The Holocaust in Riga. The Riga Ghetto

The Nazi invasion of Latvia at the end of June 1941 took place a year after the beginning of the Soviet occupation, and Soviet policy and repression largely determined public sentiment; the deportation of the Latvian population to the camps of Northern Russia and Siberia on June 14, 1941 caused a particularly great shock. The Nazis would actively use this tragedy in their propaganda, declaring Jews the mainstay of the Soviet regime and perpetrators of terror.

Nazi troops entered Riga on July 1, 1941, and two days later repression against the Jews began. Riga became the activity center of the Einsatzgruppe A, and to support it, the so-called “Latvian Auxiliary Police” under the leadership of Viktors Arājs was created on the same day. One of its aims was to cause Jewish riots in the city, but it generally failed. The first repressive actions included the arrest and imprisonment of Jews in a police prefecture building where they were brutally beaten. Jews were forcibly sent to forced labor: to clean up the ruins and elsewhere.

On July 4, several synagogues were set on fire, and the Great Synagogue was filmed for German film chronicles. At the same time, the men of Special Unit A and the “Arājs Kommando” killed about 500 Jews. On the same day, the newspaper “Tēvija” (“Fatherland”) published an invitation to “all nationally-minded Latvians who want to participate in the cleansing of our land from harmful elements” to join the “Arājs Kommando” – the burning of synagogues served to illustrate who those “harmful elements” were. In total, from July to August 1941, 5 to 7 thousand Jews were murdered in Riga, after spending some time at the headquarters of the “Arājs Kommando” (Valdemāra Street 19) or at the Central Prison.

Strict restrictions were imposed on Jews – already on July 2, they were forbidden to stand in queues in shops, later they were allowed to shop only during certain hours and in certain shops. It was forbidden for Jews to use public transport, to stay in parks and greenery, they were ordered to hand over radios, sewing machines, typewriters, and bicycles. On July 25, all Jews were ordered to register at the nearest police stations, but from July 29, Jews had to wear a special sign – a 10 × 10 cm six-pointed star.

On August 23, the construction of the Riga ghetto was officially announced, and the Jews were ordered to move to the designated area within two months, taking care of their own accommodation. The ghetto was bounded by a two-meter-high barbed wire fence along Lāčplēša, Maskavas, Jersikas, Ebreju, Lauvas, Lielā Kalna, Krāslavas and Jēkabpils streets. As of October 25, 29 602 people were imprisoned in the area, where 11,000 people had previously lived (of whom only about 2,000 were Jews). The ghetto was severely overcrowded, with no more than 4 square meters per person, and each family was allowed to occupy only one room.

After the ghetto gate closed on October 25, 1941, its prisoners were barred from any contact with people outside. They were sent under forced labor every day, and any institution or company in the city could apply for Jewish labor. Jewish work columns became a common sight on the streets of Riga. The food was now distributed centrally, by card, and was of the lowest quality. The press brutally shamed those who were trying to support the Jews, for example with food, and they were also fined. Life in the city, on the other hand, continued as usual, with trams running right behind the ghetto fence and cinemas and cafes doing their normal business.

In the ghetto the so-called the “Council of Elders” or the “Jewish Committee” was created, chaired by Mihails Eļjaševs, a lawyer. Its task was, in fact, to broadcast the policies of the occupation institutions to the prisoners, to coordinate the flow of labor, to distribute product cards. It also tried to organize other aspects of life by setting up a ghetto hospital and pharmacy, as well as educational and other structures. The so-called “Jewish Order Service” was also subjected to it. The ghetto was guarded by a special Latvian auxiliary police company, while only people from the German Security Service (SD) could enter the ghetto. People were supervised every day when they were sent to work, and when they returned, they were also searched so that nothing prohibited, including food, would be brought into the ghetto. Attempts to bring food to the ghetto were punished by hanging in a square near Sarkanā Street.

In 1941, at the end of October, when the gate of the Riga ghetto was closed, most of the Jews in the various regions of Latvia had already been murdered. Within the Nazi occupation power, there was disagreement about the further fate of the Jews of Riga, Daugavpils and Liepāja. The civilian administration wanted to keep them as labor, while the repressive department demanded further destruction. In mid-November, the later position prevailed, and SS General Friedrich Jekeln, who had previously been responsible for the extermination of Ukrainian Jews, including the assassination of more than 33,000 Kiev Jews in Babyn Yar in September 1941, was appointed Chief of the Supreme SS and Police of the Occupied Baltics and Belarus. It was Jekeln who planned and managed the murder of the prisoners in the Riga ghetto.

On November 27, preparations for the “action” began, which did not go unnoticed by the prisoners. A fence was built along Daugavpils and Ludzas streets, which separated four blocks in the so-called “Small Ghetto”. About 4.5 thousand able-bodied men were imprisoned there, while about 300 women were imprisoned in the Term Prison, and later moved to a building complex at 66 Ludzas Street, outside the “Small Ghetto”. The other prisoners were informed through posters that on the early morning of 30 November, they had to be ready to be sent to another place of detention – so they had to pack up their belongings and wait in the streets of the ghetto.

On November 30, through specially designed breaks in the ghetto fence near the Old Jewish Cemetery, columns of prisoners began to be taken out of the ghetto. Their path led to the Rumbula forest, about 9 kilometers from the ghetto, where pits dug by Soviet prisoners of war were ready. The column was transported and escorted by the men of the “Arājs Kommando” and German units, the Riga City Police was also mobilized to guard the road to Rumbula. Those who could not go fast enough were shot by a convoy on the way. Also, about 800 people who could not or did not want to leave their apartments were shot in the streets and homes of the ghetto. Later, their bodies were collected by a special Jewish team, which buried them in the Old Jewish Cemetery.

As Rumbula was approached along the highway, the large columns of about 1,000 people were divided into smaller groups that were brought into the forest. There, under the beating of the convoy, people had to leave their belongings, then undress, take off their shoes, and then they were driven to the side of the pit. A special German unit of 12 people, who had previous experience in the murders in Ukraine, was waiting at the pit. Officers of German repressive and military structures, civil administration officials, and men of Latvian repressive structures were also present.

The victims had to descend to a pit on a special slope, lie face down on the ground, and were shot in the back of the head. Each group that was shot was thrown onto the bodies of the previous group. Jekeln ironically called this method “sardine packing”. Since the shooting teams worked in shifts, the killings took place all day until dark. Following a similar pattern, the second major assassination operation took place on December 8. In total, about 25,000 people were killed in those two days.