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39 Holocaust Victims Recovered

Baldone, Latvia - June 2022

In early June Legenda proudly took part in a recovery operation that harks back to the most chilling events of World War II - The Holocaust.

The sad story we became involved in starts back in the hot summer of 1941. German troops

had entered Latvia only a week after the launch of Operation Barbarossa and on July 1 Riga

had fallen. Less than 10 days later the whole of Latvia was fully under German control.

The Latvian Year of Blood, 1941 was about to get bloodier.

Legenda Members enter the forest. (Photo: Baldone Museum)

Almost immediately German authorities actively encouraged violent acts against the Jewish

population and some auxiliaries and nationalists sought to garner favour with their new

German masters by enthusiastically carrying out this grim task. One such act, the burning of

the Choral Synagogue with women and children inside was filmed by a Wehrmacht

propaganda unit, the site today is a memorial to the horrific treatment the Jews suffered

particularly in the city in early July.

But such acts of brutality were not limited to the city. In rural parts of Latvia, Jewish families

were actively sought out, beaten, robbed or murdered by locals, many who had known each

other before the occupation. Baldone is a small town about 40km to the south of Riga, famed for its natural spas it was a peaceful and idyllic place to live before the war. However, as July became August the violence against Jewish families spread and Baldone wouldn’t escape the bloodshed. Local Jewish families were rounded up under the pretense of being taken to Riga where all Jews now needed to be registered in preparation for the creation of the Riga Ghetto which would open in October.

Baldones Museum representatives discuss possible identification onsite.

(Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

The Baldone Jews never made it to Riga. The tragedy of their disappearance was gradually eroded by time but not forgotten by all. Two local historians Juris Yershov and Ojars Anderson had made it their personal mission to solve the mystery of what happened to these lost souls and to ensure that they were not forgotten.

Years of research led them closer and closer to the truth but the final piece of the jigsaw

remained elusive. This was finally solved during an interview with a man whose mother had

told him the story of a mass shooting in the woods that she had witnessed whilst out

mushroom picking. The key piece of evidence was that it had taken place in an old WW1

trench that ran parallel to the Berzene River. Months of discussions followed to ensure that every detail was covered. The Legenda team were already together having completed the first day of the International Spring Expedition when the green light was finally given and a briefing could take place. Everyone was required to supply their ID and to sign up to certain conditions including a social media blackout because of the sensitivity of the issue. Each member was given the opportunity to not to take part as the likely finding of children’s remains is clearly a mental challenge, but every member present chose to participate.

Legenda Members begin the task. (Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

The 90 minute drive to the location gave everyone time to reflect on the bloody events of

the past, the journey passed in a more subdued atmosphere than our normal travels. On

arrival at the site our identities were checked and the search area was cordoned off by the

police to ensure only approved people could leave or enter the site. A further briefing was given as to the search plan, then a minutes silence was immaculately observed by all, only the bird song broke the dignified silence. The search then commenced initially with metal detectors searching the area close to the trench line specifically searching for cartridges that could give away the exact place the gunmen may have stood. It wasn’t long before cartridges were found, these were Lee Enfield rounds, made at the Riga factory. This was the weapon largely used by the Latvian auxiliaries and as they weren’t supplied until after WW1 they could not be associated with earlier fighting that had taken place here in the forest. We now knew we were in the right area and close to solving a decades old mystery.

Legenda International Member Steve finds evidence and marks it accordingly.

(Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

The First World War trench was widened and very gradually deepened. It wasn’t long before

the first remains were found, as the news spread a hushed silence fell and even experienced

veteran searchers felt the ghostly hands of history upon them. Each team of diggers had representatives of the museum alongside them to record, photograph and help identify every single item that was recovered. Smaller pistol cartridges and bullets inside the trench added a clearer insight into the brutality that had befallen these people. The original estimate had been that we may find as many as 15 people, but by 1500 it was

clear that there were many more and it was clear the whole of the next day and possibly

longer would be required. The site was secured for the night and the team returned the

following day. Next morning the first job was to clean up the area more thoroughly so that it could be seen in greater detail, with the marked sites of finds and cartridges so the full picture of the events that took place here could be recorded by the museum staff.

Then it was time to begin the actual recovery.

Slowly and respectfully each person was recovered and on removal Jewish prayers from members of the local Jewish community were said. As the storm clouds started to build to the west, the forest took on a more oppressive feeling but finally the last of these lost souls was recovered. In the end we had recovered 39 people, 10 were children, the youngest a mere 8 months old… some images will never leave you.

A ladies shoe made in Riga. (Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

A short speech and blessing for us and our families for our help was given and the digging team responded with a round of applause.

(Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

As the first rain drops landed heavily on the forest canopy we began our walk back to our

vehicles. Knowing we were crunching over the same pebbles those terrified people had

crunched over having been unloaded from trucks where our vehicles now sat and almost

certainly knowing their fate whilst they tried to comfort crying children was perhaps the

most poignant memory for me. I would less than a week later return to my own family and children – but I think a part of me and all those who helped will forever remain in that forest.

Postscript- On June 30 Baldone city cemetery hosted a reburial for those we had found. The

ceremony was led by Ilya Krumer and Rabbi of the Riga Synagogue Peitav-Shul. Also in

attendance were Juris Zilko Chairman of Kekava City Council, Ineta Romanovska Member of

Kekava Municipal Council, Dmitrijs Krupnikovs Deputy Chairman of the Latvian Jewish

Congregation and Communities Council, Ilya Lensky Head of the Museum ‘Jews in Latvia’.

Also in attendance were members of Baldone Museum, Legenda Military Archaeology and

Kekava Police. At the end of the ceremony each member of the local Baldone community placed a stone as a symbolic gesture on the grave site. The stones were taken from the execution site or from homes in Baldone where the Jewish families had once lived.

Finally they rest in peace, forgotten and lonely in the forest no more.

(Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)

Legenda Members along with Baldone Museum and reporters from Le Monde France. (Photo: Mārtiņš Kazainis - Baldone Museum)


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