It was a sunny late October afternoon when we decided to visit the former concentration camp at Salaspils. It’s located only 20km from Riga and can be easily reached by taking bus No.18 to the last stop – or so we thought. The eccentric journey has been seared into our brains so permanently that even the ravages of age and disease could hardly erase its lasting impression.
Before we even left the Central Market bus stop on Gogoļa iela we were already bombarded by so many fascinating (and scary) people that we could write a book on their unusual appearance and behaviour alone. Indeed, if you’re low on cash during a visit to Riga you might consider the free entertainment provided at any random bus stop, but especially the ones in the Moscow district. The smell of fish bought at the Central Market mixes seamlessly with the aroma of fatty, shiny hair stuck to the pates of unhygienic passengers that haven’t seen the inside of a shower stall since the Soviets ruled the roost. People with glasses as thick as Coke bottle bottoms and civic minded citizens spitting out green balls of slime after they’ve inhaled the foulest of cheap cigarettes can all be seen just a few meters away from Riga’s clean and attractive inner city.
But just when we thought the worst was over, we heard an unpleasant and unmistakable sound behind us. An elderly lady quickly caught our attention. At first glance she actually looked quite normal, especially compared to the wretched examples of humanity queued up next to us. But after a small break of pleasant silence, we noticed that she wasn’t as innocent as we first suspected. She held a thin translucent bag in her hands, filled with a substance we could not look at for more than a second. While standing in between the morbid crowd of would-be mass transit passengers, grandma was calmly hurling her breakfast into the small, ever-so-thin bag usually reserved for holding pastries or yarn. Where are all the heavy-duty supermarket shopping bags when you need them?
We finally managed to catch the right bus towards Salaspils, but the circus had only just begun. When we told the driver in English we were planning to visit the concentration camp he looked at us as if we were speaking a forgotten dialect of Swahili. As soon as we peppered our questions with some Latvian words, a smile crept over his face, but his expression still retained the ‘why on earth would you want to go there?’ look common to many locals. After a rough ride through a rural area with small wooden houses we arrived at the final stop: Dārziņi-2.
Hesitantly, we crept off the bus. We were right in the middle of a forested area seemingly devoid of human habitation. We left the bus and its unusual odour behind and headed toward a big motorway, which had to be crossed to reach the concentration camp memorial. All we could think was: what a creepy place this is. We switched off our thoughts, and better judgement, and slogged on ahead along the Tilderu cemetery. Almost all of the graves consisted of an Orthodox cross and a headstone with a picture of the deceased engraved on it. Many of the graves were clearly still, for lack of a better word, fresh. We were surprised by the large number of young Russians buried here, but quickly got the hell out of there when we spotted a sweaty young man digging up one of the graves. The thought of visiting another monument to more tragedy hardly lifted our spirits.
But we had come this far, so we pushed on and finally found the place we were looking for. A big commemorative block of concrete with the text (originally in Latvian) ‘the earth moans behind this gate’ stood right in the middle of the forest. Behind that, enormous statues loomed with worrisome faces. The concentration camp at Salaspils was built during the winter of 1941 - 1942 under horrible, inhumane conditions by Jewish men who were deported from the German Reich.
Salaspils was the largest concentration camp in the Baltics, imprisoning many Latvians as well as political prisoners of different nationalities. Terrible medical experiments were supposedly carried out on children and we were touched by the number of stuffed animals and toys that adorned the memorial commemorating all of those innocent lives lost. Today, all that’s left of the camp are the foundations of some barracks and the enormous statues symbolizing hope and defiance. We strolled around the former camp for an hour or so, all alone. It was completely silent, except for the subtle sound of a metronome ticking like an immortal heartbeat. The result is both impressive and eerie.
After crossing the busy highway we felt relieved. We made it. Another special trip had come to an end and nothing terrible had happened to us. At the very moment this entered our mind, and with the bus stop almost in sight, a car slowed down next to us. ‘Wonderful,’ we thought. ‘Just before the finish line we get kidnapped’. The car continued to drive next to us and the window opened. We were already looking for the nearest house we could run to and met with only more forest when we heard: ‘Hey! I thought I saw a familiar face!’. We finally dared to take a look at the car only to see our teacher! He taught the European Union politics, economics and constitution classes we joined two years ago. What a coincidence. He was just on his way home to Salaspils. He offered us a ride to the train station and we happily accepted. He began a discussion about the future of Europe and the Euro crisis. This topic seemed incredibly interesting, almost fun, after contemplating our imagined kidnap and murder at the hands of a local serial killer.
Travelling by train was a comfortable and pleasant alternative to the horror show we had experienced earlier on the bus. On our way back to Riga we enjoyed the silence and the beautiful autumn colours that Mother Nature provided for us. After an interesting day full of unexpected incidents, we eventually contemplated how incredibly lucky and privileged we are. As the sun set we considered the brave and innocent people who died at the Salaspils concentration camp and resolved to make the trip again to honour their memory. Perhaps next time we’ll take a cab.
Nienke Bos is a Dutch student and former intern at Riga In Your Pocket. We regret that we forgot to inform her that the stretch of road near the memorial is also a notorious pick-up spot where long-haul truckers often pay local ladies for carnal favours.
Salaspils photos by Nienke Bos