Leaders bow heads for synagogue tragedy

  • 2005-07-06
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - Remembering the Jewish synagogue on Gogol Street in Riga, which was burned down during WWII, Israeli ambassador Gary Koren called for zero tolerance of anti-Semitism in Latvia on July 4. Koren went on to say that "the past has taught Jews not to be silent about [anti-Semitism]."

High-ranking politicians, as well as foreign visitors, attended the ceremony. The commemoration comes at a time when the Jewish community has repeatedly made headlines over conflicts with a nationalist politician, an exhibit covering a famous pilot who joined a killing squad during the Nazi occupation, and an extremist newspaper.

Monuments were recently erected to Holocaust victims in the port city of Liepaja, although the local environmental agency wants compensation for damage to the surrounding sand dunes, and in Riga for the Kaiserwald concentration camp, which was home to as many as 18,000 Jews from 1943-1944.

Holocaust remembrance has found support from Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who expressed her solidarity with the Jewish people and condemned the Nazi period at the event. "We are all children of God, we all are brothers and sisters," she said at the ceremony.

However, relations between radical elements in the state and the Jewish community are not all positive, despite recent moves to erect monuments and support education programs. A maelstrom involving the Jewish community and the former head of the foreign affairs committee caught the international media's attention and strained relations between the diplomatic community and the committee.

In an open letter signed only by the Jewish community, criticism was directed against Aleksandrs Kirsteins, then head of the foreign affairs committee, and ultra nationalist elements of society that he was accused of shielding. Kirsteins latter said the Jewish community had former KGB agents in its ranks and that Jews should not act like they did in 1940 when they welcomed Soviet tanks. Kirsteins was eventually removed from his post for the statements, and expelled from his political party. Initially the Israeli Foreign Ministry recalled their ambassador in protest.

Members of the Jewish community also criticized an exhibition on pilot Herberts Cukurs who later joined a killing squad during the Nazi occupation.

The Gogol Street synagogue was burned to the ground July 4, 1941. Accounts differ dramatically on how many people were burned alive inside the building, ranging from a few dozen to 2,000. Historian Andrievs Ezergailis, author of the seminal work "The Holocaust in Latvia," has put the number at the very low end. He told The Baltic Times in an interview last year that there were probably no more than two dozen people.

Whatever the number killed at the synagogue, the date of the burning is now a national day of mourning in Latvia, and a black tassel is attached to the Latvian flag as a symbol of respect.

Some 90,000 Jews were murdered in Latvia. The Nazis brought in Jews from other countries, raising the total number killed.