"Latvia"
50 Years of Terror Tyranny and Oppression 1940–1991
Home      Burning of Jewish Synagogues in Riga
 
   
 
Burning of the Jewish Synagogues located through out Riga
 
The burning of the Riga synagogues occurred in 1941, during the first days of the World War II Nazi German occupation of the city of Riga, the capital and largest city in the country of Latvia. Many Jews confined in the synagogues died in the fires, and many other anti-Semitic measures were launched at the same time, ultimately followed by the murder of the vast majority of the Jewish people of Latvia.
 
German Occupation
 
The German army crossed the border in the early morning of Sunday, the 22nd of June 1941. All along the front, the Soviet armed forces suffered a crushing defeat. On 29 June 1941, the Red Army began a disorganized withdrawal from Riga, then under German aerial bombardment. To slow the German advance, the retreating Soviets had blown up all the bridges over the Daugava river. The highest church spire in the city, Saint Peter's, has been set on fire by German bombs. Some Soviet sympathizers in the city set out pails of water and gave bread to the retreating troops, but these were futile gestures amid the military disaster. On 1 July 1941, the German army entered Riga. There were about 40,000 Jewish people in the city at that time. The Germans were welcomed by the non-Jewish majority portion of the Latvian population of Riga.
 
Actions against the Jewish People
 
Shortly after German troops entered the city on the 1st of July 1941, the Nazi occupation authorities incited Latvian nationalists to commit deadly anti-Jewish riots known as "pogroms". Within three months, more than 6,000 people were killed in Riga and the vicinity. Professionals such as lawyers, physicians and engineers in particular were targeted by the Nazis. Frida Michelson reported that they were singled out by fellow Latvian professionals from among the other Jews arrested and immediately shot. Large groups of prisoners were taken out of the Central Prison by truck to "Bikernieki Forest", where they were shot. On the 2nd of July, at the instigation of the Germans, Latvian armed youths wearing red and white armbands went about the city dragging Jewish people out of their homes and arresting them. The Latvians assaulted a number of Jewish people, some so severely they died, and shot others. The same morning, all the telephones of the Jewish people were disconnected. "Bikernieki Forest".
 
Pērkonkrusts "Thunder Cross or Swastika" was the name of the Latvian fascist party that was active in the 1930s. Members of Pērkonkrusts including, among others, "Viktors Arājs and Herberts Cukurs" cooperated with the Nazis in exterminating the Jewish people of Latvia. The university fraternities were also involved with the party. In July 1941, after the German occupation, Pērkonkrusts took over the house of the Jewish banker Schmulian, in Riga, at Valdemara iela 19,  'Gorki iela under Soviet rule ', to use as their headquarters. A Riga newspaper Tēvija, "Fatherland" regularly published anti-Jewish propaganda, such as an editorial on the 11th of July 1941 entitled "The Jews—Source of Our Destruction".
 
The Jewish people arrested were taken to police headquarters or "prefecture" and the Central Prison, also known as the Zentralka. Old and sick people were brought in naked. Young women were stripped naked and confined to cellars where they were raped. There were reports of women being raped in front of their husbands and children. Traditionally-attired Jewish persons, especially those with beards, were targeted for humiliations such as dragging them around by their beards and forced shaving. Others were forced at gunpoint to put on the talith "prayer shawl" and tefilin "phylactery", then dance and sing Soviet songs. People, including non-Jewish, were commonly accused by their enemies of "Communist-Jewish activities".
 
In the days following the 2nd of July, the Jewish people at the prefecture were marched out to perform forced labor, then confined back at the prefecture during the night. The Latvian Roberts Stiglics was in charge of the prefecture. Much of this was simply make work designed to humiliate and intimidate the Jews, although in at least one instance a small group of Jewish women was detailed to Jelgava to work in the fields for six weeks. According to Kaufmann, the Latvians were in charge this entire time. Among other things, they forced the Jewish people to sing Nazi songs and the International. The only Jews not subject to brutality at the hands of Latvian thugs were those who had been members of the Jewish Latvian Freedom Fighters Association, Latvian: "Lačplēsis", but this immunity did not last. Professor Ezergailis, while not disputing Kaufmann's descriptions of the Latvians' activities, finds the things Kaufmann describes to have been typical of initial Nazi abuse of Jews in other locations. He also draws the inference that the lack of deliberate killings by the Latvians shows the Germans were at the root of the plans for the massacres.
 
Destruction of the Synagogues and Cemeteries
 
Jewish people were rounded up and forced into synagogues, which were then set on fire. "The Great Choral Synagogue", on Gogol iela, was burned on 4 July 1941, with 300 Jewish people locked in the basement. Historian Gertrude Schneider, a survivor of the German ghetto, assigns responsibility to "Viktors Arājs, Herberts Cukurs and Vilis Hazners". Historian Press states that some of the victims were Lithuanian Jews who had taken refuge there. Schneider identifies the victims as mostly women and children. Frida Michelson, a Latvian Jew who had been working near Jelgava in a forced labor crew when the synagogues were burned, reported that on her return to Riga, she was told by a friend "who had heard it from someone else" that the halls and the backyard of the Choral Synagogue were filled with Lithuania refugees. Perkonkrusts and "other Latvian hangers-on" surrounded the building, trapped the people inside, and set it on fire. The burning of the synagogue was filmed by the Germans and later became part of a Wehrmacht newsreel, with the following narration: "The synagogue in Riga, which had been spared by the GPU commissars in their work of destruction, went up in flames a few hours later. "According to Bernard Press, Herberts Cukurs, a Latvia air force officer, and his gang of thugs, burned the synagogue on Stabu iela, but only after dragging Jews out of the neighboring houses and locking them inside:
Eyewitnesses heard the people who were locked inside screaming for help and saw them breaking the synagogues windows from inside and trying, like living torches, to get outside. Cukurs shot them with his revolver.
The holy scrolls were dragged out of the synagogues and burned. According to the Press, many Jewish wearing prayer shawls and talith went into the fires to save the scrolls, and were all killed. Ezergailis disputes this, stating that no one entered the flames trying to save the holy scrolls.
 
Only the "Peitavus Synagogue" in the center of the city was not burned, and this was because of its location among apartment buildings. The interior was however ransacked as had been all the other Jewish places of worship. The mob also attacked the Jewish cemeteries. Kaufmann also describes a number of incidents of Jews being locked into synagogues by Latvians which were then set on fire, including:
a vehicle full of armed Latvian volunteers drove to 9 Kalnu iela in the Moscow suburb. All of the building's Jewish tenants were forced to leave it immediately and taken to the old Jewish cemetery. Here they were locked into the synagogue and burned alive in it.
Ezergailis does not find it credible that Jews were locked in the Great Choral Synagogue before it was set on fire. Ezergailis does acknowledge that there could have been 300 Lithuanian refugees in the synagogue before the fire was set. He postulates however that they would have been killed before the synagogue was set on fire.
 
According to Frida Michelson, after she returned to Riga in the summer of 1941 from a forced labor detail near Jelgava, she was informed by a friend, that the interior halls and backyard of the Gogol Synagogue were filled with refugees from Lithuania. Perkonkrusts and "other Latvian hangers on" surrounded the building, trapped the people inside, and set it on fire. Michelson's informant, however, did not witness this herself, but only heard about it from other who had said they had seen the fire.
 
Among the Jewish people killed in the synagogue massacres were the "Cantor Mintz and his whole family, the rabbi Kilov", and Sarah Rashin or "Rashina", a 21-year-old internationally-famed violinist. "Another source says that Sarah Rashina was killed at "Rumbula" on the 30th of November 1941". 
 
By the 16th of July 1941, Jewish people were no longer allowed on the streetcars of Riga. Armed Latvian policemen wearing red-white-red armbands arrested Jews on the streets. Those arrested were taken to the police prefecture near the railroad station and to other prisons. 
 
        
 
On the 4th of July 1941 with the burning of the Jewish Synagogues located through out Riga. Nazi sympathizers and collaborators began their program of burning all the synagogues located in Riga. The two most listed in Riga history during this horror is the Great Choral Synagogue on Gogola iela and Peitavas iela “Peitav Shul” Jewish Synagogue. 
 
      
     The former “The Great Choral Synagogue located on Gogola iela” before it was burned to the ground with some 500 Jewish people locked inside and burned to
     death on the 4th of July 1941.
 
Construction of the Great Choral Synagogue Riga's largest synagogue began in 1868 and was completed in 1871.
 
In the cellar the only remains of this synagogue a monument was erected in the 1980’s from the ruins of the synagogue, also called the Gogola Street Synagogue.
 
Authors Note:
There are some historians, writers and people say that it couldn’t have happened this way. But what I have read about these sympathizers and collaborator groups and the Gestapo “Secret State Police” Nazi SS and SD “Security Service” with the large amounts of physical evidence, both photographs and movies I have no doubt that it did happen in this way. 
 
      
                                                 “Peitavas iela “Peitav Shul” Jewish Synagogue”
 
At the end of the 19th century, a religious community formed that united the Jews living in the Old Town. A plot of land was bought for the purpose of building the synagogue, and in March of 1903 the building permit was granted.
 
The synagogue was designed and built by two people an outstanding architect and art historian Wilhelm Neumann and architect Hermann Seuberlich. The original project was altered several times, but by the beginning of 1904 the construction was started and in 1905 the construction of the synagogue was finished.
 
After Riga was occupied by the Nazis on the 1st of July 1941, all the synagogues in the city were burnt down on the 4th of July 1941. The Peitavas iela “Peitav Shul” Jewish Synagogue was the only synagogue in Riga to escape the common fate of the other synagogues because its proximity to other buildings in Old Town. For it was located next to other buildings and there was a fear that burning it down would set the other buildings on fire. But it didn’t escape being ransacked and turned into a warehouse.
 
After the war it was learned that the eastern wall of the synagogue, where the bookcase with Torah scrolls “Aron Kodesh” was located, had been concealed. This deed, which saved the Torah scrolls from destruction, is attributed to Gustavs Shaurums, a priest from the nearby Reformist Church.
 
It was one of about forty synagogues that functioned in Riga before the Nazi occupation when it was desecrated and confiscated by the Germans. After the war the 40,000 strong pre-war Jewish communities was reduced to only 150.
 
Following the war, services at the Peitavas iela “Peitav Shul” Jewish Synagogue was renewed. During Soviet times it was one of the few synagogues functioning in the USSR as well as one of only four that maintained a choir. Despite the unofficial prohibition of Jewish religious practices and constant surveillance by the national security bodies, the synagogue remained the centre of Jewish life in the city.
 
Further Restrictions on Jewish People
 
At the end of July, the city administration switched from the German military to German civil administration. Head of the civil administration was a German named Nachtigall. Other Germans involved with the civil administration included Hinrich Lohse and Otto Drechsler. The Germans issued new decrees at this time to govern the Jewish people. Under "Regulation One", Jewish people were banned from public places, including city facilities, parks, and swimming pools. A second regulation required Jewish people to wear a yellow six-pointed star on their clothing, with violation punishable by death. A Jewish person was also to be allotted only one-half of the food ration of a non-Jewish person. By August, a German named Altmayer was in charge of Riga. The Nazis then registered all the Jewish people of Riga, and they further decreed that all Jewish people must wear a second yellow star, this one in the middle of their backs, and not use the sidewalks but walk in the roadway instead. Jewish people could be randomly assaulted with impunity by any non-Jewish people. The reason for wearing two stars was so Jewish people could readily be distinguished in a crowd. Later, when Lithuanian Jewish people were transported to the ghetto, they were subject to the same two-star rule.
 
Officially the Gestapo took over the prisons in Riga on the 11th of July 1941. By this time, the Latvian gangs had killed a number of the Jewish inmates. The Gestapo initially set up its headquarters in the former Latvian Ministry of Agriculture building on Raina Boulevard. A special Jewish administration was set up. Gestapo torture and similar interrogation tactics were carried out in the basement of this building. Anyone who happened to survive this treatment was then sent to prison, where the inmates were starved to death. The Gestapo later relocated to a former museum at the corner of Kalpaka and Alexander boulevards. The Nazis also set up a Latvian puppet government, under a Latvian general named Danker, who was himself half-German. A "Bureau of Jewish Affairs" was set up at the Latvian police prefecture. Nuremberg-style laws were introduced, which tried to force people in marriages between a Jewish person and an non-Jewish person to divorce. If the couple refused to divorce, the woman, if a Jewish person, would be forced to undergo sterilization. Jewish physicians were forbidden to treat non-Jewish person, and non-Jewish physicians were forbidden to treat Jewish people.