Beneath a canopy of birch and pine, Latvia’s Rumbula forests looked just like my grandfather’s black and white photographs, only coloured by the bright hues of springtime.
The outlines of five large and identical rectangular pits lay in front of me, covered in grass with big stones placed neatly on each centre. Metres from where I was standing my great-grandparents, Mendel and Zilla Efrat, were murdered 76 years ago.
It was hard to believe that in 1941, right there, 25,000 people were lined up, stripped naked and shot, 10 at a time into these pits on Nazi orders. Some died instantly. Some were buried alive under the human flesh and bones. And some were my relatives.
Standing in the middle of their mass graves, I expected to hear their terrified screams in the wind or feel a ghostly chill down my spine.
But Rumbula forest was frustratingly peaceful.
Spring sunshine trickled through tree branches, warming my back. I removed my winter coat for the first time in months. Luscious green grass had grown over the murder pits and birds chirped happily everywhere. All my mother and I felt was serenity.
Born in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, my grandfather, Jack Efrat, was one of the 2.5 per cent of Latvian Jews who survived World War II. He was in hiding when the Rumbula massacre took place. Jack survived Nazi concentration camps such as Kaiserwald, Stuthof and Buchenwald. He was liberated by the Americans in April of 1945, wearing a German army uniform, hiding as a German deserter in the bombed-out ruins of Magdeburg.
Jack passed away in 2015, a week short of 92. He’s now buried in Macquarie Park Cemetery, Sydney. But he often confessed his guilt for not being buried right there in the forests of Rumbula.
For years after the war, Jack pined for his beloved Latvia, but was only able to return after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s.
The tranquil scenery of Rumbula forest offered the first glimpse of the beautiful Latvia that Jack always spoke about so nostalgically. Of the quaint, cobblestone old-town of Riga. Of the picturesque river nestled among huge forest pines where he swam in the summer and ice skated in the winter. And of the stunning seaside village of Jurmela where he spent his childhood summers by the ocean.
But my experience of Latvia had up until then had been very different. In Riga, most of the buildings seemed boxy, large and decrepit, crumbling under cheap Soviet materials or old wood. The government is notoriously corrupt. The people seemed cold and miserable. Nobody smiled back. At night, drunks ambled along our street and prostitutes lined the corners.
The day before, we were told it was particularly dreary for May. I woke to a dusting of snow and imagined my great grandmother, Zilla, after whom my mother is named, hobbling through the icy streets to the markets where she sold her woollen knitwear.
The street in downtown Riga where Jack grew up, Vilandes Ilela, now houses a hipster bar. There’s no sign on the door, aside from a purple Telly Tubby’s head mounted on a spike.
Sofija, the bar lady, served us Balsam, the traditional Baltic spirit, out of a teacup while eerie static music played from an old TV set. Apparently, Riga has become a thriving destination for Western travellers looking to escape “touristy” Berlin.
“Where will you party tonight?” Sofija asked me.
“The best raves are in the cellars, beneath the houses. That’s where the real DJs are.”
Perhaps there was a rave in Karlis Dumins’ cellar where my grandfather hid for six months while his family was being marched to Rumbula and shot.
With the help of a Latvian family friend, Paul, we visited the exact bench in Vermana Park where Jack met Karlis in 1941. According to the black and white photograph, it has not changed at all.
“If I hadn’t of sat on that bench, I would have probably also been buried in Rumbula,” Jack wrote in his memoirs.
We had high hopes of reuniting with Karlis’ family on our visit to Latvia, but the internet and Facebook searches yielded nothing. Karlis, being quite a bit older than Jack, would surely have passed on by now.
But walking down Riga’s city centre at peak hour, I ruminated on the possibility that some of his relatives may be among the busy crowd and might have known that their grandfather or great-grandfather had saved a Jewish boy called Jack. I fantasised about meeting them, us all embracing in tears, like long lost family meeting for the first time on reality TV. But sadly, it was not to be.
I arrived in Latvia knowing nothing about the country, aside from its holocaust history and what had happened to my family. But the truth is, Latvia has moved on. While we searched for remnants of Jack’s early life, of Jewish history and my long-deceased family all over the country, little of the past remains. World War II is no longer an imposing presence on daily life. Instead, there was much more to see from the 51 years during which Latvia was a Soviet republic – a time when synagogues disappeared and Jewish gravestones were used as paving.
Nonetheless, we did find memories among the ruins.
The Riga Ghetto Museum is small and not built where the ghetto stood. Surrounded by an ominous barbed wire fence, it features a deportation train car and a list of the names of the 25,000 who were killed at Rumbula, including those of my great grandparents. It also has a small house that provides only a sense of what the conditions were like for my family: 20 people cramped into each room.
We also visited the area where the ghetto actually stood. Largely unchanged, it contains rows of run down and depressing houses, some still wooden, and apartment buildings – all inhabited in what is surely not the wealthiest side of town today.
Back then, the ghetto was rife with disease, starvation, Nazi torment and sometimes even a body hanging off its barbed wire partitions. Peering through the windows of the decrepit buildings, I pictured my great grandmother inside, cooking cabbage soup on a tiny makeshift stove.
“Once, when I was feeling lonely and couped up in hiding, I risked my life to sneak into the ghetto and see my mother,” Jack wrote in his memoirs. “I knocked on her door and when she saw me, she was very angry that I had had risked everything to visit her, but the anger was supressed by the happiness of seeing her son. She cooked potatoes she’d been saving for weeks. We hugged. We cried. We said goodbye. Somehow, I think we both knew it was the last time.”
Walking to the car, I paused and looked back, picturing Jack waving goodbye to his mother for the last time through that bedraggled barbed wire.
On a busy pedestrian thoroughfare on Gogol Street, the ruins of Riga’s Great Synagogue still stand. It’s now a memorial, with a large plaque erected outside in commemoration of the 400 Jews trapped inside and burned alive by the German police in July 1941.
According to Jack, Riga’s Jews were very proud of their synagogue. One of the grandest in Europe, it was the thriving epicentre of Jewish life. He remembered celebrating high holidays and attending bar mitzvahs there. As a boy from a poor family, it felt like a magical place. On a particularly boring service, he imagined he was a medieval king, staring up at the extravagant Neo-Renaissance roof.
Ignoring the cars humming past and the people rushing along the footpath, I explored the carcass of the building, picturing Jack as a young boy walking through the architecture, in awe of the tall ceilings and extravagant gold-plated walls. My daydream was disturbed by an elderly woman marching at me from the street. Straining her raspy voice, she shouted something in Latvian, pointing to her chest.
“I was outside when the Synagogue burned down. I saw those bastards kill all those Jews,” an onlooker translated.
In east Riga, we searched for the old Jewish cemetery which had been the burial site of Riga’s Jews between the 1730s and 1930s. Looking for obvious signs of a cemetery, Google Maps took us on a loop of a luscious, well-manicured park. Children played, lovers basked in the afternoon light and dogs chased after tennis balls. There were no tombs and no gravestones.
“Do you know where the old Jewish cemetery is?” we asked countless people on the street.
They shook their heads.
Later, we discovered it had been destroyed by Nazis and grazed by Soviets, who removed the tombs and used them as building materials. Without upkeep, the walls surrounding the cemetery had collapsed. A small memorial plaque is the only trace that remains.
In the small town of Tukums, 58 km outside Riga, we visited another Jewish cemetery. This time, some graves had traces of headstones, although most had either collapsed or disappeared. Scratching away the overgrowth on remaining stones yielded little, as most inscriptions had long since faded. Only those carved with marble – a sign of wealth – were still readable. My mother retrieved an old photograph of a headstone from her bag. We spotted the tomb we were looking for quickly, although it had aged since the 1990s when Jack took the picture.
The large but collapsing tomb belongs to Sarah and Abraham Schienfeld, my grandfather’s great grandparents – my great, great, great grandparents.
I pictured my grandfather returning here in the 1990s, searching for the tomb. With no pictures left, no property and no family, this stone would likely have been the only tangible proof of his family’s long history in Latvia.
We went into the surrounding forests, picked up a handful of pebbles and placed these on the tombstone – a Jewish custom to commemorate the dead. Looking around at the overgrowth, it occurred to us that most descendants of the people buried there would have likely perished during the Holocaust. And certain that visitors had been scarce in the past 80 years, we walked back to the forest and picked up a heap of pebbles, dotting them on as many of the remaining headstones we could find.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find any trace of Kaiserwald, the concentration camp where Jack was held before the Nazis shipped him off to camps in Germany as they started losing the war. But we did go to Salaspils, which had been a forced labour camp for political prisoners, at least 1000 Jews from the Riga ghetto, and deported Czech and German Jews. Although it wasn’t a death camp, poor sanitary conditions, a lack of nutrition and severe cold weather caused a large number of deaths.
After the war, the Soviets used the camp to promote communist ideology. In 1967, Salaspils was converted into a classic Soviet memorial. There are no more barracks. Only enormous, boxy, brutal art sculptures, a sign at the entrance that reads “the earth moans beyond this gate” and an audible heartbeat playing from megaphones across the giant memorial.
Back in Sydney on an unseasonably sunny and warm winter’s day a few weeks later, we visited my grandfather’s grave at Macquarie Park Cemetery in Sydney. I pulled a handful of pebbles that we had collected from the pits of Rumbula and placed them on top of his grave.
They glinted in the sunlight. They were no longer hidden under the overgrowth of tall trees and dark secrets, hardly seen, because those that might have visited had their own family trees chopped down all too early.
My great grandmother, Zilla, had no gravestone, but her name is cast on Jack’s stone. I hoped – just maybe – that they were both watching from above, smiling together, reunited after all these years, like the pebbles on their graves.