It is nearly impossible to find any uplifting message out of our July 23rd day of field work at the Rumbula killing site on the outskirts of Riga. The killing, exhumation, and burning of 25,000 Jews on a sandy hilltop in a small pine forest has little material for the documentary film that will be the outcome of Resistance Project.
In late November of 1941, under the supervision of Germans and Latvian policemen, 6 large pits were dug by Soviet POWs. On November 30, 942 Jews from Berlin were transported to Latvia. The Jungfernhof Concentration Camp was not yet operating. For reasons that are not clear, but likely because many were notable German Jews and it was early in the war, Heinrich Himmler telephoned Reinhard Heydrich to order that the Berlin Jews be placed in the Riga Ghetto after the Ghetto’s liquidation. It was too late, as the 942 Berlin Jews were lead from the Rumbula train station to the pits, and were all shot in the early morning. The craziness of these events and Himmler’s message to not kill the Berlin Jews was used as an “evidence” by Holocaust denier David Irving (played by Timothy Spall in “Denial”).
Over the remainder of the day another 12,000 Jews were marched from the Riga Ghetto to Rumbula. Some were shot in the Ghetto in the midst of the chaos of the day. Most were marched up the sandy hill, disrobed in the sub-zero temperatures of that late November day, marched into the pit, ordered to lie down, and shot. Those that did not immediately die were buried alive. Those that were shot in the Ghetto were taken to the Old Jewish Cemetery and buried in an unmarked mass grave, our exploration target for July 24th.
Freidrich Jeckeln, under the command of Reinhard Heydrich and Himmler, was the SS-Einsatzgruppen commander in charge of the killing. He was a trained engineer who had developed an efficient killing approach which he had used to murder 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar in a Ukrainian ravine at the end of September of 1941. He now took a week to refine his methods and then shot another 12,000 Jews at Rumbula on December 8.
In 1943, similar to what was done at Ponar (see the PBS NOVA documentary Holocaust Escape Tunnel with @Alastair McClymont and Paul Bauman), Fort IX (our 2019 Geoscientists Without Borders project), and other sites in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Nazis instituted Sonderaktion 1005 where the bodies were exhumed and burned, with the bones then being crushed to powder.
It was not until the 1960s that the Rumbula site was memorialized, though by then it was unclear exactly where the burial pits were located. Not only had there been only a mere three survivors of the mass killings, but the ash deposits themselves had been excavated and sifted by local people searching for gold teeth, wedding rings, and other hidden valuables.
Colin Miazga, Christopher Newport University students Kayla Singleton and Mikaela Martinez Dettinger, and Paul Bauman collected 160 m of electrical resistivity tomography data across the sand burial mound. We believe we have demarcated two of the burial pits whose locations approximately correlate with the existing demarcated and memorialized pit boundaries. We will have better confidence in our interpretations after we merge our resistivity data, our high resolution drone digital elevation model, Harry Jol's ground penetrating radar data (GPR), a 1945 hand drawn map from the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission, and sub-centimeter resolution microrelief map we will create from GeoSLAM (Simultaneous Locatiing and Mapping, essentially handheld LiDAR).
Most of the Nazi perpetrators faded away after the war. Nevertheless, SS-Ensatzgruppen commander Freidrich Jeckeln was publicly hung in February 1946. Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in May 1942. Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich’s boss, committed suicide in May 1945. Viktors Arajs, the leader of the Arajs Kommando who collaborated with the Nazis in the Rumbula mass murder, was convicted for the Rumbulla murders in December 1979 and died in prison in 1988. Herbert Cukurs, the senior field commander of the Arajs Kommando, was assassinated in Uruguay in 1965 by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.
I of course have no artistic input into the documentary being filmed by the Resistance Project. But one leading figure that was executed on December 8, 1941 was one of the great Jewish historians of the period, Simon Dubnow. At age 81, Dubnow was moving too slowly on the 10 kilometer march from the Riga Ghetto to Rumbula. He was shot in the back by a guard. Though his final words have fallen in that gap between fact and legend, he is reported to have exclaimed in Yiddish as he fell: “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt!” (“Jews, write and record!"). I am not so sure, though, if he had Facebook Posts in mind at the time.