The Latvian city of Riga was occupied first by the Soviet Union in June 1940, and then by Nazi Germany with the implementation of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Many Latvians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators because they had suffered frequent deportations to Siberia under the Russian regime.
However, the Germans quickly disabused them of this notion, acting quickly and in tandem with Latvian collaborators to forcibly contain the 30,000 strong Jewish population of Riga in the a ghetto as well as the Kaiserwald concentration camp.
The goal was to make Latvia ‘judenrein’, a sickening Nazi coinage which meant “Jew Free”. The SS commander of Riga, Friedrich Jeckeln, was ordered to eliminate the Jews.
Approximately 66,000 Jews had been in Latvia before the Nazi occupation, which was completed on 10 July 1941, and by October 15, 1941, around 30,000 Jews had been murdered.
The extermination of the Latvian Jewry
Under the command of Heinrich Himmler, the SS, working with the German army, began to put a plan of extermination for native Latvian Jews into place. The original plan was to exterminate the Latvian Jews so that German and Austrian Jews could be deported into the homes vacated.
Rumbula was a small railroad station, about 12 miles from Riga. Friedrich Jeckeln, head of the SS in Latvia, was in charge of the operation. He chose the spot because it had sandy ground, as opposed to the swampy ground that Riga was built on, which meant that it was easier to dig graves.
The only drawback that Jeckeln noted about the site was its proximity to the nearby highway. Since Rumbula was on raised ground, the sound of gunfire would have been audible for miles. This did not put a halt to Nazi plans.
In 1941, German death camps had not yet been opened. Instead, a much cruder method of murder was employed.
The ‘Jeckeln System’
Jeckeln had developed a technique called the ‘Jeckeln system’, which he had created whilst massacring Jews in the Ukraine at sites such as Babi Yar as well as during the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre.
In Riga, put crudely, this meant that the Jewish population was assembled, marched several kilometres to the killing fields, stripped of their clothing and valuables and forced to lie down on the floor of the trench to be shot.
This happened on two dates, 30 November and 8 December 1941. Those not sent to march in November were kept penned in the Riga ghetto, unsure of what had happened to their families and friends.
Once the trench floor was filled, Jewish prisoners were forced to lie down on top of the bodies of the dead in order that they could be shot.
This saved the German and Latvian guards the trouble of tossing dead bodies into the killing pits.
Many died on the march itself, with guards given instructions to shoot at any sign of dissent. This included German guards, who were to be shot if they did not execute disobedient Jews immediately.
Frida Michelson wrote later of her experience of the march:
The columns of people were moving on and on, sometimes at a half run, marching, trotting, without end. There one, there another, would fall and they would walk right over them, constantly being urged on by the policemen, ‘Faster, faster’, with their whips and rifle butts. [It was] about midday when the horror of the march ended … . Now the street was quiet, nothing moved.
Corpses were scattered all over, rivulets of blood still oozing from the lifeless bodies. They were mostly old people, pregnant women, children, handicapped — all those who could not keep up with the inhuman tempo of the march.
The fate of the survivors
Each person was shot once, in the back of the head, and often as the day wore on and the light grew worse, the executioner would miss, meaning that victims often survived.
The perpetrators of this atrocity simply buried them alive, and many people died due to being crushed by the sheer weight of soil and corpses above them.
Once this was done, the Germans stationed Latvian guards around the area, to gun down anyone who managed to dig their way out of the pit.
Max Kaufmann, a ghetto survivor, reported that “the earth still heaved for a long time because of the many half-dead people.” Some did manage to escape the pit, and were left wandering, naked and badly injured, in the woods for hours. Professor Ezergailis wrote in the The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944: The Missing Center that,
the pit itself was still alive; bleeding and writhing bodies were regaining consciousness… Moans and whimpers could be heard well into the night. There were people who had been only slightly wounded, or not hit at all; they crawled out of the pit. Hundreds must have smothered under the weight of human flesh. Sentries were posted [with] orders to liquidate all survivors on the spot.
There were few survivors. Michelson survived by pretending to be dead as victims discarded heaps of shoes on her. One part of the Jeckeln system involved kicking those who appeared dead and shooting them if they reacted.
One estimate places the number of survivors from the first of the two death marches at about 30 people out of almost 12,000. Around 25,000 people were murdered in total.
When the Wannsee Conference occurred in February 1942, the remaining Latvian Jewish population was estimated at around 3,500 people.