The Holocaust In Latvia
Jews were a major part of life in many Latvian cities during the interwar years, though their population had long since declined from its peak before World War I. By the eve of the Soviet invasion there were no more than 100,000 Jews in Latvia. They were relatively integrated – not as assimilated as the Jews in Germany, but more than the Jews in Poland. Close to half of all the Jews lived in Riga, where they made up 11% of the population. Other major cities with Jewish populations were Daugavpils with 11,106 (25%), and Liepāja with 7,379 (13%.) The Jews had a variety of professions, but most did not work in government nor agriculture. The Jews were an urban people in Latvia and they had a lot of success with careers as merchants, lawyers, and doctors.
Family sits for dinner at a pre-war Passover; Riga, Latvia.
During the Soviet occupation of Latvia there was a lot of turmoil for all the peoples living there. The Soviets had taken control of Latvia by August of 1940 and they remained in power there until the following June. The pattern was typical of most baltic countries and the fallout after the Nazis launched their war against the Soviet Union, was just as brutal. Jews were more visible in public positions after the Soviet takeover, and that was only seen as evidence of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. The Soviet authorities, having gained control over Latvia, immediately imposed a regime of terror. Hundreds of men were arrested, including many leaders of the Republic of Latvia. Tribunals were set up to punish “traitors to the people.” A number of Latvians who managed to avoid deportations decided to hide in the forests, where anti-Soviet units were organized. When Nazi Germany attacked Soviet Union, those rebels immediately went into action by attacking the Jews.
The very first murders that occurred took place on 23 June, 1941, just one day after the Germans had invaded, in a town called Grobina. The first mass killings occurred on 1 July, 1941, and they started in Riga with the burning of the synagogues. This would commence the first of three stages of the Holocaust in Latvia.
The first stage saw mass violence against Jews, forced ghettoization, and over 30,000 Jews were killed. Major city centers of Daugavpils, Riga, and Liepaja were all subjected to murders and subsequent ghettoization.
The second phase was from November to December 1941, during which time the ghettos were liquidated. In Daugavpils, more than 11,000 Jews were murdered. It was during this second stage that the Rumbula Forest massacre took place. The Nazis, with the help of the Latvian police, took 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto to the forests around the city, where they systematically executed them. The Bikernicki forests were also a site where war crimes occurred.
The final stage took place from January to July 1942, when nearly all of the deportees in Latvia from other countries were murdered in and around the city of Riga.
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.