Built at the end of 1941 in a pine forest near the town of Salaspils, 18 km southeast of Riga, Salaspils concentration camp was originally designated as a “Police Prison and work education camp” (German: Polizeigefängnis und Arbeitserziehungslager) and remained in operation until its liberation by the Soviets in late 1944.
Better known as camp Kurtenhof, because of the German name of Salaspils, Salaspils concentration camp was part of the wide camp system developed by National Socialist Germany. It was the larger of two camps built in or near the Latvian capital to house 15,000 political prisoners and Jewish people deported from Germany and other countries to Latvia. The place selected for the camp was readily accessible from the main railway connecting Riga and Daugavpils, the two largest cities in Latvia.
Initially, the Security Police and the SD (Sicherheitspolizei und Sicherheitsdienst) in Latvia wished to create a concentration camp in Salaspils but that was not permitted. Although Salaspils concentration camp was never subordinated to the general concentration camp authority and the administrative rules were different from, there were similarities with regulations governing concentration camps. Examples are the categorization of inmates, work regulations, and other rules. Salaspils became comparable to German concentration camps. During its years of operation about 12,000 prisoners went through the camp and about 2,000 people died here due to illness, heavy labor, executions, epidemics, etc. Estimates differ how many people were murdered at Salaspils. The Soviets claimed over one hundred thousand, Latvian textbooks half that, recent studies offer a figure of under three thousand.
Construction of the camp
The campsite was prepared in October 1941 by Soviet prisoners of war from the Salaspils branch camp Stalag 350/Z of the Riga of base camp 350 and by deported Czech Jews as well as few German Jews from KZ Jungfernhof. At least 1,000 Jews from Riga Ghetto were forced to work building the camp. In the autumn of 1942, the camp comprised 15 barracks of the 45 that were planned, housing 1,800 prisoners.
From May 1942 until September 1944 Salaspils camp functioned as an “extended police prison” and a “labor correctional camp”, as well as a prison for convicted Baltic Police Battalion members and legionnaires. It also served other purposes, such as a short-term transit camp for other types of prisoners. During Operation Winterzauber (Operation “Winter magic”/an anti-partisan operation) in 1943, about 3900 partisans and local inhabitants were killed, over 7000 were deported for forced labor and some 1850 imprisoned to the camp. The children taken during the operation were separated from their parents.
The children in Salaspils
Between 250 and 650 (statistics vary) children at ages 5 to 9 found their death in the camp due to the malnutrition, famine, illness, and epidemics such as Typhoid fever and measles. Several hundred children handed the surrounding rural farms, about 300 children in orphanages came to Riga in Jurmala, Igate and Saulkrasti and part of them were taken by the Orthodox monastery in Riga. In May 1943, the children’s barracks were destroyed.
In the autumn of 1944, the camp was liquidated. After the Soviet Army occupied the camp area, several hundred German prisoners of war were imprisoned in four non-burnt barracks.
Although the original camp buildings were destroyed after WWII, the Soviets converted Salaspils into a memorial park – raising concrete structures and bold, brutal sculptural compositions that would tell the story of what happened here.