A Contribution to History
Rumbula's Echo is the first film focused on documenting two of the largest single day mass murders of the Holocaust prior to the operation of the death camps. These are the meticulously organized and savage shootings of 25,000 people on two separate days in late 1941, in the forest near the Rumbula train stop in Riga, Latvia.
The film also documents the murder of thousands at Skede beach near Liepaja and other events of the Holocaust in Latvia that murdered 98% of the Latvian Jews living in the country. These must be documented in film while the handful of remaining survivors can tell the story, creating a unique contribution to Holocaust history.
The True Story
Rumbula's Echo traces the steps of new father Mitchell Lieber who, as he names his baby girl for his great grandmother, begins using the Internet to conduct research about his great grandparents' family. The detective work of genealogical research becomes the storytelling vehicle for the film's striking and sobering story-within-a-story. That is the saga of Jews in his great grandparents' small country of Latvia beginning in the late 19th century.
Jews in Latvia at that time have three of the most revered rabbis of the last 200 years to consult. They have synagogues within blocks and perhaps a business of their own. Community members include the Rothko family of Dvinsk and their young boy Marc Rothko. Life flourishes with Latvia's independence in 1918, and in the 1930s the country of just under two million is about five percent Jewish. Children attend one of 71 Jewish schools and there are great authors, doctors and charitable organizations. In June 1940, the mood darkens as the Soviets occupy the country. One year later in June 1941, 2,000 Jews are among those deported to the Soviet Gulag. Then days later, a lethal plague descends on Latvia's Jews when the Nazis drive out the Soviets.
On July 4, 1941, five synagogues throughout Riga are burned to rubble including the Gogol Street Choral Synagogue, which is incinerated with hundreds of Jews locked inside. Survivors narrate as viewers see the creation of the Riga ghetto, the segregation of able-bodied young men into the small ghetto and the mass shootings of 25,000 on two separate days in the Rumbula aktions of late 1941. Lieber's relatives are among the 25,000. A similar mass shooting of thousands follows about one week later at Skede beach near Liepaja and is documented in a series of photos. A photo on screen shows a young girl, two teenagers, mother and grandmother forced to pose in their winter underwear together moments before their execution. Survivor Edward Anders tells viewers their names, for they are the wife and daughters of his father's business partner.
Perhaps 5,000 Jews are alive in Latvia as 1941 ends. Most of these are murdered during the next four years. Dock worker Janis Lipke saves 55 souls, smuggling them out of the Riga Ghetto and into hiding. Beginning in 1943, Robert and Johanna Sedul hide and support 11 in Liepaja, in a secret room in their basement. At least 266 others rescue Jews. Some Jews survive in hiding, and others somehow live through the progression from ghetto to work camp to death camp.
Following the war and especially after Latvia's independence in 1991, survivors and their children rebuild a small but very vibrant Jewish community with two operating synagogues. Other Jewish community institutions include a hospital, Jewish Community building, social services, Jewish Museum and Judaic Studies Centre at the University of Latvia. The Jewish community dedicates memorials and markers at most of the country's more than 200 Holocaust killing sites, including Rumbula.
Three years after Lieber begins to research his great grandparents and deceased relatives, he receives an unexpected e-mail from Michael Roth who saw Lieber's registration at the Jewish genealogy web site. Roth, his sister, their families and their mother are a branch of the Lieber family thought exterminated in the Holocaust 60 years earlier. The families joyously reunite re-forging bonds that Mitchell's and Michael's grandfathers developed as brothers 100 years earlier.
Of the 70,000 Jews trapped in Latvia during the Holocaust, less than 1,500 survived. One survivor founds Latvia's Jewish Museum. Another discovers a key contributing cause of the dinosaurs' extinction and the stardust in meteorites. A third is pivotal in negotiating the peace in Northern Ireland. What of the other 98% - the 68,500 murdered? When they died, what future improvements to our world died?
The Film's Significance Today
Rumbula's Echo shows how family history ties us all to historical events, including the Holocaust, inspiring viewers to explore and document their own family stories. By including the words of victims, rescuers, the rescued, resisters, bystanders, collaborators, and perpetrators the film illuminates how a complex dynamic of relationships underlies mass murder. As it concludes, Rumbula's Echo suggests we contemplate the overlooked price the world pays for genocide, the absence of the murdered's contributions to society.