The Holocaust In Latvia

Soviet Occupation 

The Soviets invaded Latvia on June 15, 1940 when they crossed the border and killed some border guards.

The Russians sent the Latvian government an ultimatum that they need to 1) Put a pro-Soviet government into power and 2) Allow the Soviet Union’s troops free passage in and out of the territory.

The Soviet Union started to orchestrate its takeover by immediately nationalizing all the land; deporting former military chiefs to the Gulags; and oppressing religious institutions.

Riga in 1940 when the Red Army comes through
Soviets roll into the capital city of RIga.
1941 Soviet Killing of Latvians
An Anti-Semitic Poster in Latvia during the German Invasion.

The Nazis arrive and are Liberators in the Eyes of Latvians. 

The Occupation of Latvia under the Soviet Union’s administration was absolutely brutal toward the locals – both Jews and non-Jews were deported.

 When the Nazis came in they had a lot of support from the people who were living under Soviet rule because of how harsh the Commiunist regime had been for the people in these satellite states.  The Nazis were easily able to exploit the anti-Semitism that already existed and create the conflation of Jewishness and Bolshevism – a theme that runs poignantly throughout the war.  For more on the pogroms that occured during this time click here.

 Latvians Take Revenge 

In Latvia the Holocaust started on the night of June 23 to June 24, 1941, when in Grobiņa, a town near Liepāja, Sonderkommando 1a members killed six local Jews, including the town chemist, in the church graveyard.

Einsatzgruppe A was in charge of the Baltic areas and they were responsible for the death of Latvian Jewry, but they could not have done it without the help of the local Latvians. 

Riga in 1940 when the Red Army comes through
Man dragged away by the Arajs Kommando
An Anti-Semitic Poster in Latvia during the German Invasion.

The Locals

Germany began the invasion of the Soviet sphere on June 21, 1941.  By June 29, 1941 the Nazis had captured Libau and Dvinsk.  The final stages of the death of Latvian Jewry began on the 1st of July when Riga – the nation’s capital – fell to the encroaching Germans.  The Germans had no shortage of help in exterminating the Jews; The regional Chief of Gestapo noted “convenient conditions for extermination” in one of his reports.

Most of the Jews of Latgale and Kurland were murdered by the Latvians before the Germans even got there, let alone formulated the plan for the final solution in that area.  Many anti-Semitic posters were put up (see image on left) and rural towns boasted of their “Judenfrei” status with signs at the entrance of their towns.

Initial Murders and Ghettos

During the first days of the occupation about 8,000 Jews were killed in Riga by Latvian auxiliary police. A decree was issued by the Nazis that stipulated that Jews had to wear the yellow badge; had a curfew; and had to walk in the streets (as opposed to sidewalks.) In October the Ghetto in Riga was finally finished – it would hold more than 30,000 persons.  There were also large ghettos in both Dvinsk and Liepaja.

In November 1941 most of the inhabitants of the Riga Ghetto were murdered, but then they were replaced by German and Austrian Jews.  There is still much debate over whether or not the Latvian Jews were murdered to make room for them, or if the two events (deportation of German/Austrian Jews to Riga and the murder of Latvian Jews in Riga) happened independently.

Riga Ghetto
Latvian Jews undressing and awaiting to death by bullet.

The Final Phases

From the Riga Ghetto, under the direct supervision of Friedrich Jeckeln, about 25,000 Jews were driven on foot to Rumbula, on the outskirts of Riga, and murdered there in two operations— on 30 November and 8 December 1941.  Latvians performed guard duties; Jeckeln’s SS men shot the victims.  About 3000 Jews from Liepāja were murdered between 15 and 17 December.  These were the final events preceeding the end of approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews.  In addition, some 25,000 Jews were brought from Germany, Austria and the present-day Czech Republic, of whom around 20,000 were killed.


The Riga Ghetto was officially discontinued in 1943.  The living Jews who were able to work were transferred to nearby concentration camps, the largest of which were located in Rīga (the infamous Kaiserwald) and Dundaga.  In 1944 most of the remaining Jews were moved further inside the Reich, where some of them lived and survived the rest of the duration of the war.