Biking along the alleyways of Soviet-occupied Riga, Latvia, on the morning of June 22, 1941, 16 year-old Max Michelson enjoyed the sun’s rays beating down on his skin and the homey view of the tightly-packed storefronts that he biked past every day. But the once peaceful day soon turned to chaos when Michelson’s father shared the tragic news that Nazi Germany had attacked the Soviet Union nearby and was en route to their Baltic hometown.
Michelson vividly recalled this life-changing day for his audience in Cochran Chapel last Friday.
One of the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust, Michelson recounted his experience growing up in barbed wire-sealed ghettos and concentration camps. Michelson brought the listeners back to his adolescence in Latvia for a troubling trial of terror, torture and death.
Michelson said that once the Nazi soldiers arrived in Michelson’s hometown, they overran the city and ruined the lives of thousands of Latvian Jews. The city, which Michelson remembered as teeming with life and energy, descended into deep anti-Semitic hatred.
“Overnight, civilization for us disintegrated, and we were no longer human. Overnight, we were no longer human. We were caught in the streets and dragged from our apartments,” said Michelson.
In the early days of Riga’s occupation, the Nazis forced the Latvian Jews to complete tasks for the mere enjoyment of the spectacle, including scrubbing the blood-soaked streets with nothing but a toothbrush, Michelson said.
On July 9, 1941, the German police selected Michelson’s father to do work for them. His father, 60 years old and in poor health, had no chance of surviving the strenuous work, so Michelson’s mother, 51, stepped in instead.
“We wondered if [my mother] could go to work in his place. ‘Sure’ the Germans said. And they took my mother away,” said Michelson. He never saw his mother again.
With the passing of Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which sought to limit the rights of Jews, Michelson said that life in Riga quickly became regulated and restricted. He said Jews were treated like dogs on a leash and were escorted by non-Jews anywhere they went.
Moreover, Jews, by decree of the Third Reich, were forbidden from walking on sidewalks and riding in street cars or buses and were required to wear a yellow star at all times.
Focusing on a historically poor and Jewish quarter of the city, the Nazis rounded up all of Riga’s Jews, forcibly placing them inside a barbed wire-surrounded ghetto on October 25, which became known as the “Large Ghetto.” Inside the ghetto, Michelson’s father found a small two-room apartment that Michelson and his uncle decided to share with another family.
“At the time, Germany seemed to be doing very well in the war. I never believed that they would win the war, but it was clear that the war was going to be a long haul. So we expected to sit in the Large Ghetto for a long time,” he continued.
The Nazis began disbanding the Large Ghetto on November 30, but to his dismay they ordered half of their troops into lines five abreast and marched them away from the ghetto and into the woods. The five-mile march ended in machine gun fire, as the Nazis killed over 14,000 of Riga’s Jews in a single day.
The families from the eastern side of the ghetto, including the Michelsons, were forced to bury the bodies. Shovel in hand, Michelson was tasked with piling the bodies – his classmates, friends and fellow Jews. In the midst of this torturous task, Michelson’s heart soon broke.
“There was an infant girl – five months old. Fully and neatly dressed, no trauma, no blood, nothing. She was lying like a broken doll on one of the old graves. It really hit me at that time. Rationalization would do no good; we were all to be killed,” he said.
Not too long after, the Nazis shut down the ghetto in Riga, fearing the Soviet Army approaching from the east. Michelson and the other Jewish prisoners were evacuated from Latvia and dispersed among Germany’s remaining concentration camps. Listed as a car mechanic when he was in the Large Ghetto, Michelson was placed into a slave-labor ammunition factory, working daily 12-hour shifts that alternated between day and night each week.
On April 11, 1945, the American army overtook a German city just south of the concentration camp where Michelson was held. When the camp’s SS abandoned their posts to escape to the north, Michelson and some others ran from the factory and took shelter in a nearby abandoned building. Overnight, the group made a fire and was caught the next morning by a German defense group, who, instead of returning them to the camp, led the Jews to the river where the U.S. was on the other side and set them free.
By the time of his liberation, Michelson had met nearly all of Riga’s Jewish community, whether it was from before the war, living with them in the ghettos and the camps or seeing their dead frozen faces.
“All of my relatives who were in Riga at the time were murdered,” said Michelson.
Michelson believes he survived against all odds so that he could serve as a living testament to the capability of humans. So that the memory of those who died will never be forgotten.
“We are the last generation to hear directly from Holocaust survivors about their experiences,” said Leah Adelman ’17, President of the Jewish Student Union (JSU). “All of us [who went to the talk] can now be witnesses for future generations who will question how something this terrible was allowed to happen.”
The event, held last Friday, was sponsored by the JSU in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.