Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Beyond This Gate The Earth Groans"

Overnight we had the kind of snow that would have felled an English city for a week. In Riga the pavements had been scraped and salted by midday. The sun was melting the rest.

Things were different in Rumbula Forest, where we stumbled through the woods in ankle-deep snow searching for Salaspils concentration camp. Between October 1941 and its liberation in late-1944 the camp, set in a clearing a few hundred metres from the Riga-Salaspils railway line, was the biggest in Latvia, serving first as a transitional camp for Jews from the occupied territories and later, by order of Himmler, as the site of mass executions.

Estimates differ of how many people were murdered at Salaspils. The Soviets claimed over one hundred thousand, Latvian textbooks half that, recent studies claim a figure of under three thousand. Interrogated after the war, Freidrich Jelen, an SS commander in Riga, claimed:

Jews were brought from Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, and from other occupied countries to the Salaspils camp. To give a precise count of the Jews there would be difficult. In any case, all the Jews from this camp were exterminated.

I can give you the approximate figures. The first Jewish convoys arrived in Salaspils in November 1941. Then, in the first half of 1942, convoys arrived at regular intervals. I believe that in November 1941, no more than three convoys arrived in all, but during the next seven months, from December 1941 to June 1942, eight to twelve convoys arrived each month. Overall, in eight months, no less than fifty-five and no more than eighty-seven Jewish convoys arrived at the camp. Given that each convoy carried a thousand men, that makes a total of 55,000 to 87,000 Jews exterminated in the Salaspils camp. It should be added, however, that before my arrival in Riga, a significant number of Jews in the Ostland and in White Ruthenia were exterminated. I was informed of this fact.

Today it's a silent and harrowing place.


Myeral said...

I am never able to comprehend the human element in this kind of event(historical and current) where PEOPLE carry out such terrible acts on other PEOPLE, and are able to somehow justify what they do.

Nasty, brutish and short, as someone once said.

Michael said...

I was only following orders was, unsurprisingly, the thrust of his argument. Look to the people higher up, not me.
Nasty, brutish and short sums them up nicely.