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Synagogue Bombing Rocks Latvian Government, Jews

April 6, 1998
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The Latvian government and the Baltic nation’s Jewish community are reeling from a bombing that seriously damaged the only synagogue in the Baltic nation’s capital city of Riga.

“People are angry and they don’t know what to do,” Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, said in a telephone interview from Riga.

The early morning blast to the 93-year-old building in Riga’s historic Old Town caused an estimated $60,000 in damages, but no injuries.

The head of the Latvian Parliament’s national security committee, Andrejs Pantelejevs, said the bombing could lead to a shake-up in the country’s security establishment. He suggested that the incident occurred “only because Latvian security institutions fail to fulfill their duties.”

The Latvian state police chief, Aldis Lieljuksis, was dismissed last Friday by the National Security Council, which was convened by Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis to discuss the incident. A senior Riga police official also was fired.

The council also recommended that the Latvian army commander in chief, Juris Dalbins, be ousted for participating in a recent parade of Latvian veterans who served in a Nazi SS unit during World War II. The Latvian Parliament is expected to approve that recommendation later this month.

While no one has claimed responsibility for last week’s synagogue attack, observers have suggested that the veterans’ Riga march inspired anti-Semitic violence.

“Someone wanted to intimidate the Jewish community,” said Glazman, a Lubavitch rabbi who officiates at the synagogue.

Grigori Krupnikov, chairman of the Latvian Jewish community, said in a telephone interview that it was too early to make a judgment as to who might be behind the latest incident.

“We should wait until the results of the investigation are in,” he said.

But officials with the Moscow-based Russian Jewish Congress and the Lithuanian Jewish community linked the Riga bombing to last month’s Latvian SS Legion reunion.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center also connected the activities of the Nazi unit veterans with the synagogue attack.

“We strongly believe that there is a link between those events and this act of violence against the Jewish community,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, wrote in a letter to the Latvian president.

Two days after the bombing, a monument to the victims of the Holocaust at a Jewish cemetery in the western Latvian city of Liepaja was smeared with black paint.

Latvia is home to a 17,000-member Jewish community — most of whom live in Riga.

The Latvian government, which has come under international criticism for allowing the March 16 parade of Nazi veterans was quick to respond to the synagogue bombing.

A few hours after the attack, Latvian Prime Minister Guntars Krasts visited the synagogue and promised that the government would make sure the damage is fixed within a week at no cost to the Jewish community.

But while the prime minister pledged to have the damaged parts of the synagogue fixed before the Passover holiday, which begins Friday evening, he said it would be impossible to restore the historic synagogue exactly.

Latvia’s interior minister, Ziedonis Cevers, said the two dismissed security officials had failed to implement security measures after swastikas and anti- Semitic slogans were painted on a synagogue wall in December.

No suspects have been apprehended for that act of vandalism or for a 1995 bombing that took place at the synagogue.

Last week’s explosion, which occurred at 1:50 a.m. April 2, tore out the 200- pound wooden synagogue door, destroyed all the windows and casings in the basement and the first and second floors, and left deep gouges in the synagogue’s wall.

The windows of the bottom five floors of two apartment buildings across the street from the synagogue were also shattered.

The bomb had reportedly been placed on the front steps of the synagogue building.

The Peitavas Street Synagogue is the only Jewish house of worship in Riga that survived the Nazi occupation of the country, which occurred from 1941 to 1944.

The synagogue’s door and stained-glass windows were its original ones built more than 90 years ago.

During the war, all of the other synagogues in Riga were burned down by the Nazis. The buildings in the city’s Old Town were built adjacent to each other and burning the synagogue would have led to destroying the entire block.

The Nazis used the synagogue as a warehouse and a stall for their horses.

Earlier last week, the Latvian president sought to quell criticism over the recent gathering of the Latvian SS Legion in Riga.

The legion was part of Latvia’s “tragic past,” Ulmanis said in a statement issued March 31, adding that international society cannot be reproached for not being informed about” details of our history” and for not understanding “the complicated situation at that time in Latvia.”

Many Latvians consider the legion heroic because its soldiers fought the Soviet forces that overran the country at the beginning of the war. March 16 was designated the commemoration day because it was on this date in 1943 that the legion had its first major fight against the Red Army in western Russia.

But in his statement Ulmanis strongly criticized “senior officials” who attended the rally. No government officials took part in the parade, but army commander Juris Dalbins and parliamentary speaker Alfreds Cepanis did.

Their participation “contradicts Latvia’s chosen path of forming a democratic European state,” Ulmanis said.

During the Nazi occupation of Latvia, most of the country’s prewar Jewish community of 90,000 was exterminated. Experts say the scale of the tragedy might have been smaller had the local population not helped with the killings.

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