by Daulton Newton
June 30, 2017, 8:22am
Our first full day of Latvia consisted of cultural and historical immersion in Riga. After our morning devotions, we set off.
The day's excitement began in Riga's concentration camp, Salaspils. The camp, also known as Kurtenhof to the Germans, operated from its construction in 1941 until its liberation in 1944. Around 12,000 people passed through it, and around 2,000-3,000 died, including many children. In 1967 the Soviets erected a memorial to commemorate the prisoners. At the entrance reads "Beyond this Gate, the Earth Moans". Within the memorial itself, there is a large field, anchored by the four large statues in the center field; The Unbroken, Humiliation, The Mother, and Solidarity. Each statue symbolizes some aspect of the Latvian spirit. Of these four, Solidarity encapsulates the nature of the Latvian people the best. The image of four men, one supporting his nearly dead comrade, standing against the oppression of their fascist captors truly touches the heart. As we exited the memorial, we stopped and stood by a large marble slab, the reminder heartbeat. Within the slab there is a metronome, and its thump-thump is a reminder of all the terrible things that happened on the beautiful field we were standing on.
After Salaspils, we drove into the Rumbula Forest, site of several mass graves holding the bodies of around 25,000 Jews massacred by Nazis in 1941. Most were Latvians from the Riga Ghetto. There is a strange calm within the forest, even as you pass by the grave mounds. In the center of the park, there is a large steel menorah, surrounded by stones forming the shape of the Star of David. Each stone represents a street in the ghetto. On the menorah there was a list of all the people who died in the forest. Again, children comprise enough of a portion to turn the stomach. Chris, Reagan and I walked over to two employees of the park to ask about the whereabouts of the bodies. After some google translate (the two women spoke only Russian), we determined that yes, the bodies were still in the forest. we were walking in a graveyard. While we did not spend as much time in Rumbula as we did in Salaspils, the weight of what was around us was much greater.
After our Holocaust sites and a bit more (lighthearted) wandering around Riga, the guys had one more site to see. We visited the Cheka house, KGB headquarters for Latvia. The tour guide was a local, and spoke with a very heavy accent and in broken English, making him very hard to understand, but all the same the message was clear. The KGB controlled the people with fear, lies, and secrets. the conditions within were atrocious, with closet sized cells that housed upwards of thirty people at a time. At the end of the tour, we came to the execution cell. Prisoners were read their sentence, led into room, and shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were then thrown onto a truck and hauled to a mass grave outside of Riga. Some 190 people were execute in this manner in the span of six months before the impending Nazi invasion forced the KGB to flee Riga, at least until 1944. The Cheka house was the center of Soviet power in Riga, it is only fitting that our day of history ended there.
While most of our day revolved around the dark side of Riga's past, we did get to end or night on a happy note. we were able to go watch our Latvian friend Paula perform in a dance recital. To show her love was the best possible way to end a long, long day.
Giant memorial statues at Salspils - a former concentration camp.
The entrance to the Rumbala Forest - a place where many Jews were taken from Riga and executed by the Nazis during WWII.
Late night dinner at an Asian-fusion restaurant in Riga.