MOSCOW (Mar. 15)
Hundreds of Latvians who fought for Nazi Germany have gathered to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the founding of their unit.
Human rights groups and organizations representing Latvia’s Russian minority had unsuccessfully tried to convince the Baltic nation’s leadership to ban this week’s commemorations — but the Jewish community was quiet.
One Jewish activist in Riga, who did not want to be identified, said in a telephone interview that the “Jewish community wanted to avoid open clashes” with ultranationalists and neo-Nazis.
The Latvian government said it would not participate in the events, but several high-ranking officials, including the commander in chief of the Latvian armed forces, said they would attend a rally that is part of the commemoration.
And Latvian’s foreign minister, Valdis Birkavs, said, “Latvian residents are free to organize and participate in the events.”
March 16, known in Latvia as Legion Day, is not a state holiday. But it is widely celebrated by veterans of the Nazi-allied unit to commemorate their fellow soldiers killed during World War II.
The Latvian SS Legion was formed in 1943 after a directive from Adolf Hitler.
For many Latvians, the Legion is considered heroic because its soldiers fought against the Soviet forces that overran the country at the beginning of the war. March 16 is marked as a commemoration day because it was on this date in 1943 the legion had its first major fight against the Red Army in western Russia.
During the Nazi occupation of the country from 1941 to 1944, most of Latvia’s prewar Jewish community of 90,000 was exterminated. Experts say the scale of the tragedy might have been smaller if the local population had not helped with the killings.
Most experts say it is unlikely that the Latvian SS Legion participated in the genocide because by the time the unit was created in spring of 1943, the majority of Latvian Jews had been killed already.
But it is likely that many of those Latvians who joined the legion had already participated in killing Jews.