Thursday, June 11, 2009

Estonia: More Concentration Camp Commemorative Markers to Be Dedicated July 7, 2009

Estonia: More Concentration Camp Commemorative Markers to Be Dedicated July 7, 2009

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On a recent blogpost I mentioned the on-going project in Estonia to mark the sites of Holocaust-era concentration camps in Estonia, established by the Nazis in large part to develop the oil shale industry in the region. Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and elsewhere were imprisoned and enslaved to labor at the camps. Many died because of brutal conditions; others were executed toward the end of the war as the Germans withdrew from Estonia. While these were not Estonian-created camps, it is true that many Estonians worked in the camps as guards and in other capacities.

The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Estonia and the Jewish Community of Estonia have announced the completion of the second phase of a project to better mark the sites of former Concentration Camps in Estonia, to take place on July 7th, at the former site of Kohtla-Nõmme labor camp. This is one of three markers set up this year as part of the co-operative project “Holocaust markers in Estonia”. The others will be at sites at Asari and Soski.

In 2005, new or additional markers were installed at five sites - Ereda, Kiviõli, Klooga, Illuka, Metsakmistu and Vaivara.

This project was developed over a series of years through the initiative and perseverance of Cilja Laud, former president of the Jewish Community of Estonia and Anton Pärn, Undersecretary, Ministry of Culture of Estonia with continuing support and funding from the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and especially the involvement of Commission Chairman Warren L. Miller and Commission members Lee Seeman and Gary Lavine. The Commission helped shape the project, negotiate involvement from the Ministry of Culture of Estonia and to raise the funds needed from private donors and foundations.

Having worked on this project for several years in its earliest phases, I am delighted that it has reached this point. I still maintain the hope that this is just the beginning of an even more substantial project in Estonia of Holocaust education. Information about the markers, the sites and what happened at these camps must be widely disseminated. I am encouraged by the remarks of Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip at Klooga May 8, 2005 when he said: "Here in Klooga, we are in a place, which symbolizes the evil and inhumanity of the Nazi ideology...Last Thursday, the Government of the Republic of Estonia released an official statement, in which it regrets the fact that in cooperation with occupying powers, citizens of the Republic of Estonia also participated in the perpetration of crimes against humanity. Although these murderers must answer for their crimes as individuals, the Estonian Government continues to do everything possible to expose these crimes. I apologize for the fact that Estonian citizens could be found among those who participated in the murdering of people or assisted in the perpetration of these crimes.”

Then-Estonian president Arnold Rüütel was even more explicit in his statement at the dedication of the new Klooga marker in July 24, 2005, when he said “Being the President of the Republic of Estonia I feel hurt that among the citizens of our state there were those who participated in Nazi crimes. It does not matter whatever motives they had for such behavior. We condemn the deeds of those people and we apologize for them..”

Brief History of the Concentration Camps in Estonia

(the following account is adapted from project documents prepared by the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad with help from the Jewish Community of Estonia and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and especially historian Nicholas Lane)

There were 22 concentration and labor camps established by the Germans in Estonia during the Second World War. Over 10,000 Jews are believed to have died at these camps. Until now, their enslavement, suffering, and death has hardly been recognized, and never been appropriately commemorated. This project will create a system of memorials throughout Estonia indicating the location of each camp and associated mass graves. The Jewish Community of Estonia is also preparing educational materials as part of this project.

The camps in Estonia were generally set up in forests and marshy regions, in order to prevent contact between the prisoners and the people of the neighborhood.

Many of the camps were labor camps where inmates were brutally worked in an effort to extract oil from shale deposits. The largest number of sites --15-- was in Ida -Virumaa County. Most of the prisoners were housed in wooden huts, often with extremely thin walls made of canvas. It is related how on very cold days the prisoners' hair would freeze to the canvas walls. The camp that was most notorious for its bad conditions was Lower Ereda, which was called by the prisoners "A Grave for the Living". Generally, all the clothing the prisoners had brought with them was confiscated upon arrival. Shoes were made of wood and were a torture to the prisoners.

The camp prisoners were mainly employed in the service of the German authorities and the Wehrmacht. In 1942, when the prisoners were brought to Jagala, their principal task had been to sort out the clothing of the dead; but in 1943, when the Soviet offensive and the German counter-offensive were expected, the prisoners’ main tasks were to work in the Slanietz mines for production of synthetic fuel, and to work for the army doing jobs including road-building, laying railway tracks, digging anti-tank trenches, building bunkers and other military installations from concrete. Labor for the Slanietz mines was drawn especially from the Ereda, Vivikoni, Kivioli and Kunda camps. In the Klooga camp, three shifts worked without a break, mainly on various concrete products.

As the war wound down and the Russians approached from the east, the Germans began to evacuate and execute the thousands of prisoners in the Estonian camps. The mass killing of camp inmates was carried out at the Lagedi camp on September 18, 1944 and in the Klooga camp the following day, as the German armies retreated in confusion. In Lagedi, 426 people were killed and in Klooga about 2,400 Jewish prisoners and some Soviet prisoners-of-war were executed. They were all shot in the back of the neck, and then gasoline was poured on the piles of corpses and set alight. In Klooga, tens of persons were shot as they fled from the scene of the massacre, but a few survived. A few also survived the massacre at Lagedi. During the killing in the forest near Klooga, about 85 people managed to escape from the assembly point to hide in various places, mainly in an attic in one of the huts. After the liberation about 100 escapees from other camps gathered at Klooga, and a few months later they moved on to Vilnius.

These sites and other Holocaust-related sites in Estonia have, for the most part, been neglected for the past sixty years. Five locations were marked as sites of martyrdom during the Soviet period with memorials that were not specific and were even inaccurate in their inscriptions. At least two sites more have received new memorial markers since Estonia achieved independence in 1991. In 1994, the Jewish Community, with the cooperation of the government of Estonia erected a memorial at Klooga using funds received from Germany for survivors of Estonian concentration camps. Also in 1994, private individuals erected a small monument at Vaivara. In 2002, the Jewish Community erected a stone and tablet at Aleve–Liiva with financial assistance from the Polish, Czech, and Germany governments, because citizens of these countries were killed there. Today, only these three camps are at all adequately marked with memorials for those who suffered, and with accurate information for those who visit the sites today. Even these sites require additional on-site information, and in the case of Klooga, restoration of the Soviet-era memorial enclosure at the mass grave.

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