“The earth moans beyond this gate’
These are the words inscribed on the face of the massive concrete structure which serves as the gateway to the former Salaspils (Kurtenhof) concentration camp.
My primary motive for visiting Salaspils, a WWII Nazi concentration camp in the woods west of Salaspils village and about 20kms from Riga, was to see the grey concrete Soviet brutalist sculptures. I loved the sculptures, symbolising defiance and hope in a way only gigantic Soviet sculptures of this kind can. Of course, I could not fail to be affected by the full memorial to those, Jews and other ethnic groups (including Latvians), who lost their lives here, or were transferred from here to the more infamous camps within the Third Reich territory.
Salaspils, the largest concentration camp in the Baltics, was built during the winter of 1941 by Jews deported from the German Reich, in addition to at least 1000 Jews from the Riga Jewish Ghetto.
Officially not a concentration camp but a Police Prison and Work Education Camp, “Polezeigegfängnis und Arbeitserziehungslager”, built to house 15,000 deported Jews and political prisoners, it was in reality a transit camp before becoming, by personal order of Himmler, a place of mass execution. Call it what you like.
There is significant disagreement about the number of people who met there ends here. Soviet estimates, detailed at the post WWII Nuremberg Trails, put the number killed at over 100,000. Early Latvian sources suggest half this amount while more recent estimates put the number killed here between 1941 and 1944 at up to 3,000 – with another 12-15,000 transiting through to other concentration camps. To the right of the entrance is a black stone wall, with marks on it symbolically showing the number killed each year the camp was in operation. Regardless of how many were actually killed here – we will probably never know – there is no doubt that this place was a hell-hole and an integral part of the Nazis’ repressive system in Latvia and the Baltics more generally.
Emerging from the pine forest and entering the camp, I was immediately struck by the deadly silence of Salaspils, a silence punctuated by a ticking metronome, hidden in a black marble block monument upon which people leave wreaths and flowers, eerily emitting a sound symbolising an immortal heartbeat, in memory of the victims, just audible as you walk around the site though very much audible in my head as I write this review, many months after my visit.
Today, the camp’s former gallows and thirty-nine barracks buildings are no more and all that’s left are the foundations of some of the barracks. Monuments mark were a number of gallows where positioned. At various of the barracks foundations and former gallows sites people have placed flowers and toys.
Especially poignant was the number of stuffed animals and toys that adorned a memorial, where the children’s barracks once stood, commemorating children who lost their lives as a result of the most terrible and barbaric of medical experiments allegedly carried out here. One report contends that children ‘donated’ blood for Nazi soldiers, down to 500ml by which point they died. Located in the woods bordering the camp is an unmarked mass grave of 632 corpses of children (Jewish children and street kids) aged 5-9.
Another memorial reminds the visitor, in Latvian and Russian:
“Here humans have been punished for not having committed a crime. Here humans have been punished for loving their motherland”.
Of course, the most prominent thing here are the massive brutalist sculptures, in four groups and full of socialist-realist symbolism, erected in the large open area in the centre of the former camp. The four groups are entitled The Invincible, The Mother, Solidarity (depicted in picture 3 above, with me in front giving you an idea of the size of these sculptures) and Defeated or Unbroken (picture 4).
An imposing, moving and almost oppressive place to visit – and the most memorable part of my visit to Riga – uncomfortable though it was.
Opening time and entrance fee.
The Memorial is nominally open 24/7 and entry is free.
Be aware that there are no facilities on site, or in close proximity of the former camp.
Getting to the Memorial
My visit to the Salapils Concentration Camp Memorial was one of the highlights of my trip to Riga. Alas, not many tourists visit Salaspils which is a great shame. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, its not promoted as a tourist site in Riga – it is almost as if nobody wants to remember the site or have anything to do with it, though it is extremely well tended by someone. Secondly, tourists have a perception that it is hard to get to.
There are no buses or trains that go directly to the former concentration camp (though in the 1940s it was seen as conveniently located to the railway line when it came to transporting humans for annihilation). A minimum of 1.5 kms easy walk is required (each way). You can identify the Memorial on Google Earth though it is not identified by name, nor incidentally is Darzini train stop (pictured below) – the stop you need to alight at if you take the train. All other stops on the train line are clearly marked, by name, on Google!
The majority of references I have seen relating to getting here suggest taking the Number 18 bus from Riga to the end of its route and then walking north to the camp. This, in addition to entailing you walking across a major highway, is invariably portrayed as a complicated task. Additionally, the bus journey itself is much slower than the alternative train trip. As I didn’t take this option I can’t comment further on it.
Let me give you what I consider a foolproof, and easy, way of getting to the former camp.
Step One – Catch a train from Riga Central station to Darzini (do not be tempted to continue on to the Salaspils stop). This will take around 20 minutes and cost Euro 0.80 (April 2016) each way. While we bought tickets (both ways) in the Riga train station we could have acquired them from the conductor on board. There are no facilities whatsoever at the Darzini train stop so acquiring a return ticket there is not an option. Reservations on this local line are neither necessary nor possible.
Step Two – Once you arrive at the Darzini stop (from Riga) cross the train tracks and take the signposted path at the right hand side of the station building. After about 30 metres (there is a sign – the last one we saw – pictured above) veer right and follow the road continuing until you hit the train line again at the level crossing/ V56 road. Here, turn left and it’s a short walk to the camp via the V56. In terms of the annotated map below, follow the path marked blue but at the former playing field/ clearing marked, continue on to intersection with rail track and V56 as marked. Total distance about 2kms each way.
Less foolproof (and about 500m less walk each way) but I managed it without any difficulty – follow the full track marked in blue on the annotated map below. This starts out as per Step Two, but when you reach the former playing field/ clearing marked, turn left down a narrow track and continue (crossing one minor road) until you arrive at the Memorial. Nos 1 – 4 marked on the map represent the locations where the 4 immediately preceding photographs were taken.
The one thing you do need to do is to study the train timetables before embarking on this trip as trains are irregular and if you miss a train you could end up with the long wait at the Darzini train stop.
In terms of timing, We spent about an hour at the camp (depends on your level of interest, of course). Allow a further 30-45 minutes,each way, to walk from and back to the Darzini train stop.
I should add that the walk, through the pine forest from Darzini to the camp, is pleasant in its own right though I am not suggesting you come there for that reason alone.
You could off course take a taxi and have it wait as you visit the site. I read that this costs around Eur40.
This is the last blog entry in group (loop) of entries exploring beyond the Old City area of Riga. I trust you have enjoyed reading about my visit and invite you to partake of another of the loops (including “Riga- the Old City”) on my “Travel Loops” page, by clicking HERE.