Today is about Rumbula and what happened there. The eyewitnesses and the historians agree on what happened. In the Rumbula forest on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, 1,700 executioners murdered more than 25,000 Jews.
Of those 1,700 killers, between 1,000 and 1,500 were residents of Latvia drawn from the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, or the Nazis’ Security Service), precinct police, Rīga city police, battalion police being trained for military action in Russia, and some 100 Latvian ghetto guards. The execution was carried out in the most cruel and heartless way, under the direction of the Nazi Obergruppenfuehrer Friedrich Jeckeln.
The question of why human beings engage in such savagery is not only an anthropological question. If we mean to safeguard civilization and democracy, we have to examine the events and the participants, and we have to understand its relevance to us and to our times.
Recently in Rīga there has been discussion, especially in newspapers, of how to describe the participants in the Rumbula killings. Some people say that not all the Latvians were there voluntarily. Some say nothing done in those times under Nazi occupation was “voluntary.” Some say those were complicated times. Some say that we should not mention the Latvian participation, because it was not voluntary. Some say that we should forget about the Latvian participation.
It is uncanny that some people are adopting the Nuremburg defense used by the Nazis at their postwar trial. They too denied responsibility for their actions, saying they were “just following orders.”
How sad that anyone in today’s free and democratic Latvia would excuse this kind of crime by saying “it was a complicated time” or the executioners were not “volunteers.”
What we have learned from 20th century history is that no man has to follow orders. Each of us has a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right. We have the duty to recognize evil and immoral acts. We have the duty to refuse to take part in them. We are all volunteers on this earth.
And, how do we teach this morality, this internal ethical standard to our children? We teach them the lessons of the past. We do not pretend that evil never happens. We do not cover up the awful truth.
No, we print it in big letters and we make sure everyone reads it. We make sure everyone knows that this was an evil that no one of us must ever let happen again.
That is why we are here today. That is why a monument to the victims of Rumbula matters. That is why it matters what we write on that monument. It is the truth.
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