In late summer 1941, a 16-block ghetto was established in Riga, the capital of Latvia (and the largest city in the Baltic region). On October 25, 1941, the Nazis forcibly relocated all of Riga’s remaining 30,000 Jews into the ghetto and evicted all non-Jews.  

At the order of the Nazi police minister Heinrich Himmler, most of the Latvian Jews (about 24,000) were soon murdered by special Nazi forces (Einstatzgruppe A) under the command of Friedrich Jeckeln on November 30 and December 8, 1941 in the Rumbula massacre. 

On those two days, Jews were forced to march 10km into the forest near Riga to killing grounds selected by Jeckeln. Three large pits had been dug to hold the bodies. Groups of victims were stripped of their clothing and valuables and told to lie down naked in the pit, face down, on top of the bodies of those already murdered. Each one was then shot in the back of the head. Anyone not killed outright was buried alive when the pit was covered up. 

The Rumbula massacre was, besides the one earlier at Babi Yar (also supervised by Jeckeln), the largest such massacre prior to the establishment of the extermination camps. About 13,000 people were killed the first day, and another 12,000 ten days later. Along with the 24,000 Latvian Jews, 1,000 German Jews that had been deported to Riga were also murdered in this two-day action. Jeckeln was awarded a Nazi medal, the “War Merit Cross with Swords” for organizing the killing spree. Among the victims was the historian and writer Simon Dubnow, an editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia.

The violence was not confined to the killing pits of Rumbula. In the Riga ghetto itself, hundreds were killed during the roundups. At least five hundred Jews found hiding were killed on November 9.  

From December through February, trainloads of about 20,000 German Jews arrived to replace the Latvian Jews in the ghetto. About 5,000 were killed, but on Himmler’s orders, about 15,000 of these Jews were allowed to live for one or two more years in the ghetto until they too were liquidated. In 1943, to cover up the earlier massacre, Jewish slave laborers were forced to dig up the bodies in the pits at Rumbula Forest and burn them. Surviving Jews in the ghetto were murdered or relocated to various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. By November 1943, all Jews had been removed from the ghetto.

Friedrich Jeckeln was captured by the Soviets and publicly hanged in Riga on February 3, 1946. Based on evidence of the Rumbula massacre, and other similar killing sprees, several of Jeckeln’s accomplices were also found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to prison terms in West Germany.