Late last month, representatives of 58 countries gathered in Stockholm for the International Forum on Preventing Genocide, which is an outgrowth of an initiative launched six years ago by Swedish PM Goran Persson to expand and improve Holocaust education worldwide.
Such a gathering could be considered proof of the success of the efforts of those (primarily Jewish) scholars, thinkers and writers who have made an enormous effort, especially during the past three decades, to convince the world of the unique importance of the Holocaust as a watershed event in the annals of mankind.
Yet after reading the speech delivered by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, excerpts of which were published two weeks ago in The Baltic Times, I think it is obvious that whatever significance world leaders attribute to the destruction of European Jewry, there are those for whom those events are primarily a backdrop to be utilized to preach about other tragedies. And this attitude, which is so prevalent in certain circles in the Baltics, is a sad reflection of the failure of many Balts to honestly confront the events of the Holocaust and internalize their lessons.
In her speech, President Vike-Freiberga concentrated almost exclusively on communist crimes. In fact, in the excerpts published in The Baltic Times, which accurately reflected the contents of her remarks, the words "Holocaust" and/or "Jews" did not even appear. In truth, those words were mentioned once by President Vike-Freiberga - but merely as background to her comments on the terrible crimes committed by the communists. And while I unequivocally condemn communist crimes and firmly believe that their perpetrators must be punished and that they constitute an extremely important part of the narrative of genocide in the 20th century and thus are worthy of discussion at the forum, President Vike-Freiberga seeks to upgrade them by claiming that they are exactly the same as the Holocaust, which is historically not the case.
In her words, "During Stalin's reign of terror, tens of thousands of Latvians... and millions of other nationalities were repressed, imprisoned, deported and allowed to die a slow and painful death in forced labor camps in Siberia. Genocide can happen through many forms of execution... a gun, a knife, or a machete, it can take place in a gas chamber, but it can also be brought about through a slow death on a Siberian plain from hunger, from cold and exhaustion of forced labor. The result is the same-death on a massive, genocidal scale." The sad truth is, however, that as horrible as the mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia before and after WWII were, they are not genocide, nor do they have to be elevated to that status to be deserving of response. On the contrary, by creating a false symmetry between asymmetrical historical events, President Vike-Freiberga does a disservice to her own just cause, as well as to the victims of other tragedies.
Perhaps, more than anything else, it is an omission from President Vike-Freiberga's speech that points to a deeper problem in the attitude of many Latvians to the Holocaust. Given the historical circumstances of the Shoa in Latvia, one would expect at least a mention, if not condemnation, of Latvian participation in Nazi crimes in such a speech, but President Vike-Freiberga chose to completely ignore this horrible phenomenon which continues to cast its ugly shadow over independent Latvia, which has failed to prosecute a single Holocaust perpetrator. Unpunished in Latvian courts, unmentioned in public pronouncements by Latvian leaders (even at a conference to prevent genocide), their crimes continue to damage the fabric of Latvian-Jewish relations and the prospect of future cooperation.
I have no doubt that future conferences on the Holocaust and/or genocide will bemoan the failure of the Baltic republics (among others) to convict and punish local Nazi war criminals, but by then it will be too late to correct this failure of the current and past leaders of independent Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and worldwide coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for SWC.