The Skede beach massacre of the Jews of Liepāja, Latvia

Moments before they were murdered.

An image taken by a Nazi perpetrator of the mass killings of 2,749 Jews on the beach near the city of Liepāja, in Latvia, on December 15 through 17, 1941. These women had been forced to disrobe and then pose for the camera.

Scholarly work has led to the identification of some of the women shown. From left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) believed to be Rosa Epstein, mother of Sorella; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternatively, (2) may be Paula Goldman, and Mia Epstein may be (5) instead of (4).

15 December 1941: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 19121

Most of the men from the Jewish population of the town of Liepāja, Latvia had been killed by December 1941. It was now decided to kill off the remaining population of mainly women and children, leaving only a minority behind who would be used as slave labour.

The men of the Einsatzgruppen were now confident of their procedures and capable of organising the killing in a relatively orderly way. The Jewish population of Liepāja were kept compliant by a curfew ordering them to stay in their homes, from where they were gathered up and taken to the local prison. From there groups were taken to the beach and split into groups of ten.

At the first stage they were ordered to undress down to their underwear, then they were moved closer to the killing site and many ordered to undress completely. From there they were very quickly taken to the edge of the mass grave and shot. From the film it would seem that some of the men were taken directly to the pits and shot without undressing.

Einsatzgruppen mass grave with bodies in deep ditch

The different members of the Einsatzgruppen had clearly defined roles, those doing the shooting were supplied with alcohol throughout their 'work', others members of the unit had to wait until the end of the day. One man was assigned as 'kicker in' - dealing with bodies of those who did not fall directly into the pit.

Unusually the Einsatzgruppen men kept photographic records of the shootings – or perhaps unusually the photographs survived. It is clear from these that there were a large number of spectators to the killings, drawn from the local population and the Wehrmacht. Some records mention a ‘carnival atmosphere’. One of these spectators took a short cine film. It is for these reasons that the massacre of Liepāja is particularly remembered. In other respects killing around a thousand people a day was wholly unexceptional for the Einsatzgruupen – as their records from Lithuania make clear.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a clearer but smaller version of the film of the shootings.

This rare footage shows a mobile killing unit during a massacre in Liepaja, Latvia. The film was taken, contrary to orders, by a German soldier. Before the war, the Jewish population of Liepaja stood at more than 7,000 residents. German mobile killing squads shot almost the entire Jewish population of the town. When the Soviet army liberated the city in 1945, just 20 to 30 Jews remained.

Liepaja has the most comprehensive account, as well as details of locating the mass grave by satellite photographs and the establishment of a memorial.

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