A place in the middle of a forest in the north-east of Riga
that the Nazis
used as another massacre site (cf. Rumbula
) during Germany
's occupation of Latvia
between 1941 and 1944.
More background info:
Unlike the somewhat better known Holocaust
site of Rumbula
south-east of Riga
, which was used on only two days for the mass murder of large groups of Jews, the forest of Bikernieku in the north of Riga was used on countless occasions for similar, if not quite so large-scale, massacres all the way through the German occupation of Latvia
The first groups of victims were brought here to be shot in July 1941, mostly from Riga itself. Later the mostly Jewish victims were increasingly also brought in from further afield, especially from 1942 onwards. Many were first specifically deported to Riga from other countries, including in particular Jews from Germany
(i.e. from the Third Reich
While most victims were Jews, there were also political prisoners like communists
and Soviet POW
s amongst those killed here.
In 1944, when the concentration camp
was “evacuated” those inmates unfit for the transports (or for further forced labour) were also massacred at Bikernieku as late as August 1944, shortly before the Soviet
Red Army recaptured Riga
Similarly to other such sites (cf. Belzec
, etc.), the Nazis
made late attempts to cover up their crimes by having the bodies of those massacred here dug up and cremated (by yet more forced labourers who were then also executed). But at Bikernieku it seems that the job was only partly done. As many as 20,000 bodies are still believed to be interred at these sites today.
How many victims lost their lives at Bikernieku in total between 1941 and 1944 is impossible to ascertain with any accuracy – and figures given in different sources typically vary between 30,000 and closer to 50,000.
For many years after WWII
, the site remained under-commemorated, under-maintained and almost forgotten. The Soviets
only erected a very simple memorial in the 1960s, which mentioned the “fascist”crimes but as so often failed to include the fact that most victims had been Jews. However, it was then that the burial pits themselves were at least marked by concrete borders.
In the late 1980s plans were developed for a more appropriate commemoration of the Bikernieku site. But these were delayed as Latvia
struggled for independence, and were more or less put on ice in the early (economically difficult) years following independence and the collapse of the USSR
During the 1990s plans for a proper memorial were revived and eventually the German war graves commission, the VDK (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), saw to the realization of the memorial we see today. Funding came from the Federal governments of both Germany
as well as from several cities associated with Riga. The new memorial was inaugurated in late 2001.
The isolated and unprotected location unfortunately also prompted some despicable characters to vandalize and desecrate the memorial on more than one occasion.
When I was there (in April 2014) I found only one sign of this, and not a particularly evil one: no swastika or other Nazi symbolism, only a skull and crossbones sprayed on the back of one of the memorial stelae dotted around between the burial plots. Some may find this inappropriate enough, but all things considered it's not that shockingly out of order. I've seen far worse (e.g. in Suwalki
What there is to see: The main memorial is reached from a marker by Bikernieku iela. Here two black stone slabs have been put up of which one features a rough orientation map and inscriptions in Latvian, German and English that acknowledge the funding of the memorial, while the other one briefly specifies the nature of the site in five languages (Hebrew and Russian in addition here).
From here you walk some 200 yards into the woods to reach the core of the site. Amidst a hollow filled with rough-hewn granite blocks stands a central monument consisting of four white columns connected by crossbeams at the top. The black marble cube underneath has a biblical quote in four languages on its sides (English is missing here).
The field of stones around this monument is subdivided into segments and each is marked by its own small plaque each giving a place name: the places from where victims were deported to Riga
only to be murdered here in the forest. The names include both my birth place, Hamburg
, and my current place of residence, Vienna
(as well as such deeply dark places as Terezin
). It always feels a bit odd to see your home mentioned in places like this ...
The field of stones was also very much reminiscent of the memorial design at Treblinka
! The main difference, apart from the relative size, is the fact that here the stones have different colours. Some are darker, some lighter, some are greyer, some more reddish. Apparently this was intended to symbolically reverse the uniformity of the victims to a small degree and give a hint of individuality back to them.
Dotted around in the forest behind and to the side of the main memorial square you can find the actual burial pits of the victims, all marked by concrete borders giving them a rectangular shape and with a stone boulder on top of the grass covering them – just as at Rumbula
Another similarity between the two sites are the concrete stelae of identical design that are also dotted around this site, flanking the paths into the forest (i.e. the “path of death” that the victims were led up here) and additionally marking the locations of the burial pits.
The stelae have the years 1941-1944 marked on them towards the bottom and at the top bear either a Star of David (for Jewish victims), a cross (for Christian Latvians) or a stylized crown of thorns (for all other confessions/groups of victims).
On one of the stelae I found a skull and crossbones symbol sprayed in white on the back! Surely it was just some prankster's graffiti, but it still looked shockingly poignant in this context, whether it was meant to be originally or not (we cannot know what exactly the intentions of the graffiti sprayer were – in any case it is of course highly problematic to leave any kind of graffiti at such memorial sites!).
There are a lot of these burial pits and stelae around. The marked paths loop around for quite some distance. And some further burial pits can be seen off the path deeper in the forest. In total there are said to be 55 of them here!
In addition to this main memorial site there is another, secondary site in the northern half of the forest where yet more burial pits and marker stones/stelae can be found. This much smaller part can be reached by a half-mile (700m) long path into the forest branching off Bikernieku iela roughly another half mile west of the entrance to the main memorial. A diagonal path to the north-west of the central field of stones cuts the distance somewhat shorter.
On balance, this site is certainly quite striking, perhaps even slightly more so than Rumbula
(if only for sheer size), but it too remains rather abstract. Apart from the brief note on the marker stones by the road, there is no interpretative text, no comment, no commodification
. So you don't come here to learn, but already have to know about the significance of this place. It thus has much more the character of a pilgrimage destination.
in the middle of Bikernieki forest a good 4 miles (7 km) north-east of the centre of Riga
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
quite far from the city centre of Riga
in a rather remote place, best reached by car (and requiring some walking); free
Details: Getting to Bikernieku is easiest by car. There is a small car park by the road where the path to the main memorial leads into the woods. Apart from the two black granite memorial stones this spot is also more clearly marked by a gate-like structure over the path entrance which echoes the design of the main central memorial monument.
The spot where the path leads off to the secondary memorial site in the northern part of the forest is also marked by two such memorial stones, but no “gate” – and: there is no parking there. So you'd have to walk it all the way there and back from the main memorial or try and find a parking space closer by, e.g. near the hospital just west of the forest.
If need be you can also get to the area on public transport by using one of the infrequent trolleybuses that go along Bikernieku iela. Of these only line 16 (the one to Garkalnes) connects to Riga city centre. There is just the one stop on Bikernieku iela, located roughly halfway between where the two paths leading to the memorials in the woods branch off. This stop is called Kapi.
From there you have to walk it all and make sure you get to the stop in time for the journey back, as connections are not very frequent at all (often only one per hour during the day, and only three per hour at morning and afternoon peak times).
The memorial sites as such are freely accessible at all times.
Time required: once you've made it to the main memorial site between half an hour and 45 minutes to take it all in will probably be enough. If you also go to the other, secondary memorial site deeper in the northern part of the forest, you'd have to add at least another 40 minutes to walk there and have a brief look around.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Riga
One of the sites of the Holocaust
in Riga most associated with Bikernieku is Kaiserwald
, where a small memorial monument has been erected. Also thematically connected are the sites in the former Jewish Ghetto in Riga itself, esp. the Ghetto Museum
, as well as the Museum Jews in Latvia
in the city centre.
The Janis Lipke Memorial Museum
, in contrast, can serve as a certain counterpoint to all the really grim sites by providing a story of successful resistance and escape from the Holocaust
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The forest that the memorials are located in is also a popular area for hikers and nature lovers. A particular beauty spot is the lake in the eastern half of the forest.
Just east of that lake there's the odd sight of a race track – and just north of that is the associated Riga Motormuseum
(for those into such things ... for me the only interesting items in this museum would be the three luxury limos moved here from the Kremlin
that once belonged to Soviet
leader Leonid Brezhnev!).
But all the proper
top tourist sights of the city are to be found in the centre of Riga
- Bikernieku 1 - Jewish Holocaust memorial
- Bikernieku 2 - marker stones by the road
- Bikernieku 3 - Treblika-like field of stones
- Bikernieku 4 - central memorial
- Bikernieku 5 - Hamburg section
- Bikernieku 6 - with bench
- Bikernieku 7 - mass graves in the forest
- Bikernieku 8 - deeper into the forest
- Bikernieku 9 - shadow of death