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City of Life, City of Death

Memories of Riga

By Max Michelson

Publication Year: 2004

"With each memoir by a survivor, Riga's tragic fate becomes better known. Thus Max Michelson's book, filled with poignant and moving episodes, deserves to be read by anyone wishing to learn more about the life and death of a Jewish community which included the great historian Shimon Dubnov. But it is also a story of courage and rebirth of a young man who wants to find meaning in his survival." —Elie Wiesel City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga is Max Michelson's stirring and haunting personal account of the Soviet and German occupations of Latvia and of the Holocaust. Michelson had a serene boyhood in an upper middle-class Jewish family in Riga, Latvia--at least until 1940, when the fifteen-year old Michelson witnessed the annexation of Latvia by the Soviet Union. Private properties were nationalized, and Stalin's terror spread to Soviet Latvia. Soon after, Michelson's family was torn apart by the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. He quickly lost his entire family, while witnessing the unspeakable brutalities of war and genocide. Michelson's memoir is an ode to his lost family; it is the speech of their muted voices and a thank you for their love. Although badly scarred by his experiences, like many other survivors he was able to rebuild his life and gain a new sense of what it means to be alive. His experiences will be of interest to scholars of both the Holocaust and Eastern European history, as well as the general reader

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

I begin the story of my life with my childhood and teenage years, prior to the terrible events of World War II and the Holocaust. My sheltered and peaceful life was disrupted by the Soviet takeover of Latvia in July 1940 and was then irrevocably shattered by the nazi occupation of Riga in July 1941. Many of the people described in this memoir perished in the Holocaust, including ...

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pp. xi-xii

This book grew out of the many talks describing my wartime experiences at schools, colleges, synagogues, and churches throughout the Boston area. I am indebted to the many friends and listeners who urged me to prepare a more thorough narrative of my war years, and I thank them for their encouragement and support. ...

Part I: Growing Up Jewish in Prewar Latvia

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1 My Background

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pp. 3-5

I was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1924, the second child in an upper-middle-class Jewish family. My sister, Sylvia, eight years my senior, was born in Moscow. My parents had delayed having a second child because of the disruption of World War I, the family’s evacuation to Moscow and eventual return to Riga, as well as the political uncertainties of the period. By the ...

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2 Grandmother Emma

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pp. 6-16

My paternal grandmother Emma—I called her Omama (the German intimate appellation for grandmother), or Oma for short—was the head of our household. Only in the early 1930s, when her health began to fail, did she relinquish her position. My bedroom was next to my grandmother’s, and we spent many afternoons together there. It was a quiet and comfortable ...

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3 The Jewish Community of Riga

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pp. 17-20

Riga was part of the province of Livland, which was outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement. With a number of individual exceptions, Jews were not permitted to live there. Livland, originally named Livonia by the conquering German knights, was called Vidzeme after Latvian independence. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a few Jews were granted the right ...

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4 My Father

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pp. 21-27

My father, along with his brothers, attended the Riga Stadt-Realschule, a German-language public city high school for boys. The Realschule taught modern languages—Russian, German, and French—but Latvian was not offered. The Gymnasium, the other high school in Riga, was oriented toward a classical education. In addition to Russian and ...

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5 My Mother and Our Home

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pp. 28-37

Mama never told me how she and my father met. I believe they must have been formally introduced by a marriage broker. A contemporary photograph reveals that Mama was a beautiful woman. Having met her, Papa acted promptly and forcefully. Emma wrote to her daughter Clara that my father’s sudden decision to get married caused some consternation ...

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6 Grandmother Sophie and the Griliches Family

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pp. 38-44

My maternal grandmother Sophie lived in Dvinsk (Daugavpils in Latvian), a city 150 miles southeast of Riga. Sophie visited Riga infrequently. She was observant, and as we did not keep kosher she came mostly during Passover, when we used special kosher dishes with separate sets for meat and dairy. Grandmother Sophie was a soft-spoken and slightly built, almost ...

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7 Sylvia

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pp. 45-47

My sister, Sylvia, was born in 1916 in Moscow. The family had moved there the previous year when Riga was threatened by the Germans. Quiet, studious, and hard-working, Sylvia was a diligent student who prided herself in getting top grades in all her subjects. When I was very young she would sometimes play with me in our yard, but once Sylvia started high ...

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8 My Aunts and Uncles

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pp. 48-57

Of my aunts and uncles I knew my father’s sisters and brothers best. Aunts Clara and Thea and Uncle Leo visited Riga nearly every year, and Uncle Eduard lived and shared his meals with us. I knew them all well and considered them members of the immediate family. ...

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9 Thea, Arthur, and Manfred Peter

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pp. 58-64

My aunt Thea was the baby in Grandmother Emma’s family. She died in 1977, having retained her childlike innocence and sweetness until the end. She once told us that even as an old person she still felt like a young girl. Thea was the only one of Emma’s children whose marriage plans Emma was able to influence. The others were independent-minded and would ...

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10 Summers at Jurmala

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pp. 65-69

The highlight of our year in Latvia was spending the summer at Jurmala (or Riga Beach), a resort area 15 miles from Riga. Jurmala means “seaside” in Latvian. While my grandmother was alive, it was an annual family reunion. Aunt Thea and Peter regularly spent most of the summer with us, and Arthur joined us for a shorter period. Aunt Clara was also ...

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11 My Schools

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pp. 70-75

The course of my education was strongly influenced by the political events in Latvia. School was divided into a seven-year elementary school followed by a five year high school. For me as for many of my friends, the orderly progression through elementary and high school was repeatedly unsettled by changes not only in schools but also by abrupt shifts in the language ...

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12 Soviet Occupation of Latvia

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pp. 76-80

During the summer of 1940, just prior to the Soviet annexation of Latvia, I went to work on a farm for an obligatory four-week term. Germany’s attack on Poland had caused a shortage of imported farm labor, and the Ulmanis regime decided to mobilize high school and university students, boys and girls age fifteen and older, to help bring in the harvest. My father arranged ...

Part II: The War and Postwar Years

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13 Germany Attacks the Soviet Union

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pp. 83-85

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin and the Red Army were caught totally by surprise, and the precipitous retreat of the Red Army almost immediately became a rout. The previous week I had started a summer job at a furniture factory, but the factory closed within a couple of days after the start of the ...

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14 The Nazis Enter Riga

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pp. 86-92

The nazi invasion of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of a new phase of World War II, one that brought the hostilities to our doorstep. German army units did not actually enter Riga until July 1, 1941. In the Jewish community it is generally believed that the attacks on the Jews started even before the nazis’ arrival, although Marger Vesterman, a Jewish historian ...

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15 Riga Ghetto

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pp. 93-98

The area allocated to the newly established Riga Ghetto, later called the Large Ghetto, was located in a poor, run-down suburb of Riga. Although in previous years it had been a predominantly Jewish area, it was now populated by ethnic Russians who were displaced to make room for the Jews. Inside the designated ghetto area there were ...

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16 Aktion: The Destruction of the Riga Ghetto

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pp. 99-105

In mid-November 1941 vague rumors began to circulate: our ghetto would be closed, and we would be resettled in some work camp farther east. Within a few days workmen started to erect a barbed wire fence, partitioning off a two block area in the far corner of the ghetto. This section was to become a barracks camp for men of working age, while all other residents of ...

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17 Little Ghetto

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pp. 106-126

Five months after the nazis had taken over Riga, our entire Jewish community was gone. The majority of my relatives and friends were killed during the liquidation of the ghetto, which we later called the Large Aktion. Just thirty-seven days after being locked in the Large Ghetto, most of us—about 27,000 people—had been killed. In the Little Ghetto, the barbed wire–enclosed ...

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18 KZ Kaiserwald

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pp. 127-131

After a short truck ride through Riga we arrived at Kaiserwald, the feared camp I had tried so long to avoid. We were met by SS men who ordered us off the truck shouting “schneller, schneller” (faster, faster). Pushed and prodded with sticks and truncheons by German and Polish inmates, we were driven ...

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19. KZ Stutthof

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pp. 132-135

We were locked in the cargo holds of the freighter for the duration of the voyage. With the hatches covered and no sanitary facilities available, the foul, stifling air in the holds grew ever more rank. There was no water in the holds, and we suffered miserably from thirst. At one point we were “given” water by having a high-pressure fire hose turned on us. I think it was potable ...

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20. Polte-Werke—Magdeburg

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pp. 136-140

We arrived in Magdeburg and were immediately installed in a small slave labor camp attached to a munitions factory—Polte-Werke. In our part of the camp 500 inmates, mostly from Riga, were housed in two barracks. The camp was under the jurisdiction of KZ Buchenwald and was administered by the SS. Our commandant ...

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21 Liberation

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pp. 141-143

Spring found me and my 500 fellow inmates still in the small slave labor camp at Polte-Werke at the outskirts of Magdeburg. We occasionally worked at clearing debris in the city but were mostly awaiting the imminent collapse of the Third Reich. On the morning of April 11, 1945, we unexpectedly ...

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22 Human Again

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pp. 144-151

My recollections of the first months after liberation are hazy. For the first time in four years I could let down my guard. I felt cared for and was completely relaxed. After a few days in the military field hospital, I was transferred to a hospital for Soviet civilians where most of the patients were former slave laborers and concentration camp inmates. I spent several ...

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23 Finding Relatives

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pp. 152-156

As soon as the war in Europe ended, survivors started searching frantically for their lost relatives and friends. Lists of survivors from different towns were posted in Jewish displaced persons camps, and stories as to who had been seen and where they were headed circulated widely by word of mouth. Everybody was on the move: back to their native cities ...

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24 A New Country, a New Beginning

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pp. 157-162

In New York Leo greeted me at the dock and took me to his studio apartment at 58 West 57th Street, where I was installed on a couch in the foyer. Leo and Jennie Tourel had separated and now had their own apartments, although they continued to care deeply for each other and maintained a lifelong friendship. They simply could not live ...

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25 Building a Life

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pp. 163-166

When Julie and I married, she was a social worker with the Department of Public Welfare. Later she worked as probation officer for the Domestic Relations Court. We were able to live quite comfortably on her salary, supplemented by my earnings from the laboratory job. Upon my graduation from CCNY in spring of 1951, Sintercast, my employer the previous three ...

The Michelson Family Tree

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pp. 167

The Griliches Family Tree

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pp. 168


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pp. 169-171

E-ISBN-13: 9780870816925
E-ISBN-10: 0870816926
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870817885
Print-ISBN-10: 0870817884

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 34 b&w photographs, 2 line drawings, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2004