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The War Years in Latvia Revisited*

by Max Kaufmann

To write of the great destruction of the Jewish community at the hands of the Hitlerites is far from easy, for in doing so many nightmares are revived. The urge to write this article has been furnished by the famous words of Queen Esther: “For how could I endure to look on the evil that is to befall my people? And how could I endure to look on the extermination of my kindred?” (Esther, VIII, 6).

In a similar vein immediately after the Holocaust I answered an inner call to make a record on paper, and thus preserve for history, my recollections of what happened to Latvian Jewry during the Second World War.[1]

Thirty years have now passed since the beginning of the tragic events for us Latvian Jews. The cries of our men, women, and children marching toward their death accompany the survivors to the present day. For former inmates of German camps it is still difficult to grasp psychologically what came about during those dark days in the history of the Jewish people. Some are attempting to forget, or may even have done so. Perhaps this is a law of nature. Yet in actuality this tragedy can never be forgotten, and one must always “remember what the Amalekites have done to you.”

The Latvian Jewish population in 1939 numbered nearly one hundred thousand. Although small in size, it occupied an important place in World Jewry. With the establishment of Soviet bases, and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Latvia, the number of Jews began to decrease somewhat. Some who had connections abroad or possessed other means left the country; and a further decline occurred on 14 June 1941, shortly before the Nazi attack. Approximately five thousand Jews as well as very many Latvians were forcefully relocated on that date and transported to the innermost regions of the Soviet Union, particularly Siberia. The victims

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included a considerable segment of the Jewish intelligentsia, among them the Jewish representatives in the Latvian Parliament; Rabbi Dr. M. Nurock, M. Dubin, and N. Maisel. Most of these deportees died in Siberian camps on account of the sub–human conditions there and the treatment meted out to helpless Jews by the Stalinists. Further population transplantations intended by the Russians came to nothing because of the German invasion of 22 June 1941. Some Jews accompanied the Russian retreat. Quite a number of Jewish boys were conscripted into the Red Army in which they fought valiantly, a note inconsiderable number losing their lives in the fighting. On 26 June the Nazis occupied Dvinsk (Daugavpils), thereafter Libau (Liepaja), and Riga on 1 July.

Riga, which was referred to as Little Paris, was the centre of the Baltic States from the viewpoint of culture. It was very strongly influenced by its neighbours: By Russia to the East and, on account of the very large German population, by Germany to the West. Jews who found it impossible to attend institutions of higher learning in Latvia before and after the Czarist period usually went abroad to study. The language spoken in Jewish homes was predominantly German. After the Great War Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as religious schools, were established and were well frequented, and Yiddish became quite popular. Besides the Jewish and Russian press in Jewish hands, Riga was also an outstanding focus for Jewish theatrical life. As a Jewish cultural centre the city attracted many Jewish personalities from abroad; for example, O.O. Gruzenberg, Professors Simon Dubnow[2], Benjamin Sieff, Zentnershver, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Leib Kantor (Editor of the first Hebrew newspaper “Hayom” in St. Petersburg). Rabbi J. Schneuerson from Lubavitch, Dr. J. Hoffman who together with V. Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist Betar Youth Movement in Riga, etc. There were also many outstanding Latvian Jews there. Among these were Professors Paul Mintz, Vladimir Mintz (who was summoned for consultation in the treatment of Lenin), both originally from Dvinsk, Dr. Jacob Hellman, and a great many others.

The Latvian population of Riga welcomed the Nazis in their Sunday garb. Most of the buildings were decorated with swastikas, and “Perkonkrust” (the Cross of Perkons) members (a Latvian ultra–nationalist movement) prepared plans for the destruction of the Jewish community. Under the leadership of the Latvian Voldemar Arajs Latvian columns were brought into existence for the purpose of murdering Jews; and many lost

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their lives all over the country. But the “Perkonkrust” members did not remain alone in their patriotic endeavours. Accompanying the German forces were Gestapo contingents, who systematically began to decimate Jews. On 28 July the Jews were ordered to affix the yellow Star of David (the yellow bade of shame) on the left chest, and subsequently in the centre of the back as well. Jews were prohibited from walking on pavements, from entering parks and public baths. They received half as much food rations as non–Jews, wee conscripted for compulsory labor, were prohibited from establishing social contact with non–Jews, and were forced to surrender their valuables. As can well be imagined, the Jews became more than depressed as a result of this treatment. But in due time they adjusted themselves to the new situation and wore the Star of David with pride, despite the biting sarcasm of the Latvian population.

These were but minor points in the overall context of the Nazi plans to solve the Jewish question. Serious were the synagogue burnings, and catastrophic the practice of chasing Jews into houses of worship and then setting these on fire together with the people within and the Holy Scriptures.[3] For example, in the Stabuiela Synagogue Rabbi Kilov and his worshippers went up in flames; and in the new Jewish cemetery synagogue cantor Mintz perished with his family. Mass arrests followed by the slaughter of Jews in the forests were followed by the order to establish a ghetto in Riga by 25 October 1 941. The numbers moving into it were small, since very many had already been eliminated.

Hammers were beating powerfully and quickly as the ghetto had to be ready by a particular day; and we were finally separated from the rest of the world and locked up on 25 October. Now we were surrounded entirely by enemies. Our only consolation was that in our history we Jews have experienced so many difficult periods and have lost so many members of our people, but again and again we have survived and thus in the final analysis have been victorious. In the midst of our new tragedy I already imagined a new and healthy generation emerging, a generation tried in battle. Even though we were in the process of losing millions, people we can never replace from the viewpoint of human values and knowledge, time will, perhaps, permit us to regain and even surpass the number mur–

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dered. Our brothers went to their deaths with Hatikvah on their lips.[4]

After more than twenty years I see that the thoughts which I recorded in my book in 1947 were prophetic in so far as our people, although still small in number, after several thousand years have succeeded in reestablishing an independent sovereign state with our old capital, Jerusalem. With its magnificent accomplishments Israel constitutes an example for the rest of the world. As a whole the Jewish people have survived and reached new heights.

The ghetto was established in the section of Riga known as Moskauer Vorstadt. Well–trained Gestapo murderers assumed control, and their presence was immediately felt. The actual task of guarding the ghetto was entrusted to uniformed Latvian volunteers, who participated not only in murdering the inmates of the Riga ghetto but also those of Warsaw and other ghettos and concentration camps. On the very first night several Jews were shot without warning near the double barbed–wire fence. Occasionally the guards paid “small” visits to the inner sanctuary of the ghetto, and these always resulted in additional Jews being murdered.

Under the able and wise leadership of attorney Michael Eljaschew a Jewish committee was created in the ghetto. Other members of the committee were Blumenau, Minsker, Kaufer, Dr. Blumenfeld, and Schlitter, an immigrant from Austria who by virtue of his Austrian heritage had easier access to the Nazi authorities. As can well be imagined, the committee had difficult and responsible tasks to perform: The touchy endeavor of assigning living quarters to approximately 33,000 Jews in a space which had formerly housed 5,000 non–Jews; to assure a continuous flow of food and fuel for the approaching winter and, among other tasks, adequate provisions for sanitation facilities. Regarding medical attention, we possessed a number of well–known physicians, but at our disposal was only a very small hospital (the former “Linae Hazedek”) and the drug supply was far from adequate. Also established in the ghetto was a Jewish police force under the leadership of Michael Rosenthal, as well as a labour office under the guidance of J. Goldberg (formerly of Rujene).[5] Without synagogues individuals wishing to pray did so privately at the abodes of Rabbi Zack

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and the attorney, Simeon Wittenberg who had succeeded in rescuing many Holy Scriptures which were brought to the Ghetto, where he began to establish a Jewish school; as well as other private quarters. In addition to the prevailing atmosphere, the severity of the first winter under the Occupation was responsible for the suicide of many Jews – one of the most extreme cases being that of Mrs. Chana Meisel, who poisoned her two daughter and four–months old nephew before committing suicide herself.

Germans employed Jews inside and outside the ghetto. Men were put to use for heavy duties, women and children for lighter tasks. With clothing torn and under heavy guard, Jews marched dejectedly in columns to and from work. The only thing we were really provided with was the old and well–known Jewish cemetery. It happened to be located in the area which subsequently became the centre of our ghetto. The cemetery, which was stained with our blood and tears and contained the bodies of very many well–known Riga Jews, has been transformed into a blooming park since World War II, and there the young generation amuses itself.

As is usual in such circumstances there were both pessimists and optimists among us. But with the arrival of the Nazi minister, Alfred Rosenberg, even the optimists gave way, since his decision was to liquidate most of the ghetto inhabitants. Thus the duration of the original ghetto was only thirty–seven days, and with anguish I must now begin to recount the ensuing “Ten Bloody Days.”

Although these occurrences took place many many years ago, the cries of men, women, and children as they walked their last road are anchored in my memory as if these events had taken place only yesterday. Almost everyone who had to witness these events and hear the symphony of mourning, and yet survived, reacts in the same way. Incomprehensible to me even to the present day is the fact that God was able to witness our huge catastrophe. But on with the story.

On 27 November 1941 an announcement appeared in the ghetto notifying Jews that it would be liquidated and the inhabitants resettled. Columns of one thousand men each were ordered to appear for a roll call on 29 November. This announcement had a lightning effect upon the ghetto inhabitants. The streets were crowded with people, and disconcertedly they stood in front of the grave notice studying the meaning of the words “liquidation” and “resettling.” Nobody wished to believe that behind these words lurked something dangerous and calamitous.

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Another decree ordered that specific streets be evacuated before the evening of 28 November. The inhabitants of these streets were almost immediately chased into the inner part of the ghetto. This act constituted in actually the creation of a new ghetto, the so–called Small Ghetto.

The bloody evacuations began on the night of 29 November. Thousands of totally drunk Latvian[6] and German guards in uniform swarmed into the large ghetto and started hunting Jews. Like wild animals they broke into apartments. Many Jews were beaten and some murdered. Children were torn from their parents, and some were thrown out of windows by the guards. Jews were ordered to dress quickly and fall into columns.

Under German leadership these were surrounded and heavily guarded by Latvians. Children, the weak and the ill were taken in public transportation buses towards Salaspils. There they were joined by other Jews. At the Rumbuli railroad station adjoining the forest graves had already been prepared by Soviet prisoners of war under German guidance. In bitter cold, men, women, and children were ordered to undress, after which they were horribly beaten, pushed to the edges of the graves and slaughtered. Thousands of victims had to wait their turn in the meantime and watch the mass killings.

The blood–bath ceased after several days, and those returning from work who had not been caught in the ghetto massacres found a new place to live, namely in the newly–created small ghetto. Under the noble guidance of the late attorney Simeon Wittenberg, everyone from the small ghetto was now mobilized to bury, in the cemetery, those who had been murdered in the large ghetto. Mass shootings then began anew. In the days that followed far more than twenty–seven thousand innocent men, women, and children were mercilessly butchered and buried in the Rumbuli forest – among them Rabbi M. Zack, the world–renowned Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, the members of the Jewish ghetto committee, and many of the most prominent m members of the Riga Jewish community.[7]

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The Small Ghetto was inhabited by some five thousand Jews, including several hundred women and some children. A barbed–wire fence separated the women and children from the men. These few Jews constituted the remnants of the old and beautiful Riga, the Riga which so many of us had once cherished.

Deep in mourning for the tragic happenings, we marched daily with the women to and from work. For a very long time none could adjust to the huge losses we had incurred. In the ghetto thoroughly trained Gestapo killers headed by a commandant established a murder regime. The large ghetto was now being prepared for new Jewish arrivals from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. According to our estimates approximately thirty thousand arrived and were divided at the Riga Skirotavas terminal: about half were brought to the large ghetto[8] which now became known as the German ghetto, and the rest were taken to the forests and murdered. These foreign Jews had brought much luggage with them, but everything was immediately confiscated.[9] To absorb some of the newcomers a camp was also established in the vicinity of Riga, at Jumpravmuiza.

The foreman of both ghettos wee Jews appointed by the German commandant. Two Jewish police forces were established, one for each part, a small hospital was set up in the German ghetto (besides attending to their usual tasks Jewish doctors of both ghettos were forced to perform many abortions), and an employment office in the small ghetto served both sections. Jews were forced to work for the German armed forces, the German civil authorities and the Gestapo. They were exploited not only because of their capabilities and intelligence, but also because no language barrier existed between Jews and Germans. Very many German units established workshops, and Jewish experts and artisans were conscripted to man these. At the very end of 1941 so–called “marching commandos” were detained in part or totally by the employers, so that Jewish workers could be more efficiently exploited. The demand for non–reimbursed Jewish workers was

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heavy. After the first mass arrests in the ghetto those who had remained behind no longer felt secure, and therefore there developed among us a detention psychosis. These detention places, some of which were highly prized by us and where each one had hopes of being detained, were transformed at the end of 1943 into something like branches of the Kaiserwald concentration camp.

The extreme severity of the first winter took an additional toll. Thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children from both ghettos, irrespective of age, were conscripted for snow removal. Due to a lack of proper clothing and an inadequate diet many perished. In February 1942 the so–callled “Duenamuende Tin Factory” action occurred in the German–Jewish part of the ghetto as well as at the Jumpravmuiza camp, and several thousand were murdered in the Bikerni forest. At about the same time, 750 who had recently arrived from Berlin were also slaughtered in the forest, and the blood–stained clothing of the perished Jews was returned by the Nazis to the German ghetto. Thirty of our young men from the small ghetto were utilized for medical experiments and then killed. Some Riga Jews were sent to work in Esthonia – in the Vaivara, Kivioli and Kloga coal mines. There they were joined by other Jews from Vilna and Kovno. Few survived. In the meantime a child was born in the section set aside for women in the small ghetto, and the infant was named Ben Ghetto. He was slaughtered shortly after birth. Another woman gave birth to a child, and on the order of the commandant the child was done away with through an injection. Outside the ghetto Germans began searching for Jewish women who were married to non–Jews. Those found were incarcerated and subsequently murdered. The German ghetto was out of bounds for us, under threat of capital punishment. In so far as our small ghetto was concerned, two transports of men and women (without children) arrived at the end of 1941 and in 1942 from Kovno. About a year later a transport arrived with approximately five hundred women from Hungary and another one with several hundred women from Holland. All were taken directly from the railroad station to the forest and slaughtered. One day a small group of gypsy children (non–Jews) who were rounded up in Latvia arrived in the ghetto. They were given toys taken from the luggage of some of the German Jews, and the same evening they were sent to be butchered.

In such circumstances, how could anyone help but have a sense of futility regarding the future? Each and every one of us attempted to save himself by whatever means available. Under penalty of death an order was issued by the ghetto commandant, Kurt Krause, prohibiting the exchange

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of good with Latvians. Fifteen Jews returning from work in columns were executed in June 1942 because the authorities found food in their possession. In one instance, for example, on an inspection tour of the German ghetto Krause visited a Czech physician. Upon noticing that he was smoking cigarettes not legally available, the physician was instantly shot by the commandant. If one wanted to survive there was no other way but to take risks. An additional fear was that Latvians, with whom many of us had entrusted things for safekeeping, would denounce us as they were interested in keeping our possessions.

A change occurred in the Riga ghetto in 1943. An Austrian Gestapo official of low rank, Eddi Roschmann, who had proved his sadism, was appointed commandant. The intolerable situation forced us to seek a way out. Even prior to Roschmann's appointment, it had been decided to plan a rising and establish contact with the partisans in the forests. Rifles, grenades, and old French machine–guns were provided by the Jewish work column employed by the Riga Powder Tower (Pulverturm). As a rule these were smuggled into the ghetto in official food parcels, and stored with the food in a cellar. Latvian Jewish youth were trained in handling the weapons, and during shooting exercises Jewish workers in an adjoining smithy provided the noise to drown out these exercises and allay the suspicion of the Germans. But through some loose talk by the trainees, the authorities were informed of the planned revolt. It must be presumed that the Germans found a list of the names of the fighters, for at first only a few were arrested but subsequently these arrests assumed a mass character.

Soon after the first arrests some members of the Resistance escaped on a military truck driven by a Latvian, to join the partisans in the forests. They were betrayed by the driver. The truck was ambushed by German forces outside Riga and the Jews replied by opening fire. Both sides suffered casualties, and one wounded Jewish youngster was returned to the ghetto. Commandant Krause now announced that since there were weapons in the ghetto, those found in possession of war material would be hanged. In connection with this affair the Germans decided to liquidate the Latvian Jewish police force in the small ghetto. The policemen were gathered on the Blechplatz and murdered with machine–guns. A few who succeeded in escaping were subsequently found and shot. Accidentally the Germans killed a fellow Nazi, and a small memorial was erected on the spot to honor him. Throughout our tribulations these policemen helped us immensely and they will long remain in our memory.

Of course, the revolt which took a long time to plan never occurred.

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The Germans found and confiscated the weapons, the entire episode cost the Jewish community several hundred additional lives, and several camps were established outside Riga at Olaine, Dundagen, Popewaln, etc. There Jews were utilized for cutting peat and other hard tasks. Whenever the bloody Roschmann with his aides Gymnich and Migge came for visits some Jews lost their lives. For example, his visit to Shlock cost us three boys, including my son Arthur. I located these aides of Roschmann after the liberation, and had them arrested in Cologne. Max Gymnich committed suicide in prison, and Kurt Migge received a prison sentence of only ten years.

In 1943 for the first time a not inconsiderable group of older men, women and children of both ghettos were transported to Poland where they were gassed. At about the same time a large transport of men and women (without children) arrived from Vilna after the liquidation of the ghetto there. In the same year a concentration camp was established in the Riga suburb of Kaiserwald, and gradually the remaining Jews of both ghettos were transferred to this camp. On 2 November 1943 German and Latvian military units surrounded both ghettos, and all the remaining Jews were chased from their dwellings into the streets and transported to the concentration camp. Some were detained by German employers in the city, the weak ones were sent to be slaughtered.

Thus the existence of the Riga ghetto ended after 702 bloody days.

Dvinsk (Daugavpils), the capital of Latgale, was the second largest Latvian city. Heavily influenced by Russian culture, the languages most spoken at home were Russian and Yiddish. The German armies had rushed to occupy Dvinsk on 26 June 1941 since it was strategically located. It served as an intermediate point in the rail connection between Germany and Leningrad via Warsaw, as well as between Riga and Central Russia (Orel). A main road also connected Koenigsberg in East Prussia with Leningrad via Kovno and Dvinsk. By rushing to occupy the city the Germans succeeded in encircling large segments of the Soviet army in the Baltic States.

Dvinsk had claimed the largest Jewish population of the Baltic States even before Latvia had gained its independence in 1918. After World War I many Jews moved to Riga, while others from adjoining small cities moved to Dvinsk. It was a city of profound contrasts, a city of some rich and many very poor Jews, a city which possessed a distinct Jewish temper and a cosmopolitan atmosphere, and in view of these factors it is therefore no accident that it had earned for itself an important reputation in the Jewish

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world. For example, the industrialist S. Zachs was in 1897 a representative at the first World Zionist Congress at Basle, and the Socialist Movement, particularly “The Bund,” already, at the time of the 1905 Russian Revolution, exerted a profound influence in all of Latgale. The hunger for education and the restrictions imposed upon Jews in the Czarist period forced many to study away from home. Educated personalities originally from Dvinsk were, among others, Professor Miron Vofsi who was later implicated in Stalin's plot against Jewish physicians, and Shlomo Michoels–Wofsi of the theatrical arts. Since Dvinsk was a city filled with synagogues and yeshivas it also claimed well known religious personalities, including Rabbi Meir Simha Cohen and the so–called Rogachover Gaon Joseph Rosen. Their scholarly publications dealt mainly with topics relating to intellectual thought. Both died a natural death shortly before World War II, and their graves have remained unharmed in Dvinsk until the present day.

The rapid occupation of Dvinsk by German forces engendered a profound shock in the Jewish community. By virtue of the proximity of the soviet border many Jewish youngsters fled to the Soviet Union. Due to incessant bombings by German planes, many unfortunately never reached their destination.

As everywhere else in Latvia the organized Nazi–inspired Latvian Perkonkrust members made themselves felt even before the Germans had time to organize their murder machinery. Almost immediately all houses of worship were destroyed, and on 15 July 1941 Jews were ordered to affix the Star of David: women on the chest and back, and an additional one for men on the knee. Those who survived the immediate mass slaughters in the prisons were incarcerated on 25 July 1941 in the ghetto which was located in the old military fortifications on the other side of the rive Daugava, at Griva. Only a few days later many of the elderly men and women were transported from the ghetto and murdered. Some months later Mrs. M. Gittelson was hanged in the ghetto, and for several days she remained hanging on the gallows. Many Jews also died because of the severity of the conditions, including starvation.

The systematic execution of Jews at the hands of Nazi Germans and Latvians occurred in the forests of Pogulianka and Strope, and in other places. Those who survived were transported in cattle wagons by Latvian volunteers on 25 October 1943. Some hanged themselves en route and some others took poison. The Jews were welcomed by the savage Roschmann at the Riga Skirotava terminal. Under heavy guard the victims were then transferred to the Kaiserwald camp. Included were a number of Jews from

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the small towns of Rezekne, Korsovka, Ludza, etc. Today Soviet Dvinsk claims only a few Jewish families, and the same holds true for the other small towns of Latgale.

Libau (Liepaja), capital of Kurland, was the third largest Latvian city. Like Riga and Dvinsk, it also claimed a large Jewish community. With their ice–free ports of Libau and Windau (Ventspils) had constituted “a window to Europe” for the Russians. At the turn of the century large Jewish emigrations to the United States, South Africa, and other countries took place through these ports. The Jewish Alliance of Courtland in the United States had approximately ten thousand members in 1940. Now only a few remain.

Western culture predominated in Kurland, and the languages spoken by Jews were predominantly German, Latvian, and some Russian. This relatively small geographic area produced some outstanding scholars as, for example, Rabbi Dr. M. Nurock and his borther, Rabbi Aaron Nurock, Rabbis Samunov and Kook (subsequently Chief Rabbi of Israel). Professors Akzin, Brutzkus, Laserson, Weinreich (father and son), and Lina Stern. Among Libau Jews who studied abroad and returned was Dr. A Schwab – student, assistant and protégé of the renowned gastroenterologist, Professor Boas of Berlin. In the world of music Max Rabinovitsch, the Graudans, and others, attained international recognition.

Libau as well as the rest of Kurland was occupied by German forces at the end of June 1941. Orders emanating from Riga regarding the treatment of Jews by Latvians and Germans were very similar to those of the Latvian capital. By the end of July 1941 approximately four thousand Jews, mainly men, had been arrested and slaughtered in the vicinity of Libau, at Skeden.[10] In the matter of a few days some thousand five hundred were murdered in December of the same year. Of the once flourishing Libau Jewish community only approximately eight hundred remained alive. A ghetto was established for them on 12 July 1942, and was dissolved on 8 October 1943. The inmates were then transported to the Kaiserwald camp. At present there are some sixty Latvian Jewish families in Libau.

The large industrial and merchant town of Mitau (Jelgava), also in Kurland, which the indigenous Jews had helped to develop, was Judenfrei (Free of Jews) by the end of July 1941. All the synagogues were burned and the Jews slaughtered at the Jewish cemetery.

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While being transported to work by the Germans I witnessed Jews being chased intot he Tukum synagogue, whereupon it was set on fire. The Jewish inhabitants of Jakobstadt (Jekabpils), Kandava, and all the other small towns of Kurland shared a similar fate. Hardly any Jews live there today.

Before the war Kaiserwald was something extraordinary, and all of us had spent wonderful times there. But it became a huge cemetery. The Kaiserwald concentration camp was the headquarters for all the labour corps located in and around Riga, and as such it housed the Central Labour Office as well as the huge index which contained the names of thousands of prisoners of both ghettos, and those Jews who worked outside the camp.

In Riga we were at first under the jurisdiction of the Gebietskommissariat. We were gradually taken over by the Gestapo and in Kaiserwald were subject to the SS. The head of the camp was Obersturmfuehrer Sauer of Berlin. Besides male and female SS assistants, he had at his disposal old–time incarcerated criminals who wore civilian clothing and were above the Jews. These criminals constituted the leadership within the camp. Human beings were of no consequence, and the whip reigned supreme.

As in many other camps where I was subsequently incarcerated, new arrivals at Kaiserwald were first forced to relinquish their luggage. Immediately after the Jews were sent to the showers, where the rest of their belongings were confiscated and individuals searched in the rectum and vagina for valuable possessions. After the shower prisoners received striped prison garb reminiscent of the pattern and color of zebras, and it was not unusual for authorities to refer to us as “zebras.” Each prisoner received a number which was affixed to his jacket. The confiscated belongings were taken to a central clearing place in the camp (the Kleideramt) and searched for valuable possessions.

Men and women were separated and the two parts of the camp were divided by a double barbed wire fence. SS girls, including the notorious Kova who order lamp shades made of human skin (she was arrested and put on trial after the Liberation), terrorized the women in the section of the camp assigned to them. Their heads were totally shaven while the men received very short haircuts with a broad stripe shaved from the forehead across the top to the neck. The hair was packed, shipped to Germany and utilized in the economy.

The daily routine began and ended with a roll call. Twice a day Jews were forced to line up in military fashion, the weak, ill and children as

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well, whereupon heads were counted. If the number did not coincide with what the authorities had expected the Jews were forced to remain standing at attention for a long time. Some even died standing at attention because of the strain, the extremely poor living conditions in the water–logged barracks and a diet which bordered on pure starvation.

After the roll call and a breakfast which consisted of a slice of bread, a teaspoon of sugar and some black coffee. Jewish men and women were forced to join work columns and were then marched like soldiers to the camp gate, where SS men counted the number in each column. Then the Jews were turned over for the day to German and Latvian employers. After the day's work the Jews were returned to the lice–ridden barracks.

Then suddenly events began to overtake the Germans as the front gradually came closer to Riga. The SS began to consider the possibility of evacuating Jews, and it was decided first to liquidate the old and weak and then to transport the survivors by sea to the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. The first transport left Riga on 6 August, and the second on 9 September 1944.

Officially Latvia became free of Jews.

Like all the other concentration camps in Germany, Stutthof had an international air since there were many thousands of prisoners from all over Europe. The conditions at Stutthof were so catastrophic that the weak and ill were eliminated daily in the camp gas chamber. As could have been expected, Jews of many countries incurred heavy losses there. The remains of those who were gassed were utilized to produce soap in a Danzig soap factory. The soap was then distributed to prisoners in other camps.

As a rule there was no demand for legitimate work. To keep Jews occupied they were forced to carry logs and other such things back and forth. While doing so many were beaten to death by SS guards. In the midst of this tragedy a Polish Catholic clergyman from an adjoining barrack insisted daily on organizing Jewish religious services. With the help of Dubin and Golovchiner (son and secretary respectively of the well–known deputy to the Latvian Parliament and head of the Jewish community in Riga) services were conducted every day. Dubin, Golovchiner, Simeon Wittenberg the attorney, and his son refused to eat the daily ration of soup since it was not kasher. Until their deaths they subsisted on moldy bread, some sugar and black coffee only.

From the Stutthof concentration camp Jews were also transported to other concentration camps including Bergen–Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Lauenburg and Burggraben. Those camps which were locat–

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ed not far from the Soviet borders were liberated at the beginning of 1945. Most other camps were freed by British and American forces in the western part of Germany in April and May 1945.

Thus ends the sad chapter of the once brilliant Latvian Jewish community. Its martyrdom cannot really be described. Many things can be printed yet some things are difficult to comprehend, including what the Jewish community suffered at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators.

The final solution regarding the Jews which resulted in the massacre of some six million was thoroughly prepared by Himmler, Eichmann and their assistants with Hitler's approval. But shortly after the German occupation of Latvia the Latvians too, prepared their version of the final solution of Latvian Jews. While the Germans were still busy with occupation questions Latvian volunteer groups were organized with German blessings; and these volunteers rounded up Jews in the provinces and to an extent also in the cities. Later these Latvians also organized voluntary military formations, and together with German units they murdered Jews inside and outside Latvia. In so doing the Latvians won the confidence of the Germans, and therefore the Germans did not hesitate to transport thousands upon thousands of Jews from other countries to be murdered in Latvia. This was confirmed in 1946 at the Riga trial of the former German commissioner for occupied territories, Jekeln, and five other generals who were tried simultaneously. All were hanged in Riga's Liberty square (Uzvaras Laukums).[11]

Much archival research is being conducted on the number of Latvian and other Jews killed in Latvia by the Germans.[12] I believe, however, that the exact number will never be accurately determined since Latvians had murdered many Latvian Jews even before the Germans took over. The attempt made by the Latvian historian, Arnolds Spekke, in his History of Latvia (1951) to shift the guilt for the merciless slaughter of Jews entirely

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to the Germans (p. 402) is not shared by this writer and also contradicts the facts. As an eye–witness to the great tragedy in Latvia I cannot minimize the German guilt. But from the Latvians, with whom we had co–existed for several hundred years, and with whom we had passed through good times as well as bad, we should have expected human rather than an animal treatment. As for Mr. Spekke, he was certainly aware of what happened. Ample documents are available relating the misdeeds of Latvians in their attempt to solve the Jewish question, and telling of Latvian collaboration with the Germans on this point. He does relate that the Lutheran Archbishop Grinbergs attempted to intervene with the German authorities against the mass murders of Jews by Germans but to no avail.

The deans of the Lutheran and Catholic churches of Latvia (Bishop Joseph Rancans is held to be the last President of Independent Latvia in exile) was certainly not blinded by the crimes committed by their fellow Latvians. Why did they not utilize their lofty and holy pulpits to preach against these mass slaughters, to which so many Latvians were party. Finally they, too, left Latvia together with thousands of Latvians who were involved in the crime of decimating Jews, and who escaped with possessions robbed from the victims. After all, it was the small Jewish community of Latvia with its vast world connections in all fields of endeavor which helped peasant Latvia to win political independence. The reward was a sanguine one indeed.

The destruction of Latvian Jewry will remain an eternal stain on the Latvian and German peoples. Future generations must not forget the barbarities of the wild beasts. The voice of our brethren will rise forever from the earth. History is very cruel and at times it repays what a people deserves. It is in this context that I venture to say that Latvians will be repaid for their complicity in the extermination of Jews, and for stabbing retreating Russian forces in the back. With its millions of citizens, the huge neighbour to the East is flooding Latvia with its citizens; and Latvians are bound to become a minority in their own country in the not–too–distant future. For us survivors, Latvia and Germany are symbols of a huge graveyard, a graveyard without graves, a graveyard without monuments.

Twenty–five years have passed since the rays of hope have again begun to shine for us. Twenty–five years have passed since we ceased to die, but it took a long time before we began to live again. The transition between the cessation of dying and the revival of life was very difficult indeed for each and every survivor. After all, those liberated from German concentra–

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tion camps were physically and mentally far more dead than alive. Of the more than approximately seventy thousand Latvian Jews who fell into the hands of the Latvian and German criminals only a few thousand escaped the claws of the murderers; and of the liberated only a small number were children. Many who succeeded in surviving died shortly after the liberation because of illnesses contracted in the camps, and because of sheer physical exhaustion. Unfortunately these victims only sensed the rays of hope but were not able to experience freedom itself.

In all, only a few hundred thousand Jews survived in the various concentration camps. They constituted the small remnant of the many millions who had inhabited Europe before the Nazi and fascist onslaught against them. With the liberation the new problem we had to confront was: “The future.”

My future I have crystallized in my book,[13] and I assume that the rest of the survivors shared the same thought: Am I free? Yes, now I am really free! It was far from easy to believe and comprehend that after many years I was free again. Was I really happy in the new situation? After all, what should I now begin to do? My wife had been killed, my son murdered, my relatives and friends exterminated, and my possessions robbed. How should I, ill and weak, construct the future? What now with all this freedom? At the moment I was liberated I had the wish to perish with the rest of the world and disintegrate into ashes and dust. However, I proceeded to listen to my inner voice which gave me courage because I was again presented with life, and thus I began to follow my new path into the unknown future.

Immediately we began to feel the warm and helpful hands of our Jewish brothers in the rest of the world, particularly North America, and this gave us the sense of security that we were not alone. The Joint Distribution Committee, HIAS, as well as other organizations, extended their activities to all corners of Europe. Displaced Persons' Camps were established and committees formed for distribution of food, clothing and medicine. Former concentration camp inmates could now receive medical and legal advice, since many Jews were stateless. Also not forgotten were the cultural aspects, and even a Jewish press was established. But lacking a printing press with Hebrew letters, Latin characters were utilized instead. A Jewish police force was active in almost all the camps.

Slowly many of the displaced persons in these camps succeeded in

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establishing contact with the world. Some found friends and relatives who had escaped the Nazi holocaust and now helped them with food and clothing parcels, thus improving their existence. We, the former producers, the philanthropists of the past, were now on the receiving line.

In the camps we lived a kind of transitional existence, as though constantly in a railroad station with one's newly acquired belongings, waiting to be called by somebody. Small groups migrated illegally from these camps to the Holy Land, and many were intercepted on their way by the British and sent to a special camp on the island of Cyprus. The free Aliya to Israel commenced only after Israel had become an independent sovereign state in the middle of 1948. The President of the United States, Harry Truman, was the first to recognize the State of Israel, and was also instrumental in providing the possibility for many European Jews to come to the United States. The example furnished by America was followed by some other nations and thanks to these various factors the Displaced Persons' Camps in Germany were finally closed in 1950.

The main purpose of this essay and my book has been to put down on paper my recollections of those terrible years, so as to recall the words of David,

that the latest generation might know them, even the children
that are to be born; that they may arise and relate them to
their children (Psalms of David, LXXVIII, 6).


* For the valuable assistance rendered in preparing this article for publication I am grateful to Professor George Schwab of City College, The City University of New York. Of course the responsibility for anything written here rests entirely upon me. Return

  1. Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands (Munich, 1947). Return
  2. Dubnow is the subject of a chapter in my book. Ibid., pp. 25 9. ff. Return
  3. The only Jewish house of worship to escape destruction was the Petzus synagogue. It was surrounded by other buildings which could easily have caught fire from it. But the interior did not escape the wrath of the beasts. Return
  4. Die Vermichtung…, pp. 79–80. Return
  5. The Nazis ordered food to be distributed according to the amount of work performed. To receive a relatively adequate food supply everyone was forced to work. Some highly prized specialists received additional food coupons which were stamped with the initials W.J. (Wertvoller Jude, Valuable Jew). Return
  6. The Latvians were led by the notorious Herbert Cukurs, a “Perkonkrust” member, who afterwards found political asylum in Sao Paulo and was executed in 1965 in Montevideo by members of a group called “Those Who Can Never Forget.” Return
  7. Many years later the Soviet authorities acceded to the pleas of Riga Jews and erected a small monument with the following inscription in Latvian, Russian and Yiddish: THE VICTIMS OF FASCISM. From this inscription future generations will not know that the majority buried there are Jews, and this monument cannot therefore be regarded as a Jewish memorial. Return
  8. Included among the new arrivals were many who had intermarried. The offspring of such marriages were considered half–Jews. While Jews prayed privately in Jewish homes, the Christians did likewise but under the auspices of a half–Catholic clergyman who wore a Star of David on his gown (German Jews had to wear only one star). Return
  9. Much of the clothing which was confiscated was sifted in the ghetto, and in gratitude to the Latvians for their help the German authorities sold these to the indigenous population for next to nothing. Thousands of Latvians stood in line to purchase clothing which was stiff with Jewish blood. Return
  10. Some photographs taken by Latvians and Germans showing disrobed women and children being led to their death were found after the Liberation. Return
  11. I had the opportunity to be present at the trial and heard the testimony of the former German General Jekeln. Return
  12. The Nuremberg documents, and particularly the research conducted between 1947 and 1969 at the Hamburg county court with which I was in constant touch, reveal much regarding the fate of Jews in Latvia. As related by Arnolds Spekke, the official report of “Stahleckers Einsatzgruppe” states that the total number of Baltic Jews murdered was 264,000 (200,000 Lithuanian, 60,000 Latvian and 4,000 Estonian Jews). Return
  13. Die Vernichtung…, p. 508. Return

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In this volume we have set out to recapitulate the History of Latvian Jews from the time they are first referred to in the sources until their bitter end in the Holocaust of 1941-1944.

Yet, that does not mark the final conclusion. The chain has not been broken. Latvian Jews, those of Riga in particular, have gradually drifted back from the vastness of Russia. With them has come a stream of Jews from places that are geographically close at hand or distant. But the newcomers all feel an affinity with the former Jewish community.

The people and the place exert a mutual influence on one another. We are witness to the fact that the Latvian exile of today maintains the traditions and vitality of the bygone Latvian Jewry we knew. They uncompromisingly and resolutely hold by their Jewish nationality, they long for liberty and yearn for a Jewish life together with their brethren in the State of Israel.

A full and objective historical account of the post-World War II period will assuredly be prepared in its own good time, after present events and vicissitudes have ended, marking the close of a later epoch. That will be another volume.

One thing is certain. Jewish life during the new era will be no less worthy of record than that of their predecessors, an account of which will be found in these pages.

We leave the preparation of the next volume to the generation that comes after us.

Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel


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