The Holocaust in Latvia

The Holocaust in Latvia

Exhibit presented at the Wannsee (Holocaust planning) Conference on January 20, 1942, showing only 3,500 Jews left alive in Latvia of about 60,000 in the country at the time of the Nazi takeover.
Also known as Churbns Lettlands
Location Latvia
Date 22 June 1941 to late 1944
Incident type Imprisonment, mass shootings, concentration camps, ghettos, forced labor, starvation, mass kidnapping,
Perpetrators Rudolf Lange, Friedrich Jeckeln, Franz Walter Stahlecker, Viktors Arājs and others
Organizations Einsatzgruppen, Ordnungspolizei, Wehrmacht, Arajs Kommando, Latvian Auxiliary Police, Kriegsmarine, and others.
Victims About 66,000 Latvian Jews, 19,000 German, Austrian and Czech Jews, unknown numbers of Lithuanian and Hungarian Jews; unknown but substantial number of Gypsies, Communists, and mentally-disabled persons; unknown number of non-Jewish Latvians shot or imprisoned in reprisals and so-called "anti-partisan" activities
Memorials At various points in country, including multiple locations in the Riga area

The Holocaust in Latvia refers to the war crimes of Nazis and Nazi collaborators victimizing Jews during the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany.

German occupation

Holocaust in Reichskommissariat Ostland (which included Latvia): a map
Fire damage in Daugavpils, July 1941

The German army crossed the Soviet frontier early in the morning on Sunday, 22 June 1941, on a broad front from the Baltic Sea to Hungary. The German army advanced quickly through Lithuania towards Daugavpils and other strategic points in Latvia. The Nazi police state included an organisation called the Security Service (German: Sicherheitsdienst), generally referred to as the SD, and its headquarters in Berlin was known as the National (or Reich) Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), known by its initial RSHA.[1]

The SD in Latvia

In advance of the invasion, the SD had organised four "Special Assignment Units", which have become known in history by their German name of Einsatzgruppen. The name of these units was a euphemism, as their real purpose was to kill large numbers of people whom the Nazis regarded as "undesirable". These included Communists, Gypsies, the mentally ill, and especially, Jews. The Einsatzgruppen followed closely behind the German invasion forces, and established a presence in Latvia within days, and sometimes hours, of the occupation of a given area of the country by the German Wehrmacht.[1]

The SD in Latvia can be distinguished in photographs and descriptions by their uniforms. The full black of the Nazi SS was seldom worn, instead the usual attire was the grey Wehrmacht uniform with black accents.[1] They wore the SD patch on the left sleeve, a yellowish shirt, and the Death's Head (Totenkopf) symbol on their caps. The SD ranks were identical to the SS. The SD did not wear the SS lightning rune symbol on their right collar tabs, but replaced it with either the Totenkopf or the letters "SD".[1]

The SD first established its power in Latvia through Einsatzgruppe A, which was subdivided into units called Einsatzkommandos 1a, 1b, 2 and 3.[1] As the front line moved further east, Einsatzgruppe A moved out of Latvia, remaining in the country only a few weeks, after which its functions were taken over by the "resident" SD, under the authority of the Kommandant der Sicherheitspolizei un SD, generally referred to by the German initials of KdS. The KdS took orders both from RSHA in Berlin and from another official called the Befehlshaber (commander) der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, or BdS. Both the KdS and the BdS were subordinate to another official called the Ranking (or Higher) SS and Police Commander (Höherer SS-und Polizeiführer), or HPSSF.[1] The lines of authority were overlapping and ambiguous.[2] The eastern part of Latvia, including Daugavpils and the Latgale region, was assigned to Einsatzkommandos 1b (EK 1b) and 3 (EK 3).[1] EK 1b had about 50 to 60 men and was commanded by Erich Ehrlinger.[1]

Murders commence with Nazi invasion

Members of a Latvian self-defence unit assemble a group of Jewish women for execution on a beach near Liepāja, 15 December 1941.

In Latvia, the Holocaust started on the night of 23 to 24 June 1941, when in the Grobiņa cemetery SD murderers killed six local Jews, including the town chemist.[3] On the following days 35 Jews were exterminated in Durbe, Priekule and Asīte. On June 29 the Nazi invaders started forming the first Latvian SD auxiliary unit in Jelgava. Mārtiņš Vagulāns, member of the Pērkonkrusts organisation, was chosen to head it. In the summer of 1941, 300 men in the unit took part in the extermination of about 2000 Jews in Jelgava and other places in Zemgale.[4] The killing was supervised by the officers of the German SD Rudolf Batz and Alfred Becu, who involved the SS people of the Einsatzgruppe in the action. The main Jelgava Synagogue was burnt down through their joint effort. After the invasion of Riga, Walter Stahlecker, assisted by the members of Pērkonkrusts and other local collaborationists, organised the pogrom of Jews in the capital of Latvia. Viktors Arājs, aged 31 at the time, possible former member of Pērkonkrusts and a member of a student fraternity, was appointed direct executor of the action. He was an idle eternal student who was supported by his wife, a rich shop owner, who was ten years older than he was. Arājs had worked in the Latvian Police for a certain period of time.[5] He stood out with his power-hungry and extreme thinking. The man was well fed, well dressed, and "with his student's hat proudly cocked on one ear".

Arājs commando formed

Main article: Arajs Kommando

On 2 July Viktors Arājs started to form his armed unit of men who were responding to the appeal of Pērkonkrusts to take arms and to clear Latvia of Jews and communists. In the beginning the unit mainly included members of different student fraternities. In 1941 altogether about 300 men had applied. The closest assistants of Viktors Arājs included Konstantīns Kaķis, Alfrēds Dikmanis, Boris Kinsler and Herberts Cukurs.[6] On the night of July 3, Arājs Kommando started arresting, beating and robbing the Riga Jews. On 4 July, the choral synagogue at Gogoļa Street was burnt, and thereafter, the synagogues at Maskavas and Stabu Streets. Many Jews were killed during those days, including the refugees from Lithuania. In carts and blue buses the murderers of Arājs Commando went to different places in Courland, Zemgale and Vidzeme, killing thousands of Jews there.

"Two Worlds": An anti-communist and anti-semitic propaganda board, Latvia, Summer, 1941.

These killings were supposed to serve as an example to other anti-Semitic supporters of the Nazi invaders. Individual Latvian Selbstschutz units were also involved in the extermination of Jews.[7] In the district of Ilūkste, for instance, Jews were killed by the Selbstschutz death unit of commander Oskars Baltmanis, which consisted of 20 cold-blooded murderers. All killings were supervised by the officers of the German SS and SD. In July 1941 the mass killing of Riga Jews took place in the Biķernieku Forest. About 4,000 people died there. The executions were headed by Sturmbannführers (majors) H. Barth, R. Batz, and the newly appointed chief of the Riga SD Rudolf Lange.

Members of Latvian Auxiliary Police assemble a group of Jews, Liepāja, July, 1941.


As stated by the Latvian historian Andrievs Ezergailis, this was the beginning of "the greatest criminal act in the history of Latvia". From July 1941 the Jews of Latvia were also humiliated in different ways and deprived of the rights that were enjoyed by the other citizens of Latvia. Jews were strictly forbidden to leave their homes in the evening, at night and in the morning. They were allotted lower food rations, they could only shop in some special stores, and they had to wear the mark of recognition – the yellow Star of David on their clothes. It was forbidden for them to attend places where public events took place, including cinemas, athletic fields and parks.[8] They were not allowed to use trains and trams, to go to bath-houses, use pavements, attend libraries and museums or to go to schools, and they had to hand over bicycles and radios. Jewish doctors were only allowed to advise and treat Jews, and they were forbidden to run pharmacies.[9][10] Maximum norms for furniture, clothes and linen were also soon introduced for Jews. All articles above the norm were subject to confiscation for the needs of the Reich. All jewelry, securities, gold and silver coins had to be surrendered on demand. Anti-Semitism thus became the source of enrichment of Nazi officials and their local collaborators who confiscated Jewish property. The extermination of Jews suited the purposes of these Nazis, since nobody would remain alive to demand the return of stolen items.[11]


Main article: Liepāja massacres

In Liepāja the first mass killing of Jews took place on July 3 and 4, when about 400 people were shot dead, and on July 8 when 300 Jews were killed. The German group of SD and policemen did the shooting, while the members of Latvian Selbstschutz convoyed victims to the killing site.[12] On July 13 the destroying of the large choral synagogue of Liepāja began. The rolls of the Scripture were spread on the Ugunsdzēsēju Square, and the Jews were forced to march across their sacred things, with watchers merrily laughing at the amusing scene. The above operations took place under the direct leadership of Erhard Grauel, commander of the Einsatzgruppe's Sonderkommando.


Thereafter Grauel went to Ventspils. The killings were jointly carried out by German Ordnungspolizei and the men of the local Selbstschutz. On July 16-July 18, 300 people were shot dead in the Kaziņu Forest. In July–August the remaining 700 Jews of the town were shot dead, while the Jews of the region were killed in the autumn. The shooting was carried out by German, Latvian and Estonian SD men who had arrived by ship. Soon a poster appeared on the Kuldīga-Ventspils highway, which said that Ventspils was Judenfrei (free of Jews).


Main article: Daugavpils ghetto

In Daugavpils the extermination of Jews was initially commanded by Erich Ehrlinger, chief of Einsatzkommando 1b.[13] By July 11 they had killed about 1150 people. Ehrlinger's work was continued by Joachim Hamann, who was liable for the killing of 9012 Jews in the city and in southern Latgale. The chief of the local auxiliary police Roberts Blūzmanis had rendered active assistance by ensuring the moving of the Jews to the Grīva ghetto and transporting them to the killing places.


In Rēzekne killings were carried out by a German SD group, which was helped by Selbstschutz men and Arājs murderers. About 2,500 people were exterminated. By October 1941, altogether about 35,000 Latvian Jews were killed.


Riga Ghetto

Main article: Riga Ghetto
The Jews with Yellow badges, Riga, 1942.
Riga ghetto, 1942
Jewish prisoners in Salaspils concentration camp
An Anti-partisan operation, March 1943.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:

On July 27, 1941, State Commissar (Reichskommissar) Hinrich Lohse (earlier Gauleiter of Schleswig-Holstein), ruler of the Baltic lands and Belarus or Ostland as the territory was called by the invaders – made his guidelines on Jewish question public. Jews, in his opinion, had to be used as a cheap labour force by paying them minimum wages or by providing them with a minimum food ration – with whatever may be left over after supplying the indigenous Aryan population. In order to govern the Jews they had to be moved to special areas where ghettos would be arranged and they would be forbidden to leave the area. Walter Stahlecker protested against the idea of Hinrich Lohse and demanded that the extermination of the Jews be continued. Berlin, however, passed the power to the civil administration of occupation force and it did things its own way. The area of the Latgale suburbs in Riga was chosen for the Riga Ghetto.[14][15] It was mainly inhabited by poor people: Jews, Russians and Belarusians. The ghetto bordered on Maskavas, Vitebskas, Ebreju (Jewish), Līksnas, Lauvas, Lazdonas, Lielā Kalnu, Katoļu, Jēkabpils and Lāčplēša Streets. About 7000 non-Jews were moved from there to other flats in Riga. More than 23,000 Riga Jews were ordered to move to the territory of the ghetto. There now were more than 29,000 inmates in the ghetto, including those who had already previously resided there. The Jewish Council was formed within the ghetto, which was assigned the task of regulating social life. The Jewish police force for the maintenance of order formed there. It consisted of 80 men armed with sticks and rubber truncheons. The ghetto was enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Wooden barriers (logs) were placed on the main streets at the entrance, and the Latvian police were stationed as guards there. Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto only in work columns and in the accompaniment of guards. Individual Jewish specialists could come and go by displaying a special yellow ID. Leaving independently was severely punished.[16]

In the ghetto the Jews were very crowded: 3-4 square metres were allotted per person. There was also great poverty, as food rations were given only to those who worked, i.e. to about a half of the ghetto inmates. They had to maintain their 5,652 children and 8,300 elderly and disabled people. The ghetto only had 16 groceries, a pharmacy and a laundry, and a hospital was arranged, which was headed by Professor Vladimir Mintz, a surgeon. The Council of the ghetto was situated in the former Jewish school building at 141 Lāčplēša Street. The historian Marģers Vestermanis writes: "The members of the Jewish Council, including the lawyers D. Elyashev, M. Mintz and Iliya Yevelson, and their volunteer assistants did all they could to somehow relieve general suffering." [17] Jewish policemen, too, tried to somehow protect their fellowmen. The inmates strived to preserve themselves, and there was even an illusion of survival. A resistance group was formed that bought weapons.[18]

Daugavpils ghetto

Main article: Daugavpils Ghetto

The Daugavpils Ghetto was set up in Grīva at the end of July, 1941, when all surviving Jews in the city were moved there. Jews from other towns and villages of Latgale and even Vidzeme were also brought there. Altogether the ghetto had about 15,000 prisoners. The engineer Misha Movshenson ran the Council of the ghetto. His father had headed the city of Daugavpils in 1918 during the previous period of German occupation.[13]

Gypsy Holocaust in Latvia

Main article: Porajmos

Less is known about the Holocaust of the Romani people (called "Gypsy" in English and Ziguener in German) than for other groups.[19] Most of the available information about the persecution of the Gypsies in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe comes from Latvia.[20] According to Latvia's 1935 census, 3,839 Gypsies lived in the country, the largest population of any of the Baltic States. Many of them did not travel about the country, but lived settled, or "sedentary" life.[20]

On December 4, 1941, Hinrich Lohse issued a decree which stated:

Gypsies who wander about in the countryside represent a two-fold danger.

1. As carriers of contagious diseases, especially typhus; 2. As unreliable elements who neither obey the regulations issued by German authorities, nor are willing to do useful work. There exists well-founded suspicion that they provide intelligence to the enemy and thus damage the German cause. I therefore order that they are to be treated as Jews.[20]

Although Lohse's name was on the order, it was actually issued at the behest of Bruno Jedicke,[21] the Ordnungspolizei chief in the Baltic States. Jedicke in turn was subordinate to Friedrich Jeckeln, the senior SS man in the Baltic States and Belarus.[22]

Gypsies were also forbidden to live along the coast. Historian Lewy believes this restriction may have occasioned the first large killing of Gypsies in Latvia. On December 5, 1941, the Latvian police in Liepāja arrested 103 Gypsies (24 men, 31 women, and 48). Of these people, the Latvian police turned over 100 to the custody of the German police chief Fritz Dietrich "for follow up" (zu weiteren Veranlassung), a Nazi euphemism for murder.[20] On December 5, 1941, all 100 were all killed near Frauenburg.[20]

On January 12, 1942, Jedicke distributed Lohse's order of December 4, 1941, ordering his subordinates that in all cases, they were to make sure to implement the necessary "follow up."[22] By May 18, 1942 the German police and SS commander in Liepāja indicated in a log that over a previous unspecified period, 174 Gypsies had been killed by shooting.[22] The German policy on Gypsies varied. In general, it seemed that wandering or "itinerate" Gypsies (vagabundierende Zigeuner) were targeted, as opposed to the non-wandering, or "sedentary" population. Thus, on May 21, 1942, the SS commander in Liepāja police and SS commander recorded the execution of 16 itinerate Gypsies from the Hasenputh district.[22] The documentation however does not always distinguish between different Gypsy groups, thus on April 24, 1942, EK A reported having killed 1,272 people, including 71 Gypsies, with no further description.[22] In addition, the Nazi policy shifted back and forth as to how the Gypsies were to be treated, and the treatment of any particular group of Gypsies did not necessarily reflect what might appear to have been the official policy of the moment.[23]

Like the Jews, the killing of the Gypsies proceeded through Latvia's smaller towns, and with the aid of Latvians. The Arājs Commando was reported to have killed many Gypsies between July and September 1941.[20] In April, 1942, fifty Gypsies, mostly women and small children, were assembled at the jail in Valmiera, then taken out and shot.[22] Other massacres were reported at Bauska and Tukums.[22]

It is not known how many of Latvia's Gypsies were killed by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators.[24] Professor Ezergailis estimated that one-half of the Gypsy population was killed, but there will probably never be a more definite number.[25]


Some of the Rumbula murderers were captured after the fact.

Historiography and memorials

Soviet period

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union again occupied Latvia, this time from 1944 to 1990. It did not suit Soviet purposes to memorialize the Rumbula site or to acknowledge that the victims were Jewish. Until 1960 nothing was done to preserve or memorialize the killing grounds. In 1961 young Jews from Riga searched for the site and found charred bones and other evidence of the murders. In 1962 the Soviets staged an officially-sanctioned memorial service at Bikernieki (another murder site) which made no mention of the Jews but spoke only of "Nazi victims". In 1963 groups of young Jews from Riga came out to Rumbula weekly and cleaned up and restored the site using shovels, wheelbarrows and other hand tools.[38] The site has been marked by a series of makeshift memorials over the years. Throughout the Soviet domination of Latvia the Soviets refused to allow any memorial which would specifically identify the victims as Jews.
The Soviet Union suppressed research into and memorials of the Holocaust in Latvia until 1991, when Soviet rule over Latvia ended.[39] In one case a memorial at Rumbula of which the authorities did not approve was simply hauled away in the middle of the night, with no explanation given. Occasional references were made to the Holocaust in literature during the Soviet era. A folkloric figure called "žīdu šāvējs" (Jew shooter) turned up in stories on occasion. The poet Ojārs Vācietis often referred to the Holocaust in his work, including in particular his well-regarded poem "Rumbula", written in the early 1960s.[40] One notable survivor of the Latvian Holocaust was Michael Genchik, who escaped from Latvia and joined the Red Army, where he served for 30 years. His family was killed at Rumbula. Many years later he recalled:

In later years the officials held memorial services every year in November or December. There were speeches reminding of the atrocities of the Nazis. But saying kaddish was forbidden. Once after the official part of the meeting, Jews tried to say Kaddish and tell a little about the ghetto, but the police didn't permit to do so. Until 1972, when I retired from the army, I did my best to keep the place neat.[38]

Independent Latvia

In Latvia, Holocaust scholarship could only be resumed once Soviet rule had ended.[41] Much of the post-1991 work was devoted to identification of the victims.[42] This was complicated by the passage of time and the loss of some records and the concealment of others by the NKVD and its successor agencies of the Soviet secret police.[42] On November 29, 2002, sixty-one years after the murders, the highest officials of the Republic of Latvia, together with representatives of the Latvian Jewish community, foreign ambassdors, and others attended a memorial dedication at the Rumbula site. The president and the prime minister of the Republic walked to the forest from where the Riga ghetto had been. Once they arrived, President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga addressed the gathering:

The Holocaust, in its many forms, has painfully struck Latvia. Here in Rumbula where the earthly remains of Latvia's Jews rest, we have come to honour and remember them. I wish therefore to extend a special greeting to the representatives of Latvia's Jewish community for whom this is special day of mourning, all the more so since here lie their loved ones, relatives, and members of their faith. * * *

This is an atrocious act of violence, an atrocious massacre. And it is our duty, the duty of those of us who have survived, to pass on the commemoration of these innocent victims to future generations, to remember with compassion, sorrow and reverence. Our duty is to teach our children and children's children about it, our duty is to seek out the survivors and record their recollections, but, above all, our duty is to see that this will never happen again.[43]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at page 245.
  2. Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at page 253
  3. Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at page 211
  4. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Consequences at the Wayback Machine (archived January 31, 2004)
  5. Mark Aarons, Fingering the SS
  6. Latvia & Lithuania: Viktors Arajs and the guy Klimaitis
  7. What bloody Aizsargi?
  8. Timeline
  9. Louis Stein, The Exile of the Lithuanian Jews during the Fervor of the First World War (1914-1918)
  10. Dr. Lipa Wiznitzer (Hafia), The Jewish Hospital in Czernowitz
  11. Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom. A memoir.
  12. Mark Paul, Polish-Jewish Relations in Wartime Northeastern Poland and the Aftermath
  13. 1 2 The Death of the Jewish Community of Kraslava
  14. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jews in Latvia
  15. Stahlecker, Jeckeln, Arājs, Cukurs
  16. This Day, February 1, In Jewish History
  17. Vestermanis M. Juden in Riga. Ein historischer Wegweiser. Bremen, 1996, S. 29.
  18. Latvia's Jewish Community: History, Tragedy, Revival
  19. Niewyk, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, at 47.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, at page 123.
  21. Some sources give the name Georg Jedicke.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, at page 124.
  23. Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, at pages 125 to 126.
  24. Hancock, "Genocide of the Roma" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 26, 2009)
  25. Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at page 100, n.5
  26. Bloxham, Genocide on Trial, at page 198
  27. 1 2 3 Bloxham, Genocide on Trial, at pages 197-199
  28. Schneider, Unfinished Road
  29. Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution, at 93n: "After 199 days of court proceedings, on 21 December 1979, the Hamburg assize court condemned the former SS-Sturmbahnführer of the Latvian Legion and former Police Major Viktor Arajs to a life term in prison. Arajs had been living in an underground existence in Frankfurt for twenty-five years after the war under a false name and was arrested in 1975."
  30. Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at pages 16 and 245-248
  31. Kuenzle, Anton and Shimron, Gad, The Execution of the Hangman of Riga: The Only Execution of a Nazi War Criminal by the Mossad, Valentine Mitchell, London 2004 ISBN 0-85303-525-3
  32. Simon Wiesenthal Center
  33. Einsatzgruppen judgment, at 563-567
  34. Einsatzgruppen judgment, at 589
  35. Eduard Strauch (German wikipedia)
  36. (Italian)Eduard Strauch, biography and photo at
  37. Edelheit, History of the Holocaust, at page 340: Jeckeln was " ... responsible for the murder of Jews and Communist Party officials ... convicted and hanged in the former ghetto of Riga on February 3, 1946.
  38. 1 2 Statement of Michael Genchik
  39. Ezergailis, in World Reacts to the Holocaust, at 354-88, provides a comprehensive guide to the Soviet historiographical treatment of the Holocaust in Latvia.
  40. Ezergailis, in World Reacts to the Holocaust, at 373-374
  41. According to the Latvia Institute (an agency of the Republic of Latvia): "There was no Holocaust research during Soviet rule in Latvia (1944–91). The victims of the Holocaust were subsumed under the rubric 'Nazi murder of peaceful Soviet citizens,' usually with unsubstantiated and highly inflated numbers. Research in the West was mainly based on accounts of survivors and court cases against Nazi criminals. Only after regaining independence in 1991, could Latvian historians begin to assess the situation and make use of documentation available locally."
  42. 1 2 Anders and Dubrovskis
  43. Republic of Latvia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rumbula memorial unveiled, December 2002



War crimes trials and evidence

Further reading

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