Blog Archive

Search This Blog

Monday, August 2, 2010

12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Day Eight-Candies in the Snow

Candies in the Snow
by Douglas Messerli
Perhaps in reaction the some of our complaints, our bus trip to Riga, Latvia was interrupted with a visit the Nazi concentration camp in Salaspils. I imagine our American Guide intervened in this case, insisting to the In-Tourist guides that this was a necessary change in the schedule.

The German Stalag-350-s began as a camp for prisoners of war, and held approximately 43,000 Red Army soldiers and personnel. For that reason it was designated as a Arbeits-un Arziehungslager camp, a work and education facility; which meant than instead of being administered by the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), it was subordinated to the HSSPF Ostland, the German police authority in the occupied Baltic countries. Himmler is said to have visited the camp often.

Sometime after its establishment, however, it began being used for Baltic civilians, and by the end of the war housed the largest population of Baltic citizens. Almost all but 192 individuals were killed in this camp of 50,000 to 1000,000 people. Early estimates of the population were continually upgraded as new information was discovered, but the number is still the subject of much controversy. By the time of liberation, the camp had been burned to the ground by the Nazis and most the records destroyed.

What has been revealed is that this camp was a particularly horrific place for children, of whom there may have been as many of 7,000. These were mostly the so-called "gang-children," young boys and girls without parents, housed in orphanages or working on farms. At one burial spot the corpses of 632 children, ages 5-9, were discovered. Eye-witness accounts report that numerous of the children were killed through medical experimentation, as many as 150 being killed every day. Others died of diseases and infection.

Most of us knew none of this when we arrived, and were startled, I think, to find a camp whose only evidence of existence lay in the small memorials on the ground. Here also there is a terrifyingly beautiful tradition of which we had not known. In the field where the children's barracks had stood, visitors had strewn hundreds of pieces of candy, small wrapped packages that glistened in the snow. Others placed toys at one of the children's burial spots. This was the only moment during the exhausting trip that I broke down.

The camp also housed a rather informative exhibition in a small concrete hall that had been built near the entry, with the words "Behind this Gate the Earth Groans" attached. Dismaying to most of us, however, was the horribly kitsch sculptures built by the Russians, titled "The Mother," "The Humiliated," "The Unbroken," and "Solidarity" located near the center of what once had been dozens of barracks.

I believe we were all appreciative of this side trip into the painful past.

Los Angeles,July 24, 2010

No comments: