Museum of
Family History

 

   
  Home   Visit   What's New   The Museum   Education and Research  

 Help Us Grow

 

 
        Current Exhibitions   Eastern European Jewry  >  World War II & The Holocaust  >  The Jewish Ghetto

                                       

 

The Jewish Ghetto
Riga, Latvia


   
           


The Riga Ghetto


from the memoirs of Max Kaufmann, "Churbn Lettland: The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia"

 

Jews from the Riga ghetto arrive at their forced-labor assignment in the Luftwaffe (German air force) field clothing depot. Riga, Latvia, 1942.


Jews from the Riga ghetto arrive at their forced-labor assignment in the Luftwaffe (German air force) field clothing depot. Riga, Latvia, 1942. Credit: USHMM.

A regulation was passed regarding the creation of a ghetto. An official representative body for Jewish affairs was appointed and recognized. The three aforementioned persons (Eljaschow, Blumenau and Minsker) were now joined by Kaufer (of the Zasulauks Manufacturing Co.) and Dr. Blumenfeld, and later on by a Vienna Jew named Schlitter, who had easier access to the Germans. These men wore wide blue-and-white armbands with a large Star of David on their left arms. These insignia gave them the right, among other things, to use the sidewalks and the streetcars.
 

XIV.

According to the regulation, "a ghetto in which all Jews have to be quartered must be established in Riga by 25 October 1941". The site of this ghetto included the left side of Maskavas (Moscow) Street, going from Lacplesa Street to Jersikas Street and ending with Zidu (Jews') Street next to the old Jewish cemetery. From there, the boundary extended along Lauvas Street to Liela Kalnu Street; then from the right side of Liela Kalnu Street along Daugavpils, Jekabpils, Katolu, Sadovnikova and Lacplesa Streets back to Liela Maskavas Street.

The creation of the ghetto now moved the Jewish center to the Moscow suburb, A large schoolhouse at 143 Lacplesa Street was assigned to the Jewish Committee.

In the garden and the courtyard of this house one could meet an endless procession of Jews who had been thrown out of their homes, together with their last remaining belongings. The pharmacist Katzin (owner of the Golden Series) greatly helped these unfortunate people. Many Jews also came to find out about the regulations concerning them and to hear news from the city center.

The Jewish Committee created various authorities, including a Billeting Department, which was headed by Mrs. Blumenfeld (Peka). The Legal Department was headed by the lawyer Finkelstein, and economic affairs were the responsibility of Robert Schlomowitsch and many others.

The surviving Jewish intelligentsia and all the significant Jewish public figures now tried as actively as they could to alleviate the great misery of their co-religionists.

To enable the Jews to receive at least the 50% food ration allotted to them, shops were set up especially for them in the Moscow suburb. The first shop was opened in Sadovnikova Street under the direction of Levius (who had previously owned a clothing shop). Later the number of these shops increased significantly. The fact that now all Jews were forced to shop in the Moscow suburb eliminated the danger that they might have to stand in lines together with Aryans.

Food was handed out in exchange for special food stamps that were checked off in a food distribution register. The food stamps and the book were yellow and bore the title "Zids" and "Jude" (Jew) in large letters. Of course everybody stood in long lines in front of the shops, and thus the question arose of whether the Jews had the statutory right to stand on the sidewalk. It was decided that the Jews had to stand in the gutter next to the sidewalk!

In the meantime, a barbed-wire fence was erected in great haste around the new ghetto. Because one fence was deemed insufficient, a second one was erected as well. The first fenceposts were driven into the ground at the corner of Maskavas and Lacplesa Streets, and from here the work proceeded rapidly. A few large buildings were left out of the fenced-in area, contrary to the law regarding the ghetto. This was a disadvantage for us. For example, on Katolu Street a large comer building was excluded because it housed the Svetlanov brothers' knitwear factory. A carpentry shop at 22 Maza Kalnu Street, just inside the ghetto, was excluded: so were a small chemical factory in Ludzas Street near Lauvas Street and a lumberyard on Jersikas Street. A small wood-processing factory belonging to Aryans on Blech Square, which was so bloody for us, was also excluded from the ghetto. The Aryans who worked there now received special passes that gave them access to the ghetto. All of these factories were once again closed off from the ghetto on all sides with additional barbed wire so that the Aryans could have no contact with us whatsoever. Later the house on Maza Kalnu Street was handed over to the Jews and included in the Large Ghetto.
 

XV.

In a space where previously a few thousand people had lived, tens of thousands of people were now forced to exist. This neighborhood had been inhabited mostly by Russian workers who were adherents of the old Orthodox Church (Staroobriadcy). It had traditionally been regarded as the Russian center. Now, even though because of the ghetto the Russian inhabitants were offered better and more comfortable apartments in the citym they did not want to part from their neighborhood. For them it was a tradition to have their splendid Orthodox churches near their homes.

The housing issue in the ghetto was one of the most difficult problems to solve. At first, six square meters were allowed per person; later, this space was reduced to four square meters. Every inch of space was utilized. Great struggles were fought in order to get an apartment. Both the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo had requisitioned the best houses for the Jews who worked for them. The Jews exploited their connections with the units they had worked for, and thus received better apartments. The Jewish Committee member Minsker finally put an end to this preferential treatment by forbidding people to come to the Billeting Department together with Aryans, including even high-ranking military officers, in connection with housing affairs.

My colleague Snejer and I received two small rooms for ourselves and our families in the large building at 2 Maza Kalnu Street. My comrade's father-in-law Borkon, a lawyer from Daugavpils, also lived with us.

The days until our move to the ghetto were already counted, and gradually people began to prepare for the move. One must imagine this move to be roughly similar to the Jews' exodus from Egypt (Isaiah - Mizrahim). Everything happened bchipozoin (in haste). We were not allowed to take along large pieces of furniture, only at most our beds, small cupboards and the like.

Now people packed only the essentials, and everything else was left behind. Some people sold their things for practically nothing, and still others were paid nothing whatsoever for them. The Latvians allowed nothing at all to be taken out of certain houses.

The streets leading to the ghetto were jammed with small wagons carrying household goods. The Russian population moved in one direction toward the city center, the Jews in the opposite direction into the ghetto.

Not only did the professional movers demand high prices from us, they also look things away from us. In some cases they even took off with all of our belongings. But whom could we complain to? Nobody was responsible for prosecuting such incidents.

To "relieve" us further, the Latvians posted guards on Daugavpils Street and other streets: they took away everything they could from us and beat us mercilessly besides.

All of our weeping and screaming did not help us.

The hours were numbered and the ghetto had to be locked up.

The Large Riga Ghetto (25 October - 30 November 1941)
 

I.

The hammers were beating loud and fast: the ghetto had to be ready by a certain time!

The last hammer blows were heard at the large ghetto gate in Sadovnikova Street. The ghetto was finished on schedule.

A new city, a new world!

A world full of cares and suffering!

A world that nobody wants to understand or can understand.

The ghetto was locked and the guard duty was handed over to the Latvians. They, our former neighbors, with whom we had built a shared life, now became our worst enemies. The Germans had handed us over to them, and they fulfilled all of the Germans' expectations.

Entrance gate to the Riga ghetto.
This photograph was taken
from outside the ghetto fence.


Riga, Latvia
August 1941-3


Credit: USHMM/Holocaust Encyclopedia

On Saturday, 25 October 1941 we were locked off from the whole world. We were completely surrounded by enemies and felt as though we were in the lion's jaws.

But we Jews had already experienced so many difficult times and great losses in our history. and had emerged as the victors again and again. So we thought to ourselves on this 25 October as well: be the sacrifices ever so great, we'll come through, no matter what!

Today I sit in Germany. which we cursed so bitterly, and record the churbn of our people. But in my spirit I already see a new, healthy generation that has been tried in battle! We have lost millions of people, but in the course of time we will perhaps replace them after all.

At this point I want to remind my readers of the words of one of our martyrs who bravely called out to the enemy as he faced certain death - the rifles had already been aimed at him:

"Don't think the Jewish people will be destroyed with my death; the Jewish people lives and will live forever!" (Herbert Machtus)

Our martyrs went to their death singing the Jewish hymn, the "Hatikva".

Od jisroel chaj! (The Jewish people lives!)
 

II.

As soon as the ghetto was locked, the following decree was issued: "Anyone who goes too close to the barbed wire will be shot without previous warning." On the very first night there were two victims on Jersikas Street. They were women, and when they were shot they fell directly onto the barbed wire, since the fence was so close to the narrow sidewalk that one practically had to touch it. After this incident the Committee immediately passed a regulation on travel inside the ghetto. Gaps were made in the fences of all the courtyards so that people could pass through them everywhere. At night our guards would disturb us with a lot of unnecessary shooting.

The Latvian guards wore Latvian military uniforms, and at first they even had the old Latvian insignia on their caps. They wore green armbands, and for this reason we called them bendeldicke (armband wearers).

The guards occupied a small yellow wooden house at the ghetto gate, and from the courtyard of this house they had access to the Jewish Committee. The Latvian guards were reinforced by a few German Wachtmeister (police patrolmen) from Danzig. These were the real leaders and gave the orders.

In the first few days, the returning work crews entered the ghetto directly through the ghetto gate. Later, so as to monitor us more closely, they made us first go through the guardhouse courtyard. Here we were searched very thoroughly and beaten very cruelly. Many of us wiII never forget this narrow entrance to the courtyard. There too we had victims to mourn.

After only two days, on 27 October, a Czech Jew was brought from the prefecture, shot immediately in the guardhouse courtyard and buried there. The poor man had gone to the prefecture to find out his future fate, and had been sent directly to the ghetto.


III.

The Committee worked very intensely and meetings were held continually, since there was a great deal to do.

There was no housing for the Jews who had come from the city at the last minute. Some of them even had to be housed in the Committee's rooms. Inspectors (Friedmann etc.) were appointed to monitor housing affairs.

A home for the older people was set up on Ludzas Street, and a second one was set up next to Blech Square. Professor S. Dubnow had also been assigned a room on Ludzas Street.

The Labor Authority was headed by representatives of the Field Commander's office, the Aryans Stanke and Dralle. It too was working at full capacity.

The intermediary was the Jew Goldberg from Rujene; he had taken on a very difficult job.

It was decided that the ghetto would receive food only according to its work perfomance. Now everyone had to work, so that the already reduced rations would not be decreased eyen more.

A further decree of the Field Commander was that all Jews had to register their valuables, money, and movable and immovable property within the country and abroad. Property worth more than 100 DM was confiscated and became the property of the occupying forces. Of course this decree made us seek ways and means to save whatever we could. At night and in the early morning people worked in attics and dug secret hiding places in cellars and within walls. We hardly knew how or where we could hide something most safely. Of course it was easier for those who had a garden or similarly convenient places available to them. In the meantime, Soviet money was exchanged. Ten rubles were now worth one Ostmark.
 

IV.

A Jewish police force was set up, and the Riga jeweler Michael Rosenthal took on the job of leading it. He tried to maintain discipline and acted in a very decent and correct manner. For support he chose some of the intelligent young men, who literally sacrificed themselves for the common good. Of course it happened from time to time that they had to come and get people and put them into work crews, causing dissatisfaction; but after all, this was only done in our own interest, and the well-being and order of the ghetto required these measures.

Besides Prefect (Police Chief) Rosenthal the following comrades were on the police force: Berel, Bag, Wazbutzki, Soloweicik, Schatzow, Berner, Ginzburg, Landmann, Gutkin and others.

The reader will hear more later on about the German Jew Wand, who was also on the police force. In any case, all of them risked their lives during these difficult times in order to help us. The members of this police force wore uniforms. They wore blue caps with the Star of David.

In the cellars of the Committee the former Saeima deputy and lawyer Wittenberg collected holy objects and other valuable antiques (Talmuds, Torahs, and so on). He also founded and headed the Bureau of Statistics.

In one single outpatient clinic, the physician Dr. Josef tried with all his might to alleviate our sufferings. During the ghetto's short lifespan our doctors performed virtually superhuman feats. Because there was no room in the clinic for all the patients, they treated other patients at home, voluntarily and free of charge. One could see Dr. Mintz and Dr. Kostia Feiertag going to visit their patients day and night. And the other doctors were no less committed.

There were plenty of medicines in the large ghetto: Every individual had supplies of medicine and besides, the ghetto did not exist for very long, so the supplies were sufficient.

After the first few weeks it became obvious that the sanitation conditions were catastrophic. The city government refused to pick up any kind of refuse. Thus we were forced to dig huge pits in the courtyards so that garbage and other refuse could be disposed of. The result was that, although it was winter, the air was heavy, bad and polluted. If the ghetto had existed any longer, an epidemic would inevitably have broken out. Probably this was our enemies' final goal!
 

V.

In the early morning hours, while it was still dark, the work crews had to assemble in Sadovnikova Street and some of the side streets. From there they marched, accompanied by a representative of their respective work stations, to do the tasks assigned to them. The largest work crews, which I will report on later, were those assigned to the Field Headquarters, the Billeting Department, the Gestapo, HVL, Knights' Hall, the Army Vehicle Park (HKP) and many others.

Besides these work stations, many people also worked in the ghetto itself. Before the ghetto was closed, a large work crew was sent to Jumpravmuiza to build barracks for the new arrivals (see the chapter on Jumpravmuiza).

The intelligentsia among the Jewish women set up a large ghetto laundry, in which people worked very hard. Mrs. Singel, Mrs. Trubek and others worked here under the guidance of the wife of Dr. Eljaschow the lawyer.

Over time, even a Technical Authority was set up. Its first task was an attempt to set up a public bath. In the meantime, the committee was very busy setting up certain training courses. I too submitted a project for training workers to do weaving both by hand and with mechanical looms. I also wanted to set up an adjoining knitting workshop. I proposed that the engineer IlIia Galpern (of the textile factory) be the technical director. Because of the short lifespan of the ghetto, none of these many plans could be implemented.

Among other things, the Jews now had to work as janitors, and people who had formerly played a grand role in society could now be met on the streets holding brooms in their hands. Because of the food distribution system, a great many people had to work in the shops newly opened by the Economic Authority.

Of course those who worked in the work crews outside the ghetto tried to scavenge food for themselves somehow; but it was extremely difficult to smuggle food into the ghetto as they returned.

My son worked in the Kassel construction crew, but only for a very short time. They were renovating a huge building (which was no longer part of the ghetto) on the left side of the ghetto gate. It had been assigned to the guards. This work made it very clear that the liquidation of the ghetto came very suddenly and that nobody had expected it. The Labor Authority had issued a limited number of special yellow working papers to specialists. Some craftsmen who were judged excellent received a special certificate marked "WJ" for wertvoller Jude (valuable Jew).


VI.

All too soon, a sad piece of news reached us. About thirty young girls and two young men had been sent to work in Olaine near Riga. After they had done their work, the Latvians took them to a nearby woods, shot them and plundered all their possessions. This incident caused extreme consternation in the ghetto and practically caused a panic. Moreover, on 14 November 1941 three women who had worked in Knights' Hall had been simply taken away and shot on the beach. Their boss, General Jeckeln, had by pure chance walked past the kitchen where they were working and seen that they were smoking. This was enough for him to order their immediate execution. One of these women was the wife of A. Tukazir, who had owned a wine business.

The next day the entire work crew at Knights' Hall was arrested, together with the Oberjude (head Jew) Folia Zacharow. For about twenty-four hours their fate was completely uncertain, but then they were released.

Every day news came from the work stations about people being arrested or taken away. For example Gorew-Kalmanowitsch, the former technical director of the "Frhmorgen" (Early Morning) and "Segodnia" (Today) newspapers, was arrested at his work station in the furniture work crew on Gogol Street. It was said that this arrest had been ordered by a former errand boy at "Segodnia", Danilow-Milkowski, who was then working for the Gestapo. All of us Jews knew him only too well. He ordered Gorew to explain to him exactly where he had hidden his possessions. He was told the addresses of various Aryans and went to them immediately, but nobody handed anything at all over to him. He did not attain his goal until he went to these people again, this time together with Gorew. Although he had promised to release Gorew, Danilow had him taken to prison, where he was shot.

There were also suicides. For example, Mrs. Chana Meisel poisoned herself, her two daughters Minna and Rasik, and her small four-month-old grandson.
 

VII.

Now people slowly grew accustomed to life in the ghetto, and in spite of all the difficulties they did not give up their hope for better times.

The Committee also dealt with the question of schooling. Some teachers from the Sabiedriska college-preparatory school were already teaching small groups in the Committee's building. In the meantime, the issue of heating became especially urgent during the harsh winter of 1941 . If the ghetto had not been closed so soon, this would certainly have led to a catastrophe.

To cover various expenses, the Committee levied a tax. An extraordinarily large amount or money was collected, but it was confiscated by the Gestapo even before the ghetto was liquidated.

Later on, many people said that the Committee had certainly made mistakes, because with such a large sum of money they ought to have managed to annul the gzeire, or command to liquidate the ghetto.

There were no houses of prayer in the ghetto. People prayed in the private quarters of Rabbi Zack and at various other places (Abrahamsohn, Katolu Street).

There were also several attacks in the ghetto. For example, on the first Friday night we received a "visit" in our house at 2 Maza Kalna Street. Drunken Latvians and members or the German Wehrmacht (army) had climbed over the ghetto fence. They robbed and beat us. Because our police force was completely unarmed, their intervention did no good whatsoever. Of course the people in the building were extremely agitated. Because the front door was locked, the attackers broke a window and climbed in through it. They brutally assaulted the defenseless women. Later, a rumor arose that German deserters were hiding in the ghetto.
 

VIII.

In our small apartment, my wife proved her great skill as a housewife and arranged everything as comfortably as possible with the few belongings we had left. Food was distributed in very small amounts, and people began to hoard it for future consumption. Already even potato peelings were being used in various dishes, and the new "ghetto specialty", liver paste made from yeast, could be found everywhere.

In their free time our friends and acquaintances often gathered in our room. Because some of the men were already missing, most of the time there were more women. All the important current affairs were aired. Among the people who came - all of them later died, unfortunately, were Mrs. Pola Galpern, Zilla and Roma Pinnes, the lawyer Juli Berger, (Prince) Rabinowitz, Moritz Lange and his wife Beate, Simon Jakobsohn, Mrs. Chaikewitz, Dr. Prismann's wife and others. Many good acquaintances of ours also lived nearby (Mrs. Mila Jakobsohn. Dina Genina, Dolgicer and others).

On the last Saturday before the ghetto was liquidated, my comrade Folia Zacharow invited my wife and me to his mother's room for a tscholent (Saturday dinner) with all the pitschewkes (trimmings). A large company had come together (Prefect Rosenthal, the Ritow brothers. ivlrs. Seligsohn, Abraham Lazer and others). Except for Ritow and me, not one of these people is still alive today. My wife and I often visited the ghetto representative, the lawyer Eljaschow, in Sadovnikova Street. During the very last week of the ghetto, this great pessimist was looking at the future with a bit more hope. The reason he gave for this optimism was some conversations he had had with the authorities.

All of these hopes and suppositions were wiped out by the arrival of Minister Rosenbergs, because he ordered the ghetto to be liquidated. At this time there were more than 32,000 men, women and children in the ghetto. The large ghetto had lasted for exactly thirty-seven days.


 

  next stop: Kaunas, Lithuania ►►

 


Copyright 2009-10. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved.  Image Use Policy.