The town of Liepāja in Latvia lies only six miles from the beach, and of course, the townspeople loved to flock there in the summertime. It was a familiar scene of laughter and play and the screech of seagulls. But on these days, it became something else entirely. On these days, the 15th through the 17th of December, 1941, it became the setting for a massacre.
The German SS and their Latvian collaborators murdered 2,749 Jews, most of them women and children, on the dunes and shoved their bodies into hastily-dug pits. Minutes before their deaths, they were forced to undress in front of their killers and stand half-naked on the freezing beach on the orders of SS-Scharführer Karl Strott and SS Police Chief Fritz Dietrich.
This atrocity, like many others, might have remained secret except for one small detail. Karl Strott used a whip to herd his victims together on the beach, and then took their pictures – pictures of little boys and girls, of mothers and babies, of grandmothers huddled together under the unfeeling gazes of their murderers. Notice in the photograph the little girl on the left hiding herself behind her mother. What on earth must this unknown little girl have seen and heard and felt?
Some months later, a local electrician, turned Jewish slave laborer, was repairing wiring in the German headquarters, saw the photos, and recognized his Jewish neighbors. Incredibly he smuggled four rolls of film out of the office, made copies of them, and returned the originals with the SS none the wiser.
When the war ended, he turned the secret negatives over to Russian authorities, and they became important evidence in the Nuremberg War Crimes trials defining the concept of a “Holocaust by bullets”, not only at Skede Beach, but throughout Eastern Europe.
And what of the officers in charge at Skede Beach? SS Oberstormfuhrer Dietrich was tried for war crimes, but not for his actions in Latvia. He was convicted instead for ordering the shooting of several American POW pilots in Malmedy, France in 1944 and hanged in 1948. SS-Scharführer Karl Strott became a hotel owner after the war - just a nice guy running a nice hotel. Ultimately, however, he was found out and tried as a war criminal in 1971. He was sentenced to seven years, but many such sentences were commuted, and it is unclear whether Strott actually served time in prison.
But let’s not end with thoughts of perpetrators. Let’s think instead of one unknown little girl with her mama and her neighbors and friends on a faraway beach on a cold December day in 1941. Whoever you were, sweetheart, I honor your life.