“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 commemorate Latvian veterans who fought in the Nazi Waffen-SS in a failed 1944 battle against the Soviet Red Army.
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.
Former 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. I’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. Members 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. We 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.”
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. Some were motivated by a desire to oppose Soviet troops; some volunteered; some were drafted; some did nothing wrong that we know of; some were murderers; all swore a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler. The killings of the Jews went on for a long time, some members of the Latvian SS had been members of death squads. But it does not matter to me whether the people I saw helped kill one person or 50,000. One is enough. More importantly, this historical argument has nothing to do with holding a public ceremony to honor the Waffen-SS. 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.”
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. These 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.”