2013Jewish and Israel news at JNS.ORG

A different kind of Holocaust remembrance

Originally posted at jns.org on 21 March 2013[1]

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

"Legion Day" isn't the type of Holocaust remembrance ceremony that the Jewish community is used to.

Every year on March 16, Latvia hosts a ceremony and march in the country's capital, Riga, to 1commemorate Latvian veterans who fought in the Nazi Waffen-SS in a failed 1944 battle against the Soviet Red Army.

Latvia's "Legion Day" commemorating the Nazi Waffen-SS, in 2008.
Credit: Dezidor/Wikimedia Commons.

Latvian Legionnaires (Waffen-SS veterans) and other Latvian nationalist groups maintain that they have the right to recognize the 1944 battle, but international and Jewish groups have criticized the annual "Legion Day" for honoring the Nazi army. During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered about 70,000 Jews in Latvia, according to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. Twenty-five thousand Jews alone were executed in the Rumbula Forest near Riga in 1941 while the Nazis liquidated the Riga ghetto.

2Former New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who just returned from leading a U.S. delegation to Latvia to protest this year's march, shared his impressions on the march with JNS.org as well as his thoughts on emerging ultra-nationalist movements in Europe—not only those in Latvia, but also the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, among others.

JNS.org: As a U.S. lawmaker, how and why did you become involved in the issue of European ultra-nationalism?

Richard Brodsky: "I've been active in this kind of thing for over 30 years. I helped arrange delegation of diverse U.S. public officials to protest President Ronald Reagan's visit to the Kolmeshohe Cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, the burial site of many Waffen-SS soldiers. German President Helmut Kohl asked President Reagan to visit these graves, and it was such an outrage that we flew over and stood in silent protest.

"Frankly this issue is often not taken seriously in America. We picture Nazis as bumbling fools, like in Hogan's Heroes, or fringe crazy people like George Lincoln Rockwell. That's dangerous. 3I'm part of a group, World Without Nazism, that has members from all over the world and monitors Nazi incidents and organizations all over the world. We'll probably go to Washington D.C. this summer to extend the discussion."

Why did you travel to Latvia to attend the Waffen-SS rally March 16?

"At least 50,000 Jews, Gypsies, mentally ill and political prisoners were murdered, mostly shot, during the war. 4Members of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS swore personal loyalty to Hitler and had members who were part of death squads. We focused on the Waffen-SS march in Riga because it was so clearly unacceptable. It was originally an official event but was removed from that status in 2001 after an international outcry. Last week the Latvian Parliament, the Saemia, rejected an attempt to reinstate it. 5We wanted to thank the Latvian Parliament but also witness for ourselves the resurgence of old and new Nazi efforts. If you speak to Americans, many simply don't understand that there are genuine, resurgent Nazi movements around the world. Going to see it has been part of an effort to make sure the American public takes it seriously."

What struck you the most at the rally?

"The large numbers of people honoring the Waffen-SS, including many, many young people, the surviving members of the Waffen-SS wearing their original uniforms, the anger and violence in their faces, the aggressive actions of Members of the Latvian Parliament from political parties that raise up the Waffen-SS, the ability to buy Nazi memorabilia in stores, there are many lasting images. At the same time, we acknowledged that the Seimia had refused to make the march a national holiday, and there are many, many Latvians appalled by the re-emergence of Nazi sympathizers. But the reasonable conclusion from the march is that it is not some weird, bizarre fringe thing; it's happening all over the word and no one is paying attention."

The Latvian Waffen-SS Legion marching on Latvian Independence
Day, 1943. Credit: German Federal Archives.
Many Latvians who defend this annual event say that because the Latvian Waffen-SS unit was formed in 1943, several years after the Rumbula Massacre, they cannot be blamed. How do you respond to this argument?

"There is a reasonable historical argument about the Latvian Legion. 6Some were motivated by a desire to oppose Soviet troops; 7some volunteered; 8some were drafted; 9some did nothing wrong that we know of; 10some were murderers; 11all swore a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler. 12The killings of the Jews went on for a long time, some members of the Latvian SS had been members of death squads. 13But it does not matter to me whether the people I saw helped kill one person or 50,000. One is enough. 14More importantly, this historical argument has nothing to do with holding a public ceremony to honor the Waffen-SS. 15Every society has its fringes and we understand that, but these movements are moving to the mainstream. That's why World Without Nazism has a role to play."

Why should Americans, and the American Jewish community especially, be concerned with this issue?

"If 'never again' means something, it means vigilance and truth telling. 16These movements are real and growing, and it's time that the American government addressed this phenomenon. Now is the time for the US to begin to acknowledge these movements, and then to be heard in a responsible but vigilant manner about them. It would be a mistake to make too much of what's happening, but it would be a bigger mistake to pretend it's not happening."

The original report includes videos provided by Brodsky, one captioned "Surviving members of the Waffen-SS in uniform with supporters honouring the Latvian Legion on March 16, 2013." and another captioned "Richard Brodsky confronts a man who had complained about the unfair singling out of Latvia during the rally honouring the Latvian Waffen-SS Legion on March 16, 2013. Then a surviving member of the Waffen-SS appears in his original uniform and in response to the ruckus says, 'there go the kikes again.'"


Contention versus Fact
What is actually commemorated is: the first and only time the two Latvian Waffen SS units fought together; their first and only time united under a Latvian commander; and the battle against the Red Army was won, not lost. This sloppy account sets the tone: the article reports opinion and hearsay about the commemoration, not fact.
This sort of equating of Latvians to true neo-Nazis, in this case, Greece's Golden Dawn—a party which uses Nazi symbolism, praises figures of Nazi Germany, and whose leader has self-identified his party as nationalists and racists—typifies the inaccurate anti-Latvian rhetoric which the press states as self-evident truth, with no need for supporting evidence.
World Without Nazism (Мир без нацизма, МБН) was founded in 2010 by Putin insider Boris Spiegel. Its purpose? To denounce all the former Soviet Bloc countries as dens of resurgent Nazism, to blame the West for WWII, and to advocate for a common history book for Europe which promulgates the Soviet account of history. If there were any doubt about the purpose of WWN, Russian foreign minister Lavrov praised WWN in 2011 on its work to "counter attempts to rewrite and distort history, primarily the outcome of World War II."[2]
Brodsky is completely mistaken in stating the Latvian Legion swore a personal loyalty oath to Hitler. Conscripts were compelled to take an oath; even so, the possibility of having to swear to the actual SS oath caused such outrage that the only oath taken by the Legion was to fight against Bolshevism and to acknowledge Hitler as military commander. And even then, Latvians swore no actual allegiance—wearing Latvian flags under their uniforms waiting for the day they could also drive the Germans out and make Latvia free again. While some of the earlier collaborator units were joined to the Legion late in the war, the Arajs Kommando had numbered 300-500 while participating in the Holocaust whereas nearly 60,000 served in the Legion, part of the well over 100,000 Latvians the Germans pressed into military service. Brodsky practices guilt by association.
The Latvian Parliament has been beaten into public relations submission over the issue of Legion commemoration having been a formal state holiday purely on the basis of "to the uninformed outside observer, this looks like..." even though not a single item of Nazi symbolism is ever displayed and the commemoration has absolutely no connection to Nazism. There is no "old" Nazism. There is no "new" Nazism. The Russian state invented Latvian "Nazism" and Brodsky now spreads news of it in Putin's service.
Brodksy equivocates in the extreme. Here, and following, "some" can mean "all" as easily as "none". Where service in the Legion was concerned, besides its having been illegally conscripted, Legionnaires cared only about defeating the Red Army and restoring Latvian freedom. "Some = all".
"Some = a few".
Tens upon tens of thousands were conscripted in waves of ever-widening ranges of ages of men. "Some = 50,000+ serving in the Legion, 100,000+ total."
Brodsky's implication is that given enough time, nearly all would be found guilty of some crime. The facts are simple: no one—not even one of the collaborators Brodsky uses to tar the reputation of the Legion—has ever been accused of a war crime while in the service of the Legion. Similarly, Brodsky doesn't beat his wife that we know of.
"Some = none".
More slandering of the Legion based on the Germans joining earlier collaborator units to the Legion late in the war. "Some = there were those who had collaborated who were transferred into the Legion late in the war". This does not change the mission or nature of the Legion. By Brodsky's logic, if a known criminal buys food at a supermarket, we should brand all supermarket customers as criminals because it is impossible to prove a negative, that is, that all of the customers aren't criminals.
As previously noted, no oath to Nazism, and certainly no allegiance. Fighting against Soviet reoccupation was all that mattered.
Another instance of slandering the Legion for crimes which occurred before it ever existed and in which it had no involvement. The Holocaust had wrought its genocide long before the Latvian Waffen-SS was formed. There was no "Latvian SS."
Brodsky fails to acknowledge the likeliest possibility, which is that not a single individual he saw there killed anyone other than a soldier of the re-invading Red Army. That is the very heart of the matter here.
Brodsky cannot see past the uniforms—and we should note that the Germans forbade the Latvians to wear their own uniforms, so, instead, they wore a Latvian flag folded up under their uniform. Where Latvians today honour the heroism and sacrifices of those who fought to keep their homeland free of Soviet subjugation, Brodsky sees only Nazis glorifying Nazis.
Brodsky's alarm at the rise of the extreme right and of neo-Nazi movements worldwide is justified. But in Latvia, he has wrongly targeted those whose only crime is to honour those that fought, and failed, to prevent Soviet reoccupation. Brodsky should consider that it is only in Russia where the Soviet occupation and brutal subjugation of Eastern Europe is still called its "liberation," and where anti-Sovietism is synonymous with "fascism" and "Nazism"—and that he himself, as a member of Мир без нацизма ("World Without Nazism"), is an active collaborator in a propaganda venture of the Russian state.


Brodsky's concluding statement in praise of WWN poses the greatest danger:

15 “Every society has its fringes and we understand that, but these movements are moving to the mainstream. That's why World Without Nazism has a role to play.”
Prisoner with Nazi swastika,
Credit: Yuri Kozyrev NOOR
Brodsky confers legitimacy on a Russian ultra-nationalist propaganda organization praised by the Russian foreign minister for its contributions in the struggle against an honest accounting of Soviet atrocities and genocide in WWII. The Russian state, which has failed to deal with its own rising neo-Nazi and skin-head movements, which has been described as authoritarian leaning toward fascist, and which has, in the 21st century, attacked its neighbouring states and annexed their territory (!), has co-opted the moral cause of battling neo-Nazism for its own propaganda purposes. This brings us to the last video posted with the article, Brodsky the vessel of morality.

What the (surely) 90+ year old veteran said as he passed by the demonstrators—ranks of Russians and Jews shouting at him calling him a Nazi and murderer—was "Tādi jau ir žīdi...", or, "Well, that's what the Jews are like...", meaning, here they go again (calling him a Nazi and a murderer). He did not say "There go the kikes again". "Žīdi" is the proper Latvian noun for Jews and in no way a slur, found in all Latvian sources from ancient folk songs to the entry for the letter "Ž" in chidren's alphabet books as far back as the 18th century. As for the contemporary use of "ebreji" (Hebrews), that is an artificial manufacture of the Soviet era. Indeed, one of the first edicts of the occupational Soviet state was to rename everything from "Jewish" to "Hebrew," which in contemporary Soviet nomenclature shifted the essence of the Jewish community from the traditionally Yiddish-speaking "žīdi" to the Russian-speaking "ebreji." The notion, today, that "ebreji" connotes some political correctness and that "žīds" means "kike" is a Russian artifact absent of any basis in Latvian cultural and societal history.

Regardless of semantics, the true tragedy is that Brodsky has aligned himself with Russian nationalists fomenting against the Latvian state and Latvian society. Their spewings of hatred provoked the very comment—a response to the propagandistic vitriol organized by Brodsky's hosts and which he describes as a legitimate exercise of "free speech"—which his hosts purposely translate for him as an anti-Semitic slur, prompting Brodsky to conclude that, in Latvia, Nazism and hatred of Jews is, indeed, alive and well—when all an ancient Legionnaire wanted to do was remember his fallen friends in peace.

[1]Article published at jns.org, retrieved 16-Oct-2014
[2]Тезисы выступления Министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова на встрече с представителями российских неправительственных организаций международной специализации, Москва, 23 марта 2011 года — Summary of Remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov At A Meeting With Representatives Of Russian Non-Governmental Organizations of International Specialization, Moscow, March 23, 2011, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation web site, retrieved 16-Oct-2014

Updated: May, 2017

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