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Around the Jewish World: Latvian Jews Troubled by ‘genocide’ Conviction of a Former Soviet Official

October 11, 1999
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The recent conviction of a Soviet official for “genocide” has many Jews questioning Latvia’s commitment to an honest historical reckoning.

Late last month, a court in Riga sentenced Mikhails Farbtuhs, an 83-year-old former member of the Soviet secret police, to seven years in prison for deporting families from Latvia to Siberia in the late 1940s.

Latvian nationalists hailed the Sept. 27 ruling as a victory over memories of Soviet domination, which began with the USSR’s annexation of Latvia in 1940.

In the ensuing five decades of Soviet rule, which ended when Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, thousands of Latvians were jailed, deported or killed by Soviet security forces.

For Jewish observers, the court’s decision and the use of the word “genocide” raised concerns over what they view as the selective amnesia with which this small Baltic nation approaches its history.

During World War II, some 75,000 Latvian Jews perished in the Holocaust — 90 percent of the nation’s prewar Jewish population.

Experts say the scale of the tragedy might have been smaller if the local population had not helped with the killings.

The Latvian government has faced repeated criticisms for its failure to prosecute Nazi-era war criminals.

Farbtuhs was the second person convicted under Latvia’s laws against genocide.

Alfons Noviks, who headed the Soviet Union’s security police during the second wave of deportations in 1949, died in prison in 1996 while serving a life sentence.

Farbtuhs has appealed the verdict and will remain free until a higher court’s decision some time next year.

In the meantime, Latvians can be heard celebrating his conviction as a second set of Nuremberg Trials, this time dealing with the actions of Soviet officials.

The parallel between Soviet and Nazi crimes troubles Jews in Latvia.

“There is no similarity between this case and Nuremberg,” said Ronit Ben-Dor, press secretary of the Israeli Embassy to the Baltic states.

“The deportations were not on such a large scale as the Holocaust,” and they don’t fit the guidelines for international law on genocide, she said.

Unlike the Nazis, she added, the Soviets targeted political dissidents, not an entire religious or ethnic group.

Latvia’s new chief prosecutor with the Division of Totalitarian Crimes, Janis Osis, did little to silence such critics when he spoke with JTA about Farbtuhs’ case.

“This is not different from what happened in Germany. This is even worse – – what Stalin did to Latvians — and not only Latvians, but to all of Latvia’s population.”

Most Western historians question the application of the term “genocide” to Soviet crimes in Latvia.

“It was not Stalin’s design to exterminate the Latvians from Europe,” says David Kirby, who studies Baltic history at the University of London.

In fact, Kirby sees an attempt to avoid awkward questions of Latvian complicity in the Holocaust behind the focus on Soviet crimes.

“It’s an easy ploy to say, `But we were victims too.'”

A march of Latvian SS veterans this year and last brought a storm of protest from Israel and a number of Jewish groups worldwide.

The Latvian SS Legion 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.

While the Latvian government has launched a historical commission to study both Nazi and Soviet crimes, Kirby worries it will be hard to find researchers willing to dig up secrets of the Nazi era.

But for Latvians like Matthew Kott, curator of Riga’s Occupation Museum, trials like Farbtuhs’ mark a unique opportunity for the Baltic states to exorcize their Soviet past.

“Everybody else in the world is involved in the act of seeking out Nazi war criminals,” he said. “The only people who are involved in the prosecution of Soviet crimes are the people hurt by those crimes.

“The Americans don’t care, no one cares. If the Latvians don’t do it, nobody will try,” he said.

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