Approximately 600 people gathered here over the weekend to mark the anniversary of a Latvian Nazi SS unit.
In addition, the Latvian National Soldiers Association commemorated Saturday with more than 100 people at a military cemetery outside of Riga.
The group had cancelled its annual march through the city to commemorate the SS unit, saying an international controversy could harm Latvia’s bid for NATO membership.
Instead, the association assembled at a military cemetery in Lestene, where the legionnaires are buried, about 75 miles outside Riga.
Last week, Latvians bickered over how this tiny Baltic nation should handle the sensitive date that one local newspaper called “a hot potato.”
In 1988, Latvia officially declared March 16 as the day of Latvian soldiers. The holiday commemorates March 16, 1943, when the Latvian legionnaires unit was established.
The partially volunteer unit fought alongside the Nazis, hoping to drive out the Soviet occupiers. More than 50,000 of the 140,000 Latvian legionnaires died in the losing cause.
Efraim Zuroff, director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, says the Latvian legionnaires were not a murder squad, but many members voluntarily participated in the murder of more than 30,000 Jews in 1941 and 1942 under Arajs, a Latvian Nazi security police squad.
Zuroff, long a student of Holocaust history in the Baltics, is outraged that the soldiers association halted its annual march due to fears of the fallout from NATO, rather than out of good will.
“They don’t get it,” Zuroff said. “They never reached the obvious and logical conclusion that people who fought alongside Hitler should not be proud of themselves. We praise the decision of the City Council but, to be perfectly honest, a lot of work has to be done in Latvia about World War II lessons and the horrors of Nazism. Many of them were no Righteous Gentiles.”
Although they joined the Nazi effort out of resentment at the Soviets — who occupied Latvia in 1940 — “they knew who the Nazis were” since more than 30,000 Jews already had been murdered, Zuroff said.
“The fascist spirit was quite strong in Latvia,” Zuroff said. “If you get into bed with Nazis, you are supporting them.”
Latvians were “willing to give their lives so Nazi Germany would win World War II,” he said.
Nikolajs Romanovskis, chairman of the soldiers association, said Latvians who resisted the Nazi draft either were sentenced to death or deported to concentration camps.
“Mr. Zuroff has gone too far,” Romanovskis said. “He has no right whatsoever to tell Latvians how they should appraise World War II,” and “how we mark it is nobody’s business.”
In Riga, the crowd consisted mostly of youth and middle-aged nationalists who sought to honor their fallen compatriots.
Several radical youth organizations staged a procession at the Freedom Monument and placed flowers at the site, a traditional venue for Latvian ceremonies. They sang the Latvian anthem and other patriotic songs, while some displayed posters reading, “Be Saluted Legionnaires.”
Fatherland and Freedom Party leader Aigars Kimenis said Latvians should not be ashamed of the legionnaires, whom he called “an honor to the people.”
Police patrolled the streets, but reported no major incidents.
Last week the Riga city council revoked the permission it had granted to two radical organizations to gather officially. The city council reversed its decision after the its security commission raised concerns of public order.
Janis Silis, president of Klubs 415, told Latvian TV that the legion was formed as a response to Soviet repression.
Latvian Parliament member Yacov Pliner, who is Jewish, said, “Those who were called up into the legion were unhappy people and it is their tragedy, but those who entered the legion voluntarily are criminals.”
Zuroff caused a stir here earlier last week when he said: “It is high time that Latvians fully internalize the fact that fighting on behalf of Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II was the moral equivalent of supporting Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida terrorist network. The Latvian SS Legion should not be glorified, nor should its members be considered Latvian heroes.”
Romanovskis called Zuroff’s remark “a continuation of 50 years of Soviet propaganda.
“Let them solve their problems with the Palestinians and then mind the business of others,” he said.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga refused to comment on the issue. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign affairs released a statement calling Zuroff’s comments “odd.”
March 16 also represents a sore spot for Latvia’s ethnic Russians, who comprise about one-third of the population. Tensions between the two communities run high, and the bickering has fueled a media war between Latvian and Russian-language newspapers.
“Procession On March 16: Provocation Or Stupidity?” asked one headline in the Russian-language press.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.