The Holocaust and The Long Arm of Antisemitism in Latvia


by Monica Lowenberg (London)


From 1800 until the 1860s, the Jews of Liepāja (Libau, Libava) were mainly under the cultural influence of German Jewry. The community’s educational system included both traditional religious bodies as well as institutions dedicated to the ideas of the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment movement that strived for modernization. Aharon Ber Nurok served as the rabbi in the city starting in 1907. Indeed, he and his brother, Mordechai headed the rabbinate for all of Latvia at one time. After pogroms grew rampant in Ukrainian Russia in the 1880s, Liepāja absorbed many Jewish refugees. The community established special relief institutions to deal with the newcomers. When a modern-style school opened in Liepāja in 1885, the Hebrew grammarian Mordechai Manischewitz taught Hebrew language and literature. That same year, a local oveve Tsiyon (Love of Zion) association was founded, and a Bund (Jewish socialist) group became active at the turn of the century. As Bella Scheftel Kass recalls, “Our town of Liepaja was something of an oddity. Situated within an Eastern European enclave, it boasted a slice of German culture (a hangover from the days of old Courland). A significant number of Jewish homes were under the influence of that culture. Many families were German speaking, sent their children to German-language private schools and read the local German-language press. In these circles assimilation was deeply rooted.”

As Liepāja became a major port of the Russian empire, Jews played an important role in developing commerce and industry. By 1914, about 10,000 Jews lived in Liepāja, almost ten per cent of the population, which then numbered 116,000. Many Jews fought for Latvian independence during the war of independence that lasted from 1918 to 1920 and they continued to make a large contribution to the rebuilding of the state from the ruins of the First World War and its consequences. About one half of Latvian Jews were engaged in commerce, the overwhelming majority of them in medium and small trade. About 29% of the Jewish population was occupied in industry and about 7%  in the liberal professions.  Jews were particularly active in the industries of timber and textiles, linen in particular, but also worked in the industries of matches, beer, tobacco, hides, canned foods (especially fish), and flour milling. A considerable part of the import trade, such as that of petrol and coal were also areas that Jews worked in.

Although, historians have remarked that in theory, there were no discriminatory laws against the Jews in democratic Latvia and that they enjoyed equality of rights, in practice the economic policy of in particular the Ulmanis government (1936-1940) was intended to restrict their activities. There were no Jews in governmental administrative posts. The Latvian government conducted the monopoly of the grain trade, thus removing large numbers of Jews from this branch of trade, without accepting them as salaried workers or providing them with any other kind of employment. The government also offered ethnic-Latvian cooperatives generous governmental support and privileged conditions in comparison to Jewish enterprises. Measures were introduced that made it difficult for Jews to obtain credit. The Jewish population was, on an ethnic basis, subjected to a heavier burden of taxes. As a minister for agriculture put it on 26 January 26 1936: “The Letts are the only masters of this country. The Letts will themselves promulgate the laws and judge for themselves what justice is.”

As a consequence of government policy the economic situation of the majority of Latvia’s Jews in turn became difficult. By late 1930s many had lost their livelihood and were forced into small trade, peddling, and bartering in various goods at the second-hand clothes markets in the suburbs of Riga and the provincial towns.

It is therefore not surprising that when the USSR occupied Latvia on 17 June 1940 and annexed the country seven weeks later, ending 22 years of Latvian independence, many working class Jews and Latvians alike readily welcomed the Red Army that promised them protection from Hitler as well as social justice including Soviet assurances of universal free education and health provisions. Yet, those who were perhaps more prosperous feared persecution and accusations of being bourgeois and class enemies who could be subjected to extreme punishments including deportation or worse.

On 14 June 1941, nearly 15,000 Latvians were deported by the Soviets to the eastern USSR, either to Gulag camps or to exile in Siberia. Out of the 559 deportees from Liepaja 209 were Jews. When Germany attacked the USSR eight days later, 160 soldiers and Workers’ Guards retreated with the Red Army but only 300 out of 7,140 Liepaaja Jews fled to the USSR. More people might have fled, but the Soviet authorities did not help the departure of any beside military or political Communist staff. That left around 6,500 Jews in the hands of the German forces that captured the city on 29 June 29 1941 after a five-day siege.

According to te historians Anders and Dubrovskis, at the time of the 1935 census, Liepāja had 7,379 Jews, or 13.4% of the population. By June 1941, the Jewish population had declined by natural causes to an estimated 7,140, due to emigration and the shrinkage of an aging population.

News spread in Liepaja that Hitler had ordered or would order the extermination of Jews in all territories seized from the Soviets. As Ezergailis has stated,The Germans distrusted Liepaja more than any other Latvian city. It was a proletarian and a leftist town, and, as a port, an element in a skein of international shipping routes. Since the collapse of Russia in 1917 its activities had been much reduced. Liepaja was the first thorn in the crown of the initial Barbarossa success.

The killings started. What was particularly shocking about the he Liepāja massacres was that in contrast to most other Holocaust murders in Latvia, the killings at Liepāja were perpetrated in open places within and outside of the city, including Rainis Park in the city center, and areas near the harbor, the Olympic Stadium, and the lighthouse. The main perpetrators were detachments of the Einsatzgruppen, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the Ordnungspolizei, or ORPO, and Latvian auxiliary police and militia forces. Wehrmacht and German naval forces participated in the shootings as well. It is important to note that the Wehrmacht and German naval forces “Kriegsmarine” were also involved in the massacres, not just the Einsatzgruppen that operated under the SS Schutzstafel. The Wehrmacht and the Kriegsmarine were two organizations that for years the Germans had wanted to claim had been neutral and not engaged in atrocities, but the snapshots and telegrams prove otherwise. The eagerness in which they involved themselves in the killings indicate to what extent they too had been indoctrinated and motivated by political hatred and ideologies of racial inferiority.

Over August 1941 and after the first Arājs action, the shootings continued but on a lessened scale. And then from end of 30 August 30 to 10 December 1941, a large number of shootings took place, in which about 600 Jews, 100 Communists, and 100 Roma were killed. However, the largest massacre, of 2,731 Jews and 23 communists occurred in the dunes surrounding the town of Šķēde, north of the city center. This massacre, which was perpetrated on a disused Latvian Army training ground, was conducted by Germans and Latvians from December 15 to 17, 1941. Thanks to film footage taken by Strott, pictures Erich Handke, another officer ,took with a Minox, and photos senior Wehrmacht and navy officers who visited the site of Šķēde, snapped as a memento of their killing, more is known about the killing of the Jews of Liepāja than in any other city in Latvia except for RigaThe murder operations in Šķēde continued until December 1942. Fewer than thirty Jews survived in Liepāja by the end of the war.

In the early morning of 15 December 1941, a column of victims was driven from Liepaja by Latvian policemen, under the supervision of the German SD, to the same barn in Šķēde where Jewish people from the courtyard had been taken. They were taken in groups of twenty to a site forty to fifty meters to a deep ditch dug in the dunes nearby, parallel to the shore. The ditch was about three meters wide and 100 meters long and had been dug by Latvian police during the preceding weeks. There they were forced to lie face down on the ground. Groups of ten were then ordered to stand up and, apart from the children, to undress, at first to their underwear and then, when taken near the ditch, they were made undress completely. They were shot by a German unit, the Latvian SD Platoon headed by Lt. Peteris Galins, and a Latvian Schutzmannschaft team. The German murder squad consisted of 20 men standing at the other side of the ditch, with two marksmen shooting at the same victim. Children who could walk were treated as adults, but babies were held by their mothers and murdered with them. A “kicker” rolled in those corpses that did not fall directly into the ditch. After each volley, a German SD man stepped into the ditch to inspect the bodies and if any signs of life were found, they delivered “insurance” shots.

The article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Second Generation Voices published by the Second Generation Network in the United Kingdom.  The second half of the article will be published by Second Generation Voices in their May 2017 issue and the full article with all photos in May 2017 by


E. Anders, J.Dubrovskis (2003) Who Died in the Holocaust? Recovering Names from Official Records  in  Holocaust and Genocide Studies V17 N1

M. Bobe, S.Levenberg, I Maor, Z.Michaeli (1971). The Jews in Latvia  Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel, Tel Aviv: D Ben-Nun Press.

A. Ezergailis (1996).  The Holocaust in Latvia 1941–1944’  Riga: The Historical Institute of Latvia.

I. Levinson (1958).  The Untold Story  Johannesburg: Kayor Publishing House.

Links to Latvian History and Personal Testimonies: r/libau/lib001.html#libau1 ca/www/liepaja/liepaja.htm a/SIG_History_of_Latvia_and_Co urland.html and/consular/cons_jews.htm

http://www.yivoencyclopedia.or g/article.aspx/liepaja

Links to Photos of Mass Graves and Names Projects: l_web1/info.htm ede_web/index.html /1941-Skede-Dunes-Site-of-the- 1941%E2%80%931942-Mass-Murder- Graves.php s_grave.htm wind turbines on mass graves at Skede dunes, a remarkable case of Holocaust obfuscation

Links to Published Articles: _Died.pdf etto.pdf RG.PDF

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