by Rich Landesberg
It’s an experience that can’t be captured in a 140 character tweet. It can’t be captured via text message. And there are no capitalized three letter expressions, no emoticons, that can tell you what it was like in the Rumbula forest in Riga in December, 1941. On our last day in Latvia, we walked through the deep snow in the forest to the site where tens of thousands spent their last day on earth.
Our day started like so many others, with a fascinating lecture. A former member of Parliament and an American born Latvian spoke to our students. One of the speakers is among only two or three people in the world licensed to practice law in both the USA and Latvia. Listening to these folks, one can be very optimistic about the future of Latvia.
But it was the past that hit us so viscerally on that afternoon. We took a tour of Jewish Riga, a tour that took some imagination to understand, because so few Jews remain after Hitler’s “final solution” found its way into the Baltics.
We visited the remains of the largest synagogue in Riga…set on fire by the Nazis on July 4, 1941, the building destroyed along with the people purposely trapped inside it. Near the site is a monument to those non-Jews who helped their Jewish neighbors at great personal risk of being killed or deported to concentration camps if they were discovered.
The monument to what the Yad Vashem holocaust history museum calls “The Righteous” shows the names of those people, written on concrete beams, holding up a wall that was rapidly collapsing on the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
We toured the Jewish ghetto area, someplace that didn’t exist until the Nazis overran Latvia. When the Germans arrived in Riga, Jews were forced from their homes and into the ghetto. When Hitler decided that European Jews should be moved east, the Riga ghetto became their home. The Jews of Riga were killed to make way for other European Jews. They were killed in the Rumbula forest.
It was cold the day we visited the forest. Maybe as cold as it was in late November and early December of 1941 when the Jews of Riga were marched out there. They were told to put their shoes in one pile, coats in another, pants and skirts in that pile over there. Then they were shot, their bodies falling into mass graves. By the time the killing was done, more than 25,000 men, women and children were buried in Rumbula forest. And even their deaths were to become victim to the Nazis, their bodies dug up years later and burned in an effort to hide this crime. We walked silently through the cold, still forest. We walked to the site of a memorial to those murdered there. And in our own way we quietly paid tribute.
Before the war, 93,000 Jews called Riga home. When the city was liberated by Soviet troops in 1944, there were 164 Jews in Riga. While the Nazis killed the Jews of Latvia, the Soviets went about destroying any memory that they had ever existed. The Jewish cemetery that the Nazis desecrated, the Soviets destroyed and turned into a park. One small Soviet era monument stands in the Rumbula forest, with no mention of the Jews who died there.
But there is hope for the Jewish community here. About 10,000 people in Riga identify themselves as Jewish. With the help of a lot of American money, there is now a working synagogue in Riga. We were lucky enough to tour it and hear how this once vibrant community is making a very modest comeback.
Our students got to experience a part of history where first hand accounts are rapidly fading. And they all felt, on a very gut level, that this kind of thing should never happen again.
“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
Becomes my tongue,
You come in me and shriek!
For some more information about the Rumbula forest murders, this web site (where the poem was taken from) provides excellent background: http://www.rumbula.org/rumbula_homepage.shtml
Next: a summary of Estonia as we move on to Lithuania