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Revising a bizarre chapter in Latvia's Holocaust history

  • 2005-03-30
  • By Matthias Kolb
VILNIUS - In the last days of November 1941, Fritz Scherwitz gathered all his Jewish workers together in the courtyard of a work camp in Riga's Washington Square. The German S.S. commander urged the 110 Jews assembled there not to return to the ghetto that evening. He advised them that for their own safety they should stay at the work camp, where Jewish craftsmen produced luxury goods for the Nazi elite.

A few urgently wanted to get back to the ghetto for one reason or another, while the others remained. They were the ones that survived the awful events that followed.

On Nov. 30 and Dec. 8 the Nazis drove almost all the inhabitants of the Riga Ghetto to the forests of Rumbula and killed 28,000 men, women and children.

A Jewish woman re-members meeting a shocked Scherwitz on the night of Nov. 30 at the work camp. His face was red, but he was not drunk. When she asked why he was so upset, Scherwitz answered: "Something terrible has happened, something that has never happened in history before."

Fritz Scherwitz is the subject of Anita Kugler's new book, "Scherwitz: The Jewish S.S. Officer" (Cologne, 2004), which tries to solve the puzzle of a man who has sometimes been referred to as "Latvia's Schindler."

Scherwitz's extraordinary story continued after the war ended until he was charged and finally sentenced as a war criminal in 1950. Most of the witnesses who testified against him were Latvian Jews who described him as a "greedy monster." So just what is the real story behind this complex figure and the horrendous events he was so mixed up in?

Nazi accessories

The work camp Scherwitz supervised, together with the Lenta factory (opened in 1943, it was an outpost of the Kaiserwald concentration camp where some 980 Jews worked), was regarded by Latvian Jews as "an island in a sea of horror" because the inmates had enough to eat, wore their own clothes and slept in beds.

Scherwitz, who fluently spoke Polish, Russian and Yiddish, often picked up family members of inmates if he needed new workers. He chose tailors, carpenters or cobblers because Lenta produced luxury goods such as uniforms, boots and accessories for the Nazi elite.

Because Scherwitz was able to supply senior Nazi personnel with much-in-demand luxury goods, he had sufficient influence to defend "his Jews" against Nazi officials and to get Aryan identity papers for at least four Jewish workers.

In August 1944 the Red Army was closing in and Scherwitz saved the lives of his workers by taking advantage of internal chaos within the S.S. He sent 800 Lenta inmates to Salaspils concentration camp for a week to protect them from the selection procedures that decimated the remaining Jews in Riga.

When the Soviets conquered the Latvian capital in October 1944, Scherwitz fled to Germany and surrendered himself to the Allies as a Vilnius-born Jew who had survived the concentration camps. He called himself Eleke Scherwitz and worked as an agent for the Counter Intelligence Corps for a time.

But in 1948, a survivor of the Riga Ghetto recognized him in Munich as a former S.S. member. Scherwitz was arrested and accused of shooting four Jews while they attempted to escape in 1944. After three trials and appeals he was sentenced in 1950 for manslaughter to six years in jail.

Revising history

Kugler's book takes a closer look at the events surrounding Scherwitz to see if the original verdict against him was really justified. This was not a straightforward case by any means. How could it be with a man who had three birthplaces, four dates of birth, two nationalities and two names?

She spent six years researching her book, consulting German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Russian documents and interviewing many survivors from the period in question.

One of the most fascinating parts of Kugler's book is the chapter about Scherwitz's trial in Munich and the testimonies of the Latvian Jews who were then living under horrible conditions in displaced persons camps.

She quotes court files that showed how Scherwitz had created his post-war identity as a Jew. He told prosecutors that he was born in Lithuania and taken away from his family as a child. A German Freikorps officer then brought him to Germany. He joined the S.S. in 1933 to hide his Jewish identity.

Scherwitz claimed that he was accidentally posted to Riga, where he was shocked by how the Jews were murdered and maltreated. He argued that he tried to protect them and treat them as humanely as he could. But it was difficult for the court to verify such things: there was little information about the Nazi system in occupied territories and it was impossible to cooperate with the Soviet Union.

The main charge against Scherwitz was that in August 1944 he had shot four Jewish workers while trying to flee from the Lenta factory. But it is far from certain who actually killed them: Latvian policemen in the streets, an S.S. security chief or Scherwitz himself.

During the trial several witnesses claimed that they had seen Scherwitz shoot the men in the head. Kugler proves that most of these witnesses had only worked at Lenta for a short time, repeatedly changed their testimonies and that it was impossible for them to see the courtyard from their sleeping rooms.

But why did they describe Scherwitz as a "monster?" In 1948 about 800 Latvian Jews were living in German DP camps and their "thirst for revenge" was very strong, according to one first hand witness.

Edward Anders is a Liepaja-born Jew who worked for the Federation of Liberated Latvian Jews in the American Zone of Germany after the war. "Fewer than 1 percent of the Holocaust murderers were tried in the Western occupation zones of Germany 's none from Latvia 's and the Allies were losing their interest in war criminals from month to month," the 78-year-old explained.

Denazification, conducted by special boards, was limited to rank-and-file Nazis not facing any specific charges of murder, while suspected murderers were tried by the Allies, but that task was gradually being turned over to German courts just as the Scherwitz case came up.

Scherwitz happened to be the first S.S. officer from Latvia to go on trial and many Latvian Jews were eager to see him convicted, according to Anders.

Moreover, the trial judges were eager to demonstrate their independence and impartiality: religion, race or political affiliation was irrelevant. Kugler suggests that the judges wanted to show that there were also Jews among Nazi war criminals to counter the weight of collective German guilt.

Father figure?

There is no evidence that Scherwitz used his position to "amass an immense fortune," as the witnesses claimed, although he sometimes collected valuables from Jewish workers to bribe his superiors in order to protect Lenta inmates. Several survivors have described Scherwitz as "a great son of the Jewish people" who tried to protect "his Jews" out of compassion. A lot of inmates called him "Chaze" 's a Yiddish word that can be translated as "comrade," "protector" or "fatherly friend."

In 1954 Scherwitz was discharged from jail. He lived in poverty in Munich and fought to have his name cleared until his death in 1962, but without success.

But despite the fact that her book is a posthumous vindication on his behalf, Kugler refuses to call Scherwitz a "Latvian Schindler," although several survivors described him as such. Kugler does present a compelling case, however, to suggest that he did everything he could to save as many Jews as possible.

Her 750-page book is not only the story of Scherwitz' life but a useful contribution to the existing literature on the Holocaust in Latvia and the resistance movement in the Riga Ghetto. Plans are currently underway to have the book translated into Latvian by the summer of 2006.