The word Kristallnacht has come up in the news lately, the dreaded nights of breaking glass on November ninth and tenth of 1938 when military and civilians alike in Austria and Germany launched a series of coordinated attacks against their countries' jewish inhabitants. According to Wikipedia, "at least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps." This pogrom was the start of what was termed the Final Solution.
Monday was the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the dreaded camp which took many of my family and many others lives. There was an interesting article in the New York Times by Alison Smale this week titled Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed Away From the Death Camps. It discusses the estimated two million jews not killed in the camps but instead who perished in what are now known as the killing sites, Hitler becoming more and more ruthless as his forces traveled east towards Russia.
It is coincidental to me that the topic has come up this week. I bought a print from a Latvian woman last week in Santa Barbara and for some reason our conversation landed on the jews that once lived in her country. The history of the fate of the jews in the Baltic states was horrible although arguably no worse than many of their neighboring countries.
The purpose of these units was to kill undesirables, namely jews, gypsies and communists. These units wore a special death's head image on their caps. They did a very thorough job, leaving an estimated 3500 of the countries 85,000 jews alive in their wake.
Many Latvians were apparently happy to help in the effort. From Wikipedia:
In Latvia, the Holocaust started on the night of 23 to 24 June 1941, when in the Grobiņa cemetery SD murderers killed six local Jews, including the town chemist. On the following days 35 Jews were exterminated in Durbe, Priekule and Asīte. On June 29 the Nazi invaders started forming the first Latvian SD auxiliary unit in Jelgava. Mārtiņš Vagulāns, member of the Pērkonkrusts organisation, was chosen to head it. In the summer of 1941, 300 men in the unit took part in the extermination of about 2000 Jews in Jelgava and other places in Zemgale. The killing was supervised by the officers of the German SD Rudolf Batz and Alfred Becu, who involved the SS people of the Einsatzgruppe in the action. The main Jelgava Synagogue was burnt down through their joint effort. After the invasion of Riga, Walter Stahlecker, assisted by the members of Pērkonkrusts and other local collaborationists, organised the pogrom of Jews in the capital of Latvia. Viktors Arājs, aged 31 at the time, former member of Pērkonkrusts and a member of a student fraternity, was appointed direct executor of the action. He was an idle eternal student who was supported by his wife, a rich shop owner, who was ten years older than he was. Arājs had worked in the Latvian Police for a certain period of time. He stood out with his power-hungry and extreme thinking. The man was well fed, well dressed, and "with his student's hat proudly cocked on one ear".Anyway, something this very nice woman that I met at the show sort of got to me. "Oh no, no jews were killed in Latvia. It is a lie. I asked my mother. They all left for other countries. She had gone to school with them. She looked their names up, they are all living in Australia, Brazil, places like that. With computers you can do that."
On 2 July Viktors Arājs started to form his armed unit of men who were responding to the appeal of Pērkonkrusts to take arms and to clear Latvia of Jews and communists. In the beginning the unit mainly included members of different student fraternities, while later on many degraded and degenerate individuals also joined. In 1941 altogether about 300 men had applied. The closest assistants of Viktors Arājs included Konstantīns Kaķis, Alfrēds Dikmanis, Boris Kinsler and Herberts Cukurs. On the night of July 3, Arājs Kommando started arresting, beating and robbing the Riga Jews. On 4 July, the choral synagogue at Gogoļa Street was burnt, and thereafter, the synagogues at Maskavas and Stabu Streets. Many Jews were killed during those days, including the refugees from Lithuania. In carts and blue buses the murderers of Arājs Commando went to different places in Courland, Zemgale and Vidzeme, killing thousands of Jews there.These killings were supposed to serve as an example to other anti-Semitic supporters of the Nazi invaders. Individual Latvian Selbstschutz units were also involved in the extermination of Jews. In the district of Ilūkste, for instance, Jews were killed by the Selbstschutz death unit of commander Oskars Baltmanis, which consisted of 20 cold-blooded murderers. All killings were supervised by the officers of the German SS and SD. In July 1941 the mass killing of Riga Jews took place in the Biķernieku Forest. About 4,000 people died there. The executions were headed by Sturmbannführers (majors) H. Barth, R. Batz, and the newly appointed chief of the Riga SD Rudolf Lange.In Liepāja the first mass killing of Jews took place on July 3 and 4, when about 400 people were shot dead, and on July 8 when 300 Jews were killed. The German group of SD and policemen did the shooting, while the members of Latvian Selbstschutz convoyed victims to the killing site. On July 13 the destroying of the large choral synagogue of Liepāja began. The rolls of the Scripture were spread on the Ugunsdzēsēju Square, and the Jews were forced to march across their sacred things, with watchers merrily laughing at the amusing scene. The above operations took place under the direct leadership of Erhard Grauel, commander of the Einsatzgruppe's Sonderkommando.
I was floored but I understood. And now I think back with added comprehension to a quote in the New York Times article;
“We must anticipate tomorrow,” Father Desbois added, referring to still powerful anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, “when people will start to say, ‘No, nothing happened here.’ ”