The Holocaust in Latvia: The Missing Center
By Andrew Ezergailis
SPECS: xxi + 465 pages, 8 illus., 8 maps, glossary, bibliography, index, 6 ¾” X 9 ½”
PUB DATE: 1996
PUBLISHED BY: The Historical Institute of Latvia in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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By Andrew Ezergailis
“This massive study...spares no detail ....Ezergailis is no youngster and he spent many years gathering the facts and writing the text. He has complete command of the literature and the trial records. His research took him to many archives. Needless to say, he could read the Latvian sources with full understanding. He is painstakingly objective and he tries to the utmost to be precise.
“What he wrote is limited in scope but not minor in importance. Latvia affords a window to the critical topic of the initiation of the final solution. The Jewish victims there were not only local inhabitants but also deportees from the Reich. The Riga massacres in the late fall of 1941 were, after Odessa and Kiev, the largest in Europe. More important, however, must be our recognition of the fact that Ezergailis represents the next wave of Holocaust research: the indepth exploration of a particular aspect or territory. In that sense he is a pioneer and his work serves as a model.”
Pushing aside the curtain of deceit carefully woven by both Nazi and Soviet propagandists, Andrew Ezergailis’ The Holocaust in Latvia mines previously inaccessible documentary archives to produce the first comprehensive narrative picture of this little-known chapter of the mass murder of Jews in the Baltics. It breaks a path for a new generation of Holocaust investigations that explores events in eastern Europe. Ezergailis’ book turns a spotlight on the people and units, German and Latvian, who participated in the killings. The author begins with the early murders at the time of the German entrance into Latvia and details the killings in the large cities and small towns there. A whole chapter is devoted to the Rumbula massacre of November 30 and December 8, 1941, when most of the Jews of Riga were killed.
The Holocaust historians had an opportunity after the war to double-check Nazi propaganda about events in the west, which they did not have for events in Soviet-controlled lands. This means that the whole first phase of the Holocaust what we could call the pre-Wannsee phase still has to be studied and many of its details confirmed. A primary duty of the new historians will be to cut through the obfuscation, regardless of what the source is, and go to the primary documents, which, with the demise of the Soviet system, have started to become available. Ezergailis rejects all forms of revisionism and relativism and stands with the judgement of Nuremberg. The mass killing of the Jews began on June 22, 1941, the day the Nazis crossed the frontier of the USSR. The author has marshalled evidence and arguments to show that the Fuehrerbefehl came earlier rather than later. The Einsatzgruppen entered Latvia with an unambiguous order to murder the Jews. The author most specifically rejects the argument, of German provenance, that the decision to kill the Jews came only in 1942, after the Wannsee conference and the German defeat at Moscow. The trail of blood and of paper shows that the order to kill the Jews of Latvia came from the head of the SD, Heydrich, to the Einsatzgruppe A leader, Brigadefuehrer Walther Stahlecker and his commando leaders.
The judges at Nuremberg failed to see that a significant role in the murder of Jews also was played by eastern European natives (the Einheimische, as the Nazis called them). Ezergailis, in his detailed work, fills in this hiatus left by the Nuremberg judgements. He argues that the killing of the Jews of Latvia was done in an organized, even over-organized manner. Documents show that Heydrich ordered Stahlecker to create pogrom conditions, to give an impression that the natives were wreaking revenge against the “Jew-Bolsheviks.” After the failure of the pogrom policy, Ezergailis shows, the Germans had no alternative but to rely on propaganda and organization.
The central part of Ezergailis’ work details the activities of the Arajs SD Commando, the Latvian unit that Brigadefuehrer Stahlecker organized for the killing of the Jews of Latvia. Although numerous other Latvian auxiliary police units played a role in the killing of the Jews, the major murderers were the men of the Arajs unit.
From the historiographical point of view, especially significant is Ezergailis’ discussion of Stahlecker’s letter of August 6, 1941, which to date has not received sufficient attention in the Holocaust literature. The letter illustrates a conflict between the SD and the civilian structure the Ministry of the East. Upon arriving in the Baltics, the Reichskommissar of the Ostland, Hinrich Lohse, issued guidelines for the treatment of the Jews instructions ordering that the Jews be concentrated and used for labor. Stahlecker, who had been killing Jews since June 22, wrote an angry letter attacking the guidelines as misconceived and outdated, ending the letter with a handwritten note: “I consider it desirable, before issuing any basic statement, once more to discuss these questions verbally, especially since it is safer that way, and since it concerns fundamental orders from higher authority to the security police, ones that should not be discussed in writing. Brigadefuehrer.” Derived from the book jacket.
“Ezergailis has written an important, in many ways admirable, indeed essential, book for anyone interested in this pivotal chapter of Holocaust history.”
—Christopher Browning, Journal of Baltic Studies
“In a courageous and revealing study Andrew Ezergailis explores the role of Latvian anti-Semites and its contribution to the destruction of Latvian Jewry during the Holocaust....In sum [he] forces us to reconsider the entire question of how and why events like the Shoah are not only possible but became realities.”
—Sander L. Gilman
“The wealth of sources used and the precise detail they yielded for Ezergailis’ detective-like analysis place his story on a higher plane of historical seriousness than anything produced on the subject before.”
—Andrejs Plakans, American Historical Review
“Ezergailis painstakingly explores all aspects of the Holocaust on Latvian soil….He uses a wide range of documentary evidence, in Latvian and German, incorporating survivors’ testimony and archival materials newly available....Ezergailis’ documentation is impressive: he has discovered detailed accounts concerning the organization of the German and Latvian killing units together with rosters of their members....Ezergailis’ work is a contribution to the origins of the Holocaust, especially his close exploration of disagreements between German authorities....It brilliantly achieves the author’s objectives....[and] can be strongly recommended to all students of the Holocaust.”
—John D. Klier, Slavic Review
Andrew Ezergailis received his Ph.D. from New York University, and since 1964 has been a professor of history at Ithaca College. He is a foreign member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences and received a Dr. habil. hist. degree. His works include The 1917 Revolution in Latvia and The Latvian Impact on the Bolshevik Revolution. His studies on the Holocaust have appeared in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis, The World Reacts to the Holocaust (David Wyman, editor), The Nationality Papers, and numerous Latvian-language periodicals in Latvia and elsewhere.