In June 2012 I took a trip to Riga, capital city of Latvia, intending to research for my forthcoming young adult novel.
There is much for the tourist to admire in Riga today, not least the Daugava River with its humped, serpent-like bridge and the giant Zeppelin hangars which house the Riga Central Market, buzzing with life and heaped with vast piles of fruit, fish, cheese and meat.
And yet an undercurrent of tragedy, sadness and political unrest is still palpable in this beautiful city. Some of it comes from the bewildering contrast between the picture-postcard Old Town with its cobbled streets and Art Nouveau architecture, and the run-down “Moscow Suburb” area where the Jewish ghetto once operated. There, spread over a small number of streets and still in various states of decay, I saw many of the same houses where 30,000 Jews were crammed into run-down dwellings following the Nazi invasion of July 1941, and then sealed off from public life by barbed wire.
On November 30 and December 8, most of these Jews were marched to the Rumbula Forest just outside town, forced to lie in rows in huge pits and then shot dead by Nazi Einsatzgruppe A with the help of local collaborators of the Arajs Kommando and the support of Latvian auxiliaries. Once most of the Jews of Riga were disposed of in this way, the Nazis used the ghetto to house other European Jews who were brought in by train. After the Soviet invasion of October 13 1944, only 150 Jews from Riga emerged from hiding to sign their name in the book of survivors.
Riga remained under Communist rule right up until Latvia regained independence in 1991, so it is unsurprising that tensions still exist between the Russians and Latvians who make up most of the population today.
Since then, the city has woken up to its Jewish history and memorials have been erected at the Rumbula Forest and the Bikernieki Forest. A star of David memorial has been placed at the Old Jewish Cemetery, where gentle slopes of parkland now show no signs of the gravestones destroyed by the Soviets or reveal that this peaceful place was once a place of mass burial for 1,000 Jewish victims of the ghetto. The New Jewish Cemetery which replaced it is regularly desecrated with swastikas, even today.
Another memorial marks the remains of the Gogol Street Synagogue, where hundreds of Jews were locked in and burned alive during the first few days of Nazi occupation. In addition to the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Occupation, there is a new place, the Riga Ghetto Museum, based very near the site of the original ghetto.
Here, the unknowing eyes of the dead shine out from photographs of Riga’s many pre-war Jewish residents, the students, doctors and musicians, the cultural, political and religious figures who were once prominent members of society. Their eyes followed me around the small museum, where the walls are adorned with the names of each of the 70,000 Latvian Jews who are known to have perished in the Holocaust.
My own interest in the history of the Jews of Riga came from finding out that my great-grandmother was born just outside the city. She escaped from Latvia in the early years of the 20th century, coming over to the East End of London, but I began to wonder what had happened to the friends and relatives she must have left behind. Evidence seemed to point towards their murder by the Nazis – for in all of Latvia, only 1.25 per cent of Jews survived the Holocaust.
And hence the idea for the novel came. My heroine, Hanna Michelson, is desperate to live despite being faced with antisemitism, the ghetto, prison and a train to a death camp. To research the history of the Riga Ghetto has been harrowing in the extreme, but to bring this lesser-known true story of the Holocaust to young people who otherwise might not have known about it, seems the right thing to do.