Efraim Zuroff, a US-born Israeli historian and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Jerusalem, talks to media during events within the ‘Latvian Legion Day’, in Riga, Latvia, 16 March 2015. The Latvian Legion was a formation within the Nazi-era ‘Waffen SS’ consisting mainly of ethnic Latvian members. The Latvian Legion Day commemorates a World War II battle from 16 to 18 March 1944 in which Latvian Waffen-SS division fought against Soviet Red Army troops and forced them to withdraw from an embattled hillside.
Latvia’s Antisemitism is a ghost that makes European headlines every March. This week, a Latvian MP of the ruling coalition bloc, Kārlis Seržants, was on the record on Tuesday, March 15, making profoundly anti-Semitic comments.
In an interview with the Russian language public radio LR4, he said that “clever Jews” were responsible for some of the nation’s main problems. Clever Jews who operate “on the edge of the law,” referring to prominent Russian minority activists who, he believes, are Jewish. “I am not a chauvinist, absolutely not,” he specified “and “that is exactly why I am telling that being of Jewish ethnicity means being very smart.” While Russians might also be smart, he specified that Jews are “especially smart.”
The President of the European Jewish Congress, Dr. Moshe Kantor, expressed his profound shock at the remarks of the Latvian MP: “Such racist remarks singling out individual communities in Latvia have no place in democratic discourse within the European Union.”
The former journalist and member of the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) makes part of the Greens and Farmers Union (ZZS), that is, the third largest party but one that emerged at the helm of the current ruling coalition since February 2016. ZZS is the party of the current Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis.
But, perhaps, the heightened attention to this antisemitic stereotyping, that is not unique to Latvia, points towards a greater issue. Anti-Semitic rhetoric, implicit or explicit, is a controversial issue in Latvia, especially in the days leading to March 16. March 16, 1941 is the date of a decisive battle in Russia’s Opochka region, in which Nazi Germany failed to repel the advance of the Red Army. That was a battle in which Baltic volunteers were engaged, including the Latvian Legion, a locally drafted force of Waffen SS.
The Latvian national narrative is that the 140,000 members of the Latvian SS were not really Nazis, but patriots who fought against the Soviet occupier. They were fighting against an army that had occupied Latvia in 1939 – following an agreement with Nazi Germany – deporting thousands of Latvians to Siberia.
Jewish groups and the Russian minority in Latvia are less convinced. Commenting on the event, Efraim Zuroff, of Jerusalem’s Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center told AFP that “anyone who fought for the victory of the Third Reich shouldn’t be a hero.” The Latvian patriotic narrative often omits that about 70,000 Jews were exterminated in Latvia, largely with local collaboration, while the Nazi were hailed as liberators, AFP reports.
On Wednesday, as every year, more than a 1,000 people commemorated the patriotic contribution of the 140,000 Latvian Legionnaires. The Minister of Culture Dace Melbarde had announced he would join the event, as did a number of Members of the Saeime. Other ministers would not attend, others that they would be “absent,” without making clear whether they would be willing to attend had they been in Riga.
Officially, the administration of Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis does not regard March 16 an official commemoration day for Latvian soldiers. But, for all governments, this is a symbolically loaded issue. In 2014, a Minister of the national conservative alliance resigned, after participating in the event in Riga.
Each year, the event stains the image of Latvia and heightens attention to anti-Semitic attitudes. Unfailingly, it is also an event that Russia uses to discredit the Latvian government.