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Old Ethnic Rifts Run Deep in Latvia

Baltics: Synagogue bombing and march by Nazi veterans are latest incidents in a country with complex views of victimhood.

April 06, 1998|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIGA, Latvia — Shards of glass lay scattered on the cobblestone street. The synagogue's heavy oak door and stained-glass windows, destroyed by a bomb, were sealed with wood and plastic against the cold. And as police guarded the building this weekend, four dozen Jews met inside to pray and discuss why, once again, they had become the target of hatred in Latvia.

"This was clearly an anti-Semitic act," said Lubavitch Rabbi Mordechai Glazman. "We will not be intimidated. We will go forward with even more strength and determination in rebuilding Jewish life here."

The bombing early Thursday of the only surviving synagogue here in the Latvian capital and a parade through the city last month by 500 Nazi World War II veterans have revealed how deeply this small Baltic nation remains divided by historical ethnic rivalries.

The participation of top government officials in the Waffen SS veterans' march--along with rough police treatment of Russian protesters in a separate incident last month--has brought a deluge of international criticism and threatened to isolate Latvia as it seeks closer economic and military ties with the West.

President Guntis Ulmanis, who at first was slow to condemn the Nazi commemoration, took steps Friday to fire the commander of Latvia's army for marching in full uniform with the Latvian Legion veterans. The president also announced the dismissal of the country's police chief for failing to prevent the synagogue bombing.

"The government's action was clear and decisive," Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs said Saturday. "We should continue to prevent any kind of political extremism."

Latvian officials and Jewish community leaders say the recent events do not reflect a resurgence of Nazism in Latvia but instead illustrate how slowly the wounds from half a century of Soviet and Nazi occupation are healing.

"What you are seeing is the remains of the past 60 years," said Rabbi Natans Barkans, who was asleep in the synagogue when the bomb exploded.

The Soviet Union invaded Latvia in 1940 and deported thousands of civic leaders and intellectuals to Siberia. When the Germans seized the country in 1941, many Latvians welcomed them and joined the Nazi ranks. With the help of Latvian collaborators, the Nazis exterminated more than 66,000 of Latvia's 70,000 Jews.

In the closing years of the war, Germany formed the Latvian Legion under the Waffen SS to fight the attacking Soviet army. Some of the legion's 140,000 men saw it as a patriotic mission, while others were drafted at gunpoint and forced to fight.

The Latvian Legion incorporated into its ranks hundreds of Latvians responsible for war crimes against Jews. Among them was one of the most brutal Latvian Nazis, Viktors Arajs, who headed the feared Arajs Kommando unit before becoming a major in the legion.

The legion's two divisions lost 60,000 men but helped Germany prolong the war by defeating the Soviet army in several battles. When the Communists regained control of Latvia in 1944, they sent captured legionnaires to prison camps in Siberia. Today, about 8,000 legion veterans--all at least 70--live in Latvia, where they are regarded by many as patriots and heroes.

"We should feel great support for these people, who suffered from not only the war but also exile to Siberia," said Peteris Petersons, a playwright and Riga city councilman.

When the veterans paraded in mid-March through Riga's old city to mark the 55th anniversary of the legion's founding, they were joined by army commander Juris Dalbinsh, as well as by the head of the navy, the conductor of the military orchestra and five nationalist members of Parliament. The army chief was among those who carried white carnations to place at a monument in honor of the legionnaires.

On Friday, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had harshly criticized the officials' participation in the parade, welcomed the president's decision to fire Dalbinsh. The dismissal will become final once it is ratified by Parliament.

"It is a very wise and courageous step on the part of the government," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the center's Jerusalem office. "It is the right lesson to send the Latvian public that it would be irresponsible to allow a person to hold a position of such power if he identified in any way with individuals who supported the Third Reich's efforts in World War II."

During the Nazi occupation of Riga, the synagogue in the old city was the only one of more than 60 to survive; the close proximity of other buildings in the historic town center made the synagogue difficult to destroy, so the Nazis used it as a stable.

*

In Soviet times, the Jewish population gradually grew as Jews moved here from elsewhere in the Soviet Union--in part because Latvia had a reputation for being less anti-Semitic than other regions of the Communist state. Today, about 15,000 Jews live in Latvia, many of them in Riga, but only a handful regularly attend services at the synagogue.

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