* From Eleonora Petrovna's book "No Višķu pagasta vēsturē", translated by Vadim Dumesh
Latgale is historically a very multi-cultural region. By the middle of the 17th century a large number of Jews had migrated into the region. This migration continued into the next century. In the middle of 19th century about 11,000 Jews lived in Latgale. In 1804, Jews were allowed to live only in Latgalian cities and villages, as officials were afraid that due to competition, fertile Polish lands could come under Jewish ownership. In Vishki District, Jews lived in Vishki village, where economic activity was thriving.
Normal life was interrupted by WWII, which started in 1939. In 1940 Latvia was occupied by Soviet Union’s army and in 1941 right after Soviet Union joined WWII, Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Daugavpils and adjacent districts were under German army control already on June 26, and by Oct 8 1941, all of Latvia was occupied. In in March-April 1941, by the direction of Hitler, under the leadership of Himler and Heidrih, Germany’s Main Security Council had devised plan of action to eliminate the Jews in the occupied territories. This plan was intended as a total elimination of Jewish nation, which is known by the term "Holocaust".
In Latvia this slaughterous operation was entrusted to general-major V. Shtalker. It was ordered to widely involve local population in the Holocaust. This is was Nazi Germany organized crime, which was carried out by special units from Germany, involving local criminals, in whose hands arms were placed. In many cases, they were joined by people with violent and sadistical tendencies. The first line of German army treated locals well, but then appeared in Vishki a Nazi special unit ordered to destroy the Jews. They were violent towards all locals, breaking into the houses and shouting "Hands Up!", searching houses and stealing valuable belongings. In Vishki village, in the pub belonging to J.Bekesh, a command center was formed (headed by Ratnieks and his deputy Saulishs), but in the fire station they created a detention center for the locals that were accused for being Soviet collaborationists, or "Reds".
In Vishki District most bloody operations were organized and carried out by home-grown "zhyd-shooters" ("žīds"- Latvian for "a Jew", which was changed after the war to "ebrejs", from Russian "еврей", to avoid parallels with the Holocaust. While in Russian "жид" is an offensive and derogative word, in the Baltic languages it didn’t have a negative connotation before the war. In Lithuanian, word "žydas" is still in use, the street in old Vilnius where Vilno Gaon lived is called today Žydu iela), who after the war were remembered by the elderly. They were horrified telling about inhumane atrocities these people committed. The tragedy of Vishki Jews started in July 1941, when those involved in the local command centre started to recruit locals to identify and eventually bring together all Jews. Ostrov Wood by the Vishki Lake was being prepared for the bloody operation, and it was announced to the locals that Jews will be shot there. Machine-guns were being installed. Vishki District became a closed zone, all the Jews were taken to Ostrov.
Suddenly, an order came to call off the operation. Jews went back to their homes to prepare for transfer to Daugavpils Ghetto, where all the Jews had to arrive by July 26 1941. Some Jews were shot in the village, in the Jewish cemetery. Most of the Jewish families from Vishki District (over a hundred in number), took their valuables in the bags and by the Kalnavishki road went in Daugavpils direction, both on foot and in horse carts. Those too exhausted to go on were shot on the way. On the way to Daugavpils Ghetto, Vishki Jews were first taken to the jail house, where all their belongings were taken away. After that they were transferred to Griva Barracks, the most terrifying Ghetto in Latvia. The barracks were mostly demolished, with barely any doors or windows, in some buildings had no roofs. Initially there were about 23,000 Jews in the Barracks. People existed in unbearable conditions
. On July 29 1940, the "rarefaction" of Ghetto inhabitants started. Some were transferred to "better facilities" in Mezhciems Camp. Firstly, those over 60 were chosen for deadly transfers. The Ghetto was still quiet, as people did not believe that column of old people taken to Mezhciems was killed (Jews were shot in the Poguljanka Forest). On August 2, all of Latgale's Jews, including those from Vishki, were prepared for a "transfer to a separate camp with improved conditions". In order not to cause hostility for the "transfer", the column was accompanied by city’s (not mentioned, but probably Daugavpil’s) chief doctor-therapist Gurevich, who’s task it was to provide medical care if necessary. Also at this time, the Jews believed their executioners.
Doctor Gurevich (poisoned himself in Concentration Camp by Riga in 1944) was an eye-witness to an August 2 transfer. He later told (when he was transferred to Concentration Camps after shootings of Latgala Jews): "I saw everything. I heard shouts and moans of the poor desperate people. Some of them were fighting the murderers like lions. I saw how betrayed Jews, even wounded and bleeding to death, were attacking the executioners with their bare hands, some with stones, and were fighting till their last breath. These were strong, courageous people. About 20 shooters were wounded, and a few were strangled and taken with them to the pit". (out of Z.Jakub’s book Jews in Daugavpils, publ. 1993).
Only a few Vishki Jews managed to save their lives: those who fled Vishki or were hiding with locals. Grisha Fogel and Josef Reins were hiding in Korolyevschina, and later for 2.5 years in Harcishki at Sergey Trofimov’s house. The conductor of Daugavpils Symphonic Orchestra Pauls Krumins whodied in 1965 in Riga hid the outstanding violinist Cila Gradis and her sister Nadja at his friend's home in Vishki and later in Niderkuni village. There were courageous people of various nationalities, who risked their own life, saving innocent people from death. Pages of Vishki District’s history also remember Dagda’s Jews tragedy in Kalnavishki. Locals, who today all are over 70, remember another event in 1941, a heartless, horrifying and hard-to-comprehend in today's civilized world.
This was on one July morning, when Vishki Jews were already evacuated to Daugavpils Ghetto and their belongings were robbed. Ostrov residents noticed, that from the Aglona side there was a big crowd moving towards Vishki, followed by a few horse-carts. It soon appeared that these were Dagda Jews, who were also escorted to Daugavpils. People were exhausted and hungry. Some of them were trying to hide in the rye fields, but the guards noticed them. Ostrov locals were warned not to try to hide the Jews. There were mixed reactions when meeting Dagda Jews in Vishki: Olga Istikovska and her mother brought water and bread to the evacuees, while "zhyd-shooters" were preparing for another blood-bath. Those imprisoned in the Fire Station were offered to participate in the shootings, in exchange for being freed from custody. Jews were going to Kalnavishki, followed by Gypsies caught in Vishki, carrying shovels. On a Moist Hill (Slapjš Kalns), called so by the locals, there was a big pit dug out by the road. This is were the road of the Dagda Jews was to end…
At about 10:00 in the neighboring villages, the locals heard machine-gun shots. After a couple of hours everything silenced. People wanted to see, to know what happened. It turned out that the pit was full to the edges with bodies. In early Spring 1942 from Kalnavishki Quarry water flooded towards the pit, and body parts started to appear here and there. The land was flooded by blood.
When the German army backed out, Kalnavishki road was closed for a few days, around the pit a big tent was constructed and bodies were burned. Until today the elders in Vishki remember the black dust and the stench coming with the wind from Kalnavsihki.
On October 6 2002, the Vishki District Municipality funded an opening of the Vishki and Dagda Jews tragedy memorial. Locals, Dagda residents, a delegation of Daugavpils Jewish Community participated in the opening of the memorial. Professor of the Daugavpils University, J. Steimanis, gave a speech, lecturer D. Olehnovich, researcher A. Rachinska from Jelgava, repressed citizens from Dagda and others. Candles were lit by the memorial stone, flowers were brought. The memorial stone was cut by Aivars Regzha.