A memorial commemorating one of the worst massacres perpetrated in the Holocaust
by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen
against the Jews of Latvia
, when on just two days some 25,000 Jews were systematically shot and buried in mass graves on the outskirts of Riga.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The Rumbula massacres took place on two days in late 1941, namely on 30 November and on 8 December. The Jewish victims were mostly from the Riga ghetto
but also from Liepaja
and other towns in Latvia
. One reason for the operation was to empty the ghetto of the Latvian Jews to make room for deported Jews from Germany
. And indeed one initial transport of 1000 Jews arrived from Germany just before the killings started – but instead of moving these Jews into the ghetto their train was sent to Rumbula where all of them were shot.
Rumbula was a meticulously planned operation. The Nazis brought in experienced “killing experts” from other operations carried out earlier, in particular top SS
man Friedrich Jeckeln who had already been one of the key perpetrators of the Babi Yar
massacre in Ukraine
(he was later captured by the Soviets and publicly hanged in Riga
). There were also Latvian collaborators, in particular the infamous Viktors Arajs and his adjutant Herberts Cukurs. (The former, who had also been at the Liepaja massacres, survived the war and wasn't tried until 1979, when he was sentenced to life in solitary confinement, in which he died in 1988. Cukurs, who in his earlier life had been a celebrated aviation pioneer, managed to emigrate to Brazil after the war – he was assassinated by Israeli
Mossad agents in 1965.)
The site of the massacres in Rumbula had been chosen because it was at an elevated point with sandy soil, so it was easier to dig out trenches, or rather large pits, for the mass graves (in contrast to the Riga area's otherwise rather swampy soil). It was also in the immediate vicinity of both a railway line and a major highway leading directly to the Riga ghetto.
Days before the killings commenced, the pits for the mass graves were dug out by Soviet POW
s (some sources say that they were then also shot). The Nazis
made up a pretext for the Jews, namely that they were to be deported to the east to work there, so they were instructed to pack suitcases with their most important belongings. Of course, neither the luggage nor their owners ever made it anywhere east further than Rumbula.
The ghetto inmates were driven out of their houses, and were first separated into able-bodied men (who were destined for forced labour) and the rest, i.e. women, children, the elderly, the disabled. They then had to march the whole distance to the murder site on foot, organized into columns of between five hundred and a thousand each, guarded all the way by well over a thousand police and other personnel. So this in itself was a major logistic undertaking. Arrivals at the site had to be carefully orchestrated too, to allow for a swift “operation”, i.e. mass killings of so many in so little time.
At the site, the victims had to strip off and leave all their belongings (which were later taken away by the Nazis and anything of value was “redistributed” …). Then they were marched in batches through a double cordon of guards directly to the killing pits. Here they had to move in tiers into the pit so that as many as possible could be shot at the same time. At later stages they had to lie down directly on top of those already murdered.
At least three pits were “in operation” simultaneously. When the pits were full they were covered with sand. Those only wounded but still alive were simply buried alive. There were only a couple of survivors, including a young girl who pretended to be dead during the massacres and in the evening managed to slip away and go into hiding. She later wrote a book about what she had witnessed, under her later name Frida Michelson.
When later in WWII Germany
was beginning to lose the war, the Nazis returned to the Rumbula site to cover up evidence of their crimes (as was done at the death camps
and other massacre sites such as Ponary
). A few hundred inmates from the Kaiserwald concentration camp
had to dig up the corpses and burn them – before they too were murdered at the same site.
After the war, during the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, which lasted until 1991, commemoration was, as usual, very sparse. Nevertheless the Rumbula site stood out in that it was the only Holocaust
site on the territory of the former USSR
where the local Jewish community managed to get a memorial erected. This first happened in 1962, on Riga
's Jewish community's own initiative.
This first memorial, made of wood, was however quickly taken down by the Soviet authorities. This was done apparently on the grounds that the memorial had “singled out” only Jewish victims – even though it was indeed only
Jewish victims that were murdered at this particular site (in contrast to, say, concentration camps
, where the victims were of many different categories).
Nevertheless, the Jewish community did not back down, so the Soviet authorities eventually allowed the erection of another memorial but insisted on a more general wording that was more in line with their usual propagandistic policies of rather emphasizing victimhood of Nazi fascism. The memorial resulting from this compromise was put up in 1964. While it still couldn't mention Jews specifically, it was still a singular success against Soviet practices of completely ignoring the Jewish Holocaust and instead only celebrating Soviet resistance “martyrs” and the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany.
It was, however, only after the collapse of the USSR
that the Rumbula site became more recognized and gatherings were held in commemoration of the atrocities committed here. In 2002 the present complex of memorials was added with funding from abroad as well as from within Latvia
What there is to see:
Contrary to what some local tourism websites say, this is not a big site. In fact it is much smaller than even Bikernieku
(let alone Salaspils
By the beginning of the path into the wood by the car park there are a few memorial stones. One pair stands a bit set back from the path, and one of these has a crude map of the site and names of organizations and people involved in the funding of the reconstruction of the site in 2002, while the other has a dedication in three languages (Hebrew, Latvian, English). This was added on the occasion of the first state visit of a president of Israel
Another pair of black slabs flank the bridge over a little stream beyond which the path leads deeper into the woods. These memorial stones state the site's historic significance (see above
) in clear sober words in four languages, Hebrew and German on the left, Latvian and English on the right.
Along the path into the woods you first see a number of identical grey concrete stelae bearing a Star of David and the inscription “1941-1944” on them. These form a kind of leitmotif for both the Rumbula and the Bikernieku
The heart of the memorial is a field of rough, spiky stone arrangements (also like at Bikernieku) somewhat reminiscent of the memorial at Treblinka
, with the stones bearing names of victims engraved on them.
The dominating feature here is however a kind of tree made from steel wires that seems to grow from the stones on the ground and forms the shape of a menorah at the top. Attached to the “roots” of the “tree” is a laminated folder with sheets listing victims' names. Also attached to the roots was a single small teddy bear that had gone from fluffy to all soggy from the rain (presumably): I found this a little detail that added an unexpected sentimental element of poignancy to the site … more so than the standard roses laid down here too.
On the edge of the field of stones is another marble slab. A metal plaque attached to this stone points out that this is the memorial stone put here in 1964 on the initiative of the Jewish community in Riga
– apparently a unique feat: it is claimed that this was the only Jewish memorial to victims of Nazi terror in the whole of the USSR
! The original etching on the stone simply says “to victims of fascism” in Latvian, Russian and Hebrew on the one side and on the other “1941 /1944” together with a stylized hammer-and-sickle symbol.
Dotted around the main memorial and along a path deeper into the woods and towards the train line are a number of marked mass graves: rectangular patches of grass raised to about one foot above the surrounding ground and encircled by concrete borders. A single boulder sits on each of these mass graves.
That is it – there is no further commodification
. Still, given the significance of this spot, it is at least a badly needed enhancement over what little used to be here before.
It is, however, only really a must-see site for dedicated Holocaust tourists
– and of course Jewish heritage tourists
. Other dark tourists may find that there is too little to see here to make the journey out here worth their while.
in the eastern Riga
suburb of the same name, Rumbula, ca. 8 miles (11.5km) from the city centre.
Access and costs: a bit out in the suburbs, but not too tricky to get to; free.
It's easiest to get there by car. The site is just off the A6/E22 main road (Maskavas iela) leading into Riga
from the south-east. Heading north-west, the access road is on the right, well marked by an unusually modern and kind-of abstract steel monument. The memorial itself is just a hundred yards into the woods. There is a small car park by the beginning of the path that lead to the main inner part of the memorial.
It is possible to get there by public transport too, bus line No. 18 goes straight from the city centre (central station or Gogola iela) to Rumbula. From the bus stop it is just a short walk back up the road and across the motorway. However, these buses are not very frequent (less than half-hourly for most of the day). So make a note of the bus times for the return journey and time your stay at the site accordingly.
The site is freely accessible at all times, but obviously you wouldn't want to go there after dark.
Time required: not long, between 20 minutes and half an hour or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
just 3 miles (5 km) down the same A6 trunk road (Maskavas iela) that the Rumbula site branches off from is another infamous place linked to the Nazis
and the Holocaust
, the former site of one of Riga's concentration camps
. If you want to combine them into one trip by car, which does make a lot of sense, then rather go to Salaspils first, as it is somewhat easer driving-wise in that order.
Another site within the city limits of Riga that is thematically in exactly the same category as Rumbula is the Bikernieku
massacre site in the north-east of the city, ca. 8 miles (13 km) from Rumbula.
See also under Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
- Rumbula 1 - marker by the road
- Rumbula 2 - memorial stones by the path
- Rumbula 3 - approaching the main memorial
- Rumbula 4 - menorah tree
- Rumbula 5 - roots, teddy bear and book of names
- Rumbula 6 - laminated list of names
- Rumbula 7 - deeper into the forest
- Rumbula 8 - another mass grave
- Rumbula 9 - remarkable Soviet-era Jewish memorial stone