Under the occupying Nazi regime during World War II, Latvia’s Jewish population was decimated through ghettos, massacres and deportations. Worsening the situation, individual Latvians collaborated with the Germans, a murky legacy leaving lingering tensions into the present day.
Yet one Latvian achieved international recognition for heroically saving Jews from the Nazis. By war’s end, Žanis Lipke had rescued some 60 Jews, sheltering them in a bunker beneath his home. Lipke is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, and his story is told in a new Latvian historical dramatic film, “The Mover.”
Directed by veteran Latvian filmmaker Davis Simanis, “The Mover” made its US premiere at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in May, with upcoming screenings at Jewish film festivals in Warsaw and Berlin. It is based on the Latvian novel “A Boy and a Dog” by Inese Zandere and Reinis Pētersons. In an email to The Times of Israel, Simanis described “The Mover” as “the first feature film about the Holocaust in the Baltic states.”
Simanis, who described himself as a Lutheran who rarely goes to church, said that when Latvia was part of the USSR, the authorities kept Lipke’s story shrouded in secrecy, which continued into the first decade of Latvian independence. Later, in college, Simanis learned more about Latvian Jewish history and Lipke. Simanis calls the Lipke narrative “a surprising story with a lot of courage, humanity and at the same time violence and thriller [elements]. For me it was a shock that people didn’t talk about him before.”
Reading “A Boy and a Dog” galvanized Simanis into the three-year process of making the film. It shows the courage of Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna, who live in the capital, Riga, with their three children — daughter Aina, older son Alfreds and younger son Zigfrids — when the Nazis invade in the summer of 1941 and implement murderous anti-Semitic policies.
Of an estimated 94,000 Jews living in Latvia before WWII, all but several thousand perished in the Holocaust, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum — including 26,000 in the infamous Rumbula Massacre of 1941. Lipke personally witnessed the Jews being led to their deaths, a scene depicted in the film.
“The main question for me in preparing the script, filming the film, is how is it possible for a person to see something inhuman happen and decide to do something,” Simanis said via Skype, “and at the same time know that [doing something] could end your family, or create a certain threat to the closest people [in your life].”
Daina Eglitis, an associate professor of sociology and international affairs at The George Washington University and an expert on Holocaust memory in the Baltic states, saw the film at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
“I thought it was very good,” Eglitis wrote in an email. “It’s clear that Lipke and his wife deserve to be recognized for their tremendous courage. It’s worth noting, too, that they made sacrifices and took great risks in spite of the losses they themselves were suffering, which are shown in the film.”
As Eglitis noted, “their daughter evacuated with the Soviets when the Germans arrived and their older son was pressed into service with the German army. They chose to act in spite of the danger and in spite of their own suffering. So few others did that.”
“Žanis Lipke was certainly an unlikely hero,” Eglitis reflected, “a working-class Latvian, a dock worker with a minor criminal record for contraband.”
Lipke — portrayed by well-known Latvian actor Arturs Skrastins — initially feels powerless to intervene, even when a Jewish acquaintance and his daughter, who is friends with Zigfrids, are confined to the Riga ghetto. Yet Lipke realizes that while his chance to help those two may have passed, he can help others.
Noting that about 10 percent of Riga was Jewish, Eglitis said, “it’s likely he had neighbors, acquaintances, or colleagues who were Jewish. But this can be said of all Latvians in Riga and other urban centers like Daugavpils and Liepaja, where there were big historical Jewish communities. So connections and contact alone can’t explain his efforts.”
In the film, Lipke’s initial effort is to shelter Jews in a movie theater that has ironically begun showing Nazi propaganda movies. Yet his plans are betrayed by a Nazi collaborator, and the Jews hiding there are killed.
Simanis said that the topic of collaborators was “something in our film that was not the main purpose, [but] at the same time we wanted it to be part of the story. Latvian soldiers participated in executions. There were also people betraying, or kind of indicating [to the occupiers] that there was some kind of Jewish saving mission ongoing.”
In real life, one collaborator informed on Lipke, leading to the deaths of several Jews he was sheltering, and of a Latvian who was helping them. Today, veterans of Latvian SS divisions who campaigned against the USSR continue to hold commemorative ceremonies.
“What characterizes most Latvians in [WWII] is probably a combination of fear, indifference, and suspicion,” said Eglitis.
“There were a small but significant number of outright collaborators who participated directly in violence, including those Latvians who voluntarily joined the notorious Arajs Commando and who acted as guards in the ghettos,” she explained.
“There were those who did not directly engage in violence but, for instance, pointed out the places where Jews lived to German soldiers. This is something I’ve heard quite a lot in testimonies from survivors: it was the Latvians who knew where Jewish families lived, not the Germans. Then there are many who did nothing — they did not collaborate and they did not rescue. They kept to themselves,” Eglitis said.
Eglitis said that it is “hard to say how many Latvians were rescuers.” She noted that “the museum Jews in Latvia estimates that over 400 Jews were saved in Latvia, so there were certainly other little-known rescuers too.”
However, she said, “Lipke stands out for his courage and the number of Jews he managed to hide.”
The film depicts Lipke’s next plan — creating a refuge in a bunker beneath a shed at his home. Incredibly, he sneaks into the Riga ghetto multiple times, posing as an overseer of a work detail to smuggle out Jews, whom he shelters in the bunker. Johanna feeds the refugees and keeps them clothed, but each one can only stay for several months, and Žanis works to transport them to other shelters to the east.
“Every person saved by him, it was a really hard process to be doing,” Simanis said. “It was not just hiding in the basement, it was transporting them, all the logistics.”
“When it comes to numbers, you think of a very well-known Jewish savior, like Oskar Schindler or others, who saved many thousands of people,” Simanis reflected. “While they had certain abilities, or whether it was working in a professional field, or diplomacy or politics could help, in Žanis’s case, he was someone who did not have any means or base for saving Jews… He was no one, a person from nowhere.” With only family and a few friends helping Lipke, Simanis called his achievements “quite big.”
In the film, Lipke’s difficulties increase. Suspicious Nazis interrogate him and search his home. Some of the Jews in the bunker become frustrated with inaction and start to quarrel. And the Nazis scheme toward the murderous Rumbula Massacre.
The killings in the Rumbula Forest took place over multiple days, November 30 and December 8-9, 1941. The film shows Lipke watching helplessly as columns of Jews are marched from Riga into the forest and forced to strip, leaving piles of clothing. Simanis does not show the actual killings, but leaves no doubt about what transpired. He called it one of the toughest scenes to film.
“All the extras, over 200 in the scene, were really feeling it happening, almost in real time,” Simanis said. “There were real tears… It was even hard for the shooting crew to stay on a rational level, not become too emotional… It was quite a tough day for all to concentrate on the result.”
Eglitis cited Rumbula as part of the “utterly devastating” impact of the Holocaust on Latvia, and said, “Estimates vary, but very few of those who remained on Latvian territory survived even through the end of 1941.” She noted that “[the] Nazis also set their targets on communist party members or sympathizers, Roma, the disabled.”
Lipke kept working to rescue Jews throughout the war. “In 1944, there were still people left in the ghetto, working Jews who were laboring for the German army,” Simanis said. “He also tried to free some of these people. The whole process continued for more than three years.”
After the liberation of Latvia, the Lipke family faced new difficulties. Aina was killed by the Soviets, her body thrown into a river. Alfreds was refused entry to the country because of his service with the Germans; he lived out his days in Australia.
Yet the remarkable family continued saving lives. In the 1980s, Žanis Lipke sheltered a Russian Jewish emigre family en route to freedom from the USSR. Younger son Zigfrids became a river lifeguard who saved 18 people from drowning over the years. Žanis Lipke’s Holocaust rescue work earned worldwide recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations.
“He was almost a natural-born savior,” Simanis said.
And now the film can attest to this.
“The film has the kind of message of, let’s say, humanizing heroism,” Simanis said. “The main character did it… without any kind of reflection on his own benefit. It’s the kind of film and messages that are very important now.”