As Americans celebrate their independence, with colorful parades and fireworks, Riga Jews are commemorating a far more somber event—the burning of 19 synagogues, with Jews locked inside. Seventy-eight years ago, on July 4, 1941, Nazis rounded up Jews like cattle and forced them into Riga synagogues. Firefighters were ordered not to extinguish blazes, but only to protect the neighboring buildings. Just one synagogue was left alone, the Peitav-shul, so closely wedged between buildings, the Nazis feared it would set of a string of fires if it went up in flames. Today, it is the only synagogue in the city.
Professor Emeritus (City College of New York), George Schwab, an 89-year-old survivor, will be making the journey from his home in New York City, to Riga, to attend The Day of Remembrance today, where descendants of survivors, Jewish and political leaders, gather on July 4 to ensure this event is not forgotten. As one of the founders of the Jewish Survivors of Latvia, in 1984, he helped establish this annual event, as well as The Latvian Jewish Courier(which can be read online at: https://www.jewishsurvivorsoflatvia-usa.com).
The memorial begins at the old Jewish cemetery, at 2/4 Liksnas Street, within Riga’s former Jewish ghetto. In silence, people march through the ghetto, little changed in appearance since its inception in 1941. More like a prison than a ghetto, with barbed-wire fences containing the sixteen-block area, and armed guards at the entrance, 30,000 Riga Jews were forcibly moved here in October 1941, with the majority (24,000) killed in mass shootings by early December. Including my great-uncle, his wife and children, along with other members of my grandmother’s family. Their names, along with the names of other Jews killed in Latvia during the Holocaust, are on the Wall of Names in the Riga Ghetto Museum, located on the grounds of the former ghetto.
Once through the ghetto, the marchers continue to the memorial on Gogol Street, where the largest synagogue in Riga, the Choral Synagogue, stood until July 4, 1941. An expansive Neo-Renaissance building completed in 1871, the synagogue was renown for its cantors and choir. Just like the other charred synagogues, the number of people inside the Choral Synagogue when it was set on fire is not known.
When Latvia was ‘liberated’ by the Soviets in 1944, the remains were demolished and it was turned into a public square. Almost 50 years later, when Latvia became truly free, in 1993, the shape of the synagogue walls was built over the archeological remains. To honor those who died, there is a moment of silence at the remains of the Choral Synagogue, followed by the laying of a wreath, and the lighting of candles.
Speeches come once the candles are lit, from survivors who offer their perspectives and try to find crumbs of meaning amidst the inconceivable events that took place where they are standing. In an interview I had with Professor Schwab in his upper-west-side apartment in January, he explained how anti-Semitism flourished to the point of the anihalation of 70,000 Latvian Jews: “Anti-Semitism became more pronounced during the Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941, because the Soviets equated Judaism with Bolshevism.”
In fact, this misconstrued version of events is still held by many Latvians, as seen in the publication of, Latvia: Year of Horror (http://www.colchestercollection.com/titles/L/latvia-year-of-horror.html). The Historical Tribune (https://historicaltribune.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/latvia-year-of-horror-1940-the-year-assimilated-jews-turned-on-their-neighbours/) says this publication is, “…a documented account of the suffering the Latvian people endured at the hands of the Jewish-Bolshevik invaders and, the assimilated Latvian-Jews, who, in the summer of 1940, began a slaughterous oppression with the arrival of the Jewish Red Army.”
Professor Schwab lost his father and brother and was on his own at eleven years of age; he witnessed hangings in the street and random shootings and was forced to work as a slave for the Nazis in Latvia. He says, the “hatred engendered was largely responsible for some of the Latvians’ participation in the mass murder of Jews that followed the Nazi occupation of Latvia.”
In the end, 70,000 Latvian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (90 percent of the Jewish population), and just two synagogues are still standing, one in Riga and the other in Daugavpils. The Holocaust Research Project (www.HolocaustResearchProject.org) estimates there were just 5,000 Jews in Latvia at the beginning of 1943; by 1944, only a few hundred remained in Riga and approximately 1,000 returned from Nazi camps. A few thousand more, who fled to the Soviet Union, also survived.
Today, the Jewish community in Latvia is small yet vibrant, with the Council of Jewish Communities in Latvia, the Jews in Latvia Museum, the Riga Ghetto Museum and, of course, Jewish Survivors of Latvia. Meanwhile, Professor Schwab, with an energy that belies his age, will speak at today’s memorial in Riga, and is working on a memoir about his own experiences during this tumultuous period in his life.