Prior to 1725 Jews were not permitted to bury their dead in Riga and the closest Jewish cemetery was some 40kms away at Jelgava.
In 1725 a Jewish cemetery (the Old Jewish Cemetery) opened in what is now the Moscow District, then very much on the outskirts of the city. The cemetery remained in ‘civilian’ use until the 1920s when a new cemetery opened.
During World War II, when Riga was under Nazi occupation (1941-44), the prayer house and mortuary were burned down and the cemetery was designated part of the Jewish ghetto, into which local Jews were herded, prior being transported or executed in the Rumbula and Bikernieki killing fields, close to the city. Over 1000 Jews killed in the ghetto, including within the cemetery itself, were buried in mass graves in the cemetery, especially re-opened for the occasion.
The need for a Jewish cemetery at any point in history depended on attitudes to Jews at the time. Until the mid 1800s Jews were severely restricted in terms of living and/or working in the city and numbers never reached 1,000. By 1935 numbers had grown to around 44,000. When the Nazis left in 1944, Jews in Riga numbered 150.
Following Soviet occupation in 1944, the cemetery was partially desecrated with headstones and wall bricks being reused as building material.
What remained was left to deteriorate until the 1960s when the cemetery was razed and the Park of the Communist Brigades created. In 1992, post Latvian independence from the Soviet Union, the park was renamed to the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Today the only evidence of its former use is a large stone Star of David, erected in the 1990s, and an explanatory plaque added in 2011. These, pictured above, are located at the north east corner of the park/cemetery.
Walking around the beautifully tended, though deserted, park/cemetery was a pleasant but eerie experience. I could not help thinking of its sad history and of how even the dead could not be left to rest in peace in Riga.
Directions: Between Ebreju, Liksnas and Virsaišu Streets
Getting there – Closest tram stop – Balvu iela – tram numbers 3,7,9.