Saving a Nazi Concentration Camp from Being Forgotten
Photo Credit: Courtesy Frostig
By Lawrence Goodman
In early 2019, Karen Frostig traveled to Latvia to visit the place where the Nazis had murdered her grandparents.
She drove a few miles outside the capital city Riga to the site of the Jungfernhof concentration camp, where nearly 4,000 Jews died between 1941 and 1943.
It was now a recreation park.
A banner out front welcomed visitors. The words "Mazjumpravas muiža [manor]," the park's name, were set against a cloudy blue sky filled with geese and a butterfly.
Frostig, an affiliated scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, saw a few people walking the promenade beside the gently flowing Daugavu River. Occasionally, a bicyclist or rollerblader buzzed by.
"I had this feeling of being robbed," says Frostig. "I felt like I'd lost a part of my family's history."
Frostig, who is also a professor at Lesley University, is now on a quest to ensure we never forget what happened at Jungfernhof.
A multimedia artist, she has designed a memorial to the Jews killed there. Slated for completion in 2024, it will consist of a monument and a small landscaped garden beneath a canopy.
The canopy, placed above a mass grave at the site, will blow with the wind, suggesting breath. In this way, Frostig said, a symbol of life will lie above a place of mass death.
Numerous Brandeis faculty and alumni are involved in the effort, which Frostig calls Locker of Memory.
Historian Jonathan Sarna '75, MA'75, sits on the board; professor Laura Jockusch, Holocaust education specialist Cheyenne A. Paris, MA'21, documentarian Paula S. Apsell '69, researcher Evan Robins '20 and former director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute's Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust Joanna Beata Michlic are all members of the project team.
The campus digital multimedia center, the MakerLab, is helping to design exhibits for a website that will offer information on the camp and a virtual tour.
"In a few years, the last Holocaust survivors will pass from the scene," said Sarna, University Professor and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History. "It is more important than ever that we create new forms of Holocaust remembrance, not dependent upon survivors and their testimony. Frostig's project is part of this critical effort."
Beile Samuely and Moses Frostig lived in Vienna when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.
Moses was a salesman, and Beile, a homemaker who raised three children, took care of her paralyzed mother and kept the home observant. She was known for her non-alcoholic wine, crushing the grapes herself every Friday for the Sabbath.
Frostig's father, Benjamin Wolf, earned a doctorate in law and economics in 1936 from the University of Vienna. For unclear reasons — perhaps because he was a practicing Jewish lawyer, perhaps just because he was Jewish — he was arrested by the Germans two years later.
A neighbor happened to be a guard at the prison. He told Benjamin he'd release him if he left the country within 48 hours. Beile secured him a passport stamped with a red J for Jews — likely a counterfeit — and he left for Holland. (His siblings escaped later.)
Benjamin's parents hoped that with his law degree, he could arrange for them to leave the country. But his trip was arduous, taking him through Portugal and then to Cuba. He was refused asylum by Australia, New Zealand and Palestine until 1939 when he found American Jews willing to sponsor him.
Meanwhile, his parents sent him desperate letters. "Do your best, so we can get away from here because there is no life here anymore," they wrote. But Europe was now engulfed in chaos and war. It was impossible to find a country that would accept them.
On December 3, 1941, Beile and Moses were packed into railway boxcar number 13 and transported to Jungfernhof.
The transports started arriving in late November 1941. They came from Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Hamburg in Germany, and Vienna, carrying nearly 4,000 Jews in all.
The camp’s commandant, Rudolf Seck, sometimes executed prisoners himself. According to testimony from witnesses at his trial in the 1950s, he shot one prisoner for showing up a few minutes late to roll call and another because he'd forgotten his suspenders and was holding up his pants with his hands.
In March, the Nazis carried out what became known as the Dünamünde Action. Some 1,800 prisoners from Jungfernhof and another 3,000 from the Riga ghetto were taken by truck into the Bikernieki forest and executed.
Only 148 of the Jews taken to the camp were still living at the end of the war.
There is no entry for Jungfernhof on the websites of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Israel. It may be because its death toll is relatively small compared to well-known camps like Auschwitz (more than 1 million) and Treblinka (700,000 to more than 1 million). It was also in operation for only two years.
All the same, Frostig is on a mission to rectify the omission.
The Mass Grave
Conditions at the camp were abysmal. Snow fell through the barracks roofs. Rations consisted of coffee, watery soup sometimes containing a bit of cabbage or potato, a slice of bread and occasionally horse meat.
The winter of 1941-1942, the camp's first year of operation, was the coldest winter on record. The well water froze. Water was retrieved from the river, but there wasn't enough firewood to boil and sterilize it. The result was an outbreak of typhoid fever and diarrhea.
The corpses began piling up, but the ground was too frozen for the soldiers to dig graves. In February, dynamite arrived. The Germans blasted a hole and filled it with dead bodies — 800 in all. Only in the spring, though, did they bother to fill the grave with bodies.
This July, drones with hi-resolution cameras buzzed overhead at the Mazjumpravmuiža Manor recreation park while scientists used ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to create 3D images of the subsurface.
In just a few days, without the need to dig up any ground, the mass grave at Jungfernhof was discovered. A team of researchers led by Richard Freund at Christopher Newport University in Virginia mapped a 6-foot deep, 65- by 65-foot trench where the 800 bodies were buried.
All Frostig knew about her grandparents growing up was what they looked like. Her father hung their framed passport pictures on the living room wall. Otherwise, he never talked about them or the Holocaust.
He blamed himself for failing to get them out in time, Frostig said. He wanted to forget his past. He died in 1971 when Frostig was 22.
In 1991, soon after her mother had died, Frostig discovered a box of papers in the basement of the family's home in Waltham, Mass. It contained letters from her father's parents, his immigration records and other documents. Frostig began piecing together her family's past.
Nearly a decade later, Frostig learned they were cutting down a small grove across the street from her home in Newton for a new development. Somehow, she felt the destruction of the trees and the Dünamünde Action massacre in the Latvian forest were connected.
Then 9/11 happened, and she began work on a multimedia art project to tie all these events together, united around the themes of destruction and mourning. She created a series of images that blended photos of her family's past, the Holocaust, the collapse of the World Trade Center and the grove in Newton.
The project, called Earth Wounds, culminated in a burial ceremony where participants reflected on loss, grief, trauma, history and environmental degradation.
In 2014, Frostig was the director of the Vienna Project, a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss when Hitler annexed Austria. For the ceremony, she created a list of Jews and other groups whom the Nazis killed. She then projected the names, 91,000 in total, onto the exterior wall of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.
Frostig describes her artworks as "social action memory projects." As part of her project in Vienna, she identified 38 sites in the Austrian capital where either atrocities or acts of resistance were committed during World War II. At each location, she spray-painted, "What happens when we forget to remember?"
The core installation at Jungfernhof, tentatively scheduled for completion in 2024, will be a roughly 7-foot high black obelisk with the camp's victims' names inscribed on its sides.
Hazal Uzunkaya ꞌ14, a research technology specialist who runs the Brandeis MakerLab, has partnered with Frostig to create a series of 3D models of Jungfernhof artifacts that viewers will be able to manipulate via computer.
For example, they've created a demo of a letter from Frostig's grandparents to her father and plan to digitize family heirlooms from the descendants of other Jungfernhof victims. The exhibits will be included in an app and posted on a website.
Uzunkaya is also creating an interactive, virtual reality tour of the camp. Users will be able to move around inside the virtual concentration camp via their computer mouse, getting a sense of what Jungfernhof was like.
Uzunkaya says creating these kinds of exhibits involves a delicate balance. You have to engage and involve people but not "Disneyfy" the experience and violate the sanctity and memory of the victims.
The Next Steps
In early December, Frostig is planning a ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first arrival of Jews at Jungfernhof.
As part of a short video montage, archival photos of the camp’s victims and survivors, along with images of the camp, will be projected onto the outside wall of the train station where the transports stopped. At this point as well, a sign will be posted to mark the camp’s mass grave.
Frostig still needs to raise private funds to cover the cost of the memorial. This will be challenging, but she’s buoyed by the strong support she’s receiving from the Latvian government and the German embassy in Riga. Both recognize the need for a permanent memorial at the site and want to ensure that what happened at Jungfernhof is never forgotten.
But there are also no plans to get rid of the recreation park. In fact, there was a recent proposal, now on hold, to build volleyball courts and an open-air forum. A new museum is also in the works, devoted to recounting the site's 700-year past as an estate and farmland.
Frostig said she recognizes that the site has a rich history, apart from the Holocaust, that needs to be commemorated. It's also a beautiful setting that Latvians understandably want to claim as parkland.
"It must become a site that accommodates everyone," Frostig said. "We must remember the past and make room for competing histories, addressing each perspective while preserving the truth about the past."