Erich Herzl, an 87-year-old Viennese refugee, is not related to the famous Theodor. But he has made a lasting impact on history in a quite different way.
I first met Erich in 1942. He was already a trained engineer, operating a huge lathe at Swann Mill’s London factory, but I lost touch with him when I was called up into the British Army. In London’s Waterloo one day, there he was, 58 years later, and we had an opportunity to fill in the gaps from the missing years.
Subsequently, whenever Erich and I met in London, the words Riga-Bikernieki regularly cropped up. I would tackle him for details about it. It was also around the mid-80s that a Jewish community leader spoke on Austrian television about the mass deportations of Jews to a ghetto in Riga and mentioned lists had been drawn up by the punctilious Gestapo, confirming Herzl’s fears that his parents had suffered a similar fate. So there was Erich, himself an elderly survivor, now fully aware of the medical experiments, torture and executions in the Kaiserwald camp (a suburb of Riga); moreover, he knew of the skeletal remains in the Bikernieki woods. Burning with the desire to provide the victims with a decent place of rest, but bereft of resources and contacts, his early efforts to persuade Jewish leaders to turn his idea into reality met with hesitation – it was believed there were too many obstacles to overcome. But gradually there grew a climate of awareness that such a venture might succeed.
Erich began by gathering together friends and cohorts to form the Initiation Riga Club. What he was seeking was a memorial for the victims plus a second memorial entitled ‘Never Again’ as a symbol for future generations. He met the late German President Dr Johannes Rau, whom he found full of understanding, and contacted Dr Karl-Wilhelm Lange, President of the War Graves Association, who did everything he was asked on learning of the fate of Herzl’s parents (he assisted with funds too). The Vienna authorities and German local government contributed to the fund, as did a number of individuals, including Herzl himself. Altogether, some DM 6,000,000 was raised, also covering the cost of the Remembrance Volumes, which contain the lists of Jews deported to the Baltic states.
In May 2000 representatives of 18 German cities and towns formed the Riga Committee, to which Vienna (represented by Herzl) was added. The aim was to remind the world that 25,000 Jews had been deported from these locations to Riga in 1941-42 and put to death in the Bikernieki woods. Of the 42,000 Vienna Jews deported, one in ten had ended up in Riga. Aided by organisational and financial help from the Austrian Black Cross, Herzl and other members of the Riga Initiative Group travelled to Latvia to assess the situation. Clearly what was needed was a professional approach to express the meaning of this gruesome site. As Erich explained to me: ‘The Germans tried to burn the remnants, but took hasty leave when the Russian Army closed in.’ Now, some 60 years later, the stage was set for a phase of ‘new history’.
A defining moment for Herzl was his meeting with a history teacher from Munster who happened to be delving into the Nazi atrocities in Riga. The teacher put him in contact with Dr Bergmans, the chairman of the Riga KZ group, who in turn was acquainted with Sergei Rysh, a well-qualified Jewish architect resident in Latvia, and his wife Galina, also an architect. Now, this emotive journey could continue. Sergei bore overall responsibility for the design of the monument, providing the conceptual authenticity to reflect the horrors that had taken place there.
Topographically, the Nazi execution squads had found in the woods a bowl-like spot most suitable for the killings and mass graves. This led the architects to the idea of nameless gravestones for each person in ‘open earth’, with sharp-edged stones to denote the proximity to each other and the screams of the victims. The monument itself is divided into grid-squares so as to symbolise the planned exterminations, while another part of the design represents a chapel, with a memorial stone commemorating those buried there.
Following a great deal of spadework to comb clean the immediate area in the Bikernieki fields, and the actual construction of the monument, all was ready in November 2001 for the site to be declared open and inaugurated by a Latvian rabbi. The commemorative ceremony was held in the presence of a mix of people who included surviving kin, delegates from towns and cities from which victims were sent to Riga, religious dignitaries, prominent political figures, and members of the public. Also present was Ellen Davis, who was to write a moving letter to the AJR Journal (March 2002). She contacted Erich Herzl to say how appreciative she was: the fact that her relatives now had a grave, she said, had reduced her trauma considerably.
Now, as awards and honours flow in Herzl’s direction, does he regard his mission as completed? Not so. Addressing groups of young people in Riga and holding educational seminars elsewhere is for him what passing on the truth about the past is all about.