Latvia: Salaspils Memorial, Saying Kaddish



August 25, 2014

Dear Family and Friends

“Is it a mitzvah to recite the Kaddish?”

Here’s why I ask: 

Twenty kilometers southeast of Riga, off the main highway, at the end of a narrow road, I park my car in an empty lot.

A dense forest of tall silent trees lines both sides of a broad gravel walkway.  Except for an elderly couple off in the woods gathering mushrooms, I am alone as I make my way down the long path to the distant monument. 

An enormous recumbent slab of grey stone marks the dramatic entrance.  It appears to have fallen on its side to an angular position.  The black inscription reads, “AIZ SIEM VARTIEM VAID ZEME.”  I walk under the slab and enter the site.

The expansive grounds are green and bright.  Across the grass, the visitor encounters an assortment of large grey statues.  They are gaunt and awkward and sorrowful and mournful and depressing and tragic.  They are meant to represent the events that unfolded here not so many years ago.  A monument dedicated to children is the only somewhat cheerful spot.

Forty-five thousand Latvian Jews and thousands of other transported Jews from other occupied countries were killed and buried in the forest here in the concentration camp called Kurtenhof.   Yet there is to be found no symbol of Judaism: no Menorah, no Star of David.  No symbols of any kind.  

Two young men approach me and begin a conversation in Russian.   I explain, “Sorry, nyet pa Russki.”  Fortunately we are able to switch to English.  I am curious about my new Russian friends, Nikolai and Yuri.  It turns out they are also Jewish.

We three are all quite confused about this site.

To be honest, Salaspils is a secular memorial to Jews and non-Jews alike who were killed by the Nazis.  Prisoners of War and many Latvians who resisted or fought or who otherwise displeased the Germans are also buried in the pits here.

The Latvian inscription on the enormous grey slab at entrance was written by a Latvian poet who was imprisoned here.  The translation tells the story, “Behind this Gate the Earth Groans.”

It is my custom to recite the Kaddish, the Hebrew Mourner’s Prayer as I depart a Jewish cemetery or a memorial site such as this.  It was once explained to me that reciting the prayer for the dead helps their souls to rest in peace.

Nikolai and Yuri had only a vague idea that such a prayer existed.   Surely they had never recited it.   And they don’t read Hebrew.  

I removed the tiny Kaddish folder that I carry with my documents.  I pointed to the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer.  Nikolai and Yuri repeated after me as I led them through the Kaddish, Hebrew word by Hebrew word, “Yisgadal … v’yiskadash … sh’me … rabbo….”  

I know it wasn’t the required minyan, yet it was a moving moment for us all.

I have since corresponded with Nikolai and Yuri in Moscow.  They were pleased to meet me and I assume they were also pleased with their new experience.

In my travels I normally recite the Kaddish alone.  At Salaspils I was gratified that I was in the company of fellow Jews.

Be well,



**  Notes:

Mitzvah.  An obligation, sometimes considered a good deed.

Kaddish.  The Hebrew Mourner’s Prayer.  Kaddish means sanctification.

Menorah.  Candelabra, either six or eight arms.

Star of David.  Six pointed star.

“Yisgadal … v’yiskadash … sh’me … rabbo….”  The first four words of the Kaddish.   “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified … in the world He created….”

Minyan.   A group of at least ten Jewish men is required to recite certain prayers.