Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler, Lecture on the occasion of the function organised by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraeberfuersorge e. V. [German War Graves Commission] on 23 May 2000 to celebrate the formation of the Riga-Komitee [Riga Committee] in the Luise-Schröder Hall in Berlin City Hall
From November 1941 until the winter of 1942 more than 25,000 Jews – men, women and children – were deported from the territory of the former German Reich as part of the National Socialists‘ “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” – the code term for the mass murder of the Jewish population in Europe. They were taken away in roughly 28 deportations to the Baltic region, primarily Riga. Only three or four per cent were to survive this inferno. Why were they taken away to the capital of Latvia of all places?
In the first half of 1941 it seemed as though a removal of German Jews from the Reich would be postponed until Germany had won the war. It was not until September that Hitler gave his approval for what was at first to be a deportation involving limited numbers. Despite constant efforts by Heydrich to realise this goal, no preparations were made for a geographical solution until September. The city council of Lodz (known then as Litzmannstadt), in whose jurisdiction fell the only large ghetto currently in existence in the sovereign territory of the German Reich, put up a vehement but futile resistance to the requirement to accept 60,000 German Jews into the already overcrowded ghetto. The number had to be reduced to 20,000, but thousands of Sinti and Roma were also sent there.
Himmler and Heydrich were aware that other destinations needed to be found. The occupied Soviet territory, in which the action commandos of the Security Police and Security Service, as well as the associations of the Order Police, were already murdering people, therefore became the focal point of the discussions. After some to-ing and fro-ing Minsk and Riga were chosen as future deportation destinations for 50,000 Jews from the territory of the Reich. But here too there were difficulties. The deportations to Minsk had to be called off because of protests by the army due to the onset of the winter catastrophe and the looming defeat outside Moscow. And in Riga there was no room to take anyone, despite the assurances of the commander of action commando A, Dr. Stahlecker. Consequently, the Higher SS and Police Leader of Ostland, Friedrich Jeckeln, ordered that the Riga ghetto be cleared. The ghetto was closed on 25 October 1941. On 30 November, known as Rigaer Blutsonntag or Riga Bloody Sunday, and on 8/9 December, 26,500 Latvian Jews were murdered in the woods of Rumbula by members of the SS and the police as well as Latvian volunteers. Stahlecker forced Latvian Jews from the ghetto to quickly assemble narrow plank beds in the barns and cowsheds of a rundown property near Riga, the Jungfernhof, and “sold“ this to Berlin as a ”barracks camp”. A detention camp that he had long desired, which was by no means ready yet, was also reported as accommodation. As these measures were introduced late, the first five transportations intended for Riga were taken, after several delays, to Kovno. 2,934 people – 1,159 men, 1,600 women and 175 children from Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt am Main – were killed at Fort IX in Kovno on 25 November 1941 by members of action commando 3, the German Order Police and Lithuanian volunteers. On 29 November 1941, 2,000 Jews – 893 men, 1,155 women and 152 children – from Vienna and Wroclaw (known then as Breslau) met a similar fate in Kovno. These executions were the first ever mass shootings of German Jews. The first transportation to come directly to Riga was also caught up in the clearance of the Riga ghetto on 30 November. The passengers, approximately 730 Berlin Jews, who had had to leave their home city on 27 November, died in the early morning of 30 November, immediately before the arrival of their Latvian fellow-sufferers.
The fact that the clearance of the Riga ghetto was not yet complete meant that the first four transportations, which arrived in Riga during the first few days of December from Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Vienna and Hamburg, were taken to Jungfernhof. It was not until the arrival of transportation from Cologne, immediately afterwards, that the Jews were taken to the ghetto, where they found the bloody remains of the clearance that had just finished. In December further transportations followed from Kassel, Duesseldorf, Muenster/Bielefeld and Hanover. The deported were accommodated in the homes previously occupied by the murdered Latvian Jews. As most areas of the ghetto that had been cleared of the Latvian Jews were not available to the incoming transportations the homes were painfully cramped, especially as two further transportations from Terezin (known then as Theresienstadt), three from Berlin, two from Vienna, one from Leipzig and one from Dortmund followed during January, up to the beginning of February 1942.
Many men from the ghetto and Jungfernhof who were fit for work were taken to the site of the future detention camp in Salaspils, which did not exist yet. They had to build their own accommodation in the ice-cold conditions and then build the entire camp.
The transportations to Riga continued until the beginning of February and were not resumed until August. They were then conducted at monthly intervals until December 1942 (transportations from Berlin). One of them was sent on further to Estonia in September 1942 (from Berlin and Frankfurt am Main).
The members of the Jewish population in the territory of the Reich had no idea of all these goings-on when they learnt of their imminent deportation to the East. Quite the opposite. They were led to believe that they were going to the newly occupied eastern territories to find accommodation and work to help reconstruct these areas. The deportation guidelines were issued by the Department for Jewish Affairs at the Head Office for Reich Security. The local headquarters of the State Police summarised them for the local area and organised all deportations within their jurisdiction. These headquarters were therefore the place where Jews from the surrounding areas were usually assembled for transportation, so that they could then be sent on their fatal journey in accordance with the agreements with the German National Railway. The local police force accompanied the transportations as far as Riga. For a long time after the war everyone was given the impression that the deportation of the Jews from the Reich had been a kind of “Reich Secret”. However, in the seventies it became totally clear in the courtrooms that this was merely a defence strategy employed by the accused. In actual fact, a great many people in the authorities were aware of the deportation of the German Jews, and the councils were heavily involved. The process was treated as a bureaucratic act by the employment exchanges, industrial firms, tax offices and welfare authorities right through to the courts. The banks issued precise guidelines on how to circumvent the orders given by the Reich Ministry of Finance. The NSGWP and their organisations, predominantly the NS Public Welfare Organisation, auctioned and distributed the possessions of the deported as soon as the tax offices and other authorities had helped themselves to personal effects for their own purposes.
Initial uncertainties about handling the official theft of this property were eliminated with the issue of Regulation 11 for the Reich Citizenship Law, which stipulated that a Jew “leaving the Reich” would lose not only his nationality but also his property. The “Reich Association of Jews in Germany” and any existing Jewish municipalities under the guardianship of the Gestapo were also included in the administrative process. They had to compile the deportation lists in accordance with Gestapo guidelines. These lists were then revised and approved by the State Police, who took charge of the people until they were deported. Finally, the Jewish people themselves had to pay for their deportation to death by means of special contributions to the “Special Account W” of the Reich Association. The guidelines stipulated that the people chosen for deportation had to pack only their absolute necessities. This luggage was searched intensively by the Gestapo at the assembly points, as the instructions of the Jewish organisations very frequently differed from those in the Gestapo guidelines and, in any case, the police interpreted the provisions in an arbitrary fashion. At first old passenger trains were prepared for the deportation. In the severe winter of 1941/1942 only unheated goods trains were provided, and this led to numerous transportation passengers freezing to death. The dead had to be unloaded in Riga.
The shock at the conditions was immense. On arrival at the goods depot in Riga the passengers were driven from the train with shouting and sometimes violence. Those who could not manage the march on foot to Jungfernhof or the ghetto were taken away by lorry. They were never seen again. The people had to drag themselves along the icy streets to their accommodation. The cruel weather, evil intentions and, it must be stressed, German inability to care for the deported meant that it took days and weeks for the little food then provided to be more or less secured. The appalling accommodation, the cold, the hunger and the resulting illnesses meant that more than 800 people died in the winter months in Jungfernhof alone. In the Riga ghetto, provided that they were fit to work, the Jews who arrived had to clear the snow and were then gradually given jobs in numerous offices and firms. In almost 200 workplaces the Jewish workers, strange though it sounds, became an integral part of the already short supply of workers who were fiercely argued over, even violently fought over, by the Germans. In Salaspils the death rate was particularly high because of the barbaric living and working conditions. Only a fraction of the men taken there returned to the Riga ghetto in the summer of 1942, on completion of the building of the camp, in a state of total exhaustion.
In February, and in particular on 26 March 1942, large selections took place in both Jungfernhof and the ghetto. Almost 3,000 people regarded as unfit for work fell victim to these. Under the pretext that they would be taken to a camp in Duenamuende (which did not actually exist), where the working conditions in a preserved food factory would supposedly be easier, the victims were transported to the mass graves in the woods of Bikerniek and executed. From then onwards the ghetto was principally a labour ghetto. Jungfernhof continued to exist as a Jewish camp until the summer of 1942. Most of the workers were then taken to the Riga ghetto, although the last ones did not go until 1943.
The living conditions in the ghetto cannot be described here. The working conditions in the firms and offices were varied and depended on the capriciousness of the people issuing the orders. They ranged from almost concentration camp-like conditions to so-called good firms. The search for food, the bartering, which was punishable by death, and many other imponderables had a determining influence on life. Between the attempts to organise a lifestyle somehow adapted to the circumstances and the constant capriciousness of the police, people tried to survive. To avoid the daily march to the firms, so-called “barracks” were erected in factories and offices. The “quality” of these also depended on the level of commitment of the respective superiors. A particularly bad reputation was gained by the commander of the Security Police and Security Service, Dr Rudolf Lange, whose trigger-happiness knew no bounds. The ghetto inmates discovered that their misery could be even greater when they were transferred to the new Kaiserwald concentration camp in a suburb of Riga. The clearance of the ghetto, which began in summer 1943, dragged on until late autumn. All those who were considered to be unfit for work were gathered together in the ghetto, and more than 2,000 of them were deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of November. Only a small team of cleaners remained in the empty ghetto until 1944.
Even when the great majority of the workers continued to live in the firms’ barracks, Kaiserwald concentration camp remained the “coordinating point” for all prisoners. All the atrocities associated with this institution happened here too. Medical experiments, torture, arbitrary executions, selections etc. The concentration camp doctor Dr Krebsbach also managed the Children’s Action, in which all remaining children were dragged off to be shot and then murdered. As early as spring 1943 small commandos were also sent to the “exhumations” (known as “base commandos”). After some time these were shot dead and replaced by new ones.
With the front line closing in on them in 1944, the SS and the police began to systematically return any Jewish prisoners who were still alive in the Baltic states to the West. First of all they were taken via Liepaja (known then as Libau) to Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk (known then as Danzig). They were housed here or in the vicinity. In Stutthof they experienced once again the cruel reality of the concentration camp. Then in 1945 the return continued, largely on foot, until they were liberated by the Red Army. Others managed to reach the West by ship. People who had been deported to Schleswig-Holstein, Buchenwald and other places were liberated. When the war was over some of those who had been deported from Terezin (known then as Theresienstadt) to Riga returned to the place they had left. Most of the men who arrived in Bergen-Belsen fell victim to the illnesses that were rampant there. A group of female prisoners was driven from Hamburg to Kiel, from where they were taken to freedom in Sweden by the Swedish Red Cross.
© Wolfgang Scheffler