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The Latvian Holocaust survivor promoting tolerance and education

Marģers Vestermanis

90,000 Jews lived in Latvia before the German invasion during WWII. But only 200 Jews survived the Holocaust on Latvian territory. As a teenager, historian Marģers Vestermanis was imprisoned in the Riga ghetto with his family. He was the only one in his family to survive the Rumbula massacre in 1941, when the Nazis and their local collaborators shot over 25,000 Jews from the ghetto in the nearby Rumbula forest. When the Riga ghetto was liquidated, Vestermanis was sent to several concentration camps. He escaped a death march and joined partisan groups in the forest.

Today, Marģers Vestermanis is one of the last Holocaust survivors remaining in Latvia. Born in Riga in 1925, he has dedicated his life to education and documenting Latvian Jewish history and culture. He has received numerous awards for his tireless work in Holocaust research and remembrance, including the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Award and the Order of the Three Stars, Latvia’s highest honor. The 2022 Latvian documentary film, ‘Mēs tikai tagad sākam’ (‘We are just getting started’), tells his story of survival and looks at how he made living possible after such traumatic experiences. Mr. Vestermanis is considered nothing short of a living treasure in Latvia.

Like many Holocaust survivors around the world, those who suffered the worst are often the first to advocate for tolerance. “Peace is the main thing that our ancestors were dreaming of, and that we, the generation that went through all the flames of hell, bequeath to the entire world,” he says.

After WWII, Vestermanis received a PhD in history and worked in the Latvian state archives, but he was fired after writing a research paper about the Holocaust – during a time when the topic of Jewish suffering was highly censored by the Soviet authorities. He continued his career as a high school teacher.

Soon after Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union, Vestermanis founded the “Jews in Latvia” museum. Even now in his late 90s, he is currently writing a book about those who saved Jews during the Shoah.       

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