Holocaust was the most massive crime in the Latvian history. About 70 000 Jews from Latvia were killed and 19 000 Jews brought from Western Europe were killed on Latvian soil. It was time of despair for Latvian nation as they had to make a very tough choices. Took part in crime, assist the crime or be a bystander. Most took the second choice, but there were many who sadly took the first. However, the most toughest choice was to rescue Jews from killings. This action was associated with great risk as it was punishable by death and Nazi authorities carefully searched for any Jew that escaped the murders. So such act of humanity and resistance was rare and brave thing to do. In 1945 in Jerusalem a memorial museum “Yad Vashem” was established to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, documentation and research and special focus for them was the Jewish rescuers. Yad Vashem issues special Honorary Title “Righteous Among Nations” to all Jewish rescuers. A special tree is planted in memorial garden to commemorate them. 65 of them are persons from Latvia. The small number can be explained due to the suspicion by the Soviet authorities towards rescued Jews preventing them to establish connections with Israel and Yad Vashem. Only if the persons were permitted to emigrate they could safely report their rescuers to Yad Vashem commission. According to research done by Marģers Vestermanis 400-500 Jews were rescued during Nazi occupation. Many Jews were failed to rescue and their rescuers arrested. 32 people are known to be repressed for rescue attempts. Museum “Jews in Latvia” has gathered 220 events of Jewish rescue attempts with 400 people involved. Among the rescuers most known were Roberts and Johanna Sedols in Liepāja who rescued 11 Jews in Liepāja, Sonja Švarca rescued nine persons in Riga, Elvīra Rone eight, Artūrs Motmillers seven people. Baltic German politician Paul Schiemann is known hosting young Jewish woman before his death on 1944 and gained title “Righteous Among Nations”. The person with the most rescued people count was Jānis (Žanis) Lipke. He helped 55 people to survive the war hiding them in various places in Riga and rest around Dobele in Kurzeme (Courland) region. With assistance of few trusted associates he did frantic work rescuing people during Nazi occupation and was the one of the first of Latvian rescuers who gained international recognition. This story is about him and his rescued ones.
Jānis Lipke nicknamed Žanis for most of his life was born on February 1 1900 in Jelgava then known as Mittau. He finished three classes but was fluent in German and Russian. His parents did not live long, father lost his life in the frontlines of the First World war and mother died in 1920. Žanis himself joined the Latvian Rifleman on 1918 and year later joined Latgale Artillery regiment. After the war was over he came to Riga and met his future wife Johanna Novicka who 17 years old at the time of their marriage. From 1926 to 1940 he worked in Riga harbor in docks and storage facilities. There he mastered his underground work abilities by giving refuge to social democrats and communists who were persecuted by Kārlis Ulmanis authoritarian regime. He was also called in for smuggling, made private bus rides between Jelgava and Valmiera and owned yacht.
On 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Latvia Lipke started to work in “Luftwaffe” storage near Riga Central Market. The Riga Ghetto established by Nazis to prison all the Jews in Riga was close. Before 1941 Ghettos were never established in Latvia. Jews lived where they wanted, sometimes in larger concentrations in one place than other. The Moscow district near the Riga Central Market and Railway station was one of the most Jewish populated districts in Riga. Nazis moved all the Jews in Riga there and surrounded the territory with barbed wire and guard posts. Similar ghetto was established in Daugavpils the city with most Jews and many other smaller cities were Jews were separated from other citizens until the time of their death.
Lipke gained Nazi trust by graduating air defense courses and was appointed to transport Jews to forced labor sites and back. That allowed him to start his rescue mission. First rescued was family friend Chaim Slomensky who was picked up by Lipke during transport from ghetto to labor site. Few others were prevented from returning to ghetto. As the ghetto security became tougher every such attempt became more difficult. Few trusted friends and relatives were involved in rescue attempts. He found people who hosted rescued Jews in various places in Riga and rural house around Dobele. The success of his mission was contributed by his talent of talking people in, bribing the guards or divert their attention by use of alcohol or casual talks. Lipke lived in small house in Ķīpsala an island in Riga. Ķīpsala was located in front of city center separated by river Daugava. During the Nazi occupation Ķīpsala was made of small tensely build wooden fisherman houses that were ideal for covert rescue shelter. There he made small bunker for some of the rescued while others were sheltered elsewhere.
In such way he and his rescued ones made until October 13 1944 when Red army marched in Riga. Before soviets marched in he also managed to smuggle out Latvians who deserted Latvian Waffen SS Legion. He did so by working in German Forestry service and transported captured trophy vehicles from Riga to Kurzeme. Soviet paratroopers brothers Rozenbergs were also sheltered by him. He was arrested by Soviet secret police NKVD who questioned him about his son Alfrēds who served in German army support service. After finding out that he rescued Jews the NKVD then started to question his reasons and tried to find the hidden Jewish gold and diamonds. During questioning Lipke lost his patience and shouted to Soviet officer that communists are the same bandits as Nazis, Nazis shoot you by looking in the eye, while Soviets shoot from the back. Despite such grave insult he was released by the Soviets and not bothered again.
After the war he continued to live in his house in Balasta dambis in Ķīpsala. His rescued ones who made it to Israel made him popular and on 1977 when he visited the country he was greeted warmly by crowds of people. Yad Vashem recognized him as the Righteous Among Nation and holds documents related to his actions and planted a tree in alley of heroes within the memorial complex. Those who remained in Latvia visited Lipke two times in a year. He was very popular among Latvian Jewish community. One of his rescued Dāvids Zilbermans wrote a book “As a Star in Darkness” where he gathered the accounts from rescued ones about Lipke.
On May 14 1987 Lipke died from stroke and was buried in Riga II Forest cemetery. Since then actions were made to commemorate his name. A memorial stone to Lipke and his family was placed in Riga New Jewish cemetery, on 1995 at the location of main Riga Ghetto gate a memorial plaque was placed commemorating him. Lipkes relatives continued to live in their small wooden house in Balasta dambis 8. On 2005 a society “Žanis Lipke Memorial” lead by ex Prime Minister Māris Gailis was established to create a memorial next to Lipkes house. The project was designed by his wife Zaiga Gaile. The memorial was finished on 2012 and was instantly praised for his architectural design and interior. The museum holds permanent exhibition about life and work of Žanis Lipke and his family. The basement levels holds space for temporary exhibits and small guest hall is often used for lectures and presentations. The wooden building was made to recreate the Lipke’s shelter in form of Noah’as ark and the bunker within the lover levels of the memorial. The memorial itself is perfectly hidden between the buildings in Ķīpsala as the original Lipke’s shelter was. To this day is the most modern and popular Holocaust memorial in Latvia. The Lipke museum also has made a project “Underground Riga” to mark all the sites in Riga where Lipke and other rescuers made shelters for Jews, Communists and Legion deserters by erecting small plaques on the ground next to the buildings. Thanks to the memorial Žanis Lipke has became popular in Latvia and abroad more than ever.
Lipke himself described his actions as purely non-selfish. To question how much he rescued he said he did not count, those who saved he saved without much counting. Lipke was remembered as nice person and a risk taker that contributed to his savior person. His efforts and names lives till this day and serves as example to how to act in times of war and despair.