Six months before the creation of the ghetto, a local Jewish council of elders, the altestenrat (hereinafter the Judenrat), was created. It was headed by Solomon Israelit, a merchant and public figure in Liepāja, and a lawyer,Menachem Kagansky.
On 1st July 1942, the Jews who remained in the city – about 800 men, women, children and the elderly, were ordered to move to the ghetto within ten days(different sources give slightly different numbers). Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto without permission, and residents of the city were not allowed to enter it or maintain contact with prisoners. Warnings were posted on the fence, threatening that anyone who broke the rules would be shot
Some Jewish women who had married non-Jews had had to undergo sterilization in order to continue living with their husbands outside the ghetto, but over time they were also driven into the ghetto. Other mixed couples, broke up even before the ghetto was created, with the spouse who was Jewish sharing the fate of other Jews.
The Judenrat tried to organize the life of the prisoners. Special rules were drawn up to maintain cleanliness and order, and the ghetto police, which also consisted of prisoners, supervised their implementation
In August 1942, the barbed wire fence around the ghetto was completed and the Jews were isolated. The ghetto was subordinate to the local SiPo headquarters (Sicherheitspolizei, the German security police). The head of the ghetto was the police Maister Franz Kershner. According to the recollections of survivors of the Liepāja ghetto, Kershner was rather an exception among the thousands of German officers and treated Jews relatively humanely. Every prisoner who left the ghetto had to have a tag. Prisoners would leave in the morning and return in the evening, and by looking through the shelf where the tags were lying, the commandant could immediately see who was inside the ghetto and who was outside.
The ghetto was guarded by between 10 and 12 Latvian policemen armed with rifles, four of whom patrolled the fence around the clock. The ghetto was seriously overcrowded – for example, a five-room house with a kitchen accommodated 22 people, so between three and six people would share one room. The Judenrat tried to ensure that each family had at least one room and that relatives were kept together, and they tried to allocate separate rooms for single people.
As a result, there were no cases of neglect, filth or epidemics in the Liepāja ghetto. The Judenrat was located in a house on 31 Bāriņu St, where its leadersalso lived. A small Beit Midrash was created in the ghetto, and a library, a small clinic and a school were opened. The adults did their best to protect the children from the horrors that awaited them behind the barbed wire. In one of the houses there was a secret radio that made it possible to find out the news. The Arbitration Court of Honor, headed by former attorney Wolf, considered disagreements between neighbors and violations of the internal order of the ghetto. According to the testimony of the survivors, all those responsible in positions of responsibility tried to alleviate the situation of the prisoners as much as possible.
For the most part, the ghetto prisoners worked for the German army or police. They were used as artisans and unskilled laborers. Some of them worked in warehouses where lumber, clothing and trophies were stored, at the train station or at various workshops. Women worked at factories or kitchens, or cleaning up the debris left around the city after bombing raids. Every day, those assigned to forced labor gathered early in the morning in groups (colonies) at a specific place in the ghetto depending on where they were working.
They walked to and from work in organized ranks accompanied by the Jewish group leader. This fact distinguished the Liepāja ghetto from other places,where the Germans demanded that the head of the group not be Jewish. The inmates worked from 16 to 18 hours a day, spending most of the day outside the ghetto. Everyone understood that they could be shot on the spot at any moment for the slightest violation.
Those who worked inside the ghetto were employed in workshops and in other places indicated by the Judenrat. They were engaged in sewing or shoe repair, or were used as blacksmiths or at small workshops for the manufacture of jewelry. These places were under the special supervision of the Germans, who periodically carried out inspection of the ghetto. Everything that was earned was transferred to the German administration.
The Judenrat tried to assign the elderly and the weak at the workshops, in orderto relieve them from the hard labor outside the ghetto. Some well-known high-level specialists were recruited to work under the administration of the economic department of the German security police. They received special documents giving them some relief from restrictions, including freer movement outside the ghetto. They used these privileges to help others and enjoyed special status in the ghetto.
Food rations for working Jews and their families were centrally transferred to the Judenrat. The amount of food given to the prisoners was half that given to a working non-Jew. This was too little to satisfy their needs, and the prisoners tried every way to find opportunities to get food, often endangering their health and lives. Jewish workers sometimes managed to secretly bring sugar and coal from their places of work, which they could use themselves or barter. This kind of activity was strictly prohibited. Some Jews paid for these violations with their lives, and in some cases even with the lives of their families. Compared to other ghettos, checks at the entrance to the Liepāja ghetto were not very strict.
There was a small vegetable garden in the ghetto, which was run by Mrs Sophia Saks. She recruited children to help her. Potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers andcabbages were grown there. All this helped to prevent hunger. Nevertheless, cases of starvation did occur quite often.
On October 22nd 1942, 160 Jews from the Riga ghetto – who had previously been forcibly transferred there from Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany – were sent to Liepāja for forced labor at the sugar factory. There was a doctor among the prisoners.
They were housed separately from the other prisoners in the ghetto. At first, these prisoners were forbidden to enter the main part of the territory, but over time this ban was lifted. The arrivals also received weekly food rations. Several people were executed after being caught attempting to smuggle sugar from the factory into the ghetto.
One night eight people from the Riga group were also shot for unknown reasons. At the end of December 1942, after finishing seasonal work at the sugar factory, about a hundred inmates were returned to the Riga ghetto, while 50 prisoners were ordered to stay in the Liepaja ghetto to work in the port. In March 1943, they were returned to the Riga ghetto.
In September 1943, the Jews of Liepāja did not yet know that in June Himmler had issued an order for all ghettos in the occupied territories to be liquidated, and for their inhabitants to be sent to concentration camps. This order was not welcomed by the civil administration: Dr. Dorffel from the Gebitkommissariat told the SD that Jewish workers were absolutely necessary for the local economy and that the same number of Latvian workers should be replaced by them. Ghetto commandant Franz Kershner suggested that Jews could be accommodated at their workplaces if the ghetto buildings were needed for other purposes. But these arguments did not help.
In August 1943, rumors began to circulate that the Riga ghetto had already been liquidated, and that its inhabitants had been sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp. The news of the liquidation of the Liepāja ghetto was perceived by its inhabitants in different ways. Some Jews assumed that they would be killed and had Veronal tablets for this case. Others hoped to save themselves and transferred their few possessions o Latvian friends, hoping that they would be returned after the war. But there were also prisoners who did not want to surrender and were ready to resist extermination.
One of the prisoners of the ghetto tried to persuade Israelit not to surrender, but to join the struggle for his own life and the lives of other prisoners. With the help of the former Russian prisoner of war Trofim Torbik, they secretly smuggled pistols into the ghetto. Pretending to be a simpleton, he worked for the SD as a groom and regularly removed barrels of waste from the ghetto. It was in these barrels that he managed to bring weapons into the area of the ghetto. The Jews hid their weapons in a dilapidated barn but could not use them. A Latvian guard accidentally discovered this cache of weapons, but the ghetto commandant Kerscher managed to prevent repression by convincing the SD that these weapons must have been left behind by the Red Army troops stationed in the area during the Soviet occupation of 1940–41.
In the autumn of 1943, the Judenrat received a notification from Kerscher about ghetto liquidation. They were also told that Jews would be allowed to take with them only those belongings that they could carry. As a result of their previousexperience, the prisoners did not really trust the statement of the Germans and were sure that the next step would be the extermination of all the inhabitants of the ghetto. On the night before the liquidation, the authorities cut off the gas supply to the ghetto.
On 5th October 1943, David Zivcon, one of the ghetto prisoners, wassummoned to the SD to carry out urgent repairs to the teletype, which had stopped working in the middle of a message. As soon as he had completed the repair work and the machine resumed reception, he was forced to leave the room. David managed to catch the phrase “liquidate 8th October …” and this prompted him to escape. According to other sources, Zivcon was warned about the imminent liquidation of the ghetto by the SD driver, a Baltic German with whom he had studied at the German gymnasium. The same day, David, together with his wife Henny (nee Friedlander), decided to flee. They were joined by another young couple, Michoel and Hilda Skutelsky. While Michoel occupied the guard with conversation, offering him gold rings, David managed to make a hole in the barbed wire. After some time, all the escapees met at the house of Roberts and Johanna Sedols at 14 Tirgoņu St. They spent several days in the attic while Robert and David finished work on a shelter in the basement of the house. In total, 11 Jews were hidden in the Sedols’ shelter.
At 5 o’clock on the morning of Friday, 8th October 1943, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jews were ordered to gather in the courtyard of the ghetto and hand over all the money and valuables they still had left. All of them were lined up in columns and driven down Bāriņu St. to a train of 16 cattle wagons that had been prepared for them. The prisoners were herded into carriages, and, accompanied by police, the train set off. No one knew where they were being sent, and they began to fear that they would be killed on the way or at their destination. Panic broke out when at two in the morning the train stopped in woods. Everyone was driven through the forest, along a sandy road; in the distance, the ghetto prisoners saw barracks surrounded by barbed wire and illuminated by lanterns.
It was Kaiserwald. Upon their arrival on the morning of 9th October 1943, a terrible “selection” began. The able-bodied and children over 12 years old were sent to one barracks, and the elderly, disabled and women with children to another. People realized that the second group was awaiting. Several women left their little children to older relatives and joined the “fit for work” group, but most mothers stayed with their children, ready to share their grim fate. They were sent to the Riga ghetto. Able-bodied men and women without children, as well as children over 12 years old, remained in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, for the subsequent use of prisoners in various jobs.
Among the prisoners of the Liepāja ghetto was the head of the Judenrat,Solomon Israelit, along with his wife Etta. Their fate was the same as that of all Liepāja Jews taken to Kaiserwald. Etta Israelit died there in November 1943, and her husband in 1944 in the Stutthof concentration camp.
Less than a month later, after the liquidation of the ghetto in Riga, all the remaining prisoners were deported to Auschwitz and Stutthof death camps. Presumably, their number exceeded 2,000, of whom about 800 people reached their destination; the rest died during transportation.
In Liepāja, the Germans left a few people from the ghetto who might be useful to them. On 1st December 1943, a German SD officer ordered three craftsmen to hide: the goldsmith Miša Libauer, and the shoemakers Jose Mendelštam and Šmerl Skutelskij, although their wives and children had already been deported. The prisoners were placed in the attic of the SD building at 21 Kūrmājas Prospects. They were ordered to remove their yellow patches and not appear on the streets. The task of the craftsmen was to make Christmas presents to be sent to Germany for the families of SD officers. They made jewellery, shoes and boots.
In addition to this, within ten days they had to sort the belongings that the Jews had left in the ghetto. The best of it was taken by the SD men, who often even fought over them. Some of the items were taken by the Schutzpolizei and Latvian guards, the rest were sold on the black market. Before long the craftsmen realized that as soon as the Christmas orders were completed, they would come to a dreadful end. Trofim Torbik, helped them escape, and a few days later three more Jews appeared in Sedols’ shelter.
After the liquidation of the Liepāja ghetto, its former area was turned into a prisoner of war camp, which existed until December 1944. A significant proportion of the prisoners were killed, and the rest were sent to camps inPoland, Germany or Czechoslovakia. Later that December of the same year, people who had been forcibly taken from front-line regions of Russia – Pskov, Novgorod and Velikiye Luki – were kept in the former ghetto.
- Rebecca Margolis*, Edward Anders** The Linkimer Diary: How 11 Jews Survived the Holocaust
- Solomon Feigerson, The Tragic Fate of Liepaja Jews, in Edward Anders and Juris Dubrovskis, Jews in Liepaja, Latvia 1941–45 (Burlingame: Anders Press, 2001 ).
- Andrew Ezergailis (ed.), Stockholm Documents, The German Occupation of Latvia 1941–1945. (Riga:Publishers of the Historical Institute of Latvia, 2002),
- George D. Schwab, “The Destruction of a Family” in Gertrude Schneider, Muted Voices (New York: Philosophical Library, 1987).
- Edward Anders and Juris Dubrovskis, Jews of Liepaja, Latvia 1941–1945.Unpublished database;