In the summer of 1941, the German army invaded Latvia.  Although the Jewish community there had been subject to frequent persecution, by the inter-war years the capital city, Riga, had a sizeable and well-established Jewish community.  In Latvia, however, as in Lithuania and Estonia, real and imagined Jewish support for socialism and the Red Army encouraged nationalistic anti-Semites to turn on Jews; their enthusiastic participation aided in the rapid and thorough destruction of these communities.  For most of Riga's Jews, the time in the ghetto was to be short: set up in October 1941, it was almost entirely liquidated by early December to make room for deported Jews from the Reich.  From that point on, there existed several smaller ghettos within the central ghetto space, organised according to nationality and by city: as trains arrived from Cologne, Berlin, Karlsruhe, and later Prague and Austria, individual communities would remain together and set up their own Jewish Councils.  The ghetto was finally destroyed in late 1943, and the surviving Jews from Riga and other Latvian ghettos were sent to Kaiserwald and its subcamps. The city was liberated by the Soviets on 13 October 1944.  Of the Latvian Jews, a total of about 1,000 survived, either in hiding, or in Nazi camps.

The diversity of the ghetto population ensured an active, albeit short-lived, cultural life.  The original ghetto included many musicians, writers, and performers.  Under the leadership of the hastily assembled Jewish Council, they established a school, hospital, old peoples’ home, and various cultural organisations.  However, by early December 1941 most of this population was murdered in a forest near Riga.  Newer arrivals from Germany lived in separate sections of the original ghetto space under separate leadership. There was nonetheless collaboration in the new ghetto structure, particularly in matters of entertainment.  Theatrical and cultural activity usually took place in the great hall located in the ‘Cologne’ section of the ghetto.  Many of the most popular performers were survivors of the early liquidation, who had been successful performers in pre-war Riga.  There were also many talented musicians among the German, Czech, and Austrian Jews, who performed folk songs as well as classical music.  In addition, deportees from Vilna brought Yiddish songs from the ghetto there, including ‘Shtiler, shtiler’ and Hirsh Glik’s ‘Zog nit keynmol’

Sources

Schneider, G. ed., 2000. Mordechai Gebirtig, his poetic and musical legacy, Westport, Conn.: Praeger.  

Turkov, Y., 1999. Latvia and Auschwitz. In Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs. ed. Rovit, R. and A. Goldfarb. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.