Beneath a canopy of birch and pine, Latvia’s Rumbula forests look just like my grandfather’s black and white photographs, only coloured by the bright hues of spring.
The outlines of five large and identical rectangular pits lay in front of me, covered in grass with big stones placed neatly on each centre. Metres from where I stand, my great-grandparents, Mendel and Zilla Efrat, were murdered, 76 years ago.
It’s hard to believe that on this spot, in 1941, 25,000 people were lined up, stripped naked and shot, ten at a time, into these pits on Nazi orders. Some died instantly, some were buried alive under the human flesh and bones. And some were my relatives.
Standing in the middle of their mass graves, with my mother next to me, I expect to hear their terrified screams in the wind or feel a ghostly chill down my spine.
But Rumbula forest is frustratingly peaceful.
It’s hard to believe that on this spot, in 1941, 25,000 people were lined up, stripped naked and shot, ten at a time, into these pits on Nazi orders.
Spring sunshine trickles through tree branches, warming my back. I remove my winter coat for the first time in months. Luscious green grass has grown over the murder pits and birds chirp happily around us. All I feel is serenity.
Born in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, my grandfather, Jack Efrat, was one of the 2.5 per cent of Latvian Jews who survived World War II. He was in hiding when the Rumbula massacre took place, and subsequently survived Nazi concentration camps such as Kaiserwald, Stuthof and Buchenwald. He was liberated by the Americans in April of 1945, wearing a German army uniform, hiding as a German deserter in the bombed-out ruins of Magdeburg.
For years after the war, Jack pined for his beloved Latvia, but was only able to return after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s. He passed away in 2015, a week short of 92. He’s now buried in Macquarie Park Cemetery, Sydney. But he often confessed his guilt at not being buried right there in the forests of Rumbula alongside his countrymen.
The tranquil scenery of Rumbula forest offers the first glimpse of the beautiful Latvia that Jack always spoke so nostalgically about. Riga’s quaint, cobblestoned Old Town, the picturesque river nestled among huge forest pines, where he swam in the summer and ice skated in the winter. And the stunning seaside village of Jūrmala, where he spent his childhood summers by the sea.
The tranquil scenery of Rumbula forest offers the first glimpse of the beautiful Latvia that my grandfather always spoke so nostalgically about.
But my experience of Latvia – on a pilgrimage back to my family’s homeland – has up until now been very different. In Riga, most of the buildings seem boxy, large and decrepit, crumbling under cheap Soviet materials or old wood. The government is notoriously corrupt: the head of Latvia’s central bank was accused of bribery on last night’s evening news. The people seem cold and miserable. Nobody smiles back. At night, drunks amble along our street and sex workers loiter on street corners.
We’re told it’s been particularly dreary for May. Yesterday I woke to a dusting of snow and imagined my great grandmother, Zilla, after whom my mother is named, hobbling through the icy streets to the markets where she sold her woollen knitwear.
The street in downtown Riga where Jack grew up, Vilandes Ilela, now houses a hipster bar. There’s no sign on the door, aside from the head of a purple Teletubby mounted on a spike.
Sofija, the bartender, serves us balsam, a traditional Baltic spirit, out of a teacup while eerie static sounds play on an old TV. Apparently, Riga has become a thriving destination for Western travellers looking to escape ‘touristy’ Berlin.
‘Where will you party tonight?’ Sofija asks me. ‘The best raves are in the cellars, beneath the houses. That’s where the real DJs are.’
Perhaps there is a rave in Karlis Dumins’ cellar, where my grandfather hid for six months while his family was being marched to Rumbula and shot.
With the help of a Latvian family friend, Paul, we visit the exact bench in Vermana Park where Jack met Karlis in 1941. According to the black and white photograph, it has not changed at all.
‘If I hadn’t…sat on that bench, I would have probably also been buried in Rumbula,’ Jack wrote in his memoirs.
We had high hopes of reuniting with Karlis’ family on our visit to Latvia, but internet and Facebook searches yielded nothing. Karlis, being quite a bit older than Jack, would surely have passed on by now.
But walking through Riga’s city centre at peak hour, I am struck by the thought that some of Karlis’ relatives may be among the busy crowd, and might know that their grandfather or great-grandfather had saved a Jewish boy called Jack. I fantasise about meeting them, embracing in tears, like long lost family meeting for the first time on reality TV. But sadly, it is not to be.
I arrived in Latvia knowing nothing about the country aside from its Holocaust history and what had happened to my family. But the truth is, Latvia has moved on. While we search for remnants of Jack’s early life, Jewish history and my long-deceased family all over the country, little of the past remains. World War II is no longer an imposing presence on daily life. Instead, there is much evidence of Latvia’s 51 years as a Soviet republic – a time when synagogues disappeared and Jewish gravestones were used as paving.
While we search for remnants of Jack’s early life, Jewish history and my long-deceased family all over the country, little of the past remains.
Nonetheless, we find some memories among the ruins.
The Riga Ghetto Museum is small, and built some distance away from the ghetto itself. Surrounded by an ominous barbed wire fence, it features a deportation train car and a list of the names of the 25,000 who were killed at Rumbula, including those of my great grandparents. It has a small replica house which provides only a sense of what the conditions were like for my family, with 20 people crammed into each room.
We visit the area in Maskavas Forštate where the ghetto actually stood. Largely unchanged since the war, it contains rows of run-down and depressing houses, some still wooden, and apartment buildings – all inhabited, in what is surely not the wealthiest part of town today.
Back then, the ghetto was rife with disease, starvation, Nazi torment and sometimes even the occasional body hanging off its barbed wire partitions. Peering through the windows of the decrepit buildings, I picture my great grandmother inside, cooking cabbage soup on a tiny makeshift stove.
‘Once, when I was feeling lonely and couped up in hiding, I risked my life to sneak into the ghetto and see my mother,’ Jack wrote in his memoirs. ‘I knocked on her door and when she saw me, she was very angry that I had had risked everything to visit her, but the anger was supressed by the happiness of seeing her son. She cooked potatoes she’d been saving for weeks. We hugged. We cried. We said goodbye. Somehow, I think we both knew it was the last time.’
Walking to the car, I pause and looked back, picturing Jack waving goodbye to his mother for the last time through that bedraggled barbed wire.
On a busy pedestrian thoroughfare on Gogol Street, the ruins of Riga’s Great Synagogue still stand. It’s now a memorial, with a large plaque erected outside in commemoration of the 400 Jews trapped inside and burned alive by the German Police in July of 1941.
According to Jack, Riga’s Jews were very proud of their synagogue. One of the grandest in Europe, it was the thriving epicentre of Jewish life. He remembered celebrating high holidays and attending Bar Mitzvahs there. As a boy from a poor family, it felt like a magical place. During a particularly boring service, he imagined he was a medieval king, staring up at the extravagant Neo-Renaissance roof.
As a boy from a poor family, the synagogue felt like a magical place. Jack imagined he was a medieval king, staring up at the extravagant Neo-Renaissance roof.
Ignoring the cars humming past and the people rushing along the footpath, I explore the carcass of the building, picturing Jack as a young boy, walking through the architecture, in awe of the tall ceilings and extravagant gold-plated walls. My daydream is disturbed by an elderly woman marching towards me from the street. Straining her raspy voice, she shouts something in Latvian, pointing to her chest.
‘I was outside when the Synagogue burned down,’ an onlooker translates. ‘I saw those bastards kill all those Jews,’ .
In east Riga, we search for the old Jewish cemetery, which was the burial site of Riga’s Jews between the 1730s and 1930s. Looking for obvious signs of a cemetery, Google Maps takes us on a loop of a luscious, well-manicured park. Children play, lovers bask in the afternoon light, and dogs chase after tennis balls. There are no tombs and no gravestones.
‘Do you know where the old Jewish cemetery is?’ we ask countless people on the street.
They shake their heads.
Later, we discover it had been destroyed by Nazis and bulldozed by Soviets, who removed the tombs and used them as building materials. Without upkeep, the walls surrounding the cemetery have since collapsed. A small memorial plaque is the only trace that remains.
In the small town of Tukums, about an hour’s drive outside of Riga, we visit another Jewish cemetery. This time, some graves have traces of headstones, although most have either collapsed or disappeared. Scratching away the overgrowth on remaining stones yields little, as most inscriptions have long since faded. Only those carved with marble – a sign of wealth – are still readable.
My mother retrieves an old photograph of a headstone from her bag. We spot the tomb we’re looking for quickly, although it has aged since Jack took the picture in the 1990s.
The large but collapsing tomb belongs to Sarah and Abraham Schienfeld, my grandfather’s great grandparents – my great, great, great grandparents.
I picture my grandfather returning here in the 1990s, searching for the tomb. With no pictures left, no property and no family, this stone would likely have been the only tangible proof of his family’s long history in Latvia.
We wander through the surrounding forests, picking up a handful of pebbles and placing them on the tombstone – a Jewish custom to commemorate the dead. Looking around at the overgrowth, it occurs to us that most descendants of the people buried there would have likely perished during the Holocaust. Knowing visitors have been scarce in the past 80 years, we walk back to the forest and pick up a heap of pebbles, dotting them on as many of the remaining headstones we can find.
Unfortunately, we are unable to find any trace of Kaiserwald, the concentration camp where Jack was held before the Nazis shipped him off to camps in Germany as they started losing the war. But we do go to Salaspils, which was a forced labour camp for political prisoners that held at least 1000 Jews, from the Riga ghetto and those deported from Czechoslovakia and Germany. Although it wasn’t a death camp, poor sanitary conditions, a lack of nutrition and severe cold weather caused a large number of deaths.
After the war, the Soviets used the camp to promote communist ideology. In 1967, Salaspils was converted into a classic Soviet memorial. There are no more barracks. Only enormous, boxy, brutalist art sculptures, a sign at the entrance that reads ‘the earth moans beyond this gate’ and an audible heartbeat playing from megaphones across the giant memorial.
Back in Sydney on an unseasonably sunny and warm winter’s day a few weeks later, we visit my grandfather’s grave at Macquarie Park Cemetery in Sydney. I place a handful of pebbles, collected from the pits of Rumbula, on top of his grave.
The pebbles glint in the sunlight, no longer hidden under the overgrowth of tall trees and dark secrets; hardly seen by human eyes, because those that might have visited had their own family trees chopped down all too early.
My great grandmother, Zilla, has no gravestone, but her name is cast on my grandfather Jack’s. I hope – just maybe – that they were both watching from above, smiling together, reunited after all these years, like the pebbles on their graves.