Lifting the shadow of a bloody past

  • 2004-03-04
  • By Efraim Zuroff
In the wake of the strident, abusive and in some cases blatantly anti-Semitic, responses to my critique of the speech by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga at the Stockholm Conference on preventing genocide, it is obvious that the issues under debate require further clarification.

Let me begin with the term genocide. According to Webster's Dictionary, it is defined as "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group." The term, which was coined by Polish-Jewish scholar Refael Lemkin in 1944 to describe the Nazis' systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, has since been applied to various large-scale campaigns of human persecution, often incorrectly. Thus, for example, the 1994 attempt by Hutu extremists to kill all the Tutsis in Rwanda was certainly an attempted genocide, while the deportation by the Soviets of tens of thousands of Latvian residents (mostly Latvians but Jews as well) to Siberia, where they were subjected to very harsh conditions which led to the deaths of thousands, was undoubtedly a terrible crime but cannot be categorized as genocide.
While such comparisons may seem a bit picayune to those who suffered at the hands of the communists, these distinctions are important and must be maintained to ensure the accuracy of the historical record and a correct prioritization in dealing with the concomitant issues arising from these tragedies. The problem is that since events categorized as genocide naturally get the most attention, very often those victimized in lesser tragedies seek to improve their chances for justice, restitution and the like by erroneously claiming to be the victims of genocide.
In the Baltics, the situation is particularly complicated by the extensive complicity of many Lithua-nians, Latvians and Estonians in the Holo-caust. It is hardly surprising that Balts seek to focus on their own victimization at the hands of the Soviets rather than deal with the crimes committed by their nationals during World War II. The abysmal failure hereto to prosecute Baltic Holocaust perpetrators and thereby honestly confront local complicity in Nazi crimes makes it entirely obvious that the requisite political will to do so does not yet exist in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn.
Given these circumstances, I felt the need to set the historical record straight and to emphasize the need for justice in these cases. While I certainly appreciate President Frei-berga's support for initiatives concerning Holocaust commemoration and education, they do not guarantee that everything she says about the Holocaust in Latvia is necessarily correct. On the contrary, her speech clearly proves that even those Latvian leaders most sensitive to various aspects of the Holocaust have not fully internalized the absolute necessity of confronting Latvian complicity in Holocaust crimes - let alone the overwhelming majority of Latvian society.
And if any proof of that were necessary, all one had to do during the past few days was to read the comments on by people who use names such as "hate, Kalejs, Josef Stalin, SS, Arajs and Dr. Mengele" and spread anti-Semitic lies and incitement, not to mention calls for me to be shot in response to my critique of President Freiberga's speech.
Only by actively supporting the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, by repeatedly admitting and condemning Latvian complicity in Holocaust crimes and by teaching the full truth about the role of Latvians in the events of the Shoa will Latvia emerge from under the shadow of its bloody past to a better future. President Freiberga could have taken an important step in that direction in her speech at the Stockholm Conference, but unfortunately she failed to do so.
In conclusion, I cannot refrain from relating to the criticism of the Latvian Jewish community, which disassociated itself from my critique of President Freiberga's speech. The key to understanding this ostensibly incomprehensible step is their self-perception: The leaders of the community view Latvian Jewry as a weak vulnerable minority that cannot allow themselves the luxury of criticizing its friends in power even when they are seriously mistaken. This type of thinking, which to a certain extent is a vestige of life under the Soviets, prevents them from exhibiting the type of local leadership that the community deserves and this issue so sorely lacks. And in that respect the results clearly speak for themselves.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director
of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and worldwide coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for SWC.