Salaspils – A Train Ride to the Countryside

The local train which departed in Riga is almost fully occupied this Friday noon. It stops every few minutes, at every possible stop. I am going to Dārziņi, a stop in the middle of the forest. A beautiful Baltic pine and birch forest, still with a lot of snow despite it being the middle of March.

I don’t know if the other passengers enjoy the view or if they even know exactly where we are. A very young father is eating potato chips without giving any to his (at least he thinks it is his) child in a buggy in front of him. Two girls are playing cards; the winner dances a jig which looks like it owes more to self-presentation than to victorious gambling. Two older ladies are amused by exactly that behaviour and the assumed motivation behind it. I am the only passenger to get off at Dārziņi. There is also only one who gets on the train here; a man who staggers and tumbles more than climbs up the embankment to the platform. The train conductor patiently waits for him. Nobody should stay behind at this forlorn place today. Except me.

In western and central Europe, if you take the commuter train out of a large city for 25 minutes, you find yourself at a housing estate for the economically disadvantaged, in a suburb for the economically privileged or close to a football stadium. In eastern Europe, if you take the commuter train out of a large city for 25 minutes, you find yourself at a place where during World War II the German occupiers carried out mass executions or where once a concentration camp automated the murder. These places are always in the midst of a beautiful green forest, which adds a dark interpretation to the Germans’ proverbial love for forests. These places always have a good railway connection.

path to Salaspils

The place which I want to visit doesn’t seem to be very popular. There are no signposts, no markers, nothing. Luckily I had studied map before, so that I know which direction I have to trudge through the snow. After about 20 minutes, a clearance opens up in the forest, indicating that I have reached my gruesome destination: the place where the Nazis built the Salaspils concentration camp in 1941.

Lichtung Salaspils

The SS erected the Salaspils camp in October 1941 for Jews deported from Germany and central Europe as well as for Latvian Jews and political prisoners. A large number of the around 1,000 Jewish forced labourers died due to the harsh working and living conditions. The rate of death was so high that the SS forced another 500 to 800 Jews from the Riga ghetto to work at Salaspils.

The large, free, snow-covered area is dominated by seven enormous concrete sculptures. They had been put up here in 1967. Both their style and their meaning are clearly Soviet. The monumental figures are not only supposed to commemorate the suffering and the oppression, but also the successful fight against fascism. They are bulky, like almost anything that the Soviet Union had ever built.

Salaspils memorial snow

There is only one Russian-speaking group with whom I share the large compound. Their guide’s voice mixes with the sound of a metronome which is sunk in a large block of marble and whose steady, hollow beats are supposed to symbolize the beating of the heart. Tack, tock, tack, tock. The participants of the group disperse, walk across the snow in silence, take a few photos and ultimately leave. Now nobody else is here except me. There is no explaining exhibition or a museum of any kind. Only the constant tack, tock, tack, tock.

It is mid-March, soon it will be spring, and the sun is shining. But the icy wind racing across the large clearing makes me freeze, despite my two pairs of pants, several sweaters, two jackets, hat, scarf and gloves. It is minus 6 degrees, at night it still goes down to minus 20. After only two hours at this place I cannot imagine how famished, overworked prisoners in torn-out rags could survive in unheated barracks. But surviving is not what they were supposed to do.

The exact number both of the victims and of the prisoners is not known. The lowest estimates assume several thousand dead. Salaspils was a camp in which a particularly large number of children were interned and died, often due to typhoid, measles or other illnesses. The healthy children were weakened further by being used as blood banks for wounded Wehrmacht soldiers, with the SS accepting that this would ultimately put the children to death. In one of the burial pits at Salaspils alone, 632 corpses of children aged between 5 and 9 years were discovered.

The remembrance of the murdered children takes on forms which I have not seen before at a concentration camp or similar memorial site. Colourful stuffed animals, toys, candy have been put on some of the memorial stones. Except for the green of the distant trees, they present the only colour in this place which is so filled with death and horror that even the stuffed animals seem to be alive in contrast. I am not yet sure if I find this tacky or moving, would love to learn more about who left these items behind and with which thoughts.

Stofftiere Salaspils

Even the closing of the Salaspils camp in September 1944 (because of the advancing Soviet Army) did not bring freedom for the inmates who had survived until then. Although the German Army and SS risked being captured by the Red Army with any delay in their withdrawal, and although it had to have become obvious to them that Germany was losing World War II and that the Reich was close to the final days of its existence, they did not forget to move the camp inmates to Stutthof concentration camp close to Gdańsk. The closing of a World War apparently was no reason to slow down the genocide.

I leave the memorial site by walking through an enormous concrete beam which lies diagonally, like a fallen or broken tree, and which carries the inscription “Beyond here, the Earth groans”.

Salaspils memorial entrance

At a decency distance of only a few hundred meters away there are a few crosses, the shape of which reminds me very much of the Iron ones. And indeed, the German War Graves Commission did not see anything wrong with putting up a memorial for 146 German prisoners of war at the site of a former SS labour camp. The perpetrators thus surreptitiously obtain commemoration at the former site of the mass murder they committed.

Kriegsgräberfürsorge Salaspils

But it is not as if Latvia needed any German lessons in historical revisionism: the next day, on 16 March 2013, the Latvian Wehrmacht and SS veterans will present themselves and demand public appreciation in front of the Freedom Monument in Riga.

(Dieser Artikel ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.)

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in History, Holocaust, Latvia, Photography, Travel, World War II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Salaspils – A Train Ride to the Countryside

  1. Pingback: Salaspils – Eine Zugfahrt ins Grüne | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Pingback: Isn’t that a beautiful place? (Part 2) | The Happy Hermit

  3. Good morning Andreas, many thanks for your touching and interesting information in connection with Salaspils and certain behaviours by the German War Graves Commission and the Latvian Wehrmacht. As my husband and me have in program to go on a hiking excursion to Latvia, Lithuania and Estland your article has been very useful. Thanks and bye Martina

    • Despite the sad undertone of this particular article, I think you will have a great time in the Baltics. They are very beautiful countries with lots of nature, great for hiking! I shall put up more articles about my trips to Gauja National Park in Latvia and the island of Hiiumaa in Estonia then to help you prepare for your excursion.

    • You are making me more curious! The national park Guja and the castle Turaida and Cesis have certainly to be visited by us. I don’t know anything about the island Hiiuma. Have a pleasant Sunday.

  4. nednerbc says:

    I think your description of the concrete beam as “a fallen or broken tree” was spot on. After I read that I could picture a fallen tree in the forest looking just like that. I think this is a very well written post.

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