On October 13, 1944, the Soviet army liberated Riga (the capital of Latvia) from fascist occupation. The Red Army drove the Nazi forces from the city as part of a larger Baltic campaign during the autumn of that year to free Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the Nazis.
The Germans occupied the city of Riga on 1 July 1941 - nine days after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the city became the capital of the Reich Commissariat Ostland, a German civilian administration. Many Latvians were recruited into German military units and the Latvian Legion (a unit of the Waffen-SS troops) was formed under German order in 1943.
At the arrival of the German troops, Jews were rounded up for forced labor, subjected to assault, rape, and torture. Later that same year a decree was enacted ordering all Jews into a ghetto in the southeastern area of the city. By the time the ghetto was sealed off almost 30,000 Jews were concentrated there, made up of mostly women, and children.
In October of 1941, the Germans announced, “that all Jews in the Ostland had to be destroyed to the last man.” On November 30 and December 8, at least 26,000 Riga Jews were shot by German killing squads and their Latvian auxiliaries in the Rumbula Forest, five miles southeast of Riga.
The two-day killing became known as the Rumbula Massacre. Jews from the Riga ghetto were transported to the forest where execution pits had been dug. The victims were made to take off their clothes and lie face down on top of those who had already been shot.
“Children walked in columns, guarded by armed policemen. For over eight hours the German-Nazis drove three large groups for extermination into the Rumbula forest,” a witness recalls the killings. “Every group had no less than 200 children. They cried terribly, called out for their mothers and screamed for help… The children were not shot, but instead struck on the head by guns and thrown straight into the pits. As they were buried in the graves, some of them were still alive; the ground heaved from the bodies of buried children, women and old men.”
As the Soviet Army advanced towards Latvia in 1944, the Germans began special operations in the Riga area to hide the evidence that millions of people had been murdered. In order to destroy the evidence of the crimes that had been committed, Jewish prisoners were forced to exhume and cremate the corpses of victims at the killing sites. On completion of their assignment, the prisoners were liquidated. The Nazis also murdered thousands of Jews held in concentration camps set up near Riga, and those who remained alive were deported to concentration camps in Germany.
By the time the Red Army arrived in the capital, almost all of the Jewish population in Latvia had been murdered. It is estimated that during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, over 300,000 civilians had been killed (including almost 40,000 children) and more than 150,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in order to free the Baltic States.