World War 2 was the most tragic event for the Latvian people. Thousands were killed and deported by two totalitarian regimes in short time span of five years. Latvia is full of mass killing sites that serves as memory for the times of terror. Since 1967 one of the most known symbols of the Nazi terror in Latvia was the Salaspils camp. Salaspils was the site of camp run by Nazi SS and Security police SD Salaspils camp was the site of thousands of prisoners including children with great number of causalities. On 1959 a decision was made to build a memorial dedicated to the victims of the camp. It was follow-up to the trend in memorial architecture to mark the sites of Nazi concentration camps started by Buchenwald memorial in Eastern Germany, later memorial in Majdanek Czechoslovakia and Auschwitz in Poland. The result was a large memorial ensemble of brutalist style sculpture and architectonic foundation. The memorial was 25 ha in width and emotionally powerful example of synthesis between architecture and sculpture. The authors were architects Gunārs Asaris, Ivars Strautmanis, Oļģerts Ostenbergs, Oļegs Zakamennijs and sculptors Oļegs Skarainis, Ļevs Bukovskis, Jānis Zariņš.
Since then the Salaspils camp became one of the most known symbols of the Nazi terror in Latvia. Soviet power however, made ideological fallacy by trying to compare the Salaspils camp to above mentioned Nazi camps in Germany and Eastern Europe. Soviet propaganda meanwhile ignored the mass killing sites of Jews and Roma’s and Mežaparks (Kaiservald) concentration camp that was exclusively made for Jews and contained larger number of inmates. Instead Soviet propaganda and official history overly focused on Salaspils camp creating exaggerations that has caused heated arguments between modern-day Latvian and Russian historians. The discussion was again brought to light after new joint research was published this January by Latvian historians that played down many of the Soviet exaggerations especially the number of victims and inmates and the fate of camps children prisoners. Here we take a look on the claims made by Soviet and Latvian historians about the camp in Salaspils.
During the Soviet occupation no major academic work on Salaspils camp was made. Instead it was mentioned in popular texts and newspapers and mentioned in general history publications. The camp was mentioned in Soviet newspapers already in November 30 1944 where it was claimed that Nazis collected blood from children prisoners for the German Red Cross. The newspaper called to avenge every blood of the Soviet children for the blood of the dirty Germans. It was in line of the Soviet war-time propaganda for vengeance against the German nation. But, the thesis of Salaspils as “Blood Factory” remained within Soviet publications for years to come. Many more newspaper articles described the horrors for children in the camp and claimed that Jewish children were used for firing range although no Jewish children were ever known to be there. On 1945 when the war was over the USSR Extraordinary Investigation Commission (EIC) started to gather evidence for the Nazi crimes within Latvia. It concluded that camp had 56 000 death prisoners within them 7000 children. During the sixties and seventies the camp was now described as death camp. The publications claimed that camp also used gas trucks to murder the inmates. It was claimed that Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer had visited the camp personally. The usual claimed death toll was 100 000 people including the affiliated camps in Latvia with 12 000 to 7000 children. 3500 liters of blood was taken from children. Soviets also added the Soviet prisoners of war to the list of civilian inmates as the Soviet propaganda avoided to mention the large numbers of Soviet POW’S. This trend was continued by Russian modern historians who repeat the Soviet interpretations. The latest attempts by Russian foundation “Historic Memory” was an exhibit “Deported childhood: The fates of deported children from Russia and Belarus to Latvia” that was called a disinformation by Latvian historians and authorities. Later the same foundation tried to do an exhibit in UNESCO headquarters in Paris, but the request was denied.
The Latvian historiography tends to question two main things: the actual number of inmates and victims and the classification of the Salaspils camp. Popular way of calling Salaspils camp is to label it as “concentration camp.” Soviet publications called it a “death camp”. According to German historian Gudrun Schwartz there are 17 categories of the German run camps during the WW2 starting from work labor camps to the death camp. Salaspils was camp where people were imprisoned, humiliated, forced to harsh labor and killed. All these actions took place almost in every of 17 categories of camps. The historian must take two turns of how to categorize the Salaspils camp. The emotionally subjective way of the documentary way based on German and Soviet documents. The emotionally subjective way most often leads to call Salaspils as concentration camp as large numbers of people were concentrated and imprisoned for various reasons; nationality, political affiliations and crimes against the Nazi laws. People in Salaspils died from violence, death sentences, hunger and diseases, however it was a never a death camp where people were killed in industrial manner for the very purpose of extermination. So calling a death camp is incorrect to very least. The Soviet Gulag camps often operated the same ways, but are not described as death camps. The death camp was camp where prisoners were killed right after their arrival namely six camps: Belzek, Sobibora, Treblinka, Helmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Auschwitz the work able people were sent to concentration camp while others killed.
The documentary way is often criticized by supporters of emotional classification who accuse of following the Nazi paradigm. The official German name for the camp was “Extended police prison and work labor re education camp” On 2005 main Latvian historians published book called “Latvia 20th century” where this term was used. When Vaira Vīķe Freiberga the president of Latvia made visit to Moscow on May 9th and gave the Russian translation of the book to Vladimir Putin. It’s doubtful Putin ever read the book, but the Russian propaganda took out the official camp name as a proof that Latvia is “re-writing” history. The wave of anti-Latvian propaganda was followed by books and movies accusing Latvia of rehabilitating Nazi occupation.
The question what was Salaspils camp can be answered how the Germans viewed the camp themselves and what were their plans regarding and outcomes of their plans. The discussion for the camp building in Salaspils was started in 1941 when head of the Einsatzgruppe A SS-Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker raised the issue of overcrowding of prisoners and recommended to build a concentration camp to sort out work able prisoners. The camp would be under direction of Security Police SD. He was granted build such camp on August 4 1941. Month later the Reich Chief Authority sent note that its unacceptable by all means that SD maintains concentration camps and if the camp is made they are to be called extended police prisons and under jurisdiction of directive issued by SS reichsführer Heinrich Himmler about police prisons and work labor re-education camps.
Local German authorities continued to ask for rights to build a concentration camp and added an argument that camp was needed to host the Jews for they cannot be kept in the Riga Ghetto forever. But requests were written in eased out form calling the desired object as “extended police prison similar to concentration camp” A specialist from Germany was requested to lead the camp building.
On October 11 1941 Stahlecker asked the General Commissioner of Latvia Otto-Heinrich Drechsler to gather large amount construction supplies for concentration camp in between Riga, Jelgava and Tukums for Jews exiled from Germany and occupied Poland. 10 days later the camp site was moved to the site near Riga-Daugavpils railway and was no longer called a concentration camp. As of November 30 the first Rumbula massacre took place taking lives of hundreds of thousands lives of Jews of Riga Ghetto the camp was no longer required for them. Last surviving Jews were taken to Mežaparks (Kaiserwald) camp in Riga that was officially called by Germans as concentration camp by the order of Heinrich Himmler on June 21 1943. Salaspils camp in the process of its existence was never officially called a concentration camp. The classification was important for Germans as it would determine the authority it would subordinated to and laws regarding it. The SD did not want to lose its authority and the Himmler’s requirements to change it to concentration camp were not met. Instead The Chief Authority of the Reich Security issued note to SS court that Salaspils is not a concentration camp but extended police prison with added SD labor re-education camp.
The second main question is the number of victims and inmates. The first victims of the camp were Jews from Germany and Austria who were sent to take part in the camp building. As no expert from Germany was sent the building and design was directed by local Latvians Jānis Irbe the chief of the Riga second building office and technical chief Frīdrihs Mednis. At first the work force was hired locals and Soviet POW’S who were held captive at Stalag 350 POW camp nearby. As of early 1942 the most workforces was now Jews from Germany, Austria and occupied Poland. 1000 Jews were involved in the building on January 5 1942. The harsh winter, rough labor, small food rations and illness lead to constant deaths of the forced labor. 10-12 people may have died within the day. As the ground was frozen it was hard to dig graves and bodies were kept behind barracks to await ground blowouts to bury them. Jews died from harsh punishments, many were killed on spot. The punishments were made for not working, stealing, trying to escape and speculation. People were shot or hanged. The amount of dead Jewish workers it’s not clearly known. The estimates call 1500-1800 Jews to be involved in the camp building and 1000 of them dead from various causes including death punishment.
After the main building works were finished the Jews were transported away to Riga Ghetto and new inmates of various categories were sent to camp. Small numbers of Jews for “special reasons” were kept in the camp. They were possibly Jews from Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Jews also were stationed in camp temporally in transit. 100 or Jews may have died in the camp. But the camp was mainly built for non-Jewish persons.
One of them was work truants as Nazi occupation took many steps to combat work truancy and dawdling. Also speculates, thieves, tax avoiders and illegal alcohol producers. These people were sent to camp. 1800 of them were imprisoned at Salaspils. Salaspils also hosted political prisoner’s mostly Soviet activists who also took part in building process. Also members from the Latvian nationalist movement that opposed the Nazis. Members of the Polish nationalist resistance movement were also present. Nationalist Latvian inmates were mostly spared from harsh works by Nazi authority and guards looked at them with ease. Some of them were freed or sent to Latvian Waffen SS Legion. Latvian collaborators within occupation authorities often tried to help their compatriots and German Nazis saw Latvian nationalists as lesser evil. For a short time the leading members of the Latvian Central Council the main anti-Nazi movement in Latvia were stationed in Salaspils and then sent to camps in Germany. More than 100 Latvian national resistance movement members were present in Salaspils. Most women prisoners were political activists either Soviet activists or nationalists. Women were kept in separate barracks and camp guards forbidden men to have contacts with women and severely punished them when such contacts were made. There were woman who gave birth to children in the camp and were forced to live in harsh environment. Before camp liquidation the many women were sent France or Germany, some released under police watch.
Salaspils camp was also prison for sentenced members of the Latvian Waffen SS and Police battalions. These were soldiers who broke the rules. disobeyed orders or tried to desert. Also for avoiding military service. Some reports say that Norwegians, Dutch, Poles, Finns, Danes and even two French from Alsace were in the camp that were sent there for military offenses. On May 1944 the Lithuanian general Povils Plehavičus with his staff was sent to Salaspils. Plehavičus and his supporters were forming Lithuanian Local Brigade to resist the return of the Soviets and was seen as attempt to restore Lithuanian army by the Germans. Pļehavičus who was anti-communist complained that he is in the sane camp with many sentenced for supporting communism and demanded transfer threatening hunger strike. They were released few months later. While most Latvian and Lithuanian soldiers were given second chance the life in the camp for Soviets POW’s was harsher. Soviet sources say that 47 000 soviet POW’S died at Salaspils without stating how they got that number. On 1942 in Latvia there was 59 805 POW’S and by October 43 0060 as many were sent to Germany. Salaspils camp contained only 10% of the Soviet POW’S of the Stalag-350 POW camp system. So it was nearly impossible to kill so many people at Salaspils camp. However, it’s confirmed that 500 disable Soviet soldiers unable to move themselves were killed at the time of the camp evacuation.
Salaspils served also as transit camp. As from 1943 German army was in retreat in the Eastern front the Nazis tried to sort out refugees and people useful for work. The refugees from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were sent to filtration camps. In Latvia they were settled in Daugavpils, Rēzekne, and Strenči and Salaspils was suggested but then ruled out. However, there was individual case in 1944 when refugees from Belarus were filtrated in Salaspils. On 1943 there was 43 000 evacuated Russians on 1944 152 576. However, Salaspils was mainly a transit camp for captured civilians from Russia and Belarus who were intended by SD to be taken away to Germany.
On 1943 Germans issued operation to combat Soviet partisan movement in Belarus. The order was to destroy the villages around partisan infested zones and deport civilians away from them. The Operation Winter Magic (Operation Winterzauber) took place from February 15 to early April. Near Latvian-Belarusian border the area was controlled by partisans and order was to clear the 40 km wide zone clear of civilian population supporting the partisans. 7465 people were held captive and then sent to Salaspils for filtration. The work able would be sent to Germany. Not all of them were sent as large numbers of weak and old were shot on the march to Salaspils. In two rounds about 4000 people entered Salaspils. Since the whole families were deported the children were within the prisoners. In February 1943 1100 children entered Salaspils. On second transport 1000 children were sent. Children were often separated from their families sent to nurseries or rural works. Camp authorities tried to sort out and disinfect the captives as fast as possible to send them further so never in camp history all the captives were in camp in one place.
Another anti-partisan operation Winter Journey took place in Latvian eastern region of Latgale to punish and deport the supporters of partisans. 3284 people were taken captive, 985 men, 1285 women and 1041 children. As before children were separated sent to relatives or unknown people.
The main cause of death in most cases around the inmates was diseases and starvation. The living environment was insanitary, food rations were low and work conditions were brutal. People died from typhus that was brought in by captives from Operation Winter Magic. The medical branch of camp was tasked to disinfect, remove louses as fast as possible and process was carried brutally. Children often caught dysentery, measles and other sickness. There was no medication so every sickness was a danger. Typhus epidemic killed more than 100 people. Documentary sources state that 700 people died from malnutrition.
Children in the camp were treated harshly. They were sent to quarantine collectively and treated with brutality. Then the most precarious moment was the separation from their parents. Parents were given only one minute to say goodbye to their children. Many children saw their parents for the last time. The Nazi propaganda made film shots of camp doctors disinfecting the children while barrack guards made children to dance and play music for their amusement. When children barrack was hit by diarrhea the children went to barrack guards to dance and sing to get diarrhea pills. About 3000 children were in the camps at various times. Many hundreds died from starvation and epidemics and bad treatment. However, after few months of captivity they were sent to nurseries or adopted. The terrible living conditions and treatment separation from family is highest crime against these children. However, there is no sources that confirm the Soviet allegations of mass killings of children and blood removal in large numbers. Soviet investigation placed a lot of effort to investigate the fates of the children in the camp. Soviet reports concluded 7000 children died in the camp and based on testimonies of 33 people there was regular blood taking procedure imposed on captive children. Most of these testimonies contained many numbers of overall captives, but contained no explanations of how the witnesses knew these facts. Some testimonies contained nearly impossible facts that do not correspond to logic and reality. The Soviet documents contain no information how the investigation committee came to their conclusions and number of causalities and inmates. The accusations on deliberate blood collection from children were often based on rumors and suspicion from witnesses whose blood was not collected. Many interrogated sanitarians denied the fact there was widespread blood collection from children. Also there are not confirmations of the accusations of children poisoning and experimenting. The story about 3500 liters of blood taken from children for the German Red Cross is probably based on rumors, false stories and errors in investigation. There was no logical reason for mass blood collecting without determining the blood type that would make blood transfer out of question. On 1943 because of issues the German medical authority canceled the use of blood doses in the Eastern Front instead preferring direct transfer. Also the blood transport to Western front from Latvia would be costly and unreliable process. Blood collecting took place, but not in large-scale and mostly for medical reasons as doctors tried to limit the spread of diseases that would endanger not only children but also adult workers.
Most deaths were in the camp were caused by famine and diseases. However, many died from repeated brutal punishments. People were punished for not working, speculation, gambling and other disobeying orders. Death penalties were issued for trying or planning to escape or planning an uprising. There were few events hangings in front of other inmates. 19 people were killed or injured during escape attempts. There were few mass killings such as at the end of 1943 when 30-35 people from Riga were brought in shot by the SD firing squad. 16 prisoners who were brought in from Rēzekne and Daugavpils prison were shot because they were sick with typhus. There are no viable sources that proof the claim that there were gas chambers in the camp.
The end of the mass sufferings of the Daugavpils camp came to September 29 1944 when because of approaching Soviets the camp was liquidated. By then the camp had already very small number of prisoners and it had suffered a Soviet air strike destroying one of the barracks. Before the liquidation many inmates were released but disabled inmates were shot. Last inmates left the camp on September 29 1944. Camp was burned down before the Soviets could capture it.
Salaspils was camp of suffering and horror and until this day there are still many unanswered questions and discussions about the number of inmates and number of people killed there. The latest research published this year concludes that from 1942 to 1944 the camp had 21 855-23 035 prisoners 11 735 of them were transit prisoners being here for a limited time. 400-500 people died from starvation. 100-150 died from harsh work environment. Four people were hanged. 19 people were shot during escape attempts. 6 were shot after being caught trying to escape. 31 were killed for planning uprising. 80 disabled people were murdered. 11 735 people including children who were sent to Salaspils from Belarus or Latgale died from various causes. 500 Soviet disabled POW’S were executed. The total of 1952 people died in the Salaspils camp.
The research shows that Soviet estimates of number of casualties were greatly exaggerated. Soviet post war investigation although valuable, holds within many inaccuracies, deliberate exaggerations for ideological reasons. Russian media has already condemned these research results as re-writing of history and turning into Salaspils “death camp” into “resort”. However, the lesser number of victims than thought before does not make the camp less horrifying. It was nevertheless a horrid place ruining people’s lives and comparing to its actual size of inmates it had a very high dead toll. This is not “re-writing” of history as these facts by no means justify the Nazi crimes. Instead these facts make the accusations more concrete against the Nazi regime and downplay the revisionist claims of exaggeration of the Nazi crimes. Today Latvian historians are making the Latvian history more concrete and fact based contrary to Russia where there is actual re writing of history trying to hide the Stalinist crimes. Let us remember and commemorate the victims of the Salaspils camp and let their fates known in the history.
Kangeris, Kārlis, Neiburgs Uldis, Vīksne Rudīte. Aiz šiem vārtiem vaid zeme. Salaspils nometne 1941.-1944. Rīga. Lauku Avīze.2016.
Strautmanis, I, Asaris, G. Padomju Latvijas memoriālie ansambļi. Rīga. Zinātne. 1986.