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When all 19 members of his family were killed, Mozus Berkovich had been studying to become a dentist. It was July of 1941, and the Nazi invasion of Europe was in full swing. Berkovich, originally from the small shtetl of Akniste, Latvia, was saved only because he happened to be studying in Riga at the time.
According to a verified account by Latvian historian Andris Ezergailis, the Akniste murders were committed not by Nazis, but by Latvian nationalists called “shutsman,” or “self defenders.” Berkovich’s family was slaughtered in a mass shooting along with 156 other Jews in the shtetl.
Archival documents cite Vilis Tunkelis, the deputy commander of the township, as the leader in these attacks. He had not been authorized by the Nazi regime to carry out the execution, but by another local “self defender,” his superior, Oskars Baltmanis. Baltmanis then gave the order for the participants to occupy the victims’ homes and plunder their property. By the end of the war, Latvia would lose 90 percent of its Jewish population.
Berkovich is now 92 years old, and still remembers the name of each shooter who participated in his family’s extermination. They were his schoolmates and neighbors, he says. This year, Berkovich sued Latvia for $190 million in Holocaust compensation, the first suit of its kind in the country.
Before the Holocaust, Latvia had a Jewish population of 90,000; after the war, only 8,000 remained. As in the case of Akniste, many Latvian brigades were behind the murders—not the Nazis. Some of these men later joined the Waffen SS, which was condemned as a criminal organization during the Nuremberg Trials due to its participation in war crimes.
However, the Waffen SS also fought against Soviet forces, which occupied Latvia in 1940. Thus, many Latvians see the Waffen SS as having fought for their independence, and disregard completely its other association. The veteran fighters of the Waffen SS are considered war heroes in Latvia.
“Latvian Legion Day,” celebrated annually on March 16, allows Latvians to pay tribute to the Waffen SS with a large and jubilant parade in Riga. Videos of the event show veterans participating in the march, decked in full army attire. Due to the controversy surrounding the parade, the Latvian government spoke out against it in 2000. Yet, it still continues to this day. This year’s event drew a crowd of 1,500 people.
In another reflection of this issue, Vilis Tunkelis, who carried out the murder of Berkovich’s family and the other Jews of Akniste, is buried just 10 feet from the mass grave that holds his victims’ bodies. On one side of the street, by the burial site, stands a memorial commemorating the Jews’ deaths. At its side stands a memorial commemorating those who murdered them. “You gave your lives to Latvia in the fight against the communist occupation regime,” the stone reads.
In a similar case, SS General Rudolf Bangerskis, said to be responsible for the deaths of 50,000 Latvian Jews, was exhumed from his grave in Germany and buried in a place of honor in the Brethren Cemetery in Riga. Former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga even laid a wreath at the site.
Whether the Latvian people are unaware of the background of the men they honor, or simply refuse to acknowledge it, is unclear. Yet a U.S. State Department official who has worked closely with Berkovich (and requested to remain anonymous) describes it as a problem particular to the Baltic region. “There’s a sense that there was Baltic suffering [due to the occupation by the Soviet regime], and it’s something we try to combat, because the holocaust is an unprecedented event in history,” he says.
Mikhail Ioffe, the lawyer representing the Berkovich family, has harsher words for the Latvian government. According to Ioffe, the government is fully aware of the memorials being erected across the country for members of the Waffen SS. “Today, the policy of this government is directed toward the justification of its people for their involvement in World War II on the side of Nazi Germany, and to receive compensation from Russia for its ‘occupation’ after the liberation from Nazism,” he says.
By the time of this writing, Berkovich had lost his suit. Still, he said his purpose was not the money—but to right the continuing injustice he sees in Latvia. Ioffe claims that the goal is to force the Latvian state to apologize publicly for having committed crimes during the Holocaust, “to demolish all the monuments of the executioners, and to compensate for their crimes as specified.”
Berkovich shows no signs of slowing down. He has also been involved in a 20-year legal battle with the Latvian government regarding his family’s property. After his family’s murder, Berkovich says, “[the local Latvians] stole the property.”
“Ninety percent of the residents of Akniste didn’t shoot, but all of them did steal."
When Soviet forces occupied Latvia in 1940, all property was confiscated as part of communist practice. Following Latvia’s regained independence in 1991, the country allowed its citizens (and former citizens) to claim the land taken from them. Berkovich, assisted by his grandson Eugene Levin, immediately applied for the restoration of his family’s estate. All together, this consisted of seven properties. The next 20 years would see a game of cat and mouse with the Latvian government.
Eugene has piles of legal papers documenting his and his grandfather’s journey for the reclamation of their property. In order for the application to be valid, the documents would have needed to be received by 1996. For years, the government has claimed that it never received the documents, or that they arrived late, even though Eugene has documented evidence that they were not only sent but received on time.
Berkovich slowly climbed the judicial ladder, eventually reaching the Latvian Supreme Court. When this court denied his claim, he appealed to the European Human Rights Court, which advised him to seek compensation for the property. So, in the last year, Berkovich started from the beginning. He is now seeking $113,000 compensation for the estate, and $105,000 in lost profit from use of the property since 1992.
Berkovich lives comfortably in a suburb outside of Boston, just a few minutes drive from Eugene and his family. He maintains that his fight is about neither the money nor the property. “Why should I leave it to [the Latvian government]?” Berkovich asks. “I’ll receive this money, and I’ll build a good memorial. Maybe there’s a Jewish organization, maybe it can help Jewish orphans.”
While the Latvian government has claimed that it is unable to restore the property, due to its being occupied by a post office (and thus the Latvian government), among other reasons, Ioffe feels strongly that the government is acting deliberately. “The policy of the authorities of Latvia for the restitution of Jewish property is not to return the property and pay no compensation,” Ioffe says, “When all the Jews die in Latvia, they’ll have nothing to return.”
The case has already attracted the attention of senior members of the U.S. government. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was in talks with the Latvian embassy, and, when it failed to answer his questions, Frank sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I am requesting...that the Administration…make clear in all our interactions with officials in the Republic of Latvia that the United States is gravely disappointed with the decisions of Latvian authorities in this particular case, and to strongly urge them to revisit their decisions so that a just solution may be found,” Rep. Frank writes.
Despite Berkovich’s difficulties, the State Department official who spoke anonymously with JointMedia News Service says the Latvian government has generally been responsive on private property restitution. Rather, it is on Jewish communal property that the government poses an obstacle.
In 2006, legislation was introduced in the Latvian parliament that would have set up a compensation fund for lost property, approximately 30 million Lats, the official said. “Unfortunately the parliament of Latvia decided to abstain, and the bill did not go anywhere,” he says, citing the international monetary collapse as a possible reason.
Since then, the Latvian government decided to establish a working group to determine the amount of communal property owed, but the State Department official says, “I’ve never seen the results.”
Due to political upheaval in Latvia, efforts are now back at square one. The American government is “trying to decide when and if we’ll give a diplomatic push,” the official says. In the interim, he is “setting up a fund that would take care of the social wellbeing of Holocaust survivors in Latvia.”
Elie Valk, Chairman of the Association of Latvian & Estonian Jews in Israel, and a former Latvian citizen himself, agrees that the problem lies with Jewish communal property restitution and compensation. The Latvian Jewish community wasn’t allowed to own the few properties it did receive, Valk says, but instead received “unlimited time usage” for them.
The situation in Latvia is complicated, according to Valk, because the Jewish community faces the unique issue of having no heirs. “Because whole families were executed… [the community’s] property has gone to the state,” Valk explains. His association is currently trying to explain to the Latvian government that, given the nature of the deaths of the former property owners, the Jewish community should become the heir of their respective properties.
David Peleg, General Manager of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, says that this issue will likely be addressed soon. “The main thing now is the issue of communal property, at the time there was world legislation dealing only with religious sites, and now there is an effort to enlarge the large volume of the legislation to all Jewish sites, and the government promised new legislation and I hope this will be done this year,” he says.
In response to a request for comment by JNS, the Latvian embassy provided a series of prepared statements. As to the issue of property restitution, a statement by the embassy discusses the difficulty Latvia faced after its occupation by two regimes, and that “[Latvia] addressed the issue of property restitution to its rightful owners with an open, clear, responsible, and inclusive approach. Latvia’s restitution legislation is considered to be among the most liberal in Central and Eastern Europe.”
A separate statement also claims that the Latvian government has put much effort into Holocaust education. It lists a commission, established in 1999 to research Holocaust events in Latvia, restoration of Jewish sites, and Holocaust Remembrance Day (celebrated annually in Latvia since 1990), as examples.
Berkovich has been in this fight for 20 years, and by the look of him, he could be in it for another 20. His story, he says, is “nothing special.” He believes that being “ordinary” allows him to blend into those lost in Latvia, and represent them all.
For them, Mozus Berkovich will continue to fight.