Bruno Rozentals, a recipient of the Latvian Tri-star Decoration, took part in a commemoration at the U.S. Congress and visited a dozen public schools and Jewish and Latvian communities to share his World War II experiences.
Rozentals was honored by U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, former Israeli Ambassador to Latvia Tova Herzl, and Swedish Ambassador to the United States Jan Eliasson.
Rozentals, 75, was only 16 when his father started cooperating with Latvian Zanis Lipke in saving Jews from Riga's ghetto.
Bruno and his younger brother Edgars agreed to help their father hiding Jews, Rozentals recalled in an emotional meeting with students of the religious school at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington.
"I knew that we had to save Jews... I felt their pain as my pain," said Rozentals.
His oldest brother was tragically shot in the summer of 1941 by a retreating Russian army. A few days later the newly-arrived German army killed all 150 - 200 Jews living in the town of Dobele, where Rozentals' family lived. Many of Bruno and his brother's friends were among them.
Rozentals' family successfully hid 36 Jews in special rooms and "bunkers" carved beneath the house and in a barn on their family farm and two neighboring farms in the Dobele area. All those rescued survived Nazi occupation, which ended in late 1944.
Rozentals, who is fondly remembered by the Jewish community as one who "did a holy act," expressed his hope at the meeting with Jewish students that "people will retain their senses and never do anything like the (Holocaust) again."
"He is a hero," said Paul Swerdlow, 12, whose father Joel Swerdlow, editor of National Geographic magazine, was the main organizer of Rozentals' visit, which was co-sponsored by the Latvian Embassy to the United States.
"He made almost everybody cry ... how he told the stories and what he told," said Paul, who had Rozentals as an honored guest at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the Jewish traditional celebration of boy's religious adulthood.
Rozentals' visit came at a time when Latvia was in news because of the controversial prosecution of Konrads Kalejs and Karlis Ozols, alleged members of the notorious Arajs Kommando.
Latvia was severely criticized for its unwillingness to deal with the dark moments of its World War II past until last week, when the Prosecutor General's Office, after a thorough international investigation, issued a decision to file charges against Kalejs. Difficulties to collect evidence notwithstanding, the case showed the public's low awareness of the Holocaust in Latvia, a subject not debated during the 50-year Soviet rule.
Not only the genocide crimes, but also the endeavors of rescuers of Jews have hardly been discussed in public. Rozentals, who was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, with the "Righteous Among the Nations" award in 1998 and is likely to have a sign of honor devoted to him at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, received Latvia's official recognition only last summer. He has never been invited to Latvian schools to talk about his courageous actions during World War II.
"If they invite me, I'll go and tell about it with pleasure," he told The Baltic Times.
When asked by a listener why is it important to share his World War II experience, Rozentals said: "The world has to know what happened 60 years ago." Many young people "can't even imagine how it was," he added.
Joel Swerdlow, whose elder son's Bar Mitzvah took place three years ago in Riga, told The Baltic Times that the reception of Rozentals in Washington was so touching that some people said it had changed their lives.