|Riga Old Town: Former German Merchants' "House of the Blackheads"|
|Art Nouveau Heaven|
|Riga Old Town|
We even did one of those "Escape Room" things, where you're locked in an abandoned apartment and have an hour to escape through a door locked with 7 keys. You have to find them by solving puzzles. Just brilliant. We also took a hire car on a day trip to neighbouring Lithuania, to the former northernmost German city: Memel (now Klaipeda) and the Curonian Spit on the Baltic Sea where Thomas Mann had a holiday home. Russia (former German East Prussia) was 2km south of us, which was all a bit bizarre.
|Ste, hiding his spray graffiti can near the abandoned apartment|
|On the Curonian Spit: Nida Sand Dunes in the distance|
Anyway, that's enough about the lovely touristy bits. We also visited the forests outside Riga, which is somewhere I've wanted to go for a while. The background to that is that there's a fantastic project that began in Germany, which has extended across Europe, called Stolpersteine. They're the idea of Cologne artist Günter Demnig, and mark the homes of holocaust victims with a small brass stone set into the pavement outside. You now see them all over Berlin, or indeed Salzburg, for example.
|All we know about the murdered 65 year old Kleinhaus couple|
They simply give the name, year of birth, date of deportation and date/place of death (if known) of the victims who previously lived in the house or apartment. They personalise the holocaust and give names to the numbers, but still leave much to the imagination.
I'd noticed many times when seeing these stones in Germany that rather than the name of one of the extermination camps, they frequently gave "Riga" as the place of death. I therefore wanted to know more.
I thought myself relatively knowledgeable about the holocaust. I knew that the broad chronology of the holocaust is: 1) expulsion; 2) creation of regular concentration camps; 3) creation in ghettos; 4) use of death squads (SS Einsatzgruppen); and then finally 5) the operation of the six extermination camps in Poland as killing factories. What I hadn't computed until this point was that the number of deaths of the Nazi extermination camps totals about 3,150,000 people. This figure represents only roughly half of the 6,000,000 total number killed, which obviously means an extraordinarily high number of Jews were murdered in places other than the gas chambers. Somehow I automatically think "holocaust" and "gas chamber". I guess many people do.
To my surprise, the figure attributable to the SS Einsatzgruppen is in fact in excess of 1,000,000 murders. These killing squads followed behind the German lines after the invasion of the Eastern Poland, the Baltic States and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. They were "personal" killings: mass shootings, but where soldiers took aim and fired at their victims individually from short range, rather than thousands of people being forced into a gas chamber and killed together. The bulk of these killings took place before the decision was taken on 20 January 1942 to systematically murder all the Jews of Europe as the "Final Solution" at the Wannsee Conference just outside Berlin.
The subject of the Einsatzgruppen just doesn't seem to have caught the public imagination in the same way as the existence of Auschwitz has. 1,000,000 is a staggeringly high number. It is also almost the same as the total number of people killed in Auschwitz, yet there are far fewer books, movies, documentaries or anything available on the subject - at least that I've seen.
Where did these massacres take place, then? Again I assumed they were many miles outside cities, in hidden deserted locations. The first site we visited corrected that perception.
Right next to the main A6 dual carriageway, in what is now the built up suburbs of Riga, lies the site of the Rumbula Forest massacre. It takes literally 12 minutes to drive there from the Old Town centre. It's opposite a petrol station and less than 100 metres from the main road, which was already there during the War. It is far from an isolated forest spot in the middle of nowhere. It's more like a small woods. Locals reported hearing the sounds of what took place there very clearly.
A black marble stone at the entrance to the site reads:
"Along this road in November and December 1941, Nazis and their local collaborators drove to death in the Rumbula Forest thousands of Jews from the Riga ghetto. The erection of this monument is funded by the former ghetto prisoner Boris Kliot whose father Moses, mother Rosa, sisters Pesa, Mira, Bertha and Sarah were among those killed in Rumbula"
|Victims on their way to the forest|
What isn't made clear there is that the number of murders involved was 25,000 and that these all took place on just two days: 30 November and 8 December 1941. It was the second most murderous operation of the SS death squads and isn't that far off the total number of prisoners who died in 12 years of operation of one most well-known "regular" German concentration camps, Dachau. Only in Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev in Ukraine, were more killed: 33,771 in two days the previous September.
|Actual scene photographed at Babi Yar. No such photos exist of Rumbula.|
It's so hard to envisage these numbers. Think of 500 coaches lined up one behind the other, each full of 50 people: that is 25,000. Or think about how crowded it is lining up at the gate to get on a typical Easyjet A319 plane. Now think of 165 completely full plane loads, and you have 25,000 people. These were vast lines of people, forced by hundreds of Latvian police and soldiers to march the 10km from the ghetto to the site. The elderly, the sick, and little children were given lifts to the forest. Those who refused to leave the ghetto were murdered on the spot, including (according to ghetto survivor Max Kaufmann) children thrown from third floor windows by "absolutely drunk" Latvians and Germans.
|The central memorial at Rumbula Forest|
Around 250 Russian prisoners of war had been forced to dig enormous deep pits in the forest in advance. 24,000 of the victims were Latvian Jews, all of whom previously had been forced to move and live in the Riga ghetto. 1,000 were Berlin Jews whose train from the west had arrived early (more of this below). There was no space for them in the ghetto, so they were brought here and murdered. Himmler had actually personally made a telephone call to Heydrich to try to prevent this happening in the so-called Keine Liquidierung ("no liquidation") phone call. However, by the time he did so, all of the people on the train had already been murdered.
The victims lined up, were told to strip off, and were then told to lie down on top of dead victims already in the deep pits. Around 12 men, German SS soldiers, did the actual shooting: an individual bullet to the back of the head, one by one. 25,000 of them. There are horrific descriptions about not yet dead people writhing round in the pits, which I won't go into.
|One of the many "burial" pits at Rumbula. A simple stone marks each one.|
|Central memorial: murdered families together|
The reason that the Riga ghetto was "cleared" in this way, was that the government in Berlin had decided that Germany should become Judenrein ("Jew Free"). At this point there still hadn't been any concrete decision to murder all of European Jewry: as mentioned above, that came shortly afterwards in late January 1942. Instead German Jews were to be shipped out of the country, eastwards, to either be worked to death or to die "naturally" in the appalling conditions of the overcrowded ghettos.
Himmler intervened to try to stop the 1000 Berlin Jews from being murdered, but his reasons are unclear. Professor Fleming suggests it was because there were 40 cases of "unjustified" evacuation on the train: Iron Cross holders from WW1; or it may have been because the still neutral USA would react badly if news of the murders got out. Professor Browning suggests it was because the SS found it harder to murder German Jews who looked and spoke like them, as well as a desire to postpone the killings, so they could be done in greater secrecy.
By the summer of 1942 such considerations had long passed or been dealt with though. The Rumbula massacre had been witnessed by leading Nazis. Rudolf Lange was one of them, and he was one of the 15 who attended the Wannsee Conference. He reported that even the hardened SS had had issues about shooting assimilated German Jews. Likewise Wilhelm Kube objected to German Jews "who come from our cultural circle" being casually murdered by German soldiers. Mass shootings were ruled out as impractical for the millions of intended victims, and the industrial methods of murder perfected in the extermination camps therefore evolved. German Jewry was most certainly now to be included in these plans.
The German Jews who arrived in Riga found houses that had clearly been left in some considerable rush. One of the first transports, other than the ill-fated Berlin one, was the Bielefeld Transport of 1000 Jews from what is now North Rhine Westphalia. I lived for two years in Bielefeld and went to junior school there. They reportedly found cooked food on the tables, frozen solid, blood stains, and even dead bodies that were discovered up to two months later.
In theory these German Jews had been given a year's extra life by the "Keine Liquidierung call". Many actually died in the terrible conditions of the ghetto from starvation and disease. Those who survived through to the summer of 1942 were brought out to Bikernieki Forest, also now in the suburbs of Riga, but to the north of Rumbula.
|Just east of Bikernieki is Riga University Hospital|
|One of the 55 mass graves in the Bikernieki Forest|
Here in Bikernieki, a similar operation to the Rumbula one occurred: 12,000 German Jews, as well as remaining Latvian Jews, some Czech Jews, Latvian political opponents of the Nazis, and Soviet Prisoners of War, were forced into pits and shot, but over a much longer period. The total number of victims murdered in Bikernieki is around 30,000 over the entire period of 1941 to 1944. Despite later efforts to exhume and burn the bodies, around 20,000 bodies are estimated to still lie there. People go jogging here.
|Bikernieki Forest Massacres Central Memorial|
The Bikernieki Forest memorial was designed by a Russian architect, and paid for by the German War Crimes Commission, and the German and Austrian governments, with donations from several German cities. It is a stunning memorial, and it choked me with emotion - even more than Rumbula. There are two reasons for that: the more peaceful setting, and the huge area the mass graves take up in the forest; but for me it was the jagged stones you see above. They are gathered in areas around the central structure and symbolise the relative numbers of victims from 16 particular Jewish communities in Germany (plus two more for Vienna and Prague). The names I saw on the markers in front of the stones simply floored me.
|Gütersloh: where I went to senior school|
|Münster: where Dad was stationed when he met Mutti|
|Coesfeld: where my cousin and his family live|
|Steinfurt: a tiny town just 25km from Mutti's home town|
|And Bielefeld: where I lived and went to junior school|
I had no idea this place specifically was so related to the fate of the Jews of North Rhine Westphalia. To get some sense of what this meant to me, I'd like you to imagine seeing place names from the area you live in. Names incredibly familiar to you. Ones that you've grown up with. For me that's Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Manningtree; or Portsmouth, Southampton, Chichester. Towns big and small. And then imagine you encounter them, out of the blue, in the middle of a distant pine forest in a foreign country, 1000 miles away from where the towns are. And they mark the place where people from those towns you know so well were forced to undress, to lie on top of their dead family members, friends, and neighbours, and received a bullet in the back of their heads one by one.
I nearly vomited it affected me so much.
I guess it shouldn't have had this effect: for example I've seen Polish place names on stones like this in Treblinka, and they were victims just like these - but it was the familiarity and the surprise that did it. I guess these were victims "from my cultural circle" and for some reason that really mattered. I'm actually in tears again writing this. Of all the holocaust sites I've visited, Bikernieki left me the most stunned and the most upset.
|Earth, don't cover my blood.|
Let my cry have no place to rest.
Unfortunately, I also felt another emotion as I visited both of the forest sites, in addition to the crushing sadness. Despite loving the city and having had a sensational time there, it was some amount of anger towards the city of Riga and the country of Latvia. As mentioned, the Nazis had not chosen particularly distant or hidden places for the forest massacres, but the present day authorities certainly hadn't made our job finding them very easy. All along our drive through Latvia we'd seen those brown tourist signs pointing out places of interest: picnic sites, beauty points, ostrich farms, crappy pilgrimage churches - the country is apparently just full of fantastic places worthy of a visit.
|Baron Münchhausen's birthplace. Most definitely deserves a sign.|
Yet, here, for two sites where a total of 55,000 people had been butchered in acts of genocide right on the outskirts of the capital city, there was nothing. Not one road sign pointing the way from the centre of town, not one sign to show you'd actually found the places successfully. The marker point for Rumbula on Google Maps via TripAdvisor was in the wrong place, and I only found the site using a Jewish website that gave the correct coordinates.
There was no information in the Riga city guides in our hotel, and we saw no one who offered guided tours out to the places for people without hire cars. There were no visitor facilities at the sites at all. There was no museum, and no attempt to explain what had happened in detail through information signs: the background, the perpetrators, or any of the information I've dug out and put in this blog post. There are no WC's, no proper car park at Bikernieki, and only a dirt track leading to the one at Rumbula, where the carpark had a solitary overflowing rubbish bin.
The memorials, which are incredibly beautiful, have been privately funded. The German War Graves Commission pays for the upkeep of the Bikernieki one, which is apparently regularly vandalised and has to be repaired.
I don't expect crass commercialisation around such sites. I do expect some indication, though, that people in the country actually care about them, and think they're worthy of having their existence recognised. Compare this to places where far fewer people have died and the way they are marked: the 9/11 memorial or Pearl Harbor are obvious examples. Even the memorial in London to animals who died in the war has far greater prominence than these sites. 55,000 people were murdered here. I'm afraid I can't help thinking that if the victims had been Latvian gentiles, a lot more would have been made of it. But they were Jews, who (similar to the situation in Poland) apparently don't count as Latvians, and instead seem to form a different "nationality". They were of course murdered with the active assistance of a lot of local people - some of whose grandchildren casually go jogging past these genocide sites on the edge of their city, I guess.
It's partly for this reason that I've written this post. It is our duty to remember them: those who died in these horrific circumstances, butchered in two distant forests in Eastern Europe, because of the group they belonged to. The Talmud says that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten" I can't hope to remember all 55,000, but I know I will never forget the names of Rumbula and Bikernieki, now I've been to them. And it's now actually sunk in that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other sites across the former Soviet Union where similar acts took place, on a smaller scale. 1,000,000 victims. That surely deserves an enormous amount of recognition.
|May they be remembered, and may they rest in peace|