The Holocaust: Europe’s Darkest Days

Dachau drawing
Dachau – drawing by a prisoner of the concentration camp

The Holocaust continues to cast a long shadow over Europe’s history after 80 years. Over six million Jews died in some of the most brutal and sustained atrocities ever inflicted on a civilian population.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an opportunity to recall why it’s crucial to revisit this dark period in history during World War Two.

Here are 10 Holocaust sites which I’d recommend from my travels which are hard to erase from the memory. The words “we must never forget’ continue to resonate strongly in today’s troubled times…

Dachau Concentration Camp – “Cradle of Terror” – Germany

Dachau Concentration Camp was Germany’s ‘cradle of terror’ during World War Two, serving as a ‘school of violence’ for the Nazis.

It was Germany’s first concentration camp, a prototype of what was to follow over the next decade, a precursor to the Holocaust.

Dachau camp was established in March 1933 by the National Socialist government in Germany under Chancellor Adolf Hitler. It was located in the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory in this small town, north of Munich.

Around 188,000 prisoners were incarcerated at Dachau between 1933 and 1945. It’s estimated that at least 30,000 died here – that’s every 5th prisoner.

Heinrich Himmler described it as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners”, but it was much more than that.  It was part of the Nazis machinery of oppression and, ultimately, a key part of their Final Solution.

Dachau was an experiment in terror and subjugation, a model for camps that would be built across Germany and Poland, including Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and Belsen. The terror regime started here.

Today it’s a chilling reminder of what happens when rampant political violence gathers momentum resulting in unspeakable atrocities.

Read the full story – The Bitter Truth about Dachau Concentration Camp

Where to Visit: Dachau Camp is located in Dachau, about 10 miles north-west of Munich. From Munich city centre, take the S2 suburban train to Dachau Bahnhof which takes around 15 minutes. The Dachau bus stop is straight ahead of you. There’s also a direct bus from Munch – number 726 – to the Dachau Concentration Camp site. A good way of returning to the train station is to walk the Path of Remembrance along the old railway track which features memorials along its route.

The “Holocaust Hiding House” – Riga, Latvia

The Žanis Lipke House is located on an ordinary street in Riga in a quiet neighbourhood called Kipsala but its story is far from ordinary.

During World War Two the house provided refuge for Riga’s Jews who faced almost certain death if they stayed in the city.

The Lipke House had a hidden bunker, a safe refuge from the tumultuous world beyond its doors.

Sometimes its inhabitants spent months in the secret ‘bunker’, waiting for the right moment to be smuggled out of Latvia during World War Two.

It’s a story of astonishing courage, resilience and hope, but the room’s inhabitants lived with the constant fear of being discovered.

The Lipke family were responsible for saving dozens of lives whilst taking huge personal risks, even though they weren’t Jewish themselves.

Photographs: The Lipke family in the 1940s, the secret hiding place and Žanis Lipke with his wife Johanna
© Žaņa Lipkes memoriāls, Riga.

Žanis Lipke worked at Riga Docks and had a strong humanitarian streak. This was born out of his memories of witnessing a major ‘liquidation’ exercise when 10,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were brutally killed by the Nazis.

Lipke is said to have watched in horror as the dead bodies of Jewish men, women and children were tossed into the street. He is reported to have told his son: ‘”Look carefully, my boy, and never forget”.

Riga Jewish ghetto museum
Riga Ghetto Museum

At first Žanis found safe houses and cellars where Jewish workers could hide in different areas of Riga but this strategy soon became too dangerous..

Žanis decided on a new tactic. He would ‘smuggle’ the Jewish escapees to his own house in Kipsala not far from Riga Old Town. He was to save dozens of Jewish lives.

“It was extremely dangerous to keep us all inside the house, so we decided to set up an underground bunker under Žanis’s shed.
None of us, including Žanis, had any idea how such a bunker should be built. Nevertheless, we enthusiastically began to dig – naturally, at night. The temperature was around minus 30 Celsius, we loosened the soil with blow torches, diligently tried to break it with ice picks and then carried it aside and threw snow on top, so that the neighbours wouldn’t notice”.

Chaim Smolyanski – survivor’s memoirs

Read the full story of the Zanis Lipke Holocaust Hiding House and the Riga Ghetto

How to Visit: The Žanis Lipke House  is located close to Riga Old Town on the other side of the Daugava river. It’s a 20 minute walk over the ‘Vansu Tilts’ bridge to Kipsala Island. The house is on Mazais Balasta Street. Entrance is free.

‘A Bitter Truth’ – The Jewish Museum, Berlin

The Judisches Museum in Berlin is not like any ordinary museum stuffed with artefacts and historic memorabilia.

It’s more of an immersive experience which takes you on an emotionally challenging journey into the lives of the Jewish community in 1940s Germany.

From the moment you arrive at Daniel Libskind’s remarkable building, you enter into a different world which is at times disorientating, uncomfortable and confusing.

The building’s titanium-zinc façade makes it impossible to orientate your eyes and decipher where each floor begins from the outside. 

Once inside, you feel like you’re walking at a tilting angle due to the zigzagging layout, sloping walkways, angled walls and bare concrete ‘voids’.

It’s almost like being stuck inside an Expressionist film with architecture designed to disarm you. The dark lighting and occasional flashes of light add to the air of disorientation.

The exhibits bring to life the harrowing stories of the Holocaust with a stark style of presentation that is devastating in the extreme.

One of the museum’s most poignant spaces is “The Memory Void”, a powerful sculptural gallery with hundreds of iron plates cut out to resemble the faces of people.

How to Visit: The Jewish Museum is located on Lindenstrabe to the south of Berlin city centre not far from the old Templehof airport. The museum is open daily 10:00-19:00. Admission to its main collection is free of charge. Behind the museum is an expansive garden and the “Garden of Exile’ sculpture walk with brilliant views.

Another important site in Berlin city centre is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which comprises 2,711 concrete blocks arranged in a grid pattern, commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

Anne Frank’s House – The Secret Annexe – Amsterdam

Photographs – Anne Frank and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam c/o the Anne Frank House Collection.

If there’s one iconic site that everybody has heard of it’s the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam which has become a touchstone for discussion of the Holocaust.

Anne was born into a Jewish family who lived in an old canal-side house in Amsterdam. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, the Jews in the city were singled out for persecution.

In July 1942, the Frank family decided to go into hiding in a series of rooms to the rear of their house. They were followed by friends from the Van Pels family a week later.

Later, a revolving book case was added to provide a secret door to what became known as the “Secret Annexe”.

Video: Discover the story of the secret hiding place

Anne – who was 12 year old at the time – started writing her diary which has become one of the most remarkable accounts of life under Nazi occupation.

After two years, police officers discovered the eight people in hiding and they were arrested along with two of their helpers on 4 August 1944. There are several theories that the family may have been betrayed.

The family were arrested, and deported to their deaths in concentration and death camps. Anne, her mother, father and sister were sent by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous concentration camp.

Anne Frank c/o Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam Collection

Extract from Anne Frank’s Diary

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness.

“People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”

Photo courtesy and copyright of the Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam Collection.

Two months later, Anne and her sister were transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anne died of typhus. She was just 15 years old.

Of the eight people in hiding, Otto Frank was the only one to survive the Second World War. “Anne Frank’s Diaries” also survived and today they are perhaps the single most powerful piece of testimony from the Holocaust.

Where to Visit: Anne Frank’s House is located on Prisengracht in central Amsterdam, Holland. The House can only be visited with a ticket bought online for a specific time slot. I’ve found it almost impossible to get a ticket in the past so I’d advise booking early if you’re travelling to Amsterdam.

You can also undertake a virtual tour of the Secret Annexe

Heart of Darkness – Radun and Vasilishki – Belarus

Belarus lay at the centre of major political fault lines in the dark heart of Europe during World War Two. It was here that the battle for domination of European between Hitler and Stalin played out.

Belarus’ killing fields were some of the bloodiest in Europe. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had been killed or moved away.

Almost the entire Jewish population of the country was annihilated during World War Two. 

You don’t have to travel far to discover one of Belarus’ many Jewish massacre sites. Some lie next to roadsides, close to villages and small towns – they pop up like ghostly apparitions of once vibrant, destroyed communities.

At Radun, close to the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, there’s a roadside museum to the Jewish community with large memorial stones honouring those who died during the Holocaust.

Most of the larger graves are accompanied by smaller stones placed as a tribute by travellers or family members who have returned from overseas to pay their respects.

Not far away, you’ll discover Vasilishki, a sleepy rural town which was once a bustling ‘shtetl’ (or small town) where Jews lived and worked peacefully side by side with the local Catholic community.

Life changed completely when Nazi troops drove into Vasilishki in 1941. The Germans occupied the town and turned their attentions to suppressing its Jewish community with fierce brutality.

On May 10, 1942 a Nazi officer gave the order to round up the Jews and they were taken to a wooded park close to the centre of the village.

Photographs – ‘Vasilishok’ – the park where Jews were slaughtered, (left) and the Jewish memorial (right).

In one of the most shocking incidents of the Holocaust in Belarus, over 2,000 men, women and children were shot dead in plain sight of the village.

I spoke to the last surviving witness of these traumatic events, a Catholic woman who still bears the scars of what she saw as a 10-year-old child.

After 80 years she still can’t shake off the devastating memory of the murders and the image of a young Jewish child with plaited hair lying on a cart piled high with the dead.

Photographs – An old shed owned by a Jewish family in ‘Vasilishok’ village, a typical Belarusian farm, and Holocaust eye witness Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky.

There are glimpses of the town’s Jewish history including a deserted synagogue, a few old houses and the local park. But you have to look hard for evidence of this once busy Jewish settlement.

Walk through the quiet park and you’ll find yourself treading on top of the burial pits where the bodies of the Jews were dumped. In the far corner there’s a memorial erected and tended by the villagers. It’s a sight to send shockwaves through your bones…

Read the story of Belarus and the Jews during World War Two

How to Visit: Belarus can be reached by direct flights from the UK to Minsk or over the border by car from Lithuania. The villages of Radun and Vasilishki are about 2-3 hours drive from the southern Lithuanian border crossing. Leave plenty of time to clear border control as it’s renowned for being a slow process, if you’re arriving by car. There is hotel accommodation in nearby Lida, an interesting historic city with a fortified castle.

Biķernieki Forest – ‘Murder in the Woods’ – Riga, Latvia

Riga had a large Jewish population before World War Two. When the Nazis arrived in 1941, they banned Jews from public places, forced them to wear a yellow star, and stopped them from using sidewalks.

By November 1941, around 29,602 Jews from Riga and its environs were imprisoned in a ghetto on the edge of the city centre. But they were not to stay there for long.

Most were massacred in the Rumbula Forest by the German Einsatzgruppe on 29 November and 8 December 1941. About 25,000 Jews were exterminated including 8,000 children aged 10 or younger.

Photographs – The Jewish massacre site at the Biķernieki Forest and memorials.

Another wave of atrocities took place in early 1942 after 11,000 “German State Jews” from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were moved to the now empty Riga Ghetto.

They were taken en masse to the the Biķernieki Forest not far from Riga city centre where they were machine-gunned and killed in the woods.

It’s shocking to walk amongst the mass graves and witness the raised mounds where the bodies were dumped.

In October, 1944 the Russian army liberated Riga but its was too late for the Jewish community. Almost all of Latvia’s Jews had been murdered by the Nazis.

Where to Visit: The Biķernieki Forest is a short car or bus ride from Riga city centre in Latvia. It is located not far from the Riga Motor Museum.

The Jewish Ghetto – Chania, Crete

Old Chania in Crete is a tourist magnet with its maze of narrow alleyways and meandering, medieval street pattern. One of its most vibrant areas is the Jewish Quarter, once the home of the town’s Jews.

The Jews called it ‘Ovreaki’ but today the name has completely disappeared from Chania’s modern street maps.

With the arrival of the Nazis in 1941, there was a massive clampdown on the Jewish population.

The Jews lived under Nazi occupation for three years, fearing for their future. On May 31, 1944, their worst fears were realised. Megaphone announcements ordered anybody with Jewish identity papers to bring a single suitcase of belongings and report to the street outside their house.

Families living on in the Jewish Quarter were herded down to the harbour. Others were pushed through a narrow passage into a small open space where trucks were waiting to load them up.

They were taken to the Ayias prison near Chania and their houses and possessions were plundered. German soldiers entered Etz Hayyim Synagogue and removed all its religious artefacts whilst the Jewish cemetery was destroyed.

A few days later, 265 of the Jews were transported by trucks to Heraklion where they were loaded onto a ship called the Tanais. They were to be taken to the Greek mainland from where they would be transported by train to Auschwitz.

A British submarine spotted the ship off the island of Santorini and, seeing its enemy flag, torpedoed it. Everyone on board was killed and the Jewish community in Chania was completely wiped out in this tragic incident.

Today the Etz Hayyim Synagogue stands in the same place, surrounded by a dense maze of alleyways and streets which radiate down to Chania’s Old Harbour.

Read the full story of the Jewish Ghetto in Chania on my Crete blog feature

Where to Visit: Chania is a popular Cretan holiday resort with many flights from UK airports. The Jewish Quarter’s maze of streets is a highlight of any visit. It’s also possible to join a tour of the old synagogue.

Daugavpils – Massacre of the Jews

Photographs: The old Jewish quarter today and in its heyday (left and top right) and the Daugavpils Citadel today.

Daugavpils is Latvia’s second city, once known as ‘Dvinsk’, famous as a military stronghold, reflected in its star-shaped fortifications and almost impregnable citadel dating from Napoleonic times.

The city once boasted a large Jewish community, making up around 50% of its population. Many Jews worked in commerce, industry and textiles – and there were 48 synagogues.

It was also home to the artist Mark Rothko and his family before they emigrated to the USA in the early 1930s. He was one of the lucky escapees. In 1941 the Nazis occupied Latvia and it wasn’t long before they started their mass extermination of the Jews.

Photographs: Dvinsk ghetto was established in the fortress (left) and the Jewish Holocaust memorial today (right).

The Nazis established the Daugavpils/Dvinsk Ghetto and 14,000 Jews from the local area were herded into the old fortress.

In early November 1941, the Germans killed most of the remaining Jews in the Daugavpils ghetto.

Many of the ghetto inhabitants were shot in the Mežciems woods on the right bank of the river behind the fortress. It’s shocking to discover that this site of mass killings was in plain sight of the local neighbourhood.

Daugavpils - Dvisk. Jews forced to bathe in the freezing waters of the River Daugava
The Nazis forced the Jews to bathe in the freezing waters of the River Daugava

Tragically, less than 100 Jews survived and many of these died of disease or hunger. 

Outside the prison there is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Daugavpils. It’s one of the few nods to the erased history of the Jews in Daugavpils.

Read the full story of Daugavpils and the Jews during World War Two

Where to Visit: Daugavpils is tucked away in the far eastern corner of Latvia, close to the Lithuanian border. It’s approximately 3-4 hours drive from Riga. I’d recommend hiring a car as public transport by bus/train is slow.

Today you can still see the buildings of the old fortress and some of the areas where the Jews were incarcerated. Please be cautious on your visit as this part of the fortress is now a high security prison with armed guards.

Buchenwald’s Death Camp – Germany

Photographs: Prisoners liberated by the Allies from Buchenwald at the end of World War Two
c/o Imperial War Museum.

Nothing prepares you for your first trip to a concentration camp. Mine was a trip to Buchenwald in Germany where I vowed not to take any photographs at the time because it was such an overwhelming experience.

It’s a decision I regret because it’s crucial that we never forget to share the extent of the atrocities committed here.

The name Buchenwald is synonymous with one of the cruellest regimes of any Nazi concentration camp. By the end of the Second World War, Buchenwald had become the largest concentration camp in the German Reich.

It was established in July 1937 when the SS cleared a forest area near Weimar in Germany to build a new concentration camp to house Jews, political opponents, and other “strangers to the community”.

Photographs – Buchenwald barracks (left) and the crematorium after liberation (right) c/o Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Nazis deported people to Buchenwald from all over Europe, reaching a peak of 280,000 inmates imprisoned in the main concentration camp and its 139 sub camps. The scale was that of an ‘industrial death machine’.

More than 56,000 died at Buchenwald as the result of torture, medical experiments and disease, many of them Jews.

When the Americans liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, the commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that: “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.”

Today, a visit to the camp remains one of the most shocking that I can recall on my many Holocaust journeys.

How to Visit: Buchenwald Concentration Camp is located 10 kilometres north west of the town of Weimar in Germany. The number 6 bus from Weimar train station runs hourly to Buchenwald. There’s also easy car access. Admission is free.

The “Jerusalem of the North” – Vilnius, Lithuania

Photographs: The former entrance to the Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius (left) and the Jewish Quarter today (right).

It’s shocking how genocide and mass extermination can wipe out the complete history of a group of people.

Vilnius was once one of Europe’s biggest centres of Jewish culture and learning. Before the Holocaust there were over 110,000 Jews living in the city, almost half the city’s population. Vilnius was known as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’.

But after 1940, life changed dramatically with the invasion of the Nazis. Thousands of Jews were murdered and sent to their deaths. Today there are barely 2,000 Jews living in the city and much of their history has been swept away.

However, it’s still easy to find some notable Jewish sites. A good starting point is the Big and Little Jewish ghettos where you can follow the Jewish heritage trail. Dotted along its route are reminders of the Jewish past including street signs in Hebrew, the old Jewish library and the ruins of the former Great Synagogue.

Piecing these fragments of history together provides a fascinating insight into the lives of a lost community, and raises troubling questions about Latvia’s “collaboration” with the Nazis.

Photographs: Zydu Street in Vilnius, the Jewish Quarter today and the Gaon statue.

The Big Ghetto in Vilnius operated from 1941 to 1943 with around 29,000 Jews living there. Nearly all of them were sent to Paneriai woods outside the city where they were executed.

A smaller ghetto was created in the Stiklių quarter of the city centre where 11,000 Jews were herded into a small area until it was liquidated.

Lithuania lost around 95% of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, more than any other European country.

Read my guide to Vilnius including the history and sights of the Jewish ghetto

How to Visit: There are direct flights to Vilnius from several British airports including London Heathrow and Leeds.

The Big Ghetto entrance is at 18 Rūdnininkų Street – it’s easily spotted because there’s a memorial plaque with a street plan of the ghetto. There are Jewish tours if you want to explore the hidden sights and key locations.

The Memorial Museum of the Holocaust in Vilnius is a ‘must see’ site for Jewish history. The former site of the Great Synagogue that once dominated the Jewish quarter is worth a look for its newly discovered archaeological finds.

Photographs – Old photographs Jewish residents of Vilnius in late 1930s (left and right) and the site of the former Great Synagogue (pictured centre).

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