Some months ago, whilst rummaging through boxes unopened for many decades, I came across photographs of people from the early 20th century whom I could not identify. There were annotations in several of these photographs in either Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, Lithuanian or Latvian. This piqued my curiosity, and after several months of investigation, I managed to piece together the puzzle. It transpired that these were photographs of my late father’s family who had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Like many of my generation, brought up in the safe confines of South Africa during and after the Second World War, I always assumed that my whole family was as fortunate as my father and his siblings, and had escaped the Holocaust. My cousins and I were very close and neither our parents, grandparents nor any other relative ever discussed the fate of these unfortunate family members.
My father’s sister, Chaya Rabinowitz, made aliyah in 1935 from Kovno. She gave testimony on her murdered relatives to Yad Vashem in 1956, but never discussed the family’s tragic ending with her daughters. However, the latter inherited a trove of old photographs, which prove invaluable to me in my research on the fate of the family. Unfortunately, Chaya did not annotate the pictures with precise names. She only identified the individuals as “my relatives murdered by the Nazis.”
The development of photography began in the late 1830s and rapidly entered the mainstream. Photographic studios became the vogue. Families used to get dressed in their finery to be photographed. This is readily evident in the pictures illustrating this article. Often the studios added props, and the children are usually posed, often with toys.
On the eve of the Second World War, there were approximately 250,000 Jews in Lithuania and 93,000 Jews in Latvia. Over 94% of the Jewish population were murdered in Lithuania and 75% in Latvia. Many of the Jews in Lithuania and Latvia were not transported to the death camps, but were killed locally in their shtetls by the Nazis and their most willing local collaborators. Often the Jews were told to dig pits, forced into them, and then shot.
It transpired that many of my relatives were murdered in the Alka Hill in Lithuania and in the Skéde Dunes in Latvia, and full documentation is available from official trials conducted by Russian, Lithuanian and Latvian commissions after the war. This year is the 80th anniversary of their killings. These iniquitous places of massacre are not as well-known to the public as Auschwitz-Birkenau or Babi Yar. The aim of this article is to document these killing sites but more importantly, to serve as a humble memorial to my family murdered in the Holocaust.
My father’s parents hailed from Shkud (Skuodas), a shtetl in Northwest Lithuania situated five kilometers from the Latvian border. Jewish settlement in Shkud began in the 17th century. On the eve of the Second World War, the Jewish population numbered about 2,200, almost 50% of the population. The Jews worked in trade, agriculture, transportation and crafts, notably in the manufacture of shoes. By 1931, 80% of the stores and businesses in Shkud were Jewish-owned.
The Jews established their own religious and educational institutions as well as active youth groups, including a Maccabi Sports Society. The youth were also given a grounding in Zionism. Other organizations included an orchestra, choir and drama club producing plays in Yiddish. Jewish doctors provided medical services.
The largest city nearest Shkud was the Latvian port of Libau (currently known as Liepaja), situated on the Baltic Sea. Prior to the onset of the Second World War, over 7,000 Jews lived in the city. This represented about 13% of the total population. Libau had a lively Jewish community with many schools, a yeshiva, cultural institutions and synagogues.
After the First World War, Lithuania and Latvia achieved independence. Initially, the situation of the Jews was relatively stable. Some Jews were even elected to the Lithuanian parliament. There was an active Jewish life in these countries. The children attended Jewish schools, played sports and were able to maintain their religious practices. This changed in the late 1920s, when antisemitism once more reared its ugly head and emigration of Jews from Lithuania and Latvia began in earnest.
My grandmother, Rachel Leah Hochman (1880-1951), had five siblings. She and her two older brothers, Joseph and Baruch, immigrated to South Africa. Unfortunately, her brother Leib remained in Lithuania while his twin sister, Tzvia, and his other sister, Etta, moved to Libau.
Leib and his wife, Henia, worked with his father, Avram Moshe, manufacturing shoes. Their three children, Miriam, Israel and Moshe, attended the Jewish school in Shkud.
On June 20, 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. In view of its close proximity to Germany, Lithuania was immediately occupied. By June 28, Shkud was under total Nazi control.
Within days of the German occupation, Henia and her children Miriam and Israel were rounded up and incarcerated in the main synagogue together with the other women and children. They had minimum food and water. On July 17, they were sent on a forced march. There were beatings, rapes, and murders along the way. After walking for two days they arrived in Darbėnai, and then onto Dimitravas, approximately 48 kilometers south of Shkud. Guards shot those who could not keep up.
On August 15, several large pits were dug at the foot of Alka Hill, which was 1.5 kilometers from Dimitravas. The women with children were taken in groups, forced to undress and then pushed into the pits. When some tried to resist, they were viciously beaten. Many of the women and children were killed by shooting, but when the local gunmen ran out of bullets, the remaining innocent victims were just thrown into the pits and buried alive. Local Lithuanians, many of whom had been neighbors of the Jews, perpetrated these barbaric acts.
After the war ended in 1945, a Soviet commission investigated what happened on Alka Hill. According to the official reports, 395 women, 94 teenagers and 31 babies and infants were killed in Alka Hill. In 289 of the women and children, no gunshot wounds were found. They had been buried alive.
In March 1964, a trial was held in Klaipeda, Lithuania, for the murderers of the Jews of Shkud. It emerged that the organizer and head of the gang was a Catholic priest and teacher from a school in Shkud. He subsequently escaped to the US, where he lived out the rest of his life peacefully. The Soviet Union wanted to extradite him for public trial, but this was the era of the Cold War. The Americans would not sanction his extradition.
Soon after the German occupation in June 1941, Leib and all the other Jewish men and boys were arrested and tortured in a local sports hall in Shkud. Many were led into the fields and shot by local Lithuanians. Their bodies were tossed into pits, which they had been forced to dig. Other Jewish men were taken to the train station in the village of Kulai, about three kilometers from Shkud. They were marched to a forest and forced to dig a large pit. That night, group after group of 50 men were lined up and shot. It is estimated that 500 Jewish men were killed at this site in the course of a single night.
According to official records, Leib was murdered in Shkud or Kulai in July 1941. The fate of Moshe, Leib and Henia’s third child remains unknown.
My grandmother’s two sisters, Tzvia and Etta, both lived in Libau with their husbands and children. Tzvia married Avram Kravitz, who owned a shoe shop in the city. The couple had four children: Chaya (Chayala), Jankel (Jasha), Jenia (Jenny) and Sara (Sarale).
My father’s sister, Chaya, related that her aunt Tzvia loved opera, and was an accomplished pianist as was her daughter Chaya. She was told that in the early 1930s, Tzvia traveled to New York to study music. However, I was not able to substantiate this claim. Official records retrieved after the war reveal that Chaya was employed in Libau as a pianist at a Navy base for Germans. Jankel was a sales clerk and Jenia and Sara were students.
Tzvia’s sister, Etta, married Baruch Yudelman, who was also born in Shkud. They had three children, Yitzhak, Israel and Sara, who were students.
The Germans occupied Libau on June 29, 1941, and the killing of the Latvian Jews began immediately. Six months after the Nazi occupation of Libau, some 5,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city had been brutally murdered. When Libau was liberated after the war, only 20 to 30 Jews had escaped the inferno.
Mass murders, conducted by Nazis and assisted by Latvians, began on July 8. The killings occurred at a variety of places within and outside the city. Each day, about 100 Jewish men and boys were snatched from the streets and their houses, forced to enter pits in groups of 10 and shot. This was the fate of Tzvia’s husband, Avram Kravitz, and their son Jankel, who were murdered in Libau on July 10. Yitzhak Judelman was murdered on July 15.
On December 13, Tzvia, together with her daughters Chaya, Jenia and Sara, were taken to the Women’s Prison in Libau together with other women and children, and savagely beaten by Latvian guards. On the evening of December 14, they were transported to the dunes of Skéde, 15 kilometers north of the city.
Precise details of the fate of Etta, and her children, Israel and Sara, remain unknown. Since the sisters, Tzvia and Etta, and their families lived in the same housing complex in Libau, it is most likely that they were also imprisoned and transported to Skéde. Etta’s husband, Baruch, had obtained a visa to emigrate to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Before the outbreak of the war, he went there to establish himself. The plan was for his family to join him but fate decided otherwise.
Massacre at Skéde Dunes
Eighty years ago, from December 15-17, 1941 at the height of a freezing Baltic winter, 2,749 Jewish women and children were killed in Skéde by Latvian and Nazi firing squads. The killing site was a long, deep ditch dug in the dunes, parallel to the shore, about three meters wide and a hundred meters long.
The bloodbath began in the morning. The Jews were taken to the killing site, told to undress and enter the ditch. Those who did not enter voluntarily were whipped. The victims screamed, cried, and fell on their knees in front of the executioners to beg for their lives. Groups of 10 women were told to stand up. Children who could walk were treated as adults. Mothers were told to hold their babies above their shoulders. The team of killers positioned themselves across the ditch and two sharpshooters shot at the same victim. One aimed at the mother, the other at the child. Latvian officers known as kickers rolled the corpses that did not fall into the ditch.
After each volley, a Nazi soldier stepped into the ditch to inspect the bodies and to finish off any who showed signs of life. After liquidating 10 sets of victims, the team was relieved by another group of sadistic murderers. The killings at Skéde became a form of macabre “execution tourism.” Many German soldiers traveled long distances to get the best places to witness the mass shootings.
Karl-Emil Strott, an SS officer photographed the December shootings at Skéde. David Zivcon, a Jew who worked as an electrician in Libau, found rolls of film while repairing wiring in Strott’s apartment. David stole the film, had prints made, and returned the originals. He then buried the prints. After the Nazi defeat, David retrieved the prints, which were used in war crime trials and are currently displayed in Holocaust museums around the world. These horrendous photographs of the victims became the best-known images of the murders of Jews in Latvia. This carnage was also documented in official court hearings conducted by Soviet authorities after the war as well as eyewitness accounts.
Family trip to Lithuania and Latvia
My wife, Diane, my daughter, Leora, and I visited these killing sites in 2004. In the center of Shkud there was a memorial in the form of a cube made of red granite. The inscriptions in Lithuanian and Yiddish stated: “In memory of Jews – children, women, and men – as well as Lithuanians and people of other nationalities from Skuodas, who were killed by Nazi invaders and their local accomplices in 1941.” In the cemetery, many of the tombstones had been destroyed. A few surviving fragments were set into a cement base.
In the village of Kulai, there was a monument designed by Raimundas Sebeckis. It consisted of two stone plinths on either side of the Star of David. The inscription read: “In July 1941 approximately 800 Jews from Skuodas and the surrounding area were murdered by Lithuanian collaborators of the Nazis.” Below the inscription there were additional words in Lithuanian: “Here is a wound of the land of Lithuania that cannot be healed.” There was also a memorial in Alka Hill commemorating the brutality.
In the dunes of Skéde, the Russians had erected an obelisk in the 1950s. The inscription read: “Here in 1941-1945 the Hitlerite invaders killed in a ghastly manner more than 19,000 residents of Liepaja. In eternal memory of Soviet patriots.” The number is grossly exaggerated, and there is no mention of Latvian participation in the killings or that most of the victims killed were Jews. Subsequent to our visit, a further monument was erected that accurately documents the atrocity.
Six months after the Nazi invasion, all our relatives had been brutally murdered. By 1930, my grandmother and her two siblings were firmly established in South Africa. They continued to receive an occasional letter and photograph from the old country, but little else. Communication was not like today.
I was fortunate to identify all the family members in the pictures. Ironically, my studies uncovered the gruesome details of their heartbreaking deaths, but sadly nothing about how they lived.
The crucial question remains as to why our parents concealed their fate. Was it too painful for them? Was it a desire on their part to forget the past and get on with the present and the future? Could they have perhaps harbored guilt feelings that they escaped while the others were murdered? Did they want to protect us? Did they ever discuss this among themselves or even with their spouses?
Since the communities were obliterated and none survived, this made the task easier for them to conceal the fate of their close relatives and spare us, the younger generation, painful and uncomfortable explanations. I wonder what my family would think now after the pieces have been put together. I will never know the answers to these questions.
My family’s approach proved successful for over 80 years. It took me until my ninth decade to unravel the tragic story. May my family’s memory be forever blessed! ■
The author thanks Gabriella Anolik and Yuval Nahor from Vad Vashem, Jerusalem and Ilana Ivanova from Liepāja, Latvia for their help. The Alka Hill photograph was reproduced from shtetlshkud.com/blog/ The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). His email is email@example.com)