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Latvia under German occupation 1941-1944

Latvia under German occupation 1941-1944

Lecture at the book presentation "Lettland unter deutscher Besatzung 1941-1944. Der lettische Anteil am Holocaust" - "Latvia under German occupation 1941-1944. The Latvian part in the Holocaust". (The book is in German.)
Given by Dr. Katrin Reichelt on 15.11.2011 at the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin

The issue of collective and individual guilt, direct or indirect participation in a human rights crime, or even just complicity, has increasingly preoccupied Holocaust research in recent decades. It has become clear that the boundaries between guilt, non-involvement, and resistance cannot always be clearly defined. The various attempts to comprehend this problematic complex with the concept of collaboration soon reached their limits. It became apparent that the involvement of individuals, groups of individuals, or entire peoples in the crimes against the Jewish population not only continues to require elaborate empirical research, but also methodological approaches that go far beyond the traditional tools of the historian. The analysis of human behaviour patterns - in general, and in extreme situations - led into areas of psychology; a factual approach to questions of guilt demanded a legal approach. Each case presented itself differently, each group involved experienced and observed the events from its own perspective and prioritisation. The long years of memory overlays did the rest. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, the difficult issues of the Holocaust were suppressed and made taboo for decades. National histories were distorted, and new crimes committed by the Stalinist regime reshaped the memory of the German occupation and the persecution of Jews and other population groups. The case of Latvia is no exception. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independence of the Baltic States, and the opening of the archives, these repressed questions of injustice suffered and inflicted were unleashed, as it were, as a wave of mutual recriminations and misguided discourses. Both sides, Latvian historians as well as Jewish survivors, found it difficult to place their own experiences of suffering and the attribution of guilt in perspective, or to place the events of the Soviet and German occupations in an adequate context with each other and with Latvian national history. Particularly over the course of the last decade, some Latvian historians have increasingly attempted to find emotionally restrained explanations of the terrible events and have backed this up with convincing empirical details. However, there is currently an equally observable tendency in Latvian historiography to turn towards a portrayal of Latvia's exclusive victim role as an object of Nazi occupation policy. In this, even a return to the so-called preventive war thesis is not refrained from. Compared to the initial accounts, the memoirs of Jewish survivors have become far more differentiated and detailed and form an important part of historical research. Likewise, Jewish historians also made far more reference to the specifics of Latvian history and enriched it with their own perspective.

The question of guilt was not the subject of my book. I also resisted applying the concept of collaboration to this problem. This concept is too causally and one-sidedly linked to models of occupation and negates the facets of human behaviour in extreme situations. In my study, I have tried to get to the bottom of the details of the crime in more detail. Of course, it was not possible to individually follow up and analyse every case of a Latvian who came into contact with the persecution of the Jews. However, within a reasonable length of text, I have tried to present the crime committed against the Jews in its individual steps and measures, such as exclusion, terrorisation, disenfranchisement, expropriation, exploitation of labour, murder, as well as in its respective context of Latvian involvement. And I have tried to divide Latvian potential perpetrators into groups and create collective portraits. I have embedded all this in the context of the country's history, using a variety of methodological approaches. In Christopher Browning's study, I found a basic model of perpetrator grouping and the dynamics of criminal collective action, which I was able to apply to the context of Latvian participation in the murder of the Jews in particular. The result is an overall picture that still leaves many questions unanswered, but provides answers and details on important aspects concerning the Latvian role in the persecution of the Jews: How did the bulk of the overall population behave in the face of the crime against the Jews in general, what determined the actions of most of Latvia's inhabitants, and how much were the local perpetrators emphasised?

In the following, I would like to give some basic data on the persecution of Jews in Latvia from the perspective of the victims, as well as from the Latvian perspective, and then present several examples of Latvian reactions to the persecution of Jews. In doing so, I would like to outline the possible spectrum of Latvian reactions to Nazi Jewish policy based on several examples: 1. active perpetration and complicity, using the example of the firing squad under Viktors Arajs, 2. abstention and conditional passive involvement or indifference towards the fate of the Jews, using the example of the expropriation of the victims, and 3. refusal, resistance, or solidarity with the persecuted Jews. As a conclusion of all these complexes, it should be clarified to what extent these case studies represent a cross-section of Latvian society or how representative they can be to serve as a statement for the entire population.

When the German Wehrmacht moved towards Latvia, beginning with the first day of "Operation Barbarossa" in 1941, the fate of the Jews there had long since been decided at the highest leadership level. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA (SS Reich Main Security Office), had ordered in a verbal directive of 17th June 1941 that, among other things, "Jews in party and state positions" were to be liquidated. These orders had already been preceded in March 1941 by an expansion of the wartime judicial powers of the Security Police as well as an expansion of the target groups in the conduct of this war of extermination. Accordingly, the four Einsatzgruppen, mobile murder squads of the RSHA, had almost unrestricted power of disposal and action and immediately began mass murders of the Jewish civilian population in the Baltic States behind the advancing Wehrmacht. The reason for the planned all-encompassing extermination of Latvian Jewry, however, did not lie solely in the generally aggressive character of the extermination campaign. In the long run, it was planned to use the territories of the Baltic states for a Germanisation of the Eastern territories of Europe and to expel so-called "racially undesirable elements". The role of native populations as stooges in this murderous enterprise had also been firmly calculated in advance. On 29th June 1941, Heydrich had instructed the Einsatzgruppen (murder squad) chiefs that "no obstacle" was to be placed in the way of "the self-purification efforts of anti-Communist or anti-Jewish circles in the areas to be newly occupied. "On the contrary, they are to be triggered, albeit without a trace, intensified if necessary, and directed in the right directions, without these local 'self-protection circles' being able to refer later to orders or to political assurances given." It is clear from both documents that the role of both sections of Latvia's population, Jews and Latvians, was clearly delineated - extermination for some, stooge services by others. The Nazi occupiers were well aware of the ground they were treading on and the extent to which they could exploit Latvia's situation and the mood of the population to implement these plans and manipulate large sections of the population. After a year of Soviet rule, which many Latvians had experienced mostly as terror, this was a traumatized society whose social collective behaviour had suffered serious and long-term damage. For many Latvians, the presence of German forces meant a restoration of some kind of order - and to many, any order seemed a better alternative to the Soviet occupation. The reaction of many Latvians, who welcomed the German Wehrmacht soldiers as liberators, had been an easily calculated and predictable component of the occupation of the country for the occupying forces. This was well known in the highest circles of the Nazi leadership. A second step was to blame the crimes of Stalin's regime, which were immediately exposed, on the Jewish population. In this manipulative propagandist move, the German occupiers were able to build on pre-existing patterns of Latvian antisemitism and the immediacy of having experienced the Soviet reign of terror. Large segments of Latvia's population, especially its young, had been brutalised and criminalised by a year's experience of terror, and so in many places the mere presence of German troops was enough to escalate the enemy image of Jewish Bolshevism into sheer violence. The Jews of Latvia experienced the first steps of the persecution process in the excessive wave of violence of the summer and early autumn of 1941. The murders of Einsatzgruppe A, which under the leadership of SS Brigadeführer (SS Brigadier) Dr Walter Stahlecker cost the lives of a total of 124,000 Jews in the Baltic States by 15th October 1941, represented only one aspect of the outbreak of violence. Latvian so-called volunteers, activists, and vigilantes, who had taken advantage of the arbitrary nature of the situation to arm themselves, proceeded with massive violence against Jews and alleged Communists. In these bloody outrages, as well as the EG A shootings, 35,238 Jews were killed in occupied Latvia by 1st February 1942. At the time of the invasion by the German troops, about 70,000 of the previously 93,000 Latvian Jews were still in the country; many Jews had become victims of Soviet terror or had managed to flee. The remaining Jews were now literally trapped and, as survivor Bernhard Press described, found themselves surrounded by a sea of hatred that was unleashed during these weeks of indiscriminate hounding and lynching. Dr Rudolf Lange, chief of EK 2 (murder squad 2) of EG A noted in a report, "The goal that EK 2 had in mind from the beginning was radically solving the Jewish problem by executing the Jews." His Einsatzkommando (murder squad), as well as EK 1b, operated in this manner in the rear of the Wehrmacht. The target of these first mass shootings were mostly Jewish men, but in some places entire families were victims of the massacres. The Latvian Selbstschutz (vigilantes) operated in parallel and partly in cooperation with the Einsatzgruppe (murder squad); people were forced to the outskirts of the villages, in many cases had to dig their own graves and were then shot. In view of this hopeless situation, similar to a hunt, the Jews were left with only speculative and limited attempts at rescue. The self-initiative of many Latvians in these mass murders has often been interpreted as detached from German orders and the presence of German troops in a power vacuum or interregnum. There demonstrably was no such interregnum. The country was occupied across the board and in a very short period. Even if, in many cases, the action of Latvians against the Jews did not require German orders, it cannot be explained without the initiating effect of the presence of the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppe. There were also cases in which Latvian high-handed action against the Jewish population went too far for the German security police and disrupted the properly planned course of persecution. There was also absolutely no provision for the uncontrolled arming of the Latvians.

After the complete occupation of the larger cities, first Daugavpils, then Riga and Liepaja, Einsatzgruppe A immediately endeavoured, first, to establish binding and longer-term rules for the so-called Jewish Question and, second, to coordinate and control Latvian willingness to help in the desired occupation policy. For the Jews, this meant a flood of prohibitions and rules which, as it were, nullified their rights as citizens, restricted their living space through the order to ghettoise, imposed duties to surrender their property, and undertake forced labour. All these measures of persecution were at first improvised in character, but quickly became institutionalised. The first regulations concerning the marking of Jews depended on the discretion of the respective Wehrmacht local commandant and were accordingly inconsistent. Harassment was also dictated by the will of the respective local commander. For example, the commander of the city of Riga forbade the Jews there to stand in line in front of shops. It is evident that the first proposals for concentrating the Jewish population in closed residential districts came from the Wehrmacht Economic Command for the area of the former Latvia as early as 21st July 1941. The creation of ghettos was seen in close connection with the use of Jews for forced labour, especially in view of the need to secure supplies for the army in the further course of the Eastern campaign. On 1st September 1941, the military administration transferred its powers to the civil administration (the Reichskommissariat Ostland, or General Commissariat for Latvia), which took further steps in the most important economic questions of the persecution of the Jews, forced labour, ghettoisation, and expropriation. However, the relevant decrees were formulated as early as the beginning of August 1941 and concerned the compulsory registration of Jews, prohibitions on using public transport, occupational bans on Jews in the medical, legal, and financial fields, registration and surrender of their assets, and the definition of Jews in the racial sense. In contrast to these measures, the security police reserved for themselves the task of terrorising, arresting, and murdering Jews. Although the first wave of savage riots had passed, there was no real interruption in the mass murder of Jews. In the second wave of terror before the ghettoisation of the Jewish population, the German security police succeeded in restructuring the initially wild and "motley bunch" of Latvian volunteers into a functioning Latvian auxiliary police force with clearly delineated and defined areas of responsibility. This uniformed police force could be deployed on a longer-term basis and operated within the disciplinary structures desired by the German occupiers. Dr Stahlecker, the head of EG A himself, was able to line up as desired, in the first hours of his stay in Riga from the beginning of July 1941, the radical-minded Latvians who continued to be needed and who were deployed to the most extreme auxiliary activities, the murders themselves. He decided to accept the offer of the radical "volunteer" Viktors Arajs, who, with his approximately 200 armed men, offered him his cooperation in the murder of Jews and Communists, and thus gained a compliant extremely antisemitic accomplice who acted on his own initiative, but who never exceeded the scope of authority granted to him by the German security police, even when murdering. Under the leadership of the commander of the Security Police (SD) Latvia, Dr Lange, murders of Jews were continued. Not only was the cooperation between the German and Latvian police far more orderly and systematic, but the murders themselves were carried out according to a fixed pattern. The Jewish victims, mostly young men, were arrested during systematic apartment searches or simply on the street. Often Jews who had been deported for forced labour were taken to the Riga Central Prison immediately afterwards. From there they were shot in regular nightly operations in the Bikernieki forest, on the outskirts of Riga. Those arrested, the guards at the central prison, and those carrying out the murders were in many cases Latvians, so-called volunteers, then auxiliary police officers and members of the Arajs squad. In the other towns of occupied Latvia, deported Jews were detained for a few weeks by the local police forces in available public buildings, schools, barns or even at the police station, and from there they were made to do forced labour, mostly in agriculture. Between July and September 1941, regular shootings took place, and even outside Riga the perpetrators of the acts were local policemen or members of the Arajs squad. It is estimated that in the killings of this second wave of violence against Jews, which took place until the ghettos were established, about 26,000 people died: 22,000 Jews, 2,000 Communists, 2,000 Sinti and Roma and mentally ill people. When the first measures of ghettoisation were initiated, about 40,000 Jews were still alive in the General District of Latvia, out of 93,000. The creation of the ghettos in Latvia was to be based on the Polish model, but local differences required appropriate deviations. The 3 ghettos established in the General District of Latvia in Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepaja each wrote their own ghetto history and had different times of creation, heterogeneous functions, population structure, size, and chances of survival. The Riga Jews, who initially survived the terror of both waves of murder, were ordered to relocate to a ghetto and create a Judenrat (Jewish council) in accordance with the directives of 18th August 1941. After the lengthy resettlement process, which the Jews had to complete without the right to use public transportation, the ghetto was officially closed at 6 p.m. on 25th October 1941. The Riga Judenrat enjoyed a reputation for acting in the best interests of the ghetto inmates and competently, although the entire social internal ghetto system was a tremendous act of improvisation. The external guard was composed of Latvian auxiliary police, initially 144 men in all. The ghetto commander was SS-Obersturmführer (SS Lieutenant) and Chief of the Jewish Department of EK 2, Kurt Krause. A total of 29,602 Jews were registered as ghetto residents; approximately 21,000 women and children and 8,200 men. The food supply of the ghetto inhabitants, the narrowness of the living space (4 square meters per person), the hygienic conditions, the forced labour and the terror by the guards were similar to the situation in other ghettos. The Riga ghetto, however, was given this form and structure for only about two months: in two large-scale murder campaigns on 29th/30th November and 8th/9th December 1941, the majority of the ghetto inhabitants were murdered. Only about 4,500 people, mostly young men, and some able-bodied women, escaped the previous selections. In the other cities and towns of Latvia, most of the Jews had also been murdered by late autumn 1941. Thus the Jewish community of Latvia was de facto extinguished. The Riga ghetto was one of the deportation sites for some 20,000 Reich German, Austrian and Czech Jews. These Jews populated the now empty Riga Ghetto and determined its character until its dissolution in the autumn of 1943. A new Judenrat (Jewish council) was created, streets were renamed, and social life in the ghetto followed new rules. On 21st June 1943, RFSS (Head of the SS) Heinrich Himmler ordered all Jews in Latvia to be transferred to concentration camps "not less than 1,000 strong." The dissolution of the ghetto and the redistribution of the Jews, almost all of whom were in forced labour, to KL (Concentration Camp) Kaiserwald and its subcamps continued until late autumn 1943. When, with the situation at the front reversed, the Red Army inexorably returned to Riga, the Jews who had remained alive until then were evacuated to the west in cruel lightning actions, for the most part by ship under inhuman conditions; about 14,350 Jews ended up in KL (Concentration Camp) Stutthof. The routes on German and Polish territory led further westwards on "death marches", to which a large part of the Jews fell victim in the last weeks of the war during the hard winter of 1944/45. In summary, it must be stated that an estimated 1.25% of Latvian Jews (less than 1,000 people) survived Nazi persecution, and of the approximately 20,000 Jews deported to Riga, only slightly more than 1,100 people survived these measures. All this took place before the eyes of the Latvian population and with the participation of groups of locals who actively or passively supported the anti-Jewish persecution policy.

In the following, an active and self-initiated supporting group will be presented in more detail, whose actions against the Jewish population corresponded with the interests to such an extent that one can speak not only of support, but of the implementation of similar antisemitic and criminal self-interests: the Squad (squad) under Viktors Arajs. In terms of structure, personnel, and function, this was an almost unique phenomenon in the occupied eastern territories: A mobile murder squad, whose aggressive and antisemitic character made the extent of the almost complete extermination of Latvian Jewry possible in the first place. First, some basic data on the formation, structure, and crime involvement of this squad. When EK 2, led by the head of EG A, Dr Walter Stahlecker, entered the city of Riga on 1st July 1941, Viktors Arajs, a former law student and police officer, had already gathered around him some 100-200 men and brought the Riga police prefecture under his control. In a first meeting with Stahlecker on the first day of the invasion on 1st July 1941, he offered him unreserved support in liquidating Jews and hunting down Communists. This was done with full knowledge of the crimes to be committed, both for Arajs himself and for his men. Arajs was also clear that he had to carry out his actions with the full consent of and absolute subordination to the command of the security police. The motive, important to many Latvians, of eventual cooperation with the German occupation forces in order to restore an independent Latvia, played no role here. Stahlecker, before moving on to Leningrad with parts of EK 2, laid down the basic powers for the Arajs squad and placed it directly under the command of KdS (Security Commandant) Latvia Dr Rudolf Lange. The Arajs squad was given a building in the centre of Riga as its headquarters, which contained suitable basement rooms for the detention of people. Jewish women in particular were held there, used for cleaning work and regularly raped, abused and murdered. None of the security police orders for the Arajs squad's activities have survived, as they were usually given by telephone; both accomplices were fully aware of the criminal content of their activities and tried not to leave any documentary traces. In Riga, the presence of German troops and security police was immediately followed by massive riots against the Jews, which manifested themselves in terror, arrests, shootings in Bikernieki, and robbery of the victims. Although the Latvian activists of the first hour, mostly remembered by the Jewish survivors as armed and marauding Latvians with red-white-red armbands, were rather disorganised, the security police, also thanks to the Arajs Squad, very quickly succeeded in systematically controlling the anti-Jewish attacks. A high point was the burning and destruction of almost all the synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Riga under the direction of Viktors Arajs and his men. Until mid-July 1941, mass shootings took place daily in the Bikernieki forest. Members of the Arajs Squad regularly picked up the mostly Jewish prisoners in trucks from the central prison, took them to the execution site and murdered them there. The firing squad set up for this purpose consisted of 25 men, who usually fired 2 shots at each victim. It is estimated that in the second wave of violence against the Jews of Riga up to the ghettoisation in October 1941, approximately 9,000 people met their deaths in Bikernieki. The Arajs Squad was also involved in the second large-scale killing operation to liquidate the Riga ghetto on 8th-9th December 1941. Arajs himself, according to a surviving witness, is said to have exclaimed, "today Jews' blood should flow here". A very large part of the murderous actions of this squad was taken up by the anti-Jewish actions outside Riga, in other towns and in the countryside. These murders have remained in the memory of witnesses under the name of the actions of the "Blue Buses". Latvian Jewry outside Riga was exterminated by October 1941 except for about 15,000 people who were interned in the two ghettos in Daugavpils and Liepaja. As a rule, KdS (Security Commandant) Rudolf Lange informed the Latvian auxiliary police in the provincial cities and towns that the local Jews were to be interned. In many cases, however, the Latvian local police, in cooperation with the Latvian Selbstschutz (vigilantes), acted without German orders and arrested the Jews (as, for example, the self-proclaimed chief of police in Jelgava, Martins Vagulans, did on his own initiative). Lange gave his instructions by telephone to the Arajs squad, according to which they were to travel in said blue buses to the respective places and murder the victims. The delegation of about 35-40 Arajs men was usually also provided with overnight accommodation by the communities. As a rule, the victims were murdered in the surrounding forests, where the digging and filling in of the mass graves had to be done by the peasants of the surrounding area. These murder actions took place throughout the country and reached their climax in the autumn of 1941. During a trip in September 1941, a detachment of the Arajs squad visited several places in Eastern Latvia, first Valmiera, followed by Rezekne, where the unit was divided after the action there and continued in two groups to Vilani and via Riga to Ventspils in Western Latvia. In each of these places the number of victims amounted to several hundred people, and as a rule this meant the extermination of all local Jewry, that is, the squad left the respective place "Jew-free" after only a few hours of its stay. The number of victims of the Arajs squad in the province can be conservatively estimated at about 9,000 people. What was the internal structure of this murder squad? Which people committed these systematic crimes? Viktors Arajs himself was known as an extremely ambitious person whose social position was well below his own expectations. His hatred of the Jews and Communists can be seen as a mixture of racism and opportunistic fanaticism. His persuasive charisma had a strong influence in attracting young and mostly inexperienced people to his command. When on 4th July 1941, he published in the antisemitic newspaper "Tevija" his appeal to all nationalistically, anti-Communistically and patriotically minded persons for the recruitment of squad members, he actually reached the desired target group: young men who mostly came from the provinces and had not yet gained any professional experience, but who were ready for appropriate revenge actions due to the current perception of the Soviet terror measures. Criminal and adventurous elements also sought contact with his squad. For men who had neither work, a social network, nor a means of income in Riga, the unit offered shelter, quick financial benefits, and, above all, a work routine that permitted, even demanded, criminal excesses without legal consequences. Accordingly, both the appearance of the squad members and their reputation were negative among the Riga population, who avoided them and their establishments, referring to them as the Arajs boys or gang. The average Latvian saw very well that this murder squad was a group that moved beyond ethical and legal norms.

On the whole, the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country tried to avoid the anti-Jewish measures. If they nevertheless became involuntary witnesses of the crimes, they repressed what they had experienced and tried to make their own everyday lives as inconspicuous as possible under the conditions of occupation. The daily newspapers between 1941 and 1943 are filled with reports that suggest a normal everyday life of a population under the conditions of an economically and politically unpleasant, but by no means terrorist, occupation. For the most part, people accepted the crimes against the Jews as a fact of Nazi occupation, but wanted nothing to do with them themselves and turned a blind eye. The accomplices and henchmen of the German security police in the so-called Jewish question were the small but efficient circle of persons of the hard and self-initiating core, the Arajs squad, and the periphery of the numerically larger Latvian auxiliary police, who participated in the execution of the murders as assistants and executors of orders. In one aspect of the persecution of the Jews, however, the number of persons involved, both on the part of the German occupying power and among the Latvian population, increased immensely: the robbery of the property of the Jewish victims. On the German side, the civil administration and the security police engaged in bitter trench warfare over the seizure of Jewish property. Each authority claimed the looted assets for itself and tried to use them to line its own pockets. On the Latvian side, similar scenarios took place. When Jews were arrested, both people of the Arajs squad and the auxiliary police seized valuables and money wherever they could. The German security police and the civil administration tolerated a certain amount of robbery by Latvian accomplices, but kept the capture and seizure of the actual valuable objects strictly to themselves. Having stigmatised and disenfranchised the Jews as a social group, the interests of many Latvians were, as it were, instinctively directed toward the expected assets of the victims. This kind of anticipatory opportunism, pragmatism, and even unbounded greed can be observed in every social crisis, political upheaval, or war. The motive of enrichment made far more Latvians participants and accomplices in the persecution of Jews than it did in the terrorisation and murder of people. Many of these looting Latvians had no antisemitic motivations. However, there is evidence in surviving documents that participation in anti-Jewish actions was used as a promising aspect in applications to acquire items from former Jewish property. For example, on 30th April 1942, Peteris Leikarts, a Riga harbour guard, applied to the German trust administration for the discounted purchase of kitchen items from the ghetto with the following words: "About myself I can report the following. I (...) am married, have been in the service of the Harbour Police since 1st July 1941, and have participated in the Judenaktion (action against Jews)." This may refer to active participation in the massacres to liquidate the Riga ghetto, in which it is proven that the harbour police were indeed used to guard the many people. Many Latvians also obtained illegal papers in order to loot or make purchases in the ghetto. The applications for such passes submitted by Latvians to the civil administration fill entire volumes of files. After the murder of the Latvian Jews and before the complete settlement of the ghetto with deported Jews, there was a lot of so-called "ownerless property" there. The German occupation administration, on the other hand, wanted to maintain a minimum of control and overview in the expropriation process and punished illegal looting on a large scale with drastic means. Thus, in August 1941, members of the Latvian Self-Defence Force in Karsava were removed from service for having tampered with the property of murdered Jews. When Latvians had the means to gain access to looted Jewish property, it was usually items of little value. In the case of larger assets, foreign currency, real estate, etc, the German occupation administration did not allow the reins to be taken out of its hands. Under no circumstances was Latvian initiative in this matter allowed to reduce the income of the German administration and disrupt the everyday life of the occupation. Overall, it is noticeable that even Latvians who showed absolutely no interest in the fate of the persecuted Jews and kept out of the events of the persecution developed proactive behaviours in order to enrich themselves from the objects of the robbery. In the smaller villages, the less valuable possessions of the murdered Jews were auctioned off to the local inhabitants at low prices. The regular buying and bartering of many inhabitants of the towns which had ghettos in these Jewish residential districts testifies to a deliberate exploitation of the situation of the dispossessed and to a certain acquiescence in their fate. Many Latvians also took financial advantage of the deprivation of social rights and privileges of the Jews before the ghettoisation period. Thus, the plight of the Jews, who had to look for a place to stay in the territory of the Riga ghetto within a very short time, gave rise to a black market with excessively high prices. Even urgent visits to the doctor and similar emergencies could now cost Jews high prices, apart from the costly privilege of not being denounced by former acquaintances when going into hiding. Greed was the main motive in most cases. In most of these cases it was typical human behaviour in the extreme situation of political instability. Although antisemitic backgrounds cannot be ruled out, they did not form the sole basis for this collective behaviour.

However, there were Latvians who not only rejected the persecution of the Jews, but were also prepared to act for a variety of reasons and under a variety of circumstances to provide solidarity and help. Although this group of people was rather small in percentage terms, their actions had far-reaching consequences. Quite a few survivors' records bear witness to the adventurous and highly risky actions of their rescuers. Anyone who seriously decided to take the step of helping one or more Jews in their plight entered very dangerous territory: hiding Jews was punishable by death. Of course, the number of Latvians who expressed their solidarity with Jews through gestures, the passing of food, or simple kindness was far higher and hardly documented. Each survivor's account, however, reflects a number of gestures that nonetheless acquired a broader meaning in the intricacies of everyday life in the ghetto or at forced labour. These cases illustrate that Latvian society, like any other social community, did not function as a monolithic bloc, either in its acquiescence and participation in the persecution of Jews, or in its indifference or rejection in the face of this crime. The Jewish Documentation Centre "Jews in Latvia" has a card index of over 200 cases of assistance and solidarity to persecuted Jews. In 52 cases the helpers were arrested, in 14 cases the helpers had to pay for their solidarity with their lives. The most famous case of saving Jews was the highly organized network of the Riga dock worker Zanis Lipke, who saved the lives of 56 persecuted Jews in a daring action that lasted for years. From the few resources at his disposal, he built up a widespread network of trustworthy individuals, with whose help he was able to organize longer-term shelter and food for the persecuted. He and his men did not hesitate to put Jewish stars on their clothes, to enter the ghetto and in this way to enable Jews to escape from the ghetto. It goes without saying how high the risk of denunciation was with such a large number of confidantes involved, and what circumstances had to be circumvented in order to make it possible to feed so many people under the conditions of a strict food card system. In 1977, Lipke was honoured in Jerusalem with the "Medal of the Righteous" for his selfless acts. Other helpers were less fortunate. Alma Pole, who hid seven Jews in the basement of her house in Riga's Old Town, was discovered. All those involved were shot by the security police. The Riga historian Margers Vestermanis concluded that the Latvians who helped Jews were mostly representatives of the working class, small farmers, or democratically minded intelligentsia. The motives for turning compassion into risky action, however, were different in each case.

How can the three behaviours of different groups in Latvian society in the face of the Holocaust be characterised? The invasion of the German forces and the immediate persecution of the Jews were perceived collectively, but there were divergent reactions. These could be so extremely different that they ranged from active support to taking the initiative in the murder process itself, as well as resistance behaviour and active assistance to the persecuted people. Both groups of people who tended to react in such a clearly approving or disapproving manner were rather small. Both active collaborators and rescuers of Jews were comparatively few in number, although the vociferous and violent appearance of the perpetrators and accomplices in the persecution had a corresponding long-term effect. The largest group, which most closely represented the cross-section of Latvian society, were the passive observers who tried to stay out of the events as much as possible and to secure their livelihood. However, in quite a few cases this led to interventions to enrich themselves with the property of the persecuted Jews and to exploit the situation of these people. In most cases, opportunism and sober pragmatism can be claimed as reasons for this course of action. The two other reaction options - voluntarily joining the ranks of the murderers, or at least the perpetrators, or deciding to risk one's life to save the persecuted, each follow their own mechanisms. Even a cursory look at the social structure of the gang under the leadership of Viktor Arajs allows the undoubted conclusion that most of the perpetrators, especially in the early months of the unit's activity, were young, socially unstable, unattached, and in most cases extremely violent men. It can be argued that the antisemitism prevalent in this gang had a strong violent component and that many of the members formed their anti-Jewish enemy images only in contact with the group and the first actions against the victims and were primarily bent on violence as a reaction to the Soviet terrorist measures in Latvia, which merely had to be linked to a corresponding anti-Jewish enemy image. However, no collective overall or blanket picture can be sketched here. There was an established antisemitic core, strongly oriented towards the leading figure of Viktor Arajs, which determined the internal dynamics and structure of the group. In the sense of the group dynamics of Christopher Browning's model, these men also acted in their own violent and, as it were, lawless space, guided by their own internal rules of conduct, codes and forms of communication. Accordingly, their mostly collective appearance in the Latvian public sphere usually evoked aversion and alienation; the average Latvian avoided them. The ordinary Latvian generally tried to avoid all the unpleasant consequences of everyday life under German occupation. As in any society, most observers of crimes and injustices looked the other way and ignored what was happening in order to protect themselves and maintain some degree of normality. The cases of helping Jews were different. Here, the persons concerned mostly acted under extremely conspiratorial circumstances and accordingly strove for strict secrecy and inconspicuousness - in contrast to the noisy and conspicuous horde of collaborators. Thus, they were hardly noticed by the masses and - if they were lucky - even by the security police.

The files and the testimonies of witnesses make it clear that the reactions of many Latvians were an overall picture of an average society under the conditions of occupation, wartime action and experienced terror. The result of the document analysis shows that the collaborators were a relatively small proportion of active supporters, while the overwhelming majority of Latvians tended towards self-protective indifference. It is not the task of the historian to evaluate this morally. The role of the so-called stooges and henchmen, the large group of auxiliary police whose motives and degree of participation in the crime itself varied in each case, was similar. In most cases, a clear determination of involvement in the crime against the Jews is not possible due to a lack of documentation. It would be necessary to examine in each case of the Latvian Schutzmannschaft  (auxiliary police) under what conditions what orders were carried out in what way. And whether these orders were aiding and abetting murder, murder itself or supporting the framework conditions of the crime system. It is understandable that due to the quantity of cases and the lack of individual documents, such work cannot be done by any historian. However, without contradicting the facts, in many cases of squad-related auxiliary activity of the Latvian auxiliary police it can be assumed that they were accessories to murder. Even more problematic is the determination of the conduct of the Latvian national administration in the matter of the persecution of the Jews. From the Latvian side, the actions of this authority were usually seen as passive resistance in the sense of exerting influence on German occupation policy. How fluid the boundaries are here and how sustainable alibis for participation in the crime were created should be clear even to the non-historian. In summary, it can be said that the reaction of the various segments of the population of Nazi-occupied Latvia was a more or less plausible spectrum of behaviour under the conditions of occupation: there was a not too large group of active perpetrators and accomplices in the implementation of the Holocaust, whose extremely violent and criminal behaviour left lasting traces in the collective memory and created in it an overall image of the Latvian collaborationist prototype. In contrast, there were the helpers of the persecuted Jews who worked in the illegal underground and on the periphery, also a numerically not very large group. The majority of Latvian society accepted the crimes committed against the Jews of their country as a necessary evil of the Nazi occupation, which had freed them from Soviet terror. The suffering of the Jews lay beyond the horizon of experience and understanding of most Latvians, and they repressed it or were actually indifferent to it. This concentration of focus strictly on one's own concerns is a constellation that can occur in any society under similar extreme historical or contemporary circumstances of war, terror, or other oppression. The particularities demonstrated here can be found in the embedding of the motives for this behaviour in the context of the country's history and the collective historical experiences of the Latvians. This was primarily the Soviet occupation experienced shortly before the German invasion and its terror against the population of Latvia, which created an exceptional mental situation. Within this context, it remains the task of future historical research to determine the paradigms of Latvian antisemitism rooted in Latvian history beyond this. It would be desirable for the impetus for this research to be provided by Latvian historians themselves in reflection on their national historiography.

Dr. Katrin Reichelt
Contact: rigasvelns@yahoo.com

Translated by Toby Harrison, November 2021.


"Latvia under German occupation 1941-1944. The Latvian part in the Holocaust". Published in German as "Lettland unter deutscher Besatzung 1941–1944. Der lettische Anteil am Holocaust"

ISBN 978-3-940938-84-8
428 pages
Price: 24,00 Euro