Riga, Occupied Latvia · November 30, 1941

On November 25 and 29, 1941, Einsatz­gruppe 3 (Special Task Group 3), one of many SS (short for Schutz­staffel) mobile death squads oper­ating behind German front lines, mur­dered 5,000 “Reich Jews,” that is, Ger­man- and Austrian-born Jews. These men, women, and chil­dren had arrived in the Baltic ghetto at Kau­nas, Lithu­ania’s second largest city, earlier in the month.

On this date, November 30, 1941, in the Rumbula Forest 9 miles/14½ kilo­meters) south of Riga, capi­tal and major city of the neigh­boring Baltic state of Latvia (and seat of the Reichs­kom­mis­sariat Ost­land), the first of two sets of even more horri­fic mass murders began. (The second set occurred the following month, on Decem­ber 8.) Roughly 24,000 of the vic­tims were so-called (by the Nazis) “unpro­duc­tive” (“un­wert­voller”) Latvian Jews from the over­crowded Riga Ghetto, a 16‑block area known as Mas­ka­vas Forštate (Moscow Suburb), where 32,000 lived. Addi­tional vict­ims were approx­i­mately 1,000 Reich Jews who had left Berlin two days before on the first of 19 trans­port trains to Riga. Second only to the Babi Yar mas­sacre in the Soviet Ukraine (Septem­ber 29–30, 1941, when Germans and local col­labo­ra­tors killed 33,771 Jews in a single oper­a­tion), the Rum­bula mas­sacre was the biggest two-day Holo­caust atro­city until Nazi Germany introduced extermination camps in Poland in 1942.

The Rum­bula mas­sacre was carried out by Einsatz­gruppe A, which was assigned to Army Group North commanded by Field Marshal Wil­helm Ritter von Leeb, whose forces had over­run the three tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Lithua­nia, and Esto­nia and began an 874‑day siege of the Soviets’ Baltic port and second largest city, Lenin­grad (part of Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa). Einsatz­gruppe A was aided by a unit of Lat­vians known as the Arajs Com­mando and to some extent by Latvian aux­il­iary police. Of the 40,000 Jews living in Riga (about 10 per­cent of the city’s popu­la­tion) when the Germans invaded the Baltic states in July 1941, only 4,800 were still alive by the end of the year. By late 1943 almost all Latvian Jews (out of approx­i­mately 66,000 at the start of the Nazi occu­pa­tion) had perished in further SS “actions” (the Nazi euphe­mism for murder; for example, in gas vans), or had been worked to death in Latvia’s infamous Salas­pils con­cen­tra­tion camp, 11 miles/almost 17 kilo­meters from Riga, or had been trans­ported to other concentration and death camps.

Holocaust in Riga, Latvia, 1941–1945

Baltic and East European executions through 1941

Above: Sketch map of Baltic States and East­ern Europe used to illus­trate SS-Brigade­fuehrer und General­major der Polizei Dr. Franz Walter Stahl­ecker’s report titled “Jewish Exe­cu­tions Carried Out by Einsatz­gruppe A” and stamped “Secret Reich Matter.” On Janu­ary 31, 1942, the report was sent to Stahl­ecker’s superior, SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer and General der Polizei Rein­hard Hey­drich, chief of the Reich Security Head Office (which included the Secret State Police, or Gestapo). The map sum­ma­rized the num­ber of mur­ders com­mitted by Stahl­ecker’s SS unit in the Baltic states and the Soviet Union in 1941; namely, 220,250. The legend at the bottom states that “the esti­mated num­ber of Jews still on hand is 128,000.” Esto­nia in the north is marked “JUDEN­FREI” (“free of Jews”) (963 killed); Latvia (35,238 killed); Lithu­ania (138,421 killed); Belarus (41,828 killed); and Russia (3,800 killed).

Riga ghetto through barbed wire, 1942Jewish pedestrians, Riga ghetto, 1942

Left: Riga ghetto in 1942. After the mass killings at Rum­bula and the liquida­tion of the so-called “large ghetto,” Lat­vian sur­vi­vors moved into a smaller ghetto, which also housed deported Reich Jews from Ger­many, Aus­tria, and today’s Czech Republic (Bohe­mia and Mora­via). Its barbed-wire peri­meter was guarded by Lat­vians. With­in the smaller ghetto, the Ger­mans main­tained a special com­pany of guards, con­sisting of police­men from Dan­zig, today’s Gdańsk in Poland. Jewish Councils (pl, Juden­raete; sing, Juden­rat)—one for Latvians and one for Germans—were set up to work with the Ger­man occu­pa­tion autho­rities (Gestapo and Wehr­macht). A Jewish Ghetto Police force was also estab­lished for each com­mu­nity. The Nazis set up a Labor Autho­rity, which liaised with the Juden­raete. Every morning the work crews assem­bled in the streets according to their work assignments.

Right: 1942 photo showing Jews in Riga wearing the required yellow six-pointed star, one star visi­ble from the front, the other from the back (man in long dark coat, center in photo). Jews were for­bidden to use side­walks and street­cars and were banned from public places, including city facili­ties, parks, and swim­ming pools. Also, a Jew was allotted only one-half the food ration of a non-Jew. Nurem­berg-style race laws were intro­duced governing marri­age and employ­ment, and Jews could be ran­domly assaulted with impu­nity by any non-Jew. An account from the year 1943 lists 13,200 Jews in the Riga ghetto. By the end of Novem­ber 1943, all Jews had been removed, either by trans­port to a con­cen­tra­tion or death camp (2,000 to Auschwitz on November 2, 1943) or by murder.

Riga Ghetto—Holocaust Survivor Alex Lebenstein’s Story

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