Max Michelson was born in 1924 into a large and loving Jewish family in Rīga. By the end of World War II most of his family and friends were dead, murdered during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. City of Life, City of Death is his eulogy to those who perished, and an account of his own rather miraculous survival.
In 1939, Jews comprised 5 percent of the population of Latvia. About half of these lived in Rīga and made up 12 percent of its population. Latvian Jews did not for the most part speak Latvian and this meant that social contact and friendships with the Latvian population were minimal. This contributed to the lack of understanding between the two groups.
The Michelsons were a talented and intellectual family. Max’s Aunt Clara was an accomplished writer who lived in Paris. His Uncle Leo was a successful painter, while his Uncle Eduard was a mechanical engineer and intellectual. The family plywood factory, run by his father, also provided an income to the artists of the family.
With the Soviet invasion of 1940, the family’s factory and home were nationalized and the Michelsons moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Mežaparks. Then came the mass deportations of 1941, of which Jews formed a large proportion. Michelson writes that the Jews blamed Latvian Communists for the high proportion of Jews deported, while Latvians blamed the deportations on Jewish Communists. In 1941, the invading Nazis disseminated propaganda that all Latvian Jews were Communists and were responsible for the Soviet occupation and particularly the deportations.
The occupation began with a series of vicious attacks on Jews in which many were dragged from their homes and either imprisoned or murdered. These attacks were encouraged by the German Nazis but, Michelson says, were enthusiastically carried out by local Latvians—members of Pērkonkrusts (Latvian Nazis), the Aizsargi (paramilitary groups) and others. He insists on the complicity of all Latvians, stating that "the persecution of the Jews (in Latvia) was approved and accepted by the majority of the local population" and that "the willingness of Latvians to act as hired killers is well-documented." He is bitter about the lack of help offered his family by Latvians, particularly blaming his Uncle Leo’s friends in the artistic community for not coming forward.
One day Max came home to find that his mother had been taken away by the police. They had come for his father, but as he was ill Max’s mother had somehow persuaded them to take her instead. Max never saw her again. Later, when all Jews were required to move into the Rīga ghetto, Max’s father insisted on including in their meagre belongings some of his wife’s clothing. "When they took Mama away," he insisted, "she wore just a light dress. She will need her warm clothes when she comes back from prison."
On Oct. 25, 1941, the Rīga ghetto was sealed off. When it was clear that Jews in the Large Ghetto were being exterminated, Max dragged his father to the work camp, or Little Ghetto. There they found a temporary reprieve from death, but nevertheless his father disappeared one day. The majority of Max’s relatives and friends were killed during the liquidation of the ghetto, or Large Aktion as it was called.
When the tide of the war turned against the Germans, Max and other prisoners were transported by boat to Stutthof, Poland, and then by train to Polte-Werke at Magdeberg, Germany. On April 11, 1945, he and some others suddenly found their camp unguarded. They immediately left and, though their trials were not yet over, this was the beginning of their freedom.
After the liberation came the terrible news that no member of his family who had been trapped in the Nazi occupation had survived. There seemed no reason to return to Latvia: "All of Europe seemed like one vast cemetery, hardly a place in which to start a new life." Max Michelson eventually found his way to New York. He married and became an electrical engineer, settling in the Boston area.
Michelson recounts that, after the destruction of the Large Ghetto in Rīga, an old Latvian woman, a stranger, said to him: "Soon they are going to kill you all." After the fall of Germany, during Max’s first night in a Red Army Hospital, a fellow patient told him, "You will be dead by morning." Both predictions proved wrong. Max Michelson survived, "by happenstance" he says, but with unthinkable losses.
City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga
Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2001
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