Beating Hearts: Visiting the Salaspils Memorial Park

Stone sign outside Salaspils Memorial Park

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The Salaspils former forced labour camp is one of the most important dark tourism destinations in Latvia. Created as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution plan during WWII, it was intended that the camp would hold approximately 15,000 Jews – the last to be deported from Germany.

However, the camp never saw completion, although roughly 12,000 prisoners still passed through its grounds between 1941 and 1944. Despite this, its reputation for brutality – confirmed by former prisoners who were able to survive the camp – has seen it be placed among the most notorious concentration camps of the Nazi regime.

Salaspils isn’t one of the popular day trips from Riga, but it is an incredibly important one. If you are up to it, we also recommend combining Salaspils with a visit to the Rumbula Forest Memorial.

RELATED: Dark Tourism: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

A History of Salaspils

Salaspils camp (officially the Salaspils Police Prison and Re-Education Through Labour Camp) is something of an anomaly in the history of such wartime places. Unlike other camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland or Terezín in the Czech Republic, which were repurposed from pre-existing facilities, Salaspils was purpose-built for the task of containing people arrested in Latvia and for the housing of Jews deported from Germany and other countries.

Also, contrary to popular belief, Salaspils Concentration Camp technically never existed. The considered plan for Salaspils to become an official German concentration camp was never realised. The comparison only came about due to the fact that it held Jews and political prisoners, and because of the brutal treatment the inmates received.

Entrance to Salaspils Memorial Park main courtyard
“Beyond these gates the land groans”

Planning for the camp began in October 1941, although unfortunately the first trainload of German Jews arrived later that month, before the camp was completed. In January 1942, over 1,000 Jews from the nearby Riga Ghetto were unwillingly conscripted into finishing the building work of Salaspils. Due to the extreme cold weather, and the lack of sufficient accommodation or adequate nutrition, there were a high number of deaths among the workers.

Although designed to hold 15,000 Jews deported from Germany, by the autumn of 1942 only a third of the planned barracks had been built, and the camp contained only 1,800 prisoners. By the end of the year, of the remaining captives, just twelve Jews were being housed there.

The camp began liquidation in December 1943, with the last prisoners leaving in September 1944. Most of the buildings were then destroyed by fire.

What Makes Salaspils Notorious?

The first grim reality that draws attention to Salaspils was, as I mentioned briefly before, the treatment of the prisoners. Punishments in Salaspils were frequent and harsh. Alongside regular beatings with a lash or club, inmates were subjected to a group punishment called “The Carousel”: prisoners would use a litter to carry sand and had to either walk or run in a continuous circle, wearing them down over time. Those assigned to punishment groups also had to work longer hours each day (fourteen as opposed to ten) while receiving only half rations.

Theft and other infractions meant flogging with a rubber truncheon; at first 15 blows, but this number later increased to sometimes over 50 at a time. Insubordination, breaking camp rules, theft or escape attempts meant being confined in a cell. This, though, was later replaced with public execution – either by hanging or shooting – as a warning to other prisoners.

The second, much more tragic atrocity committed at Salaspils, was the high mortality rate of children.

Stuffed animals left by visitors to Salaspils Memorial Park
Stuffed toys left by visitors in memory of the children who died at the camp

On arrival, children would be traumatised by separation from their mothers, and by the cruel treatment during the taking of blood samples. In the Spring of 1943 there was an outbreak of typhus. In 1944, the camp was quarantined for several weeks. Measles, dysentery, and other illnesses spread amongst the children, causing many fatalities due to the lack of medication.

Overall, several hundred children died at Salaspils from neglect, starvation, disease and unbearable humiliation. In April 1944, a team was dispatched to Salaspils that forced inmates to dig mass graves and burn bodies. In one burial site by the camp, the bodies of 632 children from the ages of five to nine were discovered.

Throughout the park there are several memorials with stuffed animals placed on them in remembrance of the children that died. On the memorial that marks the former children’s barracks there are dozens of abandoned stuffed animals and kid’s toys. These are reminiscent of those left behind at the War Children’s Victim Monument at Lidice.

Stuffed animals and flowers left by visitors to Salaspils Memorial Park
More toys and flowers left on one of the surrounding edifices in the park

The Latvian SSR State Extraordinary Commission attempted to determine the total number of deaths at Salaspils in 1944-45, but the results were imprecise due to rushed methods and, also, because they were correlated in accordance with the ideology of the Soviet occupation regime. It is believed that the death toll at Salaspils reaches at least 2,000 people (oh which at least a third, if not more, were children). With the inclusion of the deaths from the Jewish workers forced to construct the camp, the number increases to well over 3,000.

The Creation of Salaspils Memorial Park

The site of Salaspils today could not be further from how it was in the 1940s: calm, serene, quiet, and beautiful. It is a credit to the creators (architects Gunārs Asaris, Ivars Strautmanis, Oļģerts Ostenbergs, Oļegs Zakamennijs – sculptors Ļevs Bukovskis, Oļegs Skarainis, Jānis Zarinš) that it is so.

Memorial Statue at Salaspils Memorial Park
Some of the statues that form the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble

The designing of the park began in 1960, and in 1967, following their efforts, the Salaspils Memorial Park was unveiled.

The layout of the Memorial site is quite striking. As you approach, the path runs under a huge concrete wall which bears the message in Latvian “Beyond these gates the land groans”.

Long corridoor of steps inside main structre at Salaspils Memorial Park
A long staircase connects the two exhibits of the museum

The 100m long wall is meant to symbolise the border between life and death. Inside this, at either end, are housed the main museum pieces, with the wall containing a corridor linking the two exhibition areas.

View from the main structure at Salaspils Memorial Park
The view across the Memorial park from the main structure

At either end of the main structure are two exhibitions about Salaspils. One features artifacts and stories from the time of the camp’s operation, the other covers the history of the Memorial park from its conception through to its original opening in 1967.

There are two main features in the Memorial park: The “beating heart” metronome, and the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble.

The “Beating Heart” Metronome

An integral part of the Memorial since its unveiling is the metronome – in the quiet, you can hear a constant, rhythmic heartbeat throughout the park. It’s a strong way to remind people of the constant passage of time, and it gives the place a feeling of life, or more precisely, of being alive.

Heartbeat structure at Salaspils Memorial Park
A constant slow heartbeat sounds from this long, black structure

The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble

The free-standing concrete statues that dominate the main area make up the ensemble. They are surrounded by a pathway known as the “Way of Sorrows”.

Memorial Statue at Salaspils Memorial Park
The statues “Solidarity”, “Oath”, “Rot Front” (sometimes called “Red Front”)

There are six statues, each representing a different emotional reaction to the events of Salaspils camp: “Mother”, “Humiliated”, “Solidarity”, “Oath”, “Rot Front” (also sometimes called “Red Front”), and “Unbroken”. Each is tall, evocative, and powerful.

During research, I found reference to a seventh statue (titled “Protest”), though on visiting the park and having been through their written guides and maps of the park, there appears to only be the six mentioned above.

Perhaps one had been removed for restoration? That’s all I can think of as to why one might be missing.

In 2004, thanks to a donation from Larry Pik, a former inmate of Salaspils camp, a separate monument to commemorate foreign Jews who died at Salaspils camp was erected.

In 2008, a German PoW cemetery was also opened on the Memorial’s grounds.

For those wishing to go into Salaspils city, there are two more memorials located there (Memorial to Soviet Prisoners of War and the Soviet Soldiers Cemetery). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go into the city during this trip.

Memorial Statue at Salaspils Memorial Park
The statue “Unbroken”

In architect Ivars Strautmanis’ words:

“The Memorial’s main emphasis was on the emotional aspect in order to remind others about the crimes against the people committed by the former regime, the violation of human rights and affronts to humanness as such. The artistic spatial arrangements of the Memorial are emotionally expressive as they depict both the events of the Second World War and its effects on European society.”

For their work, the creators of Salaspils Memorial Park were awarded highest Soviet honour – the Lenin Award – in 1970.

How To Get to Salaspils

Anyone one taking a city break in Riga who is interested in visiting Salaspils can easily get there via public transport. Alternatively, you might prefer to rent a car for ease.

Trains run from Riga to Salaspils regularly throughout the day – Dārziņi is the nearest stop to the Memorial from Riga station, just seven stops down the line. Buses run on average every hour from Riga city centre, and can take you directly to Dārziņu iela, a street just over the main road (A6) from the site. Both options involve a short walk after getting off public transport (30 minutes from the bus, an hour from the train station), but the paths/roads are not difficult to traverse. However, in the summers they can be quite hot and somewhat exposed (it is forested), so bring water and sunscreen!

We arrived via the bus option. When the bus gets to Dārziņu iela, it will stop at a bus shelter where the road loops back around (as it’s the end of the line). Once off the bus, take the road/path to the left of the shelter you’ve just arrived at (continuing the direction the bus was travelling in). You’ll come out at a junction of the dual carriageway, which you will need to cross. Unfortunately there is no pedestrian crossing, but there is a break between the two traffic directions so at least you don’t have to get across all four lanes at once!

Once across to the other side, you will see a large stone carving marked “Salaspils 1941 1944” (the one at the top of this article, no less) and a street sign pointing you in the right direction. Follow this road and the signs, eventually round to the left and across some train tracks (trains are not super frequent but always take care when crossing train lines!) and you’ll enter Salaspils Memorial Park.

Salaspils is open every day 10am to 5pm during the summer season (April to October), and every day 10am to 3pm during the winter season (November to March). Entry is free.

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Have you been to Salaspils? Why did you decide to go? What did you take away from it? Let us know in the comments below.


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