Salaspils Memorials: A Reminder of Nazi Atrocities in Latvia During WW2

My first visit to Salaspils, though brief, was a happy one thanks to the midsummer festivities. My winter return to V’s hometown took a darker tone with a long walk through the forest to the Salaspils Memorials, the site of Latvia’s most prominent camp under Nazi occupation during World War II. Established in 1941 and also known as Camp Kurtenhof, Salaspils Memorials was mainly a labour camp for political prisoners under the Nazis. As you might have guessed, despite the designation, it was no less brutal than any other concentration camp of that time.

The Salaspils Camp Memorial today

Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek in Poland, nothing remains of the camp buildings today. Unlike the other camp near Riga in Mezaparks (Kaiserwald), however, the Soviets did not rebuild over it. The sculptures they placed have been maintained to this day. Admission is free.

The only approach is from the south of the site, and as you walk through the woods, you are greeted by this low stone gateway that almost blocks your path. The words in Latvian read:

salaspils memorials gateway
‘Beyond this gate, the earth groans.’

The gateway doesn’t require much ducking under unless one is built like a basketball player. Passing through it reveals a large clearing where the camp once stood. There are no photos or guides on-site to tell you what stood where in the past. It’s left to the imagination of the visitor and that is probably worse for those who have a vivid one. In their place, giant sculptures dot the space.

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Salaspils memorial sculptures

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Sculptures at Salaspils memorial

Each of these sculptures–hewn in the blocky Soviet realist style–represents a different kind of prisoner. There are a mother and her three children, a weeping woman, a labourer on his last legs, and four men who could’ve been in a protest. All of them have the barest of features, but just enough to convey sorrow or grim stoicism. Whether the ground is covered in grass or in snow, the space affords–and even demands–solemn contemplation. In the absence of even a display, there is nothing celebratory here to lighten from the mood.

salaspils memorials sculptures

The children’s section

A low wall that marks the section that was the children’s camp is easy to spot, thanks to the toys that visitors have left in some of the niches. Many children who were sent here died of malnourishment and diseases such as typhoid that frequently ravaged the camp. Other niches feature the prayer icons and candles that one who visits such sites comes to expect.

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Toys in the niches of the children’s section of Salaspils memorial

The most disturbing thing about the Salaspils memorial, however, is not something you can see. Listen carefully and you can a low, slow and deep heartbeat that reverberates around the site. It poses a grim contrast to the absence of human life here and a reminder of what was ruthlessly and repeatedly snuffed out 80 years ago. The sound is so deep that it goes right into your bones. It’s the one thing I continue to associate with the site to this day.

Walkng and Cycling Directions to Salaspils Memorial

You can take a bus or train from Riga and it will reach Salaspils in 30 minutes. Getting to the site is trickier, though. There is a smaller monument northwest of the Orthodox Church of St George but that’s not it. On foot or on a bicycle, cross the train tracks at Dole station, then the ditch. Turn left at the T-junction, follow the road, then turn right at the cross junction in the forest. If you are driving, the Tilderu cemetery road also leads to that cross junction. There is a clearing to the right that serves as a parking lot; the path to the north leads to the gateway.

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The walk from Salaspils takes 45 minutes to an hour, so if you want to cover the memorial, the Rumbula forest memorial, the Ako monument and take in the Daugava River in one day, a bicycle is a better bet. As with the midsummer festival, I have V to thank for taking me there and translating the words and what she learnt.