U.S. senators led by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and accompanied by Baltic leaders marked Latvia's Holocaust Remembrance Day July 4, the 61st anniversary of the day Nazis locked up Jewish victims in a Riga synagogue and set it ablaze.
"The Germans and their local collaborators set fire to a synagogue into which they locked a group of people whose only crime was belonging to the Jewish faith," said Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
She was speaking at a ceremony at the only Riga synagogue to survive the Holocaust, commemorating the annihilation of 78,000 Latvian Jews together with all other Holocaust victims.
The burning of the nearby Choral Synagogue on July 4, 1941, represented the start of "one of the most tragic periods in the history of this country," Vike-Freiberga said at the ceremony.
Last week's memorial service was attended by five U.S senators, Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, and former White House national security adviser Zbignew Brzezinski.
Several hundred people were killed in the Choral Synagogue, mostly Lithuanian and Latvian Jews, when hand grenades were thrown into the building.
The ruins still stand in a region predominately inhabited by Jews in pre-War Riga and transformed into a ghetto by the Nazis.
The majority of the 78,000 Jewish victims who died in the Holocaust in Latvia were shot outside the city.
Vike-Freiberga warned against any repetition of barbarity: "We must always be alert to ensure that the watchful human being is always in control over the sleeping reptile."
"Tomorrow is one day closer to vindicating the dreams and hopes of those who perished here," said Lott in a reference to the summit held of 10 Eastern and Central European countries seeking NATO membership in Riga the next day.
The chief rabbi of Riga's tiny Jewish Community, Nathan Barkan, stressed the terrible pain still felt by the Jews after the Holocaust, but reminded the audience of the many Latvians, non-Jews and sometimes priests, who helped to thwart the Nazis' "Final Solution" and managed to prevent them from burning down Riga's last synagogue.
Barkan said he hoped his country would be "a model to others in its attitude toward the Jews and other minorities."
But Gregory Krupnikov, chairman of Latvia's 11,000-strong Jewish Community, said he wanted the extent of that tragic event to be more fully acknowledged in Latvia.
"There have been very marked improvements in just three or four years. We'd like to see it bigger," he said referring to the introduction of Holocaust history into the curricula of Latvian schools and universities.
"For anyone to accept the idea that your neighbor became a mass murderer is not easy," he added.