Book used in Latvian schools demeans Jews, Russians, Poles

MOSCOW, Aug. 5 (JTA) — Jewish and human rights activists in Latvia have demanded that the country’s Education Ministry withdraw from schools a history textbook that they charge contains statements insulting to the Baltic nation’s minorities. “Latvian Eulenspiegel,” a reference to a popular character of German and Latvian folklore, contains disparaging references to Jews, who are referred to as “zids,” originally a neutral word that now has only a pejorative connotation. After Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Jewish community protested the use of the word, prompting Latvian officials and the press to avoid the insulting term. The book, which describes the nation’s history before World War II, contains “terrible insults” about Latvia’s minorities, including Jews, Russians and Poles, said Mikhail Avrutin, director of the Baltic-American Bureau on Human Rights, an affiliate of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews that is based in the Latvian capital of Riga. Along with anti-Semitic myths that are presented as truth, the book refers to Russians as “quite primitive” people who always use dirty language. Two months ago, copies of the work were delivered as a gift to the country by Latvians living in the United States. The Latvian Education Ministry subsequently distributed the books to all schools in the country — with the recommendation that it be used as a companion to history texts already in use. The Dubnov Jewish Day School in Riga was among the institutions to receive a copy, according to Grigory Bikson, who teaches at the school. “Clearly, officials haven’t browsed through the book before they approved it,” said Abik Elkin, a Jewish journalist from Riga. The Jewish community and the Baltic-American Bureau on Human Rights sent a letter to Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis expressing “bewilderment over the book’s distribution” and asking that it be withdrawn from schools. Officials have not yet reacted, but Avrutin predicts that the book “will probably be withdrawn.” One member of the Latvian Parliament has also protested the government’s support for the book. On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community of Latvia numbered about 95,000. More than 90 percent of Latvia’s Jews perished in the Holocaust, many of them killed by Latvian nationalists before the 1941 German invasion. There are currently some 16,000 Jews living among the country’s 2.7 million population. Two years ago, Ulmanis prompted outrage in the Jewish community by presenting a school with a book by a Latvian nationalist, Adolph Shilde, who collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation and worked as editor in chief of a major Latvian German-language newspaper during the war. Ulmanis later expressed regret over the incident. According to Elkin, Jewish activists believe that such incidents have become common in post-Soviet Latvia because most Latvians view the German occupation during World War II as a lesser evil than the subsequent period of Soviet domination. An independent state from 1918 to 1940, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 in the wake of the 1939 German-Soviet pact that designated the country as a Soviet sphere of influence. The country did not regain independence until August 1991. The last Russian troops withdrew from Latvia three years ago.

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