The Latvian Jewish community was very active during the first Latvian Independence in the political, cultural and economic spheres, and more than 1000 Jewish officers and soldiers fought for Latvian Independence in 1918-1920.
During Kārlis Ulmanis’ rule, from 15 May 1934, there was emigration amongst the Jewish community due to the disbanding of political parties, including the Jewish parties, and other social and economic restrictions. However, there would also be immigration to Latvia as Jews fled from the Nazis in Germany. By 1938 Latvia had accepted many refugees, some of who stayed in Latvia and others who moved through Latvia to other countries, but after the Nazis occupied Sudetenland, this would end.
In June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Latvia leading to repression of the Jewish community. Community centres, schools, places of worship and many other places were closed, and as many as 5000 Jews were deported including nearly all of the community leaders and elite.
At the end of the 1930s there were approximately 93,000 Jews living in Latvia. 43,000 of them lived in Riga.
On 31 July 1941 Hitler’s deputy Herman Göring orders Reinhardt Heidrich, head of the Reich main security office, to make preparations for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. In reality the specially organised security police and SD operational groups, including local collaborators, had already begun the wholesale killing of Jews immediately after the Germans attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941. Already by 11 July 1941 all Jews in the town of Auce had been killed, followed by most Jews in Latvia. Of the more than 70,000 Latvian Jews in the hands of the Nazis, about 35,000 are killed in a few months in the larger cities and the countryside.
On 29 July and 1 September orders are issued by the Nazi Occupation regime to the Jews making it compulsory to wear a distinctive symbol – the Star of David - on their clothes and prohibiting Jews from using the sidewalks, amongst other restrictions. Failure to observe these orders would lead to severe punishment.
“The Iron Bolts Break”
“The Swastika and the yellow-brown uniforms of the “pheasants,” marked the appearance of the city. The streets resounded with the marching song of German soldiers: “Heute gehört uns Deutschland und morgen die ganze Welt”. The star of the Soviet spider had set; in its place spooked the Star of David turned into the Mark of Cain [...] German troopers were driving on columns of those places outside the law. Their expressionless, soot-covered eyes looked up vacantly to the silent skies. Behind them and their unseeing guards marched death. Death overarched and stigmatized them all.”
Berlin. SS Reichsführer H. Himmler issues an order to SS Obergruppenführer F. Jeckeln to eliminate 30,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto
Jews in the Riga ghetto are notified that all, except able-bodied men aged 16-60, will be moved to another camp in a few days, and allow each to take only 20 kg of belongings.
4500 able-bodied men are moved to a specially prepared enclosure – the Small Ghetto – between Lielā Kalna, Lauvas Ludzas and Daugavpils Streets; approximately 300 women – seamstresses – are transported to a prison near Brasa railway station.
German and Latvian SD and police units brutally remove Jews from their homes in the Riga Ghetto, group them into columns of 1,000 and herd them out from the ghetto via Ludzas, Līksnas and Lauvas streets. Jews who resist or are unable to walk because of old age or sickness are brutally murdered in their houses and in the streets.
Žanis Lipke, rescuer of Jews: I was among a small group of people, standing behind the ghetto fence, looking in horror at what was happening on the other side of the fence. People running helplessly from here to there, screaming, crying. Some were carrying bundles and suitcases, others had children in their arms or in strollers. Drunken policemen shouted at the people, dragged them from their flats and beat them mercilessly. Some guards, bleary eyed, were shooting at random into the crowd […] German soldiers and Latvian policemen beat and shot those who could not keep up with the column. Dead bodies remained on the street on which the people were herded to be executed. I saw many bodies of women and children in the courtyard of a large house. This building was on Lāčplēša Street next to the barbed wire fence surrounding the ghetto.Read more
Elmārs Rivošs, sculptor, held in Riga Ghetto: The street is drowning in blood; overnight, the white snow has turned gray with red markings. The bodies are all of old men and women. Crumbled baby carriages, children's sleds, handbags, gloves and galoshes, bags with food, a baby bottle with frozen oatmeal, a child's shoe. And on the sides the corpses. They are still warm, with bloodied faces and staring eyes [...] We are facing cemetery gates. On Žīdu Street, in the attic room of a small house, the curtains are pulled open, revealing the faces of several women. Their faces express terror, mute reproach and sympathy.Read more
Elmar Rivosh (1906-1957) was a Jewish sculptor from Krustpils in Latvia. In 1941 he was imprisoned in the Ghetto with his wife, mother, son and daughter. All of his family died in the ghetto, however Elmar Rivosh managed to escape. He would spend the rest of the Nazi occupation in hiding with the help of several Latvian people.
He started writing his memoirs whilst in hiding in 1943. The chapters covering his time in the ghetto, titled “The beginning of the End” and “It Begins” were widely published in a variety of languages. In 1991 another chapter of Rivosh's journal was discovered, which covered his time in hiding. This has also been published under the title “The Cellar”.
Žanis Lipke (1900 – 1987) was a dock worker in Riga port. When the Nazis occupied Latvia he wanted to help the Jewish population. In order to do this he got a job at the “Luftwaffe” warehouses by the Central Market, close to Riga ghetto. Part of his job was to drive the Jews from the ghetto to the warehouses and back. Lipke used this opportunity to hide some of the Jews so they would not return to the ghetto, but instead he took them to his home where he had built a bunker to hide them. He would later find other places to hide them amongst friends and contacts in Riga and Dobele. In total Lipke and his helpers would save over 50 people.
After the war he continued to live in Latvia which was then under Soviet occupation. The NKVD would interrogate him several times about where his son, who was in the auxiliary service of the German Army, was and also where he was hiding the gold and diamonds they believed he got in payments from the Jewish people he saved – they could not believe that he had saved them without an ulterior motive.
Commanded by German SD and guarded by German and Latvian police, 12 columns of Jews are herded to Rumbula forest 10 km away. Individuals who attempted to flee, are unable to walk or leave the columns to rest are shot on the spot. By the end of the day some 1,000 Jews are killed in the ghetto or en route to Rumbula.
Beila Hamburga, Riga Ghetto prisoner, survivor of the Rumbula action: People were moving slowly, policemen were shouting “faster, faster”. It made no difference. We became indifferent, our will to live faded. We were walking along Maskavas Street. There were people at windows, looking at us. Some wiped tears, but there were some who were laughing. One even raised a fist. We were passing the rubber manufacturing plant “Kvadrāts” near the city limit. Moving further we heard many shots. Children were crying loudly. The policemen were drunk and only urged us on “faster, faster”.
Herberts Cukurs, pilot, member of the “Arājs Commando”: “Column after column, not far apart. Shots could be heard from Maskavas Street [...] The street was full of discarded items and clothing. One could see pools of blood. Here and there were bodies of women and children, shot on the spot when they could not keep up with the column. In places on the street beyond the Kuzņecovs porcelain factory bodies were piled in heaps. Blood flowed into street drains […] Past the rubber factory the columns turned off. One could hear gun shots again and again.„Read more
Herberts Cukurs (1900-1965) was a Latvian pilot who was a member of the Arājs Commando, a unit of the Latvian Auxiliary Police led by SS-Sturmbannführer Viktors Arājs. The Arājs Commando were led by SS-Sturmbannführer Viktors Arājs and was created to assist the Nazis in killing the Jews and other “undesirables” - It is estimated that members of the Arajs Commando killed approximately 26,000 civilians. Cukurs would participate in the clearing of Riga ghetto during the Rumbula Action. He retreated with the German forces to Germany, and would later emigrate to Brazil. Whilst in South America he would be tracked down and assassinated by Israeli secret service agents of MOSSAD.
12 columns, 1,000 Jews in each, arrive at Rumbula. Here the final herding to the killing location is taken over by German and Latvian SD units. En route all bundles, valuables, clothing and footwear are taken from the Jews, who are forced to undress down to their underwear, some women are forced to undress completely. Some of the condemned Jews recite prayers, others lament and cry. Many make attempts to retain some dignity. Families go holding hands, mothers hold their children tightly. The victims are made to lie face down on top of the already dead or dying who are still twitching in the seeping blood surrounding them. The shooting in the three pits is done by a unit of 12 German SD men that F. Jeckeln has brought with him from Ukraine. The Jews are shot in the back of the head from a distance of 2 metres. The weapons used are Soviet sub-machine guns set for shooting individual bullets. Altogether some 13,000 people are murdered. Jeckeln participates personally in the killing of Jews, which is witnessed by specially invited high ranking German SS, SD, Police and civil administrators, as well as some representatives of the Latvian SD and police. The killing end at dusk, when some lightly wounded individuals are shot when they regain consciousness and try to crawl out of the pits. Hundreds suffocate under the weight of other bodies.
Ausma Garkalne, a school girl who lived near the Rumbula railway station: In late November, when mother was cleaning our house by an open window, the first column of the unfortunate Jews was coming past our house. Shots rang out throughout the day. One could hear people sobbing, children crying […] When a group of Jews, transported from Germany, was led to be executed, some of the bodies of the women remained at the embankment for several days. Railroad workers notified the police to ask the Germans to remove the bodies.
Frīda Frīde (Michelsone), Riga Ghetto prisoner, survivor of the Rumbula action: “I threw myself on the ground with my face in the snow and lay there feigning death. People were passing me, some stepped on me – I didn't move […] Some object hit me on the back, then another. More objects were falling on me. Finally I realized that these were shoes, because they fell in pairs. A mountain of footwear was pressing down on me. My body was numb from cold and immobility […] The snow under me had melted from the heat of my body. I was lying in a puddle of water – cold water. Quiet for a while. Then, from the direction of the trench a child's cry: “Mama! Mama! Mamaaa!” A few shots. Quiet. Dead.„Read more
Walter Bruns, General Major in the Germany army, who observed the Rumbula action: “The pits were 24 meters long and approximately 3 meters wide. The people were required to lie down, packed like sardines in a can, heads toward the middle. At the pit edge above, 6 men with sub-machine guns were shooting at the heads. When I arrived, the pit was already full. The living had to lie on top of the dead and were shot there. To save space, they had to lie close together [...] When they came closer, they saw what took place ahead. They had to hand over their jewellery and suitcase. The good items ended up in suitcases, the rest in a big pile [...] A little farther on they had to undress, and 500 meters from the forest they could only keep on a shirt or underpants. They were all women and small children around the age of 2. „Read more
Frida Fride had been working as a seamstress in Riga when she was imprisoned in the ghetto. She was one of only 6 survivors of the Rumbula action when, on 8 December, she managed to escape the massacre by throwing herself into the snow and pretending to be dead. She would survive the rest of the Nazi occupation with the help of strangers like the Šeinki, Bērziņi and Viļumsoni families, who hid her in various places in and around Riga. After the war she married Mordechai Michelson, a member of the Riga Ghetto resistance movement. Her memoirs relating to the Holocaust have also been published under the title “I survived Rumbuli”.
Generalmajor Walter Bruns (1891-1957) was a German Army Engineer Colonel stationed near Riga at the end of 1941 and would be a witness to massacre in Rumbula. He was captured on 8 April 1945 and would be kept as a Prisoner of War in a British detention camp for German staff officers – a Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC). This detention centres was bugged so the conversations of the prisoners were secretly caught and recorded. In one such conversation between Bruns and other offices he would speak about the events at Rumbula, providing evidence of the Holocaust in Riga. In 1948 Bruns gave evidence as a witness in a trial against the High Command of the Wehrmacht. In the same year he was released from prison.
A work detail of Jews begin gathering bodies in the ghetto territory, which are then taken to a large pit dug in the Old Jewish Cemetery. For several days there are still bodies in basements and attics.
Two naked, wounded and bleeding women seek shelter in the Rumbula railway station. They are taken away and shot in the pits.
The approximately 12,000 remaining Jews from Riga Ghetto are killed in Rumbula. Only six people survive. Until 12:00 German and Latvian police continue searching for Jews still hiding in the ghetto territory. Those found are shot on the spot or in the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Only some 4,500-5,000 Jews in Riga survive the Rumbula action. After the mass killing operations of the Jews from Daugavpils Ghetto in Poguļanka forest, and the Jews from Liepāja Ghetto in Šķēde Dunes, only about 6000 Jews remained alive in the occupied territory of Latvia.
By the end of the World War II fewer than 1500 of the Latvian Jews under the Nazi regime had survived, among them 400 hidden by their fellow citizens. In the Nazi-occupied territory of Latvia an additional 20,000 Jews, deported from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, some 3000 from Lithuania and Poland and several thousand from Hungary also perished. Altogether almost 6 million Jews perished in Nazi-occupied Europe.
After Jeckelns actions in Latvia he commanded the operations “Winterzauber”, “Sumpffieber” and “Heinrich” in Belarus and Russia against Soviet partisans, with dozens of villages being burned down and thousands of people shot or burned alive.
In October 1944 before the Red Army entered Riga, he organised the transport of several thousand people to forced labour in Germany. He then commanded the destruction of the Latvian national armed resistance group of General Jānis Kurelis and led the Nazi punitive expedition in Zlēkas, in Ventspils, where eight farmsteads were burned and dozens of civilians killed.
On 28 April 1945 Jeckeln was taken prisoner by Soviet forces in East Germany. He was put on trial in Riga, in front of a Soviet military tribunal, on 26 February 1946. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In 1943 to 1944 the Nazis began to try and destroy evidence of their crimes. This included exhuming and burning some of the bodies of the victims in Rumbula, using Jewish prisoner as slave labour.
After the war the site was neglected. The Soviet did not wish to commemorate Rumbula and Jewish culture and gatherings were suppressed. It was not until 1961 that young Jewish people from Riga began to research Rumbula. They found burnt bones and other traces of the massacre.
The Jewish community continued to meet and work at Rumbula despite warnings from the authorities. In 1963 they began to clean the site and create monuments to commemorate the victims. However this brought them into conflict with the Soviet authorities who would remove the monuments. A monument was created in 1964 which the Soviet approved of. It read “To the victims of Fascism 1941-1944”- deliberately leaving out the fact that the people were killed for being Jewish.
The Rumbula memorial, designed by Sergey Ryzh, was opened on 29 November 2002. It consists of a large Menorah surrounded by stones inscribed with the names of the victims of the Rumbula action. This is surrounded by paving stones, with the names of the streets of Riga ghetto, placed to create the shape of the Star of David. The memorial from 1964 has also been preserved.
I walk past the forest's eyes,
My shoulder feels the swish of the lashes of the pines.
Under my feet a mound of earth sighs.
Those are the only sounds.
And I stop,
To stop all sound.
And no longer can I hold
That my sight broke down.
The wood is full of shrieks,
The wood is full of shrieks.
The shudders cleaving on the pine trees,
Bark made craggy by the
The dirt that covered those interred alive-
Those mounds that kept quivering until the dawn.
My pulse is pounding
and cuts this forest-
in the name of birches, that will grow tomorrow,
in the name of children, that will come tomorrow,
in the name of lips, that will not shriek,
in the name of words, that refuse to die.
And now I shriek,
I curse the forest:
-Such as you, we do not need you now! -
Like a green crater the forest besieges me.
A green and angry voice
Like current passes through me:
-Thou shalt not promenade before my eyes!
Thou shalt not flirt
before my lashes!
Thou shalt not find solace
in my mounds!-
So all forests aren't like this,
I stand and shriek in Rumbula-
A green crater in a midst of grainfields,
Every man who has entered me
Become my tongue,
You come in me