January 17, 1909
June 30, 1941
- July 1, 1941
[from memoir of Leo Dreyer]
27 June 1941
On my big desk are piles of paper. Plans. Orders. Everything must be put in order, sent to different departments of the industrial collective, the Kombinat. The telephone is constantly ringing with more and more demands; more and more paper work as well. I'll be lucky if I can get out of here by midnight. On the faces of all the people around me I can see excitement and worry. The country has been overtaken by war. What does the future hold? People speak in hushed voices about pogroms in several Jewish settlements which have already been taken, especially in the small towns and villages. Everybody speaks about it but nobody believes it. How can it be true in the twentieth century?
Again the telephone rings. A very businesslike voice asks me to send in our supply needs for the first quarter of 1942 as soon as possible. Nails, planks, etc. I am very tired. I hang up the phone and go out to the factory yard. There is a big truck, which I approach. A young Soviet lieutenant has come to pick up soft drinks produced here, for the soldiers. He has come from the front, and with a very positive voice, he tells me that everything is fine, that the Russians are going to Ko"ningsburg [former capital of East Prussia, now called Kalingrad, USSR]. The tone of his voice is reassuring. Maybe it is true. All these rumors and all these big tanks racing through the city breaking up the pavement, all the streetcars have stopped running... Maybe what they say is true, that they are advancing. With such big tanks, the Russians could only be preparing to advance. Inside I'm a bit calmer. I return to my office and I try to work.
Again the phone rings. This time it is Sima's voice, very excitedly telling me that all the people in our apartment building have left their flats. The left and went somewhere. She is completely alone in the building. She tells me that it is time for us to think about ourselves, and not about what supplies the factory will need in 1942. She starts to cry. I just cannot comprehend and I try to calm her. Nothing helps. She doesn't want to stay by herself in the big building. I decide to send a trustworthy man who works for me and who grew up with me to take a truck and bring her.
After half an hour Sima arrives, still very excited. She tells me of the terrible situation in the city. People are shooting from the windows.
We are interrupted by the arrival of the director of the collective, with whom I am on very friendly terms. I have only known him for three or four months, but he is very friendly to me, even though I am the former owner of this soft-drink factory, which was expropriated by the Soviets about a year earlier [when they took over Latvia, formerly independent]. He has given me all the responsibilities and has complete confidence in me. A Latvian and former officer, he did not like the previous Latvian nationalist government, and had been a student at the Faculty of Economics. [He is a very reliable and honest poerson; we are on very friendly terms.] He and Sima and I discuss the situation in the city. If it gets critical in the next few days, we will be able to save ourselves by fleeing to Russia.
Sima has decided not to return home tonight because the shooting in the city has increased by the hour. Shortly we learn that the district surrounding the railroad station has been cordoned off by the military. The situation is worsening by the minute. In the streets we can see troops retreating in disarray. Truckloads of civilians are passing by. The phone calls have ended. I try to phone the collective headquarters but am unable to get through. I can see the beginning of chaos. We are left on our own. Now all our planning to be evacuated with the cadres, which had been arranged a few days earlier, is to no avail. It is clearly every man for himself. I have phoned my friend the collective director. In the couple of hours that have intervened since we last spoke, his voice has changed dramatically. He has learned that his only son, a student, was just arrested for alleged connections with an anti-government organization and transferred to the prison. Now he must go there and try to save the youth, so he won't be able to help us. For me and Sima to leave town with him in his automobile is no longer possible.
The atmosphere in the city continues to worsen minute by minute. There is constant shooting and, what is worse, they are firing both on the retreating Soviet army and on civilians. At the day's end, everyone in the factory goes to the basement, where we spend the night to avoid the bullets of the Latvian anti-communists who are shooting from the windows. [Shots are coming from every direction.] [The Latvian "fifth column", hoping for liberation from the communists by the attacking Nazis, is bringing chaos to Riga by shooting from every corner, even from the churches.]
My personal malaise worsens. The workers' and young Latvians' attitude is changing, apparently for the worse, to my great dismay. At daybreak, the director arrives. His face is ashen. He has clearly aged ten years since I saw him yesterday. He can hardly stand on his two feet. He comes to me and tells me that his son has been summarily executed, with no hearing or trial.
"And I worked for them with all my heart, so diligently," he says, " and so honestly, and look what they've done to me. They wouldn't even let me do anything on my boy's behalf. I found his body." As to our evacuation together, we can no longer even discuss it.
The young Latvian chauffeur [of the car we hope to use for our escape] comes to tell me that the motor is suddenly 'not in order,' This means they have sabotaged it.
The following morning we leave the cellar. From my office we can see the deserted streets. Occasionally a heavy armed truck with mounted machine-gun passes by. the picture is not good. the shooting continues. Nobody dares to go out yet.
At nine o'clock the phone rings. It is my friend Abraham, ("Abrasha") Shetzen who lived with his wife Hinda in the same building on the same floor. We had spent many happy and unhappy days together. They left their apartment the day before and are now staying with relatives. Excitedly, Abrasha tells me that he has sent someone to the railroad station to see if any trains are leaving. He says that if Sima and I wish, we may join them. We are very thankful.
In a few minutes we leave the building without any good-byes. The walk across town to see our friends is very perilous. They are still shooting from windows [and you can't tell where the next shot will come from. The Latvian "fifth column", hoping for liberation from the communists by attacking them and helping the Nazis is bringing chaos to Riga by shooting from every corner, even from the churches.] On the next corner we see a sad sight. There stands a young soldier who, [we can tell from his appearance and conversation], is a Jew. His face reveals a terrible fear of what is going on. Shouts are ringing out from the top floor of the house next door and this boy knows he is the target. He is afraid to leave his post. Waiting for the next bullet, maybe death. I will never forget his face.
We are walking very fast. With us is Baranov, who comes from my home town of Zilope', and who works at the factory. He has always been very loyal to me. He wants to see that no harm befalls us.
Arriving at our destination, we find an apartment filled with very excited people. Soon the man sent to the railroad station returns.
"The trains are completely full and it is simply impossible to get on," he tells us. It seems impossible to leave the city. "It's too late, and they are not even sure if the train will leave the station at all, because of the air raids."
Trying to discuss the situation, my friends and I decide that we should return home. There is a chance this way, because we live near a freight railroad station. Maybe there we can get a train out of town. It is all very, very risky, but we all set out walking towards the building we all abandoned just two days earlier.
The city is a terrible sight. Everywhere you can see the results of the air-raids. You don't see anybody, except an occasional truckload of soldiers. The man in charge of the freight railroad station is a good friend of Abrasha's but he cannot help us at all. Our morale is broken. Exhausted, we return to our apartments. Now everything is at an end, we are thinking, and we understand our situation, but it is too late to turn back time.
29 June 1941
Thus this evening has arrived. Sunday brings no improvement. Not far from our building is another freight station, but they don't let anybody in. There are trains there with soldiers who are completely exhausted. Some are lying dead in the street, right on our front doorstep, killed by snipers. Baranov, who has spent Saturday night with us, goes to the factory to see if anything has happened there. Maybe we can get something. Soon two workers appear with some loaves of bread. I am very happy that Baranov came; these people are so good to me, trying to help with what they can. They are so helpful. Like friends. It is not as if I were the owner and they the workers. We have always had a very good rapport with them, and they always try to help me. They helped me stay on my job as plant director when the Russians came and now, too, they are trying to help. I have always tried to look out for their interests. These two spend a couple of hours with us and leave, promising to return two days hence.
Latvia Falls to the Nazis.
Riga, Monday, 30 June 1941
Today it is no better, but it does seem that there is nobody left to shoot at. The city is quiet and open. [The shooting has stopped.] The city is without rule. It is a depressing silence.
Tuesday, 1 July 1941
I turn on the radio and, to my great amazement, I hear the Latvian national anthem. I don't understand what is going on. Abrasha now comes to me with a happy face, saying he hopes everything will finally be in the best of order. I look at him as if he were completely out of his mind. [He hates the Russians passionately and wants to believe that their ouster is for the best.] The Russians nationalized all his investments and completely ruined him. [He remembers the German occupation from the First World War, before Latvia became independent in 1918, which was benign. At that time, the Germans were very helpful.] He cannot forgive this and does not seem to understand what awaits us. He's just so glad to get rid of them. It is hard for me to imagine just what our future will be.
An announcement interrupts from the radio, in Latvian. "Latvian men and women in ...[names of some underground anti-soviet organizations], all of you go to your units. We are free. We must help the Germans and Adolf Hitler. Long live free Latvia!"
Hearing this, Abrasha nods his head, realizing what kind of situation we are now in. Sima and I are crying. One doesn't need any commentaries. We see very clearly what lies ahead.
There is a new order. All workers in industry should go back to their jobs. Instinctively, I get dressed. Despite Sima's protests, I will go to the factory. I cannot stand indecision. I must see with my own eyes and find out what is what. In the city the street cars are already moving, and I take one. Beyond the factory in the streets are Latvian flags and flowers. Steel gray cars are driving through the streets, the same vehicles they had told me were out of order. Everywhere I hear military music. Happiness is written on every Latvian face I see. I feel that I lack the strength to assess the new situation.
I get to the factory. All the Latvian workers are drunk and congratulating each other, these workers, formerly from [my competitor's factory, which had been consolidated with mine by the Russians, when they expropriated everything.] The workers from my factory are mostly Russian. I understand them very well.
I stop Sasha in the laboratory and ask that he go to a different sector of the factory and destroy the portraits of the Russian leaders, which hang in the club room. After ten minutes he returns and tells me that the job is done. We understand each other.
A second Russian worker has been looking around and comes to me to report what is going on in the city. They are catching Jews in the streets and shooting them on the spot! [Although the Latvians, with their long history of anti-semitism, are not really free, they feel free, since the Germans have liberated them from Russian control.]
I go to my office. As usual, the telephone is ringing off the hook. I pick up the receiver. It is an unfamiliar voice, speaking in Latvian, giving me a phone-telegram: There is a new director of the Kombinat, Schmidt, and I am hereby removed from my position. Not one word about me or my work or contributions to the business. Without even mentioning my name, this anonymous voice tells me that I have been removed.
A worker enters and I inform him of the news. He apparently wants to say something, but cannot. This is Bronstein, an older man who works in inventory. I am surprised by his appearance. He is wearing a new suit, and I see he has a happy look about him. "Thank God it's over," he says. "Now we can get back to work and things will be as they used to be."
I think he is out of his mind. He is sixty-five years old and a smart man, a former owner of one of the factories in the collective. He thinks that Hitler will return what was his before the Soviet takeover. He doesn't give the slightest thought to the fact that he is a Jew. It unnerves me. For him, all that matters is to be owner of something. I can't remain calm; I tell him what I think. Suddenly he begins to understand and falls silent.
A few moments later I am summoned to a staff meeting. A few people are missing from the group, which has been assembled quite suddenly. Veyda, a Latvian, is in charge. He had arrived at the factory quite suddenly, lacking any prior experience in this field of work, and always used to ask me to come help him. He is very excited. Haltingly and in a polite, respectful tone, he asks me to leave the place voluntarily, for my own good. He and all the workers have a lot of respect for me, he says, and they don't want difficulties. Everybody seems embarrassed. They are too ashamed to look me in the eye. I see tears in some of their eyes.
I pull myself together and, with as much strength as I can muster, I thank them for their consideration and I walk out. Baranov is walking behind me with tears in his eyes. "How could those bastards do that to you when you had been so good to them. You did so much for everybody!" I try to calm him. I take my briefcase and leave. I am very depressed. What I have seen and been through!
The streets are filled with Germans and Latvians with their red-white-and-red armbands. I am walking very fast and realize that I must get home as soon as possible. Some of the Latvians eye me suspiciously. Some have a sinister, questioning look about them when they see me, as if to ask, "Is he a Jew or isn't he?" I don't look particularly Jewish. I walk quickly but calmly.
At last I am ringing the bell. Sima opens the door. She sees me and almost faints. She has feared the worst. She has learned from friends what is going on in the streets, how they are catching and shooting Jews. How could she have let me go to work at such a time? She couldn't forgive herself for letting me go out into the city. I am completely exhausted from what has just happened, but I gather the energy to tell them. We decide not to venture outside at all.
[from memoirs by Leo Dreyer]
Terrifying days and nights have begun. From the windows we see new cars arrive from time to time, carrying armed Germans and Latvians. From each apartment they take one or two Jews and they leave. They simply take them out. Almost everyone in our building is Jewish, and almost every night someone is taken out. We await our turn. We hear a door open or footsteps in the hallway; we hear them questioning the custodian about the building's residents. Which ones are the Jews? Which ones are not? He tells them that we are already taken.
We no longer open our door, except to some others who live in this building. We have prearranged a special signal with the doorbell. In the evening, Baranov comes very cautiously with Katia, another worker, a Russian. She is very good to us, always bringing something, and telling us what is going on in the city. She tells us how the new director has scolded the employees for being mean and unfair to me. To show his good will, he has sent me my final paycheck. The Germans allowed the man to remain as director because he was ill-treated by the communists, particularly when they killed his son. She and Baranov have cashed it and brought me the money. Veyda has also got rid of the other workers.
A couple of days later we see the sky is completely red and we learn that the main synagogue is on fire. The Latvians have chased a few dozen Jews inside and blocked off all the doors and other exits. With a few barrels of gasoline, they have started a fire and burned alive those poor trapped souls inside. The same thing has happened in the new Jewish cemetery. They have burned the Jews alive in their synagogue. Next, they grab a few Jews in the streets and force them to clean up the ruins, including the charred bodies.
What is going on at the police station is also difficult to believe. The Latvians with their armbands walk at night from one apartment to the next, taking men and women to the police station. The orgies are incredibly brutal. They cut off the old men's beards and payes and so on... Sometimes Katia and Baranov bring us food. Thus we spend twelve days of horror at home.
13 July 1941
Tonight we are awakened by banging at the door shortly before sunrise. We dare not open, but the banging continues. We hear them preparing to break the door down. Sima decides to open. Three drunk Latvians wearing armbands enter. They are abusive and tell us to get dressed and come with them or they will shoot us on the spot. I hear the same noises next door in Abrasha's apartment. The staircase is filled with these Latvians. In a few moments we and our neighbors are in the street, part of a growing crowd of unfortunate Jews.
They make us line up in columns, abusing us verbally all the while, and we set out walking towards police station in the center of the city. We have no idea what lies ahead. Other columns join us. We all gather in a big yard near the police station. The Latvians are all armed and drunk. Day breaks, and we are again put into formation and begin to march out of the city! By 6 AM we reach our destination, a military barracks occupied by the Germans. They divide us into work details, scoffing at us and beating us at every moment. Some Jews are hitched up to wagons and forced to carry heavy things. The summer heat is unbearable and we are exhausted, but we are forced to go on like this until evening, when we are allowed to go home, after securing a safe-conduct pass from the German commandant. Our slavery has begun. We have been instructed to return the next day to continue with the same tasks. Upon arriving home, we decide not to go back. Physically, we just can't take it.
A week goes by [during which we stay at home not knowing what to do and again not venturing outside our apartments for any reason. Occasionally someone stops by to bring us food.] In order to protect ourselves from further nighttime intruders, Abrasha and I decide to seek work at the neighborhood railroad freight station, loading and unloading. This will remove the risk of walking through the city. We organize a whole group of people. Abrasha goes to see the work foreman and returns, announcing that they have agreed and that we can go a begin work tomorrow.
The work is physically exhausting and we are not paid for our labor but nobody taunts us. Frazer, the man who supervises us, half-Latvian and half-German, likes to drink. He treats us humanely. He obtains special work permits for us so we can show that we are engaged at the freight yard. Such a card will save us from "unexpected visitors."
On the second or third day, we have a surprise visit. It is Sima's brother Moisyey who has suddenly appeared. When the Russians were in power, they had put him in charge of a pharmacy in the countryside, and he was on good terms with his mayor of the village, who gave him a permit, written in German and Latvian, stating that he could come to Riga. This is how he has been able to join us. [His assignment in the countryside had cut him off from the rest of us in Riga and elsewhere in Latvia.] We are all happy to have him among us and, overjoyed that he has been able to pull it off to be with us. The next morning he accompanies us to the station and gets a work permit.
Food is scarce. Whatever we had is finished. Where we work we can't get anything to eat and, of course, there is no pay. [A Jew isn't supposed to get anything, yet we consider ourselves lucky because our jobs are just around the corner and our work saves us from harassment.] We know it could be worse elsewhere than it is here. Baranov and Katia, at great risk, occasionally appear, bringing us food. If caught, they could be arrested. Sometimes we give them things which they take away with them: household items, clothes... It is better than money as an exchange for food. [There is no money. Russians confiscated money, banks are closed, we have no paychecks from our slave labor]
The newspapers are filled with anti-semitic propaganda, completely impossible stories. From the paper which Baranov brings, we learn that Jews are no longer permitted to walk on the sidewalk. Only in the middle of the street. The future is bleak, dark, terrifying. We, as Jews, are completely excluded from the human race and society. We have no laws to protect us.
One evening, a drunk German with some Latvians, muscles his way into our apartment and starts to abuse us verbally. He tells us that we don't need such a bedroom set, that tomorrow they will come to take this furniture. We don't care. We are glad this is all they want to take, and that they don't want us. But such barbarism does hurt. [The German officer tells me I should be lucky because hte furniture is going to a high German officer.] Next day a van arrives and they take the bedroom furniture. We are not even upset about it. The movers are Jewish forced laborers, working for the Germans. I ask Baranov to take the beautiful hand-made furniture from our den. Two days later he returns and takes it. It is very beautiful, but I am happy it will not go to some German.
Suddenly an announcement appears in all the newspapers: All Jews living in the capital must appear on a certain day at several points around the city to register. It appears that they have now decided to do something about the Jewish question. From this day on all Jews are to be so identified by special marks on their passports and must wear a star made of yellow cloth sewn onto the left front and the back of their clothing. A new degradation. It is as if the whole human race, led by Adolph Hitler's great new German culture, has returned to the middle ages. The Jewish question has partially been solved, in Riga, in the past two months. About 10,000 Jews have been killed since the Latvians started shooting. Nobody suggests that we defend ourselves. We are completely defenseless. The Latvian death batallions are participating in the complete destruction of the Jewish population of the province and villages, right down to the small, defenseless, innocent children.
In the tiny town of Vilina, I learn, when they destroyed the local Jewish population, there was one very beautiful young Jewish woman named Kupsik. They took her out from those who were supposed to die and they gave her to some drunken German officer who raped her. [By law the Germans were not allowed to have sexual relations with Jews, even by rape, except for the many brothels set up along the front, which were often populated with girls brought in from the concentration camps.] They kept her a a week and then took her out in a field and buried her alive with the child she was holding in her arms. She covered the infant with her beautiful long hair.
People are becoming animals, losing all humanity. The propaganda in the newspapers is getting worse. Nothing to look forward to. We are even afraid to think about the future. We begin to speak in whispers. Rumors. A new law, requiring all Jews to leave their apartments and go to live outside the city, isolated into a special district by two barbed wire fences one a couple of feet inside the other. They have started to work on such a section. A Jewish committee will regulate life in the ghetto. We will be forever completely isolated there from human contact. The Jewish committee gives an order that in Olainy, fifteen km. from the city, people, forty women are needed to cut peat in the fields. [The Jewish committee, a group of prominent people from the community selected by the Germans, is responsible to select and supply the German Arbeitbestimmer with the required people.] It is said that both food and working conditions are good there. With the help of the Jewish committee, they soon have enough people for a work detail. After a couple of weeks we learn that thirty-five Jewish women have been brutally killed there.
The day for us to move to the Ghetto soon arrives. Very often my friend Salaman comes to visit. He came from Germany in 1939 with his German gentile wife to live in Latvia. [His father had been attached to the German Imperial Court before World War I.] During World War I he was an officer in the German army. To the Russians he was a German Jew, so he couldn't get any work. Since he was an engineer I could help him. He is a very capable man with an excellent education. Now he tries not to identify himself as a Jew. He always wears the German medals he earned during the last war, and he still works at the soft-drink factory. He is a specialist in machine construction and nobody there seems to be the wiser. There is a new director at the factory. The old one has left, but I'm no longer interested. Life is indescribable. No help is in sight and only our faith and hope keeps us going. We are just swimming with the flow...
When the day arrives, Abrasha shows up with a horse and buggy onto which we load some of our things. The rest we leave with the apartment owner and we move to the Ghetto [formerly a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, called Moscow Vorstadt]. The gentile residents have had to leave their flats, occupying in exchange those flats in the city formerly inhabited by Jews. It is almost impossible to find a place to stay in the tiny Ghetto. Fortunately, Sima's brother knows a gentile policeman from the district whom he has bribed to get his apartment, two rooms and a kitchen. Sima, her brother and I sleep in one room; Abrasha, Hinda, and Hinda's sister sleep in the other. Meanwhile, Mary, Sima's cousin, sleeps in the kitchen. Our room is big, so we set up partitions with sheets and allow a young woman, Dr. Kaminyetski, and her 80-year-old father to stay with us as well. Nine people in one small flat!
Ghetto! how much tragedy in this world!
How many songs have been written of the Ghetto,
Always with death, blood and more blood.
How many hanged?
How many shot?
How much blood shed of innocent children
With one strike from one person?
How much blood from mothers who refuse
To give up their children, and
Perish forever in an embrace,
Trying to shield them?
Ghetto, this sea of blood,
This sea of tears!
There are nine of us in this small apartment. Each of us has approximately two square meters of living space, but it seems enough. We know it is only temporary. In other apartments it is much worse. the sheet-dividers give the illusion of separate rooms for us. The streets outside are constantly filled with people. The Ghetto has only a few streets, but approximately 30,000 people live here now. There is simply not enough room for everybody to stay, so there is a constant scurry of people looking for a corner to sleep in. Food is distributed at a few locations, but it is so scarce that there are forever lines blocking the streets. From time to time, cars pass carrying German officers. We always avoid them. The Ghetto has a police composed of Jews, which acts as a buffer between us and the Germans. The police also assemble work details to send to the city to work for the army, the SS, and the German police department, cleaning and performing other menial tasks.
There is a gate to get out of the Ghetto, with a small house next door in which there are Latvian guards. Here also stays a man whose job it is to delegate where Jews will go on work-details outside. [Each of us wants desperately to be able to leave the Ghetto for work.] On all sides the Ghetto is surrounded by barbed wire and watched by trigger-happy Latvian guards on orders to shoot if anyone so much as approaches the gate or fences. Sometimes, just for fun, they shoot at a window where they might see a light. It doesn't matter to them on way or the other if they kill someone. After all, we are only Jews. Maybe they hit a mother or father, leaving some child without parents.
Early in the morning the square near the Ghetto gate fills with people, like a slave-market. Those who have come to pick up these slaves wait outside and they choose whom they want, unless they already have a work-detail assigned to them. Those of us who are able to leave the Ghetto for work consider ourselves lucky. We can at least leave this enclosure to go into the city. Even though it means walking many kilometers, we must walk in the middle of the street, not on the sidewalk. The work is without food and very physical. Sometimes they beat us, but the simple pleasure of being out in the city, breathing the free air, causes one to forget the isolation and misery of the Ghetto for a few moments. Sometimes at a workplace, we can get a morsel of food to supplement the few grams of bread we are able to get in the Ghetto each day. Sometimes a soldier or a woman gives us something to eat. Back in the Ghetto the women and small children who stay behind also want to eat, but there is simply not enough. So the one who leaves the Ghetto for work on the outside leaves his portion behind for those at home. Sometimes, after a long day of work and the long walk home to the Ghetto, one may have saved some small piece of food for those at home, but this doesn't mean you can bring it in. The Latvian and German guards search us. If they find food, they take us into the guardhouse and they beat us. You can only hear the screams. It makes no difference to them if the infractor is a woman or a man. They beat us brutally. Some days there is no search and we think that it's over, but then it starts again. Nobody knows when we will be searched. Sometimes the beatings come without any provocation. After work and the walk to the Ghetto, everyone is exhausted. The Latvians and Germans are standing on each side with their billy-clubs and we have to pass through. The lucky ones among us who have enough strength left rune through this "honor guard" and escape relatively untouched. The guards club the rest of us, as if for pleasure, as we pass through and try to avoid their sticks. This is the great new German culture of the XX century!
Abrasha and I go to the city each day to work at the freight station. It seems to me like the city is not connected to the rest of the world. We have little food and are constantly hungry. Sometimes we are lucky enough to bring something edible home to the Ghetto. "How can we bring it through undetected?" we ask ourselves. We work very strenuously all the time. Each day it becomes more difficult to walk through the gate. It is really quite hard on our health and our nerves [but we are still glad that Frazer, the half-German, half-Latvian freight-station foreman and former neighbor of ours, is coming daily to pick us up and escort us on our march through the city between the Ghetto and work. We are not allowed to walk by ourselves; we must always be escorted by Germans or Latvians].
In the former Latvian Rathaus, or City Hall work forty Jewish men and thirty Jewish women. This is the headquarters of the main SS commander, whose name is Jekelln. He knows he has Jews working for him, but he doesn't want to see them. All the Jews hide from his view. When he recently went to inspect the rooms near the kitchen, where some Jewish women work, he caught some of them smoking. Without saying a word, he locked the men in a separate room for a few hours and forced the women, at machine-gun point, to board a truck. He took them away. A few hours later the truck returned empty and the men were sent to clean up the blood and mess inside. Nothing has ever again been heard of the thirty young, beautiful Jewish women who worked in the Rathaus.
Late November, 1941
At the end of November, 1941, the Ghetto police have received an order to conduct a census of all the Jews in the Ghetto. We are really mystified and would like to know what is cooking. From our past experience, we know the Germans have something in mind and, whatever it is, it is not good for us. We have different theories, each more horrible than the one before. There are whispers that we will be re-settled to a camp somewhere, where families will be separated.
Our nerves are at end. Each one racks his brains in vain for a way out. One German has told a Jew something at his workplace and rumors fly from mouth to mouth, the story ever changing. But we all know that something is about to happen. We just don't know what. We spend a terrible time. Sleepless nights listening to the noises of the unlit streets, trying to figure out what is going on. There are a lot of drunken Germans and Latvians roaming the streets. They break into apartments and beat the men and rape the women. There is nobody to appeal to for help. We are defenseless at the hands of these barbarians.
At last it comes, one dark evening late in November, 1941. Upon our return to the Ghetto from work, we find everyone agitated and excited. A small group of people stand next to a few houses. On the walls are posted official notices which everyone is reading: Tomorrow morning at seven o'clock, all able-bodied men must report to the main square of the Ghetto, with no more than ten kilos of baggage each, ready to be evacuated to a work camp. We read the order several times just to make sure. Maybe we have not understood. Going home, we are excited. Everyone awaits us anxiously. Already over-tired from our work, we can't even eat. This is terrible news! If we are evacuated, what will happen to the rest?
Night falls. Nobody can sleep. Each household must prepare for an unknown fate. We have learned this night that three hundred new Latvian guards have arrived. Until now we have survived, half-starved. Getting a bit of food in the city and smuggling it home has been a great help, and the wives have managed to put a few things aside. We decide to have our last supper. We don't know if we will eat together or not tomorrow. We also have hidden a little alcohol. I want everyone to have a drink and feel a little better. Old Mr. Kaminyetski sits by the table. He tells some jokes and tries to make us feel a little better. We admire how well he tells the jokes and stories, and this relaxes us a little. Nonetheless, the situation is so sobering that I can't even get a little drunk.
Morning comes and after our sleepless night we are gathering together our warm underwear and clothing and saying our good-bys. I am trying to conceal my feelings, but everyone has the same terrible thought. We say a very fast goodbye and depart.
The streets are filled with excited people. Nobody knows what to do. The mob goes first to one street, then to another. The air is full of premonition. One Latvian officer, Danskopp, the greatest murderer, already has five months' of Jew-killing under his belt. He strolls thorough the street and taunts us in Latvian, "Look at the sun. You might never see it again." His word, which come like lightning, are understood by all.
A couple of hours pass and we are still in the street. Abrasha and I decide to leave it all and return home. In a few minutes we have arrived. Come what may, we will not go anywhere. We take off our coats and wait. By noon we learn that the small part of the Ghetto has been evacuated and set apart by barbed wire. A small enclave.
A new order comes: All young men are to be transferred to the small Ghetto. Suddenly another new order comes: three hundred young women without children are needed as seamstresses. Rumor has it that they will work for the German army in a large factory in the city. We try to decide how to deal with the new situation. Everybody wants to live. Nobody wants to die, especially an inhuman death. Can this be an opportunity to survive? This last thought is but a fleeting one. It seems impossible to escape death. How can one survive? We feel like a drowning man snatching at a floating straw.
We decide to go ahead. Abrasha and I go to the small Ghetto. Here a new German guard decides who may and may not enter, just by looking at us. He doesn't let any old people in. He asks you your profession and if you give the wrong answer you are also excluded. Sima comes running after us to tell us that she, Hinda, Mary and Hanna will go to be seamstresses. We are somewhat relieved.
We approach the German soldier and tell him that I am a tailor. Abrasha calls himself a cobbler. Fortunately, we are both young and healthy and are allowed to enter. Behind us, a young man gives the German the wrong answer and is denied entry. The soldier just kicks him in the groin and sends him on his way back to where he came from.
We men walk through the small Ghetto looking for a place to stay. we find Sima's brother, Moisyey, who has been working in the Ghetto pharmacy. This day he departed for work early in the morning, heading back for the small Ghetto shortly past midday, after finishing work. He tells us that he has seen Sima, Hinda, Mary and Hanna registering as seamstresses. We feel a bit relieved but fear that the Germans might just be using this as a subterfuge. God only knows what will happen to our loved ones! All together we find a room with a kitchen in the very end of the Ghetto, near the back gate. A couple of meters behind this house is an empty lot, an open field. A couple f friends join us and we are now eight. We clean our new place and await the night.
Not far from us in the street the drunken guards walk around, joking and laughing. Nobody can fall asleep. We just sit and listen to what goes on. After midnight we hear a few shots, and then more volleys, increasing in number and frequency. Soon we hear a lot of screaming women. The screams soon turn into groans. We are petrified with fear. We have a small window. As soon as it gets light we go out to look. Beyond the fence, we see the street filled with people walking.
We are watching the first scenes of a nightmare. Columns and columns of Jews, men women and children carrying infants in their arms, old people who can hardly walk. An elderly woman can scarcely make it down the street. A big Latvian soldier approaches her and hits her over the head with his rifle-but. She falls, of course, in the fresh snow which fell last night. Everything is red from blood.
One woman holding a baby cannot walk as fast as the others in the column. Her eyes betray her terror. Suddenly a big German pulls the child from her arms and throws it towards a stone wall. The woman runs to the wall and bends over her child and the same soldier shoots her dead, with one shot, next to her child. We cannot even look. We just fall to our knees. I cannot focus my eyes. It is like a fog. My throat is dry. I cannot speak a word. I get up again to take another look. I recognize two figures in the columns: old Mr. Kaminyetski and his daughter. He walks with his head high as he passes our gate. The last night we spent together now returns to my mind. The stories he told us, how he tried to make us feel a little better. He wanted to show us that he was not afraid. Now he even has a smile on his face. Now we see the rest of the people who lived in the same building. I look at Abrasha with a single thought: Where are the others? We are afraid to think.
Again there is shooting. Again there is screaming. The snow has melted from all the blood. It has become red slush. The people trod on. We are back again in our room, though I don't remember when we returned. Nobody can speak a word. What can one say, anyway? The shooting has stopped and the street is completely quiet. It is now noon. We go out into the street, if you can call it a street. It really isn't a street. The fences are broken down and you can go from one yard to another.
We come to another house in the small Ghetto, a little larger than the one where we are staying. Here we find a small group of people, all whispering. They, too, cannot speak of the nightmare we have all just witnessed. Nobody can understand what we have seen. Where are they going? All that remains in our ears is shooting.
Aktion. That is what they call this slaughter of miserable people and their children. It sounds a bit cultural, coming from Latin. What we saw is not just murder. Elsewhere in the world people cannot imagine that such a thing is really happening. Those in Berlin must think that after their great new Germany wins the war, nobody will remain as a witness, that sooner or later everybody will be exterminated. History will not ever explain what really happened. They don't call this murder, but Aktion.
In the big yard, two Jewish policemen suddenly appear. They come to our group and they ask us to help them to collect all the corpses from the streets and the apartments. The Germans have ordered them to clean up so that no traces of what has happened will be left. All of the corpses should be brought to the old cemetery in the Ghetto. A couple of volunteers go with them, wanting to see what they can find out about their own families.
The cemetery is a multitude of tragic scenes. In each, someone has found a family member. Among them, a young Doctor Friedmann, who has had a premonition, finds his wife and child dead in the cemetery. It has such an effect on him that he goes into a very deep depression. In the evening, we learn that the preceding day, approximately 990 people were killed in the street. From what we have seen with our own eyes, it is very clear what will happen to the ones who walk by. It is technically impossible to kill everybody in the Ghetto at one time. This evening, we also learn that much of the big Ghetto has not yet been touched. There still remain some Jews there who live with their families.
Rumors abound, all to the effect that the Aktion will continue. Night falls again, but this time it is quiet. The following morning, the German work detail supervisors return for their work details, to escort us to the city and our jobs. Frazer is there. We have twenty people in our group and together we go back into the city where everybody is still alive. We arrive at the freight station but they don't give us anything to do. The man in charge comes to us. He knows what has happened. He tries to calm us. He says a few phrases and lets a tear fall. One crocodile tear, we are thinking. We don't believe in their tears or in the sudden goodness of their hearts or in their understanding. This day we learn that, two nights earlier, a column of about five hundred Jewish women was seen walking to an unknown destination. We assume these were the seamstresses. Not three hundred but five hundred have signed up. In the evening, we return to the Ghetto, where everything is as it was yesterday. The next day, we learn from a decent Latvian worker that a whole group of five hundred women has been taken to jail. We beg him to find out the particulars. I offer to give him my good wrist-watch if he will just bring me a small note, written by Sima's own hand, telling me that she is okay. He makes no promise other than to try.
Six or seven days later, we return to the Ghetto to learn that two hundred women from the jail have been brought to a sector of the big Ghetto. I find a few women I know and learn that Sima, Hinda, Mary and Hanna are still in jail. [Sima and a large group of the other women, I later learn, will stay in the freezing attic of the jail for about ten days on a meagre diet.] On this particular day, the commander of the Ghetto, Lieutennant Stanke, a German, call for a Selektion from among the five hundred women. Two hundred have been returned to the Ghetto. He looks them over. They have all been kept under inhuman conditions in the prison attic. with only 50 grams of bread per day, plus hot water. The women are very agitated because, apparently, more women have been supplied than had been called for. They are shocked to hear about the Aktion, which took place during their absence.
Sometimes, after work I go visit our friend, Dr. Josef, an immigrant friend of ours from Germany. Sima and I have known him since before the war in 1939, when he came to Riga to live with his wife. They lived with us for about a year, until the end of 1940. In pre-Hitler Germany he was already an eminent doctor, surgeon, and gynecologist. In Germany he wrote quite a few books and had a big name in the medical world. The great new Germany has rejected him. In the Ghetto hospital he is the chief doctor. His wife, a most intelligent, cultured human being, and accomplished pianist, assists her husband day and night on his rounds. They try to assure me that Sima will probably be all right. I don't feel they have any way of knowing. They feel the worst is behind us and that Sima and the others will return.
Nine days pass after the first Aktion. We begin to hope that such a thing will not happen again. We cannot wait to go to work each day, hoping to find our loved ones back in the Ghetto upon our return. On this particular evening, however, the Jewish police again makes a a count of those remaining. We start to get suspicious. The next morning we try to get out as fast as we can. As the gate they are very strict. There are more guards than usual. Upon our return to the Ghetto after work, we learn that there has been a second Aktion. They have cleaned out every last Jew from the big Ghetto, plus everyone in the small Ghetto who did not go to work on this day. [Sima and I later thank God that she has been in jail these days, for it saved her life. Of the five hundred women in jail, the Bestimmer Krause has pulled out two hundred, since he only needed three hundred. Many women bribed their way into the group and in this way its ranks swelled far beyond the required number. In jail during the Selektion, he looked at each woman and asked her what she did. Someone whispered in Sima's ear that it would be a good idea to say you are a furrier, since they need people to make warm clothes for the soldiers on the Russian front. This is what Sima tells the man: that she can sew furs together. Sima is sent to the right, not knowing whether she has given the right answer or what will be the fate of her particular group. She is among the three hundred who must stay in jail, thus avoiding death, as the other two hundred are sent back to the Ghetto and the next Aktion. Apparently there is someone up there watching over her, causing her life to be spared in this Selektion.]
The people have been ordered to assemble in the main square of the small Ghetto. [Sima is in jail and Leo most likely working downtown. Otherwise they would be included in this Selektion.] This time, it is a completely different arrangement. Big buses and trucks are there to take them all to an undisclosed destination. The last bus must be out by 1 PM, they are told. The motor is broken down. The Latvian driver tries unsuccessfully to fix it. A German officer arrives on a motorcycle, saying "Die Uhr ist Eins. Die Aktion ist beendet." (It is one o'clock; the Aktion is ended.) The fifty of them on the last bus are saved, except for three doctors. Hoping for a more dignified death, they have taken poison. One of them, however, a Dr. Kreutzer is saved.
We are completely numb from the news of the bloodbath. The streets are completely deserted. Nobody awaits us in the empty Ghetto. Near one fence stands a very tall man, sobbing. I approach him. It is Dr. Josef. His Greta, his bright, beloved wife, has been taken in this Aktion. In his eyes is indescribable anguish. I try in vain to calm him. There are no words that one can say. The whole Jewish police, which helped in this Aktion, [whose members thought they could save themselves by helping the Germans carry out their plans] have also been forced to board the buses, trying at the last moment to bribe the man in charge with a lot of jewelry. Dr. Josef also has given all he had to save his wife, but this trecherous German in charge has taken everything for himself and sent the whole group away on the very first bus. Now the small Ghetto holds about 4,500 people. This is all that remains of about 30,000 who were living here just a few days ago.
German Jewish Police Formed
Now there is a new police in the small Ghetto, with an Austrian Jew named Wandt in charge. He came to Riga before the war. Nobody can understand why he has taken this assignment. Not much is really known about him. He tries to help some of the others as best he can. In the recent Aktion he did save a few people by speaking to a German officer. This happened just after the Germans declared "Die Aktion ist beendet." Just at that moment, Wandt saw the Latvian murderer Danskopp leading some Jews to the cemetery and told him to stop. This simply astounded Danskopp, [who is even more zealous in his lust to exterminate Jews than the Nazis themselves], and the Latvian just laughed in Wandt's face. Wandt warned Danskopp that he alone would bear responsibility for this before the Germans and, to everyone's great surprise, Danskopp relented. From this point on, Wandt has the respect of his fellow remaining Jews in the Ghetto.
A new Jewish police force is again formed from among the young men in the Ghetto. Its main task is to provide workers to clean up inside. Many think that it is better for us Jews to administer the Ghetto's internal affair ourselves than always to be following the Germans' orders.
A few days pass. Abrasha, Moisyey and I become terribly worried about the fate of our beloved women in jail. After the last few days' events_new_new we fear that they may have been taken, too, Upon our return from work on one of these days I recognize the tall, athletic figure of engineer Antikol. He walks towards the gate, where I meet him. He tells me that Sima, Hinda, Hanna, Mary, and all the rest of our women have been brought back from jail to the Ghetto, where they have been assigned to a different block. The small Ghetto has once more been divided by a barbed-wire barrier. We do not have permission to cross it; nonetheless, the joy of this news is overwhelming. We approach the house but the Jewish guard tells us it is forbidden for us to enter. From our side of the barbed wire fence, we see some women whom we recognize. We beg them to get our women. At last we see our own loved ones. They look ghastly! Unrecognizable! The result of the Latvian jail. They see us but cannot come near. Sima wants to smile but instead I see an expression of deep sorrow which makes me cry, but they are happy tears, for I am so glad that she is back from jail.
We must leave. The police warn us that the Germans are coming. We are all excited now as we leave. An hour later, with the help of engineer Antikol, who is allowed into the Frauenlager (women's barracks) [actually a high rise building], we get inside for a few minutes. There is so much I want to say but I am speechless. Everything just evaporates in from my head. I cannot pronounce a single word. The same is true of Abrasha. These few moments fly by and we are soon obliged to leave.
In the evening we go over to the barbed wire and throw a few cans of food over to a woman, asking her to deliver them to number 28, to which our women are assigned. Some men look at us with envy. We understand. There are very few of us left who, along with our wives now in the Frauenlager, have survived. Only twenty couples from among the remaining 4500 Ghetto-dwellers have survived intact, both husband and wife alive. All others have lost their spouse, children, mothers and fathers. The single topic on everyone's lips is our luck, which they envy. We feel, somehow, that we are guilty that my Sima, or Abrasha's Hinda has survived.
German Jews Arrive in the Ghetto
One day in the middle of December, upon my return from work, there is news. More people are now in the Ghetto. Twelve thousand Jews have been brought in from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. People of all ages. Women with children. They stand by the barbed-wire fence and tell us of the terrible journey they have just made from their homelands in railroad cars intended for livestock, under heavy guard. There were many more of them but at one station a great many of them were sent in a different direction. Those who have arrived here are surprised to find houses with clothes, linen and even unfinished food on the tables. In some houses the furnace is still warm. The new arrivals just do not understand. We tell them that 26,000 have lived there but were exterminated, but they just don't believe us. [As Germans, they cannot believe their great country would do such things.]
We tell them what has happened to the others, but they do not believe us. With the typical German mentality, which we have come to know over many years, they fail to see how a "cultured German" could do such a thing. These, they think, are vicious rumors conjured up by the Ostjuden, or Eastern Jews. [These newcomers consider themselves more German than Jewish in many cases.] The way they pronounce the word Ostjuden, with a certain unmistakable disdain, we indeed feel like strangers among these people who now vastly outnumber us. Despite this, if we have extra bread, we give it to their children. [Our children are all gone.]
Behind the wall of our apartment lives our Landsmann, Boris Schmuckler. He has lost his young wife and his mother-in-law in the recent Aktion. It is almost impossible for him to reconcile what has happened. He works with us. The day after our women have returned from jail, he calls me over to tell me he plans to escape. In the city, he says, everything is arranged, and they await him. He asks for our help. We agree to help. The Ghetto doesn't yet have any exact statistics on the number of dwellers yet, so he should not be missed.
The next day, on our departure for work, we must walk by a railroad track and an empty train, which we must walk around. This is where we will leave Schmuckler. I remove the yellow star from his back and lapel and he crosses over to the sidewalk on the other side, where he walks among the people there. We all wish him good luck. Once at work at the freight station, we tell them that Schmuckler has been transferred to a different work detail.
A couple of days pass. Two young men, Klein and Feitelberg, who also live and work with us, have become acquainted at work with an old Latvian man who comes to Riga on business to the freight station. Klein, who has saved some family jewelry, accepts the old man's offer of refuge on his farm, some forty kilometers from the city, where his family lives. The old man promises to take the two in his horse-drawn wagon to the farm. It seems risky to us but, fearing a repetition of recent weeks' events_new_new, we fell we are in no position to try and talk Klein and Feitelberg out of it. On a cold, wintry evening, they change their clothes and disappear from the railroad freight station with this old man. A week passes and, to our distress we learn that they have been discovered in the forest by a couple of German soldiers who were checking documents. Both have been shot on the spot and the Latvian, apparently, arrested.
Abrasha and I are afraid to continue on this job. A relative of Abrasha's suggests we change and gets us a job with the SS. The very ones who have carried out these Aktionen! Soon we are working for them. The Jews who work there have found notes in their desks about these men's participation in the Aktionen: every file tells in detail the number of bullets each has used and how many Jews each has killed. They are quite nice to the Jews who work for them, however. They give us food. These are the main guards of the Ghetto. We learn that the Gestapo has saved 500 Jews from the Aktionen simply because these Jews were not in the Ghetto at the time, but living in the city, on the premises of the businesses where they worked. We find these rumors incredible! How could the Gestapo do such a thing? Abrasha and I decide to try to get jobs there.
Abrasha's relative, Binder and I get a different assignment working for six Germans Schupers who live in a private apartment in the city, Our new jobs are to wash and clean the cars, to cut wood and heat the apartments, and other tasks. At this job, I must remove my stars. They are probably ashamed that Jews should work like slaves of the Middle Ages. During work time, we are completely free. We can go out in the streets. It is as if I have become someone else. Now we always get a little more bread or meat, fat, tobacco or a little can of conserves which I pass on to Sima who, by this time, has found work as a cleaning woman in a nearby army unit. [Neither Sima's employers nor mine seem to object if we spend the night at our workplace. We are constantly afraid to return to the Ghetto, not knowing when they might decide to have another Aktion.] Sometimes we stay out of the Ghetto for a whole week at a time. We are very lucky to have such jobs. We don't have to go back. We need not fear another Aktion for the time being. We don't have to see what is going on.
German Jews and Ostjuden
Sometimes we even feel as if we are in paradise. One of the Wachmeisters at work takes my wrist-watch, in exchange for taking me, one Saturday, to Sima's workplace, where he leaves me for the weekend. Meanwhile, a Selektion has begun in what is now called the German Ghetto, where all the German Jews stay. They select a few thousand of the older residents and take them away to, as they say, "another camp", [to kill them, in reality, we later learn] but they believed the Germans. Almost every day, for the slightest infraction, people are shot, especially in our own Arbeitslager. [The Ghetto is divided into three parts. German Jews live in a separate section with their families. In the Latvian part there are no families left. Children have been liquidated. Men live in one section and women in another.] An elderly German, Hesfer, is in charge of the guards. He is well-known for his viciousness. The new Kommandant, Sturmbahnfu"hrer Krause is a real sadist. This short man with a long face is in charge of the Aktionen. He likes to give candy to the children just before having them slaughtered. When he appears on the street, everyone tries to hide from his gaze. He is also directly in charge of the Frauenlager. To shoot Jews is his sport. He often takes people from the Latvian Jewish sector for any infraction. Now there is a new factor in our day-to-day lives: the German Jewish Police, organized by Krause himself. The man in charge, Rudolph Haar, in normal times was a complete nobody, but Krause likes him because he saw him hit another Jew very hard. His assistant is named Kurt Frankfurter, another nobody. They also organize a whole community where Leiser is in charge. Schultz is in charge of the Arbeiteinsatz, labor assignments.
These German Jews like titles. They work very hard at their jobs, as if they had an historical mission to fulfill. To work with them is very difficult. They have devised a new system in which they denounce you if something is not done properly. Our own Jewish police tries to help , but cannot morally or physically spare us from our terror and fear of the German Jews. Every little so-called infraction is reported to the commandant, for which he praises them. [We Ostjuden are denounced for such petty infractions as smuggling a piece of bread into the Ghetto from the city. Such behavior, of course, brings us punishment. Despite occasional friendships and support on an individual basis, however, there is very little solidarity or understanding between the remaining Latvian Jews and the newly arrived German Jews, despite our common religion, Yiddish language, and terrible situation. For some reason, they are generally disdainful, especially those in charge.] The German Jews have also organized an O"stenrach, a body in charge of the entire community, led by a man named Leiser, who reminds me of some Jesuit character. Another, named Schultz, is in charge of work assignments. Each wants to be in charge of something, even if it is connected with the terrible tragedy that is going on around us. They act as if they are fulfilling some kind of historical mission, but they are really nobodies--trash, human refuse.
By now, another new "system" has been devised, requiring one to inform and make denunciations of everything that occurs in the Ghetto. At the same time, our own Jewish police is trying to help us morally and physically, but they are afraid for themselves. Every little deviation or evasion from the Ghetto rules is immediately denounced to the commandant, who lavishes praise and gratitude on the informants, exhorting them to continue. This has reached such an extent that Schultz, with his incredible servitude, has now been put in charge of everything, as a reward for his "good work". Our man, Kassel, a very decent Latvian Jew who was in charge until this point, has been forced to step aside.
You can feel that the administration and police in our Ghetto is in some way an obstacle to the Germans and the German Jews. For a short time, the commandant allows our men from our Ghetto to visit the German Ghetto and bring them some food, tobacco, and alcohol, despite official prohibition. These latter two items can be used for bribery or to exchange with gentiles in the city for food. Cigarettes can be pilfered from supplies at certain workplaces. This traffic into our Ghetto and then into the German Jewish Ghetto entails great risks, but is allowed as a part of life which goes on, despite the unending tragedy around us. Also, despite our tragedy, romances are developing among the many women and men who have suddenly been widowed.
- May 1945
Leo and Sima Dreyer's lives were indelibly and forever impacted by the injustice visited upon them by the Nazi's. They miraculously survived! After Leo's death in Washington DC, USA, in the 1980's a memoir of his experience during this period was discovered and transcribed from Russian into English by Sima and John Richard Dreyer. For more information on this document, contact J.R. Dreyer at email@example.com
I no longer work for the Polizei. This unit has been liquidated and I must seek a new slave job. Whoever doesn't have regular work risks getting caught and being sent to do very arduous physical labor without food or rest. I learn that there is a new unit in the city which sends packages to wounded soldiers who are about to return home from the front. The German in charge of this unit is a Baltic German who knew my father, who has just been killed, along with his whole family near Zilope', the village of my birth. In the Ghetto I have a good dear friend and Landsmann, another Abrasha, Abrasha Lazar, the only one in his whole family to survive, also from Zilope', and also unemployed. Together we organize a whole group to work at this unit with Lazar. The work is hard but our attitude is good and there is enough food. We work with food products and nobody watches us. The wounded soldiers on the front, [who have been fighting for the Third Reich] will get a little less as a result of our work.
After a short while, I am able to get Sima into this work unit, too, by slipping her into our work detail one morning as the group prepares to leave the Ghetto. I bribe him with some cigarettes. This is not too difficult to accomplish since the Latvian escort who has come to accompany us to work this day is too drunk to count heads or to notice Sima who, by this time, is without a work assignment. Upon our arrival at work, I speak with the chef, who is quite willing to let her join the work unit.
This work has us traveling around the city by truck. We feel kind of free. We can once again have a certain contact with our Aryan acquaintances, observe what is going on in the city, and hear about what is happening at the front. The great German army, we learn, has started to retreat, in the face of strong resistance from the Red Army. There is more and more work for us because there are more and more wounded German soldiers. Sometimes we can also listen to the radio when our chief is absent. We hear broadcasts from the Russians. Such moments excite us, because we hear a language we are afraid to be overheard speaking. [The Germans, Latvians, and German Jews associate our native Russian language with communism, even though we have also been the victims of this ideology.] Somehow, to hear the Russian language brings us the feeling of freedom. We don't have to look at the SS skull and crossbones emblem or to hear them constantly tell us "Los, los!", "Go, go!" This news really excites us, giving us hopes of survival and freedome without barbed wire.
Also, on the radio we can hear the speeches of Hitler and Goebbels and their lies. They want to smear the whole world with mud. But it seems that they are already losing their power. Sometimes our chef at the workplace gets a little drunk, forgets himself, and begins to speak against Hitler. We don't try to conceal our enjoyment of his remarks, which make us feel that we will soon be free.
The atmosphere in the Ghetto again strains a bit. A couple of people have recently escaped and the commandant stays longer and longer in the Ghetto, consulting at length with the German Jewish Police. Our police remain uninformed. The commandant arrests the very well-known and popular Fima Zakharov, and Dr. Freudmann. Later we learn that they have been accused of bribing a German officer to help them escape to Sweden. In reality, the officer, named Mandel, who worked in the Gestapo, entrapped them and then turned them in. They are both now in the central jail.
There is a handsome young Latvian Jewish policeman by the name of Lyova Slovin, who lives next door. He is a beautiful human being, loved by everyone. We always look forward to seeing him in the evening on his return from work. One dark autumn night he arrives home very late with an extremely sullen and disconcerted look on his face. He avoids all our questions. We can tell from his behavior that something is seriously wrong. Danger is in the air.
Early the following morning we are awakened by Salzmann, who is in charge of the building. He is very upset. Outside our window we see people running in the streets. Nobody knows what is going on, but the word is on everybody's lips. We dress quickly and run out into the yard where we suddenly meet some German Jewish Policemen with new armbands. Until now we have never seen them in our district. They tell us that everyone must go to the main square. We are distressed, and our own police is nowhere to be found. Who can tell us what is going on? Our Latvian Jewish police would tell us what's going on and what to do. These German Jewish Policemen won't cooperate or tell us a thing. Running across the street we see a lot of drunken Gestapo men in full uniform with helmets and firearms. They are chasing Jews, breaking down doors and hitting people with their rifle buts. We hear shooting and screaming.
I look at the Frauenlager where there is also much commotion. Nobody knows what is going on. One very healthy young Jew has decided that the end is at hand and that he has nothing left to lose. He hits a Gestapo man, who falls to the ground, but then quickly rises and begins to chase the youth. We are all running. Everyone is headed for the big square which, by the time we arrive, is already filled with excited and frightened people . Again we stand in columns. [By this time they don't even have to tell us to stand in formation; we do it automatically, out of habit. It is a set procedure.] As we stand in formation, a young Gestapo man comes and kicks an old man, Kodish, out of the column, chasing him to the wall of a house not far from the square where other Jews have also been herded. Some of them have their hands in the air. Some are dressed only in their underwear. Our column is marched briskly towards another main square in the Ghetto, and we come to a gate. We realize that the sooner we separate from the other part of the Ghetto, the better it will probably be for us. In the distance, we see two columns of Gestapo. Among them, we recognize Dr. Langer, the well known "race hygiene" theorist, and our infamous Selektor and Kommandant, Krause. Next to me walks Abrasha Lazar. Being a short man, he has trouble keeping pace with the rest of us. I urge him to keep us with us. At such a moment anything that attracts attention could be detrimental to us. [Lange and Krause are watching us. We must march like strong soldiers and appear able-bodied if we are to avoid being "selected out".] In a military step, we march past this reviewing stand, and soon can breathe easily; we have passed the inspection.
Latvian Jewish Police Executed
As we come to the Frauenlager, I ask about Sima and am told that she left the Ghetto with another group. We are walking quickly towards the gate, where the crowd is jammed up at a complete standstill before us. No one is allowed to leave. Everyone is being sorted into groups. Those whom they don't like are removed by those in charge and sent to a nearby wall. I quickly remove my eye glasses so as not to attract their attention. At last we are beyond the gate. Twenty meters away I find Sima, very pale and frightened, her eyes wide with fear. [Because none of the workers showed up at the usual time outside the Ghetto to go to work today, those who usually wait to pick us up have gone.] We ask an unknown Latvian to escort us into the city. [With our yellow stars on front and back we are not allowed to walk alone in the city.] Once at our workplace, we tell our boss what has happened in the Ghetto. He is very understanding, leaves us be, not sending us anywhere. We are so upset that we can scarcely control our emotions, and in the background, coming from the Ghetto in the distance, we hear shooting. With trepidation, we can picture what must be happening to those unfortunate ones who have had to stay behind, and also to Kodish. Shortly we learn that our Jewish policemen, the ones from our Ghetto, have all been shot.
Evening comes and our own boss escorts us himself to the Ghetto. As we approach the Ghetto, we see many Gestapo slowly walking in the street. There is a terrible silence around us. Upon entering the Ghetto, we se a big announcement posted, in German, telling us that a few days ago, with the help of our own police, twenty Jews had run away. The Gestapo found out right away and chased them with a whole expedition, which found the runaways all armed outside the city. They put up a quite a resistence. During the capture, the Jews killed six SS men and the remaining soldiers, in an uneven fight, killed all the runaways. Whatever happens today, says the announcement, is retribution. The SS shot all the [Latvian] Jewish policemen. Later we learn the particulars of this tragedy and we find out about it from those Latvian Jews who remain in the Ghetto. This all has resulted from the work of the German Jewish Police, which took it upon themselves to inform the Kommandant. [This, at least, is what we have gleaned from the Ghetto information network, which carries rumors as well as news.]
At five this morning at the Kommandant's headquarters, the Kommandant reads the charges to the Latvian Jewish police who are lined up in military formation, against those implicated in the escape. He searches them, removing even the small change from their pockets. He separates Wandt, Kassel, and Meisel from the rest. Kassel didn't belong, since he is not a policeman but works in Arbeiteinsatz, assigning people to different work-sites. Meisel, his assistant, repairs shirts for the Kommandant of late. We have no idea why Wandt is spared. Of the large crowd of people on their way to work, 107 have been pulled aside, put on trucks and sent out of the Ghetto. Our police are then told that they should prepare themselves to be executed. Under close escort from the Gestapo command, they cross into the German Ghetto. Our boys decide to die as heroes. There are 42 of them. Forty-two healthy sons.
Their leader, Bag, issues a command to them in a very low voice, and the rest suddenly start to run in different directions, taking the Germans completely by surprise. They don't want to die like sheep. The chutzpah of these Jews! Shots ring out from all directions. In the commotion, a few Gestapo men are killed in the crossfire. All of our heroes are eventually killed; among them Bag's assistant, a very strong man, Nathan has fallen at the gate, unable to get past the barbed wires. Three have been able to hide theselves. Two are found and shot on the spot with the building custodian who has helped them. For the present, however, they are unable to find Israelovitch, who for three days hides in a basement until one night when he crawls through the barbed wire into the "free" city.
After this tragedy, life in the Ghetto goes from bad to worse. We must constantly watch ourselves with maximum precaution, ever wary of both Germans and German Jews. We envy those Jews who have been able to talk their German employers into letting them sleep at their workplaces. [Sima and I no longer have such jobs.] We feel we must do something about our work situation. We make contact with some Jews who work in HKP, a place where trucks and cars are repaired. They don't have to return to the Ghetto and face all these problems and commotions, but is very difficult to get a Kasernierung, or live-in job.
My distant relative, Alfred Blechmann, an engineer, has a live-in job in Oversierzheim. On the eve of this terrible day we have just spent, he returned to the Ghetto to see a doctor. He didn't look or feel very well. He was one of the 107 who were selected. [This time the authorities don't even bother themselves to make up a story about the destiny of the sickly-looking ones they have selected. They just pull them aside without explanation.] This same evening, the Gestapo has brought back clothing. In some pockets you can even find a sandwich. They have been killed right away.
This year is no easier. Spring is coming and we have learned that Israelovitch, the last Latvian Jewish policeman in the city, the last of those who tried to escape, has been caught. At first he hides among the Jewish workers at Gestapo headquarters but,it becomes too dangerous to stay here. Always on the move, he goes to stay with a Latvian woman. His reckless behavior has got him caught. We learn that he has been tortured, starved, and interrogated, finally spilling his guts to his tormentors. He has told them everything he knows. He has revealed where a few lucky Jews are hiding in the city. He has revealed the location of secret underground caches of food and arms in the Ghetto, built by the Latvian Jewish Policemen themselves.
A series of arrests follows. Those arrested are being sent to the central jail for interrogation, about two hundred people in all. The situation is worsening. The German army is retreating and they are venting their venom on their defenseless Jewish scapegoats. We have just learned about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Now the Germans are starting to dismantle the small Ghetto bit by bit, sending everybody to a concentration camp.
On the outskirts of Riga, amidst a beautiful forest, they are building Kaiserwald, a terrible German concentration camp. Under guard, in order to administer and run the new operation, they have imported some five hundred non-Jewish convicts, sentenced in Germany. These will be the Kapos at Kaiserwald. Under Obersturmbahnfuhrer Sauer, they begin construction. Among these five hundred are several nationalities, including Poles and Russians, besides the German convicts [who will later run the project]. They wear prisoner's uniforms and their duties will include "re-educating" the Jews, using the most inhuman methods.
Everybody must appear in the main square. They start to count and select from the small Ghetto those who will soon populate the new Kaiserwald. From the Kommandant comes a request for five hundred Jews. In the morning, before going to work, we must all assemble in the Appellplatz in the German Jewish Ghetto. The selection begins. Schultz, Leiser, and Kommandant Roschmann first want to get rid of their "most undesirable" Jews, those in our Latvian Jewish Ghetto. Five hundred are selected, put on trucks and sent to Kaiserwald, where Kapos meet them with sticks and beat them mercilessly until they are unconscious. This is their welcome and the inauguration of operations at Kaiserwald. As they fall, they are stripped naked and doused with cold water to arouse them. They are then given some clothes. Everyone looks like a clown. The pants are smeared indelibly with grotesque, frightening stripes of white paint and crosses on the jackets.
Among the first arrivals is one David Kagan, a former member of a sport club, a well-built and robust boxer. Upon his arrival at Kaiserwald, his welcome is no different from that of the other Jews, but his response is quite different. As one of the Kapos starts on him, Kagan cannot resist striking back, immediately knocking his tormentor unconscious. All the witnesses are stunned. How could this man be so courageous in the face of such overwhelming odds? Kommandant Sauer is informed of this unusual event. That a Jew should be able to pack such a wallop is unheard of! Sauer wants to meet this Jew who can strike and knock out an Aryan. He compliments Kagan and informs him that he will be the future Kapo at a new Kasernierung, TVL, not far from the concentration camp.
Life in Kaiserwald, as I am soon to learn, is miserable. In the early morning you must appear for an Appell. If late, even by a second, you are severely beaten. Prisoners are taught to walk in military formation. Any deviation from this prescribed military style is punished with beatings and more beatings, every step of the way. They are building new barracks. They are laying narrow rails for trolleys which will move materials. A small hill is in the way, and must be leveled. Everything must be done by hand. The prisoners carry stones; the Kapos don't give them a moment's rest. If a prisoner stops for an instant, the Kapo forces him to run to make up the lost time. The prisoner must then resume his work at a running pace, being hit with the billy-club each time he passes the Kapo. Everything must be done running, and with ceaseless beatings. The prisoners, by day's end, are covered with blood. They are glad, at least, that evening has come.
And if you think that the evening meal would at least provide some small relief, you are mistaken. From a big kettle, they serve soup to each prisoner in line. The prisoners must pass by very fast with the bowl in their hands. As you run to the kettle, you quickly give the server your bowl. Woe unto the one who cannot run. Besides being denied soup, he is beaten.
The barracks have three levels of bunks. Bedding is of straw sacks and filthy rags for blankets. Between the bunks are tables for ten people each. One of the ten is assigned to be Tischa"ltester, or table head. He must get everything, food, plates, silverware, for the table and divide it among the others. Servings from the kitchen are very small. By the time it gets to the barracks, many have shamelessly stolen from it, making the portions even more meagre. Bread is divided once a day, in the evening. The people are in such a terrible state from their beatings, blood and tears!
The head Kapo is Herr X, an extremely strong and handsome convict. There is not one inmate in Kaiserwald who has not personally felt the strength of this man's beatings. None of the other Germans, not even Hans, Herness, or Schleiter, can compare with him. After a short time, a new group arrives, at which time they send back to the Ghetto hospital the wounded, the sick, and the unconscious.
Those in the Ghetto see what comes back from the concentration camp in carts: most of these people die, despite Dr. Josef's best efforts. [Sima, who is soon to work in the hospital will personally witness the countless broken bones, the pain and the scurvy of these living skeletons.] Thus the Ghetto inhabitants know what to expect when they get to Kaiserwald. Each one seeks to avoid this fate by getting out into the city for some live-in job. It all depends on the Germans' labor requirements and available space to keep the workers.
There is an army unit which wants to increase production. They have put in a request for new Jewish workers. With more Jewish workers, the German army increases its own value and, in the process, becomes less likely to get sent to the Russian front, where the tide has already turned against them. [In this way, an ironic mutual dependency develops. The Jews depend on jobs with the German army to save them from being sent to the concentration camps and the German soldiers need the Jewish work units to save them from being sent to the front.]
There is another Appell. The German officers come to the Appell looking for "their" Jews. The manager of our S.A. (brownshirt) unit, Esser, who in reality is anti-Nazi, carries a revolver with four bullets in it. He jokes that the bullets are reserved: one for the one who works poorly for the fatherland and its war effort, one for Hitler himself, the third for some other deserving Nazi, and the last one for himself. Every day Esser comes to the Appell, where he has become acquainted with the SS man Roschmann, who is now in charge of the Ghetto. Today he brings him a bottle of cognac. He has helped us again and again to avoid getting sent to Kaiserwald. Many people covet our jobs; nonetheless we realize that our common fate is unavoidable. Sooner or later the time will come for us also to be sent to the concentration camp.
A large contingent has just been requested for a cement factory. Abrasha Shetzen and Hinda are trying to get sent there. Dr. Josef asks Schultz if Sima's brother Moisyey can go there, too as a Sanitar, or medic. The work is hard but the conditions are still much better than at Kaiserwald. Esser promises our group that he will try to get us kaserniert in decent conditions at an army post where we will be able to sleep while we continue to work for him, preparing the food packages, but we don't feel we can count on his promises. At the same time, Dr. Josef has assured us that we can go to a new Kasernierung, Reichsbahn, which has requested a 300-person work unit. By this time Schultz has collected enough people for Kaiserwald at this Appell. We feel that little time remains for us. There are fewer and fewer people being sent into the city to work, and fewer remain in the Ghetto.
On the eve of the next Appell, though the German Jewish Police, people are sent armbands, indicating that they are to come to the square where people are usually selected for Kaiserwald. Those who do not show up, we are told, will be arrested and sent to the Kommandant. On September 25, 1943, Sima and I are sent such armbands, directed to us by name, with instructions that we are to be sent to a Kasernierung for Reichsbahn the next morning.
The following morning, with the few belongings that remain to us in our hands, Sima and I report to the square as ordered, near a military depot. Some big trucks are there. Suddenly, Kommandant Roschmann and his assistant Himmlich appear. They are looking for someone named Bena Friedmann. We assume that someone must have denounced this man for something. He is soon found among us and taken away with the Kommandant.
Fifteen minutes later, the unfortunate Friedmann appears in another part of the square severely beaten and bleeding, excluded from the group that is supposed to go to Reichsbahn. Everyone is climbing aboard the trucks. Roschmann reappears and again takes a couple of people out. Soon he returns again, this time looking at me. He tells me to get down from the truck and go with him. After a few minutes I find myself in a small house in the German Jewish Ghetto. There is Himmlich and two men standing naked with raised arms. Roschmann pushes me in and goes out for another. Himmlich beats one after another. I am next.
He asks me, "Do you have money?" He wants to know what else I have in my pockets. I take out a package of tobacco which I got in the Ghetto. Again I am asked if I have money or gold. He is not interested in anything but money. [We are not allowed to carry even a single penny, but] in my pocket I have 167 marks and, hidden under the brim of my hat I have two gold ten-rouble coins.... I look around and see that the Jewish police are frisking everybody. I decide to give them the 167 marks. I remove my hat and put it aside on a bench. Himmlich tells the German Jewish policeman to search me very carefully.
Of course I have no more money on me, having already given them the 167 marks. [Meanwhile, Sima is still waiting for me on the truck, unaware of what is going on.] Himmlich leaves the room for a few minutes, during which time I try to convince Hauer and Perl, the German Jewish policemen, to search their Jewish hearts and try to do something to help us. In response they shout that they are trying to do their jobs.
Roschmann returns, arrests us, and removes us to a house near the Kommandant. As I pass the trucks, I see Sima's frightened face seeming to ask what the matter is. I see her begging Schultz and Leiser to find out what's wrong. Then I hear rude shouts from the Germans. There are already about fifteen people at this particular holding station where they have brought me. Here I find Bermann, who ran away from his work-place and hid in the forest until overcome by hunger. He now awaits his punishment. I also find Nashatir, who got caught stealing a package of tobacco at his workplace. Here also is an old man, Klein. While in Kaiserwald they discovered the wedding ring of his wife, who has been killed. The room also contains other such "criminals".
Sima, through the help of Dr. Josef, has been allowed to get off the truck and stay in the Ghetto. [It seems that the good doctor is often on hand at crucial moments to look out for us. How lucky for us that Sima made his acquaintance years earlier in Berlin. It is our good fortune, and Dr. Josef's bad, that he has emigrated, of all places, to Riga. His sister had received a visa to the USA but, for some reason the good doctor didn't.]
I give my hat to the German Jewish policeman, explaining to him that I had taken someone else's hat by mistake, asking him to return it to Sima, who would see to it that it is returned to its rightful owner. Thus the gold coins find their way back to Sima, who sewed them in to begin with.
Concentration Camps, Germany