Latvian President Andris Berzins is making an effort to avoid attending a Holocaust memorial ceremony together with Israel's President Shimon Peres during his upcoming visit to Latvia next week.
Berzins aides responded to a request from senior Israeli staff that he attend the ceremony at the Rumbula Forest with Peres, saying Berzins was too busy. They also reportedly told Israeli aides there is a state policy in the country preventing the Latvian president from accompanying visiting presidents to ceremonies, according to Israeli media.
The ceremony commemorates the deaths of 24,000 Jews from Riga and 1,000 German Jews murdered in the forest in November-December 1941 by the Einsatzgruppen units of the SS Nazi police, assisted by Latvian police and volunteers. They were transported to the forest by train and thrown into pits dug by the German Jews at the site.
“They told us he was going on vacation the day after his meeting with Peres and he has a lot to do before, including a Cabinet meeting,” an Israeli official said. Peres reportedly turned to the office at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum to ask them to request Berzins to join him at the ceremony.
“There is an important educational message in both presidents attending the memorial ceremony marking the massacre in the killing fields of Rumbula,” the president's residence explained in a statement released to Israeli and international media.
Peres is scheduled to meet with Berzins on the day of his arrival in Latvia, and is also expected to visit Lithuania. However, offers to reschedule the ceremony for the same day the two men were set to meet were also allegedly turned down.
A small monument was erected at the Rumbula Forest site in 1965, with an inscription in German, Russian and Yiddish that read, “To the Victims of Fascism.” It made no mention that the vast majority of the victims were Jews.
More than 35 years later, in 2002, the Latvian government refurbished the site, and corrected the omission. The inscription now reads in Latvian, German, English and Hebrew: “Here in the forest of Rumbula on November 30 and December 8 of 1941 the Nazis and their local collaborators shot dead more than 25,000 Jews – the prisoners of the Riga Ghetto – children, women, old people, as well as around 1,000 Jews deported from Germany. In the summer of 1944 hundreds of Jewish men from the concentration camp ‘Riga-Kaaiserwald’ were killed here.’