“We share a commitment to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust.”
-- Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust
During the Soviet regime in Latvia questions and discussions about the past were silenced or forbidden. Therefore, only after full restoration of independence, could the Latvian people express themselves freely about all aspects of their history. Interestingly, prior to restoring Latvia's independence, on 19 September 1990 the Parliament of Latvia (Supreme Council of Latvia at the time) adopted a declaration on the condemnation and prohibition of Genocide and Anti-semitism in Latvia, which was the starting point for Latvia's significant work in Holocaust research, remembrance, education and the fight against modern forms of anti-semitism.
In 1998 the President of Latvia established the Commission of the Historians of Latvia, the main task of which was to research crimes against humanity committed within the territory of Latvia under the two periods of occupation from 1940 to 1956. Approximately 25 professional historians have been involved in carrying out the work of the Commision. Over the last ten years, the academic research on the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia has been marked by such significant publications as one exploring the extermination of Jews in Latvia's towns during the summer and autumn of 1941, which was one of the first such research projects carried out in the whole of Europe.
The Commission also finished the combined volume on Rescuers of Jews, which showed that more than 400 inhabitants of occupied Latvia had taken the risk of saving Jews and more than 100 had helped in other ways, either by providing food or shelter. So far the Commission has published 27 volumes and is still continuing its research.
Photo: President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš and President of Israel Shimon Peres at the official opening ceremony of Memorial to Žanis Lipke
The study of the Holocaust forms part of the compulsory history curriculum in Latvia's schools, as well as forming part of study programmes in the subjects history of culture, civics and politics. Questions on the topic are also included in school examinations.
Several books on the Holocaust and the history of the Jewish community in Latvia are presently available for use by students. The publication of the book, "Tell Ye Your Children", a book on the Holocaust in Europe 1933-1945 by Paul A. Levine and Stephane Bruchfeld, was the result of cooperation with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (formerly International Taksforce). Numerous materials for teachers have also been prepared, such as the handbook “A Controversial History” published by the Latvian Association of History Teachers (LAHT). In collaboration with the Swedish Institute and the USA Embassy in Riga, LAHT regularly organises seminars on Holocaust education for teachers in Latvia and coordinates visits by teachers from Latvia to the USA under a teacher-training programme. The Ministry of Education has been sending groups of teachers to the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem for many years.
A key tertiary education and research institution in relation to the Holocaust is the Centre for Judaic Studies, established in 1998 by the University of Latvia (UL). The Centre offers courses to UL students on both the history of the Jewish community in Latvia and the Holocaust, and engages both Latvian and foreign scholars in research on select topics.
Amongst other important recent projects to be mentioned are the Holocaust educational seminars for policy-makers in regions of Latvia which were organized with the support of IHRA from 2012 until 2013 in collaboration with the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia and the museum of “Jews in Latvia”. Each of the 2-3 days long regional seminars were dedicated to the Holocaust in Latvia and the Baltic region, as well as to Jewish history in Latvia, with both themes emphasising regional specifics.
Within the framework of the Baltic Mass Graves Project nearly 304 memorial places were identified in Latvia. Currently 239 memorials or memorial plaques have been placed. The most notable of them are the memorials at the mass killing sites in Bikernieki forest and Rumbula (both in the vicinity of Riga), which opened in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
Memorial sites dedicated to victims of the Holocaust are being built or restored by the Latvian Jewish community, municipalities and other local authorities. It has been estimated that the work of marking all memorial sites will be completed in the coming years.
A comprehensive study on memorial sites in Latvia was completed by Meyer Meler and the book “Jewish Latvia: sites to remember” was published in 2010.
Photo: Memorial at mass killing site in Biķernieki forest
In 2007 the Latvian government erected a monument to Zanis Lipke and others who rescued members of the Jewish community in Latvia during World War Two. The monument is near the national Holocaust Memorial, by the ruins of the burned Choral Synagogue in Riga.
In 2008 a unique project "Names and Destinies" was presented by the Centre for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia. The project comprised a website that contains searchable information on the former Jewish communities of Latvia as well as an archive of Jews who perished during the period 1941-1945. The project is a unique virtual memorial to the Latvian Jewish Community.
Since the United Nations designated 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005, Latvian authorities in cooperation with civil society members organize special remembrance events. On 27 January 2013 Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics delivered an introductory address to launch the event dedicated to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A historically significant event took place on 30 July 2013 when the President of the Republic of Latvia Andris Berzins and President of the State of Israel Shimon Peres opened a memorial to one of Latvia’s most notable rescuers of Jews during World War II Zanis Lipke.
Photo: Memorial at mass killing site in Rumbula
The significance of Holocaust Memorial Day in Latvia
On 4 July 1941 in Gogola Street, Riga, the Choral Synagogue was burned to the ground with people locked inside. This day is marked as an official commemoration day in the calendar of Latvia's National Holidays and Remembrance Days. Since October 1990 Latvia has held an official commemoration event for the Holocaust victims on the site of the synagogue. The event addresses the genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime as the culmination of evil. It is emphasised that the Holocaust has caused irreversible changes in Latvia, leaving deep scars in collective and individual memory.
The commemoration event is always attended by the highest government representatives, diplomatic corps and Jewish communities. The commemoration event is often linked to a certain educational or political event.
Photo: President of Latvia Andris Berziņš laying flowers at the Holocaust commemoration event on 4 July
There was no Holocaust research during Soviet rule in Latvia (1944-1991). The victims of the Holocaust were subsumed under the rubric "Soviet citizens murdered by Nazis". Research in the West was mainly based on accounts of survivors and court cases against Nazi criminals. Only after regaining independence in 1991, could Latvian historians begin to assess the situation and make use of documentation available locally. Detailed Holocaust research was given a major boost with the establishment of the Historians' Commission of Latvia under the aegis of the President's Office in 1998. Its first task was the investigation of crimes against humanity committed during the Soviet and Nazi occupations in the limited time span of 1940 to 1956. A sub-commission was established to deal specifically with the Holocaust.
In the years since it began its work, a great amount of basic research has been carried out and consensus has been reached on many aspects previously distorted by both Nazi and Soviet misinformation and propaganda.
Currently the main task of the Commission is to study the issue "Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia under Two Occupations, 1940 - 1956", as well as to organise the production of the final report on the theme. Only a few of the members of the Commission are directly involved in the research of the theme - major work is being implemented by approximately 25 professional historians. The task involves work for several years.