Remember the Jewish survivors

  • 2001-06-07
  • Per Ahlmark
I am a non-Balt and a non-Jew. However, two causes have been with me for most of my adult life. One was the struggle to break the silence in the West about the right to freedom and independence for the three Baltic states. The other is the right for the Jewish people to live without persecution, in Israel and in the diaspora.

These causes were linked 10 years ago in Riga. Just a few days after the collapse of Soviet power in Latvia, we held the first Baltic Festival of Jewish Culture, in the National Theater, on August 23, 1991. Two ideas were developed in my speech that day.

The first was the that terrible fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is unique. Never before have three former democracies been occupied, annexed and colonized first under Soviet rule, then with the Nazi terror, and finally again Communist oppression. Latvia has now moved out of the darkness on the totalitarian planet, is building a new and stable democracy, and has returned to the family of free nations.

The second was that the terrible fate of European Jewry is unique. Never before has it been the goal of a major power to kill all and everyone who belongs to the Jewish people for the "crime" of being Jewish. Latvia became one of the worst areas of the genocide, where the number of survivors was one of the lowest of Nazi-conquered Europe, if not the lowest.

Always bearing in mind what happened in the Holocaust is an obligation for all of us, Jews and non-Jews, Balts and non-Balts. I recall how on a "freedom cruise" in 1985 one of the Latvian leaders in exile - he later became a minister here - told me on the ship, in international waters but not far from Liepaja: "I promise that when we achieve freedom, Latvia will live in truth."

A great statement, and I assume that present and future governments of Latvia will honor it. "Latvia will live in truth." What does that mean when it comes to the Holocaust?

First: teach young generations what was done to the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of Latvia. Do not hide painful facts about the perpetrators, the victims and the bystanders. I hope that the History Commission, which is now researching the mass murders on Latvian soil, will share its conclusions with teachers, students and textbooks.

Second: always fight anti-Semitism. Never accept any anti-Jewish slander - in the press or in speeches. Anti-Semitism is a disease among many non-Jews. But not only Jews are victims. Anti-Semitism always starts with the Jews, it never stops with the Jews. It develops into assaults on other minorities.

Third: remember Zanis Lipke and the other rescuers. I come from a nation that did so little in the 1930s and the first years of World War II to save Jewish lives. This was the darkest chapter of Swedish history in the last hundred years. But Sweden is also the native country of Raoul Wallenberg. He saved thousands of Jews in Budapest before he disappeared in the gulags.

In Latvia many citizens assisted the Germans in the murder machine of the Holocaust. But Latvia is also the native country of Zanis Lipke, who proved that one man could make a difference. To my mind Raoul Wallenberg is the greatest Swede ever. And Zanis Lipke is the Wallenberg of Latvia. He saved about 50 Jews, smuggling them out of the Riga ghetto one by one, then hiding them and keeping them alive for years until the end of the war, always risking his own life.

I know that the president of Latvia fully supports the concept of a Lipke Memorial in the center of Riga. Such a statue or monument would prove to the world what Latvia stands for, and it will teach young Latvians about their greatest hero. I urge the members of the Latvian government and Parliament and the members of the City Council of Riga to support your president in this great endeavor.

Let us together reassure that in the future "Lipke's list" will be as well-known and legendary around the world as "Schindler's list."

Per Ahlmark is a columnist for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. We publish excerpts from his speech made at a meeting of Holocaust survivors in Riga on June 4, 2001.