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Red Army Zionist Fighters

Latvian Jews fought with Stalin against the Nazis for their very existence

by
Konstantin Fuks
October 28, 2020
A. Rashkevits, ed., ‘Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi: Sbornik vospominanii i dokumentov o vooruzhennoi bor'be latyshskogo naroda protiv fashistskikh zakhvatchikov,’ Vol. 2. Ianvar' 1944-Mai 1945 (Riga: Liesma, 1972), 47
Yazep Pasternak (1919-1975) in liberated Riga, 1945A. Rashkevits, ed., ‘Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi: Sbornik vospominanii i dokumentov o vooruzhennoi bor'be latyshskogo naroda protiv fashistskikh zakhvatchikov,’ Vol. 2. Ianvar' 1944-Mai 1945 (Riga: Liesma, 1972), 47
A. Rashkevits, ed., ‘Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi: Sbornik vospominanii i dokumentov o vooruzhennoi bor'be latyshskogo naroda protiv fashistskikh zakhvatchikov,’ Vol. 2. Ianvar' 1944-Mai 1945 (Riga: Liesma, 1972), 47
Yazep Pasternak (1919-1975) in liberated Riga, 1945A. Rashkevits, ed., ‘Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi: Sbornik vospominanii i dokumentov o vooruzhennoi bor'be latyshskogo naroda protiv fashistskikh zakhvatchikov,’ Vol. 2. Ianvar' 1944-Mai 1945 (Riga: Liesma, 1972), 47

The Second World War was the first modern war where the Jews did not kill one another. For many diasporic Jews, this was essentially a “Global Jewish world war that blended Allied and Jewish, especially Zionist, interests into a seamless whole.” But this was not the kind of “Jewish War” that might be created in the imagination of an anti-Semite. It was a war for survival, many of whose heroes were erased from history or silenced by the countries whose uniforms they wore.

On July 17, 1944, a combined company of multiethnic soldiers from the 130th Latvian national corps received the order from the Soviet command to liberate the small town of Šķaune located right at the old Soviet-Latvian boundaries. Šķaune was one of the many ordinary Jewish shtetls of the eastern regions of Latvia, whose old communities of the “eccentric” Jewish “dreamers, tailors, and shoemakers” had gone forever during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. The peculiarity of this symbolic commencement of the Soviet liberation of Latvia lay in the fact that the commander of the first company of Latvian soldiers to cross the national border was a highly decorated Jewish officer of the 43rd Guards Latvian Rifle Division—future holder of the order of Alexander Nevsky and a native of Riga—Yazep Pasternak. A couple of months later, the same “tall, handsome” Soviet Jewish officer mounted on a “white horse” entered triumphantly the streets of liberated Riga.

Alongside the fallen Jewish Komsomol activist Benyamin Lurie, Capt. Yazep “Osya” Pasternak was part of the generation of Soviet Jews who optimistically accepted the ideals of social equality, which were put into practice, they believed, during the “Latvian socialist revolution” of 1940. They embraced the arrival of the Soviet Army in 1940 and as volunteers of the Latvian military formations became willful participants in the Soviet-German war. Although not being completely alienated from their Jewish roots, this historical generation of Soviet Jewish idealists fought against the Germans primarily not as the Jews, but as internationalists and unconditional supporters of the Soviet motherland in the fight against Nazi Germany.

Perhaps Pasternak’s glorious appearance in the victory parade in Riga was seen as symbolic payback for the destruction of local Jewish communities by many Latvian soldiers of Jewish origin. Yet, as one Jewish evacuee from Latvia, Dusia Gershovitch, stated: “our Jewish boys,” who took part in the parade through the streets of Riga, did this “with pride that they defeated Nazism, but not because of their affiliation to the Latvian division.” Many of them were still brought up in Jewish education entangled with the modern ideas of Zionism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Dov Levin conducted interviews with several Zionist combatants of the Red Army from the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian national divisions, legitimizing their place in the global memory of Jewish struggle against Nazism. The recollections of these veterans demonstrate that they were in most cases a highly motivated bunch of combatants who fought their own way out in a global Jewish war of survival against Nazism.

Yet Jewish warfare in the Soviet Union was marginalized in the historical and social memory space of the countries from both ideological camps during the Cold War. The Soviet-Latvian approach to remembering the Jewish wartime efforts in the Latvian national formations of the Red Army generally followed the “grand theories” of postwar Soviet historiography of the Great Patriotic War, which had the tendency to downplay the contribution of the Jews and “the phenomenon of Jewish warfare.” Yet, the problem of downplaying the Jewish factor in the memorialization of the Latvian divisions of the Red Army was more complex, given the recent entry of the Republic of Latvia into the Soviet Union as well as the military involvement of Latvian people on both sides of the Soviet-German War.

With the growing international criticism of the legality of the incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union, the Institute of History of the Latvian SSR Academy of Sciences produced a 900-page book titled The Struggle of the Latvian People During the Great Patriotic War (1970). This monumental work was the first systematic study of the wartime history of the Latvian SSR through the lens of the history of the Communist Party of Latvia. The research glorified the leading role of the party in the mobilization of the Latvian people in the struggle against the Germans and contested “the falsifications” of the historical records of World War II in the Baltic émigré communities of Europe and North America which portrayed the “Soviet Revolution of 1940” as the Soviet occupation of Latvia. The primary goal was to highlight the fact that many ethnic Latvians willingly accepted the Soviet rule and were keen combatants of the Red Army. In this ideological paradigm, the names of Capt. Pasternak together with a handful of other trusted Soviet Jewish Communists and Komsomol activists like Solomon Eidus, Mavrik Vulfson, Benyamin Lurie, Isaak Borok, and Ruvin Amdur made into the official Soviet-Latvian narrative as heroic patriots of Latvia.

The narrative of the Soviet Jewish heroes of the Great Patriotic War was not openly welcomed in the postwar historical memory of the Western Jewish communities and Israel either. During the intensifying Cold War confrontation, it was customary for the postwar Jewish immigrants from the Baltic republics and Eastern Poland to experience vulnerability from their past military service in the Red Army due to the fear of revealing their real or imagined associations with the Communist regime and its repressive organs. In Israel, the brief euphoria of the recognition of the State of Israel by Josef Stalin was replaced by the national concerns over postwar anti-Semitism and the anti-Israeli policies of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, which left little room for glorification of the Jewish soldiers from an army that was engaging in multiple proxy wars against the Zionist state. Furthermore, the primary focus of Israeli historical memory on the victimhood of Jewish people in the Second World War meant that the heroism of the Jewish resistance movement during the Holocaust was preferred to the story of Jewish combatants of the allied forces, especially on the Soviet side.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the big waves of the Soviet Jewish immigration in the Western countries and Israel, the image of a Soviet Jewish hero has become more acceptable in the historical memory of Western Jewish diasporas and Israel. In this light, the ultimate collections of the names and biographies of the Jewish combatants of the Baltic divisions were published and promoted globally in Jewish diasporas by the enthusiastic members of the veterans’ organizations of the Baltic formations of the Red Army. And, yet, as Derek Penslar correctly observed, when on the V-D, the Soviet Jewish veterans put on “their old uniforms” and march “in parades celebrating their courage, heroism, and sacrifice,” it happens “much to the surprise of Israelis whose education has made little room for heroism within the framework of a diaspora army.” Perhaps as a way of dealing with the ideological demands of Zionism, there is a growing agreement that Soviet Jews, though not being completely alienated from their Jewishness, were more inclined to fight in the war against the Germans not essentially as Jews but as the defenders of their families and patriots of the Soviet motherland. Consequently, the attitude of Jewish combatants from the Soviet western borderlands and the Baltics toward these questions is worth investigating.

With the outbreak of the Soviet-German War in the summer of 1941, only a small minority of the large 90,000 population of Latvian Jews found refuge in the interior of the Soviet Union. About 70,000 Jewish residents of Latvia, who, for a variety of reasons, could not evacuate, became the victims of mass violence and genocide in the Nazi-occupied Latvia. Leo Dribins (1996) estimates that in June and July of 1941, around 15,000 residents were able to escape Latvia and settle in Russia and Central Asia. As Anna Shternshis (2014) pointed out, the process of decision-making to stay or leave became “a key moment when Jewishness became relevant again to Soviet Jews,” especially for those Jewish families who lived near the new Soviet-German borders. For many Soviet Jews it was the rediscovery of a negative sort of Jewishness because it was primarily associated with the fear of Nazi persecution and possible ethnic violence by local neighbors.

Although Latvian Jews might have shared similar concerns with other Soviet Jews, their decision-making was also strongly affected by the events of the recent entry of Latvia into the Soviet Union. While the brief stint of Sovietization positively affected the political and social rights of many groups of Latvian Jews, who could access the positions in the government, military, and education, which they would never be able to receive under the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis, the rule change significantly deteriorated their relations with the nationally inclined Latvians, who blamed the former for actively participating in the occupation of Latvia and the installment of the Communist regime. These anti-Semitic sentiments intensified due to the fact that many Jews indeed welcomed the Soviet troops with open arms or silent approval. The deputy chief of the repressive organs of the Latvian SSR was a Jewish representative from Moscow, Simon Shustin, who was responsible for the repressions in 1940 and 1941.

In fact, however, there was an insignificant number of local Jews among the Latvian chekists; most security officers were Latvians and Russians. Nevertheless, as the revisionist Zionist and the future volunteer of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division, Menachem Epstein, pointed out: “the narrative of Judeo-Communists taking over Latvia was common … many grasped the situation quickly, the hatred toward the Jews was felt during the Soviet rule, and we felt there will be a massacre. As a result, we feared Latvians more than ever before.”

It should be noted that with the socialist ideals of equality, the Soviet rule brought upon the Jews the expropriation of private property and closure of many Jewish organizations including the Zionists. Some Jews experienced repression based on their political and economic status, and several thousand Jews, including a significant number of Zionist activists, were arrested and deported to Siberia in the eve of the war. The leaders of the Zionist organizations from both the left and right tried in most cases to keep a low profile, avoiding any association with the Jewish communists and the Komsomol youth.

Some Jews received the new authorities with suspicion if not hate based on their previous encounters with the Russian Bolsheviks. There were expressions of “anti-Russian” sentiment in Riga among some affluent Jews of the capital, possibly affecting their decision to stay in Latvia. One of the acquaintances of Epstein told him: “why would we run, what’s going to happen? The Russians I know from the year of 1919, they will kill us over there, but here we will work.” Another associate from Riga did not want to go either: “No, Bolsheviks killed my brother in 1919, why would we go to the USSR?”

For the majority of evacuees, the decision to flee was “spontaneous.” Many of the lucky ones were able to retreat with the armed exodus of the Soviet-Latvian authorities, jumping literally on the last wagons departing from Riga, Daugavpils, and Valmiera. Others took the risk of staying because they did not want to leave their property. In this regard, the Latvian organizer of the Zionist underground in the Soviet Union, Israel Zemah, for whom the knowledge about the new German ideology was not a “mystery,” painfully remarked with the following line: “there were some who thought that there was something to lose, so they lost everything.”

Nevertheless, evacuees and veterans alike confirm that the spirit of resistance against Nazi Germany among Latvian Zionists was very high from the very beginning of the war. The evacuee Dusia Gershovitch pointed out that “the arrival of Jewish refugees from Germany in 1934,” who settled in Latvia, “especially alarmed the generation from a Zionist youth movement,” who began to experience the sense of urgency about the slowly unleashing war against the Jewish people. She recalls the spirit of resistance of those youngsters, who were not directly victimized by the Nazi racist policies, with a following comparison statement reflecting her encounters with the Polish refugees: “unlike Polish Jews, whose spirit was wrecked, our boys’ conditions were much healthier. They were unbroken.”

The first hours of the war surprised not only the Soviet Latvian government but also many members of Zionist underground. For instance, this is how the activist of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Netzach, Dr. Shmuel Shoshan, recalls the first responses of the Latvian Jews to their place in this war among his fellow teachers and students alike in Riga’s Hebrew gymnasium:

The news about the war was surprising, everybody gathered in the gymnasium. The Radio informed us about “big victories” at the front, we did not believe it, but deep in the heart we wanted to believe in this. Even though there were deportation on 13 June, 1941. Many Jews were deported to Siberia and it was quite terrifying. Anyways, we gathered and started to think how we can contribute in this war. Our Yiddishist teacher Vasserman told us that it was a right decision to join the Red Army right after the outbreak of the war … The press, in the meantime, informed about the victories. The Red Army allegedly took Konigsberg, simultaneously, Lithuanian Jewish refugees appeared in Riga, Germans without resistance advanced toward Dvinsk … Then, we see the Red Army appeared on the streets of Riga, tired, exhausted, and demoralized. My father, who served in WWI, told me: “son, it is a fleeing army …”

With the call of the Soviet authorities of the Latvian SSR to volunteer in the squads of the Worker Guards and Komsomol Youth, Jews began to gather in the locations of mobilization, which were organized in Riga, Liepaja, Jelgava, Valmiera, Valka, Rezekne, and Daugavpils. The mass response of Jews to the volunteering call was of such a scale that the Soviet-Latvian historiography of the Great Patriotic War utilized it in its depiction of the resistance against the Germans as a “living testimony” of a truly internationalist response of all ethnic groups of Latvian society. Dr. Shmuel Shoshan recalls the decision of the leadership of Netzach in Riga to mobilize their youth members in the Komsomol battalions:

The leadership of our underground, Netzach, decided collectively to stop our opposition with the Komsomol, we joined the civil defense and began to receive information about participation in the war. On June 27, we started to go to the Komsomol iacheiki (groups) for courses and instruction for further actions.

The level of Jewish enlistment was in fact huge, although a little exaggerated in postwar interviews. Israel Freedman remembers his enrollment into the Komsomol battalions in one of the locations in Riga pointing out that “there was difficult to find somebody in the room who could not speak Yiddish or Hebrew.” The “best” Jewish youth “willingly volunteered” to receive the weapons whereas the Soviet authorities “gave them the security that there is an authority that is trying to organize something, but this organizational order was deceptive.” Dr. Shmuel Shoshan describes the formal process of the Sovietization of the members of “Tnua” in exchange for the guns as seemingly effortless. When it was time to flee the abandoned city of Riga, he went instead to the Komsomol department where an NKVD captain asked him: “Are you going to volunteer?” “Of course, I enter into volunteers!”—he responded. Shoshan’s depiction of the ethnic composition of the gathered volunteers in the department was not significantly different from Friedman’s accounts:

In this Komsomol department, there were about 300 people, almost entirely Jews. It was a task to find a non-Jew. The majority of the gentiles were the Komsomol youth of Latvian and Russian origin. Jews represented Beytar, Ha-Noar Ha-Tsair, and other Zionists even though there were repressions. Over there, I and many other Jewish Zionists agreed to join the Komsomol. We were informed to go west to Sigulda, where we would receive a commander and the weapons.

The paradox of this Jewish volunteerism was that by joining the Komsomol, these Latvian Zionists were joining Workers and Komsomol battalions linked to the NKVD of the Latvian SSR with whom they had horrific encounters just a week earlier, when many of their Jewish friends and relatives were deported to Siberia. Nevertheless, they volunteered—because Nazi threats of total extermination quickly overpowered the Soviet threats of political persecution. The Soviet armed forces became the existential allies of Latvian Jews in their struggle against the Nazis for sheer survival.

An essential element of a Jewish warfare erupting on Latvian soil was also the emerging solidarity among the Latvian Jews in arms of all political affiliations. Israel Friedman, a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair recollects that “the political walls crumbled” even among the left and right wing factions of Latvian Zionists. In the face of the danger, “members of Anshey Necah and Beytarim got closer and intimate.” Ardent Jewish communist activists of the Komsomol battalions and Workers Guards, like the fallen Benyamin Lurie, became unconditional and adored military leaders among the many of the Latvian Jewish volunteers of the Soviet Latvian battalions and regiments during the fierce battles in Estonia and Russia. Notably, the activist of the right-wing Zionist organization Beytar from Dvinsk, Yitzhak Sreberk, who exited Latvia with the Workers Guard, humbly recalls his brief association with the fallen Komsomol activist Benyamin “Bina” Lurie, wholeheartedly portraying him as “the high morale organizer and fighter” of the retreat of the Soviet Latvian forces.

In July 1941, the Soviet Latvian authorities in evacuation approached Stalin in Moscow with an idea of creating national divisions from ethnic Latvians and the residents of Latvia. This appeal was positioned as something that was born in the minds of the masses, who had never had the opportunity to mobilize to the Red Army with the outbreak of the Soviet-German War. With the help of notable Latvian veterans of the Lenin’s Guard during the Russian Civil War, this military formation was supposed to become the core of the Latvian nation in the struggle against fascism. Stalin blessed the project praising the revolutionary traditions of the Red Latvian Riflemen as the guardians of the Soviet rule. On Aug. 3, 1941, the State Defense Committee of the Soviet Union ordered the Latvian Communist Party and the Soviet People’s Commissars of the Latvian SSR together with the staff of the North-Western Front of the Red Army to “begin the formation of the Latvian Rifle Division from the fighters of the former Workers’ Guard, militia, the Soviet party workers, and other citizens of the Republic of Latvia, evacuated to the interior of the RSFSR.”

Although Stalin’s decision in the first months of 1941 to create the national forces from the Baltic peoples and the citizens of the Baltic republics set the tone for the future model of the national military buildup in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War, the “circumstances” of their creation and the “historical path” of their development was significantly different from all other national units. Yitzhak Arad assigns these “peculiar” historical circumstances to the fact that the population of the occupied Baltic territories willingly collaborated with Nazi Germany since the very beginning of the Soviet-German War in 1941. Therefore, “it was necessary to prove to the world that the Baltic peoples are true to the Soviet Union.”

Despite the national spin, this call received a substantial response from the Latvian Jews. About 5,000 of the evacuated Latvian Jews volunteered or were later conscripted to fight against Nazi Germany in the 201st (later 43rd Guards) and 308th rifle divisions of the 130th Latvian Rifle Corps of the Red Army and about 2,000 of them died in the battle in 1941-1945. The first version of the 201st division was mostly composed of the volunteers, of whom 17% were Jews (more than 1,700 soldiers and officers). During the fighting in Russia (1941-1944) and until the return to Latvia in July 1944, the total percentage of Jews in the Latvian formations of the Red Army never decreased below 8%. Since the end of March 1945, the percentage of ethnic Latvians had noticeably increased due to the mobilization of the local population in the liberated territories, which significantly reduced the representation of Jews in the entire corps during this period.

There was no consistent path to volunteering among the evacuated Latvian Jews. Some who temporarily settled in Kirov, Yaroslavl, and Ivanovo, after the organized meeting with the Latvian Komsomol representatives, volunteered immediately. The evacuated group of Dov Zahodin was eager to continue fighting in the ranks of the Red Army as volunteers. Many participated in the Battle of Moscow experiencing heavy losses. Others, like Israel Friedman, after a successful exodus, attempted to disappear in the wastelands of Russia and Central Asia, exploring the ways of crossing the southern borders to go to Palestine and maybe join the Jewish Legion. Although Zionist activists never truly gave up their dreams of settling in Eretz-Israel, as Dr. Shoshan confessed, due to the dangers of crossing the Soviet borders, there was seemingly no other “alternative” for a Zionist than turning oneself in to a mobilization office and fighting against the Germans.

The 1941-1944 reports of the commissioners of the Soviet-Latvian government in evacuation in the areas of significant presence of Jewish evacuees in Russia and Central Asia are in fact overwhelmed with the letters of Latvian Jews appealing to the Soviet-Latvian authorities in Kirov and Moscow to help them mobilize in the Latvian division.

Often the misery and the uselessness of the life in evacuation made many young Latvian Zionists turn to the conscription office. According to Israel Friedman, who did not go to the Latvian division at the very first call, he was “fed up to teeth of roaming around,” which made him purchase the train ticket and turn himself to the Gorokhovets military camps. Yitzhak Sreberk had a similar story of life in the rear: “in Semipalatinsk, seeing the severity of Jewish evacuation and hunger among the Jews, I could not bear this anymore. I did not want to die in hunger and decided to die as a free man with a shotgun.”

The opportunity to fight against Nazi Germany in the Red Army uniform together with friends, schoolmates, and relatives was met with great enthusiasm among Latvian Zionists. Their motivation was primarily shaped by a strong ethnic compulsion to fight against the Germans as a tightly organized armed group of Jewish combatants under the banner of the Latvian divisions. Israel Friedman remembers that “the idea spread across the Jews quickly, especially amongst those who evacuated or came out from Latvia with the military units and battalions. It was a great opportunity to fight together and find each other more quickly.”

Although there was a significant number of Latvian Jewish communists in the division, who often took high positions of authority, there was nevertheless “a big percentage of Zionists amongst the Latvian soldiers.” Yanai Yaakov remembers that in 1941 almost all “Tnua” volunteered to the Red Army even though the movement got weaker later because “the desire to go to Palestine got more prominent.” Dov Zahodin described the reception of the call in his circle of Zionist activists as “an excitement,” according to him, “everybody wanted to fight.” Even Dr. Shoshan, who was not easily persuaded by the Soviet tales of military brotherhood, confessed that there was “an impression” among the youth that with the establishment of the Latvian national division, “the Soviet authorities gave the opportunity for the Jews to come up together and be useful” in the war against Nazi Germany. “There was a huge desire to fight …” even though “there were talks that this division was not made for the Jews.” Nevertheless, when he arrived in the Gorokhovets military camps in October 1941, he found over there “a plenty of good Jews,” who were eager to sacrifice themselves in the fight against Nazism.

The military involvement of Latvian Jews in the Soviet war effort was complicated by their ambiguous position in the multiethnic division. The opportunity to fight together as Jews in the national formations of Latvia was incompatible with the political mission of the Soviet-Latvian authorities to showcase the support of ethnic Latvians in Soviet warfare against the Germans. The veterans and evacuees alike confirm that there was a certain degree of disappointment among some members of the leadership of the Latvian government with a significant presence of Jews in the divisions. It is often said that the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Latvian SSR, Augusts Kirhenšteins, in his visits to the Gorokhovets military camps, more than once showed his disapproval of Jewish numbers in the units with derogatory anti-Semitic comments.

Encounters with anti-Semitism at the front were not widespread but not completely uncommon especially during the Soviet liberation of Latvia. Menachem Epstein remembers that just at the end of the war, he accidentally heard the celebratory talks of drunken Latvian and Russian officers discussing the Jews fighting at the “Tashkent front.” The most painful fact for him was that “they knew that there were many Jews in the division but still made these comments to offend them.”

Yet, Latvian Zionists did take pride, as many other Jewish soldiers of the Soviet heartland and allied countries, that they were in fact an essential contributing factor in the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. For instance, Dov Zahodin remembers the military service in the multiethnic Latvian divisions as an elevating factor of the social status of many soldiers based on their military exploits: “the Jews of Latvia fought heroically, they did not want to be captured. The trust was immense, everybody knew if the Jew went with the reconnaissance units, he would come back.” Therefore, “it felt good in the division,” it almost felt like “in the Israeli Army.”

Yitzhak Sreberk mentions the growing national awareness of the Latvian Jewish combatants confronting the Holocaust of European Jewry:

The common bondage amongst us all was military, but amongst the Jews we had a special mission, already at that time we knew about the massacre of Jews in Latvia, knew about pogroms in Germany. We were always amongst our Jewish groups, but talked in Russian too, drunk yash together with the Russians. We were young, idealists, it was important for us to defeat the Nazis, we believed that after the victory everything will be better and good.

The narrative of the victory and the liberation of Latvia from Nazism was filled with anguish and despair when the soldiers began to confront the aftermath of the Holocaust. Even though many of them knew about the Aktion in Riga (Rumbula Massacre on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941) already in early 1943, they learned about the full scale of mass killing only when the Red Army returned to Latvia in 1944. Whereas Dov Zahodin confirms that many young Jews, including him, took pride in parading through the streets of Riga as the victors of the war against Nazism, the encounters with the Holocaust and the effects of the purging of Latvia from Jews was devastating upon the soldiers. The veterans confirmed that they found Jewish survivors only in Riga. In the eastern region of Latvia there was “nobody.”

Israel Friedman remembers how upon the liberation of Riga he went to search for the Jews at the registration office of the survivors, where, together with a Russian sergeant and a Jewish officer, he helped to register Jewish residents of Riga, who managed to survive German occupation. The feelings of grief and torment after the victory left many soldiers wandering around the republic to find their relatives and friends who were left behind in 1941. In December 1945, Menachem Epstein was released from the army and went to Liepaja to find out about the fate of his relatives, collecting on his way the stories of the Holocaust in Liepaja. Epstein’s account of the Jewish victory over Nazism in Latvia was the following: “we knew that many Latvians collaborated with the Nazis in the mass killings of the Jews; many went abroad, some walked on the streets … but there was no desire of revenge.” 

For many Zionist Jewish combatants, life in Soviet Latvia had no future. Israel Friedman remembers how, after completing his task of finding Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Riga, he got in contact with other Jews and discussed the possibility of Briha to the Eretz Israel: “at that time, I was almost an officer, in Jelgava was released from the service, and then we began our route to Palestine.”

The spirit of volunteerism of the young Latvian Zionists, especially in the first phase of the creation of the Latvian national formations, was neither derived significantly from their loyalty to the Soviet motherland, nor was it the product of Soviet war propaganda. They did not have any particular attachment to Latvia nor Soviet patriotism. Their status in the Latvian national divisions was disruptive to the historical narrative of the Soviet-Latvian effort against Nazi Germany, but they nevertheless took pride in the fact that they contributed to the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. What they certainly had in common was their strong ethnic identity and the motivation to fight together against the Germans as Jews under the banner of the Red Army, which made them a capable force in a Jewish war of survival.

Adapted from “Jewish Warfare on the Shores of the River of Daugava: Zionist Combatants of the Latvian Military Formations of the Red Army Remember World War II,” the Kornberg-Jezierski Family Memorial Essay Prize in Holocaust Studies, University of Toronto, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Konstantin Fuks is a doctoral candidate in History and in the Collaborative Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is currently completing a dissertation on Latvians in the Red Army during the Second World War.

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