Friday, July 23, 2010

A Day in Riga - the Jews of Riga in the Holocaust

I have just arrived (yesterday) in Tartu, Estonia, for a conference that begins on Sunday. I was in Israel from June 15 to July 21, and then on the morning of the 21st flew to Riga, Latvia, for what an Israeli friend called a מסע לשרשים – a “roots trip.” Some of my family ended up in Latvia – my grandfather’s uncle, Mordechai Falkon, and his wife and family lived in Liepaja (the German name for the city is Libau), a city on the Baltic Sea about a two hour drive from Riga. I don’t know when he moved there or got married – his father was named Bentsel Falkon, from Ukmerge, Lithuania. Mordechai had a brother and sister. His brother, Jacob Morris Falkon, moved to the United States in the 1890s, married, and was the father of my grandfather, Mark Falcon (Lesses). His sister, Gittel, ended up in the Soviet Union, first in Baku, then in Moscow.

I hired a guide to take me around Riga (on Wednesday) and to Liepaja (on Thursday), and also a car with driver and then a second guide in Liepaja (who did not speak English, so the first guide translated what she said). I found the guide through a man named Dr. Edward Anders, who grew up in Liepaja and was saved because he posed as a half-Jew. He has been instrumental in gathering records of what happened to the Jews of Liepaja during the Holocaust. (See here for his site on the Jews of Liepaja). Dr. Anders recommended a guide named Ieva Gundare, who is a historian who works for the Occupation Museum in Riga (it documents both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia).

I got into Riga with enough time to check in to the hotel and take a shower before Ieva arrived with the car and driver and we started our tour around Riga.

We first went to the Jewish Museum, which traces Jewish history in Latvia since about the 16th century, when Jews first settled in Latvia, up until the Nazi period, when most of the Jews of Latvia were murdered. There was some information about Liepaja, including about Jewish schools, sports groups, and the like. There was a Jewish community in Liepaja of between 6,000 and 7,000 before the war, and a much bigger one in Riga, the capital of Latvia. I met the director of the museum, Margers Vestermanis, whom my guide knew.

After going quickly through the museum, Ieva brought me to several more Jewish sites in Riga. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) were among the first places they conquered. When they entered Riga, they destroyed all but one of the synagogues. We went to the ruins of the Choral synagogue, which has never been rebuilt. It was destroyed by the Nazis on July 4, 1941, very shortly after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). The site has been turned into a memorial.

Ruins of Choral Synagogue in Riga.

Our next stop was the memorial for the Jews who were killed at the Rumbula Forest, which in 1941 was outside Riga but is now inside the city. The Jews in the Riga Ghetto were forced to walk about 10 kilometers along the railroad lines until they reached the spot. About 25,000 were killed at the end of November/beginning of December 1941. A memorial has been built in the last few years.

One thing that I noticed and that the guide talked about was that during the years of Soviet occupation, when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union (1944-1991) the Soviets built monuments at various places where there had been Nazi massacres, but never specified that Jews were the victims (or were among the victims). The plaques simply talked about "victims of fascism," without being any more specific. The memorials that have been built since 1991 specifically discuss the Jewish victims.

In Latvian and English the plaque says:
Here in the forest of Rumbula, on November 30 and December 8 of 1941 the Nazis and their local collaborators shot dead more than 25,000 Jews, the prisoners of the Riga Ghetto, children, women, old people, as well as around 1,000 Jews deported from Germany. In the summer of 1944 hundreds of Jewish men from the concentration camp Riga-Kaiserwald were killed here.
This plaque and the rest of the memorial were put into place in 2002.

What follows is the original plaque, set up during the Soviet era. It says “to the victims of fascism,” in Russian, Latvian, and Yiddish. Notice the hammer and sickle symbol. The inset plaque was inserted later, and reads, in Latvian and English: “This monument was erected in 1964 under the Soviet totalitarian regime by activists of the Riga’s Jewish community. It was the only Jewish memorial to victims of Nazi terror in the territory of the USSR.” Edward Anders refers to this as “Soviet Holocaust Denial.” Ieva told me that when she was growing up in Sovietized Latvia, she did not learn about the Holocaust in school – only in 1988 did she first learn about it (this was during the era of Glasnost in the Soviet Union when Gorbachev was the Soviet leader).

Andrew Ezergailis, a retired Ithaca College professor of history, who is from Latvia, wrote a history of the Holocaust in Latvia. In his chapter on Rumbula he writes:
Under the second Soviet domination of Latvia, Jewish culture was suppressed. Rumbula was not an event that the Soviets wanted to commemorate. Up to 1960, the Rumbula grounds were completely neglected and overgrown. Only in 1961 did young Jews of Rîga begin a search for the location of Rumbula. They found burned bones and other remains from the massacre. The grounds were in an especially disorderly shape because in 1944 the Nazis had partly disinterred the victims to burn them.
Rumbula galvanized the young Jews of Rîga, and in spite of official warnings it became their weekly gathering place. To divert attention from Rumbula, communist officials in 1962 organized a memorial meeting of Nazi victims at Bi˚ernieki. At the official meeting, the speeches were only about “Nazi victims;” Jews were not mentioned. Instead of quieting the movement, this slap at the memory of Jewish victims spurred the activities at Rumbula. In 1963 as many as 500 young Jews worked with shovels, pails, and wheelbarrows weekly to cleaned up Rumbula grounds. Today the burial grounds have the look of a small shady park within a forest of gnarly pine trees, with neat paths and raised mounds indicating the original pits. At the entrance to the grounds stands a modest slab with a hammer and sickle in the upper right-hand corner, inscribed in Latvian, Russian, and Yiddish: “To the Victims of Fascism, 1941-1944.” Among Rîga Jews, this monument is known as the “Aryan compromise.”

The Rumbula memorial consists of a small field of stones set up as a symbolic Jewish cemetery – some of the stones have the names of people and families known to have been killed at Rumbula, while others are blank. Around this memorial are areas of the mass graves, each with a big stone set up on it. The Nazis originally buried the bodies in several big mass graves, but in 1943 they had Jewish men dig up the bodies, burn them, and then bury the bones and ashes.

Menorah in Rumbula memorial, surrounded by stones.

Names of those known to be killed at Rumbula, engraved on one of the stones.

More names.

One of the mass graves at Rumbula, surmounted by a stone.

After we visited the memorial at Rumbula, Ieva took me to a small memorial statue set up at the site of the Riga Ghetto, and then to the one surviving synagogue, in the Riga Old Town. It survived because it was built too close to other buildings that would also have burned.

The next day, we drove out to Liepaja and saw several sites there, including the memorial at the Skede dunes, another site in the city where Jews were killed (there is a Soviet-era memorial there), a memorial set up at the Jewish cemetery to the approximately 6,400 Liepaja Jews who were killed, and the likely site of the house on Barinu iela that Mordechai Falkon and his wife lived in before the Nazi invasion.

My next post will be about the day in Liepaja.


  1. Dear Rebecca. I have read with interest your report on Riga. I am planning a "Shorashim" (Roots) visit to my murdered family members in Riga and Lipja. Your report was interesting and will undoubtedly assist me during my future visit to Latvia. I guess your guide Leva was good and consider hiring her during my visit.
    Best regards
    Dov Kantor

  2. Dov - I recommend Ieva, she is very knowledgeable and helpful.