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Why I Didn’t Want To Visit a Concentration Camp—and Why I Changed My Mind

In Latvia, visiting a site where thousands were killed seemed too much to bear, until I saw a place where the living still gather

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Salaspils. (Wayne Hoffman)
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No concentration camps.

That was where I drew the line when my husband and I began planning our trip to the Baltics this fall. No work camps or transit camps, and definitely no death camps. No foundations where guard towers once stood, no carefully reconstructed rows of barracks, and no clearings in the woods where people were gunned down by the hundred.

Almost anywhere else would have been different. But this corner of Eastern Europe wedged between Poland and Russia is where the Nazis came closest to achieving their goals. Estonia was the first country to be formally declared judenrein, or “clean of Jews,” back in 1942. Latvia and Lithuania saw their Jewish populations almost completely wiped out. Knowing that about the region’s history, seeing exactly where it took place seemed like too much to bear.

Wayne said that he understood. He wasn’t happy about it, but he understood. Years earlier, on the way to Prague, Wayne had brokered an agreement between his parents, who had different ideas of how much of their trip should be focused on the Holocaust. He proposed that they’d have “just one day of tears”: a visit to the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery and nearby Theresienstadt, the concentration camp famous for its poems written by children. His father was disappointed to miss the lesser-known Holocaust-related sites surrounding the city, but his mother seemed relieved.

Now I was the one scratching out a line in the sand. Wayne was once again caught in the middle, because we were meeting his sister Stacey and brother-in-law Victor in Latvia, halfway through our trip. (Victor’s family is Latvian, the main reason for the trip in the first place.) At the top of Stacey’s list of must-sees was the Salaspils concentration camp, outside the capital city of Riga.

Wayne didn’t insist. He didn’t demand. But when I said that I wouldn’t be joining them at Salaspils, he did give me a look of profound disappointment.

***

Growing up Catholic in Central Florida, I don’t remember hearing much about WWII. This was the early ’70s, so the talk among the grownups, when they thought the kids weren’t within earshot, was about Vietnam. I remember how unsettling it was when I was 8 or 9 and my little brother and I—sprawled out on our stomachs, of course, in front of our family’s console television—came across some graphic footage from a documentary on the Holocaust. “How can people treat other people like that?” I asked my mother as she walked into the living room with an armload of laundry. At first she seemed confused—the images I was asking about weren’t from Southeast Asia. If she had already planned how she’d answer our inevitable questions about the current war, I had thrown her off. After a long pause, she admitted that she had no idea.

I read quite a bit about the Holocaust as a teenager, but I realize looking back that many of the books—like Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place—were about non-Jews who helped shield Jews from the Nazis. I was looking at history, but from a safe distance.

When I met Wayne in 1989 and became a part of his Jewish family, the distance evaporated almost immediately. The Holocaust was no longer something that happened to a group of people removed from me—it happened to family members. On weekends when we’d visit his parents, someone almost always brought up a favorite aunt who was a survivor.

I’ve lost track of the number of Holocaust-related sites—museums, memorials, ghettoes—Wayne and I have visited together since then, many of them with his parents. But somewhere along the line I found myself seeking them out even when I was traveling solo. When I was in Slovakia alone, I remember finding a tiny Jewish museum that I couldn’t wait to show them; years later, while on a trip to Vienna with them, we hopped aboard a Bratislava-bound train just so the four of us could see it together.

The first concentration camp I visited was Sachsenhausen, about 22 miles outside Berlin, a little more than a decade ago. Wearing an unmistakable pink knit cap, my German-American friend Christina led a tour group of a dozen or so people through the city streets of Oranienburg to the camp’s iron gates, which were inset with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” (A few years after Sachsenhausen opened in 1936, the same “Work Will Set You Free” slogan was reused at Auschwitz.)

After years of reading about the camps, I didn’t think anything about Sachsenhausen could possibly unnerve me. But then we passed the “boot-testing track,” a stretch of roughly broken stones running beside a wall. Prisoners were forced to march here for days at a time, ostensibly to test the quality of soldiers’ footwear, until they died. (This particular type of cruelty, we learned, was largely reserved for those imprisoned for being homosexual.)

A brilliant guide, Christina wasn’t interested in recounting generalizations about the Holocaust (which clearly disappointed a few members of our group, who kept asking her to point out where the gas chambers had been located—despite the fact that Sachsenhausen never had any). She focused instead on the individuals involved, including the 140 Jewish prisoners, mostly engravers and printers, who had been forced to produce counterfeit British bank notes for the Nazis. That story had an unexpected twist: A truck transporting them to another camp where they were to be executed broke down, and all of them survived.

As Christina spoke, I remember thinking that such stories were possible only because Germany has a thriving Jewish community today. In places where few Jews have survived, the basic story remains, but the details are lost—not just about the Holocaust, but about Jewish life through the ages.

We had encountered this lack of cultural memory on our last trip to Eastern Europe. Wayne and I were both excited to visit Plock, the Polish city where his grandfather had lived before his family left for the United States just after WWI. We arrived with questions about what the community had been like a century ago, but there was nobody left to tell us. During the Holocaust, the city’s Jewish population was almost entirely wiped out. Today there’s not a single Jew left in Plock, not even one to staff the tiny Museum of Mazovian Jews.

I was worried that we’d encounter the same situation in the Baltics, where the small number of Jews continues to dwindle. There would be concentration camps, I knew, but without a living Jewish community to tell exactly what happened—before, during, and after the Holocaust—these sites would feel like carefully tended cemeteries where nobody remembers any of the names on the gravestones. And that seemed like too much to bear.

***

Great Choral Synagogue
The ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue. (Wayne Hoffman)

Our first morning in Riga, the four of us strolled south of the beautifully preserved churches that dominate the Old Town. It drizzled on and off as we made our way to the Great Choral Synagogue—or what was left of it, anyway. Only the stone foundation survives, marking where one of the city’s most spectacular houses of worship had once stood. What happened there is heartbreakingly familiar: In 1941, the Nazis herded 300 Jews into the basement before setting the place ablaze.

As Wayne and his sister read the names on a nearby memorial, I noticed two Orthodox Jews hurrying past without so much as a glance. Black hats, black coats—they would not have been out of place back home in New York or anywhere in the world that had a sizable Jewish community. I elbowed Victor, and we watched as the men disappeared down the street. Their presence seemed significant, somehow.

On our way back to the Old Town, we paused at the Riga Ghetto Museum. I shoved the brochure in my back pocket and walked around the open-air exhibit in reverse, starting with the liberation of the concentration camps and moving backward. (I was lucky not to be rebuked—the elderly Russian man running the place yelled at Wayne simply for holding his brochure the wrong way.) It was a well-meaning display, but it told essentially the same story as the Great Choral Synagogue. There was a community here, and now it’s gone. The entire history of Latvia’s Jews had been compressed to the three years that the Nazis occupied the city, as if little preceded those years and nothing followed.

Back at our little hotel on the edge of the Old Town, Wayne arranged a car and driver for the trip the next day to Salaspils. At first I was surprised that he would suggest something so extravagant, but he was right. It would save a long walk from the train station, probably in the cold autumn rain.

“You know that I’m still not going, right?” I asked once we were back in our narrow room, collapsing on one of the single beds placed almost head to foot. I braced myself for an argument.

Wayne didn’t reply. He was thumbing through our guidebook, reading about something or other and then finding it on the map we had picked up at the tourism office in the bus station.

There was a brief break in the weather the next morning, and the sun shone through the gauzy clouds for minutes at a time. He touched my shoulder and said we were taking a walk. I asked where we were going, and all he would say was that it was someplace nearby. I grabbed an umbrella, just in case.

Our destination turned out to be surprisingly close, on a cobbled lane just a few blocks from our hotel. It was the Peitavas Street Synagogue, Riga’s only synagogue. Carefully restored a few years ago, the Art Nouveau structure had survived the Nazis because it was wedged between several large apartment buildings. Had they tried to burn it, this entire section of the city might have gone up in flames. I had no idea it was here.

This synagogue, I realized, was probably where the two Orthodox Jews had been hurrying the day before. It was almost Simchat Torah, after all. We could see just one man standing outside, but the gates were flung open and from inside we could hear the murmur of voices occasionally punctuated by a burst of laughter. Perhaps not a lot of people, but enough to make it sound like a holiday gathering.

I glanced over at Wayne, who had a half-smile on this face. This was what he had been researching in the guidebook the day before. He knew, even if I didn’t, that I needed to come to this place. I guess after 24 years, he knows me pretty well.

Standing on that unremarkable street, I realized that I didn’t need to know all the stories about how a handful of Latvian Jews had survived the Nazis. I just needed to know that such stories existed. Seeing this synagogue, and hearing the laughter coming from inside, let me know that there were people who could tell the tales. The concentration camp on the southeastern edge of the city no longer seemed like the end of the story.

When the driver arrived an hour or so later to take us to Salaspils, I climbed into the front seat. I wanted to see everything.

***

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Why I Didn’t Want To Visit a Concentration Camp—and Why I Changed My Mind

In Latvia, visiting a site where thousands were killed seemed too much to bear, until I saw a place where the living still gather

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