Why does Latvia still honour the Waffen-SS?

No EU member state should be honouring members of the biggest Jew-killing machine in world history.

This morning, 16 March, a 47-year-old British woman, Monica Lowenberg, placed a wreath at the foot of the Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia. She was dressed in the ghetto garb the Nazis forced Riga's Jews to wear. Many of her family died at the hands of Germans and their Latvian collaborators.

She stood in silent witness as marchers arrived to celebrate the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, the biggest Jew-killing machine in world history. Latvians pushed Ms Lowenberg to one side to place their own large insignia of the Latvian Waffen-SS in front of the Freedom Monument.

Below is an open letter that Ms Lowenberg wrote to the government and parliament of Latvia to explain why in 2012 she believes, rightly, that no EU member state should be honouring members of the Waffen-SS in an open public ceremony in a European capital city.

Denis MacShane

Open letter to the government and parliament of Latvia on the eve of the Waffen-SS commemoration

My name is Monica Lowenberg and I am the only child and daughter of Ernest Lowenberg, a German Jewish refugee who managed to leave Nazi Germany five days before the outbreak of war in 1939. He was 16. His mother, my grandmother Marianne Loewenberg (née Peiser), born in Leipzig, a violinist and opera singer, managed with the help of the Hinrichsens, owners of the music publishing firm C F Peters, to leave Germany in April 1939 on a domestic's visa.

Tragically, the rest of the immediate Peiser and Loewenberg family did not manage to escape in time and were brutally murdered in the various camps or shot. My grandfather David Loewenberg or Levenbergs, born in 1877 in Libau in Latvia, was one of eight children, as I discovered only last year in the Latvian Historical State Archives in Riga. His two elder twin brothers also left Latvia, like himself, Moishe for Paris (his children worked in the French Resistance and were murdered by the Gestapo) and Abraham for Tehran. My grandfather was, from what I could gather, the only Levenberg who went to university and studied in Dresden, later making a life for himself in Berlin. He was an engineer and an inventor whose factory was taken away from him by the Nazis in 1935, forcing him to place his two sons in an orphanage.

His other brother and three sisters stayed with their parents, Minna and Lazzers (Lazzers had been a soldier), in Libau and most likely helped them out in their furniture shop. From what I have read, I must conclude that my Levenberg family who stayed in Libau were all murdered by Latvian Arajs commandos and auxiliary police in the Libau massacres of 1941.

After many years of searching for family members and even devoting ten years of my life to studying the Holocaust formally at MA and then DPhil level, working at Sussex university and the Wiener Library as an academic and education officer, I decided to go to Riga for the first time last year and try to establish what had happened to my uncle Paul, my father's brother born in Halle, Germany, 20 January 1922.

Paul, who was a year older than my father, had not managed to get out of Nazi Germany and therefore found himself trying to leave for Palestine with the help of a Jewish youth movement. He worked first of all on a farm in Denmark before going to Riga to work in 1940. The last letter my grandmother received from him was dated 8 September 1940. In the Riga archives, I discovered that Paul had been sent to the Riga ghetto on 4 October 1941. There are no records of what happened to him. I must assume that he was killed, aged 19. In 1941 and 1942, 90 per cent of Latvia's pre-war 62,000 Jews were killed, Latvian commandos and auxiliary police taking a leading role in their extermination.

As I am sure you can appreciate, discovering these facts has been exceptionally distressing. However, it was equally distressing to discover that the men actively involved in the mass murders of Latvia's Jews joined the 15th and 19th Divisions of the Latvian SS in 1943. The 15th Division was the most decorated out of all Himmler's SS divisions. In an EU country, these men are today held as "heroes" by many Latvians.

The current Latvian prime minister feels we should "bow" our heads to these Waffen-SS klillers. I also find it of deep concern that British Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament work with the Latvian MEP Roberts Zile and have made an unholy alliance with the party to which he is connected.

Last year two Latvian politicians, Dzintars Rasnacs and Raivis Dzintars, participated in the march to honour the Waffen-SS, the greatest Jew-killing machine in world history. Raivis Dzintars belongs to the national association "All For Latvia!" and was a member of the ultranationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, to which Mr Zile is still linked.

I must also add that another party comrade of Mr Zile told the Latvian parliament that LNNK has always been against the trial of Konrads Kalejs and other Latvians accused of Nazi crimes. Kalejs was a close assistant of Viktors Arajs, chief of the bloody Arajs Commando, responsible for guarding and finishing off those Jews who were still alive in the ditches into they fell after mass shootings. Some survived and tried to escape but the Latvians were on hand to kill them.

To raise concern about these Latvian politicians and the Waffen-SS, I launched a petition, started on the anniversary of my uncle's birthday – 20 January 2012 – 70 years to the day of the Wannsee conference when the Final Solution of exterminating the Jews was planned. The petition was called "Stop the 16 March Marches in Riga and Latvians Revising History", as I sincerely believe glorification of pro-Nazi armed forces during the Second World War has no place in a country that is a member of the European Union, Nato, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

In little over a month, the petition has gained over 5,500 votes from around the world, indicating that I am not alone in believing that such glorification is terribly wrong. One should add that the ECRI, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, had already in 2008 explicitly stated: "All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen-SS and collaborate with the Nazis should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimising in any way Nazism should be banned." The ECRI reiterated the same in its most recent report about Latvia, dated 21 February 2012.

The Latvian apologists and their friends in British politics who refuse to dissociate themselves from Mr Zile should consider the following:

1. Many of the worst Latvian killers served in the Latvian Security Police prior to joining the SS Legion. Honouring such persons would be a travesty of justice and a whitewash of their heinous crimes.

2. The Legion fought under the Nazi high command for victory of the Third Reich. They do not deserve to be honoured for fighting for a victory of the most genocidal regime in human history. Ironically, such a victory would have been a disaster for Latvia because the Nazis had no intention or plan to grant Latvia independence.

3. About one-third of those who served in the Legion were volunteers (two-thirds were drafted) and many of them had served in Latvian Security Police units that actively participated in the mass murder of Jews in Latvia and in Belarus, such as the infamous Arajs Commando squad.

4. When Latvian SS killed Soviet soldiers, they allowed Nazis on the western front to kill British and American soldiers in turn and thus made it possible for Auschwitz and other concentration camps to continue their heinous crimes against humanity.

5. Democratic Latvia should not glorify those willing to give up their lives for victory of the Third Reich. The Latvian Righteous Gentiles would make much better role models.

6. The ultranationalists who support the march are the ones who are seeking to rewrite the accepted narrative of the Holocaust in Latvia. Their efforts will help hide the crimes of local Nazi collaborators and promote the canard of equivalency between communist and Nazi crimes.

7. Ceremonies in churches and cemeteries are also forms of honouring the deceased (whether they deserve it or not). Witness the masses held in Zagreb and Split, Croatia, last December in honour of the Croatian mass murderer and leader of the Ustashe Ante Pavelic.

As these men march from the main Latvian Lutheran Church towards the symbol of Latvian independence – Freedom Monument in Riga's central square on 16 March – will any of these men and politicians spare a thought for their Latvian murdered compatriots who happened to be Jewish? Will they remember how 25,000 of them, in the autumn of 1941, over two weekends, were marched down Riga's streets from the ghetto to Rumbula, shot and thrown into pits using the "sardine method"? Will they say a prayer for them?

With kind regards,

Monica Lowenberg

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.