International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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.

From Wikipedia

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.

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Kristallnacht. November 9th – 10th 1938

The November Pogrom in Baden-Baden.’

 The events of 10.11.1938 in Baden-Baden were described by Arthur Flehinger, a teacher at the Hohenbaden Gymnasium, who subsequently came to Bradford, Yorkshire,  in a report he wrote in 1955: (In Stadtarchiv Baden-Baden 05-02/015). Translated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild.Image

“Until the infamous 10th November 1938 Baden-Baden remained largely sheltered from the worst excesses of the Nazis. This was not because anyone wanted to grant the Jews of the Spa town any especial privileges, but from purely egoistic reasons, because the Spa had strong international connections which had to be maintained; It was, as one said, Germany’s Visiting Card. Any major disruption of the inner peace would have had as an effect a reduction in the number of visitors from abroad and therefore a reduction in foreign currency takings, and the Nazis needed money and more money. Of course all the Nazi Orders (fingerprinting, Jewish forenames etc.) were imposed just as strongly as elsewhere. However, the foreign tourists would not notice any of this. But whereas foreign newspapers were as good as invisible in other cities, in Baden-Baden one could read ‘The Times’ almost until the end, and it was a particular irony of fate that only one day after the Order regarding Jewish forenames was promulgated that the ‘Times’ published an article stating that ‘Sara’ meant something like ‘Duchess’ and that ‘Israel’ meant ‘one who argues with God.’

From Summer 1937 onwards it was noticeable that a different wind was blowing also in Baden-Baden, and that the Nazi poison was eating its way also into the otherwise relatively calm town. The lawn behind the Kurhaus offices was prohibited to Jews. The owner of the formerly famous hotel Holländischer Hof decorated the entrance to his restaurant with the conspicuous lettering “Dogs and Jews Forbidden.’ In the Jewish shops, insofar as these still existed, the Party Members were ever-more ruder and saw it as their responsibility to report to the Party anyone who still had the courage to enter a Jewish business…..

The 10th. November ended any remaining hesitations and illusions of calm, and Baden-Baden also experienced its Nazi ‘Razzia’.

At 7 in the morning a Policeman appeared at our house in the Prinz-Weimar-Strasse 10 and ordered me to accompany him to the Police Station. Since I had been teaching at the Baden-Baden Gymnasium for many years I was known by both young and old and I observed the policeman‘s own embarrassment. It seemed pointless however to enter into any discussion with him and so I walked along with him… maintaining my calm appearance. In the town at this hour it was of course still quiet. If one saw anyone else in the street, it was another victim under police escort. The number of poor enforced early-risers grew, the closer we were to the Police Station. Although in normal times the Season at Baden-Baden would be over in November, there were still some Jews staying in those hotels which were still avaailable to them. Others had settled here since 1933, since this town seemed like an Eldorado compared to the places they had lived in until then.

In front of the Police Station the infamous Supervisor had posted himself like a sort of Gessler and demanded that everyone who passed him had to take off their hat. It would have been pure madness to refuse. About fifty victims were already gathered at the Police Station and more came continuously to join us. The Police were all in their Gala uniforms. It was a Day of Triumph of the Strong over the Weak, and at the same time a dramatisation of Lafontaine’s fable ‘The Wolf and the Lamb.’ Everything was carefully minuted, with German accuracy and efficiency.

Around 10am we were led into the courtyard and here had to assemble ourselves in rows. The fuss with which the vermin of the Third Reich ran around indicated some special sort of Aktion was under way. Around midday the gate was opened, and the column of defenceless men marched off, heavily guarded right and left, and forced to process through the streets of the town. It seemed they had waited until midday to be sure of a crowd of observers. But to the honour of the Baden-Badeners let it be said that the majority of them refused to let themselves be seen on the street. What those who were observing could see, was mere humiliation. There were three teachers who were not ashamed to be seen on the street. One of them, Herr Dr. Mampell, merely let the column pass by him; Whereas another, the Director of the Volkschule, Herr Hugo Müller and his friend Herr Schmidt had gathered a number of young pupils, so that they could call out ‘Juda Verrecke!’ Whether this demonstration really cheered up the spectators is something I strongly doubt. I saw people who were weeping behind their curtains. One of the decent Baden-Badeners is reported to have said: ‘What I saw was not a Christ figure, but a whole column of Christ figures; With heads raised, and not bowed down by any sense of guilt did they march….’

The column neared the Synagogue, where the upper steps of the staircase outside were already filled with a mixed crowd with and without uniform. That was a real running the gauntlet; One had to pass by the mob, and they made sure to howl insults as the sorry procession passed. I myself looked people directly in the eye all the way along the procession and as we reached the top steps someone called down, “Don’t look so cheeky, Professor.’ That was actually less an insult as more a confession of their own weakness and fear.

In Dachau also later I observed that the officials couldn’t stand being stared right through. The mob was less merciful with my friend Dr. Hauser – he was a busy and much-respected lawyer in Baden-Baden, later on he and his wife were taken to Southern France, then to Celle and from there to the death chambers in Auschwitz. The poor fellow got many punches from those who claimed the right to use their fists, and I saw the pitiful chap later fallen onto a tallit that the Nazis had spread out on the floor, so that we had to walk over it.

In the synagogue everything had been turned upside down. The holy floor of the architecturally-so-beautiful Temple had been defiled by vile hands. The House of God had been turned into a playground for black, uniformed hordes. I saw how people were busy upstairs in the Women’s Gallery running to and fro…. These were not Baden-Badener. For the 10th. November the authorities had brought in SS men from neighbouring towns, that is people who were not restricted by even a faint spark of humanity and were therefore in a position to carry out their vile work without any sense of disturbance…..

Suddenly a rude, fat voice called out ‘You will now sing the Horst Wessel Lied’. It was sung in a way that anyone could have expected, and so we had to ‘sing’ it again a second time. So for a second time we had to struggle through their ‘National Hymn’. Then I was called to go up to the Almemor and I was given a passage from ‘Mein Kampf’ to read. In the circumstances a refusal would have only endangered my life and that of my fellow sufferers. So I said, ‘I have received the order to read the following’, and I read quietly enough. Indeed, so quietly that the SS man standing behind me gave me several blows to my neck. Those who, after me, also had to read samples of this fine literary cookbook of the Nazis suffered similarly. Then there was a pause. We were in no way allowed to use the toilets, but had to do what we had to do in the courtyard, with our faces to the wall of the synagogue, and in the meantime received kicks from behind.

From the synagogue we then had to go to the Hotel Central opposite. The hotel owner, Herr Lieblich, who had of course not been warned in advance of the pleasant programme for the day, had suddenly to conjure up food for about 70 people. He managed to achieve this in a masterful fashion. That we managed to get anything at all to swallow down was really a miracle….

There was then a great mystery concerning our future destiny. No-one seemed to know what they planned to do with us. We were fully cut off from the outside world. Our anything-but-quiet discussions were then broken by the Cantor of the community, Herr Grünfeld, who entered the room as white as a corpse and with a bleeding heart said, ‘Our beautiful House of God is in flames.’ The most brutal of the Hitler band then commented on Herr Grünfeld’s tragic news, by adding in a frivolous manner the sentence ‘’And when I had anything to do with it, you would all be there in the flames too.’

The high point of the tragedy had been reached. The hope of being able to see our families again that evening was now replaced by a strong pessimism. When at last those over 60 years old were sent to their homes, we were as good as certain that a sad fate awaited us. There was then a sort of inspection by a high-ranking SS officer, who attempted to add some sort of motivation to the whole event. Also Herr Medizinalrat Dr. Walter, a well-known and active member of the Party, appeared that evening in order to give at least an appearance of humane treatment to those who were to be excluded on health grounds. In reality the files on the fifty or so remaining had already been closed. The bus waited in front of the door, and with it a whole crowd of ‘angry’ citizens. The deportation to Dachau had been already long-planned, only we poor victims didn’t know it. We had to run out to the bus, and whoever didn’t run enough received a firm reminder…. At the station we waited for a special train from the Freiburg district. It brought the Jews from the Upper Baden region. In each compartment sat a guard. Not a single word came from his mouth. As the train turned after Karlsruhe in the direction of Stuttgart, one heard only the horrible word ‘Dachau’.