Life and death in the Riga Ghetto

Sir Martin Gilbert records the two accounts of 81-year-old groundbreaking Jewish historian Simon Dubnov’s murder in the Riga Ghetto in December 1941.

“According to one account,” writes Gilbert, “Dubnov was murdered by a Gestapo officer who had formerly been one of his pupils. Another account tells of how, sick and with a fever, with enfeebled legs, he could not move quickly enough out of the ghetto, and was shot in the back by a Latvian guard. According to this account, Dubnov’s last words, as he fell, were ‘Schreibt un farschreibt!’, ‘Write and record!’ This exhortation in Yiddish was typical of Dubnov, the lover of historical record, and the firm believer in the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jewry, a culture which was being swept away.”

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Ernest Gans, like Simon Dubnov, was confined to the hell of the Riga Ghetto. Unlike Dubnov, Gans came of age in Hitler’s Germany. And Gans, unlike Dubnov, survived the Holocaust.

Ernest fulfilled the historian’s mandate to write and record what he endured.

In his book, My First Twenty Years, Gans left an account of his experiences to his grandchildren. In his introduction to this memoir, the author writes, “This is the story of my family during a time when the world changed from harmony and hard work to hardship and horror. I omitted many of the brutal inhuman things that happened in the camps, things that happened Nazi to Jew and Jew to Jew.”

Gans told me one Shabbat morning after services that he agreed to my recounting his experiences but that he could not reveal everything that he saw and experienced. The horror and inhumanity were too great. It was unspeakable. I agreed and fully understood his request.

Ernest Gans was born in Kassel in 1926. The city in Central Germany was a place of great beauty, industry and high culture. Despite the rising tide of antisemitism, Gans’s early years were idyllic. His family had deep roots in Germany. His extended family – including grandparents – lived in Rotenburg. The property they owned was extensive, including a forge, a chicken coop and a root cellar for vegetable storage.

The family owned a small lot on which they grew vegetables and a larger lot with fruit trees and a potato field. Gans’s father, Willi, was a certified master of ornamental iron works and was equipment master for the town fire department. The father served the Kaiser in WWI, was wounded and received disability pension. Ernest’s cousins, aunts and uncles all lived near each other in the town.

Then the tranquility abruptly came to an end. Gans writes in his memoir: “I was too young to know what was going on, but when I started school in 1932, the Hitler movement was already established. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, I was seated in the last row. My homework was never checked. I was ignored by the teacher.

Both in and after school, I was called names and confronted by the Hitler Youth.” While Rotenburg was a small city that served Germans in the surrounding towns, boycotts and antisemitism forced Jewish businesses in the city to close. “Our family life changed,” writes Gans.

THE GANS family moved to Cologne, but Jew-hatred destroyed the Jewish-owned businesses in the city. His father had to close his shop. On the evening of November 9, 1938, the pogroms of Kristallnacht were a harbinger of the lethal dangers ahead. The day after, “We were sent from school one at a time, instructed not to use business streets, and avoid Nazis in uniform.

If we saw people in uniform near our home, we were told to stay away for a few hours. My home was saved. The next day, I saw the destruction done to the businesses, homes, and temples.” The interior of his childhood home in Rotenburg had been destroyed, as well as his father’s first shop.

After his bar mitzvah at a small service in Cologne in 1939, Gans entered a metal work school run by ORT and then went on to work in a welding supply firm. This work experience at repairing equipment would later save his life. With the outbreak of World War II, the situation of Jews in Germany worsened. After the German invasion of Poland, Jewish families in Germany were exiled to Poland and all Jews in Germany had to sew Stars of David to their clothing.

For most young people, adolescence is a time of dating, hiking, dancing and enjoying life. But Gans had to mature quickly and take responsibility for himself and his family. As a teenager, he had to endure and persevere.

He had no choice.

In 1941, the Germans forced the country’s Jews to “resettle” in the Riga Ghetto in Latvia. The deported Jews’ possessions were confiscated upon arrival in Riga and life began for them behind the ghetto fence, later electrified. The Germans Jews arrived to an empty ghetto.

Its former inhabitants had been destroyed. All that was left of their imprisonment in the ghetto were their food and their belongings.

The SS ordered Jews in the ghetto from different cities and towns in Germany to assemble and, repeatedly, the killers directed Jews to different lines. This was the “selection” – life or death. Gans’s work skills kept him alive and allowed him to work on a detail outside of the ghetto.

Upon return, the work details were checked for contraband such as food and coal. The SS hanged, in front of the other workers, those who were discovered as smugglers.

Gans’s family background, his familiarity with tools and repair, and his training by ORT all earned him the opportunity to be assigned a job with the military to build a laundry and work in steam-boiler kettle-stone removal. In the vacated apartments in which the surviving German Jews lived, they prepared their meager food rations.

THEN, IN November 1943, the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany in Riga was sealed. The SS selected most of the ghetto for death. Gans’s mother, Paula, was among the murdered. She actually pushed her daughter, Ernest’s older sister, Ruth, into the other line of those Jews who were spared. Many people chose to remain with their families and thus forfeited their lives because they could not bear to be alone.

Soup and bread from a military camp where Gans was placed was the only source of nourishment and in close quarters disease was rampant.

With the German retreat in 1944, the Germans made selections for life and death at the labor camp. Gans’s father was considered “unfit” and was marked for death. Gans and his older sister, Ruth, who had been with him through this horror, were taken to the Kaiserwald Riga concentration camp. After another selection, they were forced into a hold of a ship to be sent to the Stuthof camp.

A few days later, after another selection, he was shipped by cattle car to Buchenwald. There was finally a shower, delousing of clothing, and a haircut. After being marched to a holding camp to be sent to Nordhausen, the prisoners were finally given food and water. Ernest was not deported to Nordhausen, but instead made roofs for barracks at the camp where he was being held.

The horror did not end there. In mid-April 1945, Allied troops were nearing Buchenwald and Gans was forced on a march and then put on a cattle train without food and water for three days. Gans, in a desperate effort to live, declared himself a German Catholic who was placed with his father in Buchenwald. He was released, was deloused, and began recovery in a first-aid station in Saaz, Czechoslovakia.

He could not hold down any food.

His next memory was waking up in a hospital – the war was finally over. Gans was hospitalized for six months before he had the strength to return to Cologne and find his sister. Ruth, indeed, survived the brutality of the Holocaust and they were reunited in Rotenburg until they immigrated to America to open a new chapter in their lives.

Gans’s cousin Heinz also survived, immigrated to Israel, and used his skills to repair tanks and weapons for the War of Independence in 1948.

In his memoir to his grandchildren, Gans tells his descendants that he could not tell them everything he witnessed and lived through. “I intentionally omitted many of the brutal, inhuman acts that were done in the camps. Thinking back, the toughest ordeal was going through the selection processes.

You stood with your family, men and women together. When a father or mother was selected, they pushed their children aside so they would remain in the ‘safe’ line. If someone was selected who was not a family member, the act did not bother you as much as when it was one of your own. That held true at many other times as well.”

Ernest Gans is an unassuming, proud and soft-spoken man who attends shul every Shabbat morning.

To have survived such hell at such a young age and retain your humanity is hard for me to fathom.

He took the courageous step of recounting the horrors of the Holocaust as a legacy to his grandchildren and the world.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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