Two years ago I visited the Rumbula Forest, near Riga in Latvia, where nearly 28 thousand Jews were killed in just two days in November and December 1941, and where a heartbreaking memorial to them is hidden among the trees. Some of my own family, the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather and their children are buried in the mass graves marked out on the forest floor. Only three people survived the murder that took place here.
The visit was poignant and it was also infuriating. One reason it had taken so long to build anything here as a memorial is that the inscription on the memorial had become an issue when some Riga officials wanted language that would have obscured Latvian complicity. Eventually an agreed inscription meant the memorial could go ahead
HERE, ON NOVEMBER 30 AND DECEMBER 8 OF 1941 THE NAZIS AND THEIR LATVIAN COLLABORATORS SHOT TO DEATH MORE THAN 25,000 JEWS WHO WERE PRISONERS OF THE RIGA GHETTO – CHILDREN, WOMEN, ELDERLY MEN, AND APPROXIMATELY 1000 JEWS WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED FROM GERMANY. IN THE SUMMER OF 1944 HUNDREDS OF JEWISH MEN FROM THE “RIGA–KEISERWALD” CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE ALSO KILLED HERE.
And the memorial was finally dedicated on November 29, 2002, more than sixty years after the terrible events it bespoke.
Why so long after the event? Because it was supposed to be forgotten. There was no one who wanted to remember what had happened in Riga, and in many many other places just outside villages and towns in Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries. No one wanted to remember, no one wanted to think about it.
Our guide told us something else about why it took such a long time to build a memorial there – the story was not entirely forgotten, but the exact place in the forest had been lost. No one could admit to knowing where it might be. It took the efforts of an interested botanist, who found plants in a particular area of the forest that needed the kind of nutrition only a well blood-soaked soil could provide, to identify the place of the murder of so many innocent people. Once he had found it, the mass grave pits were identified.
Eyewitness accounts are horrific: On this particular day (30 November 1941), the air temperature in Riga was -7.5C at 7:00a.m. and 1.9 degree C at 9:00 RM. On the previous evening, 29 November 1941, there had been an average snowfall of seven centimetres. On 30 November between 7:00 A.M. and 9:00 p.m. it did not snow.
“The Mass Shootings outside Riga, 30 November and December 1941.
The actual site of execution lay about five miles outside Riga in the direction of Duenaburg [Daugavpils], between the highway and the railroad, both of which connect Riga and Duenaburg. The railroad tracks and the road there run a near-parallel course, with the railroad tracks running to the north of the road. The site lies in the vicinity of the railroad station at Rumbuli; its terrain is sandy and slightly hilly, sparsely wooded, and forms part of the Rumbuli Forest.
In the centre of this site was a densely forested area; this was the location of the actual execution site, with prepared pits designed to accommodate about thirty thousand bodies. The approaching columns of Jews coming from Riga along the highway between Riga and Duenaburg had to turn left from the highway onto a dirt track which led up to the small patch of woods. In the process they were funnelled into a narrow cordon, which was formed by SS units, a contingent of the Special Task Unit Riga, and Latvian units.
The columns of Jews advancing from Riga, comprising about one thousand persons each, were herded into the cordon, which was formed in such a way that it narrowed greatly as it continued into the woods, where the pits lay. The Jews first of all had to deposit their luggage before they entered the copse; permission to carry these articles had only been granted to give the Jews the impression that they were taking part in a resettlement. As they progressed, they had to deposit their valuables in wooden boxes, and, little by little, their clothing – first overcoats, then suits, dresses, and shoes, down to their under clothes, all placed in distinct piles according to the type of clothing.
Stripped down to their underclothes, the Jews had to move forward along the narrow path in a steady flow toward the pits, which they entered by a ramp, in single file and in groups often. Occasionally the flow would come to a standstill when someone tarried at one of the undressing points; or else, if the undressing went faster than expected, or if the columns advanced too quickly from the city, too many Jews would arrive at the pits at once. In such cases, the supervisors stepped in to ensure a steady and moderate flow, since it was feared that the Jews would grow edgy if they had to linger in the immediate vicinity of the pits….
In the pits the Jews had to lie flat, side by side, face down. They were killed with a single bullet in the neck, the marksmen standing at close range-at the smaller pits, on the perimeter; at the large pit, inside the pit itself-their semi-automatic pistols set for single fire. To make the best of available space, and particularly of the gaps between bodies, the victims next in line had to lie down on top of those who had been shot immediately before them. The handicapped, the aged, and the young were helped into the pits by the sturdier Jews, laid by them on top of the bodies, and then shot by marksmen who in the large pit actually stood on the dead. In this way the pits gradually filled.” (Gerald Fleming, pp78-79 in Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press 1984)
As I walked around the memorial, which includes stones on which are marked the streets from the ghetto that victims had come from, and stones with the names of some of the victims, I found the names of my grandfather’s cousins, and a stone inscribed with the name of the street in the ghetto which I had visited only an hour or so earlier and from which my great grandmother had emigrated in 1892 to escape a bad marriage and grinding poverty. I called over my sister and cousin and overcome with emotion we stood in silence thinking of those people, named and unnamed, who had died here so horribly, whose story had very nearly been hidden away so that their very existence would have been lost. And then we said the Kaddish prayer.
Looking at the stones inscribed with my maternal family name, it became clear that, while this had begun as a journey to find our roots and see for ourselves the “old country” our family had left, the experience in the forest was also a way of directly encountering what our own past would have been had my great grandmother taken a different route. Going to the forest to see for ourselves was initially part of the search for family, to honour those we had not known, to connect with a community which had once thrived and whose roots were entangled with ours. Yet it was also so much bigger an experience than connecting with a personal past.
We mourned for family we never knew who had died in that strange place in the forest, but this could not only be a personal ache as our visits to other family places had been – our grief and prayers encompassed everyone who had died in that place because of their Jewish heritage. And even this was not enough to say – the place of the industrial scale process of murder with its belated yet extraordinary memorial prompted us to pray for all victims of genocide. In fact I think it was the story of the large quiet forest and the botanist who identified this site through the nutrient rich soil, and the so-careful wording of the plaque, as well as the long period of time between the event and its public recognition that so powerfully drove us to understand something more about the dirty secrets of genocide wherever it occurs. It is always a dirty secret hiding in full public view, an enormity sitting in plain sight and this is one reason it is perpetuated.
In our siddur is a prayer written for specifically for Yom HaShoah. It includes the lines “we mourn for all that died with them, their goodness and their wisdom which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost. The world has become a poorer place and our hearts become cold as we think of the splendour that might have been.” (Rabbi Lionel Blue in Forms of Prayer pub Movement for Reform Judaism p388)
This visit might have been a profoundly family moment, a coming face to face with branches of my family tree that had been torn from life and from the future, and it was indeed that, but it was also a profoundly human moment – everyone in such a situation deserves our thoughts, our prayers, our determination never to let anyone have to be in this situation ever, ever again and to do that we have to tell the stories, we have to remember.
While visiting the memorial in the place in the forest so nearly lost forever, I thought of the Chasidic story about remembering:
“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.” Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction.
And I thought too of Simon Dubnow, the great historian and scholar murdered in the Riga ghetto, who is said to have said “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear.”
Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do that, and more, we remember all who have been persecuted for their religion, their politics, their sexuality, their ethnicity. We weep for them all. And more than that, we affirm our commitment to combating such persecutions, such demonising of the other, such monstering of other human beings that hides in plain sight in our own world, in our media and our social networks, in the communities where we live and in our wider human society.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. 27 January is the date, in 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.