Approximately 94,000 Jews resided in Latvia prior to World War II (WWII). The Soviet Union occupied Latvia in June 1940 and annexed the country that August. Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis occupied Latvia. Detachments of German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), together with certain Latvian and other auxiliaries, massacred most Latvian Jews during the period of Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). In addition, the Nazis deported thousands of German and Austrian Jews to the Riga ghetto between 1941 and early 1942, most of whom were murdered.
In 1944, when the Soviet army reoccupied Latvia, only a few hundred Jews remained. After the war, about 1,000 Latvian Jewish survivors returned to Latvia from Nazi concentration camps elsewhere in Europe, and another several thousand Jews who had escaped to the Soviet Union during the war also survived. According to the World Jewish Congress, Latvia is now home to between 5,000 and 12,000 Jews.
Following the reestablishment of the independent Latvian state in September 1991, Latvians, regardless of current citizenship or residency status, were able to apply for restitution of private and communal property confiscated during the Nazi and Soviet periods. Several Jewish private properties were returned to individual owners or to their heirs through this process. In some cases, authorities offered substitute properties or government vouchers if the actual property could not be returned. The short submissions window, however, limited the number of claims filed. Until 2019, the government maintained that property restitution in Latvia had been addressed in the 1990s and 2000s and that the window for filing claims was closed. Some government officials cited budget constraints to argue against reopening the claims process.
From 1991 to 2016, Latvia returned some of the communal and religious property confiscated during the Holocaust and Communist eras, but the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities has identified approximately 265 such properties that still need to be returned. Jewish community groups also advocate for Latvia to address the issue of private immovable property throughout the country that was left heirless as a result of the decimation of the community during the Holocaust. In mid-2019, the country’s new coalition government expressed a willingness to take up the remaining restitution issues, but as of October 2019, the parliament had not adopted the government’s draft legislation.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
Private and communal property that had been confiscated during the Nazi occupation was subjected to a second round of confiscations after 1944, this time by Communist authorities. After 1991, some formerly Jewish-owned private properties were returned in cases where the rightful owners could be identified. In addition, from 1994 to 2006, 36 religious and communal properties (including synagogues, hospitals, and community centers) were returned to the local Jewish community. However, the process did not resolve all religious and communal properties claimed by the Jewish community. On at least two occasions since the early 2000s, the government made attempts to negotiate comprehensive agreements with Jewish community groups that would address the restitution of remaining communal property and partially address Holocaust-era heirless property. Neither of those attempts succeeded.
In 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Riga and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues helped broker a multi-step restitution process between the Latvian government and the Jewish community regarding the remaining communal properties. After delays and further debate, the Latvian parliament approved legislation in 2016 to return five specific communal properties, valued at a total of approximately €5 million (approximately $5.4 million in 2016). The Jewish community maintains that this was just the first step toward completing communal property restitution, but the government at that time treated the process as complete.
Following the formation of a new government in January 2019, some members of the coalition and their supporters in parliament indicated a willingness to pursue legislation that would resolve the status of the remaining 265 religious and communal properties. The proposal under discussion would likely involve a cash payment to the Jewish community as equitable compensation in lieu of restitution of remaining communal and heirless property and would include safeguards to ensure the proper management of the compensation. The proposal would entail use of some of the compensation funds for Holocaust education and related educational purposes, as well as help to Latvian Holocaust survivors wherever they currently reside. In June 2019, members of parliament introduced legislation to establish an approximately €40 million fund (approximately $44 million dollars) for the Jewish community. In August, the government withdrew the bill due to political infighting and difficult national financial conditions. The bill’s sponsors plan to conduct additional internal and public outreach on the proposal before re-submitting the bill.
Some individuals continue to try to pursue private property claims in the country, pointing to the obstacles they faced in meeting the short submission claims filing period. This is especially true for Latvians who fled the country after WWII and did not retain Latvian citizenship. The Department is aware of at least one potential claim in Latvia concerning Nazi-confiscated properties and land reportedly owned by a U.S. citizen’s grandfather.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property
The Latvian Jewish community is not aware of pending issues with Holocaust-era Jewish movable property that had not been restored to the original owners or their heirs following Latvia’s return to independence in 1991. The Department is not aware of issues related to Holocaust-era Judaica or Jewish cultural property.
Access to Archival Documents
Latvia generally provides access to archival documents that may assist in proving ownership of Holocaust-era property.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Latvia joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2004. Teaching about the Holocaust is a required part of the school curriculum. Riga’s “Jews in Latvia” museum, and the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum provide educational programs on the Holocaust.
Latvian government officials participate in Holocaust remembrance events, including by laying wreaths at Holocaust memorials and participating in other Holocaust-remembrance presentations and gatherings. Since 2016, a November 30 candle-lighting event has been held at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 26,000 to 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest outside Riga by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local auxiliaries in 1941.
Latvia has several Holocaust memorial sites, including the Bikernieki Memorial and the Rumbula Forest Memorial, as well as smaller communal sites such as the Bauska Holocaust Memorial and the Zanis Lipke Memorial. July 4 is the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust in Latvia. On that day in 2019, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to the Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the Nazi occupation and perished.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
There are no special government programs in Latvia to support Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution. There are several general support programs available for seniors, including age and disability pensions, support for the spouses of deceased pension recipients, and other state-paid benefits. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany supports Holocaust survivors in Latvia.