JOSEPH'S GHETTO EXPERIENCE
Why did Joseph get married?
How did life change for Jews immediately after the Nazi invasion of Latvia?
What was the Riga Ghetto? What was life like there?
What happened on December 8, 1941? How did this affect Joseph?
Latvia fell under Soviet control for only about six months but much did change during that time as the Soviets worked to integrate the Latvians into their Communist system. The Soviets deported as many as 5,000 Jews to Siberia as they were suspicious of religious or political figures or business owners.
Latvians attempted to understand and work around the Soviet system. It was difficult to find an apartment and in order to do so Joseph ended up getting married!
Here's what happened. Joseph liked a woman but when he entered the army she married someone else. So he started dating her sister, Dverala (Vera), when he got back from the army and he dated her for about a year. When the Russians took over Riga, they wanted half of Vera's father's apartment to quarter (house) the soldiers. Vera needed somewhere else to live but a woman could only get an apartment if she was married.
The two families knew each other well. Sam had married Vera's aunt years ago. That's how they knew each other.
Vera's father asked Joseph to marry her so that they could get an apartment and on March 13, 1941 they wed. She was 19 years-old and Joseph was 23.
By this time, Joseph had his own barbershop and no longer worked for Pulvermacher. The Soviets, however, no longer allowed private ownership of businesses and so he lost the shop.
In June, 1941 the Germans took the Soviets by surprise, violated the Molotov-Ribbontrop non-aggression pact, and invaded the Soviet Union. They swept into Latvia on June 22 of that year, welcomed by many Latvian nationalists angered by Soviet rule. Ominously, the radio announced that Latvians were required to join forces against the real enemy: the Jew. The Latvian populace, widely anti-Semitic, took advantage of the new reality to openly beat Jews on the streets till they were rolling in their own blood, to rape Jewish women in cellars, and to kill some and bury them in unmarked graves.
Riga, Latvia, 1942-1943, Jews on their way to forced labor.
Source: Yad Vashem
Myra was the joyful, open-minded, and modern child. She declared she had a boyfriend at age 8 and a more serious one at age 14. She was a terrific dancer but had a tutor as she didn't do great in school. She never graduated high school, and remembers that she flunked out on the last night.
Myra loved the American and German movies and the great actors like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. At the theater, they got a whole box for the family. "Melnik was a name to be proud of," she remembers.
Unlike the Jews of Germany, those in the Baltic states were caught almost completely by surprise. They had believed themselves to be safe in the Soviet Union and that safety disintegrated overnight. Interestingly, amidst the terror some Jews took the time to board up the eastern wall of the Peitav Synagogue, where the Torah scrolls were kept, to hide them from the Nazis. While many Latvian Jews perished in the Holocaust, the scrolls and the synagogue survived. Immediately, Jews were prohibited from attending schools, theaters, and movie houses. They could not even walk on the streets or sidewalks -- the gutters were the only "appropriate" place for them. The ubiquitous yellow star was soon patched on all of their sleeves.
Joseph's actual handmade Star of David that he used in the Riga Ghetto.
Courtesy of Jill Katzman
In July, the Nazis and Latvians burned all of the synagogues except the Peitav Shul. Those who fought back were killed, often in flames. One of the city's rabbis, Rabbi Kilov, was thrown into the flames of his house of worship.
By October, Joseph and his family were forced out of their homes and required to move into the Riga ghetto. They heard announcements and saw signs that all Jews should go to a certain place with their belongings. They fit what they could on pushcarts and headed despondently from their homes to the ghettos. By the end of the month, the ghetto was sealed with barbed wire, imprisoning about 30,000 Jews.
In the Riga ghetto, men and women were separated, families were torn apart. They lived nearby, but in different buildings. Joseph lived with his brothers and brother-in-law. The children lived with their mothers. There was no wood for heat and beatings and killings at the hands of Nazi or Latvian guards was commonplace.
He worked hard. They dug big holes for who-knows-what. They went out to the woods to chop wood and bring some back to burn and stay warm in the cold Baltic nights. He also worked as a barber, cutting the hair of the members of the Jewish committee.
The date that Joseph would always remember was December 8, 1941. His life would be changed forever. He remembers it as a terrible night, the snow blowing fiercely and gun fire audible throughout the night.
The German Einsatzgruppen with Latvian soldiers took women, children and old men into the the Rumbula Forest, just a few miles outside of Riga. They killed them all, probably about 26,000 in total. That night, Joseph lost his mother, his two sisters, his pregnant wife Dverala, his sisters-in-law and his nieces. His wife was in her 7th month of pregnancy, only months from becoming a mother. They all met their ends alongside mass graves.
We now know that about 30% of the Jewish deaths in the Holocaust happened this way.