37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Saturday 21 January 2017
The former Nazi camp at Salaspils lies just outside the Latvian capital, Riga. Established in 1941, it was designated a ‘Police Prison and Work Education Camp’; and during its years of operation, it would claim the lives of roughly 2,000 victims.
Although the original camp buildings were destroyed after WWII, the Soviets converted Salaspils into a memorial park – raising concrete structures and bold, brutal sculptural compositions that would tell the story of what happened here.
It is a difficult place to visit. The surrounding forests are quite beautiful – and particularly in autumn, when the birch explodes into red and gold bursts above a forest of dappled-white bark – but emerging from the trees into the clearing at their heart is a sobering moment. The simplicity of these concrete forms invites imagination, thought and contemplation. Instead of telling you what happened, word for word, this place tries to make you feel it.
Of course, some symbols are unmistakable: the tally carved into a wall near the entrance arch, crude strokes numbering up into the thousands, was a simple yet poignant metaphor. Passing beneath the brutalist entry building though, the space opens up into a grassy lawn that is kept surprisingly sparse. The old buildings are gone, but a single outer wall of each remains to mark the former boundaries of the camp. Some of these walls are decorated with tributes – angels, flowers and children’s toys. Others are bare.
The Salaspils memorial site features hardly a written word of information… but that does not make it a quick place to visit. The monuments that decorate the lawn demand consideration. Inside the entry arch, meanwhile, a solemn concrete passage invites visitors to pace its length. It is a clever device, with an effect almost of sensory deprivation that allows time to process the meaning of the monumental forms outside.
All the while, the former camp and its structures echo with the sounds of the forest: with birdsong, the noise of distant dogs barking and somewhere nearby, where the original tracks cut lines through the trees, the shunting and hissing of cargo trains; the train out of Riga that once brought prisoners to Salaspils.
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