On Aug. 6, 1941, 240 Jews in Sabile, Latvia — including the rabbi of the town’s synagogue — were shot and killed.
But if you go to the spot in the Svente forest today where they were buried in one mass grave, you would find nothing to inform you of what happened.
Natalie Heifetz is working to change that.
About two years ago, she returned to Riga, Latvia — her hometown before 1990, when she moved to the United States with her family as political refugees to escape Soviet rule — when her son was performing there with the Yale Whiffenpoofs a cappella group.
It provided an opportunity, aside from seeing her son perform in the same spot where she had her high school graduation, to visit a place essential to her family history.
Her grandmother, Rosa Schlossberg Levine, escaped Riga with her husband and boarded the last train to Russia, just a day or two before the Nazis occupied the city. The oldest of her six siblings, Gertrude Schlossberg Dworeck (now Dvorak), came to America to visit relatives when she was 14 and never went back.
Their other siblings — except for one brother who survived the war but never made contact and a sister whose fate is unknown — died in the Holocaust.
Heifetz discovered one sister, Frida Schlossberg Jacoby, and her husband, Jacob-Leib Jacoby, and their four children aged 3 to 15 lived in Sabile and were part of the 240 murdered. A complete list of the victims is still unknown.
Heifetz didn’t know about this mass killing and looked into it further a few years ago before the trip; she found a research paper by a Latvian historian named Olga Mihelovich who detailed the history of Sabile and the Jews who lived there. She sent an email to Mihelovich asking about the burial grounds and was told if Heifetz came there, Mihelovich would take her to see it.
So on the trip to Latvia, Heifetz, with her husband and her cousin, Judy Dvorak Gray — one of Gertrude’s grandchildren and Heifetz’s cousin who lives in Israel — went to Sabile.
Going down a road along the forest, unless you knew the mile marker signaling the burial grounds, you would drive right by.
“This is the place where 240 people are buried together with the rabbi,” she said, pointing to a photo on her iPad of a grassy area with one deteriorating rock and no markings, “and there’s literally one rundown rock, and there’s nothing there. And you can’t find this place — it’s off the road, there is no trail, no sign. Nothing. So it was just shocking to be there.”
Next to the spot where the Jews are buried is an eerie open pit, which was originally reserved for the Roma (gypsy) population, whom the Nazis intended to kill with the Jews. They were warned by the mayor of the town at the time of what was coming and escaped, but the open pit remains.
On returning to Philadelphia, Heifetz decided something needed to be done to commemorate the Jews who died there.
She wasn’t the only one.
Around the same time, the historian who took Heifetz to the burial site told her that, by coincidence, the Israeli ambassador to Latvia, Lironne Bar-Sadeh, found the burial site and started fundraising to build a memorial there. So did a sculptor, Ojars Feldbergs, who designed the memorial site.
Heifetz and her family began a crowdsourcing campaign to raise money to support Bar-Sadeh’s efforts and on Aug. 6, 2017 — the same date that the Jews were murdered — a memorial will open at the site.
She will travel with her family for the opening of the memorial and join others to honor those who perished there.
“These people who were murdered there, nobody knew their names,” Heifetz said, noting that they tried to look in the Latvian archives but there is no full list of names. “These people were never mentioned anywhere. It’s almost like they’re gone.”
For her family, it’s a way to honor a legacy that some didn’t know about.
Michael Dvorak, Heifetz’s cousin and Gertrude’s grandson, will travel to Latvia for the first time for the memorial dedication. As his grandmother came to America in 1914 and didn’t return to Latvia, he didn’t know much about his family’s history.
In fact, unless his grandmother hadn’t seen an ad from HIAS in the Jewish Exponent in the 1960s, he might not have known about their history at all.
Rosa, Heifetz’s grandmother, survived traveling to Russia (at nine months pregnant) and being separated from her husband for four years — as he was drafted into the Russian army — and returned to Riga after they reunited. She didn’t think any of her siblings were still alive.
Then, 50 years later, she and her sister found each other through an ad HIAS placed in the Exponent after the war in an attempt reunite families.
“Back in the ’60s, after that initial connection, my father went to Riga to visit and just make sure it was all correct and it wasn’t a mistake and maybe a different relative and that type of thing,” Dvorak said. “He verified it definitely was his aunt — his mother’s sister — and then Rosa and her husband made one or two trips to the United States just to visit shortly after they reconnected.”
The sisters began sending letters and pictures to one another, which his grandmother relished, Dvorak said.
In 1990, Dvorak’s father sponsored Heifetz and her husband and daughter to come to Philadelphia.
“It’ll be a very powerful type of experience. I never really thought I would be going to Riga and to be going there with Samuel and Natalie makes it really special,” Dvorak said.
The memorial site will be a way to provide at least one more marked site among the thousands of unmarked burial spots throughout Europe, Dvorak said, pointing to organizations like Yahad – In Unum, which identifies and commemorates sites of Jewish and Roma executions in Europe during World War II.
“It will bring dignity to those who perished there,” Dvorak said. “It will be a proper memorial site and recognition for what happened.”
As there is now a memorial in the former Riga ghetto with names of those who lived there before they died — including a sister, Judith Schlossberg, whom Heifetz’s cousin is named after — this will be another physical means to educate about the past and honor those who died 76 years ago.
“It’s a lesson in history,” Heifetz said. “People have to remember this for future generations, and also I feel like we grow up with the Holocaust … but it’s getting so far-distanced from new generations and having a memorial and place to go and reflect will just bring it to them close.”
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