Latvia

Pages of Testimony

Portrait of Ilja BortzI’m sitting with a blank Page of Testimony in front of me. Seventy-six years after Hitler attempted to rid Latvia of its Jews, I’ve been asked by Yad Vashem to complete this form about my grandfather’s first cousin and his family.

In early July of 1941, the Germans occupied Riga. In the process, they shot several thousand Jews and by August of that year, the Riga Ghetto was established. Between 30 November – 9 December 1941, the Germans and their Latvian auxiliary counterparts murdered 26,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbula forest, five miles from the Ghetto. About 4,000-5,000 Jews remained in the Ghetto; some organized resistance efforts but were discovered in 1942. By summer 1943, the Germans were deporting inhabitants of the Ghetto to Kaiserwald concentration camp, and they destroyed the Ghetto in December 1943.[1]

Records were not kept. Names were not placed meticulously on lists. The fate of my cousins will likely remain forever unknown, lost somewhere between the walls of the Ghetto and the trees of Rumbula. Before the war, 40,000 Jews lived in Riga. Approximately 1,000 survived, but not my cousins.

Today, as I complete the Pages of Testimony, I remember:

Chaim Elijah “Ilja” Bortz, born 3 February 1906 in Daugavpils, the only child of my 2nd great aunt.

Keila Malatsky, married to Ilja. Keila was born 2 June 1897 in Riga.

The children of Ilja and Keila:
•    Nechama-Lea, born Riga 16 December 1930
•    Esther Frade, born Riga 26 January 1937

Ilja’s father, Srol Bortz, born about 1875 in Druya.

 

[1] Dates and statistics from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[2] Photograph cropped from Ilja’s confiscated passport, courtesy of Yad Vashem and the Latvia State Archives.

Eastern European Mutt

Cab drivers like to ask me where I’m from. I always respond, “Chicago.” Then they say, “No, where are you from?” I know what they are getting at – what is my ancestry, my ethnic origin. And that is a complicated answer, especially for a cab ride. So I started answering, “I’m an Eastern European Mutt.”

For years, that response also served as the only real answer I had. My dad’s side was from “Russia” with maybe a place called “Mezbish” being more specific. My mom knew she was a “Litvak” from Kovna. Not a lot to go on. Now through research, perseverance and a bit of luck, I can say I truly am an Eastern European Mutt: present-day countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. Shtetls and cities as varied as Ariogala, Vidzy, Daugavpils, Sudilkov, Novohrad-Volynskyy, Medzhybizh. DNA evidence of places even more far flung.

How may I help you answer the question, “Where are you from?”