The Rumbula Massacre

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Details of the biggest operation of mass murder of Jews in Latvia during World War II.

Text of The Rumbula Massacre

The Rumbula massacre: a case study of a Holocaust atrocityBy Eugene Holman(

Photos: Carlos Roso + archives

I. PrefaceKilling one person is easy and is easily concealed. So is killing ten people. Killing a hundred or a thousand people during the course of a single day takes planning and coordination, for which reason it will necessarily have a public dimension. The degree to which it becomes public to the degree of crossing the threshold of being international news reported in real time only increases if a killing action involves tens of thousands of people. Such was the Rumbula massacre, the first implementational phase of which took place on November 30, 1941.

The massacre in the Rumbula forest outside of Riga in German-occupied Latvia, resulted in the shooting outdoors and in full public view of approximately 25,000 people on two days: November 30th and December 8th, 1941. Although the actual killing was restricted to two days, the prerequisites for this action began to be put into place in August, 1941 when measures were taken to construct a ghetto in Riga and ghettoize the city's Jews, while the clean-up afterwards, the first phase of which, sorting and converting the property confiscated from the killed Jews into money, took more than a week, and the second phase of which, exhuming the buried bodies and burning them, took place only during the summer of 1943. In this essay I am going to focus on the different phases of the massacre, the type of evidence they generated, and the signifigance of the Rumbula within the wider context of changing Nazi policy towards the Jews of Eastern Europe in the light of changing circumstances and opportunities. Readers of this essay who are seriously interested in the manner in which the Holocaust unfolded in the Nazi-occupied parts of the USSR in general, and in Latvia in particular, as well as in the various methodological problems involved in making a serious historical study of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, are advised to read the introduction to Andrew Ezergailis's book The Holocaust in Latvia: 1941-1944, available on the internet at

II. Evidence for the massacreThere are three primary sources of evidence concerning the Rumbula massacre: 1. The trial records of the various war crimes trials in Germany, the United States, and the USSR. 2. Captured German documents, including the Stahlecker reports of October 15, 1941 and January 31, 1942, and the Ereignismeldungen. 3. Records in Latvian archives. These records include: a. German documents captured by the Soviets b. the Reports of the Soviet extraordinary Commission c. the archives of the Riga Municipal and District Police Reference will be made here to all three of these types of evidence. Additionally I have included a surreptitiously recorded statement from a German POW who was at Rumbula as a perpetrator, as well as an account by a woman who miraculously survived the massacre.

III. The structure of the massacreA series of events such as the Rumbula massacre has a complex structure. This structure is not fortuitous, but rather the product of planning and intention. This structure exists in space as the administrative premises in which the planning and necessary arrangements are made according to orders, as the place where the people to be killed are gathered, at the killing site, as well as to the various gathering points where the property taken from the people killed was deposited, stored, classified, and disposed of. It exists in time as the time-frame which begins with the setting up of the office for managing the killing and ends when the perpetrators are satisfied that all that was to be done has been completed. As this structure interacts with its various environments, it generates various kinds of evidence: orders for ammunition, orders to the local police to supply manpower, piles of clothing, human remains in mass graves, and the eyewitness accounts of perpetrators, witnesses, and survivors. Each of these in its own way functions as evidence that enables us to reconstruct the historical event.

A. The ordersWhen the German's invaded Latvia in June, 1941, they hoped that the local population, after having lived the past year under communism, which German propaganda equated with Jewishness, would rise against the local Jews in "spontaneous" pogroms. Reinhard Heydrich, who at this time was the Nazi official in charge of the killing of European Jews, had issued

orders on June 29, 1941 to Brigadefhrer Walther Stahlecker, head of Einsatzgruppe A, to provoke the Latvians to kill Jews [Arjs Trial Records, Landgericht Hamburg, 1975, pg. 57].

During the first few weeks of the German occupation there were some seemingly spontaneous pogroms and other violence against Latvian Jews. These included shootings in the Bikemieku forest, at the head Riga police station courtyard and basement, and in synagogues. The most notorious incident of this kind was the burning of the Great Choral Synagogue, the main one in Riga, on Gogol along with all the Jews, both Latvian and refugees from Lithuania, that had sought refuge there. These outbreaks of violence were uncoordinated, being carried out by local criminal gangs and individuals seeking revenge against the Jews collectively for recent injustices suffered by Latvians under a year of communist rule, propagandized by the Nazis as being a modality of Jewish ideology. These actions by Latvians were limited to a timeframe of a few weeks, took place in a few random locations, and resulted in the death of no more a few thousand Jews []. The organized, coordinated, and systematic liquidation of the Jews in Latvia was a job that was to be done by the Germans themselves:"From the very beginning it was to be expected that pogroms alone would not solve the Jewish problem in the Ostland...the goal of the cleansing operation of the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo), in accordance with the fundamental orders, was the most comprehensive elimination of the Jews as possible." Walther Stahlecker, Report 15 October 1941. Nuremberg Document L-180

Hinrich Lohse, Reichskommissar for Ostland, issued a declaration of policy on the Jewish question in the Baltics on July 27, 1941. These guidelines contained specific instructions concerning who was to be defined as a Jew. Overall, they followed the racially-based Nuremberg Laws, but they contained a local addition according to which anyone married to a Jew was also to be considered as a Jew. These guidelines stipulated that Jews were to be registered, that they were to wear a six-pointed yellow Jewish star in public, and that they were to be subject to numerous restrictions such as not being allowed to use the sidewalk, public transport, or motorized vehicles. Being Jewish was made a criminal offense. All Jewish property except household necessities was to be confiscated by the state. All Jews were to be removed from their homes, which were also to be confiscated by the state, and they were to be interned in ghettos or concentration camps where they were to be exploited as slave labor[see S. Myllyniemi, "Die Neuordnung der baltischen Lnder, 1941-1944", Helsinki, 1973, pg. 78].

Preparations for the establishment of the Riga ghetto began in mid-August, 1941. The ghetto had been fenced in by October 10, and the deadline by which the approximately 25,000 Jews of Riga were to have been transferred to it was October 25 [A.Ezergailis, "The Holocaust in Latvia: 1941-1944", pg. 343].

Riga's ghetto

According to Reichskommissar Lohse, the purpose of ghettoization was to remove the Jews from the mainstream of life, to expropriate their property, and to exploit their labor. During September and October this was the overt German policy towards Jews living in the largest Baltic cities.

Covertly, German policy was more sinister. In retrospect, the events that took place in Latvia provide evidence that what was going on there stripping Jews of their civil rights and property, killing them in the countryside and ghettoizing them and exploiting their labor before eventually killing them in mass-shooting operations in the cities, disposing of their immovable property by auctioning it off, and of their movable property by shipping it to Germany as war booty was not being decided solely on the local level, but rather was part of a master plan, one that was not fully set, but rather which was adapted to changing circumstances.

The Sicherheitsdienst (SD) followed procedures for dealing with Jews which had parallels in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. SS-Obergruppenfhrer Friedrich Jeckeln, the Nazi mass-killing specialist who had coordinated many of the massacres of Jews in the Ukraine, and who went on to coordinate many more in Lithuania, was assigned by Heinrich Himmler to organize and oversee the killing of Riga's Jews on October 31, 1941. Himmler's appointment of Jeckeln to deal with Riga's Jews, then, serves as evidence to show that policy towards Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe was not simply a matter being decided on the local level, but rather was one being comprehensibly coordinated from Berlin in accordance with orders being issued at the highest level. According to Andrew Ezergailis: "The deliberate manner and the similarities of the killing procedures that were followed in Latvia and other territories indicate that a common plan existed: not only a simple "wish," but a blueprint. Despite the secrecy concerning the Fhrerbefehl, the accumulated references, no matter how indirectly stated, in themselves testified that the EG [= Einsatzgruppen, EH] acted in accordance with a Hitler order." [A. Ezergailis, op. cit., pg. 204]. Critical consideration of what was going on in Latvia during the latter half of 1941 indicates that the events