thousand that were murdered or sent to the Gulag.

 

Because of the efforts of Professor Edward Anders the victims of the Holocaust in Liepāja are no longer nameless statistics.

 

Now, through the efforts of all the people of Latvia the memory of the 7,000 Liepāja Jews and the 70,000 Holocaust victims of Latvia must reach the hearts of those who were robbed by the Nazis and the Soviets of the capacity to believe and to feel the grief of our common loss.

 

Paulis Lazda is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He is the founder of the Occupation Museum of Latvia in Riga.