Concentration camp site in Latvia has long history of conflict

In a few days I am heading back to Latvia and this time my “to do” list will be enriched by a number of museums and other cultural sites I want to visit. The sites are ones I have been researching as part of a virtual internship with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Rescue Initiative.

I’ve known that Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania, has a good number of such sites. Castles, manor houses, the birthplaces of writers — to name just a few — are easy to find. But there are many more that have escaped my attention. The Smithsonian internship, which is the last leg of my graduate studies for a certificate in digital public humanities at George Mason University, has allowed me to learn about their existence, as well as to consider how their presence could be made more meaningful.

One of the first sites to draw my interest was the Jungfernhof concentration camp. The best-known World War II concentration camp set up by Nazi Germany in Latvia was the one at Salaspils, southeast of the capital city of Rīga. I also am familiar with the Kaiserwald (Ķeizarmežs) concentration camp. However, I had not heard of Jungfernhof (known as Jumpravmuiža or Mazā Jumpravmuiža).

Situated near the Daugava River, the Jungfernhof camp operated for just four months from the end of 1941 into March 1942, when it was shut down. It was used mainly to house Jews transported from Germany and Austria. On March 26, 1942, between 1,600 to 2,000 of the prisoners were taken to the nearby Biķernieku forest and executed.

The site of the camp has had a long history going back to at least the 13th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries an impressive manor dominated the landscape. Control of the site changed several times, from the Jesuits, to the Swedes, to the Russians. In 1919, rogue German forces led by Pavel Bermondt-Avalov destroyed the manor in their drive to capture Rīga from the Latvians, who had declared independence from the Russian Empire. During the Soviet occupation, the site was used by the army, according to Rīga Austrumu Executive Board.

Today the site is controlled by the Rīga city government, which has made some improvements to encourage recreational use of the property.

Sadly, many such places — scarred by centuries of warfare — can be found in the Baltics. Online, some are well documented. The stories of others, like Jungfernhof, are told in limited fashion through Wikipedia entries or blog posts.