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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvian Waffen SS Veterans to March Through Riga

RIGA, Latvia -- Valentins Silamikelis took an enormous risk to avoid being drafted into the German army that was occupying his native Latvia during World War II - until the hated Red army came to town.

"My teacher gave me an address of a doctor who gave me a false report that I had tuberculosis, and with this I escaped for more than one year," said Silamikelis, who is now 76.

"But when the Russians came here ... I did not try to escape mobilization anymore."

Silamikelis and several hundred of his fellow Latvian Waffen SS veterans will walk through the center of Riga on Thursday in an annual procession that has upset Jewish groups and been blasted as glorifying defenders of the Third Reich.

The Latvian Legion's march has also tarnished the image of Latvia, whose leaders have been eager to advertise democratic and economic achievements to aid the country's bids to join Western organizations such as the European Union and NATO.

It has also been criticized by Russia, which lost millions during World War II and has accused Latvia of trying to rehabilitate Nazism by trying a former Soviet security official for genocide and crimes against humanity.

For their part, the veterans say they have been misrepresented as aging Nazis nostalgic for the days of Hitler.

They say they were drafted illegally by the Nazis and fought only to avoid another invasion - by the Soviets, who killed and deported thousands to labour camps in Siberia during a 1940-41 occupation that Latvians refer to as the Year of Horror.

After World War II the allies recognized that the Nazi conscription of Latvians was illegal, saying their service should not block immigration for the thousands in refugee camps.

The veterans also say that after centuries of rule by German barons, few Latvians felt any fondness for them during World War II. They also point out that thousands of military-age men who managed to avoid the Germans were forced into the Soviet army.

Latvian officials have tried to distance themselves from the Latvian Legion event by ending the celebration of March 16 as a national day of remembrance for Latvian soldiers.

But Jewish groups still find the idea of former Waffen SS soldiers holding a public event unsettling.

"It's clear the people who are marching just don't get it. They don't understand that people who were willing to fight alongside the Waffen SS are hardly heroes," said Effraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office.

Ninety five percent of Latvia's 70,000 pre-war Jewish population was murdered during the German occupation.

After international allegations of foot-dragging, Latvian prosecutors have stepped up efforts to investigate Latvian-born Konrad Kalejs, whom Nazi hunters accuse of aiding Germany's World War II slaughter of Jews.

But Silamikelis said the Latvian Waffen SS soldiers should not be confused with the black-uniformed SS of concentration camps or with the Latvian Arajs hit squad that helped kill Jews.

"We called them rats in the rear," said Silamikelis referring to the Arajs squads. "About Kalejs, if he is guilty of what they say he is, he should shoot himself."