As an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Southern College, Dr. Richards Plavnieks is responsible for teaching the young minds that seek an education in his classroom.
Plavnieks feels a bigger responsibility to make sure he reaches beyond the walls of Florida Southern College, and about one of the most notorious subjects in the history of the world: the Holocaust.
During the last week of May, Plavnieks gave an invited presentation at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida’s annual Summer Teachers’ Institute (STI) in Orlando. The purpose of the presentation was to train high school teachers about educating their students about the Holocaust.
This will be the third time Plavnieks attended the STI, but his first in-person lecture since 2019.
“Americans get a few certain basics about the Holocaust from high school and then absorb facts and impressions through popular culture, but what I try to do is help people understand the complexity of it, or to help people understand that it was so complex,” Plavnieks said. “I’m trying to fight against false information, and show people how complicated it was.”
Plavnieks gained a deeper interest in the subject because of his family heritage.
In 1949, Plavnieks’ family came to the U.S. from Latvia. While growing up in Rockville, Md., Plavnieks said he wasn’t taught the Latvian language and that none of the stories he was told by the “old-timers” interested him. That all changed when Plavnieks had the chance to live in Latvia when he was older.
“Being physically present and seeing the real country that Latvia was,” said Plavnieks, whose family is not Jewish. “It wasn’t just this fictitious memory in the minds of old people. It was actually a real place, which meant all the stories that they told were true. That was pretty terrifying because I realized I couldn’t understand my family’s history without understanding the Second World War, which was the reason that they had come to the United States. When the war ended the Soviet Union reclaimed Latvia and my grandparents didn’t want to live under (Josef) Stalin.”
As Plavnieks began delving into his heritage, he learned some terrible truths about Latvia’s role in the Holocaust.
After Germany invaded Latvia in 1941, and until the Soviet Union retook it in 1944, approximately 70,000 of the nearly 94,000 Jewish population in Latvia were killed by the Nazis and Latvian collaborators.
Plavnieks dedicated his time to studying this period of history and eventually wrote a book about it called “Nazi Collaborators on Trial During the Cold War: Viktors Arājs and the Latvian Auxiliary Security Police,” which was published in English in 2018 and in Latvian in 2020.
The book covers the legal reckoning with the crimes of the Latvian Auxiliary Security Police and its political dimensions in the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, and the United States in the context of the Cold War. It goes into detail about the decades of work by prosecutors that have established the facts of Latvian collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“No group made a deeper mark in the annals of atrocity than the men of the so-called Arājs Kommando' and their leader, Viktors Arājs, who killed tens of thousands of Jews on Latvian soil and participated in every aspect of the 'Holocaust by Bullets,’ says the description of the book on Amazon.com.
In fact, Plavnieks’ lecture at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center deals with the Soviet Union’s response to the Holocaust and their refusal to acknowledge that Jews were victims.
“They made the single largest contribution to ending the Holocaust, but then they lied,” Plavnieks said. “They never recognized Jews as victims. I think, more than anything else, that is why Germany is the country it is today, and why Russia is what it is today.
“This book is part of the process that every country in Europe that was influenced by Nazi Germany has had to go through, coming to grips with the past. The book is kind of a contribution to that process in Latvia, and is probably the proudest aspect in my career.”