The Jewish Community
At the beginning of 1999, the Jewish population of the three Baltic republics
was about 26,700: 14,600 in Latvia, 9,600 in Lithuania and 3,100 in Estonia.
The Jewish population has been decreasing at a rate of about 2,500 per year:
in 1998, 650 emigrated to Israel, 900 went to the West, while the loss due to
the negative birth rate was about 600 per year.
There are 45 Jewish organizations in the Baltics: 21 Latvia, 17 in Lithuania
and 7 in Estonia. They are independent of Jewish organizations in the other
states which formerly made up the USSR but enjoy growing cooperation with
Jewish organizations in Europe and America. Their principal concerns are
Jewish education (14 schools and other educational establishments in which
1,050 students study); preserving Jewish traditions; commemorating the
Holocaust; combating anti-Semitism, which is still a significant factor in these
states; and providing for the needy. Jewish communal leaders in the Baltic
republics act as representatives to the local authorities, and to Jewish
organizations in the West and in Israel.
The Baltic republics have a long tradition of anti-Semitism, beginning with
official discrimination against Jews in the short period of their independence
between the wars, and continuing through the Nazi occupation, when many
local residents played a critical role in the destruction of the Jewish
When they became independent of the Soviet Union in 1990, a powerful
nationalist fervor spread over these lands, accompanied by a desire to even
old scores with anyone they considered as having violated their sovereignty,
or harmed their citizenry or economies during the years of Soviet
occupation, 1944-90. The local Jews were accused of treason and
cooperation with the conquering Soviets, and specifically blamed for their
part in the mass deportations of the political and intellectual Úlites to Russia
in 1940-41. Baltic nationalists used these charges to justify the cooperation
of very many Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians with the occupying
German authorities during World War II, in wiping out local Jewish
Nationalist political groups were established during this period, some of
them in the tradition of extremism and anti-Semitism which existed in these
countries before and during the war. Some of these groups have received
official sanction; for instance, organizations of veterans of the Waffen-SS
(Divisions 15 and 19, made up of Latvians, and Division 20, made up of
Estonians) were recognized by the authorities as associations of World War
II veterans and their military traditions considered an official part of the
military history of these countries.
More moderate nationalists, on the other hand, claim that the number of
local collaborators during World War II was very small, and that the entire
blame for the extermination of Jews should fall upon the German occupiers.
These nationalists, however, accuse the contemporary local Jewish
communities of creating a negative image of the Baltic republics in Western
and Israeli public opinion, thus preventing the complete integration of these
countries into Western Europe.
In 1998 and the beginning of 1999 extremist nationalism and anti-Semitism
continued to intensify in the Baltic republics, as did the political
activism of ultra-nationalist groups, especially in Latvia and Lithuania.
The year 1998 and early 1999 in Latvia saw an increase in anti-Semitic
incidents and propaganda, a rise in the number of ultra-nationalist movements,
some new and some revived, and a continuous process, both political
and ideological, of the rehabilitation of SS veterans.
Ultra-nationalist organizations comprising several thousand members, some
of which are also anti-Semitic, include the following:
The Unity Party (LNNK-TB), comprising For the Fatherland and
Freedom and the Latvian National Independence Movement, led by
Maris Grinblats. The party publishes the newspaper Nacionala Neatkariba
(National Independence). Its parliamentary faction leads the effort to obtain
national recognition for the memory of Latvian members of the SS.
Democratic National Party of Latvia (LNDP), led by Armands Malinsh;
publishes the Nacionaldemokrats.
People's Union -- Freedom (Briviba), led by Gundar Valdmanis.
The World Union of Free Latvians, publishes Briva Latvija (Free Latvia).
Daugavas Vanagi (Eagles of Daugava), active since 1991; unites the division
of SS veterans; maintains branches for children and youth; publishes the
magazine Daugavas Vanagi (Eagles of Daugava).
Union of National Soldiers, association of veterans of World War II who
fought with the Germans against the USSR.
Latvian National Front (LNF), led by Viktors Murnieks, active since
February 1998; maybe an attempt to revive the Latvian Nazi movement
Aizsargi which is banned by law.
Youth Club 415, under Valters Grivinsh and Krishs Kapenieks; uses the
slogan "Latvia for the Latvians."
Political Prisoners' Alliance, members of Latvian SS who were arrested
and tried by the Soviet authorities.
Perkonkrusts, (Thundercross), led by Juris Rechs; banned in 1995 and has
operated underground since then.
A local branch of Russian National Unity (RNE), led by Evgenii Osipov;
operates in seven Latvian cities.
Attitudes toward the Nazi Era
In the course of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, Latvians were concerned
with legitimizing Latvian members of the German SS. At the same time, the
Latvians attempted to hold the Jews themselves responsible for their fate, on
the grounds that Jewish treachery to Latvia before World War II brought
destruction upon them. On 15 June the Latvian parliament declared 16 March
a memorial day for Latvian soldiers. This is the date of the first battle of the
Latvian SS divisions against the Soviet army in 1944 and is considered SS
Veterans' Day. The parliamentary declaration of 29 October 1998, "On
Legionnaires," officially exonerated the SS divisions from guilt as war
criminals and mandated that the Latvian government begin a worldwide
campaign to clear their names. A second official memorial site (the first was
in the capital Riga) was set up in the cemetery of the city of Lestene on 27
September, to the memory of Latvian SS soldiers. SS veterans held their
annual parade on 16 March in Riga in 1998 and 1999.
The Latvian press published hundreds of articles and research pieces on
exonerating the soldiers of the SS. In 1998, a new edition of Baigais Gads
(Year of Awe), originally published in 1942 during the Nazi conquest of
Latvia, stressed the role of the Jews under the criminal regime of the
communists. The new edition was published by Leonard Inkins, chief activist
of the Fatherland and Freedom Party and editor of the extreme nationalist
newspaper A Latvian in Latvia. A second book, The Latvian Legion --
Heroes, Nazis or Victims, by one of Latvia's most prominent scientists,
Professor Andryevs Ezergailis, states unequivocally that the Latvian people
never took part in the annihilation of the Jews, either before or during the
time the Nazis were in Latvia, and especially not those who served in the
ranks of the Latvian SS. In contrast, the Latvian president during his visit to
Israel in February 1998 and the Latvian ambassador to Israel both expressed
sorrow at Latvian collaboration in Nazi war crimes and their opinion that
Latvian war criminals should be subject to the full force of the law.
A number of violent anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 1998-99. A
memorial column was blown up at the Holocaust commemoration site in
Rumbula, near Riga, on 7 April 1999. Members of the extremist group arrested
by the Latvian security police for this bombing had admitted planning an
attack on a Jewish school in Riga. In addition, a Jewish cemetery in Ventspils
was desecrated in August 1998 and a Holocaust memorial was vandalized in
Liepalja in April.
On 18 March 1999, almost a year after the bomb attack on a Riga
synagogue, Lainis Kamaldins, head of the Office for the Defense of the
Constitution, stated at a press conference that perhaps the Jews themselves
had planted the bomb to create an international outcry and vilify the good
name of Latvia abroad.
President Guntis Ulmanis and members of his government have taken no
part in the growing support for legitimizing Latvian participation in the SS
divisions. Senior government officials are not permitted to join in the March
SS veterans parade, and the parliamentary declaration making this day an
official holiday has not been adopted by the government. Nevertheless,
political and popular rightist forces in Latvia made notable gains during 1998
in the public debate over the past, which have influenced the political reality
of Latvia today.
The ultra-nationalist organizations, the Populist Movement (Tautininkai)
and Young Lithuania (Jauna Lietuva), remained on the fringes of society in
1998. Their newspapers, Lithuanian Morning and The Republic, once very
anti-Semitic, have since moderated their position. However, two new ultra-nationalist
organizations were founded in 1997. The United National
Socialist League (SNEL), led by Mindaugas Murza, was established in
Siauliai with about 100 members, most of whom also serve in the 62nd
brigade of the local civil guard. The Lithuanian Freedom League, founded
in Kaunas and led by Vytautas Sustaukas, is small but militant and demands,
among other things, that the government hold the Jews responsible for the
genocide of Lithuanians during the Soviet occupation. These two
organizations are illegal under Lithuanian law.
Relatively few serious anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Lithuania in
1998 and the beginning of 1999. A Nazi flag was flown on a building in the
port of Klaipeda on Hitler's birthday in April. Juden Raus was scrawled on a
memorial site for Holocaust victims in Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius (where
the Vilna Jews were murdered), in March, and a Holocaust memorial was
toppled in Liaudiskes, in northern Lithuania, in October.
No progress was made during 1998 in bringing to justice those suspected
of participating in the genocide of the Jews in the Nazi period. The trials of
Aleksandras Lileikis, 90, and Kazis Gimzauskas, 91, which began in February
1998, were quickly brought to a halt on the grounds of the defendants' ill
health. The Lithuanian legal authorities appear hesitant to try or sentence
Nazi collaborators, despite decisions they themselves reached.
Anti-Semitic activity in this Baltic republic generally occurred in the northeast
where most of the inhabitants are Russian. Branches of the Russian ultra-nationalist
party Russian National Unity (RNE) and the Russian Party of
Estonia are very active. These parties disseminate anti-Semitic and racial
propaganda in the newspaper of the RNE, Russian Telegraph, and in Our
Fatherland, which is printed in Russia and distributed in Narva and Sillamae.
The Estonian police filed a case against several activists in March 1999 in
their attempt to prevent the distribution of anti-Semitic material.
Unlike in Latvia and Lithuania, there is no public debate in Estonia on the
events of World War II, although there are still veterans of SS divisions who
fought the Soviet army before and during the war. About 1,500 of them met
in the capital Tallinn at a congress on 11 July, but, in contrast to their
colleagues in Latvia, did not demonstrate and were not supported by major
political parties. The president refused to participate. Thirty people in the
town of Sillamae held a memorial ceremony for SS veterans on 8 May 1998,
where Udo Sjaistlo, head of the veteran's association Memento, accused the
Jews of cooperating with the communists and exterminating Estonians.
The main anti-Semitic incident of note in 1998 was the desecration of the
Jewish cemetery in Rakvere, in northern Estonia. The police caught the
perpetrators, three boys of 14, who were released as minors. A fire in the
prayer house beside the cemetery in Tartu, in January 1998, and one in the
synagogue in Tallinn, might not have been motivated by anti-Semitism. It
should also be mentioned that the Swedish Nazi newspapers Nordland and
Gripen were printed at the government-owned Printall press in Tallinn.