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?Herberts Cukurs: Certainly Guilty? By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

June 7,2005
Diena (Riga, Latvia)

“Herberts Cukurs: Certainly Guilty”

Anyone seeking convincing evidence that it is far preferable to prosecute Nazi war criminals rather than execute them, need only review the developments relating to Herberts Cukurs during the past year in Latvia. The former pilot who won national acclaim for his solo international flights in the thirties, but later earned ignominious notoriety as the deputy commander of the infamous Arajs Kommando, has been the beneficiary of a campaign to restore him to a place of honor in the pantheon of Latvian heroes. Under normal circumstances, such an effort would be doomed to failure, with the subject having been prosecuted for this crimes, but the fact that Cukurs was executed by the Mossad without due process, has ironically opened up a Pandora’s box of whitewashing efforts, including by prominent Latvians who, at least in theory, should know better.

What began last fall with the distribution by right-wing extremists of envelopes with Cukurs likeness, has recently taken the form of a large exhibition in Liepaja entitled “Herberts Cukurs:The Presumption of Innocence,” and a film which originally had the same name, which highlight documents and facts which ostensibly absolve Cukurs of participation in war crimes. To these, can be added the partially-exculpatory comments by reputable historians such as Andrew Ezergailis who was quoted on May 17 in this newspaper as saying that there was no evidence that put Cukurs near the pit at Rumbula and in any event it has not been proven that he was “the most eager shooter of Jews in Latvia.” While Latvian historians such as Ezergailis and Aivars Stranga unequivocally acknowledge Cukurs’ position in the Arajs Kommando, they seem to indicate that there is hardly any solid evidence regarding his own personal participation in the mass murders, clearly conveying the impression that while Cukurs was apparently not a Righteous Gentile, it is not certain that he could have been convicted in a court of law and hardly deserved his cruel fate at the hands of the Mossad.

The truth, however, is quite different. Contrary to the attempts by right-wing nationalists and his family to totally exonerate Cukurs and by other Latvians to question or diminish his individual culpability, the testimony in Israeli archives regarding Cukurs’ personal participation in the murder of Jews is extensive, detailed, and unequivocally damning. It relates, moreover, to several specific instances and is not confined to his role in the large-scale Aktions in which the Latvian Jews in the Riga Ghetto were liquidated on November 30 and December 8, 1941.

Rafael Shub, for example, a survivor from Riga who was interviewed in Canada, notes that on July 2, 1941 Cukurs burned to death eight Jews in the new [Jewish] cemetery, even naming his victims – synagogue sexton Feldheim, his wife and four children and cantor Mintz and his wife. Abraham Shapiro, a survivor living at the time (1949) in Munich, who was incarcerated at Arajs Kommando headquarters at 19 Valdamaras St. after Cukurs had expropriated his family’s apartment, related that Cukurs personally murdered two Jews, one of whom was named Leitmann, who failed to appear at a line-up as ordered. He also witnessed Cukurs and his fellow senior Latvian officers sexually molest and torture a young Jewish girl, while he played piano at a command performance ordered by Cukurs in the apartment he had seized from the Shapiro family.

Probably the most damning evidence was submitted by Max Tukacier, who testified on September 23, 1948 in Munich before the Legal Department of the Central Committee for Liberated Jews in Germany. Tukacier was among the Jews arrested by “Cukurs’ men” (Arajs Kommando) and taken to their headquarters at Valdamaras St. 19. There he was personally beaten by Cukurs who broke nearly all his front teeth and he witnessed how numerous Jews were tortured and subsequently shot on his orders. On July 15, 1941, he personally saw Cukurs order on elderly bearded Jew to rape a twenty year old Jewess in front of a crowd of Latvian police and prisoners and when he was incapable of doing so, forced the man to kiss the naked girl all over her body again and again. Those prisoners who could not bear to watch this ugly sight were beaten by Cukurs with the butt of his pistol, some 10-15 of them to death, including several women. Tukacier also testified to Cukurs’ active role in the large-scale actions of November 30 and December 8, noting that he beat and shot men, women, and children who could not keep pace on the march [to Rumbula].

Additional witnesses confirmed Cukurs’ lethal role in the liquidation of the Latvian Jews in the Riga Ghetto. Isaac Kram, for example, related how he personally saw Cukurs shoot an elderly Jewess whose daughter was not allowed to go on the train which transported the elderly Jews to Rumbula on December 8, as well as a young child who cried because he couldn’t find his mother.

These testimonies clearly demonstrate that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Herberts Cukurs was a leading participant in the mass annihilation of the Jews of Riga, who personally murdered men, women and children. In that respect, it is clear that had he been brought to trial within a reasonable time after the war, he would undoubtedly have been convicted. But for a variety of political and legal reasons that had still not happened twenty years after the end of World War II, and it appeared that it would never happen, which prompted his execution by the Mossad. Had he been prosecuted, I would like to think that the current campaign to minimize his guilt would never have been launched, because his active participation in the mass murders of Jews would have been common knowledge and no self-respecting person would have attempted to exonerate him. Thus Cukurs was spared the embarrassment of a trial, only to be punished in an extrajudicial manner. Those who did so, never dreamt that his execution would subsequently serve as a catalyst and justification for attempts to restore him to hero status in Latvia and whitewash his massive guilt.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff