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Herberts Cukurs. A criminal. Just a criminal

Herbert Cukurs.
Following the October premiere of the musical “Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs”, old arguments have resurfaced once again regarding the scandalous figure of the musical's main character. Who is he? Is he a national hero, who completed a flight to Gambia in 1933, or is he a criminal, who became a member of the execution squad of Viktors Arajs in 1941? Cukurs’s supporters point out the lack of evidence that he killed Jews with his own hands. Nevertheless, such evidence exists, which the “Open City” magazine is providing you today.

“There is a group of people engaged in glorification of Cukurs”

But first, a commentary by Vitalijs Gotlibs, Head of the Board of Trustees of Latvian Jewish community, who has done a lot in order for these documents to become public.

The creators of the musical “Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs” say they don’t have any other interest except for an artistic study of their main character’s personality. Do you think this is the case? Isn’t there a social and political component in it?
There is a group of people who have been engaged in glorification of Cukurs for many years. There are books, exhibitions, now a musical. Presumably, we should expect a ballet in the nearest future.
To these people Cukurs is a real hero, an outstanding aviator and his participation in Arajs's execution squad is merely a misunderstanding.

However, we are not talking about the social and political component, but rather about a claim to a certain historical concept that leads to the following conclusions:
1. The Jews (all of them, including infants) are to blame for all misfortunes of Latvia;
2. Horrors of Holocaust are exaggerated by the Jews themselves;
3. Arajs' squad is just a reaction to the behavior of the Jews after the Soviet occupation.

In their opinion, Cukurs’s rehabilitation would allow to restore the reputation of many war criminals. If a membership in a criminal organization is not a crime per se, then Arajs's squad could be presented as a team of actual nice guys. It's just that some of them (no one knows who exactly) simply went a little bit too far. Of course, killing is bad, but it is the fault of the Jews themselves and of the historical situation. Those were the times, and even if Cukurs did do something, on the history scales his heroic flights outweigh by far the lives of some thousands of Jews. It seems that when they talk about Cukurs’s controversial personality, they mean just that.

Should the state react to such contradictory plays, books, etc.? If yes, in what way? Do you believe the state’s reaction in this case was sufficient?
The state has enough possibilities in order to adequately react to the activities of Cukurs’s fans. The Presidential Commission of the Historians of Latvia could have made a statement. The problem is that some members of this commission have participated personally in several antisemitic creations (for ex., “The Scaffold” by Andris Grutups) as editors and reviewers.
At the same time, it should be noted that back in 2006 the leaders of the Jewish community appealed to the President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and received a letter signed by her, where she expressed her support to the critical attitude of Jewish community towards Cukurs’s name popularization. The statement of Edgars Rinkevichs, the Head of The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on behalf of the government is also quite clear.
The letter of Vaira Vike-Freiberga to the leaders of the Jewish community.
The main argument of those who support the musical “Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs” is that there is no proof that Cukurs killed the Jews with his own hands. Is it true there are no such testimonies or do people just not want to see them?
Neither Jeckeln, nor Noviks, nor Shustin have killed with their own hands. But is it really relevant? It is quite enough that Cukurs voluntarily joined Arajs's 'sonderkommando' at the time of its very formation. And nothing changes the fact that, unlike in the case of those above-mentioned characters, there are dozens of affirmations and testimonies of Cukurs’s personal participation in the killings.
In this respect, Cukurs was quite unlucky. The heroic aviator was well known by the whole country. His photos were published in newspapers. This level of recognition has played a bad joke on Cukurs. I think he couldn’t even imagine that dozens of people would survive and tell about his crimes, especially in the building at 19 Valdemara Street – Arajs’s original headquarters.

In addition to many testimonies of Jewish survivors, there are interrogation protocols of Cukurs’s “colleagues”. All the aggregated documents that are on display in the “Jews in Latvia” Museum (I have worked personally in archives to obtain some of these documents) allow to make an unequivocal conclusion. I know Margers Vestermanis’s, the founder of the museum, attitude towards this kind of documents. Any testimony that caused him to doubt its objectivity was declined. Accepted were only those documents that were confirmed by cross testimonies of other eye-witnesses.

In reality, as far as I know, none of the Latvian historians have ever searched for the evidence of Cukurs’s crimes and not one of them has ever been interested in the documents presented in the “Jews in Latvia” Museum, even though they are available to anyone who is interested. I'm not even talking about the creators and the participants of the musical, who couldn’t care less. But maybe it is all for the best. Otherwise, during the final chords of the musical we could have witnessed some 'pas de deux' on the bones of Bikernieki and Rumbula victims for the glory of real patriots.

Eye-witnesses speaking

And now, here are the documented testimonies kindly presented to us and commented on by Margers Vestermanis, a member of the Presidential Commission of the Historians of Latvia, Doctor of Philosophy in History, the curator of the “Jews in Latvia” Museum, a former prisoner of Riga Ghetto and by Ilja Lenskis, the director of the “Jews in Latvia” Museum. Copies of the below quoted documents are stored in the “Jews in Latvia” Museum.

Rumbula, the fall of 1941. Testimonies of the victims    

The key moment in the criminal history of Cukurs is his activities during the executions in Rumbula on November 30th and December 8th 1941, when 25,000 Jews were killed. Here are some of the most eloquent extracts from the eye-witnesses' testimonies.

Riga Ghetto.
Aron Barinbaum, who shortly before the execution events of November 30th was relocated to the so-called 'Minor' Ghetto, testifies (Central Archive of Russian Federation):

“It was necessary to quickly clean (from corpses – M.V., I.L.) the road for the next column but we had to go back to our Minor Ghetto. After getting back I decided not to go inside the house but to hide in the yard behind the wooden gates in order to watch the next column through a slit. <...> Some 15 or 20 steps away in front of the column there was a man, I think, dressed in the SS uniform, but I don’t remember exactly, with a gun in his hand. He was looking from one side of the street to the other, checking if everything was all right. When he reached the gates where I was hiding, I realized in horror that it was Cukurs. <…> While I watched him with surprise, our eyes met for a moment. I jumped away in fear. He noticed me and shot at me at once. Had I not moved, I don't think he would have noticed me. Fortunately, he missed <…>.”

Aron Prejl in 1975 gave a testimony regarding the second half of November 30th (Latvian State Archive):

“We didn’t find our relatives among the corpses. On the way back to Minor Ghetto I heard someone calling out for my neighbor Kugel, but he didn’t stop and kept running. I was approximately 40 meters away from Kugel when I saw a police Wachtmeister Tuchel shoot Kugel and kill him. I managed to hide and then run away via Ludzas Street. On my way I ran into the Germans, Hesfer and Neumann, as well as into Latvians, Cukurs and Burtnieks. Cukurs grabbed his gun and, apparently, was going to shoot me. Hesfer called me a pig and made me drag the sledge with a corpse of some prisoner I didn’t know. <…> I put the corpse of a swaddled baby on the top (of other corpses – M.V., I.L.) Cukurs, Tuchel, Hesfer, Burtnieks and some other man in the uniform of the Latvian police were standing on the corner of Daugavpils Street and Ludzas Street. One of the Latvian policemen ran up to the sledge; it seemed he was interested in the parcel. After making sure it was a corpse of a baby they ordered me to drag the sledge to the Jewish cemetery where big pits were dug out.”

Isaac Kram testifies on the events of November 30th (Wiener Library):

“I was on Ludzas Street, near the Riga Ghetto, when I saw some Jew being dragged. Herberts Cukurs was in charge of the soldiers. He was dressed in black uniform of a military aviator. He ordered me and some other men to put the killed jews on the sledge and drag them to the cemetery. I had an opportunity to watch Cukurs closely for a while. A Jewish woman started screaming when she was being dragged to the truck – she wanted to have her daughter with her.

Cukurs shot her with his gun. I was a witness of this killing. I also saw Cukurs point his gun at a child who was crying because he couldn’t find his mother in the crowd. He killed this child with one shot.”

In 1960, Elizer Karshtat testified to the events of December 9th, when a search was conducted of those who managed to hide (Wiener Library):

“I personally saw Cukurs on December 9th. Around noon he entered house after house and dragged out Jews from their flats. I saw a woman with two children from the Big Ghetto to be relocated to the Minor Ghetto. Evidently, she hid in the Big Ghetto and Cukurs shot her himself.”

Station Nasva near Pskov, spring of 1942. Testimonies of Arajs's squad members

There is one more episode that seems to have escaped the attention of historians and hasn't become known to the public yet – Cukurs’s participation in operations undertaken by Arajs's execution squad in Riga in spring of 1942 and later in anti-partisan operations at the station Nasva, near Pskov. The information about those murders is contained in the testimonies of former members of Arajs's squad.

Eduard Schmidts testified in 1948 (Central Archive of Russian Federation):

“While being a commander of an execution squad and being stationed in the Nasva region, Cukurs tried to kill a 14-year-old boy. I saw it personally. <…> in April of 1942, before moving out to the region of Nasva station, the squad under Cukurs’s command participated in the mass murders of Soviet citizens in the Bikernieki Forest.

At the end of 1942 Cukurs left Arajs's squad. The last time he was seen was in summer of 1943. He was dressed as a civilian.”

In 1948, Roberts Purinsh testified (Central Archive of Russian Federation):

“In spring, before starting out on an execution expedition, at the station Nasva Cukurs was in charge of an execution squad that under his command performed mass murders of Soviet citizens in Bikernieki Forest. On April 23rd 1942, Cukurs – I was a member of his battalion – carried out shootings during the whole day. Trucks were constantly bringing in more victims, who were shot near the graves prepared beforehand.

Whether Cukurs personally shot people that day I don’t know, but at the station Nasva Cukurs personally shot Soviet partisans, I saw it personally.

I don’t know where he is now. Last time I saw him was in 1943 in Kurzeme.”

Genadijs Murnieks gave testimonies in 1976 (Latvian State Archive):

“I personally witnessed one of these mass executions in Bikernieki, which took place in spring of 1942, in March, if I’m not mistaken. This time the Jews that were executed were brought to Riga from the Western Europe, I don’t know exactly from which countries. This time I was ordered to join a group of policemen that stood in cordon. The cordon consisted of two rows of policemen. In this cordon I stood about 50 meters away from the pit.

The Jews were supposed to walk between these two rows of policemen to the execution place. <…>

Arajs and 3 or 4 German officers from the Security Police stood near the pit. There were also the officers of the Auxiliary Security Police – Dibietis, Cukurs, Kaukers and, I think, Turbis. <…> I saw Arajs many times come up to the pit, take a machine gun from one of his colleagues and shoot into the pit when the Jews descended into it. I didn’t see him shoot a gun. Out of the German officers, it was Krauze who shot at the victims. I don’t remember other officers shoot.

I don’t remember if anyone else from the Cukurs’s team apart from Cukurs shot. Cukurs also shot a machine gun. In the Auxiliary Security Police Cukurs was in charge of the weapons.”

We believe this evidence is especially important and serious, since, even if in 1948 witnesses could have been influenced and even physically coerced into giving “necessary evidence”, in 1976 it seems hardly possible. Especially taking into account that by then Cukurs was already dead and his conviction hardly could have been useful to anyone.

It is worth noticing that in 1975 Arnis Upmalis, a member of Arajs's squad, in his testimony (Latvian State Archive) retells the following rumors about the way the anti-partisan expedition to Nasva was arranged:

“The Nazis put Arajs and Captain Cukurs, who was a weaponry officer in Arajs's squad, in charge of this company. There were talks in the squad that the reason for their despatch was that Arajs and Cukurs were suspected by the Nazis of stealing Jewish gold and jewelry. It was a type of punishment for them.”

Testimony of Abram Shapiro

We would like to pay a special attention to the evidence of those Jews, whom Cukurs seemingly helped to survive. First of all, Arbam Shapiro, whose caricature character shows up in the musical “Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs” as well.

A statement that Cukurs came to them as a benefactor is repeatedly made. Even Professor Andrievs Ezergailis, a patriarch of Holocaust historiography in Latvia, supports this version. The testimony of Shapiro himself (1948) and his memoirs (1993) contain quite different versions of the events. While in his early testimony Shapiro (as a matter of fact a 16-year-old young man, not a 7-year-old boy as he is portrayed in the musical) states that his father tried to seek a refuge with Cukurs, in his later memoirs he doesn’t even mention it.

Nevertheless, in both sources Cukurs’s arrival at Shapiro’s flat at 4-4 Zaubes Street is roughly described in the following way: “…a famous Latvian Nazi Herberts Cukurs came to our flat and ordered us to move out and squeeze in with our neighbors from the floor down. He liked our flat and he wanted to set up his living quarters in there. That was exactly what he did several days later, when he kept all of our furniture and absolutely everything of any value. We were allowed to take only a few things – only the necessities. We were told to stay with our neighbors downstairs until further notice.”

Even though the two documents partly contradict each other, in both cases it is mentioned that Shapiro’s father Pinhus was arrested by the people from the Auxiliary Latvian Police (not by a German officer, as in the musical) in the beginning of June, jailed in the Central Prison and later executed. The list of prisoners of the Central Prison as of August 4th – 1708 people in total – also confirms this, P.Shapiro listed under the number 822. It could be the same list that, according to Shapiro’s memoirs, Cukurs one day showed them. It is important that, according to Abram Shapiro’s memoirs, his father tried to avoid arrest by showing not money and jewelry, as is sung in the musical, but a certificate of a freedom fighter (he served in the 10th Aizpute infantry regiment).

Soon a Jewish girl appeared in this flat. Most likely, it was Miriam Keizner who in 1950 in Brazil testified in the defense of Cukurs as her savior: “Cukurs hid me in the Shapiro’s flat for many weeks.”
A parallel episode can be found in Shapiro’s testimony from 1948:

“In conclusion I would like to mention the following event. When Cukurs moved to our flat in July of 1941, I was a witness of the following episode: Cukurs knew that I played the piano and one evening ordered me to come to the flat where I had to play for the whole night. A lot of Latvians gathered in Cukurs’s flat, all from the Security Police leadership. When all Latvians including Cukurs got drunk, I saw the Jewish girl, who must had been kept in the kitchen or in the other room the whole time. All the Latvians started having fun with her. Sitting at the piano, I saw how they started to undress her, I saw with my own eyes how those Latvians raped her one by one. I know Cukurs kept that girl in his flat for many weeks.”

It should be noted that later in 1978, during his interrogation, Osvalds Elinsh, one of the members of Arajs's squad, was asked a clear question about Cukurs’s Jewish lover.
Arajs's squad.
According to the sources, at the end of July under Cukurs’s orders Abram Shapiro was made an assistant in the Arajs's squad garage at 19 Valdemara Street. Like many other witnesses (Gari Ritov, Ella Medalje, Matiss Lutrinsh) he mentions many episodes of people being humiliated and mercilessly beaten at Arajs's squad headquarters.

Gari Ritov, a mechanic in the garage at Valdemara Street, also tells about it in his testimony that is stored in the Latvian State Archive:

“Later armed shooters forced us into a big hall in the Arajs's squad headquarters and made us kneel. In front of us there was a row of tables where a former aviator Cukurs, whom I knew since before the war, and many other members of Arajs's squad were sitting <…> At night they put us into a basement with a cement floor <…> There were very many people there. Everyone tried to settle the best way they could – some were sitting, some were standing, some were sleeping on the cement floor. On the door of the basement a metal plaque was attached, which read in Latvian “Cemetery of the Jews. Jew Street #2”.

Here is a very significant episode from Shapiro’s testimony: “I worked with a Jew named Lutrinsh in Cukurs’s garage. That day the Jews were forced out of their cameras to stand in the formation and everyone was ordered to be there. Two other people from our brigade hid with us in the garage, and we saw how the people who stood in the formation were beaten, put into trucks and taken away. One of the guards said that our brigade wasn’t in the formation. Cukurs ordered us to stand in from of him and said that my colleague Lutrinsh and I were allowed not to participate because we were working on his car. The two others – Leitman and another one, whose name I don’t remember – were terribly beaten by the Latvian guards under Cukurs’s order.

Later I saw Cukurs take out a gun and cold-bloodedly shoot the two Jews from our work brigade.

Since that day I hadn't come to work anymore because I was terrified of death.”

Testimonies about Lutrinsh

Since Shapiro in his testimony mentions the name of Matiss Lutrinsh, we think it important to touch upon this issue as well. As Professor Ezergailis correctly noticed: “He was interrogated many times and he doesn't hide his rescue tale.” But it is not quite clear how Lutrinsh’s rescue is connected to Cukurs and what sources provide a basis for a conclusions that Cukurs played any part in Lutrinsh’s rescue.

There are many testimonies of the members of Arajs's squad about the work of “the Jew Lutrinsh” in the garage (available in the Latvian State Archive). But none of them mention Cukurs in regards to Lutrinsh.

The circumstances of Lutrinsh’s rescue are mentioned briefly in the procedural materials of the SS Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln's case. Also, these circumstances are described in detail in two interrogation protocols (years 1976 and 1978), which are stored in Latvian State Archive. Their content as a shorter version is included into the final document of Viktors Arajs’s court case stored in the Hamburg Court Archive. But Cukurs as Lutrinsh’s savior is not mentioned there either.

Testimonies of Medalje

One more survivor – Ella Medalje – just like Lutrinsh, gave testimonies several times that were included into the basis for the verdict of Hamburg Court in Viktors Arajs’s case. Later her memoirs were published. Just like Lutrinsh, she saw Cukurs in July-August of 1941 at 19 Valdemara Street, where she was imprisoned for a while, and later she saw him on December 8th in Rumbula.

When talking about the events of December 8th, she says that both Arajs and Cukurs were mercilessly beating people. But regarding Cukurs participating in the murders of people in the streets of Ghetto on November 30th she says she knew only from hearsay.

Regarding her being at Arajs’s headquarters, in 1975 she testified the following:

“One night, approximately at the end of the second week (of imprisonment – M.V., I.L.) two guards entered the detainee quarters and started choosing new women with a help of a flashlight. They took them away somewhere. <…> The women were brought back one by one, they cried a lot, but didn’t say anything. The next morning those women – 5 or 6 of them – were taken away in a car, I don’t know where. Out of all of them I remember only Bavilska, who I have never seen again. One of these women I saw later in Ghetto. She told me they were raped that night. <…> Besides Arajs, I also knew Cukurs. I knew about him from before the war, from newspapers that glorified him as a famous Latvian aviator. Once during imprisonment I had to clean Cukurs’s study. He told me I didn’t look like a Jew”.

In 1978 some details were added to the testimony: “To be clear, I can add that the next day after that incident (the rape of 5 or 6 women – M.V, I.L.) I had to clean Cukurs’s study and under the sofa I found Bavilska’s belt”.

Here are presented only a few excerpts from documents, memoirs, interrogation protocols. Ghetto survivors recalled Cukurs in different countries and at different times. In some cases, the rumors of his deeds became legends, but who could blame the survivors for that, since to them Cukurs was really a devil incarnate and on par with many famous Nazi criminals. Though, of course, he wasn’t “the butcher of the Ghetto”, he was just one of many.

Herbert Cukurs

Born in 1900 in Libave (Liepaja). In 1933, aviator Cukurs completed a flight to Gambia and became a national hero. Upon his return, he published a diary “My flight to Gambia”. In 1937, he wrote a novel “Between the sky and the sun”. In July 1941, after the capture of Riga by the German troops, Cukurs joined the Auxilary Police and later the Arajs's execution squad. He took part in mass killings of Latvian Jews in Riga Ghetto and in Rumbula. Not long before the end of the war he fled to Brazil. In 1965 Cukurs was assassinated in Uruguay by the agents of Mossad.


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