Destination of the Deportations: Riga
From November 1941 to the winter of 1942, a total of 25,000 Jews from the Third Reich were deported to Riga, including 4200 from Austria. Why were they brought to the Latvian capital? A definitive answer can not be given here. In September 1941 Hitler gave his permission for the deportation of the German Jews. Although the expulsion of Jews from the German Reich had long been the goal of the National Socialist leadership, at this point there was no plan how this should be accomplished. The destination of the first transports was Łódź in occupied Poland. However, its Ghetto was already more than over-crowded and the city administration refused to accept another 60,000 Jews. The number had to be reduced to 20,000. Therefore, Heydrich and Himmler had to find other destinations for the deportations. Their decision fell for Minsk and Riga.
At this time, Riga did not have the capacity to accommodate such a large number of people, although Dr. Ing. Franz Walter Stahlecker, commander of Einsatzgruppe A, their accommodation assured. Then, Friedrich Jeckeln, SS and Police Leader of Ostland, ordered the evacuation of the Riga Ghetto. More than 25,000 Latvian Jews were shot in the Rumbula forest on two non-consecutive days in the Winter of 1941. The passengers of a train from Berlin, which arrived in Riga too early, were shot in the forest too.
In Berlin Adolf Eichmann created the organizational prerequisites for the deportations. The Eichmann Department drafted guidelines for the technical implementation of the “evacuation” of Jews. The local Gestapo was responsible for “the concentration and personal registration of the group of persons to be evacuated, the deportation with a special German Reichsbahn train and for dealing with legal matters related to assets”.
For the transport Jews had to take 50 Reichsmark with them. For those who could not scare up the sum, the Reich association of Jews in Germany had to advance the money. The passengers were allowed to bring a suitcase with a weight of up to 50 kilograms. They should bring full clothing, proper shoes and bedding. It was asked to bring household items such as dishes, sewing machines or tools. These instructions should lead the affected persons to believe they will work to build-up the annexed territories. The deportees never saw their luggage again.
Likewise, the persons destined for deportation had to record in a questionnaire their entire fortune, which was seized by the German Reich. The robbery of fortune was completed with the Eleventh Decree on the Reich Citizenship Law of November 25, 1941. Jews lost their citizenship, so that the state could seize their property completely. The waiting deportees had to sign the loss of their citizenship themselves.
Each transport train has its own story, but there were two problems in all transports. On the one hand there was a lack of water and on the other hand it was freezing cold. Often the weak heating was completely off, which led to frost damages to the limbs of many passengers.
The Arrival in Riga
At the train station Skirotava, the deportees were expected by their future tormentors. The freezing and thirsty people were brought out of the carriages in a demeaning and violent way. Already during the formation of the march columns the first people were shot. In ice-cold, humid weather, the crowds had to walk from the station to the ghetto. Children, the elderly and the weak, who could not cope with this several kilometer long walk on icy roads, were offered places in busses. The busses did not arrive at the ghetto, they took the passengers to their execution sites.
When the marching people arrived at the ghetto, they were shocked and horrified. The bloody traces of the violent eviction of the ghetto prisoners were still visible everywhere. Staircases were devastated, frozen scraps of food lay on the tables and the apartments were plundered.
The Camps “Jungfernhof” and “Salaspils”
The first four transports with a total of 3984 persons were destined for the camp Riga-Jungfernhof. The deportees had to live in desolate barns and cowsheds. An estimated 800 inmates died of frostbite, malnutrition or rapidly spreading diseases during the winter months. In addition to the catastrophic living conditions, the inmates suffered the unpredictability of camp commandant Rudolf Seck and the arbitrary riots of the Latvian security guards.
Salaspils was the second camp into which the Jewish population from the territory of the Reich was deported. Young men from the deported were forced to build the camp. The first arrivals found a half-finished barrack with a leaky roof and missing windows on a snow-covered meadow. Iciness, inadequate nutrition and lack of hygiene combined with extremely harsh working conditions led to a high mortality rate. Probably more than 1000 prisoners perished in the construction of the camp. The few survivors were transferred to the ghetto in the summer of 1942. Afterwards, Salaspils was used as a detention camp for Latvians, Russians and other Undesirables.
Forced Labour, Daily Terror and the Life in the Ghetto
The commandant of the Ghetto Kurt Krause established a Jewish self-administration. Each transport had to select an elder. Chaired by Max Leiser, this council announced decrees for the ghetto residents. There was also a Jewish camp police, which had to enforce the night curfew, the order in the ghetto or guard objects, among other things. Despite their uniforms, they were clearly subordinate to the Latvian guards. Diseases were a prevalence in the ghetto. So there were so-called “hospitals”, which were, however, in no way sufficiently equipped.
From the deportees imprisoned in the Ghetto and the Jungfernhof Concentration Camp, the old and the ones deemed unfit to work were recorded on lists in the spring of 1942. Allegedly, they were supposed to do lighter work with sufficient food rations in a canning factory in Dünamünde. When they were transported from Riga, some of them hid; others asked to be taken to Dünamünde. They were taken by bus to the forest of Bikernieki. There they were shot by Latvian auxiliaries under the direction of the German security police and buried in mass graves. An estimated 5,000 people were killed.
The survival of people who were not victims of mass shootings depended primarily on the maintenance of good health. This depended mostly on the “quality” of the work command. Due to the labor shortage, Jews were employed in all imaginable jobs. The cleaning of apartments, crafts in various workshops or woodwork are just a few examples. Altogether there were over 600 jobs. Jobs differed not only in the severity of work requirements, but above all in the treatment at the workplace. For ghetto residents, possession of money was punishable by death. They were not paid any wages. Firms working with ghetto residents had to pay the puny hourly wages to the district commissioner.
In some workplaces there was the possibility to trade goods. Although the trading of goods was punishable by death, the so-called “meals” were simply not enough to survive. If you did not want to starve, you risked smuggling butter, bread and clothes under the stern eyes of the guards. When a Ghetto guard caught someone, they were beaten and sent to the sadistic Ghetto commander Kurt Krause. He sentenced men to death by hanging and women were shot by himself, often in the presence of their children.
Despite the terrible and unsafe atmosphere, a certain “normality” in the ghetto was established after the selections. There were school lessons, theater performances or even dance performances. Some Ghetto inmates could also find strength in religious life.
Concentration Camp “Kaiserwald”
Himmler decided on March 15, 1943 to build a concentration camp in Riga. This led to the phased dissolution of the Riga ghetto. Those who survived the first years had to leave the ghetto until November 1943 and were interned in the concentration camp of Kaiserwald or an associated sub-camp. Over 2,000 ghetto inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz.
The conditions in the concentration camp Kaiserwald were significantly worse than in the ghetto before. There was a strict separation of men and women, hours of roll calls and hard work were the order of the day and the despotism of the sadistic Kapos and the SS had to be endured every day. In the camps there were selections at irregular intervals. Eduard Krebsbach sent persons which seemed unfit to work to death. The most cruel day was April 28, 1944, when all children were executed. With the approach of the front in 1944, the selections intensified.
The Final Period of the War
The SS has been using Jews for so-called “Himmelfahrtskommandos” for a long time. Their task was to destroy the traces of the murderers by excavating and burning the corpses from the mass graves. After work, they were also shot.
The remaining Jewish prisoners in the Baltic region should under no circumstances be discovered by the approaching Soviet army, so they were deported to the nearest concentration camp, Stutthof near Danzig. Since this camp was already more than crowded, many prisoners were also deported to concentration camps in the territory of the Reich such as Dachau or Neuengamme.
When the front approached the camps were evacuated. The prisoners had to march through the streets in blocks of up to 1,000. The mortality rate during these death marches was very high. Of the approximately 25,000 Jews who were deported from the Greater German Reich to Riga, only 1,000 survived.
Statistics of the Transports
The following statistic stems from Wolfgang Scheffler und Diana Schulle, Book of Remembrance. The German, Austrian and Czecho-Slovakian Jews deported to the Baltic States, Munich: De Gruyter, 2003:
|Place of Departure
|Date of Arrival
|All were killed in forest of Rumbula after arrival
|Detained in camp Jungfernhof
|Detained in camp Jungfernhof
|Detained in camp Jungfernhof
|Detained in camp Jungfernhof
|Münster – Osnabrück – Bielefeld
|Leipzig – Dresden
|Gelsenkirchen – Dortmund
|Berlin – Insterburg
|All were killed after arrival except 80 men
|All were killed after arrival except 81 men
|All were killed after arrival
|Less than 4% survived