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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvia Honors Jewish Protectors

RIGA, Latvia -- Bruno Rozenthals knew he was putting his own life and the lives of his family on the line when he hid 36 Jews from the Nazis on his farm in central Latvia.

Today, he insists there was nothing extraordinary about his actions.

"At first, we were afraid. If discovered, our whole village would have paid the price. But I am a Christian and Christians are taught to help all those in trouble," said Rozenthals, 74, one of four Latvians honored Tuesday for hiding Jews during World War II.

Despite the bravery of Rozenthals and a few others, nearly 80,000 Jews were murdered during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Latvia. Latvians as well as Germans participated in the killings.

A ceremony hosted by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to mark Latvia's nationwide Holocaust commemoration day focused on the noble deeds of a brave few.

"I am deeply gratified that there were people who followed their consciences and risked their lives to save others," Vike-Freiberga said. "They were true to the ideal of humanity."

Rozenthals, Juris Berzins, 75, Olga Kruzmane, 83, and Jadviga Ocehouska, 76, were awarded the Three-Star Order f Latvia's highest honor f for sheltering Jews.

The Nazis invaded Latvia in 1941. On July 4, German SS operatives torched Riga's central synagogue, burning to death scores of Jews trapped inside.

Earlier Tuesday, about 300 people gathered at the stone remains of the building, left standing as a memorial, to pay their respects to those who perished. Mourners laid flowers, while Jewish leaders recited prayers.

A day earlier, vandals smeared swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti on the memorial, an act condemned by Vike-Freiberga and other officials.

Natan Barkan, Latvia's chief rabbi, spoke of the vandalism briefly.

"Those who were burned alive here can still be heard, screaming 'don't forget us.' Our enemies haven't forgotten. They came to defile this sacred place, they remember. So we must remember, too, that our brothers and sisters died here because they were Jewish," he said.

The Soviet Red Army overran Latvia and Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania after Germany surrendered. Thousands were deported to Siberia, where many were shot.

After winning independence from Moscow after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Latvia vowed to prosecute alleged agents of Nazi- and Soviet crimes. But while nearly a dozen men have been indicted or convicted for Stalinist-era crimes, no alleged Nazis have been tried, drawing criticism from Jewish groups.

The Soviet Union executed several hundred alleged Nazi war criminals in Latvia immediately after World War II.

Under heavy international pressure, prosecutors launched investigations into the wartime activities of 86-year-old Konrads Kalejs, who Jewish groups say was an officer in the Arajs Kommando, a Nazi-sponsored death squad responsible for killing some 30,000 Jews.

"Things are moving in the right direction," said Gregory Krupnikov, chairman of Latvia's 11,000-strong Jewish community. "What's important is political will. It matters little to me, for example, whether Kalejs dies at home or in prison. But it's essential that the political steps are taken to address his crimes."