Four Star review, originally posted here on May 29, 2015.
This book review will be a little more personal than most, so, yeah, I guess you’ve been warned in case that’s not something you feel like reading…
This book came into my life at a very appropriate time. I’m Latvian-American, and have been raised with a lot of pride in my culture. This includes a basic education in Latvian history, which started in late elementary school (Latvian school once a week) and finished in mid high school (6 weeks at a residential summer school). That is not a lot of time in which to learn a thousand years of complicated and nuanced history, so realistically our entire coverage of the Holocaust in Latvia lasted for exactly one single thirty-minute class session somewhere around 9th grade. Beyond this thirty minute Holocaust lesson, anything I know about Latvian Jews has come from small snippets I have had to piece together: an occasional reference in a folk song, a segment in a documentary, a visit to Wikipedia. Nowhere have I felt that this aspect of our history has been sugarcoated or even hidden, but it’s just not something I’ve known much about. It’s also, clearly, one of the darkest pieces of Latvian history.
There are a lot of gray areas when exploring any region or population during war time, and Latvia and Latvians are no exception. I’ve heard many arguments and explanations regarding Latvian actions and decisions during World War II. It was a seriously fucked up time, to put it gently. But mo matter what, even the most pro-Latvian advocates always agree on one thing: there was a small group of Latvian individuals (estimates between 200-1,500 people) who, voluntarily, joined the Arajs Kommando with the explicit purpose of murdering Jews, not because they were pressured to do so, not because they misunderstood the mission, but because it is what they wanted to do. The most pro-Latvian people I know are ashamed of these individuals; there are no excuses offered for their behavior. One described it to me as the phenomenon that, in any population, there will be a minority of total psychopaths who will volunteer to do evil. Another described it as the one thing that the world can truly hold against Latvians. I’m still a very proud Latvian, and I also make no excuses for these people. I hate them.
But just a couple months ago, I discovered that my great uncle was one of these murderers. It breaks my heart. I want to go back in time and find him, my blood relative, who I can thank for my happy safe existence because he was the one who made it possible for my father and grandparents to escape west, and ask him directly, “Why? Why would you ever want to do this?” I will obviously never get an answer from him directly, but I can do my best to try to understand the circumstances surrounding these groups. Around the same time of this painful revelation, I was attending a fun, lighthearted event meant to share Latvian culture with local American, and there on a table selling Latvian goodies sat Frank Gordon’s book, jarringly dissimilar in both content and appearance from the other sales items. I snatched it right up.
I loved this book, and I wish that we had been required to read it in Latvian school (though, from a practical standpoint, Latvian school history education was too short to demand that we read entire books). Gordon does a fantastic and fair job explaining the changing relationships of these two ethnic groups, Latvians and Jews, over a relatively short amount of time. I would have enjoyed a bit more information about earlier history, which was skimmed over in just one chapter, but that would be outside the scope of this specific examination. Gordon spent surprisingly little time devoted to the Arajs Kommando, also relegating them to being an example of a small band of extremists instead of representative of an entire population (and as a Latvian, I of course want to believe that this is true). Instead, Gordon’s focus is more complex and nuanced, as it should be, in explaining how attitudes between the larger groups and individuals within these groups changed over time, and why. It is too easy to lump entire groups together, to in this way dismiss entire swathes of people as evil and thus to not learn anything from their stories. Gordon does not do this. He explains the motivations behind each group’s actions, and shows that things are rarely black and white.
Overall a simple, solid explanation of a niche bit of history most people never even think about, but one which has impacted so many lives in significant and terrible ways. I highly recommend it, especially for any other Latvians such as myself who want to get a deeper exploration of our history.