A war crimes case revives memories of a notorious killing field outside the Latvian capital.
The forest enclave is circled by car dealerships and littered with old tires and scrap metal, so most passers-by would hardly recognize it as site of one of the worst single atrocities of the Nazi era.
In just two days, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, some 25,000 Jews were executed here in the Rumbula forest, located on the outskirts of Riga and just off a busy four-lane highway to Moscow.
But otherwise largely forgotten, the case of alleged Nazi war criminal Konrads Kalejs, a Latvian-born man living in Australia, has brought this former killing field into the focus of a criminal investigation and soul searching.
Kalejs, 87, is accused of serving in the Arajs Kommando, a Nazi-backed death squad. Historians say Arajs took part in the Rumbula massacres though prosecutors haven’t said whether they’ve yet found conclusive proof Kalejs was there.
Latvian prosecutors are seeking to try Kalejs based on evidence he served as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp at Salaspils, just a few kilometers from Rumbula.
If he is extradited from Australia and tried, he would be the first alleged Nazi to face a Latvian court on genocide charges since Latvia regained independence following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
During the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, 90 percent of Latvia’s 80,000 Jews a vibrant community before the war perished in various killings. But the Rumbula massacres have always stood out in their gruesome assembly line efficiency.
After the killings in Babi Yari, Ukraine, Rumbula was the worst Nazi massacre of 1941. Occurring early in the Holocaust, Rumbula was a prototype that helped the Nazis perfect their grisly art of killing as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time, and at minimal cost.
Later, German SS officers bragged that they had used just 25,000 bullets at Rumbula, a bullet per death, Latvian-American historian Andrew Ezergailis, the leading expert on Nazi atrocities in Latvia, said in his book, The Holocaust in Latvia.
German SS General Friedrich Jeckeln, who had already distinguished himself by organizing mass killings in Ukraine earlier in 1941, was dispatched later the same year to take charge of the liquidation of the Riga Jews. He was told he was being sent on Hitler’s direct orders.
After studying his options, he concluded that Rumbula made an ideal killing site: Its sandy soil near the banks of the Daugava River made digging graves easy. It was also close enough to march Jews from Riga, but far enough so shots which might have caused panic and hampered efficiency couldn’t be heard in the ghetto. And trees, Jeckeln figured, would also help muffle the gunfire, and the screams.
Margers Vestermanis, one of few survivors of the Riga ghetto where Jews were interned and now the 75-year-old director of Riga’s Jewish museum, was working as a Nazi slave laborer alongside Soviet war prisoners in mid-November when they warned him about pits they had dug at Rumbula.
The Soviets told him the sandy pits in the pretty pine-tree forest were mass graves meant for Jews.
Verstermanis didn’t believe them.
No, we told them, sincerely believing, They’re not for us. They’re for you!
That the Soviets were right became clear on Nov. 30, when Nazi troops and police, including Germans and some Latvians, swept into the Jewish ghetto, roused their victims awake and forced them onto the cold, cobblestone streets.
To lull the Jews into cooperating in their own death march, they were told the night before that they were simply being sent to a new camp nearby and to pack a 20-kilogram suitcase for the trip. Many people had spent the night frantically packing, repacking, then checking and double checking that their baggage didn’t exceed the weight limit.
After being corralled onto the ghetto streets at dawn, men, women carrying babies, small children, the handicapped and the elderly many half-sensing they were doomed, half-believing the lie about their transfer then began the 10-kilometer march through the ghetto’s barbed wire gates, not to any new internment camp, but to Rumbula.
The columns of people were moving on and on, sometimes at a half run, marching, trotting without end, Frida Michelson, one of just three known survivors of Rumbula, later recalled in her memoirs. There one, there another, would fall and people would walk right over them, constantly being urged on by the policemen, Faster! Faster! With their whips and rifle butts.
By design, the columns were long and carefully spaced out so that not all 12,000 victims would arrive at the killing field at once but only in groups of ten or 20 over the half-day period. Crowds, SS general Jeckeln understood, could riot and throw off the finely-tuned action.
After reaching the clearing at Rumbula, victims were herded down a funnel-shaped path. In the final grisly act of their lives, they had to hurriedly strip, stack their clothes, and then they were beaten and kicked through a gauntlet, one by one, to the pits. Some screamed or prayed. Others pleaded with guards in vain for their lives or at least the lives of their children to be spared.
Many of the 1,500 participating soldiers had been allotted a half-liter bottle of schnapps, and many were drunk. Drunkenness, the thinking seemed to be, would numb the conscience of any executioners inclined to hesitate. It made some soldiers all the more brutal.
Twelve German marksmen worked in shifts over three pits. To help conserve grave space, victims were forced to lay flat on the bodies, already oozing blood, of those just shot. After stacking themselves a technique the Nazis dubbed sardine packing the next victims were also shot in the back of the head.
Executioners used Russian automatics, which conveniently had 50-shell cartridges, but could fire a bullet at a time so riflemen didn’t have to waste time continuously reloading. The shooting went on for 12 hours, a thousand deaths an hour, 16 a minute.
Just as she was about to step into the mass grave herself, Frida Michelson, in a desperate and unlikely bid to stay alive, threw herself onto the ground and played dead. Miraculously, the guards didn’t notice her and soon clothes being discarded by other victims piled on top of her, concealing her.
After nightfall, she managed to crawl out from under the piles of pants, shirts and shoes and walk away from the killing ground. But before she could, she had to lay there for hours listening.
I could hear people crying bitterly, parting with each other, she wrote. As the sun set, the cries and moaning ceased, the shooting stopped. Then, from the direction of the trench, a child’s cry: ‘Mama! Mama! Mama! A few shots. Quiet. Killed.
The Nazis tried to keep news of the slaughter from leaking out from fear that, if they knew the truth, the next consignment of ghetto Jews would be that much more cumbersome to kill. Formal letters, complete with official letterhead and stamps, were even sent to Jews still living in the ghetto supposedly outlining the new work assignments of those who had actually been executed days before.
Still, rumors spread in the ghetto the following day about the murders.
Margers Vestermanis, again, refused to believe.
Who could believe you could kill 12,000 people in one day? He said. I just couldn’t.
A week later, on Dec. 8, his father, mother and sister were marched out to Rumbula and killed on a day he was again forced to work for the Nazis. The toll was the same as on Nov., 30: 12,000 dead.
When a reporter suggests that he was lucky to have escaped the slaughter, Vestermanis falls silent for a moment, then fumbles awkwardly with paper clips on his desk.
I was not lucky, he finally said, his voice quivering. Perhaps it would have been better if I’d gone with my family.
Latvian Sergejs Bojars, a watchman at a truck depot just meters from the killing field, says he walks through the site on his way to and from work every day.
His mother had told him about seeing Jews taken by her house near Rumbula and then finding out later they had been executed.
Especially at night when passing through the site, I can’t help thinking about what happened there, said the 51-year-old, clutching a guard dog by the collar. I can feel the spirits of the dead.
But he said Rumbula is best known among Latvians these days as the name of a popular auto and spare-parts market nearby.
Jewish groups complain that many Latvians are ignorant about the full extent of the horrors that took place in their country, albeit under iron-fisted, totalitarian rule by Berlin. Germans planned and ordered the killings, they say, but tens if not hundreds of Latvians, like Konrads Kalejs, also played key roles.
Germans eventually would have killed virtually all Latvian Jews anyway, said Vestermanis. But Latvian participation meant they could do it quicker.
But he said the delay in addressing the Nazi past is understandable, a consequence of 50 years of repressive Soviet rule, during which anti-semitic leaders in the Kremlin largely prohibited talk of Jewish suffering under the Nazis.
The few, modest memorials set up at Rumbula during the Soviet-era didn’t mention Jews at all and were covered with Communist insignia.
The official line was that it was Soviets who died in the killings, not Jews, explained Vestermanis. The idea of Jewish suffering was taboo.
Discussions about Latvia’s plight during the war wedged relentlessly between two hostile powers, Germany and Russia were also invariably laden with crude, Orwellian Soviet propaganda.
Stalinist repression after the war, including the deportation of over 50,000 Latvian men, women and children to Siberia, meant Latvians also understandably shifted focus to their own suffering, Vestermanis said.
Neither the opportunity nor the will to talk through the Nazi era was there until Latvia recently regained independence.
Western Europe has had 55 years to discuss the Holocaust openly and honestly, he said. Latvia has had barely ten years.
There are positive signs, said Vestermanis, speaking in his office not far from the former Riga ghetto which, with its tumble-down, wood-paneled houses, decrepit cobblestone streets and boarded-up 1930s apartments seems hauntingly unchanged from the Nazi era.
The Holocaust has been added to the national school curriculum, he explained, and Latvian-language books on the subject including Ezergailis, are now widely available. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has also taken the initiative in urging an honest, society-wide dialogue about the events.
Vestermanis said he didn’t accept the notion of guilt for anyone but those directly involved in the atrocities, and he decried Soviet efforts to portray Latvia as sympathetic to the German cause during World War II.
He added that he didn’t think the world attention surrounding the Kalejs case was constructive. It had raised sensitivities and was being politicized at home and abroad, he said.
There’s a time when you need to look straight into the eyes of the truth, but it can’t be forced, Vestermanis said. Latvia isn’t ready yet. But I believe the time when it will be is coming soon.