Sonderkommando Arājs: Latvia’s Nazi Collaborators and Their Role in the Holocaust

Sonderkommando Arājs: Latvia’s Nazi Collaborators and Their Role in the Holocaust

Viktors Arājs

On 1 July 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, German troops entered the Latvian capital city of Riga. In their wake followed a unit of the notorious Einsatzgruppen, Himmler’s infamous mobile killing squads tasked with the mass murder of Jews and others in eastern Europe. From the outset, these masters of death sought to enlist the help of local collaborators, and on the same day the Wehrmacht began its occupation, Walter Stahlecker, commander of Einsatzgruppe A, made contact with a Germanic looking Latvian policeman called Viktors Arājs. It would turn out to be a fateful meeting, for Arājs would become responsible for the deaths of half of Latvia’s Jews.

Viktors Arājs
Born in Baldone in January 1910, Viktors Bernhard Arājs was the son of a humble blacksmith, although his mother came from a wealthy Baltic German family. After attending the Jelgava Gymnasium, he entered the Latvian Army in 1930, two years’ service in which was mandatory at the time. When his compulsory military service was complete, he enrolled at the University of Latvia to study law, becoming what his wife later described him as an ‘eternal student’, not finishing his studies until 1941. Nevertheless, he managed to join the police during this time and gained a reputation for being power-hungry and holding extreme views. This, coupled with the fact he, like many Latvians, was pro-German, likely explains why he was identified by the Einsatzgruppen for possible recruitment as a key collaborator.

Sonderkommando Arājs
During their July meeting, Stahlecker told Arājs that he wanted him to establish a special commando as part of the new Latvian Auxiliary Police. All members were to be volunteers – many were in fact students or those with far-right views – who needed to be ready for immediate operations. This new unit would become known as the Sonderkommando Arājs or the Arājs Kommando. Within 24-hours of beginning to recruit members, Stahlecker instructed Arājs to organise a ‘spontaneous’ pogrom against Riga’s Jews.

Members of Sonderkommando Arājs

The next action carried out by the Arājs Kommando came just a couple of days later, on 4 July, when Arājs and his men trapped around 20 Jews, thought to be mostly women and children, in Riga’s Great Choral Synagogue on Gogoļ Street. Setting fire to the building, the auxiliary policemen threw grenades through the windows while their victims burned alive inside. The incident was filmed by the Germans, the footage later used as part of a Wehrmacht newsreel. It was a brutal, barbaric act but worse was yet to come.

To boost the ranks of the new commando, the Germans ran a recruitment advert in the Riga-based Tēvija (‘Fatherland’), a pro-German newspaper published in Latvian. It read, in big black font: ‘All patriotic Latvians, Pūrkonkrusts members [Latvian ultra-nationalist party], students, officers, militiamen, and citizens, who are ready to actively take part in the cleansing of our country of undesirable elements should enrol themselves at the office of the Security Group at 19 Valdemāra iela [street].’ Initially, the Arājs Kommando would number between 300 to 500 men during 1941, but by 1942 it had dramatically risen to around 1,500.

Prior to the German invasion of the Baltic States, some 95,000 Jews are believed to have resided in Latvia, although around 15,000 managed to escape to Soviet-held territory before the arrival of the Wehrmacht. Hitler wanted Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, to be made Judenfrei (free of Jews), and Arājs was to be instrumental in this gruesome task. Throughout the summer of 1941, the men of the Arājs Kommando would be called for duty twice a week, when they were put to work shooting Jews into killing pits dug in the Bikernieki Forest, located about four miles north-east of Riga’s city centre. Throughout that summer, it is thought Arājs and his men murdered some 4,000 Jews and 1,000 communists in such a manner.

The Sonderkommando Arājs recruitment advert in the pro-German Tēvija newspaper

To facilitate his work, Arājs commandeered several blue buses that usually operated as public transport in Riga. Filling the buses with his policemen, each being able to carry 40 men, he travelled to village after village in the vicinity, sifting through the inhabitants for Jews, who he then ordered shot. By the end of each visit, and sometimes more than one village would be visited during a day, the village in question would be chillingly declared ‘Judenfrei’.

Rumbula Massacre
By October 1941, all known Jews in Latvia had either been herded into ghettoes or otherwise murdered. It seemed as though the Arājs Kommando no longer had a purpose, but in late November and early December it was employed in one of the largest mass executions carried out by the Einsatzgruppen. During the operation, around 24,000 Jews from the Riga Ghetto were mercilessly slaughtered in the Rumbula Forest just outside the city.

The men of the Arājs Kommando assisted in the clearing of the ghetto as well as at the killing pits, where they guarded and herded the victims to their place of death. Once the shootings, carried out by Einsatzgruppen personnel, was complete, some of the Arājs Kommando loaded the stolen valuables of the victims on trucks for transport back to Riga. During the operation, Arājs was noted for being drunk, itself not unusual for many of those present at the killings.

Men of Sonderkommando Arājs burn a village

Towards the End
During 1942, the Arājs Kommando would be deployed in anti-partisan operations in Belarus. Apart from committing mass murder, men of the commando meted out brutal treatment to their victims, savagely beating and raping at will. Some members of the commando were posted to the Salaspils (Kurtenhof) Polizeigefängnis und Arbeitserziehungslager (Police Prison and Work Education Camp) just outside Riga. Life in the camp for the prisoners was intolerable, with over 2,000 perishing within its barbed wire walls. Meanwhile, Arājs was rewarded for his demonic work with a promotion to SS-Sturmbannführer in 1943.

Trial and Punishment
As the war entered its final months, the Arājs Kommando was disbanded and the men were transferred to the Latviešu legions (Latvian Legion), which was fighting with the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front. When the war eventually ended, Arājs ended up in a British internment camp in Germany, where he was held until 1949. Despite his crimes, he was not sent for trial. Taking on the name Viktors Zeibots, he found post-war employment with a printing firm in Frankfurt.

Arājs, however, did not escape justice entirely. In late 1979, he was put on trial at the State Court of Hamburg for his actions during the Rumbula Massacre. Found guilty of assisting in the murder of 13,000 people, Arājs was given a life sentence, later dying in the Kassel-Wehlheiden Prison in 1988. One of those who testified against him was Zelma Shepshelovitz, a Latvian Jewish woman who he had once viciously raped. She incredibly survived the war, and her heart-breaking testimony was central to the successful prosecution of Arājs. Most of his victims, however, lay buried in mass graves in and around Riga and beyond.

A blue Riga bus used by Sonderkommando Arājs