To the sound of metronome/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / To the sound of metronome
To the sound of metronome
Alla Beresovskaya 29.01.2019
White stillness. These are the first words to come to mind when you stand at the top platform of the Salaspils memorial and look down at a huge snow-covered field where once camp barracks were located with gallows towering over them. Seven giant figures casted from coarse concrete and put onto the bare ground have been the only guards of the stillness for many years. This concentration camp was known as "white hell"…
Survivors of the Leningrad siege living in Riga and former juvenile prisoners of fascist concentration camps arrived to Salaspils to commemorate two dates - the 75th anniversary of the Lifting of the Leningrad siege and the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. They were invited by the Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee (LAC). Activists of the Latvian Russian Union and other public organizations took part in the commemorative events. The column of about 150 participants with wreaths and flowers slowly approached an asymmetrical concrete wall. There is an inscription on top of it, which is a line from a poem by a former prisoner of the Salaspils in Latvian: “The earth groans behind these gates.”
People come to granite slabs. There are flowers, toys, sweets on them in memory of children tortured to death in this camp. The metronome sounds loudly. It taps the heart rhythm. Elderly women and gray-haired men stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder. They are survivors of the Leningrad siege and former prisoners of the camps. Their grown-up children and friends stand next to them together with empathic people and compatriots, who cherish our history and our Fatherland. The co-Chairman of the LAC Alexei Sharipov congratulates the siege survivors, name by name, on their second birthday, the day when the deadly siege of Leningrad was finally lifted. It had lasted for nearly 900 days. He congratulates former prisoners of fascist concentration camps, rescued from unavoidable death by the Red Army soldiers in 1944.
Alexei Shapirov summed up his short speech: “Salaspils is our Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. And today the metronome sounds in memory of those who died in sieged Leningrad, as well as those who were burnt by Holocaust fire. We bow down before them; and they shall stay in our memories forever!”
While other participants of the event were speaking, I noticed two women who had placed several black and white photos and flowers next to a candle on a snow-covered slab. Starting conversation, I found out that they were cousins, and their mothers had been prisoners of the Salaspils. They were lucky - they both came back alive. And for the rest of their lives, every year they used to come here and bring their children, then – grandchildren…
“And now we bring their photos here; may my dear mother be with us in such a way,” says Olga Zakharyat, the eldest of the cousins.
People were fainting…
Her mother, Valentina Dzergach, was 18 years old when in August of 1943 local policemen came to their house near Kraslava and told them to pack up. They advised to take warm clothes and a lot of food. The whole family had to get on a horse cart: the mother, a teacher of the Russian language, the father, a forester and a disabled veteran of the World War I, and three daughters — Valya, the elder one, Yanina, 14, and Verochka, 10.
No one told them where and why they were being taken. Probably their neighbours had reported to Germans that in the first days of the war the Dzergachi’s eldest son joined the Red Army as a volunteer. Though many of locals joined the SS Legion. There were some more Latgalian families at the station; people were extremely concerned. And suddenly the chief of police came to Valya, the elder sister. It was a young Latvian man who had made approaches to the girl some time before. He was ready to give her a passport and let he go. But the girl refused – she did not want to leave her family...
Olga and Svetlana are cousins. They come to the memorial every year. Their mothers and grandparents were prisoners of the Salaspils
They were put in a freight car together with cattle. On the way, people found out that the train was going to the Salaspils concentration camp. The Latgalians were happy that their destination was not in Germany... Upon arrival to the camp, newcomers heard abuses and gunshots. And then there was disinfection. They all were brought together - men, women, elderly people, children - and told to strip naked. Some stinky solution was poured over them with a hose, and then their hair was cut short. Male old believers were shaved off their beards by force, some of them fainted…
Valentina, as an elder one, was sent to work in the kitchen. Sometimes she managed to hide and bring out potato peelings from there. They always shared equally with other prisoners in the barrack. If wardens had found out about it, the girl would most likely have been shot ... People were fed with soup made of fodder beet, sometimes they were given bread made of sawdust. Hunger was torturous. Every day little children were taken blood from, and it was the most terrible thing, which was scary to remember even afterwards. Fortunately, their younger sister was saved from the unavoidable death. After being in the camp for one month, her father, who was sent to dig holes, managed to make arrangement with some good people; and one day he threw Verochka over the fence. She was taken to their distant relatives in a village …
In the spring of 1944, some kind of turmoil began in Salaspils: the wardens became nervous; there were talks of clearing the camp. At one of those days, when they were taken for work at the factory in the city, the sisters and parents decided they would not go back to the camp. They managed to hide among huge containers, then late at night the family got out of the city and hid at their relatives’ place. Before arrival of the Red Army, the Germans and the camp wardens burned down all the barracks trying to conceal traces of their crimes. Almost all prisoners who had not been sent to Germany were shot…
“When we were small, our mothers hardly told us anything about that horrible time. I think they had mercy on us,” says Olga. “But I remember that the most delicious treat for them was brown bread with butter and salt, rather then sweets and pastries… When Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga once said that the Salaspils had been a correctional labour camp, we were all hurt. What a lie!”
The white hell
In the summer of 1941, the German command decided to combine all Latvian camps at the same place, so the management could be easier. They selected Salaspils for that purpose. The commander of the security police and the SD in Latvia, Rudolf Lange, was in delay with the camp construction. Nevertheless, he reported that in the coming months it would be ready to receive prisoners.
The first train with Jews deported from Berlin arrived to Riga on November 30, 1941. There was no place to settle them. Therefore, all those German prisoners, about a thousand in total, were taken to the farthest suburb of Riga, to Rumbula, and executed by shooting. However, several dozens of the strongest men were selected from those arrived with the above mentioned Berlin train. They were sent to build the Salaspils.
There was a snow-covered field, the former army shooting range. They were surrounded by snow in the dead of winter. The German Jews did not have any warm clothes or shoes with them. There was no hot soup. People died every day, and new ones arrived to replace them. The Salaspils of that Jewish period has been entered into historical books as weisse Hoelle (White Hell), since there was only snow and death...
The Salaspils Memorial. Photo credit: yapfiles.ru
Marger Vestermanis, the oldest Latvian historian, the permanent mentor of the Jewish Museum in Latvia, a former prisoner of Nazi concentration camps, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, is rightfully considered to be the most competent authority in the history of the Holocaust in Latvia. He has written several scientific monographs, collections of research papers. He has taken part in international historical symposiums and academic conferences on the Holocaust. In past, the scientist was awarded with the German Cross of Honour for History and Culture. During the awarding ceremony, Eckart Herold, the German ambassador to Latvia back then, said: “For his great effort in search of truth, which is vital for residents of both countries - Latvia and Germany” ... And here is what he answered to my question about prisoners of the Salaspils: were they rehabilitated, as some Latvian public figures prefer to insist, or exterminated?
“Himmler had clear definitions of what a ghetto is, what a prison is, and what a concentration camp is,” says Marger Vestermanis. “In his letter to Rudolf Lange, dated May 11, 1943, he wrote, I'm quoting here: 'We have our correctional labour camp in Ostland, in Salaspils. This camp is virtually a concentration camp...' Well, Himmler knew the difference for sure, didn’t he? He simply made the point of formal subordination.”
Labour camps (including the Salaspils) were under control of local command in Ostland (that was the name used of occupied territories of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and some parts of Belarus).
“However, I do not understand what that dispute is all about.” The former prisoner of the ghetto and concentration camps continues with bafflement. “We argue on how to call all that horror, instead of saying that terrible crimes against humanity were committed in Salaspils, as well as in the rest of the Nazi camps.”
It is well known that since spring of 1943, women and children from “partisan villages” were brought to the camp; they were brought from Belarus, Pskov and Leningrad regions. Women were abused in various ways; children were taken away from their mothers, even very small babies. Kids were dumped into barracks under the supervision of teenage girls. Mortality among young children was terrifying; they died from hunger, cold, and diseases. Daily prisoners dug graves for the dead. According to the Emergency Commission, exhumation of the remains in Salaspils showed that the bodies of the dead contained rat poison.
Nearly all young children were continuously being harvested for blood. It has been proven by both testimonies and medical cards of small prisoners who had extreme levels of dystrophy, which is possible only under condition of active blood sampling. But there are those in contemporary Latvia, who make persistent efforts to conceal such facts.
After reconstruction the Salaspils memorial has undergone significant changes in its information and museum section. Nearly all photographs and documents showing horrific facts of abusing of the camp prisoners disappeared from the exposition; and there is no any information about mass mortality of children who were drained of blood for German soldiers. From now on all those facts are considered to be "Soviet propaganda." But it is not possible to conceal the truth. And not only because of documentaries, which were made about the Salaspils, or books and collections with testimonies of witnesses and survivors, which were published. It is also because their children and grandchildren live among us, the descendants of front-line soldiers are alive, and memory of our ancestors’ experience is in their genes. Such memory cannot be hidden or destroyed.
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