At the entrance to the Salaspils transit camp near Riga
In 1987, I spent three weeks in what was then the Soviet Union as a student ambassador. We stopped in Moscow and St. Petersburg (which was still Leningrad back then), in Sochi and Azerbaijan, in the Baltic capitals of Tallinn and Riga. We saw some amazing, beautiful things while we were there, and met kind and thoughtful people. And maybe one day I'll tell you about that, but today I'm going to talk about the place that made the deepest impression of all.
When the Nazis invaded the USSR, they expanded their extermination program, collecting Jewish people and anyone else they deemed undesirable and transporting them to concentration camps to the west. They built places like Salaspils, outside Riga, collection points from which they'd ship their victims.
A memorial statue at Salaspils
Nazis committed horrible crimes at the transit camps, too. Maybe not on the scale of a place like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, but still sickening, in the inhumane treatment of innocent human beings, the cruelty, the callous disregard for life and families and the most basic principles of morality.
Until that day, the Holocaust was something of which I was aware, but only on a superficial level (yes, genocide=bad). It was a terrible thing that had happened far in the past, but it seemed to intersect little, if at all, with my fortunate life. But walking through the remnants of the camp, seeing the pictures, hearing the stories of families torn asunder . . . It made me think, on a level I hadn't before, about what it all meant, the big picture, but also the individual lives.
Another of the memorial statues
I've tried three or four times to write a stunning conclusion to this, and I can't believe the things I feel I ought to say. Like, "Torturing people is a bad idea for a lot of reasons." Or, "It's a bad precedent to turn legal residents away at the border and keep them from their families and jobs." Or, God help us, "When I was a kid, 'alternative facts' were known as lying and no one approved."
Here's the thing about power based on fear: The people who hold it always have to generate more fear to keep that power. They always have to have someone, something, to destroy. The rest of us are just a means to an end for those who think that way, and being a true believe will not save you once you cease to be useful.
The ghosts of the past are calling out from their haunted ground. Will we listen to their warning?