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Shoah Memorial Goes Up in Latvia After Fierce Debate over Inscription

December 6, 2002
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After weeks of discord over an inscription, a Holocaust memorial was unveiled in Latvia commemorating the 1941 murder of 27,000 residents of the Riga Ghetto in a nearby forest.

Following pressure from Jewish groups, the Riga municipality reversed itself and agreed to note in the monument’s inscription that members of the Latvian security police participated in the slaughter.

More than 100 people, including the Latvian president and prime minister, gathered Nov. 29 for the unveiling at the mass murder site in Rumbala, located on the outskirts of Riga.

Initially, municipal officials had wanted a brief inscription that read, “Here, over 25,000 prisoners of the Riga Ghetto were shot in a campaign organized by the Nazis.”

The Latvian Jewish community refused to take part in the ceremony until the inscription was amended to reflect Latvians’ participation in the slaughter.

The clash caught the attention of international organizations and sparked fervent discussions in the Latvian media.

Such debate is old news in Latvia, which had the highest rate of Nazi collaboration in Europe and has struggled to confront its Holocaust history since gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1991.

After an emergency meeting, the Riga City Monument Council gave in to the demands.

The final inscription — in English, German, Hebrew and Latvian — reads: “Here in the forest of Rumbala on November 30 and December 8 of 1941, the Nazis and their local collaborators shot dead more than 25,000 Jews — the prisoners of the Riga Ghetto — children, women, old people, as well as around 1,000 Jews deported from Germany. In the summer of 1944 hundreds of Jewish men from the concentration camp ‘Riga-Kaiserwald’ were killed here.”

U.S. Ambassador Brian Carlson addressed the crowd at the Nov. 29 ceremony.

“The eyewitnesses and the historians agree on what happened. In the Rumbala forest on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, 1,700 executioners murdered more than 25,000 Jews,” he said.

“Of those 1,700 killers, between 1,000 and 1,500 were residents of Latvia” who worked for the security police,” and “some 100 were Latvian ghetto guards,” he added.

Carlson also expressed his disappointment in Latvian society today.

“Some people say that not all the Latvians were there voluntarily. Some say nothing done in those times under Nazi occupation was ‘voluntary,’ ” he said. “Some say those were complicated times. Some say that we should forget about the Latvian participation.

“It is uncanny that some people are adopting the Nuremburg defense used by the Nazis at their postwar trial,” he continued. “They too denied responsibility for their actions, saying they were ‘just following orders.’ “

He added, “How sad that anyone in today’s free and democratic Latvia would excuse this kind of crime by saying ‘it was a complicated time’ or the executioners were not ‘volunteers.’ “

The Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed its “deep relief” that an agreement was reached to change the inscription.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the center’s Israel office, said “it is extremely upsetting, to put it mildly, that such a debate could even take place in a country which has been invited to join NATO.”

The memorial was financed by donations from Latvia, Israel, the United States and Germany, as well as private individuals.

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