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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

In the Fight, yet on the Margins: Latvian Jewish Red Army Soldiers

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Harry C. Merritt

An estimated 500,000 Soviet Jews served in uniform during World War II, however they were scattered across the Red Army and less likely to be identified as Jewish by nationality in the Soviet press, both during and after the war. The case of Latvia, which experienced foreign occupation alternately as a new republic in the Soviet western borderlands and as a component of a Nazi German occupied territory known as Ostland (“East Land”), allows for special consideration of Jewish Red Army soldiers, their multifarious experiences of war, and the bittersweet homecoming that followed. Relatively little attention has been given to the estimated 5,000 Latvian Jews in the Red Army, most of whom served in Latvian national formations: the 201st Latvian Rifle Division (later renamed the 43rd Guards Latvian Rifle Division) and the 308th Latvian Rifle Division, which were eventually grouped together as the 130th Latvian Rifle Corps. These two divisions had concentrations of Jewish personnel only seen in one other Red Army division, the 16th Lithuanian Rifle Division.

Augusts Kirchenšteins presents new battle flags to the 43rd Guards Latvian Rifle Division, October 19, 1942 [Source: Arnol'd Bedritis, "Artilleristy polka," in Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi: sbornik vospominanii i dokumentov o vooruzhennoi bor’be latyshkogo naroda protiv fashistskikh zakhvatchikov, vol. 1, ed. Alfred Rashkevits (Riga: Liesma, 1968), 231]

The 201st Latvian Rifle Division was the first national formation in the Red Army established during World War II. Though it was intended as a unit for “Latvians,” the Communist Party of Latvia (Bolsheviks) clarified that this meant “citizens of the Latvian SSR (not only Latvians [by nationality], but also Russians, Jews, and others from the territory of Latvia).”[1] Hence the division’s original name in Russian used the state-based term “latviiskaia” rather than the nationality-based term “latyshskaia.”[2] As its first editor explained, the name Latvijas strēlnieks/Latviiskii strelok (“The Latvian Rifleman”) was chosen for the bilingual divisional newspaper, “so that it would not be narrowly national, because there are not only Latvians [by nationality], but also Jews and Russians in the division, i.e. the newspaper stressed not national unity, but territorial and state unity.”[3]

In its original unit composition, 90% of soldiers in the 201st Division hailed from Latvia. In the 201st/43rd Guards Division, Jews ranged from 17% of personnel in December 1941 to the still significant 8.3% after the end of the war in summer 1945. The 308th Latvian Rifle Division was 8% Jewish by composition after it was formed in July 1944, declining to 5.6% by April 1945.[4] Jews were also overrepresented in certain detachments. Notably, 23% of personnel in the 201st Division’s medical battalion were Jewish.[5] This visible Jewish presence, disproportionate to their relative numbers in prewar Latvia (around 5% of the total population),[CG1] surprised and irked some gentiles. When an official from the Latvian SSR reviewed one of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division’s regiments in August 1941, he asked incredulously, “Is this a Jewish regiment?”[6] However, it is also worth noting that both Jews and gentiles exaggerated numbers after the war.[7] For example, General Jānis Veikins, the former commander of the 201st Division, stated in 1966 that 30% of his division’s personnel were Jewish.[8] While some already in Red Army uniform or serving in paramilitary formations like the Workers Guard joined the 201st Division, recruitment also drew from the pool of thousands of evacuees who had fled from Latvia during the first chaotic weeks of the war. Entire extended Latvian Jewish families served, including the six Solovei brothers from Balvi and the six Ferber brothers from Tukums, though only one brother in each family would survive the war.[9]

Sāra Ērenšteine [Source: Cīņa, no. 27, July 21, 1943, 3]

In general, Latvian Jewish men and women were highly motivated soldiers committed to defeating the Nazi German invaders and liberating their homeland of Latvia from its occupation. Coming from a diverse and engaged civil society that, prior to the Soviet annexation in 1940, featured militant strains of socialism and Zionism (and mixtures of the two ideologies), Latvian Jews did not possess the same “diaspora inferiority complex” of their Soviet Jewish counterparts, to borrow the words of Yakov Karasin. Originally a medical orderly, Sāra “Shura” Erenšteine reported that she “always wanted to meet the enemy at close quarters, so that I could destroy him with my own hands.”[10] She got her wish when she became a sniper—the only Jewish female sniper in the division—scoring 70 kills during the war. By the time the 201st Division’s first battles around Moscow concluded in January 1942, more than 20 Jewish soldiers had already been awarded medals.[11] However, for those not personally acquainted with these formations and their soldiers, these accomplishments remained largely invisible. As members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee argued, “we are not sufficiently publicizing and emphasizing the fact of the heroism and bravery shown by Jews of our young republics—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.”[12]

Soldiers of the 125th Rifle Regiment of the 43rd Guards Latvian Rifle Division enter liberated Šķaune, Latvia [Source: Iazep Pasternak, “Pervie shagi po rodnoi zemle,” in Na pravyi boi, na smertnyi boi, vol. 2 (Riga: Liesma, 1972), 51]

Songs in Yiddish echoed across the fields of Belarus on the march back to Latvia in June and July 1944.[13] The first subunit of the 130th Latvian Rifle Corps to cross the border into Latvia was commanded by a Latvian Jew, Guards Captain Jāzeps Pasternaks. Though many soldiers perceived the crossing of the Latvian border as the first step toward its liberation from Nazi occupation, for Jews it was a melancholy reunion. While around half of Latvian Jewish Red Army soldiers lived to the end of the war, only 5% of Latvian Jews who had remained behind survived the Holocaust. Having already been informed by the Soviet Latvian press of German atrocities against Jews, returning soldiers sought out survivors. Others pieced together what happened from their gentile neighbors. All that remained of Gutman Gram’s family in his hometown, Preiļi, was the diary of his 15-year-old sister, Sheyna, which had been kept by a Russian neighbor.[14] The “wonderful feeling” that Ruvins Amdurs described when he crossed the Latvian border dissipated after he realized that “there were no Jews in Latvia at all.”[15] Amdurs ascertained the details of the massacre of Jews in Preiļi from locals by speaking “in pure Latvian” and not disclosing the fact that he was a Jew.[16] Yakov Karasin was appalled by the behavior of his gentile neighbors upon his arrival in Tukums: “when we returned home from the front, then Latvian acquaintances, [our] former neighbors, began to tell us who killed and betrayed Jews, while pointing the finger at each other.

Yakov Karasin [Source: Ia pomniu:]

The war experiences of those who had served in a Latvian national formation with a relatively high concentration of Jews in defense of the Soviet motherland, compounded by the reencounter with Latvia in 1944-45, contextualize the divergent postwar pathways of Latvian Jewish veterans. Some further integrated into the Soviet party-state, deriving benefits from their status as veterans and Party members to attain positions of importance after the war. Others retained affective ties to Latvia and Latvians, sympathizing with or actively supporting the “National Communist” faction of the Party in the 1950s and the Third Latvian National Awakening of the 1980s. Another group, shocked by the participation by Latvians in the Holocaust on the one hand and the postwar antisemitic campaigns launched under Stalin on the other, saw Zionism as the answer and aliyah to Israel as the only path forward for Latvian Jews.[17] This summer, at the Jewish Experiences and the Holocaust in the Soviet Union workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I plan to explore in depth the encounter with the aftermath of the Holocaust by Latvian Jewish Red Army soldiers along with their postwar trajectories.

Harry C. Merritt is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Brown University. His research interests include nationalism, collective identity, interethnic relations, and the impact of war on society, with a current research focus on the Latvian experience of World War II. He is completing a dissertation titled "For the Homeland, Against Each Other: Latvian Soldiers in Nazi German and Soviet Service in World War II." For more, see his personal website or follow him on Twitter @HarryMerritt


LKM: Latvian War Museum in Riga, Latvia

LVA: State Archives of Latvia in Riga, Latvia

NA IRI RAN: Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia

Further reading:

Arad, Yitzhak. In the Shadow of the Red Banner: Soviet Jews in the War Against Nazi Germany Jerusalem: Gefen, 2010.

Levin, Dov. Baltic Jews under the Soviets 1940 – 1946. Jerusalem: Centre for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry, 1994.

Murav, Harriet and Gennady Estraikh, ed. Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting, Witnessing, Remembering. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2014.

Šteimanis, Josifs. History of Latvian Jews. Translated by Helena Belova. Edited by Edward Anders. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

[1] Lācis and Kalnbērziņš to Shchadenko, August 21, 1941, LVA PA-301 f., 3 apr., 65 l., 19.

[2] The equivalent terms in the Latvian language are Latvijas and latviešu. In English, the distinction was previously visible by contrasting “Latvian” (referring to the Latvian state after it emerged in 1918) with the now obsolete term “Lettish” (referring to ethnic Latvians or their language).

[3] Martin Petrovich Zakis, interview by R.I. Golubeva, May 21, 1943, LVA PA-301 f., 1 apr., 21 l., 6-6op.

[4] V. I. Savchenko, Latyshskie formirovaniia sovetskoi armii na frontakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny (Riga: Zinātne, 1975), 116, 501; A. I. Petrenko, Pribaltiiskie divizii Stalina (Moscow: Veche, 2010), 118.

[5] Martin Petrovich Zakis, interview by R.I. Golubeva, May 21, 1943, LVA PA-301 f., 1 apr., 21 l., 7op.

[6] The official, Augusts Kirchenšteins, reportedly used the colloquial word “žīdu,” rather than the politer and Soviet-sanctioned term “ebreju” to mean “Jewish.” See Josifs Šteimanis, History of Latvian Jews, trans. Helena Belova (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 125. In another variation of this anecdote, Kirchenšteins asks, “What is this, a synagogue or a Jewish shop?” See Aron Shneer, Plen: Sovetskie voennoplennye v Germanii, 1941-1945 (Moscow: Mosty Kul’tury, 2005), 381.

[7] This exaggeration can be attributed to the unique demographics of these units—a threshold of Jewish personnel facilitated a sense of community among Jews, while this visible Jewish presence in turn challenged normative expectations of national formations among Latvians (as the titular nationality) and the broader Red Army among Russians (as what Rogers Brubaker refers to as the Soviet Union’s “general norm, the zero value, the universal condition against which other nationalities existed as particular”). On the latter point, see Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 49. For comparison, in the 16th Lithuanian Rifle Division, in which nearly one-third of the personnel were Jewish, the following joke was told: “Why was the division named the 16th Lithuanian? Because there are only 16 Lithuanians in it!”

[8] Shmuel’ Tseitlin, Dokumental’naia istoriia evreev Rigi (Israel: n.p., 1989), 257.

[9] Tseitlin, 258.

[10] Sāra Erenšteine, “Kā es iznīcināju vāciešus,” Cīņa, no. 13, April 9, 1943, 2.

[11] Shneer, 385.

[12] Nusinov, “From the Minutes of the First JAFC Plenary Session (May 28, 1942),” Document 27 in War, Holocaust and Stalinism: A Documented Study of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR, ed. Shimon Redlich, comp. I. Altman et al. (Luxembourg: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), 207.

[13] Pazar, “Material ob opyte agitatsionno-propagandistskoi raboty 43. gvardeiskoi latyshskoi strelkovoi Rizhskoi divizii v boiakh za Sovetskuiu Pribaltiku,” June 9, 1945, LKM 4-106-ug, 15.

[14] B. Gertsbakh, foreword to Sheyna Gram, “The Voice of Sheyna Gram,” in The Unknown Black Book, ed. Joshua Rubenstein and Ilya Altman, trans. B. Gertsbakh (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 322.

[15] Ruvin Abramovich Amdur, interview by R.I. Golubeva, July 28, 1945, NA IRI RAN f. 2. r. I, op. 16. d. 23, 4ob-5.

[16] Ruvin Abramovich Amdur, interview by R.I. Golubeva, July 2, 1946, NA IRI RAN f. 2., r. I, op. 16., d. 41, 1.

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