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Did Life Magazine hype antisemitism in Latvia?

When Life magazine ran an expos charging antisemitism is forcing one country's Jewish residents "to run for their lives," it might have expected praise from Jewish groups. Not so when it published a report in December concerning antisemitism in the Baltic nation of Latvia. Groups in Latvia and the United States, along with Latvia's U.S. ambassador, have charged that Life exaggerated its tale of oppression.

While acknowledging a few errors, Life insists its story reflects the situation in the former Soviet republic. "There's not any question" about the proliferation of Nazi symbolism and threats against Jews in Latvia, says veteran reporter Edward

Barnes, who wrote the piece. "People are afraid." Barnes painted a dark picture, reporting that Latvian nationalists are moving to purge the population of ethnic groups through residency requirements and intimidation. Russians are the main targets, as they are in other former Soviet-occupied nations, but Barnes says that Jews are also being victimized in the country of 2.6 million people. One of Life's most highly regarded correspondents before his recent move to Time, Barnes detailed the tragic history of Latvian Jews that nearly ended in 1941 when in a two-week period 30,000 were murdered outside the capital city of Riga.

After decades of silence, Barnes wrote, antisemites and former Nazis are once again gaining acceptance. The evidence is everywhere, he wrote: A war museum "bristling with images of Nazis and swastikas." Swastikas hanging in store windows. Former members of the Nazi militia rearming themselves in the newly formed national army. A children's textbook that covers the Holocaust simply by saying, "It is a shame that women and old people were killed." Stories that Latvian Jews have been threatened with harm unless they leave the country.

In the past year or so, he wrote, ex-Nazis and ultra-rightists "have exerted so much pressure that nearly 15,000 of the country's 23,000 Jews" have fled. Barnes followed one Jewish woman as she packed her belongings and took a train out of Latvia, saying she was fleeing out of fear for her safety.

Angry about the story and photos, Latvian officials held a news conference to call attention to what they said were more than a dozen errors. They were joined by Grigorijs Krupnikovs, cochairman of the Jewish Community of Riga, who said, "We categorically reject the tone of the article, but especially its incompetence and more so its contrived lies." Adds Ojars Kalnins, the Latvian ambassador in Washington: "The article argues that antisemitism among Latvians is growing, yet the author only talks to a handful of extremist members of right-wing fringe groups. This is comparable to interviewing only the KKK and using its activities to characterize the entire United States."

Krupnikovs said Jews are not fleeing Latvia because of fear of persecution, and he and others told Barnes that. Further, he pointed out that the swastikas Barnes saw were actually the ancient Latvian firecross, a national ornament that pre-dates Nazism by several thousand years. (Barnes responds that the firecross was a rarely used symbol that is now being used as a swastika substitute. "It's an arcane debate," he says.)

One of the most controversial images that accompanied the story was a photo of a former SS member, now in the national army, offering a Nazi salute. Kalnins says that witnesses insisted to him the photo had been staged and that photographer Wayne Sorce "repeatedly urged the man to re-enact the salute for the camera." Responds Sorce, "All these guys were wearing swastikas and they knew exactly what they were doing.... I happened to have my camera at eye level when this guy did his |Heil Hitler."'

Life has acknowledged three errors in the piece: The textbook with the chilling line about the Holocaust was actually issued under Soviet rule; 9,000 Jews have fled Latvia rather than 15,000; and the transcript of an allegedly antisemitic speech given by President Anatolijs Gorbunovs was not kept secret, as Life said. (Barnes' story noted rumors that Gorbunovs had said Latvian Jews "had themselves to blame for their deaths." In a published version of his speech, Gorbunovs mourned Jewish victims at length but suggested ambiguously that Jews "also review with self-criticism" the actions of some members of their community.)

While he was in Latvia, Barnes says, many Jewish residents said they were leaving because they felt threatened. "They weren't being beaten up on the streets," Barnes says. But remembering the Holocaust and seeing emerging signs of antisemitism, "they could see what was coming."

Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, came back from a visit to Latvia in March with a different impression. "Not one person I spoke to supported the conclusions reached in the Life story," he says. "There's concern about the future, but certainly they're not fleeing."

At least one news organization also wasn't as sure as Life about the plight of Jews in Latvia. Michael Mosettig, senior producer for foreign affairs at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," says he and his staff could not verify that the situation was as serious as Barnes claimed and declined to run footage the reporter had shot and that Time Warner offered to the program. Jewish leaders and others in Latvia told them that they saw no threatening surge of antisemitism, Mosettig says. "We came away with the feeling that the story was not complete."

George Spectre of B'nai B'rith's international headquarters in Washington sums up the mixed feelings of some Jewish leaders. "We don't think [the story] is exactly fair and accurate," he says. "Life was pretty sloppy ... and exaggerated and misinterpreted. But we still believe that there is a problem. How serious it is, we don't know."

Patrick Boyle, a freelance writer based in New York, is a frequent contributor to AJR.
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Author:Boyle, Patrick
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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