Libau, founded in 1625, was until 1914 one of the main ports of the Russian empire. Along its spacious harbor there were rows and rows of warehouses where herring from the Atlantic was stored; timber, grain, butter was loaded on ships going to the West. After World War I, with the loss of its huge hinterland, Libau declined, its population was halved to about 60,000, factories stood silent, warehouses empty. During the 22 years of Latvia's independence Libau was the second largest town of the country.
Compared to Paris, London, and New York, Libau might have seemed just a small provincial nest. But now, thinking back after half a century, we know that Libau was a beautiful city. There was a belt of parks between the town and the sea with its clean white beach. In August the sea spewed out sea tang where amber was found nestling there for perhaps many millions of years. In the fall there was a rustle of trees and a roar of waves enveloping the whole town. In winter we used to toboggan from the "Millionenberg" or "Nikolaiberg."
Summer was a wonderful season. In the park, where mothers wheeled their babies and where lovers sat on benches, there was a fairytale pavilion and a bathhouse built in neo-classic style. Here Jews would go every Friday after- noon for their weekly bath towards the Shabbat. Between the bathhouse and the park ran the Badestrasse until it came to the Kurhausgarten where concerts were given during the entire summer. To the left you went down to the beach, to the right to the Kurhausprospect with benches beneath the wide branches of old chestnut trees.
From the main harbor there was a huge port for ocean liners but there was also a small fishermen's haven permeated by the smell of smoked cod. Further down there was the lighthouse. My father used to tell me that as a young man he would sit with a book on the steps of the lighthouse with his bare feet dangling in the sea, but at our time it stood several hundred yards inland as the sea was continually receding.
Libau was also a naval port. The "Kreigshafen" was the place where the army was stationed. Dr. Glinternik was one of the few Jewish officers in the Latvian army, and Jasha Foss was one of the three Jewish sailors in the Latvian navy. Every spring the highschool pupils were taken for military training, and we learned at a tender age to handle the Lewis gun and how to use gas masks.
In summer the entire youth was strolling down Lilienfeld and Lindenstrasse, along the beautiful villas of the rich, stopping at the German tennis court where the snobbish "high society" was engaged in their singles and doubles. We used to swim for hours in the balmy sea and then lingered on the beach eating sandwiches which our mothers had prepared from fresh barley bread still warm from the bakery.
There was also the swanlake with two proud swans gliding around a little island with a kind of Greek temple in the middle of it. In winter, when the lake was frozen, we went there skating.
Libau was not only a spa where foreigners used to come in summer. Kornstrasse and Grosse Strasse, the equivalents of Tel Aviv's Allenby Road, had rich shops, most of them owned by Jews. There were cafes, and we used to sit in Stein's cellar or at Peter's opposite the Post Office. Libau had many schools, Jewish and gentile and many synagogues - the Great Synagogue in Babylonian style with three cupolas was a landmark - and beautiful churches of many denominations. Until 1933, when the Perkonkrust Nazis started attacking Jews from their headquarters on the Weidenstrasse and their lair, the "Artists' Cellar" on Rozu Laukums, Jews lived in peace with their gentile neighbors. Only on Good Friday when Jesus was crucified Jews were advised to avoid the vicinity of the churches.
The young people had a good life in Libau, though few had bicycles, nearly none had a camera, and tennis was only for the rich. Antisemitism was felt only sometimes by those who had contact with gentiles. But when the war started, it all exploded into an inferno of hatred, fire and death.
Translation of German article 'Libausche Fragmente' from "A Town Named Libau." Translated by Bert Knupp, Bettina Brockerhoff-Macdonald, Randall Kloko, and K. Wolfram Wagner. Translation edited by Harry Hurwitz.
Although Ladino and Yiddish are still used, I may be excused if I express myself in German, this "mutation of Yiddish." Especially when the topic is "Libau."
When I was born it was officially "Libawa". For us Kurland Jews, though, only its German name counted, - Libau. In the competition between the German and the Russian influences, the "real" Kurlandic Jewry leaned toward the Germans. For Germans were considered the bearers of Western, liberal civilization. Unbelievable, but a fact of the times. Liberalism in the case of the Baltic Germans was a question of loyalty to the Czar. The Interior Minister, a Baltic German anti-Semite named Plehwe, had as antagonist the liberal, "judenfreundlich" [Jew-friendly] Finance Minister Witte, likewise a Baltic German. That Witte's second wife was a Jewess did no damage to his pro-Jewish leanings.
The Czarist empire, whatever infamous role it might have played in the history of civilization, was in many ways more humane than the "Socialist worker state" that succeeded it. Like the Rothschilds in the Western world, Brodsky, Wissotzky and many others were able to prosper in the Tsarist empire, among them my grandfather Elijah Damje. The tobacco factory of my grandfather, a merchant of the First Guild, occupied an entire block on Brewery Street in Libau, alongside the Dollinger Brewery. "Dollingers Beer" and "Damje Cigars" were familiar brand names in all Russia. Beer and cigars go together as typical German consumer goods.
Typically, it took yet another German, Interior Minister Plehwe, to energetically further the Russification of the Baltic. Paradoxically, Plehwe sacrificed his phobia of Jews to the more pressing task of Russification. Hence, he denied recognition of the [German] Numerus Clausus [limiting the entry of Jews to a percentage, equivalent to their proportion in the population] for entry into Russian gymnasia [classical secondary schools, running through 14th grade] and universities. The share of Jews in the population of Libau admitted to gymnasia and universities under the reign of the Czar was dependent upon the election of state officials. When a certain, very correct Prussian was "enlightened" to the fact that one was able to achieve almost anything in the realm of the Czar with bribery, he said indignantly: "But you are residing in a bordello!" "But, Doctor", the Russian replied, "is there anything more happy than a house of pleasure?" In liberal times the law appeared to be a series of question marks. In times of dictatorship it resembled the gallows.
In the reign of the Czar, the privileged Jews of Libau lived in an atmosphere of liberal tolerance. My oldest brother, a first-year student in the school of commerce, associated with his fellow students, - Russians, Germans, Latvians and Jews, in cooperative harmony. The humanistic spirit was realized and one tried to align oneself with it.
When the Germans occupied Libau during the First World War, they experienced it not as foreign, but as any old East-Prussian small town. The German-speaking Jews willingly supported the cultural ambitions of the German garrison. They were especially impressed with the German "reform school". Did the reform consist of the beardy German-Baltic senior primary school teacher, Rosenbaum, feeding the 'good' students malt lozenges, while the 'bad ones' were treated to his cane?
With love and blows Germanization made rapid advances. But this wasn't enough to avoid economic surges. First comes food, then comes morality, according to Brecht. The weaknesses of the German war economy became increasingly visible. Bread was goo, although the Germans had conquered almost the entire Ukraine, the granary of Europe. But these same factors, which gave the riches of Russia over into the Germans' hands, made them worthless: the Russian Revolution. It shook the moral position of the "Liberator from the Czarist Yoke". It also promised social as well as national liberation.
The Jews, however, already had a more impressive promise of eventual autonomy, the Balfour Declaration. Before this historical occurrence, Zionism was indeed just a dialectical Platonic diversion for the Kurland's privileged Jews. It became more acute when the well-established Jewish bourgeoisie collapsed during the war. It's classless offshoots not only spread outside of the former working class but also from the educated class. They formed gangs of youths, which showed signs of organized criminality, mixed with military trappings.
Thus my cousin, Yashka Damye, who at only fifteen years old was a capable, strapping, powerful "militiaman". This blond, blue-eyed soldier was considered by many to be a "sheygets". Therefore he was the terror of the Shkotsim. He smote them, like Samson, "One against many." Instead of the jawbone of an ass he swung a boomerang-shaped wooden club. He turned not the other cheek to the Shkotsim. Whenever I had done something, my father taunted me by comparing me to Yashka. He didn't know that by doing this he showed me a great honor. Yashka was considered a hero by the young men. Alongside Yashka Damye there were terrifying examples - Achke Gruenfeld and Nicholke Yudelsohn. Even I in my puniness took part in battles at my father's side, but only a few. I was not the only one that was impressed by the audacious uninhibited image of my cousin, it also impressed the Americans. When they were looking for a young assistant for their Quaker relief organizations, Yashka was selected from hundreds of "properly" educated sons. He had learned to speak English from sailors. At a later stage he worked on an ocean liner. In New York he left the liner at Dampt (?). When I visited him a few years ago in New York, he kept repeating "America was good to me".
In the beginning the newly established state of Latvia was good to the Jewish population. In the euphoria over their newly acquired independence, the Latvians presented a democratic and liberal image. Now the Jewish community could begin their auto-emancipation. The almost proverbial Jewish tendency to segregate became noticeable right from the beginning of the establishment of the Jewish nation. Profane Yiddish and Hebrew schools and Yeshivas were established which interpreted biblical Hebrew in Yiddish. This was supported by the state. However, the main part of Jewish pupils still attended private German grammar schools. The idea was that this would secure the future of the children in the western world.
As time went on, the Latvian influence became more predominant. This was simply a method of removing the competition of the minorities, above all that of the Jews, and to urbanize the surplus of Latvian peasantry. The future of Jewish youth looked bleak. These trends were not limited to the Baltic region but soon engulfed all of Europe. The fascist doctrine that spread like an epidemic destroyed the west European options of the Jewish youth of Latvia one by one. The only remaining option was to emigrate overseas. Overseas also included Palestine.
One's being determines one's awareness. The severity of the Jewish plight has always influenced the intensity of the Zionist solution. After the breakdown of communism in the fight against fascism the influence of the Zionist option on Jewry expanded more and more. Zionism had ceased being a commoners dream. Today Jerusalem is reality.
However, like ghost towns in dreams, in nightmares, the places of Jewish life and eradication keep appearing:- Toledo, Cordoba, Saloniki, Prague, Worms, Nuremberg, Berlin, Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno, Riga, and, amongst innumerable others, a lovely small town at the Baltic sea called Libau.
During the period immediately following the establishment of the independent Latvian republic in 1918, the authorities practiced a liberal policy in regard to the minorities. This permitted the development of lively Jewish activities without any interference. During that period, in the early twenties, the "Kadima" club was active in town (Rosenplatz 2). The club was headed by the pharmacist Max Mansfeld and other activists. Its importance lay in the fact that it served as a center for youth activity. Youth groups appeared under various names like Hechalutz, Hatechya, Hashachar, Hechaver, etc. Their activities were quite manifold. Amongst the various youth groups inside and outside the club were groups of "chalutzim," that emigrated to Palestine and participated in the founding of a number of kibbutzim, e.g. Ashdot Yaakov, Gesher, etc. It is difficult to affirm today whether the idea to establish a Jewish scout movement in Libau was given life within the framework of "Kadima" activities, or only supported by them. Be it as it may, by that time Jewish scout units were already active in Riga and other places in Latvia under the leadership of Baruch Bag (former director of the Wingate Institute of Physical Culture, and now retired).
I have extremely fond memories of my four years of membership in the Libau Scouts, and I can say with certitude that my personality and my outlook on the world were formed during this period.
The initiative to form a scout "battalion" in Libau is linked with the name of the late Harry Levy who was then, in the early twenties, a dynamic young man. He concentrated a few energetic youngsters around him: the late Bemco Mansfeld, Moshe Rappoport, Yasha Einsenstadt and Arvid Friedland, now Avraham Rodeh. At that time the scout movement in Latvia numbered between 140-150 "battalions" each one consisting of 40-50 scouts. The structure of the movement was special. The name of the organization was Latvijas Skautu Centrala Organizacia (LSCO), and it was headed by a number of Latvian leaders. These leaders did not intervene in the activities of individual battalions. The latter were divided according to ethnic groups and there were Latvian, German, Russian and Jewish ones. Heading the battalions of each ethnic group were independent headquarters that could develop ethnic activities as they saw fit. This, of course, was of real importance. The Jewish battalions, amongst them Battalion No. 52 (the one in Libau) maintained contact with one another, but contact with other ethnic battalions was weak, except for the annual jamboree in the vicinity of Riga. I joined the Jewish scouts right after the establishment of the battalion in Libau. I still remember vividly the swearing-in ceremony that took place at the "Kadima" club. Dr. Weinreich also participated in this ceremony, and he agreed to become the battalion's patron, devoting quite a lot of his time to it. Somewhat later, a girl scouts' (guides) battalion was formed under the leadership of Rachel Wolfovski (now in Kfar Gileadi). Although they were separate units, there was close cooperation between the two battalions.
The first external activity in which I participated was a parade in the streets of Libau to mark the 5th anniversary of the Balfour declaration (1922), when I had the honor to be one of the flag bearers and Mitya Vicker was the main drummer. My dear friend Nachum (Uma) Peer was the battalion's chief bugler. While camping, he would get up at half past two at night and, in order to check the scouts' alertness, would sound the bugle - the scouts would wake up and line up in the tent openings.
One could define the Jewish scout movement in Latvia as Zionist only with difficulty, but there is no doubt that it instilled in its members Jewish consciousness and national pride. The Jewish scouts developed ethical behavior, friendship, ingenious blending of Russian and German-speaking youngsters, and last but not least, a feeling of class equality. The battalion comprised members who came from the rich part of Libau Jewry as well as those who came from the poorer one, but there was no antagonism between them. Similarly, no distinction was felt between those who came from well-educated families and those who came from families with a limited educational background.
The scouts in Libau also developed the classical scout activities: camping, signaling, first aid, fire-fighting, etc. I remember the case of a great fire in Neu-Libau near the canal, in which all the scouts joined the Fire Brigade and actually helped save the lives of people who were trapped in the storage depots.
Although the over-all number of the scouts and the girl guides was not great (altogether approx. 100), their influence on the young in Libau at that time was considerable.
I would like to mention that the scouts in Libau published a monthly news- paper, which included articles and songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, German and Russian. It was handwritten, showed various drawings and was stencilled by shapirograph. I had the pleasure of being a member of the editorial board and looked after the stencilling and distribution.
When Harry Levy concluded his high school studies (1926) and left for France to study, the scout movement in Libau began to founder. Some of its members joined "Hashomer Hatzair", some "Betar" and other Zionist youth groups, and some did not join any organization.
I would like to recall a hilarious episode from 1924. The battalion was camping outside Hasenpot (Aizpute) for 3 days and was destined to return to Libau on the fourth day by train at a given hour. But for some reason the battalion was held up and Abrashka Levi (now in Haifa) was sent to inform the parents of the delay. The parents meanwhile arrived at the train station (near the bridge) and also arranged for an orchestra (Maccabi). When the train with Abrashka arrived at the station, the orchestra opened up with a march surprising him and hardly enabling him, while still standing in the wagon door, to announce the delay.
Nowadays, in the eve of my life, I am looking back nostalgically to those distant days, knowing as we all do, that the world of our childhood and youth is gone forever. But we, the few who are fortunate to survive, recall today our little, calm town of Libau with its Anlagen, Schwanenteich, Millionenberg, Kurhaus, and the clean and orderly beach.
The Hashomer Hatsair started from the Scout movement, whose basic concepts made it possible to adapt itself to the needs of the Chalutz education.
In the beginning the Scout movement had very weak Zionist inclinations and no definite direction as to its aims. With the changes occurring in the Jewish world a turning point set in.
The Scout movement was founded by the English general Baden-Powell in 1908, and his idea of scouthood was accepted by most civilized countries. His intention was to outline an educational way for the English youth. After seeing with deep concern the corrupting influence of urban life, he searched for ways to instill moral and educational values in the young people.
The Hashomer Hatsair adopted many of the basic values of the Scout movement like love of nature, friendship, aspirations to be better human beings, and the belief in a more righteous society; values that molded the character of our organization. But that was not enough. In the late twenties and early thirties the Jewish youth of Latvia had many different ideas and views, and the Scout movement, with all its good intentions, was unable to offer a unique solution for the needs of the young people.
At the time Communist propaganda in Libau was quite strong and efforts were made to attract youngsters still at school and already at work. As the Commun- ist Party was illegal in Latvia, many young people who fell victim to the propaganda paid with their freedom, like Weinberg, Lichter, Hirschberg and others. The socialist "bund", too, fought vigorously against the Zionist movement, especially against the Hashomer Hatsair.
With the Scout movement starting to lose its appeal, it was necessary, in the midst of this political turbulence, to find a new challenge for the youth and its future.
In the private German schools attended by the best part of the Jewish youth, the pupils were inoculated with German language and culture. Goethe, Schiller Heine were preferred to Bialik, Peretz, Shalom Ash. The same was true for the Russian-language schools, where the education was based on Russian culture and literature. The change came with the fight against the cultural influence on the Jewish youth by the gentile schools. Klatchko and Waldstein were the first to introduce Hebrew as a teaching language in their schools.
Under the influence of the Zionist movement many of the pupils switched to Jewish schools. These became the main source of the development and expansion of the framework of our organization.
The Zionist aims of the Hashomer Hatsair were clearly written on its flag. Every boy and girl who joined the organization knew that there was only one way ahead: aliyah to Eretz Israel.
There were discussions of various universal and Jewish subjects: Socialism, Communism, Democracy, on philosophical and historical questions. Singing, which brought the hearts together, played an important role in the education of the members of the organization.
The level of the educators and instructors was significant. The Libau branch of the organization also received great help from the center in Riga. They sent us the best people they had and we shall always remember with love and admiration Abraham Itai (may he rest in peace), Lasik Goldberg and Folka Astrakhan from Kvutsat Kinereth and others. I am proud to point out that we, too, consolidated an excellent group of instructors, who spread out all over Latvia, Estonia, and Central Europe and contributed a great deal to the Jewish communities in which they operated.
We also received help by members of the Kibbutz Afikim, and members of the Russian Hashomer Hatsair movement. They came to us from Eretz Israel and were the first to evoke our love for the land and the wish to make it flourish. The most outstanding figure among them was Lasia Galili, not less important were Lyuba Golani, Yosef Izraeli and Arie Bahir. The Hashomer Hatsair contributed a great deal in establishing new settlements in Eretz Israel and we are proud and happy that its members have had the opportunity to see their dreams come true.
If you ever visit the most northern part of the Upper Galilee - Kfar Gileadi - you will find there Rache Volfovsky, one of the leaders of the Libau organization, one of the first to come to Israel in the late twenties. There you will also find Shimon Zausmer, Paulina Garfunkel and many others. In Kibbutz Hagoshrim you can meet Zila Grossman and Zina Finkelstein. You can find members of our movement in Kvuatsath Kinereth, Afikim, Ein-Gev, Givat Haim and Ashdod Yaakov. You can find them, in fact, all over Israel, in towns, in moshavim, and Kibbutzim.
Many of the Libau members served and still serve in various official positions in the Government, in the Histadruth and in the administration of the State.
This is the generation which contributed much to the establishment and defense of our homeland. May God bless all those who still carry on with this sacred mission, and let us remember all those who died in battle and those who did not have the privilege to fulfill their dreams.
A tale of this nature should be based on written history or public and personal records. Unfortunately, no documentation was found. There are only stray personal recollections.
At the end of 1924, the brothers Shlomo and Jacob Matzliach and Harry Levy (a member of the Jewish Scouts, who soon afterwards left for Paris) took the initiative in trying to establish a branch of the Betar in Liepaja. Early in 1925, they were joined by Emmanuel Sheftel, Peretz Berkowitz and six more youths. This group of ten Betarim used to meet at the Hakoach Sports Club, where they engaged in military exercises, drill and training in the art of self-defense, and once weekly at private homes for the study of Hebrew and discussions of articles in the "Razsvet" (in translation), a Jewish Russian language periodical since 1924 published in Paris, whose editorial board had just recently endorsed the political line of Zeev Jabotinsky on activist Zionist policy.
By the early thirties the Snif in Liepaja had around 200 members and was operating three age groups. They successively occupied premises at No. 2 Kunga iela and finally Tirgonu iela.
The first "Mefaked" was Jacob Matzliach (died in Israel), followed by Emmanuel Scheftel, Peretz Berkowitz (died in Siberian exile), Boris (Bjoka) Levinson (killed in Liepaja, 1941), Arye Weinreich (returned to Riga after the war, since deceased), Njuma Propes (presumed to be living in Riga), and lastly Ezra Russinek (in Jerusalem since 1971) who was in charge until the forced dissolution in July 1940.
Our town of Liepaja was something of an oddity. Situated within an Eastern European enclave, it boasted a slice of German culture (a hangover from the days of old Courland). A significant number of Jewish homes were under the influence of that culture. Many families were German speaking, sent their children to German-language private schools and read the local German-language press. In these circles assimilation was deeply rooted. A considerable number of children and teenagers from these homes joined the Betar in spite of stiff parental opposition.
On the whole, there was little encouragement from adults. After Jabotinsky's visit in 1931, some of his adherents took a closer interest and could be turned to for moral and financial assistance. The dentist Rischman, the pharmacist Mansfeld, and Z. Pecker, a businessman, were good friends.
Perhaps because of the "German Connection" there was a special affinity between the Snif in Liepaja and the Snif in Yelgava (Mitau). Periodically, there would be mutual visits and combined organized activities alternating between the two cities.
By and large routine activities were followed: Jewish and Zionist education, the movement's ideology, scouting, camping, seminars, work for the Zionist funds, agricultural and vocational Hachshara, physical fitness training, and preparation for Aliya. Thirty Betarim made Aliya by legal and illegal means in the thirties.
In the senior age group (17+) emphasis was on political awareness and activism in pursuing national goals. They were the ones who did the house- to-house canvassing before Congress elections, who initiated and watched over the boycott of German goods and films, collected signatures from members of the community to be added to the worldwide petition to His Majesty's government of Great Britain, asking to rescind the arbitrary reduction of immigration certificates to one fifth of the previous amount, collected contributions to the Tel-Chai fund, which in Latvia supported the movement's Hachshara centers and contributed to the upkeep of the naval training ship "The Theodore Herzl".
The club premises on Graudu iela and then Pastas iela had large halls on ground level. Those halls were filled to capacity at weekly or biweekly intervals with friends and the Jewish public at large who attended the Betar functions. There was abundant organizational and creative talent among the young leadership and in the ranks, and they used it to dis- seminate information to influence public opinion, to promote interest, and to gain support. For several years they staged mock trials, public debates, satirical musical revues and sketches about contemporary events and personages, living newspapers with commentary on current affairs and evening of dances, song and poetry. This comparatively small group had an impact on the thinking and attitude of the town's Jewish public that was quite out of proportion to its size.
In the decade before the war, Jewish boys and girls in this provincial town grew up against a background of strident Latvian nationalism, with the shadow of Hitler reaching out from beyond the border, economic stag- nation, and limited cultural stimulation. The young people who were part of the movement gained from it far more than they gave. They knew joy and confidence, enthusiasm and purpose, and an enrichment of life that is remembered with gratitude by those few who are still here to remember it.
Among the 20 guests at my 18th birthday party in February 1933 there were my two new Jewish friends Joel and Max. Both were small, dark and very Jewish-looking, even more so than I myself. The other boys were mostly tall and blond, the girls smart and pretty. I remember the Latvian girl, Zenta, a luscious blonde with huge blue eyes, her friend Ira, and the pretty Russian girl, Zina. The most beautiful among them was Lia from Reimers' school.
We drank, the pataphon blared, we danced and spirits were high. Only Joel and Max were sitting self-consciously on their chairs feeling somehow out of place. Once, when I danced with Lia, she suddenly asked: "What are those two Jews doing here?"
Growing up among Gentiles you encounter antisemitism very often. For instance, Herr Oberlehrer Ehlers: "Immanuel, what is a ganef, ha ha ha?" or Herr Direktor Arnold: "If it doesn't suit you here - there are enough Jew schools around for you." Not to speak of unpleasant barbs and insults leading to blows. But somehow these words from the lips of a beautiful German girl, and that in my own Jewish home, came as a shock. It brought me nearer to the end of my "German connection."
It might have been a strange coincidence that a few days later I received a note inviting me to a Zionist meeting at the "Herzliah" youth organization. Anyway, it found me at a crossroad. I was ripe for it.
We joined up, Joel, Max and myself. As grown-ups of 18 we came in hats, smoking cigarettes. The girls were mostly in high-heeled shoes and elegant attire. The youngsters were simply dressed and mostly dark, only few were tall, there were no glamour boys or girls as at my birthday party only a week earlier.
The staircase leading to the "club" was dark and narrow, the room large and bare, some window panes were broken and covered with cardboard, a weak protection against the icy February evening. The floorboards were not polished but they were scrubbed clean. Some pictures on the walls (a black- bearded Theodor Herzl and some other Zionist dignitaries) were hanging askew. It was terribly shabby, especially if compared with Arnold's clean and shiny school. There were some lectures in Yiddish which I scarcely understood, then the youngsters pushed away the simple benches and started a wild dance they called "Horah", singing Jewish and Hebrew songs. We, the newcomers, felt out of place. I can't say I liked it but nevertheless I thought: "That's it; right or wrong, this is my people."
Towards the elections to the 18th Zionist Congress things suddenly changed. A new personality arrived on the scene: Dr. Siwzon, much older than we, came from Germany and took over the organization. Now it was no longer song and dance, banter and laughter, it was an election campaign. There was the Rosh Snif Isaak Judelowitz, there were Itzke Grinfeld, Teresa and Hirschke Bengis, "Pushke" Blumberg, Herbert Znaimer, Mira Arenstam, Doke Goldstick, Klompus and many others. Few are alive today. Some died here in Israel, some went down in the Holocaust. But the memories remain. Memories of friends, because the work under Sivtson [sic] made us friends.
Time went on. The youngsters suddenly became "young boys and girls", there were "Vetcherinkas", sometimes a banquet, sometimes excursions to Grobin or Bertnaten, when the entire "Herzliah" participated. Youngsters like Mulia Baron, Miriam Russinek, Shimlak seemed to have grown up over- night, and "the children", still children - Grisha Landman, Harry Rabin- owitz, Gamli, Sima Elinson - too, had become part of this large family. On election day, there was a team that worked; and worked together. And we won!
The victorious elections had transformed us into a serious Zionist organization. There was talk of Palestine, Hachshara, Kibbutz. Our first Olim, Judelowitz, Lachman, Nikol, went to the land that had become the land of our dreams. Letters arrived, photographs, descriptions.
I had changed entirely. We had moved to spacious rooms on the Kurhaus Prospect. Hachshara moved nearer, Palestine became an actuality. Still a land of palms and moonshine and romance, but also of work. In April 1934 I was among a group that went on agricultural hachshara, in the fall we founded urban kibbutzim, working in sawmills and cutting wood, the girls learned to cook. I was proud of my patched trousers when, saws and hatchets on our backs, we paraded to work on snow-covered streets, singing the same songs that a year earlier we had resented. Sometimes I passed some of my German classmates, we went by without interest. That world was dead and buried. We worked hard, in rain and cold or in the hot summer. Many resigned, some fell away, others persevered.
In 1936 we boarded ship for the Land of Israel.
With the outbreak of hostilities in the East, Libau was bombarded on 22.6.41 [June 22, 1941]. A very small portion of the local population could flee the next day because the trains were overloaded with the children and families of the officers and civil servants serving in Libau.
Before the war the Russians organized "Workers Guards" in which many Jews participated. These Guards were the first to see action. The first attack on the town was repulsed, but in this first action the number of casualties was very high and, as it happened, most of the casualties were Jewish boys.
The Germans occupied Libau on 29.6.41 [June 29, 1941]. The radio stations of Koenigsberg, Danzig, and Memel broadcast in Latvian highly inflammatory tirades against the Jews. With the entry of the German Army in Libau the Nazis distributed a pamphlet in Latvian to revenge the acts of "the bloodthirsty Jews who have expelled the good sons of the Latvian People to the U.S.S.R." The Latvian military and police forces under the command of the Latvian Generals Dankers and Bengersky joined the German forces and gladly participated in their infamous propaganda.
Orders were published to hand over all valuables, radios and other means of communications. The meager food portions were cut and the infamous "Aizsargi", in their alleged searches for weapons, invaded Jewish homes and robbed, beat up and killed. With the conquest of Libau by the Germans the Jewish population counted 9,000 souls and immediately the systematic extermination started. The first victims were 33 Jewish workers who reported to work the next morning after the occupation. They were killed the same day in the "Rainis Park" in Neu-Libau.
Another order was published saying that all Jewish males between the ages of 16-65 had to come every morning to the "Hauptwachplatz" from where they were dispatched to different stations of work, accompanied by beatings and curses. No one was sure he would return home at night, as indeed many did not. The Jews were commanded to dismantle with their own hands the Great Synagogue - "The Chor-Schul" - and to destroy the Sifrei Tora. After the destruction of the building the Latvian Press claimed that the cellars of the Synagogue contained hidden weapons and Latvian property.
In these first weeks around 2000 Jews were killed and on the 24th [of] July, 3000 more men were assembled on the "Hauptwachplatz" and after their papers and valuables were taken from them, they were transported to a small fishing port near the Lighthouse at the entrance of the Port. They were all killed then and there. The Jewish population of the smaller surrounding towns like Grobin, Hasenpot, etc. were all killed in their different small towns, and only a few were deported to Libau. The murderers took special satisfaction when they killed on Yom Kippur Day 50 old men and women. After complaints from Latvians living near the Lighthouse about the noise, the executions there were stopped.
Soon another order was published saying that Jews were not to leave their homes on the 15th and 16th [of] December. They were then told by Latvians to dress warmly as they were about to be sent to work in distant places. The truth was they did not go far, only 7 kilometers, to Shkeden, and there on the beach another 3000 Jews were massacred. It was later reported that some of the killers could not bear any more the sight of these bestialities and literally went crazy. The German Commissar named Laze heard about these massacres and asked Berlin either to stop these or change the means of exterminations. He argued that the killings were disrupting his plans for the work the Jews were carrying out for the German Army. The laconic reply he received from Berlin was "economic considerations are not to be taken into account in solving that problem."
Another 375 Jews were killed on 12.2.42 [February 12, 1942] and by the end of June 1942 the Ghetto of Libau was founded. On the 1st of July the Ghetto was entirely cut off from the remaining population, and in the Ghetto, 816 people including 175 males were settled. Eleven houses were prepared for the inmates, and the preparation of the buildings, etc. was made by Jews especially selected for their good physical condition. In spite of overcrowding in the Ghetto houses, the inmates led an orderly life which was mostly due to the devotion of Mr. Israelit, a senior Jewish functionary in the town, who was assisted by Mr. Kagansky, the lawyer. Life as such in the Ghetto, with a small synagogue, a library and a small ambulatory clinic was not too difficult. The German Commander named Kretscher was rather an exception between the thousands of German officers, and treated the Jews relatively humanely. The Ghetto existed 18 months and was dismantled on the 18th of October 1943, when all were packed into railway cattle cars and transported to the "Kaiserwald" Camp near Riga. Of those who were sent there, 360 people were sent to the Auschwitz Crematorium. From the "Kaiserwald" Camp many were also sent to the "Riga-Reichsbahn", "A.E.G." and other camps in and around Riga. With the Russians approaching Riga, most of the Libauers were evacuated to Germany through Danzig and Stutthof, and were dispersed between the camps in Germany itself.
When Libau was liberated, 40 living Jews were found out of the 9000 who had lived there until 1941.
My first visit to Libau was in 1945, less than 2 months after the end of the war. At that time it was a closed city and the special laissez- passer had been difficult to obtain. I found eleven Jews in town, who had survived by miracles. After having dug up all the details available about the destruction of my family and friends, I listened for long hours to their stories, to the whole chronicle of the past 4 years, enveloped and absorbed in a nightmare in a nightmare for which there were hardly any adequate words in any human language. When I left I was sure that this was for good.
In 1961 I came with my family from Odessa to Riga for a summer vacation. It was good to meet old friends, to enjoy the cool Baltic summer, to bathe in the sea and to linger in the white sand of the Riga Bay under the high fir trees. What suddenly made me lose my piece of mind was the last news about Libau: the city had been declared open by the Soviet authorities, with no need for a laissez-passer any more. Even Shkeden, the place in the "Kriegshafen" where the "Aktionen" had taken place, was open territory now; the centers of gravity of the naval port had evidently been moved elsewhere. Human bones had been found in the area of 8 kilometers where the shooting had taken place. The mass graves had been so close to the beach that the sea, penetrating the shallow sands, had washed them up to the surface. The authorities had permitted the Jewish community to take the bones to the cemetery and to bury them. There had been a memorial service, a gravestone had been put up.
The plane which took me to Libau in 45 minutes hardly deserved the proud definition of an aircraft. It was a primitive little thing, not soundproofed, which held 15-20 passengers who sat lulled and dulled by the deafening noise of the engine. It had been raining and the plane was bumping up and down from one cloud to the other. Only at noon when we landed the sun broke through.
Libau had changed. Sixteen years ago the whole center and the adjoin- ing streets had been a vast heap of ruins with mutilated skeletons of houses sticking out here and there, the grass sprouting out of the dust which had cemented the stones in the four years of the war. I had felt shaken then but I had not felt stranger. It still had seemed a part of myself - this beautiful, small Baltic town. That it looked victimized, violated and ruined was an integral part of the tragedy which had happened to it and to me.
This time, venturing out into the city of my hotel at the Rosenplatz, I felt like a tourist in a strange town. The roses on the square, all shades from white to pink to purple, looked as lush and well groomed on their long stems as before, but now there were some renovated buildings and Russian-style cafeterias around the square. New modern houses were making up a new Weidenstrasse and part of the Kornstrasse which had been destroyed, but these were completely new streets, awakening no memories whatsoever. The names of the streets had been changed, the signs were in Latvian and Russian. There were many uniforms, mostly naval.
"You go straight down the Ulichstrasse till the entrance to the "Fisherhafen", I had been advised by old Libau friends. The street had not changed. Although it looked much smaller and narrower than in my memories, the wide branches of the old lime and acorn trees still cast the same deep shadow over the sidewalk, with the breeze rustling lightly in their ample foliage. The entrance to the "Fisherhafen" was changed: some new stone houses had been put up. The plaque I had come to see was on one of the walls. There was an inscription in Latvian and in Russian: "To the victims of Fascism" killed during the German occupation. One cannot put flowers on a wall, so I put mine down on the ground - to my father and to all the others.
It was already rather late in the afternoon but there might still have been time to drive down to the cemetery. Only...I didn't feel like it. Nobody I had come to visit here had been quietly put to rest in that peaceful place. Then, all of a sudden, I knew where I really wanted to go.
To admit the truth, I have no recollections whatsoever of the 8 or 10 kilometers' drive from Libau to Shkeden on that summer day of 1961. Never during all the coming years would even a single memory surface or a single vision arise of the surrounding landscape. The taxi might have been speeding through a vacuum as far as I was concerned. The last thing which stuck in my memory was hiring it at the stop near the Central Market Place where I had bought a huge bunch of red roses. The driver was a Russian and I had felt relieved that he was not a Latvian. "This is a long drive", he said giving me a strange side-glance as I slipped into the seat beside him. But he didn't ask any questions and we drove in silence.
It was a sunny day but I didn't feel it. In my mind I was in snow and cold and winter, back to all I had been told of this last journey - the deathmarch of the Jews of Libau. This way they had gone in buses in December 1941, and in sledges and carts or more primitive vehicles in February 1942. As many times before I tried to imagine what my mother must have thought and felt, or my aunts, or my friends or other people I had known. I don't think I even came close to it, but there was no getting away from it, neither from the stories I had heard, nor from the photographs I had seen in Libau in 1945, fresh from the lab, pictures of people on the snow, stripped naked, in the background the Latvian "aizsargi" with their rifles, the earflaps of their caps down, and the collars of their uniforms up against the biting cold...
The driver had stopped the car. "Well...?" he said turning to me, "That's as far as we can go." "Leave your taximeter on," I replied getting out of the car.
The vast terrain was unbelievably quiet. One could hear the humming of the insects flitting by in the sun, or a sudden shriek of a seagull from the nearby sea. There was only a very light breeze, the blue sur- face was scarcely rippled by tiny waves, only far away there were a few white crests. A couple of old wooden watchtowers showed that this had been maritime border region some time ago. The dunes were very low and when I turned away inland from the sea they stopped altogether. The ground was sand everywhere, only a few clusters of sharp grey-greenish seagrass were growing here and there.
I saw the obelisk from afar. It was a simple unspectacular four-edged cone of white limestone. When I came up to it, I read the stereotyped inscription in Russian and Latvian dedicated to the "Victims of Fascism" during the war. This time there was a number of the people killed. I don't remember it exactly but it was unbelievably high. There had never been so many Jews in the whole Baltic states. I had, however, heard that Eichmann's twisted bookkeeping had brought the Hungarian Jews to die on this sandy beach, and probably there had also been others. The word "Jew" was mentioned nowhere on any inscription. By now, however, I was used to this sort of Soviet post mortem discrimination.
As I had done the day before, I here, too, put down my roses and resumed my wandering. There were many empty cartridge cases of different calibers on the ground. I bent down to look at them but I did not pick them up. Then I found the bone. It was an ulna, one of the two bones connecting the wrist with the elbow. It looked very dry and frail, it was small, that of a child probably not older than ten or twelve years. I don't know why I saw a little girl before me, it could as well have been a little boy. I took it back to the obelisk and started to dig a hole in the ground having no other instruments than my bare ten fingers. As I could not find a stone on the sandy ground I put some roses on the tiny grave and rose to my feet.
It was a long walk back to the car. If the town had looked much smaller in comparison to what I had remembered, this sandy plain felt vast and endless and larger than life.
A few hours later I was on my way back. Strapped to my seat in the same little bee of a plane I looked down at the city vanishing quickly beneath the wings. There was no regret or nostalgia that this was, I knew, the last time I would be seeing it.
I waited a long time for this day. I thought the day would never come. The room in the new hotel - Intercontinental in Hanover - was spacious, warm and well lit. I got up early on this Friday, April 3rd, 1970, shaved and gave a look at my watch.
It was 7:30 in the morning. One more hour. One more hour and I will face him. Will I recognize him? Will I be able to look into his eyes? I opened the curtain and looked outside. The new, modern television tower looked yellowish, as the sun was rising, and the light snow from the night before was starting to melt.
I had a cup of coffee and hailed a taxi-cab: "Zum Landesgericht bitte."
It was a ten minute ride. A police car rushed by blowing its horn, which sounded exactly as the Gestapo horns: pipi-pipipipi-pipi, the same sound of the police van which picked up Anna Frank and millions of others.
The guard on duty at the court house directed me to the court room. It was early. I and "his" attorney were first. The court session was called for 8:30. Two minutes before, they started to come. One by one, in groups of three or four.
Then I saw him. I recognized him at once. How could I have ever thought that I would not remember him? Aged, but still tall, slim, blondish and his trade-mark: cool, murderish, motionless eyes.
The court clerk called to order. The judges entered. The jury looked bored. The defenders looked somewhat nervous, the defendant tried to remember if he ever saw me. He whispered something to his lawyer. Everything became quiet in the court room No. 127.
Who is this man? It was said that he was once so powerful, that he helped to wipe out a whole town, he killed children, shot hundreds of old people, young people, men, women, Jews and others all in one day, and managed to wash his bloody hands, have a few drinks and spend that evening joking or dancing, playing games or reading a newspaper - as if nothing had happened that day.
After stating my name, address and birthday I was asked by one of the judges:
"Mr. Engel, do you recognize any of these gentlemen?"
"I do, sir."
"Please point out, whom do you recognize?"
"Him, Erich Handke."
"Please tell us what do you know about Erich Handke?"
For twenty-nine years I had dreamed about having the opportunity to testify against this brutal man - Handke. I knew that he was alive some- where in Germany. One week after Hitler attacked the USSR, the Wehrmacht entered our small town of Libau on the Baltic Sea. Close to 9,000 Jews lived in Libau before the war - out of a population of 56,000.
Libau had a rich Jewish community with two noted synagogues, a Jewish trade school, a Yeshiva, a Jewish private school, high school and a Jewish sports stadium, a yacht club and all the usual organizations, including the known sport club "Maccabi"." There were very few real rich Jews, but also very few were poor. Always a shipping and trading city plus its location at the white sandy Baltic seacoast, the city did its share of progress in tourism, in export and in import.
Soon after the Wehrmacht, the Gestapo arrived, under leadership of SS-Obersturmfuehrer Dr. Fritz Dietrich, SD-leader Wolfgang Kigler, and Erich Handke who seemed to be in charge of everything, but mainly to solve the Jewish question.
The first mass destruction of the Libau Jews took place on the hot summer day of July 27, 1941. The Jews were ordered to appear on the Hauptwachplatz. Known as ever law-abiding, the Jews obeyed the orders. At the square they had to stay at attention. Many were beaten up and had to undergo terrible treatment by the SS-men.
Erich Handke was on the warpath. Kicking, shouting and slapping, he ordered hundreds of Jews to be thrown on ready brought trucks. As the number of Jews present diminished, he noticed a tall handsome, grey- haired gentleman, who was none other than Dr. Schwab, a well known local physician. Handke killed him in a brutal manner; this murder was wit- nessed by the hundreds of Jews who were still standing at attention on the square, where I used to come as a child and watch the fire engines being cleaned. During that day, on a hot July, over three thousand Jews were executed near the lighthouse in the vicinity of the sandy beach, where people used to bathe.
Handke did not stop here. He was everywhere. Almost daily he would appear somewhere. Wait for them with their yellow rag, marked Jews marching from work, tired from their slave labor, hungry from not eating - and with a "blitz" he would start to attack.
It would take up this and many more journals to describe all the "heroic deeds" of this bloodthirsty murderer. When a day passed by and he did not destroy a human life, he would order one of his Jewish slaves to find some pigeons and bring them to him in a hurry. Once they brought him the pigeons, he would take them, one by one and squeeze their heads off, by placing the birds between the door of his office and pulling the door shut.
By 1942, one year later, there were only 800 Jews alive. A Ghetto was created and the 800 moved into it on the 1st of July, 1942. The Libau Ghetto was liquidated on the 6th of October, Yom Kippur day, and the inmates were sent to the Kaiserwald near Riga concentration camp, and when the number dwindled to less than 500 they were sent to the Stutthof death camp near Danzig.
Today, there are less than 80 Jews who survived the war, the camps and Handke. Many do not have the strength to testify against the Schar- fuehrer (Staff Sergeant) Erich Handke, born 10 November, 1914 (SS #371241) in Lisa, Germany; many do not recall the exact dates, locations or even if Dr. Schwab was attacked at the Firemen's Square or in the women's jail (where the Jews were once more screened before being sent to their death). The German court at Hanover tried their best to have Erich Handke with his eight other cohorts convicted, they have traveled to the USA and Israel, and were permitted to interview survivors now residing in the USSR.
But, because of the time elapsed, the reasons I gave before, Erich Handke may be walking the streets a free man at Tailfingen. I do not regret that I went to Hanover, that I once more faced this mass-murderer Handke. I am glad, that I was able to be a witness for the prosecution.
My husband, who was not a Libauer, used to say: "This Libau of yours is the strangest place I ever heard of. There were about 9,000 Jews. The Nazis killed more than 90% of them. But wherever you come there is at least one Libauer!"
I am not going to discuss now whether he was right or wrong nor elaborate on this strange phenomenon. In any case, to see so many Libauers concentrated in one place is a unique and exciting occasion, and I welcome it. AND I WELCOME YOU from all my heart.
Everyone present here has come a long way, not only in the literal or geographical sense of the word. Be it from Canada or the United States, from Australia or Africa, from England or France, from Haifa or Jerusalem, from a near or far Kibbutz, or just from here, from Tel Aviv, it is a very long way from Libau. It was a long and weary road winding its path through the War, through the Holocaust, through Russian camps and deportations, over hurdles of hardships and personal tragedies. And even if there were also milestones marking successes and gains and highlights of joy and ecstasy along the road, Libau has remained very far behind. It is all in the past. Oh, no doubt it is there on the same map and it now may be many times more important and significant as a western port of the Soviet Union, but the Libau we remember is gone - and gone forever.
For the next generation it is already something of an abstraction. My son once said that Libau is for him just another town out of the old fairy tales I used to tell him when he was a little boy. Once I heard the son of Libau friends comment on our conversation: "Again they are talking about some Schwanenstrasse..." Our conversation was in German, his comment was in Russian which was, by the way, his mother tongue. The offspring of the survivors, born in many different countries, speak many different mother tongues...as to their children. Libau might as well be a spot on another planet, difficult to trace back on an unfamiliar map. The gravestone which is for us a symbol of remembrance, of the love and devotion for our dear ones whom we lost, will hardly be visited by the generations to come.
So what is this all about? ...Just meeting "Die Kinder aus meiner Schule", rejoicing in sentimental memories of a nice provincial city with beautiful parks and beaches, with the Schwanenteich and Kurhausprospekt, with the Pavilion and the Leuchtturm? I hope and I think that there is more to it. Libau might have been a provincial city on the Baltic Sea, somewhere on the outskirts of Europe, but it was not a stuffy "Shtetl." It was never a part of the "Pale" where the Jews were forced by the Russian Tsar to live in stifling seclusion. Even if their rights were sometimes restricted, they could fight for them, for they were part of a democracy, as imperfect as it might have been. There was air to breathe with a free wind blowing, not only from the sea, but from the whole world around us, and people were free to come and to go.
It was a good place for children to grow up in. There were deep-rooted traditions and values, such as friendship and fairness, which had weight and meaning - and one could choose one's ideals without being brainwashed. We were free to think and to act, and, if we took it all for granted in those faraway days, we know better now. I want to believe and I do believe that the spirit of freedom and human dignity does not just vanish when people or even generations do. It has a continuity which, consciously or unconsciously, we must be passing on to the next generation, one which I hope will live on. It should be a precious asset for those living in a world which is getting more and more complicated and computerized and much less sentimental and idyllic than was Libau 50 years ago.
As to ourselves, it is no use fooling ourselves: we cannot count on a future of 50 years more. Even the Libauers, a tough and stubborn lot, with all their fighting spirit, cannot overcome the laws of nature. But, as long as one is alive, there is always a future. And one can always hope for the best. By the way, to hope for a better future is an ancient Jewish national sport. We have been practising it for over 2000 years. Among all the peoples and nations of the world we are the experts and champions in this. That is probably the reason why we are still alive and kicking today...
Now, having spoken about the past and the future, and being myself a conscientious Libauerin, let me, for good order's sake, say a few words about the present. The present is always the shortest of all times. The present is now, today, this very moment. The fact that we are all assembled here NOW is the best proof that we, the Libauers, are still able to make dreams come true. So all we have to do now at present is to enjoy it. To enjoy every single moment of it! TO A HAPPY REUNION.
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