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On Friday, June 14, 1940, German troops marched into Paris. The eyes of the entire world turned to poor France; nobody saw what was happening to the Baltic States. 

On that Black Friday, Lithuania was handed an ultimatum by Germany's ally, the Soviets. The next day, June 15, the Bolshevik army occupied Lithuania and moved into positions along the southern border of Latvia. Also, during the night of June 14-15, a Red Army patrol raided Latvian territory to the east of the village of Maslenki, killing three Latvian border guards, a woman, and a child, and taking captive 11 border guards and 32 civilians. The Latvian government demanded an official investigation by the Soviets of this provocation, but the demand was simply ignored. 

In this tense time, on June 15 and 16, a large song festival went ahead as planned in the capital of Latgale, Daugavpils (Dvinsk). However, the 60,000 participants, choir members and spectators, knew what was happening in Lithuania and had dark premonitions about the future. At the end of the festival, the national anthem "Dievs, sveti Latviju" (God bless Latvia) was sung three times, with tears in the eyes of most of those present.

 During the festival, a solemn service was held in the main synagogue of Daugavpils. The government representative was greeted by guard of honor formed by Jewish schoolchildren. He was repeatedly asked, "allowing for the threatening political situation," to deliver to the president the Daugavpils Jewish community's affirmations of confidence.

 The government was represented at the festival by the minister for public affairs, Alfreds Berzins, since the crisis situation prevented President Karlis Ulmanis from attending as initially intended. The president did, however, give a radio address, stressing that "international events this week have moved with a rapidity far exceeding all precedents any of us have witnessed. The present situation demands that I stay in Riga, and I hope all of you understand.... Latgale borders directly with our large Eastern neighbor, with whom we share extremely important items of mutual interest. These items deal with our security and with the security of the Soviet Union, and first of all with mutual faith and trust." 

Mutual faith and trust.... At 2 p.m. on June 16, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics gave Latvia an ultimatum that demanded an answer by 8 p.m. the same day. Estonia received a similar ultimatum. That evening the Latvian ambassador to Moscow, Fricis Kocins, delivered an answer, in which he "served notice that the Latvian Government agreed to the conditions of the Soviet Union," as reported by the Latvian Telegraph Agency. 

Who knows, if this cynical and brutal action had been carried out in a less tumultuous time, perhaps the Western democracies might have taken more notice. Perhaps they might have protested at least as emphatically as they did in March 1939, when Hitler forced Czechoslovakia's President Hacha to accept the German ultimatum and turned Czechoslovakia into a Reich protectorate, Bohemia and Moravia. As it happened, the world's attention was focused on the German army's victory in France and Britain's isolation, leaving the death-throes of the Baltic states to take place in an international vacuum, with only the slightest mention in the press. 

What did the Kremlin demand in the ultimatum?  "1) Immediately form a Latvian government that is ready and able to ensure that the Soviet-Latvian mutual assistance pact is carried out; 2) Allow the Soviet army to immediately enter Latvia's territory unhindered and be stationed in the most important centers in such numbers as to ensure that the Soviet-Latvian mutual assistance pact can be carried out and to prevent possible provocations against Soviet garrisons in Latvia."

 If Czechoslovakia, with a large, well-armed army, capitulated to Hitler without a fight, what could Latvia do? As reported in the newspaper Jaunakas Zinas Monday, June 17, 1940, "in the early hours of the morning, the first Soviet army units crossed the Latvian border." This was a terrible shock for the Latvian people.

 That summer, as every summer, my family lived on the Baltic coast at Jurmala, on Balvu Street in Avoti. We stayed in a summer home belonging to the baker and confectioner Schortmann, father-in-law of the prominent lawyer Armins Rusis. On that fateful day my father returned from Riga earlier than usual, and his first words were, "Frankie, listen, who would have thought! You know who's greeting Soviet tanks by the railroad station? Jewish yingelech (lads) from the Moscow suburb!" 

By September 1938 there were only 200 local communists left in Latvia, and by June 17, 1940, probably far fewer. But the communists had sympathizers, and unfortunately Jews were conspicuously present in their ranks. Dov Levin wrote about "the abundant enthusiasm and sympathy with which the Red Army was welcomed in many areas by the Jews --principally by communists but also by 'ordinary Jews'" (Soviet Jewish Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1975, p. 40). In his book With Their Backs to the Wall (pp. 22-23), he recounts, for example, Baruch Minkiewitz's testimony that in Riga Jewish communists "covered Soviet tanks with flowers, and there were those who jumped up on the tanks and kissed the Red tank drivers." 

In the Soviet Jewish Affairs article, Levin writes that  there were instances where Jews took part in the safeguarding of Red Army units and the prevention of hostile acts against them by Lettish military organizations. According to eyewitness accounts, in the town of Vilani, in Latgalia (Eastern Latvia), Jewish youths forcibly prevented members of the Aizsargi organization from firing upon Red Army tanks which entered the town.... The participation of many Jews in armed clashes with the Aizsargi in Libau (Liepaja) on June 19,1940, is described by one of the participants, a Jewish dock worker in Libau.

 The correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Riga, Donald Day, was a witness to these dramatic hours: "On June 17 there was a mob at the railway station, waving red rags and screaming in hysterical joy about the arrival of the Russians. The Latvian language could not be heard. The speeches, the shouts, the screams were all in Russian or Yiddish." 

What had happened? How could that happen? How can it be explained?

 Latvia's Jews were, after all, on the whole loyal to the country of which they were citizens, and we have just seen that in Daugavpils, during the Latgale song festival, many Jews affirmed their solidarity with the Latvian government and people.

 And yet... Some months before the Red Army entered Latvia, police uniforms had been changed, and the French-Austrian "kepi" was replaced by a cap somewhat resembling that of a Russian officer. When the first Latvian policeman in the new uniform and cap assumed his post in the Daugavpils central square, eyewitnesses reported that some Jewish youths ran up to him, exclaiming in Russian, "Finally! How we've waited for you!" Strange indeed...

 Dov Levin (op. cit., p. 42) explains: "Although it is true that only a small proportion of the Jewish community took part in the excited and joyful demonstrations that welcomed the Red Army into Latvia, there were very many Jews who shared a feeling of relief and concord with that army, because of their fear that, in the international political constellation of those days, the only other alternative was the Nazi domination of Latvia." 

That is understandable. But one can also understand the Latvians, who, to say the least, were surprised by the actions of many, but not all, Jews on that fateful day. That was the day that their nation ceased to exist, a day of national tragedy. A clash of interests? Perhaps. But later, within a year, this clash was to have a macabre echo, a deadly aftermath.

 When the Red Army invaded Poland's eastern provinces on September 17, 1939, many Jews also welcomed the invaders. However, it must be remembered that anti-Semitism was pronounced in Poland, and, more importantly, Hitler's divisions were approaching from the west, which for the Jews was undoubtedly the much greater evil. Again, when the Red Army invaded Bessarabia, a Rumanian province, on June 28, 1940, many Jews welcomed the invaders, and here too one must remember that Rumanian anti-Semites in the Iron Guard had frequently provoked incidents with Jews and organized mini-pogroms, while in the Soviet Union, so it was said, use of the denigrating term "Zhid" (equivalent to "yid" or "kike") was punishable by fines or even jail.

 But in Latvia, Lithuania, and even Estonia, where Jews were few in number, where anti-Semitism was absent, and where this ethnic minority was guaranteed unheard-of cultural autonomy? What led so many Baltic Jews to welcome the hordes of Soviet militarism, of Bolshevik totalitarianism, of, one might even say, Red fascism? 

It is true that fear of the other alternative, Hitler's Germany, and illusions about the "essentially internationalist" nature of the Soviet regime played a large part. But the traditional complex or syndrome of "mimicry in self-defense," characteristic of the Jewish Diaspora in various troubled periods, also came into play. It is a fact that Jewish communities in those regions where a strong nation oppressed a weaker one, tended to support the stronger nation, not side with the weaker one. For example, it was so in Austro-Hungary, where Bohemian Jews sent their children not to Czech, but German schools; Galician Jews identified with the Polish upper class, not with Ruthenians (Ukrainians); and Transylvanian Jews even now consider themselves to be not Rumanian, but Hungarian Jews. 

Compared with Hitler's Germans, Stalin's Russians were, quite understandably, the lesser evil in the eyes of the Baltic Jews, but there was also the inclination to please the new masters, hoping for their favor, not considering the emotions of the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. 

The course of Latvian history shows that there were always quite a few flatterers and toadies among Latvians, too, ready to serve one or another foreign master. But in this specific case, in the summer of 1940, one can say there was a clash of interests between most Latvians and many Jews, and so the seed for the tragic events of the summer of 1941 was sown.

 The Israeli historian Dov Levin states: "It is impossible to understand the Holocaust without knowing what happened in the western Soviet territories in 1939 to 1941" (Newsview, Jerusalem, August 10, 1980, p. 22).

28 May 2020
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В память о нашем любимом муже, отце и дедушке
Льве Эльевиче (Хайм Арье-Лейб бен Элья) Бешкине
родился 17 Марта (23 Адара) 1955 года
умер 15 Июня (19 Сивана) 2006 года