Salaspils concentration camp memorial

 
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This was the site of one of the concentration camps (cf. Kaiserwald) in/near Riga during Nazi Germany's occupation of Latvia. The site today is one of the largest and most monumental of its type in the whole of the Baltics. It is of a decidedly Soviet character, especially in the use of grey concrete statuary, though it lacks the typical glorification of communist resistance fighters. It also largely lacks informational/historical interpretation and thus remains a very silent, even oppressive site. And a very dark one at any rate.    
       
More background info: Strictly speaking, in the official Nazi terminology, this was rather a penal and forced-labour camp and not really a concentration camp. But that's terminological hair-splitting. To all intents and purposes this was one of Riga's main  concentration camps, just not exclusively for Jews (they were more commonly sent to the Riga ghetto or, especially later on, straight to Kaiserwald) but also for all other kinds of victims of Nazi persecution. 
  
The camp at Salaspils was set up in late 1941 and remained in operation until its liberation by the Soviets in late 1944. It is sometimes also referred to by the German name of Kurtenhof. 
  
The location of the camp was near perfect from the Nazis' point of view. Close to a railway line, within easy reach from Riga, yet totally sheltered by woodland. That part of the site has not changed to this day – the train line is still there but even from on a train you would get no clue as to the camp's location.
  
There is very little precise historical information about the camp – accordingly, figures given for how many inmates it may have had and how high the death toll amongst them may have been, vary more dramatically than for most other places of this kind. For that reason I will refrain from quoting any of them. What is certain beyond doubt is that it was a typical hell hole of horror and Nazi cruelty, regardless of exactly how many lives it may have cost. It was a crucial part of the Nazis' repressive system in Latvia and the Baltics at large. 
  
The present memorial complex dates back to 1967, a time when many such memorials were finally, and belatedly by over two decades, set up on the territory of the then Soviet Union. In the Baltics the Soviets chose Salaspils as their main memorial site, also for annual memorial ceremonies (while other, even worse sites of the Holocaust such as Bikernieku received no commemoration at all).
  
Today it is a relatively obscure site, despite its remarkable size and design. The local tourist information and tourism agencies at best give it a mention in passing, and getting accurate directions is difficult, to say the least. It almost seems as if nobody here wants to remember the site or have anything to do with it. The Web is full of stories of intrepid travellers, mostly Holocaust tourists, describing the hard time they had finding their way to this location. I hope this chapter's directions below alleviate this aspect!
  
  
What there is to see: Coming along the track from the car park you first see a giant  grey concrete block of an oblong shape, seemingly blocking the way ahead, like a giant fallen tree. Getting closer you become more aware of its enormous size. In fact it acts like a sort of bridge, which you can pass under when continuing on the main path into the memorial grounds. It's slightly tilted and seems to rest on black marble blocks on one side and dipping into the ground on the other.
  
The front of the big concrete “bridge” bears an inscription in Latvian that roughly translates as “beyond this gate the earth is crying”. Once you've stepped through this “gate” and first head left you come to an entrance leading into the concrete bridge (so you find it is hollow). 
  
There isn't much inside at first, just a series of sets of steps leading all the way through the inside of the bridge to its end that is higher above ground. A staircase then leads down to ground level. You're now inside the black marble bridge support plinth. On the inside walls you can find a very small exhibition of sorts. 
  
It consists of a small set of display-box-like squares. Six of them feature just stark black-and-white drawings (as in crayon or xylograph) of scenes in the camp illustrating the whole horror of it all (including an execution by hanging). The other box-like cases show a map, a short explanatory text and a photo, respectively. The photo shows the camp in 1944, so presumably at the time of liberation. Its main feature is a large wooden watchtower (which looks more like a lighthouse, really).
  
The text is just two short paragraphs, noting in four languages the nature of the place, from when to when the camp was in operation, and what sort of forced labour the inmates had to do. The text is four languages, English (grammatically rather “crude”),  German (better grammar, but atrocious spelling), Russian and Latvian.  
    
The map is also in these four languages and provides orientation as well as the names of the large sculptures in the open-air part of the memorial grounds (see below) and specifies the meaning of other individual memorials dotted around the site.
  
Back outside, the outer wall of the black-marble “plinth” gives a symbolic impression of the years of the camp's operation. They look like scratch marks on a prison cell wall counting the days and weeks. 
  
Moving back over to the other side of the courtyard in front of the main monument you may want to follow that strange throbbing noise you can hear – in fact the only sound around (when there's no wind) breaking the otherwise deadly silence out here. The sound, deliberately reminiscent of a heartbeat, is emitted from inside the large stone slab on the left. On one side there was a little note stating that it was renovated in 1995. Maybe it was also then that the sound installation was added? In any case it is a very unusual element at a memorial like this and surely adds a disturbing aspect to the whole experience of a visit here.
  
The big black slab is also the place where wreaths and flowers are placed. I noticed that at the base two wreaths were lying next to each other in harmony – but one had the Russian flag, the other the Ukrainian flag on it. And this was in April 2014, when the two countries were inching towards a full-blown war, after Russia had annexed Crimea (see Balaklava) and Ukraine's east was being torn apart by pro-Russian separatists. 
  
But while that looked a bit ironic, it was really the unearthly sound of that “metronome” heartbeat that had a supremely eerie character and to me remains the most memorable aspect of my visit to this site. 
  
The grounds of the former camp stretch out before you now, from what presumably would have been the roll-call square. Nothing of the camp's buildings remain, except for a few traces of barracks' foundations. 
  
Instead, the open field is now dominated by four groups of gigantic sculptures. They are very Soviet in appearance – made of concrete, with chunky, grim faces, and full of socialist-realist (or unrealist rather?) symbolism. Strictly speaking only two are groups, the two sculptures on the outside and located a bit further forward to the centre of the complex are single figures. 
  
To the right is a figure of a woman on her knees, shielding her face with one arm, looking grimly towards the ground. According to the map in the small exhibition this one is called “The Humiliated”. On the other side is a figure of a man almost lying on the ground, just propping himself up on one arm as if nearly at the point of collapse. This one is entitled “The Unbroken”. 
  
The group further back called “The Mother” depicts a woman looking straight ahead defiantly, and sheltering two little children by her side – and a third one behind her back (only visible when you actually walk all the way around). The final group consists of four male figures as separate statues giving us the fullest of Soviet-style martial clichés, including raised fists and oath-swearing-gestures, but also one man supporting another who appears to be fainting. This ensemble is mostly referred to under the single title “Solidarity”, although the map gives them individual names too (inconsistently across the four languages). 
  
These sculptures are absolutely huge, I would guess about ten to twenty times life-size. They are definitely the most dominant feature – the visual counterpart to the more subtle acoustic one of the “heartbeats” sounds. 
  
What I found remarkable is the absence of the usual celebratory slogans about Soviet resistance against Hitler and their glory in victory in what the Soviets call the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII). Many such sites were misused by the Soviets for such propagandistic purposes. But there is almost none of this here (if you don't count that raised fist of one of the sculptures). In its absence it adds yet another unique feature to this site.
  
Around the central field with the sculptures are smaller memorial markers and some remains of foundations. There are also a couple of individual stones, one generally proclaiming the injustice of the camp (in Latvian only) and a headstone of classic grave-stone design in memory of Maximilian Kolbe. 
  
The most striking individual sight amongst the outer “lesser” individual memorials was a place totally covered in toys – mostly teddy bears of all sizes and colours, but also rather bizarre ones such as a plastic hot dog with a hungry face, tongue lolling to one side (I am not making this up!). Obviously enough, this is a memorial dedicated to all the children who lost their lives in Salaspils. And apparently there was a dedicated children's barrack at this location.
  
All in all I found this memorial site strangely moving, in a very eerie kind of way, and that despite an almost total lack of any commodification (in terms of interpretation/information, that is). As far as Soviet designs of such places go, this may well be the most effective of them all. But you have to come pre-prepared if you want to understand its story. The site itself remains very abstract, symbolic and silent (except for that one eerie symbolic heartbeat sound), and is thus hardly “educational” in nature.  
    
  
Location: a bit outside Riga, Latvia, some 12-14 miles (ca. 20 km) south-east from the city centre. Near, but NOT in (!!), the town of Salaspils, which is further east still.
  
Google maps locator:[56.873, 24.303]
  
  
Access and costs: quite off the beaten track, best reached by car; free.  
  
Details: The site is nominally accessible for free at all times, but only daytime makes sense. Getting there is the tricky bit. It's easiest by car. 
  
It is in theory possible to get here from Riga without a car, by bus/train and then walking, but it's a disproportionate hassle. If you do want to do it that way, you'd first have to get a bus, No. 18 (from near the Central Market, e.g. Gogola iela) to the end of the line, Darzini-2. From there the long hike starts. Head east and then north into the forested area beyond. You have to cross a motorway on foot! So take due care. Beyond the motorway you have to find the correct road leading towards the memorial, passing a cemetery (in use). At the site there's a lot of walking anyway. And then you have to get yourself back to Riga the same way you had come … maybe it would be better to invest in a taxi.
  
Getting a local train (or bus) to Salaspils would not help much, as the actual town of that name is far from the memorial site and there's no easy way to walk it or get there any other way from the station (unless you want to walk straight by the train line, that is ...). But you may be able to get off two stops before and fiddle your way through from there. But you may easily get lost. Asking directions may not help either, as the place is strangely unknown locally. 
  
Fortunately when I was in Latvia I was driving into Riga from Vilnius and managed to do Salaspils (as well as Rumbula and Bikernieku) before I had to return my hire car. That, and the help of a Satnav (GPS), made it quite easy (though you can't enter an address but have to use co-ordinates or the device's map function – cf. the locator above). 
  
Driving in from the east on the A6 (Maskavas iela) is the simplest: drive past Salaspils town and carry on heading for Riga centre, then after the big junction with the A5, just as you enter a forested area, keep to the slip road to the right to take the little road branching off to the right. There is a brown sign for the memorial site next to a symbolic T-shaped concrete marker. That's all the signposting there is, however.
  
Once on this little road keep going straight, past the cemetery, then stay on the main road, bending left, cross the railway line. At the junction beyond the train line carry on straight across. Just after the road bends sharp right you'll see the rather large car park for the memorial. There is an info panel here. The rest has to be done on foot – as described in the what there is to see section
  
Coming from the west, i.e. from Riga, it's slightly trickier. It's unclear if you can (legally) turn left when you see the sign on the left and go directly into the memorial's access road, and you certainly can't make a U-turn on the dual carriageway, so you may have to continue to the next junction, exit the motorway and carry on keeping right until you're back on it in the opposite direction. Then proceed as described above. 
  
Coming from the south on the A7, exit at the roundabout into the A5/E77 and at the next roundabout take the last exit to carry on along the A5, which goes along the large reservoir and over the dam before leading to the junction with the A6. Follow signs to Riga here (not to Salaspils!) and continue as above. 
  
  
Time required: depending on how much walking you want to do at what speed, between half an hour and an hour and a half.  
 
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just up the road into Riga the  main road goes past another significant memorial: Rumbula. So this can easily be added after a visit to Salaspils (and is much easier then than doing it before, i.e. driving out of Riga, because the entrance road to Rumbula lies to the north of the dual carriageway trunk road). 
  
The thematically most related sites in Riga are Kaiserwald, Bikernieku and the Jews in Latvia Documentation Centre.  
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Riga, Latvia
  
  
  • Salaspils 01 - approaching the main memorialSalaspils 01 - approaching the main memorial
  • Salaspils 02 - passing under the main memorialSalaspils 02 - passing under the main memorial
  • Salaspils 03 - into the field of sculpturesSalaspils 03 - into the field of sculptures
  • Salaspils 04 - they are bigSalaspils 04 - they are big
  • Salaspils 05 - Soviet dramatic symbolismSalaspils 05 - Soviet dramatic symbolism
  • Salaspils 06 - stony expressionsSalaspils 06 - stony expressions
  • Salaspils 07 - where the barracks of the camp would have beenSalaspils 07 - where the barracks of the camp would have been
  • Salaspils 08 - mementosSalaspils 08 - mementos
  • Salaspils 09 - protective mother sculptureSalaspils 09 - protective mother sculpture
  • Salaspils 10 - childrens mementosSalaspils 10 - childrens mementos
  • Salaspils 11 - throbbing memorialSalaspils 11 - throbbing memorial
  • Salaspils 12 - Russian and Ukrainian wreaths peacefully next to each other in April 2014Salaspils 12 - Russian and Ukrainian wreaths peacefully next to each other in April 2014
  • Salaspils 13 - entrance to the main memorialSalaspils 13 - entrance to the main memorial
  • Salaspils 14 - interiorSalaspils 14 - interior
  • Salaspils 15 - bare concreteSalaspils 15 - bare concrete
  • Salaspils 16 - stairs down at the other endSalaspils 16 - stairs down at the other end
  • Salaspils 17 - leading to a small exhibitionSalaspils 17 - leading to a small exhibition
  • Salaspils 18 - planSalaspils 18 - plan
  • Salaspils 19 - exitSalaspils 19 - exit
  • Salaspils 20 - leavingSalaspils 20 - leaving
  
  

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