A groundbreaking Latvian-Estonian Holocaust Remembrance event unfolded on Sunday, January 28, 2024, at the Southern Californian Latvian Community Center, marking a poignant observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This historic gathering, potentially the first of its kind in America, offered a rich and multi-faceted program that engaged attendees, including diplomats, government officials, consuls of various nations, representatives from the Los Angeles mayor’s office, notable artists and film-makers, distinguished presenters, viewers on Zoom—and an array of open-minded individuals aware of the enduring significance of this somber chapter in history.
The event featured the premiere screening of “Baltic Truth,” by Andrejs Hramcovs and Eugene Levin, presented for the first time at a Baltic community center before a Baltic audience.
As guests settled into their seats, they could view an expressive drawing by the late Kalman Aron, a Latvian Holocaust survivor and Los Angeles artist. A beautiful tone was set by singer-songwriter Inga Karpiča—an experience all the more exquisite knowing she had crafted her kokle herself.
Master of Ceremonies, Grant Gochin, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Togo, lent a compelling voice to the proceedings, given that his family in Latvia and Lithuania fell victim to the brutality of the Holocaust. His opening remarks declared,
“Jews do not believe in heritage guilt for individuals. The only path to true reconciliation and indeed friendship is truth and accountability. Historical facts cannot be changed. We will never reach a state of perfection, but we must reach as close to it as possible for genuine ties to be recreated, and genuine friendships to form and sustain.”
The United States Congress recognized the historical significance of the event, honoring key individuals for their dedicated efforts toward truth and reconciliation: Honorary Consul Dr. Juris Bunkis; Honorary Consul Jaak Treiman; Mr. Davis Reins, President of the Latvian Association of Southern California; and Mr. Renee Meriste, President of the Estonian Society of Los Angeles.
Rabbi Ahud Sela, from Temple Ramat Zion, offered a moving Holocaust Memorial Prayer. He sang in the traditional Jewish chant-melody, with its distinctive Middle Eastern intonations, setting an international, ancient, yet immediate tone to the gathering. His invocation served as a stirring reminder of the lives lost during the Shoah and sought solace in the hope that their memory would inspire acts of charity and goodness.
Honorary Consul Juris Bunkis explained his two-fold focus in organizing the commemoration: examining how Latvia and Estonia have addressed the Holocaust since gaining independence, and reflecting on its impact on subsequent generations. His perspective has been published by The Times of Israel, “The Truth about the Baltics” (September 9, 2022), an article made available to the audience. Dr. Bunkis points out that the scope of the Holocaust in each Baltic country varied only by the number of Jewish citizens living in their respective countries at the beginning of the war.
During the years of Soviet occupation, the Holocaust was not studied or acknowledged in the Baltics. Since independence over thirty years ago, Estonia and Latvia have acknowledged the existence of the Holocaust on their soil, acknowledged that Baltic participants helped the Nazis, have issued apologies, and made reparations. In America, the main focus of the diaspora has remained Soviet atrocities which occurred in our home countries. By acknowledging and learning from this dark chapter in history, we strive to ensure that such atrocities never happen again. Through these commemorations we honor the memory of victims, and contribute to building a world that rejects hatred, discrimination and genocide.
Jaak Treiman, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Estonia, gave credit to the leadership of Dr. Bunkis and the Latvian Community in organizing the Holocaust Remembrance. In the words of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, “Crimes against humanity must be remembered and addressed so future generations will know how to prevent them from happening again.” Treiman explained that in the film Baltic Truth, Estonia would be mentioned the least. Not because Estonians avoided the Holocaust, but because at the beginning of the war only four thousand Jews lived in Estonia. Three thousand of them fled to the Soviet Union as German forces approached. Less than a dozen Jews are known to have survived the war in Estonia.
Paul Berkolds, on behalf of the Latvian Association of Southern California, welcomed the many new faces to Latvian Hall, underscoring the importance of events like these in fostering understanding and galvanizing action for future generations. Especially since, sadly, we see the same vestiges of these twisted ideologies in our world today.
The commemoration also featured a remarkable musical performance by Helēna Sorokina, a Latvia-born mezzo soprano pursuing doctoral studies in Austria. Sorokina, accompanied by pianist-composer Richard An, showcased pieces by Latvian composers Pēteris Plakidis, Gundega Šmite, and Arturs Maskats. Sorokina has perfect pitch, and a unique, exploratory style that expands the concept of singing. She imparts an awesome appreciation for the versatile and fantastic instrument that is the human voice.
A video interview with Professor George Schwab, Latvian Holocaust survivor, put a personal face on the Holocaust’s staggering death toll. Schwab endured near-starvation in the Liepaja ghetto and at Kaiserwald and Stutthof concentration camps. He shared that he was never hurt by a Latvian during the Holocaust, that he observed Latvians to be under the direction of Germans, and said Latvia is facing up to its past – both the positive and negative parts.
Dr. Marylin Kingston, former vice president of the International Network of Adult Children of Holocaust Survivors, is the daughter of two survivors, as well as the daughter in-law of survivors. Kingston is an impassioned speaker whose mother survived a cattle car to Auschwitz, Stutthof concentration camp, and a death march. Her mother’s words “I want you to know!” have followed Kingston everywhere and impacted every decision of her life. She emphasized, “The burden of truth-telling rests firmly on the shoulders of the second generation [of Holocaust survivors], yet we cannot do it alone. Join not just in remembering, but in holding people in government accountable for their actions, so those who have rewritten history will be forced to acknowledge their culpability. We will not stand for distortion.”
Professor Robert English, director of the USC School of International Relations, stressed how the power of disinformation through the internet, can be turned against a scapegoat, likely immigrants, Jews, or Muslims, increasing the challenge of vigilance today.
Juris Bunkis introduced the documentary “Baltic Truth.” Narrated by award-winning Israeli performer Dudu Fisher, the film details WW2 atrocities in cities and towns in Latvia and Lithuania, exposing certain Holocaust war criminals who are disturbingly hailed as national heroes today.
Director Eugene Levin, who flew in from Boston for a post-screening Q&A, shared the film’s distribution plans, which will be through film festivals and Amazon; and its intended use in educational settings. Someone in the audience questioned whether some within the Baltic community, rather than supporting the Holocaust Remembrance, may have chosen tactics of silence and avoidance. The individuals assembled for Sunday’s commemorative event, however, were united in the belief that acknowledgement, transparency, and accountability offered a truthful, humble and positive path forward.
Together with Juris Bunkis’ clarification—that despite a few very bad apples, the vast majority of Latvia’s partisans and legionnaires were honest freedom- fighters on the eastern front, opposing the return of the Soviets, and having nothing to do with Jewish genocide—the commemorative program gave a balanced presentation of history.
Grant Gochin praised the governments of Estonia and Latvia for their courage, integrity, and reconciliation efforts, and concluded, “The day was about people of good will building bridges with hope for the future.”
Ideas take time to percolate. The hope is that Holocaust Remembrance Day and Dr. Bunkis’s exceptional initiatives will draw an even fuller audience in the coming years, contributing to a meaningful dialogue about important historical and current events.