The truth about the Baltics

The film, Baltic Truth, by Andrejs Hramcovs and Eugene Levin, will premier in New York City in two weeks, at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Eugene travelled to Latvia to shoot this film during the early days of the COVID lockdowns and I was able to help him get permits to enter the country to do his work. Unfortunately, my schedule prevents me from personally attending – it will be a marvelous event, preceded by a concert featuring the film’s narrator, Dudu Fisher, and Cantor Daniel Singer. I extend my best wishes to the film makers and wish them a successful event – this truly is a story that must be told.

From viewing the film’s website, the film’s trailer and some of the blogs I have seen about the movie (e.g., Toronto’s Sheldon Kirshner), there are a number of points that I would like to clarify. I would like to answer these points following two questions raised by the narrator, Dudu Fisher, in the trailer, and from the film’s trailer by the Honorable Grant Gochin, the Honorary Consul of Togo, with me, a member of the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and a dear friend. Dudu asks two questions:

  1. First of all, Dudu asks, “I would like to ask how such a large-scale murder became possible.”
  2. Second, “Who were the murderers and perpetrators who took action?”
  3. And on the documentary trailer, Grant states “All I am asking them to do is to tell the truth!”

Of course, I will restrict my discourse only to the area of my expertise, to events that happened in Latvia.

Part 1

To answer this fairly, we have to look at some historical context as to what was going on, not only in Latvia, but internationally in the early to mid-20th century. Jews have lived peacefully in Latvia since the 1500s. In Czarist Russia, Jews were generally excluded from society and persecuted. Latvia, at the time, was a part of this empire, and was one of the few places where pogroms never took place. Following Latvian Independence in 1918, Jews and non-Jews alike were offered Latvian citizenship. Jews, Christians and non-believers alike had cultural autonomy, and each had government sponsored schools — Jewish parents were able to send their children to State sponsored Hebrew schools, free of charge. Jews were able to form political parties and served as members of Saeima (the Latvian parliament).

Antisemitism did not originate with Hitler! Henry Ford, for example, was openly antisemitic. In 1924, the US Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act which was aimed at diminishing the flow of Eastern European Jews into the US. A US poll in 1938 showed that 60 percent of respondents held negative views of Jews. President Roosevelt and American public opinion expressed concern about the fate of European Jews, yet until well after the War ended, the US government made it very difficult for Jews to enter the United States.

During this same time, antisemitism grew throughout Europe. Antisemitism existed in Latvia as well. During the 1930’s, the level of antisemitism in Latvia equaled levels seen in Switzerland, France and the US – all much less so than the levels of antisemitism seen in Germany and other Eastern European countries. (This is not to excuse, only to offer context). The Latvian Government, led by President Ulmanis, recognized the threat of antisemitism and, before World War II, outlawed antisemitism and jailed its proponents such as members of the group, Perkonkrusts. This harmony ended with the Soviet invasion of the Baltics in June of 1940, when the Soviets forcefully and illegally annexed Latvia into the Soviet Union. Latvia would not be a free country again until 1991. In June of 1940, the population experienced the complete breakdown of the Latvian State and Latvian society. Latvian citizens working for the Bolsheviks were co-opted, and involved in crimes against humanity, against their Latvian brothers and sisters.

The year that the Soviets invaded Latvia is known in our history books as “Baigais Gads” or “The Year of Terror.” No one was safe. People lost all individual freedoms and many were robbed or raped, all farms and businesses were collectivized, families were separated and thousands were sent to Siberia, where many died. The Soviets had a particular dislike for successful people in every field and as such, Jews suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Soviets. Jews constituted 5% of the Latvian population in 1940 but 12% of deportees to Siberia were Jewish.

In the summer of 1941, Germany betrayed her ally, Russia, and attacked territory controlled by the Soviets, the Baltics included. It was during this lawless transition between the murderous Soviet regime and the equally horrible Nazi administration that the murder of our Jewish neighbors began. Members of Pērkonkrusts and other hate groups took this opportunity to begin murdering our Jewish citizens and plundering their property. A Latvian government was not re-established. Instead, within days, German control was confirmed, and administration of Latvia was handed over to the Reich Commissariat Ostland. The Nazi’s relished the opportunity to make the Baltics “Judenfrei.” The Nazis were able to coopt Latvians to murder their Jewish co-citizens – the Nazis opened the prisons and released the sociopaths, and encouraged them to murder. Society devolved and every human norm was thrown aside. This was the environment that allowed the Holocaust to take place in Latvia. It is to the eternal shame of Latvia and Latvians that any Latvian participated in murdering and persecuting their Jewish co-citizens.

Part 2

The answer to the second question is well documented in our history. Yes, your family and our Jewish neighbors were murdered by Nazis with the willing participation of numerous, non-Jewish Latvian citizens. There were not enough Nazi troops assigned to this task in Latvia to have killed this many of our Latvian citizens without assistance from Latvian collaborators. These collaborators helped identify, round up, arrest, transport, guard, and kill our Latvian citizens! These collaborators were vile and brutal people and deserve to be condemned. Latvian leadership had been decapitated by the Soviet deportations, and was not available to protect its citizens from Bolshevik or Nazi collaborators. The actions of collaborators with the Bolshevik and Nazi occupiers will stand as our eternal shame.

I have read so many books about the Holocaust and conditions in the Baltics during the War – including one written by my late father, Janis Bunkis, (Refugees Who Won). I have read Holocaust survivor Kalman Aron’s book, Into the Light, and have two of his paintings, including a Holocaust depiction, displayed in my home. I have personally spoken with hundreds of emigrees about their escape from Latvia and gauged their attitudes regarding events in Latvia during the War. Most Latvians were neither collaborators nor sympathizers – they were just trying to stay alive during the war.

One cannot stereotype all Latvians with the label collaborators, it just was not so. It is problematic to consider a nation antisemitic. Nations are composed of individuals and as in all countries, there were antisemitic individuals in Latvia then (and even now). At the other end of the spectrum were Latvians who risked everything to save Jewish lives (several hundred are on the list of Righteous Gentiles).

Part 3

My colleague, Grant Gochin, asks that we tell the truth about the Holocaust. I believe, Grant, that Latvia has done so to the best of its ability. During Soviet years, the Holocaust was not spoken or written about in Latvia. Murder sites were neglected, and the memory of the Holocaust encouraged to fade.  Holocaust scholarship could only be resumed once Soviet rule ended.   After regaining independence, the President’s Commission of Historians was established, which has largely studied the Holocaust in Latvia. All publications are available on the web — 29 volumes. Much of the post-1991 work was devoted to identification of the victims, a task complicated by the passage of time and the loss of some records and the concealment of others by the NKVD and its successor agencies of the Soviet secret police. Yet the truth has come out. Latvian officials have repeatedly acknowledged participation of Latvian citizens, both in the Holocaust and in crimes against other Latvians during the Bolshevik era. For example, on November 29, 2002, 61 years after the murders, officials of the Republic of Latvia, together with representatives of the Latvian Jewish community, foreign ambassadors, and others attended a memorial dedication at the Rumbula massacre site. The President and the Prime Minister symbolically walked to the forest from the site of the Riga ghetto. Once assembled, President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga said the following:

The Holocaust, in its many forms, has painfully struck Latvia. Here in Rumbula where the earthly remains of Latvia’s Jews rest, we have come to honor and remember them. I wish therefore to extend a special greeting to the representatives of Latvia’s Jewish community for whom this is special day of mourning, all the more so since here lie their loved ones, relatives, and members of their faith.

This is an atrocious act of violence, an atrocious massacre. And it is our duty, the duty of those of us who have survived, to pass on the commemoration of these innocent victims to future generations, to remember with compassion, sorrow and reverence. Our duty is to teach our children and children’s children about it, our duty is to seek out the survivors and record their recollections, but, above all, our duty is to see that this will never happen again.”

It is our duty to remember the Holocaust and to teach our decedents what happened in order to lessen the chance of something like this happening again. Today in Latvia, all forms of hate speech are combated, and justifying hate crimes, war crimes and genocide is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

After independence was regained, the new government instituted a program in which property confiscated by the Nazis and Soviets during the War could be reclaimed by previous owners. Synagogues were returned to Jewish communities. But the government was rightfully criticized since much of the property previously owned by Jews could not be returned as there were few surviving heirs. That was rectified earlier this year by establishing a fund for use by the entire Latvian Jewish community for years to come in restitution for financial losses sustained during the war.

And here I will digress to answer a few other points brought up by the movie. Situated between frequently aggressive neighbors, Latvia has a tortured history. Jews were an integral part of Latvia, antisemitism existed, but was met with social disapproval. Jews were a vital part of Latvian society, until insanity set in, society lost all rational process and my country devolved into mayhem. Sociopaths took control and vented their insanity onto other Latvian citizens – in this case, Jews. Latvians that murdered other Latvians were monsters. They were traitors to our nation and must be condemned for eternity. No Latvian that murdered another Latvian can ever be a hero of our nation, for they destroyed Latvia from within.

There are graves stones in Latvia for national traitors that murdered Jews. These markers should be identified, and Latvians should be educated as to the misdeeds of those perpetrators. Some murderers, like Veiss, died of war wounds and were buried during Russian times. I do not believe graves should be desecrated. Rather informational signs of equal or greater size should be placed alongside those graves informing the public of their monstrous acts. Please note that the grave site shown at the beginning of the trailer which was stated belong to Holocaust murderers was nothing of the kind – it is a monument to “The Forest Brothers,” Latvian partisans that hid in the forests and continued to fight against the Soviet occupation of Latvia until 1954!

I have sat in Latvian government meetings where it was adamantly stated that truth must and will be told. I look forward to watching the documentary in its entirety and if there are areas in which my Government has fallen short, I offer my personal commitment that I will work towards full transparency and truth. The victims deserve nothing less.

And finally, I would like to clarify a point that is difficult for most Americans to grasp. Against the laws of the Geneva Convention, when the Soviets and Nazis conquered Latvia, each forced men of military age into service in their armies – many Latvians ended up fighting against their fellow citizens. During the time that the Germans were in control of Latvia, military aged conscripts were forced into a Latvian only unit called the “Latvian Legion,” which was unfortunately designated as an “SS” unit by the German. Those who declined to serve were executed or, as was my father’s brother, sent to concentration camps. These Latvian Legion soldiers displayed a Latvian flag on their right arms and did not have the German SS lightning bolts on their collars.

The Latvian Legion had one purpose – to fight against the Russians on the Eastern front. The Latvian Legion did not wear black uniforms, had NOTHING to do with the German SS or the persecution of Jews. My father was in the Latvian Legion and his story is well outlined in his book. He was open about his forced conscription – he abhorred the Nazis that conscripted him into service and the Soviet murderers he was forced to fight. Much has been made about these veterans marching in Riga to commemorate their brotherhood in their forced fight against the Russians. To be clear, at no time did the “Latvian SS” have anything to do with the German SS units with black uniforms, which were tasked to kill Jews.

I am proud of the country of my parents’ birth. I serve Latvia with honor and pleasure as the Honorary Consul in Southern California. A society can only heal from within when truth is told and accountability exists. Simultaneously, I unreservedly condemn those that caused irreparable harm to Jews, and any Latvian citizens, and pledge to work with Latvia to make any needed reforms, reveal any unrevealed truths and work towards education.

Latvia as a county is not perfect, but it has done its best to accurately portray what occurred and to take accountability for the events that occurred on our soil during the Holocaust. There will always be gaps, and we will strive to correct them.

About the Author
Dr. Juris Bunkis is the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Latvia in Southern California. He is on the executive committee of the Los Angeles Consular Corps, the third largest such corps in the world. He is a world-renowned plastic surgeon, primarily based in Southern California. For recreation, he flies his own jet plane and drives his custom-made motorcycles with the Hamsters USA Club. Juris has given lectures and volunteered around the world doing humanitarian plastic surgery. He is actively engaged in human rights efforts to uplift society for a better future for the next generation.
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