What’s the matter with the Latvian president?

On 30 November 1941, about 24,000 Latvian Jews, previously incarcerated in the Riga Ghetto, were forcibly marched 10 kilometres to the Rumbula forest near Riga, the capital of Latvia. In the freezing cold and snow, men, women, and children were lead by the Latvian nazi collaborators—the Arajs Kommando—to the killing pits in the forest where the Germans lined the people up and shot each and every one of them in the back of their head. This was the worst mass murder perpetrated by the nazis and their collaborators after the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine a few months earlier.

This wasn’t all though. On 8 December 1941, about a thousand German Jews were transported to the same forest and murdered the same way. 25,000 innocent people lost their lives in the hands of the nazi forces and their local collaborators in November and December 1941. During the Shoah, altogether about 66,000 Latvian Jews and over 19,000 Jews transported from elsewhere were murdered on the Latvian soil.

This is a dark chapter in the Latvian history. Nobody can claim that the occupying German forces alone committed this mass murder in the tiny Baltic country. The Arajs Kommando, formed of Latvian anti-Soviet resistance fighters, participated in rounding up the victims and guarding and shooting the weak on the way to Rumbula. They acted from their own free will, offering assistance and collaboration to the nazi forces.

The more shocking is the fact that the Latvian president, Andris Berzinš, refuses to take part in a memorial ceremony at the Rumbula massacre memorial with the visiting Israeli president, Shimon Peres:

Senior officials in Jerusalem say they believe Berzins does not want to appear to be taking responsibility for acts committed by the Nazis together with local collaborators.

Peres, who is to visit both Latvia and Lithuania, will go to the Rumbula Forest, where 24,000 Jews from Riga were murdered in November-December 1941. A thousand German Jews, who had been transported by train to pits dug at the site, were also killed.

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Aides to Berzins told the Israeli embassy that he will not be able to accompany Peres to the ceremony. A senior Israeli official said: “They told us he was going on vacation the day after Peres’ visit to Latvia is over and he has a lot to do before, including a cabinet meeting.”

The Israeli embassy suggested moving the ceremony from the second day to the first day of the visit, right after the scheduled meeting between the two presidents. However, the Latvians said Berzins’ schedule was still too full. The senior Israeli official said that the Latvians also said that, according to local Foreign Ministry protocol, the Latvian president is not supposed to accompany visiting presidents to ceremonies in Latvia.

To me, it’s incomprehensible. Even if president Berzinš doesn’t care about anybody else then 24,000 of his own countrymen, Latvian citizens were brutally massacred at Rumbula. How can the president of a country where such atrocity has happened refuse to go and commemorate the victims of this utmost cruelty, this outrageous injustice? Especially when the Israeli president is on a state visit? How can this happen?

Even in Latvia’s neighbouring Estonia—notorious for its reluctance to prosecute the surviving nazi war criminals—such travesty has never happened. Even though the Estonian government and the law enforcement agencies haven’t done the least to collect evidence and prosecute the nazi murderers, the leaders of the state always take part in such commemorations.

TV channel Yesterday shows an interesting programme here in the UK. It’s called Nazi Collaborators. One of the episodes of this rather enlightening documentary about the Shoah in Latvia and the Arajs Kommando.

The Latvian president should take the 45 minutes and watch it. I mean, it could very well be that he just doesn’t know what happened in 1941. So he should sit down and watch this programme and then revaluate his priorities. And then take his thumbs out of this arse, apologise to president Peres and accompany him to the memorial ceremony. That’s the only way he can compensate for this utter diplomatic and humanitarian faux pas he and his staff have committed.

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