The Shkeede dunes, where mass executions took place from October 1941 to spring of 1945, were a closed military area during the Soviet occupation, 1945–1991. When they finally became open to the public in the early 1990s, the mass graves were no longer recognizable from the ground.
In 2004/2005, when the Foundation Liepaaja Jewish Heritage, or LJH (Sergey Zaharjin, Ilya Segal, Ilana Ivanova) began planning the big Shkeede memorial, one of us (EA) urged them to look for the mass graves, and suggested 4 methods for locating them. However, LJH declined to do so, claiming that the graves had been washed out to sea during a big storm in 1957 that eroded the coast by 100–150 m. That seemed very unlikely, as the beach at Liepaaja is exactly where it was in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930–1988 maps in various archives also showed no evidence of such erosion. There exist nearly 7 million wartime German aerial photographs in UK and US archives, including more than 1000 of the Liepaaja area, but all efforts to obtain them were unsuccessful.
EA therefore obtained a photo of the Shkeede area taken in April 2003 by the US satellite Quickbird (Pict. 1). It shows a dark straight line (AE) 270 m long, close to and parallel to the coast. The location agrees with pictures of the Shkeede executions on 15 December 1941 as well as war crimes trial records, and the length agrees almost exactly with the dimensions 265 x 8 m reported by the Extraordinary Commission in 1945. Only 4 years later did we learn that the Russian State Archives in Moscow had the Commission’s maps of Shkeede (Pict. 2) and 2 other Liepaaja murder sites.
The grave is almost impossible to recognize from the ground, but EA measured the exact distances and directions from the satellite photo and gave them to the Liepaaja geodesist Ints Liepinsh, who was able to find the grave without difficulty (Pict. 3, 4, 5).
In January 2006 we asked the Mayor of Liepaaja for permission to build a memorial plaque at the mass grave and to landscape the area. We hoped that survivors would then be able to walk up right to the edge of the grave—a deeply moving experience. However, the grave is on one of the „gray dunes“, which are very fragile and under strict environmental protection. Thus a raised wooden walkway would have to be built for visitors to prevent damage to the dunes. Under Latvian law, the walkway must be wide enough for wheelchairs, which would raise the cost even further beyond our means. Perhaps some wealthy donor will take over.
The City proposed a less expensive solution: to set up a memorial plaque at the road fork between the old (Soviet obelisk) and new Shkeede monuments (giant menorah). Indeed, in 2005 a number of former Liepaaja Jews had written to Mayor Sesks, urging him to ensure that the new monument acknowledge all victims murdered at Shkeede: Jews, Soviet POWs, and Latvians. The City agreed, assigned a special place for such a stone, and required LJH to install it, in return for permission to build the new monument.
But LJH, shirking its obligation, never installed it. We and many fellow Liepaaja Jews do not understand how Jews, though deeply indebted to rescuers of Jews and Red Army soldiers, can brazenly refuse to honor these non-Jewish victims who opposed the Nazis and were killed by them. We have therefore paid for the memorial plaque ourselves. The text, as approved by the City, is shown in Pict. 6. The plaque, installed on 27.10.06, is shown in Pict. 7.
Ilana Ivanova, unwilling to face the fact that 3000+ anti-Nazi non-Jews were killed at Shkeede, angrily complained to one of us (VB) about our memorial plaque. In her view, Shkeede is an exclusively Jewish killing field, not to be defiled by mention of non-Jewish victims. Helpfully, a miracle occurred in 2009: 7 young, bushy pines emerged around our plaque, completely hiding it from view (Pict. 8). Alas, the City ruled such plantings, whether by heavenly or earthly causes, to be illegal and removed them.
In a newspaper story (Latvijas Aviize, 7
2009), both Ilana Ivanova and Naum Vorobeichik, chairman of the
Liepaaja Jewish Community, say that they were “angry” about the
placement of our plaque “right on the access path to the Menorah”. The
latter also admits that the shrubs may have been planted by a local
Jew. Yes, but the path forks at this point, the other branch going to
the Soviet obelisk from the 1960s. Jews have long complained about
Soviet Holocaust denial, referring to victims only as “peaceful Soviet
citizens” without saying that many of them were Jews. Surely the
obelisk needs the clarification provided by our plaque, but so does the
Menorah, which mentions only Jews. It is sad beyond words that a woman,
both of whose parents were saved by a brave Latvian couple and were
liberated by the Red Army, gets “angry” about a small plaque honoring
anti-Nazi Latvians and Russians lying in the same mass grave as Jews.
Of course, it is all the fault of the Nazis who thoughtlessly dumped
Jews and gentiles into the same grave.
The consortium Rapsoil SIA
(Ltd.), which wants to build 20+ wind turbines on the Shkeede
dunes, had hired the environmental consulting firm Eiroprojekts to navigate the
project through a thicket of environmental rules. The Liepaaja Jewish
(LJC) apparently did not know or care about our evidence for a mass
and in 2009 told Eiroprojekts
to go ahead and build. We learned about the
project only during public hearings in December 2009 and promptly
submitted a map of the 10 graves in Pict. 1 and 2, showing that towers
20 and 23 would have to be moved inland by 100–200 m to prevent
desecration of the graves. Now LJC, realizing their mistake, at last
began to oppose the project, organizing a letter campaign
by prominent people. Alas, the campaign was long on emotions but short
on facts, arguing that the entire dunes area was "sacred ground".
The City, being responsive to facts, agreed with us and
proposed a protected zone of 50 m
around each grave. But Eiroprojekts
fought back with wonderfully obscurantist arguments: "At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, north of the sewage treatment plant, on
dates in December that are not precisely known, for a number of days
that is not precisely known, at a place that is not precisely known, a
number of civilians that is not precisely known, of a nationality that is not precisely
known, were shot and buried near the shore".
Amazed by such inane, ignorant arguments we
then Eiroprojekts went on a
counterattack to prove that the mass graves did not exist.
They asked the volunteer organization Leg'enda,
soldiers' graves, to examine the putative grave in Pict.
1. Two men came and, using their standard technique for shallow
soldiers' graves, dug 4 small holes up to 1 m deep in
the right place. They had failed to consider that a 1 m
hole cannot possibly reach a 3 m mass grave, so finding nothing, they
"no mass grave was, or ever
been, at that location." But logic
alone precludes such a categorical
statement, by the old rule "absence
evidence is not evidence of absence".
We responded with a 3-page critique but realized that words
alone would not suffice. As we had told LJH in 2005 to no effect, the best technique for finding
graves is "ground-penetrating radar" or
GPR, which is widely used to locate buried objects such as utility
graves, etc., at depths up to 10 m or more. At our request
Prof. Valdis Seglin's' and Drs. A. Kukela and G. Sic'ovs
University conducted such a study at Shkeede. The results are
shown in Pict.
9. Graves reported by the Extraordinary Commission in
1945 are shown as thin red lines. Ten radar traverses
(black arrows) were taken across the big ditch and
its southward extension. Red dots mark disturbed ground to 3 m depth in
the radar profiles. These red dots align linearly along the 3 yellow
dashed lines and apparently mark 3 mass graves,
outlined in purple in Pict. 9.
I lies along the northern half of the 270 m ditch,
to the sea. Grave
coincides exactly with the southern half of the ditch but continues
further south on its linear extension, and Grave III
is still further south, reaching almost to the giant menorah. Further
research is needed to
define the graves more precisely and to confirm the presence of human
bones. But it is already clear that the
categorical denials by Eiroprojekts
and Leg'enda are contradicted
by the GPR evidence. Further GPR surveys will be needed to delineate
full extent of the grave area, but there already are strong indications
that a ~200 m strip along the coast should be placed under protection.