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SS and SD in Liepaja(Latvia)
Mass Graves (continuation)
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Ezergailis' main purpose in writing the book was to absolve his fellow Latvians of the post-war accusation made by the Soviet Government that anti-Soviet Latvians in general collaborated enthusiastically with the German occupiers, in particular in the extermination of the country's Jews, and even engaged in anti-Jewish actions on their own initiative.
Ezergailis (an academic at a university in Ithaca, New York state) claims that the Latvian collaborators consisted of a small number of extremist elements acting entirely under German orders. He claims that there was no interim period between the flight of the Soviet authorities and the arrival of German forces during which Latvian nationalists could exercise their own initiative to take revenge of Jews and other supporters of the Soviet regime.
Ezergailis' exculpatory purpose leads him to impose his own point of view on the data, resulting in some interpretatoions that may be questioned. Nevertheless, his book is in my opinion the best and most detailed account of what happened to the Jews in latvia, both the native Latvian Jews and the German Jews who were deported there. It is a mine of information.
With regard to Liepaja, it is noteworthy that the main massacre of Jews occurred in December 1941, some months after the arrival of German forces. It took place a few days after the liquidation of the Riga Ghetto and the massacres at Rumbula, which occurred on 30 November and 8 December; the Liepaja massacre was probably part of the same action.
Before December, Liepaja Jews were killed in dribs and drabs, usually together with other groups of victims, mainly (non-Jewish) Communists. Those shootings may have been reprisal or clean-up operations. Ezergailis makes the point that there was a good deal of resistance to the Germans in Liepaja, on the part of both Red Army units and the "gvardists", and that sniping continued after the German arrival.
Ezergailis is rather coy as to the identity of the "gvardists" and snipers, but there may well have been Jewish Communists among them, as well as Latvian Communists. The shootings until December 1941 need to be seen in the context of the suppression of lingering resistance.
The course of events in Liepaja supports the thesis that in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion there was no German Government plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population of the occupied Soviet territories. The Jews were regarded as the main Soviet collaborators, but the German respsonse was to jail large numbers of them, and to shoot a smaller number who were presumably in some way involved in the lingering resistance.
The massacre of almost all the Jews of Riga and most of those of Liepaja between the end of November and early December 1941 indicates a change of German policy occurring at about that time. A reasonable surmise is that the failure to defeat the Soviet Union decisively before the onset of winter imposed changed priorities, and caused a radicalisation of German policy.
In that regard, there is evidence that in early December 1941 Hitler and Himmler decided that the Jews of the occupied Soviet areas were to be equated to partisans and extirpated as such.
Ezergailis takes the opposite view. He thinks that there was a pre-existing German extermination plan, but that the German defeat in December 1941 led to a change, with an increased need for labour and the surviving Jews being preserved for that purpose.
In support of that thesis, he points to such data as the fact that after the massacre of December 1941, the surviving Jews of Liepaja were mostly left unharmed. He points to the fact that the German Jews who began to arrive from the beginning of December 1941 onward were mostly used for labour.
Ezergailis' interpretation does not take into account the fact that there were three phases.
In the first phase, from July to the end of November 1941, there were ongoing massacres of Jews, mainly in the rural areas and townships, but on a relatively small scale. The greater part of the Jews, particularly in the larger towns, and particularly in Riga, were preserved, and there are documented plans to use them for labour.
In the second phase, beginning at the end of November 1941, and continuing off and on until February 1942, there was a number of large-scale massacres, in which the majority of the large number of Latvian Jews who had survived the first phase were exterminated. It is probable that those massacres were perpetrated either to remove a perceived security menace, or simply to reduce the number of mouths to feed during the winter and to create space for the incoming German Jews.
In the the third phase, from the beginning of 1942 until the German retreat, the small number of surviving Latvian Jews were generally left unharmed in their ghettos and used for labour. Although many died during this period from hunger, exposure and harsh treatment, there were few massacres. Presumably their numbers had been reduced to the level where they no longer posed a security risk or were too many to feed.
The fate of the Latvian Jews, although tragic, does not indicate a German policy of killing every Jew who fell into German hands, no matter what the circumstances. Rather it shows the German occupiers reacting to fundamental changes in Germany's strategic position, sometimes in an extremely brutal and radical way, as indicated by the huge massacres of december 1941, but at other times in a much less radical way, allowing numbers of Jews to remain alive.
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