A Musical Tribute to the Rumbula Victims

M U S I C   /   O P I N I O N

by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud, Belgium)






Until 2009 I felt secure. I felt I knew everything there was to know about the Holocaust in Europe. Aged 17 I had seen Frédéric Rossif’s French documentary on the Warsaw Ghetto (“The Time of the Ghetto”). One scene that traumatizes me until this day was the one showing the morning pick-up of the naked and emaciated corpses in the streets of Warsaw. The corpses were put on carts, then, in single file, the men brought their morning human collection to the mass pit where the bodies were thrown, as mere objects. In the mid-sixties, I had met Polish and Romanian survivors from the Holocaust and I naturally started to read about what had happened in Poland during World War II.

In May 1973 I even met Chaika Grossman, then already a member of the Knesset (she wrote a book about her experience as a liaison between different ghettos and FPO member entitled The Underground Army – Holocaust Library New York) and I was a guest for one day at her kibbutz home in northern Israel. Her two sons were my informative guides during that day (I went to the Golan, among other sites). One of her sons had lost a leg during the war of attrition between Egypt and Israel on the Suez Canal. Her other son fought in a tank unit on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War and survived.

Then, in 1982, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. In front of a display window at the Museum, I had to weep looking at four tons of women’s hair representing 40,000 sheared women, women who had been gassed and then burned in the crematories.

Then, in 2009 I went to Riga in order to look at the Art Nouveau houses and buildings which are to be admired in the Albert, Elisabetes and Strēlnieku streets among others. As I was staying at a hotel not far from the ‘Museum of the Jews of Latvia’ situated on Skolas iela, I went to visit that small but very interesting museum. That visit was in fact my third shock related to the Holocaust because there, reading the information on the wall panels, looking at the pictures, I suddenly realized that there had been a whole spectrum of the Holocaust that had escaped my attention. Looking at the terrible pictures of the two women and three girls taken moments before their death in Skęde, I was reminded of the account of the Babi Yar massacre I had read at the beginning of the ‘70s. And, I had never realized that these pictures – which I knew – had been taken in Latvia during the war.

I am now ashamed to admit it but I knew next to nothing about what happened to the Jews of Latvia (or of Lithuania). In Belgium, there is absolutely no teaching at all during the high school studies about the Holocaust. Yet, in Belgium there were 26,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust, 76,000 in France and 130,000 in the Netherlands.

For the first time I then heard the name Rumbula where, in just two days in 1941, 28,000 Jews were murdered. More Jews were killed in Rumbula in two days than the total number of Jews rounded up in Belgium and deported to Birkenau in the course of three years.

I had bought two important books while at the Museum of the Jews of Latvia. One in Russian by David Silberman called И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ (‘And You saw It’). The other in French, Extermination of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945, a collective work of Latvian historians under the direction of Rabbi Menachem Barkahan from the Shamir Association of Riga (Shamir is the association that is behind the creation of the new Ghetto Museum in Riga, on Maskaras iela, a remarkable tribute in pictures, houses and words, of the plight of the Jews of Latvia during World War II).

After my city trip to Riga in 2009 I began reading David Silberman’s book in Russian. Ella Medalye, one of the four survivors of the Rumbula massacres told her story to David Silberman. This is part of his edited and literary rendition of her harrowing experience, the story begins when the Jews were rounded up in the Riga Ghetto; the day is December 8, 1941, this is the second day of the mass killings:

On that day, they had killed ― by bullets, bludgeoning or with rifle butts ― the children and elderly not able to walk on any more. All along the road they had marched on, stains of blood on both sides of the way were to be seen, the gutters were full of corpses. Our turn had come. This time, the executioners, which had gained some experience, led us by trucks to the place of capital punishment, to hide their crimes from the inhabitants whose eyes followed us by the thousands from windows and openings looking on the Maskaras street.

The truck went very fast and, soon, we left Riga behind us. The vehicle braked near the Rumbula pine forest. In front of us, there was a huge queue of people marshalled in rows of ten to twelve persons. The forest, as far as one would be able to go around it, was shut in by armed guards, separated only a few feet from each other, forming a living barrier near to the road: the entrance of the condemned. Not so far from here, the sound of machine-guns could be heard crackling; the slaughter must take place not too far from where we stand.

They whipped us and used their rifle butts to chase us out of the lorry, and they forced us to take our turn at the very end of the queue of this human mass stretching far in front. In the confusion, I lost my sister, and I tried to find her again, moving sideways between the rows; I asked people whether they had seen her close by. No one understood me. The people seemed indifferent to what was happening, they only crowded up and held each other to escape from the freezing wind; they wept, said goodbye, the parents and close relations tried to stay together. From the first rows, we could hear sobs which changed to cries and yelling which got transformed into an unending uproar of moaning. Many bore children in their arms. The anticipation of a death close by touched them too, but the children did not cry, their terrorized eyes expressed a sheer terror that froze your blood. The younger ones clutched their parents’, grandmother’s or grandfather’s clothes, seeking shelter behind them. There are no words to express that monstrous sight of the mass killing of innocent people.

Feeling that they could not escape from that tragic end, the people stepped forward in a rapid flow without protesting. When my row reached the clearing, I meticulously observed the well-oiled technique of killing.[1]

After having read such moving accounts of mass killings, I took up the cause of the Jews of Latvia, I began to do what I could, by writing articles. In 2009 one was published in La Libre Belgique in Belgium, about the distortive manner in which the Occupation Museum of Riga presents the history of World War II on its territory and the extermination of the Jewish inhabitants of Latvia. Then in 2010, I had an article on the same theme published in Le Monde in France. And, since 2010, I have become a regular contributor to Defending History, often writing about the Holocaust-era history of the Jews in the Baltic States and the revisionist history policies of their governments in our own times.

Last September, back in Riga I visited Rumbula for the first time and, there, on that sacred ground, I had time to reflect on that immense tragedy. It is a lovely forest but a desolate place. It is one of the huge mass killing places that the Nazis and their collaborators left as a legacy to their madness.

After that visit I wished to contribute in my own way, to pay my tribute to the Jewish victims of Rumbula.

But how? David Silberman and Grigory Smirin[2] had superbly rendered the naked terror, the feeling of absolute desperation, the inevitability of an imminent death, that the children, women and men, must have felt and endured during the brutal roundups in the Riga ghetto, the long journey to Rumbula, on foot or by truck, then the bureaucratic, anal-compulsive manner by which the German Einsatzgruppen troops and their Latvian henchmen compelled the Jews to undress, to leave their clothes, their valuables, their jewelry, behind, sorted out by specific heaps (the Germans considered the Jews as “dirty”; yet they were not above robbing them of everything which could be transformed into money).

Then I came about the idea of composing a musical tribute to these unfortunate victims, honoring their memory in another manner.

I have been playing the German flute for about 45 years without being a professional musician, but I have a level of proficiency on the instrument. My musical tastes are fairly wide, they encompass John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, Alban Berg, modern music, at one extreme of the musical spectrum, but also Puccini’s and Tchaikovsky’s operas, Gōrecki 3rd Symphony of Psalms, some of Satie’s pieces for piano (Première Gymnopédie), Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the more lyric compositions of Piazzolla (especially Oblivion), but also world music. But I have always been and have remained very sensitive about music. Even now, I have difficulties listening to the theme from Schindler’s List without crying. Each time I hear that lovely and lyrical melody – modal in its basic approach – I recall that moving scene of that Jewish family in the ghetto about to have their breakfast when they hear suddenly the noise of these nailed boots in the streets, orders and shouts in German, and they feel the end has come. To me, John Williams, the film music’s composer, has perfectly rendered in a musical way, the anguish, the terror that the victims felt in such horrible moments in their lives.

I had decided to play in a modal way, i.e. to compose a piece based on only the notes of one scale without any other note foreign to the specific chosen scale. I wished my musical tribute to have a “Jewish” musical flavor, thus the minor scale, and, above all, be lyrical and imbued with a feeling of sadness and utmost desolation. My choice was the A minor harmonic scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, A flat, A). This kind of modal scale is used by many “world music” musicians but also by the klezmórim and Roma. It is also the scale used in the Israeli Hava Nagila. One of my innovative way of playing was that I did not use a harmonic frame for the piece as is often the case in traditional classical music (chords), but chose the notes of the melody for their emotional load and natural beauty (E, A, etc.), played a bit in the tradition of Zen where steady beat, normal bars and an underlying rhythm are not clearly fixed in order to let the emotions take over.

It is three and a half minutes long. It is a sad, elegiac, piece that aims for timelessness. The use of the lowest register of the instrument, the drawn out notes, the rhythmic accents, the wide and calm vibrato, the repetition of simple leitmotivs, are meant to give an overall impression of human desolation, despair. And the sound mixing, which added a feeling of depth to the sounds produced, expresses the terror of a human being condemned to a certain violent death, looking at a mass grave where other victims are lying, some already dead, some dying, some others bleeding with a long agony in front of them.

Threnody is also a short piece, less than three minutes long, played in the lowest register with an ample vibrato. It is meant as a tribute to all the Jewish victims of genocide in the Baltic States. Based on a scale of my own (G flat, G, A, B flat, D flat, E, F), it is played on a slow rhythm, heavily marked, in order to give the impression that the Nazi killers and their willing helpers brought with their murdering march an inevitability that is impossible to counter by human means. The three repeated notes at the end symbolize the near impossibility for the Jews of that time to escape their fate there and then.

[1] Translated into English by myself, extract from  La Fosse – La Ferme aux Poux et autres témoignages sur la Shoah  (The Pit – The Lice Factory and other Testimony from the Shoah) by David Silberman, a French version of the Russian original published in 2011 by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation following my personal intervention in 2010.

[2] Chapter about the “Holocaust in Riga” in The Extermination of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945, compiled under the direction of Rabbi Menachem Barkahan, published in 2008.

This entry was posted in Arts, Latvia, Litvak Affairs, Music, News & Views, Opinion, Roland Binet. Bookmark the permalink.
Return to Top