Kaiserwald memorial, Riga

 
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Kaiserwald, in the north of Riga, Latvia, is one of the largely forgotten concentration camps set up by Nazi Germany during WWII. Nothing at all remains of it. But at least a memorial has been erected near the site.  
More background info: Kaiserwald was one of the shortest-lived Nazi concentration camps. It was set up as late as March 1943 to house forced labourers, and it was built by forced labourers, who had been brought here from the camp of Sachsenhausen
  
From the summer onwards, inmates were primarily Jews from the ghetto of Riga – following its liquidation in June 1943 on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Later, ghetto inmates from Liepaja and Daugavpils as well as the last survivors from the Vilnius ghetto also ended up in Kaiserwald. The final solution was reaching its climax at the time.  
  
Later still, more Jewish prisoners were transferred to Kaiserwald from other parts of the Third Reich, as well as from Poland and in particular Hungary
  
As usual in such camps, the “living conditions” were atrocious – with hunger and disease rampant amongst the inmates, and violent mistreatment of prisoners routine on the part of the camp guards. 
  
As the Soviet Red Army approached the Baltics in summer 1944, the SS “evacuated” the Kaiserwald camp, i.e. the inmates were transported to other places of imprisonment further west. This happened mainly in two operations, one in August and one in October, just days before Riga fell to the Soviets. 
  
Those unfit for work and too weak to go on the transport were simply shot on the spot, at Bikernieku or en route. 
  
Most inmates were first transferred to Stutthof near Gdansk and the men were then moved to Buchenwald and other camps in Germany
  
Hardly any of the Kaiserwald inmates survived the war, maybe a couple of hundred. In total, it is estimated that Kaiserwald had more than 18,000 inmates during its short existence.
  
The camp's name comes from the area it was located in, which is now called Mežaparks in Latvian. Nothing at all remains of the camp as such. The area was used to build a new housing complex – in the typical Eastern Bloc prefab design. So it is today a doubly depressing part of town. 
  
But at least in 2005 the present memorial was erected close to where the camp would have been. It was designed by a Latvian artist and was funded by the City of Riga and the Federal Republic of Germany.
  
    
What there is to see: precious little. Of the actual former concentration camp nothing remains. I had read somewhere that at least a few relics of railway lines that once led to the camp were still discernible in the forest nearby, possibly even the remains of a watchtower, but I was unable to track down any such traces when I visited the site (in April 2014). 
  
The forest south of the railway crossing is just empty woodland with no markers or other noteworthy features of any sort. Otherwise this is just a mostly drab residential area these days.
  
So if it wasn't for the memorial, there'd be nothing at all here in terms of commemoration. But at least there is now the humble monument that was erected in 2005.
  
This consists of a single metal column that vaguely resembles a growing flower, i.e. from a thin triangular stem it widens into a metal mesh “blossom” at the top. 
  
At the foot of the flower-column is a structure that is part metal and part wood, the latter looking like reused old railway sleepers. The two pointy metal plaques attached to these bear short inscriptions in Hebrew, Latvian, German and English. 
  
In larger script the latter says “in memory of the victims of the national socialist concentration camp 'Riga-Kaiserwald' and its subordinate camps”, and the smaller text gives the years of the camp's existence and the estimated number and origin of the victims. 
  
All this is of course very low-key compared to other concentration camp memorial sites. But at least it's better than nothing. 
  
Yet it is so little that you have to ask yourself whether it is worth the effort required for getting here. The answer is probably no, unless you are on a true pilgrimage of lesser-known Holocaust/Jewish heritage sites, or if you are visiting the nearby Brothers' Cemetery and/or Mežaparks anyway and can slot in a short stop here in between.
  
  
Location: to the north of Riga, about 4 miles (6 km) from the Old Town, in the middle of a pretty faceless residential area on the southern edge of Mežaparks.
  
Google maps locator :  [56.99627, 24.13235]
  
  
Access and costs: far from the city centre in a rather forlorn corner of northern Riga but fairly easy to reach by public transport all the same; free.
   
Details: To get to Kaiserwald you can take trolleybus line 3, which starts near the central station in Riga, to the stop Kultūras nams “Draudzība”, which is the closest to the memorial. Or get tram lines 5 or 9 to Sarkandaugavas iela/Tilta iela just a hundred yards or so further west. 
  
From either of these stops walk in an easterly direction along Tilta iela and cross the railway line (level crossing). 
  
The memorial stands in the middle of a small square just north of Tilta iela between the railway  level crossing and the church. In fact the bright yellow church can serve as the guiding landmark here. 
  
The memorial is freely accessible at all times. 
  
  
Time required: Just a short moment to look at the memorial and contemplate its historical significance. It will take much, much longer to get here (and back), so it is really a pilgrimage.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Riga.
  
The area around the Kaiserwald memorial is a drab housing area dissected by double mainline railway tracks. The proximity of a Nazi concentration camp to a railway line is of course no coincidence, so the tracks as such can be seen as a vague symbolic indication of the past too. 
  
But today the main purpose of these railway tracks is to give freight trains access to Riga – in particular oil trains (mostly from Russia, going by the inscriptions on the tanker carriages), sometimes up to 80 or even 100 tank wagons long and dragged by big double engines. They are quite a sight to behold too.  
  
But not far from the Kaiserwald memorial, a short walk south through the forest east to the railway line, is the vast Brothers' Cemetery monument complex as well as the Forest Cemetery.
  
And in the middle of yet more dense forest quite a distance further south-east still can be found the memorial at the Bikernieku massacre site.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: About the only building around that isn't just a prefab housing block is the small church just east of the memorial which provides a bit of colour (yellow mainly) too. Further east still stands a big, boxy, brick catholic church, which however is architecturally not so remarkable. 
  
Just north of the Kaiserwald memorial and the surrounding housing estates begins the vast woodland of Mežaparks with its open-air singing festival area in the middle of it. At the eastern corner of the park you can find the zoo. 
  
But all of the proper mainstream tourist attractions are to be found in the centre of Riga, easily reached by trolleybus or tram (see access).
  
   
 
  • Kaiserwald 1 - forlorn locationKaiserwald 1 - forlorn location
  • Kaiserwald 2 - small memorial on the outskirts of RigaKaiserwald 2 - small memorial on the outskirts of Riga
  • Kaiserwald 3 - dedicationKaiserwald 3 - dedication
  • Kaiserwald 4 - donated by the FRG and the city of RigaKaiserwald 4 - donated by the FRG and the city of Riga
  • Kaiserwald 5 - memorial and wooden churchKaiserwald 5 - memorial and wooden church
  • Kaiserwald 6 - forestKaiserwald 6 - forest
  • Kaiserwald 7 - railway line nearbyKaiserwald 7 - railway line nearby
  
  
  

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