By Ilana Freedman – America Out Loud
My relatives did not die in Poland during the Holocaust, or the Soviet Union, or anywhere in central Europe where the Nazis murdered millions of Jews. They did not die in the concentration camps – in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau. Nor were they victims of the brutal medical experiments of “Dr.” Mengele. They lived in the little country of Latvia, in northwestern Europe, in the capital city of Riga. Before World War II, the Jewish community there was well integrated into most aspects of life in Riga, where Jews even sat on the city council. Jews in Riga had a very active social and cultural life. Until the German army crossed the border in the early morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941. And it was in Latvia where my relatives were murdered. All of them.
Before World War II, there were between 40,000 and 66,000 Jews living in Latvia, more than 30,000 of them in the capital city of Riga. In August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the country. The Holocaust in Latvia had not yet begun. Then, early on the morning of June 22, 1941, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, and within eight days, the German army crossed the border into Latvia. Riga became the capital of the Reich Commissariat Ostland, and the horror of Nazi rule became the reality in Latvia. To the Jews who lived there, who represented about ten percent of the city’s population, there was no escape.
The SS Commander of Riga, Friedrich Jeckeln, was ordered to eliminate the Jews. Almost immediately after taking over the capital city, the Nazi occupation authorities incited Latvian nationalists to commit deadly, anti-Jewish riots known as “pogroms,” something the Latvians were happy to do. Jewish professionals – lawyers, doctors, and engineers – were singled out by fellow Latvian professionals, and they were arrested and immediately shot. On July 2, at the instigation of the Germans, armed Latvian youths wearing red and white armbands ran through the city, dragging Jews out of their homes and ‘arresting’ them. On that same morning, all the telephones in Jewish homes were disconnected.
Two days later, Riga’s Great Choral Synagogue was set on fire, with twenty Jews locked inside. Then, in mid-August, the Nazis ordered the creation of a ghetto in a small section of the city, where they forced more than 30,000 Jews to live. As many as six families were forced to share small, three-room apartments, and food was scarce. Jews were forced to wear large yellow six-pointed stars on their clothing, so they could be easily identified. By October, the entire Jewish population of Riga was locked in the ghetto. It was a prison for the Jewish community, who had formerly lived freely and thrived before the Nazis came. But even the ghetto was not for long.
In the last two months of 1941, the Germans announced their plan to “resettle” the Jewish residents in a new ghetto “further east.” This was a lie. There was no “resettlement.” On November 30 and again between December 8th and 9th, at least 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were chased from their homes with only the clothes on their backs by German soldiers and forced to walk in the freezing cold the twelve miles from Riga to Rumbula, a small railroad station surrounded by a dense forest. Those who could, were forced to walk the twelve miles from Riga in the bitter cold. Everyone from the very young to the very old was driven like cattle on the road to Rumbula. The lame and the elderly, even the small children, who stumbled or could no longer walk, were shot on the spot, and the road was lined with the bodies of the dead and dying. No one was allowed to be left behind. And when they finally got to the Rumbula forest, they found themselves at the edge of a massive pit, dug by German prisoners of war.
Steven Springfield, a survivor of the Riga ghetto, described it simply. He wrote: “…when the people got there, they were told to undress, put the shoes in one pile, clothing in another pile, driven to the edges of these mass graves, and machine-gunned. It was going on all night and the next day. Fifteen thousand of our people were massacred in that particular day.”
Lily Mazur Margules, another holocaust survivor, described it this way: “And they told us right away to line up and to get undressed. Naked. Oh, and you know, one, you are only a person as soon…as long as you have your clothes on. You can be a professor. You can be a doctor. You can be a scientist. You can be a shoemaker. But as long…as soon as your clothes come up and you stand naked, you are lost.”
The Germans were supposed to shoot each person once in the back of the head so they would fall into the pit, but as the day wore on and the light grew worse, the soldiers would frequently miss, meaning that victims would fall into the mass grave, still alive. Bodies fell one on top of the other, some, who were not yet dead, were buried alive, smothered by those who fell on top of them, and crushed by their sheer weight and that of the soil that was shoveled in to cover them.
The first mass murder of the Jews of Riga in the Rumbula forest took place on November 30, 1941. The second took place in December, in the heart of winter, and went on for two days. The Rumbula massacre is still remembered as one of the largest of the Nazi mass murders. By the time the Soviet army liberated Riga, on October 13, 1944, nearly all of Riga’s Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. Only three people who arrived in the Rumbula forest on those frigid winter days in 1941 are known to have survived the Holocaust.
I do not know exactly when my relatives died, but I know that they were murdered by the Nazis in the winter of 1941 – and I know how. The images of the holocaust haunt me.
On April 17, 2023, Jews around the world observed Holocaust Memorial Day, as we do every year. In Israel, where the pain of the Holocaust is still deep, sirens sound throughout the country, and people everywhere stop what they are doing and stand in silence – at home, at work, in the street. And if they are driving, they stop their cars, get out, and stand in silence on the city streets, even on the highways – for two minutes of silence. They have not forgotten, and they live with their collective memories, even as terror continues to rain down on them on a daily basis – from a new enemy with a no less deadly agenda.
Today there are still 147,999 Holocaust survivors living in Israel. And their memories are seared with the horror of those years. The pain, the torture, the loss of husbands, wives, children, friends, and relatives – all gone because of the hate and greed, and lust for power of people they did not know.
This is a cautionary tale for today ⏤ when hate and the lust for money and power have created a deep divide among us that is leading our country down a very dangerous path. The holocaust now happening in China – through forced organ harvesting, slavery, and genocide – and the willingness of our major corporations and our government itself – to overlook it, is only a piece of the malicious tide that is coming in and threatens to engulf us.
The appalling murder of thousands of Ukrainian civilians by the Russians, the frequent terrorist attacks on ordinary people in Israel, and the slaughter of innocents in Africa are all daily reminders of how inhumane humans can be.
But human life is not disposable. It is not expendable. It is precious, and it needs to be nurtured, not wasted. We can learn much from the horrors of the Second World War. Because if we do not learn from it, we are, as Santayana wisely warned us, destined to repeat it. And that process has already begun.