This lonely spot north of the twin towns of Karosta
on the Baltic coast of Latvia
was the site of massacres perpetrated by the Nazis
during the Holocaust
. It may not have been the worst of these atrocities in terms of scale, but it stands out as an especially evil event because it was so well documented – they took photos, even making the victims pose for the camera before their execution!
More background info:
If you've ever seen any of those chilling photos of Jewish women huddled together, naked or scantily dressed, looking straight into the camera with pure terror in their eyes, or lined up with their backs towards the camera on the edge of an already corpse-filled trench, then chances are that they were taken here at Skede, in the dunes of the Baltic coast just north of Liepaja
(Libau in German – hence the incidents are sometimes also referred to as the Libau massacres).
These photos are so infamous that they regularly feature in museums/exhibitions about the Holocaust
in all manner of contexts, related or unrelated to the actual massacres of Liepaja. The Latvian link to is not always made fully overt.
For many years I was myself under the mistaken impression that these were photos of the Babi Yar
massacres in Kiev
, which was one of the largest-scale events of this kind. But no – they are unique documents relating to this site in Latvia
. And not only stills were taken, even moving images.
That the material ever emerged was pure fluke. A forced labourer found the film rolls by chance while doing work in a German house and managed to make secret print copies before returning the original films. The copies themselves he buried in a safe place. They thus survived the war and were later used in tribunals as evidence before they became such high-profile documents in Holocaust exhibitions around the world.
The main massacres in the dunes of Skede took place from the 15th to the 17th of December 1941. They were the culmination of a long series of mass murder that had begun in June and took place in various locations, many of them quite public. The Liepaja massacres are often adduced as examples of such crimes being openly witnessed. Apparently there were even “execution tourists” amongst the German Wehrmacht, Navy and others, who travelled to the site to witness the mass shootings as “spectators”.
The December massacres at Skede had a death toll of ca. 2800 – out of a total of ca. 6500 murdered in Liepaja during the killing sprees by the Einsatzgruppen
. Numbers of victims given earlier used to be much higher – as was so often the case, initial estimates had been exaggerated (see below).
Nevertheless, it meant that virtually all of Liepaja
's Jews had been killed (of those who hadn't managed to flee beforehand). A ghetto set up in Liepaja in 1942 had only a few hundred remaining residents. And these were sent on to Riga in 1943 and the Liepaja ghetto was closed. Thus the “extermination” of Jews was practically complete in Liepaja
It wasn't just Jews who were massacred here, however. There were also sizeable numbers of gypsies amongst the victims, as well as (suspected) communists, resistance fighters and others usually targeted by the Nazis
Nor were the perpetrators all German. Latvians participated as well (cf. Rumbula
), who not only acted as guards but also took an active part in some of the shootings. The local population, however, who could not help but know about all these atrocities, was much less enthusiastic and much discontent with the murders has been documented
After the war, when Latvia yet again became part of the Soviet Union
, only a typical small memorial was set up at the site, and as usual it made no particular reference to Jews. It wasn't until long after Latvia
's regaining of independence in 1991 that the large monument that dominates the site today was inaugurated in 2005.
What there is to see: not that much, but still a lot more than had used to be the case. The new monument (opened in 2005) is quite gigantic in terms of area size. Seen from the air it has the shape of a giant menorah. But since it is lying flat, horizontally, on its side, it is much more difficult to see this from the ground.
By the entrance to the complex, however, an information panel provides some details. It explains the design of the monument as well as a bit of the historical background. It's slightly exaggerated in claiming that the entire pre-war Jewish community of Liepaja
was murdered here, but it also provides some of the most iconic photos of the atrocities (see above
). The explanatory texts are in Latvian, Russian and English.
To the right of the approach track you pass a trio of black marble slabs set into the ground. These are commemorative plaques added in 2006 that were donated by two local businessmen of Jewish descent and approved by the city council. They too are trilingual. The inscription plainly and overtly dedicates the plaque to all the victims murdered here in the dunes of Skede. It gives the figures as “3640 Jews, including 1048 children” plus some 2000 Soviet prisoners of war and ca. 1000 Latvian civilians. This presumably includes those killed at the same site after the December 1941 mass shootings.
This additional plaque was a reaction to the fact that the large main memorial failed to mention any of the non-Jewish victims. This is somewhat ironic, given that for so long memorials within the Soviet Union
always failed to mention Jewish victims. So why turn that on its head and do the same in reverse? But anyway …
You then approach the large memorial, from the bottom, as it were, i.e. you first get to what would be the foot of the menorah's stand. This is flanked by two triangular, sloping marble plaques. The inscriptions on these are partly religious Torah quotes and lists of names, plus a Star of David. At the “top” of the memorial the ends of each menorah arm bear yet more plaques with Torah quotes. Set apart from the menorah arms stand tall granite columns in lieu of the menorah's flames. The arms themselves are made of stone walls (apparently from stones found in the nearby fields).
The whole thing is so huge you can hardly take it all in – and you need a very wide angle lens to capture it in a single photograph.
To the north, just beyond the big new monument is a small grove of trees, and here you can find the old Soviet-era marker (dating from the 1960s). It is the typical obelisk shape made from white marble on a black marble base and a stone plinth.
The bottom of the obelisk has two plaques on it, one in Latvian, the other in Russian. On these it is claimed that some 19,000 victims were murdered here by the Nazi invaders. That figure may be too high but it is nonetheless remarkable that the inscription appears to honour all victims collectively. While not explicitly mentioning Jews (as usual) it does, however, not just single out the Soviet (POW
) victims in the usual glorifying manner found on so many other Soviet-era WWII
memorials. What is a bit odd is that the plaques state that the murders took place between 1941 and 1945! Given that the Red Army recaptured Liepaja
already in late 1944, how could that be?
The actual dunes along the coastline where the trenches were dug for the mass shootings lie a bit to the north of the two memorials. But today these look just like ordinary sand dunes. You wouldn't think that they could have been a site of such immense horror in 1941 … Only once you know what to look for can some depressions in the dunes be discerned (by the trained eye at least) that may be traces of the trenches. Their location has also been ascertained by some researchers by means of ground-penetrating radar.
Some people have apparently also found old bullets and rusty cartridges here too … but I did not go into the dunes in search of any such grim relics.
I found it a mostly sobering, quiet memorial site – with just a hint of friction, or shall I say “competition”, between different parties involved in the commemoration of the site. But at least it does now have a clearly marked memorial, even though the commodification
is quite minimal.
What is a bit off-putting is the fact that the location is right next to a sewage treatment plant. When there is a southerly wind blowing this can mar a visit here. Just hope for no wind during your visit or at least wind blowing from the north ...
at the northernmost edge of the coastline in Liepaja
, just south of the actual settlement of Skede (consisting mainly of dachas/allotments). The menorah-shape of the monument can clearly be made out on the satellite image:
Access and costs: off the beaten track, you have to know where you're going, ideally by car; free.
The site is best accessed by car, although cycling from Karosta is also an option – you can rent bikes at various places, including the tourist information office; see also under Liepaja
Coming from Karosta, take Libiesu iela north, which then becomes Viestura iela. Drive through the forest, past the turn-off for the Northern Forts, crossing the former fort moat. After a slight bend to the left and then to the right take the track branching off to the left. Keep right and drive past the water treatment plant until you can see the new monument. Park here and explore on foot.
The site is freely accessible at all times – but only daytime makes sense.
Time required: not very long – maybe 20 minutes or so wandering the large new monument, plus a couple of minutes for seeing the old Soviet one. If you want to walk up the beach/dunes where the actual sites of the massacre trenches were, add extra time for that. Plus time for making it out here in the first place.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Liepaja
and especially Karosta
– the Northern Forts
of Karosta are just south of the Skede site and thus make for the easiest combination.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Liepaja
- Skede 1 - new memorial
- Skede 2 - in the shape of a menorah
- Skede 3 - though it is not easy to tell from on the ground
- Skede 4 - info panel
- Skede 5 - trilingual plaques
- Skede 6 - main panel
- Skede 7 - old Soviet memorial
- Skede 8 - view from the old to the new memorial