MOSCOW, March 19 (JTA) — For many Latvians, the march by SS veterans through Latvia’s capital was a procession of old soldiers commemorating their struggle against communism.
But for Latvia’s Jewish and Russian populations, many of whom are not Latvian citizens, the annual march through Riga was a glorification of Latvia’s support of fascism during World War II.
The 140,000-strong Latvian Legion, which was a division of the Nazi SS, was formed in 1943 under a directive issued by 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. It was later crushed by the Red Army in 1944.
The SS and its ethnic Latvian allies virtually wiped out the 70,000-strong prewar Latvian Jewish community. There are now about 15,000 Jews currently living in the Baltic nation.
“I saw people who could have been my murderers,” said Effraim Meydan, who works at the Riga office of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Nikolajs Romanovskis, chairman of the National Soldiers Association, which organized the March 16 event, viewed the demonstration differently.
“The truth is that only a small number from the Arajs Kommando,” Latvia’s wartime security police, “were involved in these activities. To say that many of us were involved in shooting Jews is nonsense.”
But to a small group of Jewish protesters wearing yellow stars and holding posters, the march had dire overtones.
“This commemoration glorifies the Nazi army and is clearly a manifestation of an existing fascist movement in Latvia, despite the absence of anti-Jewish or other Nazi slogans during the march,” said Grigory Bikson, a Jewish activist in Riga.
Bikson is worried by the unusually large number of young people who took part in this year’s march and by the increased number of nationalist and fascist publications in Latvia.
During the demonstration, some high-school students distributed a nationalist paper called Latvian in Latvia, which recently published an article headlined “Hands Off Konrad Kalejs,” who for years has faced charges of being involved in the slaughter of civilians when he served as an officer in the Arajs Kommando unit.
According to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, a new openly Nazi youth monthly “Patriots” was just launched in the Latvian seaport city of Liepaja.
To be a patriot, according to the this magazine, means to fight for a “Latvian Latvia,” to praise the service of the Arajs Kommandos, to see Jewish conspiracies everywhere and to deny the Holocaust.