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Artistic quest ignites historic fire

  • 2005-06-15
  • By Aaron Eglitis
KAROSTA - The unlikely exhibit is housed in an unlikely place 's Karosta, erstwhile czarist naval port in the southwestern city of Liepaja, where an entire Russian fleet departed a little over a century ago to meet its destruction at the hands of the Japanese.

Now, 100 years later, Karosta is once again awash in ignominy 's this time thanks to a group of locals and one foreigner who together have organized an exhibit on Herberts Cukurs, pre-war experimental pilot and voluntary member of a vicious death squad that rounded up and killed Jews during World War II.

The controversial exhibit, organized by K@2, a culture and art NGO run by the Swedish documentary director Carl Biorsmark, has triggered outrage and indignation and even indirectly led to the recent political scandal involving Aleksandrs Kirsteins, the ultra-nationalist head of Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Whether intentional or not, the exhibit opened up old wartime wounds and fresh accusations of residual anti-Semitism in Latvia. To be sure, everyone The Baltic Times spoke with could say only good things about Biorsmark and the work his organization has done, though they added that the idea to create an exhibit on Cukurs was nothing short of inexplicable.

Cukurs is Latvia's most famous pilot. His travels to Gambia, Japan and many other countries in a self-built plane caught the imagination of a country during the 1930s.

His adventures were numerous, and included a drive, together with his wife, to Palestine and back at the behest of Riga's Jewish community.

But after the Soviets took over in 1940, things changed dramatically. Cukurs was taken to Moscow, where his expertise in both flying and building planes was needed by authorities. Eventually, however, Cukurs was able to return, and when the Nazi military pushed into the Baltic states a year later, the one-time famous pilot turned into an alleged anti-Semitic savage.

In 1941, Cukurs joined the infamous Arajs Commando, a squad organized with the explicit intention to gather up Latvian Jews and exterminate them. At its height, the Arajs Commando had 500 's 1,200 members and ultimately were responsible for killing 26,000, mostly Jewish, according to "The Holocaust in Latvia" by Andrievs Ezergailis, considered to be the seminal work on the subject.

The group's trademark blue buses were notorious across Latvia, as squad members drove around in them committing random acts of violence and brutal murders.

After the war, Cukurs escaped to Brazil, where he was later killed by a Jewish organization in the 1960s, for his crimes during World War II.

The Karosta exhibit consists of three rooms 's one with photos of his travels around the world, a second with testimonies and witness accounts both accusing Cukurs and exonerating him and a final room with just three photos: one of Cukurs juxtaposed with a photo of Anton Kunzle, the man believed to have killed him, and another of Cukurs dead body, beaten beyond recognition.

Biorsmark's interest in Cukurs was piqued by a book allegedly written by his assassin. "Execution of the Hangman of Riga" details how and why the hit took place and attributes it to Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Biorsmark found a Latvian translation of the publication in a local bookstore. He then wanted to know what the other side of the story was - what Cukurs (portrait above) had to say about accusations of his complicity in murder and genocide.

"This is what artists have to do - stay in the middle and raise question marks," he said, adding that the subject of Cukurs was such "a hot potato" that few would talk about it.

And with good reason. Cukurs is one of the most controversial individuals in recent Latvian history. Whenever his image appears, it is invariably followed by a storm of criticism. An exhibit in the war museum chronicling his flights to distant lands is still much discussed.

Yet Biorsmark's research didn't stop with one book. He traveled to Gambia to take photos of the castle that once belonged to Duke Jekabs of Courland, and then to Brazil to search out and interview Cukurs' children. The result of this endeavor has been turned into a 52-minute film shown as part of the exhibit.

Titled "Presumption of Innocence," the Karosta exhibit has been excoriated in the media by commentators and the Jewish community. The letter from the Jewish community called it an attempt to rehabilitate a war criminal, and went on to criticize Kirsteins for his tacit support. The MP's response is now legend: he warned the Jewish community not to act as it did in 1940 when it "welcomed" the state's enemies. What's more, Latvia's Jews should rid their ranks of former KGB agents, he said.

Kirsteins was expelled from the People's Party for the vituperation, but an attempt to oust him from his leadership position in Parliament failed.

In an editorial that first appeared in the leading daily Diena (see Page 19), Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wisenthal Center, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, cited testimonies from Israeli archives detailing Cukurs participating in crimes against Jews during the Holocaust in Latvia.

Latvian prosecutors have said they would examine the testimonies cited by Zuroff, as would a group of historians, once they have been translated.

Biorsmarks said that much of the exhibit's criticism comes from people who have not bothered to travel there to look at it. He said only journalists from Diena and the Russian language Telegraf have bothered to make the trip.

Others who have seen the exhibit are unimpressed. Margers Vestermanis, director of the Jewish Museum and a Holocaust survivor and researcher, said that the underlying message of the exhibition is that "Jews killed our hero." He admitted, however, that the exhibit was professionally done.

Over 90 percent of Latvia's pre-war Jewish population perished in Latvia's Holocaust during the Nazi occupation of 1941-1944. Other Jews were moved to Latvia by the Nazis to be killed, bringing the total number to 90,000 murdered.