The killing fields of Skede
The destruction of a community
Prior to the onset of World War 11, there was a vibrant Jewish community in Libau numbering some 10,000 people out of a total population of 116,000. There were many Jewish schools, cultural institutions and synagogues, the most famous of which being the great choral synagogue.
Click here for photos of pre-war Libau
The Soviet Occupation of 1940-41
Although there were growing levels of anti-semitism (in common with other countries in central Europe at that time), life was tolerably good until June 1940. However, on 17th June 1940, the USSR occupied Latvia in violation of the perpetual non-aggression treaty of 1920.
Latvia had effectively been ceded by Hitler to Stalin under the Molotov/von Ribbentrop pact.
The annexation by the USSR split the Jewish community. Many working class Jews (and Latvians generally)initially welcomed the Red Army, trusting communist claims of social justice and worker power. Other Jews feared perecution as Bourgeoisie and class enemies. It soon turned out that persecution also extended to others including Zionists, religious jews, moderate leftists, former politicians etc.
Under the Soviet occupation, mass deportations to exile or Gulag camps in Siberia became the order of the day. Some 15,000 people were deported at this time - with Jews being nearly three times over-represented in the deportations. With hindsight, perhaps they were the lucky ones - although many of them would not have survived either. Records show that just 60% of those who fled to the Soviet Union survived the War. That may not be a lot but compare it to the paltry 2% who survived the killings in Liepaja between 1941 and 1945 .
The Nazi Occupation of 1941-1945
The Soviet occupation lasted almost exactly one year. Germany invaded Latvia on 22 June 1941 and occupied Libau just one week later on 29 June 1941. By that time the Jewish poulation of Libau numbered 6500, with many having been previously deported by the Soviets, killed in battle for Libau or having fled to the Soviet Union in the days immedately preceding the German invasion.
More might have fled the Nazi invasion but men were not allowed to leave (other than party and government officials) and others were turned away at the Latvian/USSR border for lack of proper papers. Besides, many Libauer Jews remembered their affinity to Germany and its culture and language as well as the benign occupation of 1915-18 and expected nothing worse than discrimination and perhaps forced labour.
This hope was soon shattered. The first SS Einsatzgruppen arrived on the very first day of the Nazi occupation (29 June 1941), killed a number of Jews and recruited volunteers for the Latvian "Self-Defense" unit. The latter promptly began to arrest Jews, especially members of the Workers Party, and took them to the Womens Prison which became a torture chamber and holding pen for the doomed. Some 47 Jews were shot by the Einsatzgruppen on 3 July 1941 and from then on mass executions became commonplace.
Executions took place every few days. Jewish families were evicted from their apartments and were forced to live on rations that were just one-half of the skimpy Latvian rations. The synagogues were raised on the order of the SS, who forced Jews to trample on their sacred scrolls.
Mass round-ups and shootings (now including women and children) continued first near the Libau Lighthouse, then by the nearby fish factory, then by the Navy base and finally on the sand dunes of Skede.
During a three day period from 15 - 17 December 1941, in the height of a freezing Baltic winter, some 2749 Jews (mainly women and children) were killed by three German and Latvian firing squads.
The victims were force marched to Skede, made to undress in the freezing wind and snow and shot in front of mass graves.
I have visited the dunes of Skede and cannot begin to imagine the thoughts that must have been going through the victims minds as they stood naked, trembling with fear, embarrasment and cold, overlooking the beautiful sandy beaches where they may have played as children.
Fortunately for the sake of historical testimony to evil, we do have photographic evidence of these Nazi atrocities. Unbelievably the SS- Uberscharfuhrer (ie Senior Squad Leader), Carl-Emil Strott, took photos of the killings at Skede. These photos were found by an audacious Jew - David Zivcon - who was working as a forced labourer. Zivcon, managed to steal, copy and replace the photos. Since the end of the war, these photos of the killings at Skede have become some of the most notorious images of the holocaust.
Libau's notorious "women's prison"
Skede Jews undress under the watchful eyes of their Nazi and Latvian murderes
The view of the beach from the Dunes at Skede. This would have been the last sight the victims would have seen before being murdered.
By the end of 1941 only 1050 Jews remained alive. After more shootings in the next few months. 832 Jews remained who were forced into a crowded ghetto on 1 July 1942. The ghetto commander was relatively benign so about 800 were still alive 15 months later when on 8 October 1943 the inmates were deported to the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga.
Old people, and mothers with children under 12 were killed locally or sent to Auschwitz for gassing. After further selctions, about 350 remained who were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp in August-September 1944. Many died in the increasingly brutal conditions at Stutthof although some were deported to sub-camps further East where they were liberatd by the Soviet Army in early 1945.
The last remnants of the Stutthof prisoners, were put on barges two weeks before the end of the war, tugged westward, and then abandoned at sea. Norwegian political prisoners navigated the barges to shore but when the half-dead Jewish prisoners staggered ashore, a group of young German sailors shot or drowned more than 50 of them.
A few hours later the last survivors were liberated by British troops
Click here to visit liepajajews.org - a detailed website listing all known details of those who persihed between 1941-45
After liberation, the survivors received excellent medical care but 8 died in the next few weeks, leaving 176. Another 33 had survived in Liepaja, having been hidden by brave and kind-hearted Latvians who risked their own lives.
All together, 3% of Liepaja Jews survived the Nazi occupation. But the Soviet regime treated these survivors with great suspicion, presuming any Jew not killed by the Nazi must have collaborated with the Fascists. A number were sentenced to terms in the Gulag. Not surprisingly many emigrated to Israel or the West when the opportunity arose in the 1970s.
Under the Soviets, Liepaja was a major Naval base and was thus off- limits even to other Latvian or Soviet citizens. Effectively, it was shrouded and isolated behind two iron curtains - firstly from the West and secondly from the rest of Latvia
True liberation did not occur until 1991 when Latvia gained independence from the USSR and democracy was restored.
When I first visited Liepaja in July 2003, there were no signposts or proper roads to Skede. Ilana Ivanova, the doyenne of the Liepaja Jewish community drove us to the site over unmarked paths and showed us the simple memorial established by the Soviets. At least, they did place a memorial of some sort, but it made no reference to Jews only to the Soviet victims of Fascism.
The Skede Memorial
Soviet memorial at the killing fields of Skede. No mention is made that the victims were Jewish - just Soviet victims of Fascism. A new Jewish memorial was erected in June 2005
Ilana, however, is a purposeful lady. She firstly raised funds both locally and from Libauers around the world to build a memorial wall at the Liepaja Jewish cemetery and to maintain its grounds. The wall lists the names of over 6500 Libau Jews (including several Friedman relatives) who died during the Nazi occupation. The extensive research into the establishing the names and fates of the Jewish community was carried out by Professor Edward Anders (himself a Libau survivor). Professor Anders was also a major contributor to the memorial plot.
Ilana (and various others both locally in Liepaja and from the Libau diaspora) then lobbied the Latvian government to allow a more substantial memorial to be built at Skede itself and to provide proper access by road to the site. This involved detailed planning including extensive surveys to ensure that the memorial was built near not directly on top of the mas graves themselves.
The work was completed and the memorial dedicated at a service I was honoured to attend in June 2005. About 200 people attended, including ambassadors from Israel, Germany and the UK. Senior embassy officials also attended from the US. Latvia was represented by the son of the Latvian President. The British Armed forces were also represented by the Admiral of the Fleet which was moored in Liepaja at that time.
The memorial was followed by receptions at the Liepaja Community Centre and the Liepaja Jewish Centre. We and the other British attendees were also invited to an Ambassador's reception onboard HMS Somerset which was moored in Liepaja as part of NATO duties
Ilana Ivanova atnd others at the dedication of the Skede memorial
The cemetery memorial wall listing the names of all 6500 known victims