Death march, December 8 1941, genocide, Holocaust, Jewish Ghettos, Latvia, Major Ghettos occupied Europe, mass murder, Murder of the Jews in Latvia, National Socialism, Nazi Germany, Riga, Riga Ghetto, Riga Latvia, Rumbula Forest, Rumbula Massacres, Third Reich, World War II
While IBM computers were used, during the Holocaust, they weren’t small and widespread like today, and the mapping was by hand. Thus, the trace and track dragnet was less efficient than it would be today, but still so efficient that few escaped. November 30, 1941 was a Sunday, so most Americans were warming church pews and eating Sunday dinner. By December 8th, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans were preparing for war.
“Nazi Franz Walter Stahlecker, another perpetrator of the Latvian Holocaust, prepared this map. Illustrated with coffins, it shows there were still 35,000 Jews remaining in Latvia before the Rumbula massacres. Estonia, the report states, is “Jew-free” (judenfrei).”
“The Rumbula massacre is a collective term for incidents on November 30 and December 8, 1941, in which about 25,000 Jews were killed in or on the way to Rumbula forest near Riga, Latvia, during the Holocaust.
Except for the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, this was the biggest two-day Holocaust atrocity until the operation of the death camps. About 24,000 of the victims were Latvian Jews from the Riga Ghetto and approximately 1,000 were German Jews transported to the forest by train. The Rumbula massacre was carried out by the Nazi Einsatzgruppe A with the help of local collaborators of the Arajs Kommando, with support from other such Latvian auxiliaries. In charge of the operation was Höherer SS und Polizeiführer Friedrich Jeckeln, who had previously overseen similar massacres in Ukraine.“ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumbula_massacre
“To fulfill Himmler’s order to clear out the Ghetto, Jeckeln would need to kill 12,000 people per day. At that time of year, there were only about eight hours of day and twilight, so, the last column of victims would have to leave the Riga ghetto no later than 12:00 noon. Guards would be posted on both sides along the entire 10 kilometer column route. The whole process required about 1,700 personnel to carry it out.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumbula_massacre
“Women, children and elderly forced out of ghetto
When the columns were dispersed on Saturday, November 29, the ghetto inhabitants believed, to their relief, that there would be no evacuation. This proved wrong. The first action in the ghetto began at 4:00 a.m., well before dawn, on Sunday, November 30, 1941. Working from west to east (that is, towards Rumbula), squads of the SD, the Protective Police, the Araji commando, and about 80 Jewish ghetto police rousted people from their sleep and told them to report for assembly in half an hour. Max Kaufmann describes the raid as beginning in the middle of the night on the 29th. He describes “thousands” of “absolutely drunk” Germans and Latvians invading the ghettos, bursting into apartments, and hunting down the occupants while shouting wildly. He states that children were thrown from third floor windows. Detachments cut special openings in the fence to allow more rapid access to the highway south to the forest site. (Detailed maps of the ghetto are provided by Ezergailis and Kaufmann.)
Even though the able-bodied men were gone, people still resisted being forced out of their dwellings and tried to desert from the columns as they moved through the eastern part of the ghetto. The Germans murdered 600 to 1,000 people in the process of forcing out the people.
Eventually columns of about 1,000 people were formed and marched out. The first column was led by the lawyer, Dr. Eljaschow. “The expression on his face showed no disquiet whatsoever; on the contrary, because everyone was looking at him, he made an effort to smile hopefully.” Next to Dr. Eljaschow was Rabbi Zack. Other well-known citizens of Riga were in the columns.….
The Jews were allowed to carry some luggage as a sham, to create the impression among the victims that they were simply being resettled. Frida Michelson, one of the few survivors of the massacre at the pits, later described what she saw that day:
It was already beginning to get light. An unending column of people, guarded by armed policemen, was passing by. Young women, women with infants in their arms, old women, handicapped helped by their neighbors, young boys and girls — all marching, marching. Suddenly, in front of our window, a German SS man started firing with an automatic gun point blank into the crowd. People were mowed down by the shots, and fell on the cobblestones. There was confusion in the column. People were trampling over those who had fallen, they were pushing forward, away from the wildly shooting SS man. Some were throwing away their packs so they could run faster. The Latvian policemen were shouting ‘Faster, faster’ and lashing whips over the heads of the crowd.
… 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.
… I stood by the window and watched until 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.
— Frida Michelson, I Survived Rumbuli, pp. 77-8
Ten kilometer march to the killing pits
The first column of people, accompanied by about 50 guards, left the ghetto at 06:00 hours. On November 30, 1941, the air temperatures recorded at Riga were −7.5 °C (18.5 °F) at 07:00 hours, −1.1 °C (30.0 °F) at 09:00, and 1.9 °C (35.4 °F) at 21:00. The previous evening there had been a snowfall of 7 cm (2.8 in), but no snow fell on November 30 from 07:00 to 21:00. The people could not keep up the pace demanded by the guards and the column kept stretching out. The guards murdered anyone who fell out of the column or stopped to rest along the 10-kilometer (6.2 mi) march route. German guards, when later tried for war crimes, claimed it was the Latvians who did most of the killing. In Latvia, however, there were stories about Latvian policemen refusing orders to shoot people.
Arrival at Rumbula and murder
The first column of people arrived at Rumbula at about 9:00 am on November 30. The people were ordered to disrobe and deposit their clothing and valuables in designated locations and collection boxes, shoes in one, overcoats in another, and so forth. Luggage was deposited before the Jews entered the wood. They were then marched towards the murder pits. If there were too many people arriving to be readily murdered immediately, they were held in the nearby forest until their turn came. As the piles of clothing became huge, members of the Arajs Commando loaded the articles on trucks to be transported back to Riga. The disrobing point was watched carefully by the killers, because it was here that there was a pause in the conveyor-like system, where resistance or rebellion might arise.
The people were then marched down the ramps into the pits, in single file ten at time, on top of previously shot victims, many of whom were still alive. Some people wept, others prayed and recited the Torah. Handicapped and elderly people were helped into the pit by other sturdier victims.
The victims were made to lie face down on top of those who had already been shot and were still writhing and heaving, oozing blood, stinking of brains and excrement. With their Russian automatic weapons set on single shots, the marksmen murdered the Jews from a distance of about two meters with a shot in the backs of their heads. One bullet per person was allotted in the Jeckeln system. — Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944: The Missing Center, pp. 253–4
The shooting continued past sundown into the twilight, probably ending at about 5:00 p.m., when darkness fell. (The evidence is in conflict about when the shooting ended. One source says the shooting went on well into the evening.) Their aim may have been worsened by the twilight, as German police Major Karl Heise, who had gone back and forth between Riga and the killing site that day, suffered the misfortune of having been hit in the eye by a ricochet bullet. Jeckeln himself described Rumbula at his trial in early 1946.
Q: Who did the shooting?
A: Ten or twelve German SD soldiers.
Q: What was the procedure?
A: All of the Jews went by foot from the ghetto in Riga to the liquidation site. Near the pits, they had to deposit their overclothes, which were washed, sorted, and shipped back to Germany. Jews – men, women, and children – passed through police cordons on their way to the pits, where they were shot by German soldiers.
— Jeckeln interrogation excerpts
The shooters fired from the brink of the smaller pits. For the larger pits, they walked down in the graves among the dead and dying to shoot additional victims. Captain Otto Schulz-Du Bois, of the Engineer Reserves of the German Army, was in the area on bridge and road inspection duties, when he heard “intermittent but persistent reports of gunfire”. Schulz-Du Bois stopped to investigate, and because security was weak, was able to observe the murders. A few months later he described what he saw to friends in Germany, who in 1980 reported what Schulz-Du Bois had told them:
The first thing he came upon was a huge heap of clothes, then men, women, children and elderly people standing in a line and dressed in their underclothing. The head of the line ended in a small wood by a mass gravesite. Those first in line had to leap into the pit and then were murdered with a pistol bullet in the head. Six SS men were busy with this grisly chore. The victims maintained a perfect composure. There were no outcries, only light sobbing and crying, and saying soothing words to the children.
— Gerald Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution
Jeckeln required high-ranking Nazis to witness the Rumbula murders. Jeckeln himself stood at the top of the pits personally directing the shooters. National Commissioner (Reichskommissar) for the Ostland Hinrich Lohse was there, at least for a while. Dr. Otto Heinrich Drechsler, the Territorial Commissioner (Gebietskommissar) of Latvia may have been present. Roberts Osis, the chief of the Latvian collaborationist militia (Schutzmannschaft) was present for much of the time. Viktors Arajs, who was drunk, worked very close to the pits supervising the Latvian men of his commando, who were guarding and funnelling the victims into the pits.
Later murders and body disposal in the ghetto
Karl Heise returned from Rumbula to the Riga ghetto by about 1:00 p.m. There he discovered that about 20 Jews too sick to be moved had been taken not to the murder site but rather to the hospital. Heise ordered they be taken out of the hospital, placed on the street on straw mattresses and shot in the head. Killers of the patients in the street included members of the Schutzpolizei, Hesfer, Otto Tuchel, and Neuman, among others. There were still the hundreds of bodies left from the morning’s forced evacuation. A squad of able-bodied Jews was delegated to pick them up and take them to the Jewish cemetery using sleds, wheelbarrows and horse carts. Not every one who had been shot down in the streets was dead; those still alive were finished off by the Arajs commando. Individual graves were not dug at the cemetery. Instead, using dynamite, the Germans blew out a large crater in the ground, into which the dead were dumped without ceremony.
Aftermath at the pits on the first day
By the end of the first day about 13,000 people had been shot but not all were dead. Kaufman reported that “the earth still heaved for a long time because of the many half-dead people.” Wounded naked people were wandering about as late as 11:00 am the next day, seeking help but getting none. In the words of Professor Ezergailis:
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 at the pits and a unit of Latvian Schutzmannschaften was sent out to guard the area. The orders were to liquidate all survivors on the spot. — Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944: The Missing Center, p. 255
According to historian Bernard Press, himself a survivor of the Holocaust in Latvia:
Four young women initially escaped the bullets. Naked and trembling, they stood before their murderers’ gun barrels and screamed in extreme mortal agony that they were Latvians, not Jews. They were believed and taken back to the city. The next morning Jeckeln himself decided their fate. One was indeed Latvian and had been adopted as a child by Jews. The others were Jewish. One of them hoped for support from her first husband, Army Lieutenant Skuja.
Asked on the telephone about her nationality, he answered that she was a Jew and he was not interested in her fate. She was murdered. The second woman received no mercy from Jeckeln, because she was the Latvian wife of a Jew engaged in Judaic studies. With this answer she signed her death warrant, for Jeckeln decided she was “tainted by Judaism.” Only the third girl, Ella Medalje, was clever enough to give Jeckeln plausible answers and thus escaped with her life.
— The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, pp. 106-7
Reaction among the survivors
The ghetto itself was a scene of mass murder after the departure of the columns on November 30, as Kaufmann described:
Ludzas street in the center of the ghetto was full of murdered people. Their blood flowed in the gutters. In the houses there were also countless people who had been shot. Slowly people began to pick them up. The lawyer Wittenberg had taken this holy task upon himself, and he mobilized the remaining young people for this task.
— Churbn Lettland – The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia
The blood literally ran in the gutters. Frida Michelson, an eyewitness, recorded that the next day, December 1, there were still puddles of blood in the street, frozen by then.
The men in the newly created small ghetto were sent out to their work stations that Sunday, as they had been the day before. On the way, they saw the columns formed up for the march to Rumbula, and they heard weeping, screaming, and shooting, but they could learn no details. The men asked some of the German soldiers with whom they were acquainted to go to the ghetto to see what happened. These soldiers did go, but could not gain admission to the ghetto itself. From a distance, they could still see “many horrible things”. They reported these facts to the Jews of the work detachments, who asked them to be released early from work to see to their families. At 14:00 hours this request was granted, at least for a few of the men, and they returned to the ghetto. They found the streets scattered with things, which they were directed to collect and carry to the guardhouse. They also found a small bundle which turned out to be a living child, a baby aged about four weeks. A Latvian guard took the child away. Kaufmann believed the child’s murder was a certainty.
December 8 murders
Jeckeln seems to have wanted to continue the murders on December 1, but did not. Professor Ezergailis proposed that Jeckeln may have been bothered by problems such as the resistance of the Jews in Riga. In any case, the killing did not resume until Monday, December 8, 1941. According to Professor Ezergailis, this time 300 Jews were murdered in forcing people out of the ghetto. (Another source reports that the brutality in the Ghetto was worse on December 8 than on November 30.). It was snowing that Monday, and the people may have believed that the worst had passed. Even so, the columns were formed up and marched out of the city just as on Sunday, November 30, but with some differences. The 20 kilogram packs were not carried to the site, as they had been on November 30, but were left in the ghetto. Their owners were told that their luggage would be carried on by truck to the fictitious point of departure for resettlement. Mothers with small children and older people were told they could ride by sleigh, and sleighs were in fact available. At least two policemen who had played some role in the November 30 massacre refused to participate again on December 8. These were the German Zimmermann and the Latvian Vilnis. The march itself was fast-paced and brutal. Many people were trampled to death.
Max Kaufmann, one of the men among the work crews in the small ghetto, was anxious to know what was happening to the people marched out on December 8. He organized, through bribery, an expedition by truck ostensibly to gather wood, but actually to follow the columns and learn their destination.
Kaufmann later described what he saw from the truck as it moved south along the highway from Riga towards Daugavpils:
… we encountered the first evacuees. We slowed down. They were walking quite calmly, and hardly a sound was heard. The first person in the procession we met was Mrs. Pola Schmulian * * * Her head was deeply bowed and she seemed to be in despair. I also saw other acquaintances of mine among the people marching; the Latvians would occasionally beat one or another of them with truncheons. * * * On the way, I counted six murdered people who were lying with their faces in the snow.
— Churbn Lettland – The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia
Kaufmann noticed machine guns set closely together in the snow near the woods, and sixty to eighty soldiers, whom he identified as being from the German army. The soldier who was driving the truck stated the machine guns were posted just to prevent escapes. (In his book, Kaufmann stated he was certain the German army had played a role in the Rumbula massacre.) They drove on that day down the highway past Rumbula to the Salaspils concentration camp, to investigate a rumor that the Jews had been evacuated to that point. At the camp they encountered Russian prisoners of war, but no Jews from Riga. The prisoners told them that they knew nothing about the Jews. Frida Michelson had been marched out with the column, and she described the forest as being surrounded by a ring of SS men. Michelson further described the scene when they arrived at Rumbula that morning:
As we came to the forest we heard shooting again. This was the horrible portent of our future. If I had any doubts about the intentions of our tormenters, they were all gone now. … We were all numb with terror and followed orders mechanically. We were incapable of thinking and were submitting to everything like a docile herd of cattle.
— Frida Michelson, I Survived Rumbuli, pp. 85-8
Of the 12,000 people forced out of the ghetto to Rumbula that day, three known survivors later gave accounts: Frida Michelson, Elle Madale, and Matiss Lutrins.
Michelson survived by pretending to be dead as victims discarded heaps of shoes on her. Elle Madale claimed to be a Latvian. Matiss Lutrins, a mechanic, persuaded some Latvian truck drivers to allow him and his wife (whom the Germans later found and murdered) to hide under a truckload of clothing from the victims that was being hauled back into Riga.
Among those slain on December 8 was Simon Dubnow, a well known Jewish writer, historian and activist. Dubnow had fled Berlin in 1933 when the Nazis took power, seeking safety in Riga. On December 8, 1941, too ill to be marched to the forest, he was murdered in the ghetto. and was buried in a mass grave. Kaufmann states that after November 30, Professor Dubnow was brought to live with the families of the Jewish policemen at 56 Ludzas Street.
On December 8, the brutal Latvian guard overseer Alberts Danskop came to the house and asked Dubnow if he was a member of the policemen’s families.
Dubnow said he was not and Danskop forced him out of the house to join one of the columns that was marching past at the time. Uproar broke out in the house and one of the Jewish policemen, whom Kaufmann reports to have been a German who had won the Iron Cross, rushed out to try and save Dubnow, but it was too late.
According to another account, Dubnow’s killer was a German who had been a former student. A rumor, which later grew into a legend, stated that Dubnow said to the Jews present at the last moments of his life: “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear!” What is certain is that the SS stole the historian’s library and papers and transported them back to the Reich.
December 9 massacre
Some Jews who were not able-bodied working men were able to escape from the mass actions on November 30 and December 8 and hide in the new “small ghetto”. On December 9, 1941, the Nazis began a third massacre, this time in the small ghetto. They searched through the ghetto while the men were out at work. Whoever they found in hiding was taken out to the Biķernieki forest, on the northeast side of Riga, in blue buses borrowed from the Riga municipal authorities, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves. About 500 people were murdered in this operation. As with the Rumbula murders, evacuations from the ghetto ceased at 12 noon.“ Read the rest here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumbula_massacre#Arrival_at_Rumbula_and_murder
“From 1918 to 1940, Riga was the capital of independent Latvia. Before World War II, about 40,000 Jews lived in Riga, representing slightly more than 10 percent of the city’s population. The community had a well-developed network of Hebrew and Yiddish schools, as well as a lively Jewish cultural life. Jews were integrated into most aspects of life in Riga and even sat on the city council.
In August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Latvia, and Riga became the capital of the Latvian SSR. German forces occupied Riga in early July 1941 after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, Riga became the capital of the Reich Commissariat Ostland, a German civilian administration.
German Einsatzgruppen together with Latvian auxiliaries, shot several thousand Jews shortly after German forces entered the city. In mid-August, the Germans ordered the establishment of a ghetto in the southeastern area of the city; this ghetto was sealed in October 1941, imprisoning some 30,000 Jews. In late November and early December of 1941, the Germans announced that they intended to settle the majority of ghetto inhabitants “further east.” On November 30 and December 8-9, at least 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were shot by German SS and police units and their Latvian auxiliaries in the nearby Rumbula Forest.
…when the people got there they were told to undress, put the shoe in one pile, the shoes in one pile, clothing in another pile, driven to the edges of these mass graves, and machine-gunned. It was going on all night and the next day. Fifteen thousand of our people were massacred in that particular day. —Steven Springfield
Steven Springfield describes a massacre in the Rumbula forest near Riga, Latvia The Germans occupied Riga in 1941, and confined the Jews to a ghetto.
In late 1941, at least 25,000 Jews from the ghetto were massacred at the Rumbula forest, near Riga. Steven and his brother were sent to a small ghetto for able-bodied men. In 1943 Steven was deported to the Kaiserwald camp and sent to a nearby work camp. In 1944 he was transferred to Stutthof and forced to work in a shipbuilding firm. In 1945, Steven and his brother survived a death march and were liberated by Soviet forces. US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/oral-history/steven-springfield-describes-a-massacre-in-the-rumbula-forest-near-riga-latvia
The surviving 4,000-5,000 Jews were incarcerated in an area of the ghetto known as the “small” or “Latvian” ghetto. The Germans also deported some 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Riga. The section of the ghetto where these foreign Jews were imprisoned was called the “big” or “German” ghetto, established as a separate entity from the “Latvian” ghetto. A transport of 1,000 Jews from the German Reich shared the fate of the murdered Riga Jews. Most of the remaining German Jews deported to Riga were also later killed in the Rumbula Forest.
Several hundred Jews in the Riga ghetto organized resistance activities against the Germans. Small groups sought to escape from the ghetto and join partisans in the surrounding forests. In October 1942, German police discovered a small band of members of the Jewish underground outside the ghetto. In reprisal for partisan activities, the Germans seized and killed more than 100 people from the ghetto, and executed almost all Jewish policemen on suspicion of participating in resistance activities.
In the summer of 1943, the Germans deported some ghetto inhabitants to the Kaiserwald concentration camp, which had been established in March in the north of the city. Others were deported to Kaiserwald subcamps nearby. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in December 1943, and deported the last Jews to Kaiserwald. The surviving Jews in Latvia, from the destroyed ghettos of Riga, Liepaja, and Dvinsk, were concentrated in Kaiserwald and its subcamps.“. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/riga
The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) made a deal with the German National Socialists (Nazis) to divide up Poland. Hitler double crossed Stalin, so the USSR switched sides. Italy’s Mussolini was a Socialist, but was expulsed due to his support for World War I. Mussolini took power long before Hitler did.
“MAJOR GHETTOS IN OCCUPIED EUROPE
During World War II, the Germans established ghettos mainly in eastern Europe (between 1939 and 1942) and also in Hungary (in 1944). These ghettos were enclosed districts of a city in which the Germans forced the Jewish population to live under miserable conditions. The Germans regarded the establishment of Jewish ghettos as a provisional measure to control, isolate, and segregate Jews. Beginning in 1942, after the decision had been made to kill the Jews, the Germans systematically destroyed the ghettos, deporting the Jews to extermination camps where they were killed. Tags ghettos US Holocaust Memorial Museum” https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/map/major-ghettos-in-occupied-europe