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Dvinsk During the Holocaust

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The Ghetto in Dvinsk

From the Book: Jews in Latvia (Yiddish)
By: Mendel Buba

The Germans entered Dvinsk on 29 June 1941 after a heavy bombardment that demolished many of the houses and aroused panic, especially among the Jews. On 21 July 1941 an order was issued, directing all men up to age 60 to assemble in the market square. After being kept in suspense for a full day, they were taken to the central prison. Some were led straight from the square to the Strop Forest where they were slaughtered.

Those who were imprisoned were sent out to do various jobs, and some of them never came back from those tasks. The Latvian populace was as cruel as the Nazis, and cooperated with them in the slaughter of the Jews.

On the 15th of July the large synagogue was set on fire, as were the smaller synagogues and houses of study, afterwards. Only the House of Study of Rabbi Meir Simcha, which was turned into a warehouse for foodstuffs, and the Planover Minyan, which became an old age home for Aryans, remained standing.

On the same day, a decree was issued that ordered all Jews to wear a yellow badge on their chests and backs. Men were also required to put the patch over their left knee.

On the 26th of July all of the Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto in Riga, a city which is located on the other side of the Daugava River.

The “ghetto” was created in an ancient fortress from the days of the Tsars, the greater portion of which was a destroyed barracks and a stable for horses.

They also put the Jews of the smaller towns surrounding Dvinsk into that ghetto; in all they crammed in some 15,000 people, into a horribly overcrowded space with atrocious sanitary conditions. Supposedly to alleviate the overcrowding, the Germans ordered the preparation of a list of elderly people with the intention of moving them to a special camp.

The same thing was said about the Jewish people who had arrived from the surrounding area who had been expelled from their homes with nothing; they would be moved to a “new camp.”

The “new camp” was located not far from Dvinsk, about 8 kilometers, in a resort suburb called Pogolianka, where they took the poor souls and murdered them in a cruel and sadistic manner.

They were forced to undress and arrange their clothing neatly, then stand before holes which had been dug in advance and into which they fell after being cut down by machine gun fire.

We are the remaining, living memorial; we are the sons, and the sons of the daughters, of the murdered. It is our sacred obligation to perpetuate their memories, and to engrave their images upon our hearts, and to tell the sons of our sons the stories of the magnificent community of Dvinsk, which once was and is no longer.

Living institutions must be created, monuments of stone, books telling the stories must be published, to leave a reminder for the coming generations.

By Moshe Amir (Beliach)

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In the beginning of November work permits were distributed to tailors and shoe makers, who worked in German workshops. From the seventh through the ninth of November they removed the remainder of the Jews from their homes and took them to “convalescence in Pogolianka.” The Aktion lasted for three days and afterwards, only 1,000 people remained in the ghetto.

Only 400 Jews remained in the ghetto after its destruction on the first of May, 1942. On the same day, they wiped out the heads of the Judenrat, the hospitals and their doctors and nurses. Only Jews who were of use to the Germans remained alive. They were employed because of their trades and housed in their workplaces. Some were housed in the fort by the river.

In the ghetto, three women were killed “according to the law”; one was shot and two were hanged. The formal charges against them were:

One impersonated an Aryan, the second sold things in the ghetto, and the third was accused by a Lett homeowner of violating the law against “defiling the pure race.” The homeowner suspected that she knew about the vast property that he had stolen from the Jews and hidden away, and thus he got rid of the eye witness.

The death sentence was carried out in the presence of all of the ghetto's residents, from children to the elderly. In one case, the commander of the “Jewish police” was forced to execute the sentence. One of the women was left hanging for three days to serve as an example to the Jews.

On the 26th of October the final remnants of the Jewish population, 350 people, were taken from the ghetto and sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga.

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The Dvinsk Ghetto

On 22 July 1941, World War II broke out.

On 29 July 1941 the Nazis gathered all of the Jews in the center of the city (opposite the Lett department store). They took the men away and sent the women and children home.

For a week we sat at home. Then they imprisoned us and our wanderings began. My mother, my sister, and I went by way of the Planover Synagogue. The prison in Dvinsk is where they murdered most of the Jews. Only a small group of 300 young men and women left the prison alive. They moved us to the Dvinsk ghetto, which was filled to capacity.

The ghetto was once a fortress for the Lett dragoons, well-fortified on all sides, earthen ramparts, wire, fences and swamps near the Daugava on the GrÔva side. On the other side of the river on the ramparts were observers and policemen in their command posts. The ghetto was about half a kilometer long. In one corner of the ghetto was the office of the commander, who excelled at cruelty.

Just before this office was the exit from the ghetto, through which the workers went out. Most of the women and children stayed in the ghetto and didn't go out. Those who did work, like me, were gathered in the morning near the gate. The German soldiers would come and take us to work. Those who went out to work were young, healthy, and strong.

The Jews performed forced labor without recompense. The work was difficult and exhausting. There were also Jews who worked in their trades, like shoemakers, tailors, and carpenters who built garages for the heavy military equipment. They also needed female workers for cleaning, laundering and cooking. A group of men and women worked regularly in the military hospital; among them were Ichilov Sheinka (who moved to Israel from Australia), Sima Yaffa, and Isaac Yaffa (her brother, who currently lives in Ra'anana).

They always took me to work. My mother and sister didn't work. My brother Shaul worked in a military unit where a few dozen other Jews also worked. They built garages and did carpentry work.

Those who remained in the ghetto and did not work were subject to aktia. The first was the aktion of the elderly. The German commandant told the Judenrat – whose members were Mowschensohn, Dr. Vaspi, and Dr. Gurwitz – to provide 200 elderly people for a camp. Dr. Gurwitz volunteered to accompany the group.

The camp was called: “The second concentration camp for the elderly and out of work.”

Dr. Gurwitz wished to accept that summons, and went to check the conditions of the camp; he set out with the group of elderly people and never returned.

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In this manner, the Germans deceived the Jews and the Judenrat. No one knew where the work camp was, or whether it even existed.

The Jews who had work permits were temporarily protected and were called “useful Jews.”

There were also Jews from the surrounding towns such as Dagda, Kãrsava, Preili, Zilupe, and Rakliani Krãslava in the Dvinsk ghetto. These were the Jews who, at the outbreak of the war, found temporary sanctuary in Dvinsk and were later killed in the ghetto. Among them there were also Jews from abroad, from France or Poland, who had come to visit relatives before the war, who were then trapped in the ghetto and killed.

It sometimes happened that Jews went to their deaths even with viable permits. They said they were tired of life, and preferred death.

In one of the aktia, we returned from work under the supervision of soldiers, for whom we had been working. In that unit were: the teacher Gurwitz, Bleich or Bleichman (from Eglaine – her husband was a veterinary doctor), and me; there was one permit for all of us. As we got closer to the ghetto we saw that all of the Jews were standing in the courtyard, grouped together in families.

I, of course, immediately ran to my family and stood at the head of our group. With me were my mother, my Aunt Leah, and her children. Two children approached our group, one an 8 year old boy and the other a 7 year old girl. They told me, “We will stand in your row, say we're part of your family.” I added them to our family group.

A Gestapo man walked among the rows wearing a black tie and carrying a whip in his hand. He decided who would live and who would die. He approached my family and when he saw that I did not have a work permit, he began to beat me all over my body.

I didn't shout or cry, but simply said, “I work in an army unit and have a collective permit with two other women; there they are.” The Gestapo man looked at me, amazed by my audacity, and said, “Where does this Jewess get the boldness to speak?”

All eyes turned to us, then the teacher Gurwitz rushed forward with the permit. The Gestapo man checked it, and all of my group and my family were sent to the side of the living. We were lucky that time!

During a different aktion, I was in a room with my brother Shaul – he rolled up like a ball on the bed and I covered him with a pillow and lay down so that I was hiding him. The Lett police went through the rooms, shouting and taking people out of the rooms to the yard and then onto trucks, to be taken no one knew where.

I, with my blond hair, seemed to take them by surprise – “What is this shiksa doing here?” Apparently they mistakenly thought I was a non-Jew, and they never laid a finger on me or my brother.

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During the month of October I didn't work. All of my former classmates would gather and sit together on the benches from times of the Lett dragoons, and weave dreams for the future. In that group were Sheinka Gendel (killed) Hindake Levy (killed), Sima Yaffa (now in Riga), Isser Hyatt (killed). We would talk about the hoped-for liberation and the end of the war that perhaps, one day, would come.

Someone asked me, “Rachel, do you think we'll be able to stay alive?”

I answered, “Of course we'll stay alive. See, the sun is shining and warming us, that's a good sign.” Most of those sitting there never were liberated. Their bones are buried in the Bezia sands. In 1961, on those sands was built a big chemical factory.

The 7th of November came. My brother went to work, but I stayed in the ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded by a living chain of Lett policemen. Together, all the young people ran to the Judenrat and cried out, “Help!” but the people of the Judenrat were hopeless. At one in the afternoon, as I stood by the Judenrat a young woman I did not know approached and said, “What shall I do? My friend went to work at the military hospital this morning and left me her work permit on the condition that I return it to her this afternoon. But I'm scared to go out; there are so many policemen around! What shall I do? Help me.” I answered her, “Give me the permit – I will take it to her.” The permit was in the name Bella Potsh (I learned later that she was from Chagda and didn't return to the ghetto). I took the permit and ran to say goodbye to my mother and sister. I told my mother that I was going to try to run away, and that she should hide under the pallet.

My mother parted from me with tears in her eyes, and told me that if I survived I should tell the world how they murdered the Jews, and that I shouldn't forget the address of Uncle Leib in America. I went out through the ghetto gate waving the red permit. At that time, no one could leave the ghetto; only those who had a permit in their hands and who knew the password, which was given out by the German commandant. Everyone watched me as I went to the office of the commandant. I waited in the yard for an hour and then left. The policemen thought I had been with the commandant and not delay me. I passed through all the guards. Only one was left. It seemed to me he had fallen asleep, but he suddenly shouted a question at me: where was I going? I replied that I was going to the military hospital and that I had a permit, that the doctor had given me permission to come to the ghetto to see my mother, who was sick. The policeman looked at me and said, “Oh well, then say the password.” I answered, “Mr. Policeman, I've forgotten it. I'm so worried about my mother's illness, I've forgotten.” The policeman gave me a look and said, “Go quickly, and God be with you!” I quickly crossed the bridge and entered a small forest. I removed the yellow Star of David and buried it in the ground. I went to the place where my brother was working. He hid me in the factory and in the evening left with the other workers and returned to the ghetto. He never left there again. When he reached the ghetto the policemen forced all of the Jews out of their homes and into the yard. On the steps, he met our sister Sarah and together they and the rest of the Jews set off on their final journey…

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My mother, who had hidden under the pallet, was discovered by the policemen, and stabbed with a bayonet.

A bloodbath, she wallowed in blood as she fell in the yard. My brother Shaul was able to cover her with sand. I learned what befell my family later, from an eyewitness.

At eight in the morning my brother Shaul hurried to work. At the gate he was stopped by two detectives who knew him to have been an activist in the communist movement before the war. He went together with the teacher Steinman.

The head of the secret police, Motznik, who stood by the gate, pointed at my brother Shaul and said, “That is the communist commissar Friedman from the high Soviet Lett council.” The thing was, in 1940 when the Soviets controlled Latvia, they had elected as commissar 40 year old Feibish Friedman who had been an underground communist (he is now in Riga). The head of the secret police claimed that my brother was that Friedman, although he was only 22 and his name was Shaul, not Feibish. But why should he concern himself with such details as the proper name? It was obvious that Friedman was a communist, and after all the family name was the same.

I ran away to Breslau. The Jews of Dvinsk were exterminated on the 7th and 8th of November, 1941. The few remaining remnants were taken to the Dvinsk fortress, from which they were taken out to forced labor. Later, they moved them to Salaspils (not far from Riga), and from there to German and Polish camps.

Only a few individuals survived and returned.

I continued to run and to wander. Through the villages and towns, I came in contact with the partisans and joined them.

In February 1943 I crossed the front lines, and reached Moscow on the 14th of April. There I was received warmly. They listened when I told them of the slaughter of the Jews of Latvia and my city, Dvinsk. In Eretz Yisrael, I found my liberty.

Rachel Friedman
A refugee of the Holocaust from the ghetto of Dvinsk

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