Sunday 22 April 2012

Rivers of blood - the Holocaust in Rezekne

Rezekne is a city with happy memories for me. It's where my wife went to university and where I discovered the charming habit of celebrating your marriage by locking a padlock onto a bridge. With several of those college friends to see in Rezekne, I was happy to check into the Kolonna Hotel and explore the city.  This is the point at which our friends suggested we visit the Ancupani Hills and our tour of massacre sites began (see previous two posts).

As we arrived back in town for a tour on foot, I hoped we might discover happier tourist attractions. Not so.

Having climbed down from the remains of the 13th century castle, where local youths now congregate to drink - because they can see the police coming - we took a left along the river, with the Cathedral high up on the other bank.
It's an untidy river bank with little development along here: the odd wooden house, old cars and wood yards, until you reach the bottom of a cobbled street.

And there at the corner of the street there's what looks like a black marble gravestone. It reads: '120 Rezekne's Jews were shot down on this place by the local Nazis on July 15, 1941.'

While marking the scene of what would have been (by my standards) terrible carnage, this stone also implies that local people who were either Nazis or working for the Nazis were involved. 

And so it proves to be. In this instance, research shows that the massacre of Rezekne's Jews is well-documented and turns out to be - sadly - an unexpected window onto the Holocaust in Latvia that reveals such barbarity, savagery and cruelty that it's difficult to imagine.

But these things happened, and we have an obligation to ensure they are remembered. Those who want to forget the past - for fear it will upset the present, or the future - ignore the hindsight that history brings.

I knew that Latvia's Jews were more or less wiped out in the war. I read about that in the Occupation Museum in Riga on my first visit to the country. But here in Rezekne, there's barely a word.

What follows are eye-witness accounts or testimonies taken from the Yad Vashem archives on the Jewish Holocaust in Europe.

The Jewish community of Rēzekne (called Rezhitsa until 1917) dated from the end of the 18th century.
During the period of the independent Latvian republic (1919-1940), several Jewish schools with different political and cultural affiliations operated in Rēzekne. In 1935 3,342 Jews lived in Rēzekne, comprising approximately 25 percent of the town’s population.
After the Soviet occupation of Latvia in June 1940, all private enterprises were nationalized and Jewish community institutions were closed. Some Rēzekne Jews were arrested during the night of June 14-15, 1941 and exiled to locations deep within the Soviet Union.
During the first week of the German-Soviet war the old border between Latvia and Russia was closed for everyone except Soviet workers and their families. Nevertheless, many Rēzekne Jews who had fled from the town gathered in the frontier area until the border was opened again on July 4. Many Rēzekne Jews managed to flee into the Soviet interior.
The Germans occupied Rēzekne on July 3, 1941 and, with the assistance of Latvian collaborators, began murdering Jews almost immediately. On July 4 the Germans ordered all Jewish men from the age of 18 to 60 to assemble on the market square. Latvian policemen rounded them up and took them to the local prison. On July 8 the town’s Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge and banned from walking on the town's sidewalks and from wearing hats. On July 9 (according other sources, July 5), about 30 able-bodied young men were sent to the NKVD building and were murdered after being subjected to public humiliation. On August 3 the women, children, and elderly were rounded up and taken to the same prison, with the exception of women with little children, who were moved to ”the old prison.” 

Most Rēzekne Jews were killed by the Germans between July and November of 1941 with the active assistance of Latvian policemen, including the Arājs Kommando, in three main locations in the vicinity of the town: the Jewish cemetery, Leščinska Park, and the Ančupānu Hills. Several dozen Jewish craftsmen were forced to work until they were killed in the autumn of 1943. Only three people from the entire Rēzekne Jewish community survived – the child Motya Tager, 57-year Chaim Izraelit, and his teenage nephew Yakov Izraelit. 

So this massacre happened within two weeks of the Germans occupying Rezekne, with the thugs of the Nazi-supporting Latvian militia, the Arajs Kommando, doing the dirty work.

Early in the morning of July 15, 1941 members of Einsatzkommando 1b (of the Einzatzgruppe A), commanded by Erich Ehrlinger, with the assistance of local policemen, took between 100 and 120 Jews to the town’s park, situated not far from the Leščinska mill. The owner of the mill, together with his family, had been deportated to the Gulag by the Soviets in June 1941. The local authorities considered the killing of the Jewish workers from the two main factories of the town to be revenge for the deportation. The Jews were shot at the site and buried in a pit that had been prepared in advance. In April 1944 the bodies of the victims were exhumed and burned by the Germans from Special Unit 1005.


Here's an account of a Wehrmacht soldier who was stationed in Rezekne.

The report of Johanes Becker, witness from Wehrmacht headquarters:
Rezekne's river of blood
... About fourteen days after we came to Rēzekne, the SS appeared. They belonged to the “famous” Security Police. They had SD initials on their sleeve. We, from local garrison headquarters, lived right across from the city [town] prison. We could, after the arrival of the SS, observe in detail the happenings that took place in the prison. At first the Jews from Rēzekne and the vicinity were brought together. There were people of all ages, the gray ones and babies. Among them were also women and children. The people were pressed together like sardines in a can. They were so closely compressed that nobody could topple over.
One day, it was about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., we were awakened by shots. We ran outside and then to the headquarters. From there we went to the place from where the shots were coming. We saw there that people had dug a pit (a huge grave), and that people had to kneel before the ditch. Then they received a pistol shot from the SS in the back of their heads. Those that were not dead the Latvian soldiers had to finish off with rifle shots. The people were killed by the SS with pistol shots. As we found out, the people were subordinated directly under the Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin.
I did not see the number of the dead in the pit. At the side of the ditch, there were still some fifty living people. They were gradually pushed by the SS men to the pit.
Finally, about ten victims were left. They had to shovel up the ditch, and then were brought back to the prison. There they told the other inmates about the killings. This brought on an intolerable wailing ....
From Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944: The Missing Center, Washington, 1996, pp. 282-283.

The killing became so intense the river ran with blood and local people urged the Germans to stop the executions in that area because it was becoming polluted. This account gives some idea of the situation in Rezekne at the time:

On July 9, 1941 (according to other sources, July 5), members of Einsatzkommando 1b collected local policemen at the former NKVD building. About 30 strong young Jewish men were then brought from the prison. On orders of the SD the Jews dug up between ten to thirty bodies of local people, including members of the local Latvian intelligentsia and former Latvian policemen, who had been killed by the NKVD before the Soviets left the town. The Germans wanted people to believe that Jews had killed these people and to encourage local policemen to actively participate in the ensuing murder operation against the Jews. One member of this group of Jews, 18-year Yosl Silno, jumped over the fence and tried to swim across the river, but was shot. Boruch Veksler, a 30-year old pharmacist, poisoned himself. The SS-men beat the other Jews to death. The murdered Jews were buried at the same place where the NKVD victims had been buried. In accordance with the order of a German officer, only Khanon Izraelit, a dental technician, was returned to prison.

Research and testimony gathered after the war can even put names to alleged killers and outline the horror endured in this city.

The following report of the ChGK from October 9, 1944 contains a description of the mass murder of the Jews in Rēzekne:
Testimony of Ivan (Jan) Matusevič, who was born in 1906, a Righteous Among the Nations (he rescued Chaim and Yakov Izraelit):
… In 1941, while working in the forge of the roads department on First of May Street, number 74/84, I heard a conversation between three local policemen, Pavel Pavlov, Ivan Kraul, and Petr Petrovskiy. I didn’t know where the two first lived, but I knew that the third lived on Lyutsin Street number 52. They bragged about shooting 110 Jews in the park near the Leščinska mill. The grave is located southwest of the mill, about 100 meters from the mill.…

The following report of the ChGK from September 29, 1944 contains a description of the mass murder of the Jews in Rēzekne:
Testimony of Petr Boiko, a Latvian who was born in 1892:
... In 1941 I worked at the Leskovskii [Leščinska] mill. I was there on July 15, 1941, when Germans shot between 100 and 120 Jews in the park near the mill and buried them there. Before the Red Army arrived on July 2 [27], the bodies were exhumed and burned....

The killing went on and on..

During July 1941 the Germans and local policemen took groups of Jewish men who were incarcerated in the prison to the Jewish cemetery, where they were shot. On August 3, 1941 the Jewish women, children, and old people who had remained in the town were also imprisoned. On the next day the Germans began taking them in groups from the prison to the Jewish cemetery. Over a period of ten days, under guard by local policemen, they were taken on foot or by truck to the cemetery, where they were forced to undress and then shot. Approximately 2,000 Jews, a majority of Rēzekne's Jews, were killed in the cemetery. In April 1944 the Germans opened the mass-grave and burned all the bodies.

...with no mercy for men, women or children:

The fascists burned all the synagogues in town. When an old Jew tried to save a Sefer Torah, a German kicked him in the stomach and the old man died immediately. 

The Germans did not spare 25- [sic, for 75]-year-old rabbi Chaim Lubotski. At the end of July the fascists came to take the rabbi. He refused to come with them. “Tell me where to go, and I will go there myself,” he insisted. He was ordered to go to the Jewish cemetery. The Germans brought ten more Jews there, and murdered them along with the rabbi. Before his death the rabbi said: “Our end has come, but every one of your crimes shall be avenged…” then he started saying the confession [that a Jew says before his death]….
When the cemetery was filled with bodies, the Germans moved their killing site to the Anchipanski [Ančupani] Hills, five kilometers from the town. At that location they shot to death 18,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Over one hundred Jews were murdered at the Yaskivski [Leščinska] Mill.
The women’s turn came on the day of Tisha b’Av. The Germans forced their way into the houses and took the women and children to prison. Many of them were taken directly to the cemetery and shot. Twenty women were taken to a brothel and were shot a day later.
Horrifying sights took place at the prison. In the morning the executioners would pass through the cells and take several children at a time. The poor mothers begged, screamed, and fought the Hitlerists, but to no avail. The children were loaded onto trucks, taken to the cemetery or the hills, and buried alive.
On August 23 all the women from the prison were taken in 33 trucks to the Anchipanski Hills and were shot. Only a few Jews remained alive in Rezhitsa after this killing: the tailor Lotz, the tinsmith Treyzon, the brothers Yizhak and Zalman Peyris, the tanner Kopilov, the engineer Mulya Lifshits and his father Zalman (who died later at the age of 85). In 1943 they were also murdered. Before the Red Army arrived, the Germans exhumed and burned the bodies.
B. Hertzbach

... and continued for months,  a nightmare gathering in intensity:

From the diary of I. Kolosova (Mikhaylovskaya), who was born in 1926 and lived in Rēzekne during the war:
November 10 [1941]. … Today, Jews who fled from Rezhitsa [Rēzekne] were brought back again….
November 16, Sunday: Indeed! Either matters are getting worse for the Germans, or they have been driven absolutely crazy by blood. Yesterday they eliminated the last Jews [in town]. They gathered all of those who remained, even wives and children of Christians. They didn’t spare Tanya and Vera Mikhailova [two sisters age 22 and 18 whose mother Lyubov Mikhailova (née Polak) had been Jewish but was baptised].
The murders continued all day yesterday at Ančupāni. This morning 22 Red Army political instructors were shot. An orgy of bloodshed is taking place. Now the policemen are carrying away the clothes that were taken off, but the people are no longer here. Human life costs nothing – only one rifle shot….
November 19, Wednesday: Is this the Western culture that is being hailed in all the papers? With the temperature outside 12 degrees below zero, they brought people (women and children) to a field, forced them to take off their clothes (including socks or stockings) and shot them. Their brutality must represent some kind of record…. One policeman said that, after she had to undress, Vera Mikhailova had voluntarily stepped into the first line of victims….
From Yuliya Aleksandrova, “Rezhitsa literally flows with blood, the houses are intact but the people are gone" (in Russian),” published in Relga, November 16, 2005.

Again the Ancupani Hills are used as a site to murder innocent civilians, this time in the systematic killing of the Holocaust.

In August 1941 a large number of Rēzekne Jews who had been incarcerated in the town’s prisons were murdered in the Ančupānu Hills - about four kilometers from the town. On August 23 the final local mass murder operation against the Jews began. The Germans and their Latvian collaborators took a large group of Jews, some on foot and some by truck, to the site, where they were forced to undress and then shot. On November 15, 1941 an additional group of Jews was taken to the site and shot. Among them were a woman who had been baptised and her two adult daughters from a mixed family. Jews from other places in the area were also killed in the Ančupānu Hills, as were many people of other nationalities, including Roma and Latvians, along with Soviet prisoners of war. In April 1944 the Germans exhumed the bodies of the victims and burned them.


The stench in April 1944 with the Germans exhuming all these bodies and burning them to destroy the evidence must have been nightmarish. And having murder on this scale taking place on your doorstep, with a blood-crazed local Nazi commander ordering the mass execution of Jews, Russian prisoners of war and Roma, it's possible to see how little a human life would mean if that human is a Soviet partisan or escaped POW seeking refuge in the nearby hamlet of Audrini. A megalomaniac wielding such power of life and death would surely think nothing of ordering a village of 200 people to be wiped out.
Another unmarked massacre site in Rezekne?

The systematic extermination of Jews ended when Red Army liberated Rēzekne on July 27, 1944.  But in our tour of the city, our friend added a footnote. 

As we passed a site in the centre, next to the Kolonna Hotel, bordering on the excavations for a new concert hall and arts centre, down the hill from the statue celebrating Latvian freedom, he said: 

"When the Russians pulled out of Rezekne as the Germans moved in (in 1941), they rounded up all the people they didn't like.. and shot them."

The wartime horrors of Rezekne go on and on, unnoticed and mostly unremembered.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article - very interesting indeed. I lived and worked in Latvia for 2.5 years in the late '90's (and spent a lot of time in Latgale) and became very interested in their history - but found most Latvians to be wary or querulous about my interest. In my experience most Latvians preferred to tune out the unpleasant parts of their history and hope that others did too (and preferred that they and visitors concentrated on the 'Latvians as victims' part of the script). It must not be forgotten that many, many Latvians - not just a few but many - actively participated in or encouraged the destruction of the Jews. They are somewhat puzzled that anyone is at all interested and are truly amazed that others do not share their rather crude anti-semitism (believe me it is there). One rather bemused Latvian friend asked me 'Why are you interested in these people, they weren't even Latvians'. I like Latvia very much and find Latvians to be charming (if a little full of themselves). Latvia is a beautiful country - the combination of the beauty, the food, the songs, the folklore, the hospitality and the beer can entrance you - but it's history is very bloody and Latvians did some truly horrible things.