Friday, July 11, 2014

The Starless Woman in Riga

One day in late August, 1941, a woman left her apartment at Letgales iela 17-19 in Riga. Taking the first few steps on the pavement must have demanded a great deal of courage. She walked down the long streets leading to the central market, trying her best to look unsuspicious and blend in with pedestrians. Her two small daughters were at home. She had to do it for their sake. Her husband was gone. Finally she saw the enormous pavilions at the marketplace. She stepped into the crowd. And then she was caught.

 Wreckage of Soviet vehicles at the central market in Riga, July 1941.
-National Library of Latvia

Raya Ribnik
Raya Ribnik was born in Dvinsk on September 6th, 1899, to tannery worker Ruben Kurenitz and Hanna-Liebe née Gindin. She had a younger sister named Maria. Raya’s father moved his small family to Riga in search of work. There she met a young hairdresser, Abram-David Ribnik. They married in April 1929 and had two daughters. Ronia was born in 1930 and Lea in 1933. Latvia came under Soviet occupation in 1940, when Lea was barely seven. Raya’s husband was arrested and imprisoned at the Sarkankalna Hospital in Riga. They were not alone. Many Latvians suffered terribly under the soviet reign. But fate had worse in store.

Crowds cheering the Germans
The Wehrmacht captured Riga on July 1 from the retreating Soviet army. The city suffered heavy damage from the German artillery. The bell tower at St. Peter’s church went up in flames, and the city center, the house of Blackheads and the townhouse were reduced to burning rubble. On the next day, crowds cheered and saluted as the liberating army marched into the city in all its might. Women dressed in traditional Latvian costumes greeted the soldiers with flowers and food.

St Peter's church aflame after being hit by German artillery.
The "Bolsheviks and Yids" were blamed for the fire.
-National Library of Latvia

Burning synagogue in Riga,
filmed by the German army
Within a few days, the synagogues of Riga’s forty thousand Jewish inhabitants were set on fire. Rumors claimed that people were burned alive inside. The newspapers were filled with reports of “Jewish terrorism,” anti-Semitic caricatures and articles. A group of Jews was selected and forced to bury the corpses of victims of the Soviet regime. As orchestrated by the Germans, the Latvian Jews were singled out as Soviet sympathizers and national enemies. Many individuals were arrested in their homes, assaulted and subsequently killed. A curfew was imposed upon the Jewish community, as well as Russian and Polish citizens. Their telephones were disconnected, and they were banned from using the mail.

On July 29 the German Feldkommandant in Riga published the following order in the newspapers:
“All Jews are hereby and henceforth required to wear the mandatory distinguishing mark (yellow colored Star of David). Offenders will be punished mercilessly.” 
Further warnings were published the next couple of days. Following the introduction of the yellow star badge, Latvian Jews were officially banned from using public transportation, entering public grounds such as libraries, sports facilities, parks, taverns, entertainment venues, schools, universities, museums, cinemas, theaters, swimming pools, etc. All able-bodied Jewish men and women were assigned to forced labor.

Crowded Jewish store
in Riga, August 1941.
Abram-David was captured by the German Security Police on August 13 and was executed. Raya was now left alone to support their two daughters and her elderly mother. Food was scarce and money was short. Jews were only allowed to buy at a few stores with an ever dwindling supply and steeping prices. A ghetto was being put together by the Germans at the Moscow District in the city. The Latvian newspaper Tēvija praised this plan, that would once and for all separate the Jews of Riga from the Aryans. Harried and helpless, Raya decided to sneak into the central market. There she could get food and perhaps sell what few valuable things she still possessed. She removed the yellow star badge from her cloths before leaving. 

A small notice in the German newspaper Deutsche Zeitung im Ostland dated August 28 states that a Jewess without a Star of David had been caught at the central market in Riga. What fate befell Raya remains unknown. It was merely noted that a “better use" had been found for the starless woman. Did she ever see her daughters again?

Frume Masarsky
A month later, on September 28, a man named Mordecai Weinberg was caught committing the same offense. He had removed his star badge and walked on the sidewalk. A week later, on October 4, the starless Frume Masarsky née Ginsburg, mother of seven, was also caught while walking on the sidewalk without a badge. Starless Hirsch Kurland was arrested the following week, and “a procedure was initiated against him”. Finally, on October 25, the Germans locked all the Jews of Riga up in a small ghetto. By that time, several thousands had already been executed by the Germans and their Latvian collaborators. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the ghetto were killed in shooting pits in the nearby forest a month later. Raya’s mother and daughters were probably among them.

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