In Soviet times, downtown Riga was dominated by two statues. One was the Freedom Monument, a national shrine affectionally called "Milda," built to commemorate the struggle for Latvian independence (first achieved in 1918) and the other was a large figure of Lenin, a stark reminder of the political reality of those days. Symbolically, the former monument faced the West, the source of hope for renewed Latvian independence, and the latter faced Moscow. They were back to back, underscoring the total contradiction between the values they represented.
After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the Lenin statue was removed and now, democratic Latvia is seeking to create new heroes to replace those forced upon it by the Soviets. But this process is not without difficulties and pitfalls, as the Latvians have learned from recent initiatives to restore one of their greatest pre-World War II heroes to iconic status.
The person in question is aviator Herberts Cukurs, who captured the nation's imagination in the 1930s, with his intercontinental solo flights in a self-built plane. But he didn't stick to aviation. In 1941, following the Nazi invasion, he volunteered to serve as deputy commander of the infamous Arajs Kommando, a police unit that actively participated in the murder of at least 30,000 Jews in Latvia and many additional thousands in neighboring Belarus. According to the testimonies of numerous survivors taken shortly after the war, Cukurs personally tortured and murdered many Jews.
After the war, Cukurs escaped to Brazil. The Soviets sought his extradition, but Brazil refused, claiming he could be returned only to Latvia, which no longer existed as an independent state. Under these circumstances, and facing an impending statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Germany, which would have eliminated another possibility for his prosecution, a team of Mossad agents executed Cukurs on February 23,1965, while he was on a business trip in Uruguay. Israel never officially admitted involvement, but the key operative published his memoirs, under the pen name Anton Kuenzle, in 1997, explaining the rationale and describing the implementation.
Ironically, it was Cukurs's assassination that ultimately enabled his family and Latvian nationalists to launch their effort to restore him to his former glory. As his involvement in the mass murder of Jews had never been confirmed by a court of law, Cukurs's supporters ostensibly had a basis for questioning his personal guilt. In the fall of 2004, right-wing nationalists from the "Union of National Power" distributed envelopes bearing his photograph throughout Latvia. His family has asked the prosecutor general to declare him innocent of war crimes. Last month saw the opening in Liepaja (the city of his birth) of a large exhibition on his life under the title of "Herberts Cukurs - Presumption of Innocence."
The opening of the exhibition attracted considerable public attention. It was accompanied by interviews in the local media with Latvia's two leading historians of the Holocaust who, unfortunately, reinforced the legitimacy of the efforts to restore Cukurs to hero status by questioning his personal guilt, though neither denied that he served in the Arajs Kommando. One of them, Andrew Ezergailis, was quoted in the media as saying that there was no evidence that Cukurs had been at the pits at Rumbula, the site of the mass murder of approximately 30,000 Riga Jews, and in any event it had not been proven that he was "the most eager shooter of Jews in Latvia" - as if to say that less zealous murderers deserved rehabilitation.
Even worse, in response to a protest against the exhibition by the Jewish community, the chairman of the Saiema (Latvia's parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee, Aleksanders Kirsteins, warned the Jews of Latvia "not to repeat their perfidious behavior of 1940," when they "welcomed" the Soviet enemy, an accusation popular in nationalist circles. Kirsteins was expelled from his People's Party and forced to resign his post, but the exhibition remains open, as does the Cukurs case itself in the eyes of the Latvian public. On the anniversary of his assassination, the daily Latvijas Avize commented that although Cukurs had spoiled his reputation by serving in the Arajs Kommando, there was no evidence of his "direct participation" in murder or in the theft of Jewish property. However, in the years immediately after World War II, Jewish organizations had invested great efforts in collecting incriminating testimonies from survivors. I recently sent the prosecutor general nine such testimonies detailing the murders of numerous Jews in Riga by Cukurs himself. Some of the more horrific details were published in the local media.
The efforts to glorify Cukurs, and the failure of Latvian leaders to end this disgraceful campaign, clearly reflect Latvia's difficulty in facing the complicity of its own people in Holocaust crimes. The best replacement for the toppled Lenin would be Janis Lipke, a Latvian Righteous Gentile who saved 42 Jews. But a decade of efforts to erect a monument to him have not yet succeeded.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff directs the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and coordinates "Operation: Last Chance," which offers financial rewards for evidence against Nazi war criminals (www.operationlastchance.org).
The Jerusalem Report , July 25, 2005