Fresh Ideas: The ignored reality of Eastern Europe's holocaust

My native country, Latvia, is rarely mentioned in newspapers, much less elsewhere, unless sometimes as the object of a harmless, weird joke, because not many know if Latvia actually exists or not. That's just the way it is. As an immigrant, I often felt strangely invisible or a bit freakish, compulsive about making Latvia, and myself, "real."

I used to read indexes to history and geography books, usually looking in vain for the word "Latvia." But I don't do that anymore. On occasion when I do come across something about Latvia's history, ancient or modern, it's not always correct. Not that I'm an authority on the subject. When it comes to history, any history, there's much that never sees the light of day.

For instance, we tend to think of Auschwitz as the symbol of the evil of mass killing, when in fact, according to Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, it is only a "hint of the true reckoning" of the past that we need to acknowledge.

Snyder points out in a lecture he delivered in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 9, 2009, that the "geographic, moral, and political center" of the mass killings that occurred was in the Europe of the East, primarily in Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.) In fact, he says, we fail to notice that in the 12-year period between 1933 and 1944, 12 million victims, Jews and non-Jews, of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in that region.

Auschwitz has become the symbol simply because there were survivors who were free to write and publish as they liked, whereas the East European Jews behind the iron curtain could not.

Reading Snyder made me pull from the shelves my old (first published in 1928, then revised after World War II) handbook about Latvia written by Dr. A. Bilmanis and translated into English. I wanted to see what was said about that 12-year period in Latvia. Sure enough, it includes the entire progression of treaties, subterfuges, and data on killings by both Germany and Russia.

And Bilmanis affirms Snyder's thesis: Behind the mass killings lay each country's vision of economic development. The Germans wanting the agrarian utopia of the East, and the USSR wishing to overcome its agrarian backwardness with rapid industrialization and urbanization. Any Latvian is gratified to see the larger world confirming its version of history.

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D. teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.


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