- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

"Stepping off the edge of the Earth" is the way one survivor describes how it was for her and 500,000 other former residents of the Baltic states when they left their homelands well over a half-century ago. Many of these brave travelers immigrated to America. As we commemorate the 60th anniversary this week of the Soviet invasion of the Baltic countries, it may be useful to review Eastern European history in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the rebirth of the sovereign countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Students of the plight of human rights throughout the ages would do well to study the painful history of the Baltic peoples. After centuries of being ruled from afar by foreign landlords, the lands along the eastern Baltic Sea inhabited by ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians finally achieved modern self-rule and complete independence at the close of World War I.

This first golden era for the newly freed peoples of the Baltics was to last a mere 20 years following the armistice with Germany on the Western Front in 1918. Never mind that the Baltic states invaded no neighbors, threatened no one's military bases and created no problems for anyone except to simply be there, three small free countries along the Baltic Sea. In 1939 their sovereignty was sacrificed in the secret protocols of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of that year Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia being handed by Adolf Hitler to Josef Stalin as a prize in exchange for an uncontested western slice of Poland.

So in June of 1940 the armies of the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states. The nauseating pattern of communist takeover began. Latvian President Karlis Ulmanis, a 1909 graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Agriculture, was arrested along with all civilian and military leaders of the Baltic nations. Then when Hitler double-crossed Stalin by invading Russia in June of 1941, communist officials chartered special trains to deport thousands of ordinary Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians to the death camps before the German army could arrive to deprive them of this miserable human enterprise.

In the fall of 1944 the counterattack of the Soviets posed a cruel dilemma for the Baltic region. Yes, the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had a choice. They could remain within their native lands and once again witness the reoccupation of same by the armies of the Soviet Union. Or they could "step off the edge of the Earth," leaving everything behind to walk west into an uncertain future, hopefully beyond the reach of the dangerous Russian bear. There is a special kind of hell some of these good folks had to walk through before finding freedom in the West. They were actively harassed by the Soviet Union. Some were bombed in their homes. Some were bombed as they boarded ships, desperately seeking passage to western Europe. And some were even torpedoed within the Baltic Sea itself while aboard ships carrying civilians from Latvia to Germany.

Let us speak plainly. There comes a time in human history when those of us who call ourselves Americans must be prepared to stand up and shout "No, you shall not go one step further." We have reached that point in defending Israel and rightly so. Should any country anywhere on this globe again attempt to inflict the Holocaust on the people of Israel, we would rise as one to quash any such genocidal efforts. That is the first human right on this planet, to simply be permitted to live.

Similarly, the rebirth of independent Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1991 should not be permitted to obscure a very painful fact the former Soviet Union came very close to exterminating the peoples who call themselves Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians.

I know not what was in the hearts of those Baltic travelers back in 1944 as they trudged toward an uncertain future away from all they had known before in their native Baltic states, but I believe that somewhere down deep must have been the human instinct of survival. Since the first days of discovery by traders in that area of a semiprecious stone called amber, there have been Baltic tribes. Well, here we are now starting into the 21st century and the Baltic tribes still survive. It has not been easy. We should give them a fair hearing regarding their applications to join NATO. They have paid the price of admission many times over.

Lawrence E. Murphy is a lawyer in Lincoln, Neb.

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