RIGA — A top Nazi hunter has condemned Latvian plans to stage a musical about a notorious wartime commander of a death squad that killed Jews.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said on Twitter he was “utterly disgusted.”
Titled “Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs” after the Latvian commander, it is due to premiere Saturday in the western coastal city of Liepaja.
Five prominent Latvians have also signed an open letter calling on the government to condemn the performance.
“It’s totally unacceptable to portray people like this as heroes,” Latvian foreign ministry spokesman Karlis Eihenbaums told AFP.
But he added that while Latvia “has consistently condemned war crimes”, as a democracy it supports freedom of speech.
After finding fame as a pioneering aviator in the 1930s, Cukurs became second-in-command of the notorious Nazi-allied “Arajs Kommando” during Germany’s wartime occupation of Latvia.
The death squad is believed to be responsible for around 25,000 deaths, mainly of Jews.
His high profile meant he was an instantly recognizable figure in the grim eye-witness testimony of Holocaust survivors.
He went underground near the end of the war and thus never faced trial for war crimes.
He was eventually assassinated in Uruguay in 1968, reputedly by Israel’s Mossad secret service.
Show producer Juris Millers defended it, saying Zuroff should watch the musical before making up his mind.
“I am perfectly aware that the musical is provocative because it deals with a controversial and tragic period in Latvian history,” Millers told the Latvijas Avize newspaper.
“Our task is not to exonerate or convict Herberts Cukurs; our aim is to start a discussion.”
Publicity materials for the musical describe Cukurs as “the most famous Latvian in the world”, and praise his “heroic deed” in flying from Riga to Gambia in 1934, in a self-built plane.
It makes no mention of his collaboration with the Nazis.
Latvians who sided with the Germans in the hope of defeating the invading Soviets are regarded as heroes by some of their countrymen.
The Soviet Union occupied the small Baltic EU and NATO member until 1991.