TW: This post describes the former Nazi Labor and Internment Camp outside of Riga where thousands were held prisoner and murdered during the occupation of Latvia from 1941 – 1944.
While visiting the Baltic countries last fall, my friend Bri (of the lovely Home Base Belgium) and I planned a number of stops at a few memorial sites throughout Latvia and Lithuania. For me, memory work — particularly how and why we as individuals, organizations, and governments choose (or not) to memorialize particular events throughout history — is one of the research interests closest to my heart. I have a nerdy passion for analyzing the historical events (and interpretation) of a place and how the intersectionality of power, memory, intention, and inequality shape the physical memorialization of said landscape.
“As memory workers, we believe that memory about these historic human rights violations is a crucial component of both justice work in the present and imagining more just futures. For us, memory work is not just about remembering the past, but about reckoning with it – that is, establishing facts, acknowledging, apologizing, stopping ongoing violence, and repairing the harm that was done through both material and immaterial forms of reparation.”Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.
Built by the occupying Nazi regime, the camp at Salaspils was in use from 1941 – 1944; occupying Soviets built and unveiled the memorial in 1967. Due to the atrocities and human rights violations that occurred here, visiting this site is considered Dark Tourism, which you can read more on all my thoughts and feelings about here (TL;DR be respectful, grateful, and not a selfie-posing jerk).
The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble holds a dual legacy in that curators must factually tell the story of the what occurred here, as well as how the memorialization of such events have been skewed both historically and presently by a number of entities with their own intentions. My goal is to overview the history as well as the politics of memorialization as best as possible and hopefully convey the emotions of visiting such a site.
We quietly left Salaspils and I honestly had more questions than answers. Was this memorial built for those that suffered and were killed here? Were the stories of survivors uplifted to reflect the brutality of this solemn space?
An Extremely Brief & Not at All Comprehensive Overview of Latvian History:
While often viewed as one — “The Baltics” — the three countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are very distinct from one another; it wasn’t until the last century that their fates and eventual unity connected them. I won’t get into a ton of Baltic history here (save it for THEE big post!) but a quick overview of Latvia in particular is relevant to how the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble was developed and continues to evolve.
Similar to most countries in eastern and central Europe, the history of Latvia (and therefore how events are memorialized) is complicated and intersectional. After seven centuries under Baltic German rule, Latvia was partitioned between Poland and Sweden, eventually falling under Russian control during the Great Northern War. Indigenous Latvian nationalism grew after the Russian Revolution and Latvia declared itself an independent country on November 18th, 1918; their sovereignty recognized by the Soviet Union and Germany in 1920.
Despite their very distinct culture, history, and language, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia banded together in 1934 to create the Baltic Entente. The independent nations declared neutrality prior to WWII, but the treaty of cooperation wasn’t enough to protect the region from occupation by first the Soviet Union (1940), then Nazi Germany (1941), and again under Soviet control in 1944. The 40+ year occupation by the Soviets also drastically changed the population of Latvia; the influx of Russians and Russian speakers grew from 8.8% in 1935 to 34% in 1989. Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, gained independence in 1991 and followed a similar track “returning to Europe” even if each chose its distinct path while working together.
“Of the Baltic states, Latvia is the most ‘Baltic’, with two Baltic neighbours, while Estonia usually looks northwards towards Finland, and Lithuania westwards towards Poland. The Latvians, understandably, have always been the greatest proponents of Baltic solidarity.”Kasekamp, Andres. 2021. “The Baltic States: Three Peas in a Pod?” New Eastern Europe 3: XLVI.
The Salaspils Camp:
Nazi Germany completed their military occupation of Latvia on July 10th, 1941. The government immediately began murdering Jewish citizens and detaining (alleged) communists, anyone that had cooperated with the Soviet Union, along with any racially unacceptable group, as well as those who opposed the occupation. As prisons filled up in Riga, the leader of the Einsatzgruppe A sought to build a camp outside of the city for prison labor, thus leaving space in the prisons for the 25,000 Jewish people forced into the city’s ghetto. Reichs – SS Leader and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler denied the request to build a “private” concentration camp in occupied land and instead granted approval for an Extended Police Prison and Work Education Camp (Arbeitserziehungslager und erweitertes Polizeigefängnis, AEL) to be built at Salaspils. Under the Commander of the Security Police and SD in Latvia and not the directive of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager, IKL), the camp was officially an extended police prison and labor site; while not considered a Nazi concentration camp, the circumstances facing those imprisoned there were incredibly harsh and conditions comparable to those in concentration camps.
“Salaspils camp was not a ‘death camp’ in the sense that people were brought there specifically to be exterminated. Salaspils did not have gas chambers, and ‘gassing trucks’ were not sent there for mass murder of inmates. However, for some of the inmates, Salaspils became their place of death, but for many inmates it served, more or less, as a harsh survival experience on the way to concentration camps outside Latvia. If 4000 inmates from the Salaspils camp were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, it can be assumed that, of them, 1500 or more died.”Neiburgs, Uldis. 2022. “Salaspils Camp. History and Memory.” The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Available here.
After gaining approval, construction started in late 1941 and Latvian workers were quickly replaced with Jewish laborers from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Of the 1,500 – 2,000 Jewish prisoners building the camp, 2 / 3 were killed in Salaspils and most survivors were sent to the Riga ghetto following completion of the site in early 1942. This time was incredibly harsh as Jewish prisoners were not provided shelter or adequate clothing during the winter months of construction.
Originally an “extended police prison” meant for political prisoners, the purpose of the camp was expanded to meet the changing needs of Nazi Germany, becoming the largest camp in the Baltic region for both civilian prisoners from Latvia and political prisoners of other countries. After filling Salaspils with political prisoners and the “work-avoiders”, space was created to detain members of the Latvian police after being convicted by the court. Those sent to the “forced labor camp” served their sentences and were held for up to 56 days. Beyond the prisoners serving court-ordered sentencing, a number of other groups were imprisoned here, including victims of operations against partisans and those sent for forced labor in Germany. Over six thousand women, children, and men — survivors of a number of operations including Winterzuber and Sommerreise — were brought to Salaspils. The women were deported to Germany to work as forced laborers and children sent to peasant families within Latvia; of the adults sent to Germany, their ultimate fate is unknown as their future was determined by their assigned labor category, Finally, a POW portion of the camp was opened for civilians and refugees that had attempted escape from the frontlines. Salaspils also became a transit location for civilians being sent to labor in Germany from the east; in 1943 many were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. In 1944, as the Red Army closed in on Latvia, the Nazis deported any remaining prisoners to the Stutthof Concentration Camp (near the Free City of Danzig) and burned the entire camp and its records.
While the complete number of those sent, imprisoned, and killed at Salaspils can never be fully known– and I absolutely hate reducing their suffering to merely numeral statistics — the estimate includes:
- Between 21,855 and 23,035 people were imprisoned here from 1941 – 1944; Around half were political prisoners, “work-avoiders”, and convicted soldiers (including Latvians), while the rest were survivors of military campaigns against civilians in Belorussia, Russia, and Latgale
- Roughly 11,000 were transit prisoners and of the survivors that returned to Latvia, Belarus, or Russia, complete information is unknown; It is estimated that for 6,000 – 7,000 political prisoners “leads us to believe that the swath of death in concentration camps outside Latvia was quite considerable”
- From May 1942 – September 1944 an estimated 400 – 500 people died from diseases; 100 – 150 died from violent punishment and extreme working conditions, and 30 were murdered for attempting / planning to escape
- Several hundred children died from undernourishment and epidemics; There is no evidence that medical experiments were performed here; Roughly 2,700 children from Belarus and Latgale were placed with farmers, foster families, and other child care centers
- In total, an estimated 3,000 people died at Salaspils; Over 1 / 3 of the deaths included the Jewish prisoners that initially built the camp
Memorialization of the Salaspils Camp:
The planning for a memorial at the Salaspils site started in the late 1950s after commemoration politics shifted to reflect not places of defeat, but rather “symbols of Soviet unity”. An enormous campaign by the Soviet government to build military cemeteries and memorials — particularly in the now Soviet-occupied republics — began. In 1959, a competition for the creation of the Salaspils memorial was held; only seven of the original 20 artists completed the project from start to finish including architects Gunārs Asaris, Oļģerts Ostenbergs, Ivars Strautmanis, Oļegs Zakamennijs and sculptors Ļevs Bukovskis, Oļegs Skarainis un Jānis Zariņš. The site opened in 1967.
The memorial is one of the largest in Europe at over 25 hectares (62 acres) and is a prime example of 1960s Brutalist architecture. The site includes a 110 meter (328 feet) – long walkway at the entrance with the inscription “Aiz šiem vārtien vaid zeme” (“behind these gates moans the earth”), a large square for ceremonies, seven total sculptures (up to 16 meters [52 feet] high), and the continuous playing of a metronome (symbolizing a heartbeat) through loudspeakers across the site, all deep within the Latvian forest.
At the time of the completion and opening of the memorial, the Soviet government not only amplified the Nazi atrocities that occurred here, but also propaganda vastly exaggerated the extent of the brutality. They purported (unfounded) claims that over 100,000 were killed at Salaspils, children were used for medical experimentation for German soldiers, and the labeling of Salaspils as a concentration camp or death camp for Jewish populations from across Europe.
“The attempt of pro-Russian politicians to use the memorial for their own purposes actually compromises the whole idea of commemorating the Salaspils camp, because these people are not interested in historical truth, just as they were not interested in the Soviet regime at the time. Historian Uldis Neiburgs, once admitted to the memorial as a pioneer, recalls that during the Soviet era, the Salaspils Memorial had not so much commemoration as an ideological and propaganda function. The memory of the victims was relegated to the background.”Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils memoriālam būtu vajadzīga vēsturiski patiesa ekspozīcija.” [translated] LA.LV. Available here.
Popularity of the “biggest of 23 mass-destruction-camps which were erected by the German fascists on the territory of the occupied Latvia” grew under Soviet disinformation. These greatly exaggerated numbers and inaccuracies were prevalent throughout Soviet occupation and only after Latvian independence in 1991 has research into the events that took place at Salaspils and the intentions behind the memorial been analyzed and published. Many Latvian researchers and media outlets fought against the Soviet myths, claiming these numbers and atrocities were not only vastly exaggerated, but also misrepresented. However, Russian media, academics, and Russian-speaking populations disagree with this research. With the differing perspectives of the many groups attached to Salaspils, a number of “problematic” events take place at the memorial, including activism for pro-Russian politicians campaigning for support; many accuse those attempting to accurately represent historical information as advocates for the neo-Nazi regime.
“The different groups have different – sometimes conflicting – perceptions of the camp’s history and its Soviet commemoration which have been a point of contention for nearly 30 years now… when the new exhibition was opened in February 2018, the Latvian media praised it as ‘finally showing the truth’, while the Russian media accused curators of belittling the suffering of inmates, making ‘a health resort out of Salaspils’, and concealing the stories of child prisoners.”Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils memoriālam būtu vajadzīga vēsturiski patiesa ekspozīcija.” [translated] LA.LV. Available here.
Financial resources are an additional concern for the physical maintenance of the memorial. In 2005, the Russian Federation offered funds to restore the site through the Russian Embassy, which was denied by the Salaspils City Council, declaring their own ownership and responsibility for the site. A new exhibit at the memorial was developed by a number of curators — including the author of the first book on the site, Uldis Neiburgs — in 2017. This was built inside the 100 meter walkway (the “bridge”) at the entrance of Salaspils and included an overview of the history of the camp and memorial. In “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils”, Paula Oppermann notes that the memorial has a double purpose in presenting both the history of the events that took place there as well as telling the story of the Soviet misrepresentation and intentions behind building the memorial:
“They aimed to present the form and function of the AEL Salaspils, to tell the history of all prisoners, and to dismantle prominent myths about the camp which were established during the Soviet period…
The result is a rather unequal presentation of the two dimensions: there is a remarkable contrast between the density of facts about the memorial’s designers in the second section of the exhibition and the short and generalising texts in the section that describes the camp’s history. The curators do not depict Salaspils as a ‘health resort’, as some critics have argued. Nonetheless, its function within the Nazi camp system is not sufficiently contextualised, and neither is its role in the Holocaust in Latvia: the exploitation of Jewish forced labourers in the construction of Salaspils was an aspect of genocide.”Oppermann, Paula. 2018. “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils.” Cultures of History. Available here.
The ability to represent this information remains uneven with room to improve, but I would argue it is at least a step in the right direction to both memorialize and accurately represent the atrocities that occurred at Salaspils. While we will never know the exact numbers or suffering of those imprisoned here, the vast propaganda of exaggeration detracts from the purpose of a memory site: representing a historic truth with as much power given to the community of survivors in how they want their experience to be understood and symbolized for future generations.
The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble:
A short drive from Riga, Bri and I left early to visit the Salaspils site. We only had a small window of time here but we made the most of our experience. The directions to the actual memorial were spotty and thankfully Bri made a few in-the-moment-decisions to successfully find the location. This isn’t a huge tourist attraction and after turning off the main road, there wasn’t clear signage on how to reach the memorial. We passed over the railroad tracks and into the forest, eventually finding the site.
After parking — empty besides the two of us at this early hour — we passed the marker at the lot (a brief description of the site in English, Latvian, German, and Russian) before walking up to the enormous “bridge” at the front of the memorial. Known as the “border between life and death”, the “bridge” holds the new exhibits opened in 2017, although access was closed when we visited.
After walking under the “bridge”, Bri went straight into the Ceremonial Grounds while I headed left to the Memorial Obelisks to read more about the camp and how it was represented. I am so grateful for such a lovely friend who not only happily made this stop with me, but took pictures of the memorial that I would have missed due to our time constraints.
See a map of the space here.
The first thing I noticed after entering the memorial was the metronome. The beating heart is played 24 hours a day through loudspeakers across the entire site. It was a haunting, jarring experience to incorporate sound into the very visible built landscape here. Surrounded by dense forest without wind, the metronome resonates loudly in the stillness of the space.
As with any event of unimaginable horror with multiple sides, perspectives, and intersecting histories and cultures, I imagine the controversy of the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble will continue to be a source of conflicting positions. Of course not all Latvians feel the same, nor do those of Russian descent, so I hope to not paint these very diverse communities as broad, monolithic groups. However, the push for Latvia to reclaim this memorial space through developing new exhibits and research, while also the costs to maintain the enormous Soviet structures built here to demonstrate the strength of the USSR against not only Nazi Germany, but in the countries they occupied, is commendable. As with many former Soviet-occupied countries, the path to self-determination and sovereignty includes thoroughly unpacking the intention of occupation-era memorial work such as the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble while embracing ideas of transitional justice.
The decision to memorialize a site as horrific as the Salaspils camp also requires reckoning with the Soviet representation of the space — a complicated, continuous, and evolving undertaking — that demands visitors to look beyond just the built landscape.
“The past was never singular, nor will the future be. In order to generate these futures, memory work should be dangerous. It should seek not only to acknowledge past trauma, but to repair it. It should aim to upend hierarchies of power, to distribute resources more equitably, to enable complex forms of self-representation, and to restore the humanity of those for whom it has been denied.”Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.
Reading: The Nineties (Chuck Klosterman)
Watching: Our Flag Means Death (HBO)
Listening: Make Up the Breakdown (Hot Hot Heat)
Atlas Obscura. 2019. “Salaspils Memorial Ensemble.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.
ENG.LSM.LV [Latvian Public Media]. 2017. “Holocaust Memorial Near Salaspils Turns 50”. ENG.LSM.LV. Available here.
Hohenhaus, Peter. 2014. “Salaspils Concentration Camp Memorial”. Dark-Tourism. Available here.
Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.
Kasekamp, Andres. 2021. “The Baltic States: Three Peas in a Pod?” New Eastern Europe 3:XLVI. 15 – 19.
Oppermann, Paula. 2018. “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.
Salaspilis Memorials. 2022. “Exposition”. Salaspils Memoriāls Official Website. Available here.
Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils Memoriālam Būtu Vajadzīga Vēsturiski Patiesa Ekspozīcija”. LA.LV. Available here. [In Latvian]