Survivors meet on anniversary of the Rumbula massacre

  • 2011-11-30
  • By Emi Pastor

Dark past: People gather at the Rumbula Memorial to remember victims of the Holocaust.

RIGA - The Jewish community of Riga, and many others, gathered on Nov. 27 to remember the terrible events that happened in the forest of Rumbula in 1941, where about 25,000 people were murdered by the Nazis. This year marks the 70th anniversary of this massacre, which ended the lives of thousands of men, women, children and elderly during the German occupation of Latvia (1941-44).

In this act of tribute to the memories of the victims, representatives from several embassies, members of the Jewish Community in Riga and around 150 people who wanted to remember their relatives and friends buried in Rumbula, participated. The ceremony was led by deputy chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, Benjamin Kajem.

Kajem read to the attendees a message sent by the president of Latvia, Andris Berzins. This message, from the highest representative of the country, expressed that the murder of Jews was one of the most horrible crimes in Latvia during the Nazi occupation.

Afterwards, further speeches continued with the words of the ambassador of the State of Israel in Latvia and Lithuania, Hagit Ben Yaakov. Ben Yaakov said to the public in English that “seventy years have passed since the terrible events that took place in Rumbula at the end of November and beginning of December 1941.” According to her, “The best projects that happened in Rumbula are still the living memories of the few survivors, although for the family members of the victims, and extending for us this [the Rumbula memorial] is a symbol of the horrible violence that the Jewish population in Latvia and in neighboring countries suffered when Germany invaded in 1941.” In her speech, the Israeli ambassador highlighted that “The Jews were violated, tortured and murdered in the Old Town and in other villages across Latvia.”

“The lives and heritage of these victims, we will always remember,” said Ben Yaakov, adding that “gathering here today, like every year, it is the least we can do to be sure no one forgets what happened here to thousands of people.”
After the speech by Ben Yaakov, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Germany in Latvia, Henning Simon, spoke in German.

One of the most emotive moments of the meeting was when ex-prisoner of the Riga Ghetto and founder of the museum Jews in Latvia, Margers Vestermanis, narrated his testimony to the audience. Vestermanis said in Latvian how the murders in Rumbula occurred, and he attempted to analyze what the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust means to the modern world.

After this was the speech of Caryn McClelland, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Latvia. The tribute finished and the attendees placed flowers at the Holocaust Memorial in the Rumbula Forest under a cloudy sky and a light rain.

The Rumbula Memorial is 12 kilometers from the center of Riga and became the biggest mass murder gravesite of the country. Around 25,000 Jews from the Riga Ghetto and 1,000 Jews from Germany, perished there on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941.The victims of the Nazi cruelty were shot in the forest in two waves with the help of some enforcement authorities of Latvia.

The Rumbula massacre was one of the biggest atrocities committed by Nazis soldiers until the operation of the death camps, and was only the second one after the massacre in Baby Yar, in Ukraine, where the Nazis carried out atrocities against more than 33,000 Ukrainian Jews in just a few days. Victims who died on the way to, and in the Rumbula forest, were Latvian Jews from the Riga Ghetto and Jews transported from Germany to Latvia by train. 

These murders were carried out by the Nazi Einstzgruppe, one of the five sub-groups of the Nazi German Einsatzkommandos, composed of functionaries of the SS and Gestapo, and which can be translated as ‘Special Task Groups.’ In addition, the Nazis received help and support of the Arajs Kommando and other such Latvian auxiliaries. This crime, known as the Rumbula massacre, or Rumbula action, took place on a hill, close to a small railroad station in the lush pine forest of Rumbula.  

Before this terrifying genocide occurred, the Riga Ghetto was created in the capital of Latvia in the second half of 1941. At that time, all of the Jewish residents in the city were forced into these quarters, while the non-Jewish population residing there was relocated. On Oct. 25 the gates of the ghetto were closed and the perimeter was guarded and the inhabitants of the quarters were then completely isolated from the rest of the Riga residents.

There were over 5,500 children, 8,000 elderly people, 9,500 women, and 6,000 men imprisoned in the ghetto, totaling about 30,000. At the end of November a selection was carried out, during which 4,500 prisoners capable of working, mostly young men, were put into the so-called “Small Ghetto.” They were separated from their families upon the orders of the Nazis, who required the able-bodied men. Some of them were able to escape the two massacres in Rumbula forest, but they were killed by the Nazis in a third massacre on Dec. 9.