Latvian textbook demeans Jews

MOSCOW — Jewish and human rights activists in Latvia have demanded that the national Education Ministry withdraw from schools a history textbook that they charge contains statements insulting to minorities.

The book "Latvian Eulenspiegel," whose title evokes a popular character in German and Latvian folklore, refers to Jews as zids. Once a neutral word, the term now has a pejorative connotation.

After Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Jewish community protested the use of the word, prompting Latvian officials and the press to avoid it.

The book, which describes the nation's history before World War II, contains "terrible insults" about Latvia's minorities, including Jews, Russians and Poles, said Mikhail Avrutin, director of the Baltic-American Bureau on Human Rights, an affiliate of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews that is based in the Latvian capital of Riga.

Along with anti-Semitic myths that are presented as truth, the book calls Russians "quite primitive" people who always use dirty language.

Several months ago, copies of the work were delivered as a gift to the country by Latvians living in the United States.

The Latvian Education Ministry subsequently distributed the books to all Latvian schools — recommending it be used as a companion to history texts already in use.

Riga's Dubnov Jewish Day School was among the institutions that received a copy, according to Grigory Bikson, who teaches at the school.

"Clearly, officials haven't browsed through the book before they approved it," said Abik Elkin, a Jewish journalist from Riga.

The Jewish community and the Baltic-American Bureau on Human Rights sent a letter to Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis expressing "bewilderment over the book's distribution" and asking that it be withdrawn from schools.

Avrutin predicts that the book "will probably be withdrawn."

Currently some 16,000 Jews live among 2.7 million population.