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NewsJan 25, 2022

Marking a grim but important discovery

Dr. Karen Frostig’s latest Holocaust remembrance project confirms presence of mass grave in Latvia

Introduction to the Locker of Memory Project to the victims of the Jungfernhof concentration camp. Video includes onsite footage and four interviews with Karen Frostig, Ilya Lensky, Margers Vestermanis and Janis Asaris.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is Jan. 27, but a single annual observance hardly suffices to mark the most horrific human event in modern history.

Dr. Karen Frostig has made it her mission to highlight the atrocities stemming from the Third Reich as well as the long pathways to healing. Her most recent project, the Locker of Memory, experienced a stunning development last summer: the discovery of a mass grave in Riga, Latvia.

Headshot of Karen Frostig
Dr. Karen Frostig

As the granddaughter of murdered victims deported from Germany to the camp, the project has immense personal significance for her.

Locker of Memory, which Frostig founded with a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and subsequent funding from the German Embassy in Latvia, is a multimedia memorial project concerning the history and legacy of genocide at the Jungfernhof concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. Combining technology with dialogue and various collaborative processes, the Locker of Memory seeks to restore memory of this abandoned site.

Though historians were aware of the concentration camp, scientists only recently confirmed the location of a mass grave on the site. Frostig explained that Jungfernhof, the first Nazi concentration camp in Latvia, remains unmarked to this day, but the discovery of the mass grave might rectify that.

“The presence of a mass grave changes the outlook for developing a permanent memorial on the land in proximity to the grave,” Frostig said. 

Renowned Holocaust archeologist Dr. Richard Freund of Christopher Newport University in Virginia led a team of scientists to Latvia and used revolutionary, noninvasive technology, including drones, ground-penetrating radar and tomography to conduct the first geospatial survey of the land.

“We created a complete map of the camp, the historical location of Jungfernhof (concentration camp) and the mass grave,” Freund said in a press release.

Scientists used 3-D models to confirm the presence of a trench, measuring approximately 20 x 20 meters and located about 6 feet below surface of the earth. The trench/burial pit displayed right angle features that are consistent with a manmade mass grave.

Image of site of latvian nazi concentration camp
From the Locker of Memory website, Professor Frostig's photo of the unmarked site of the Jungfernhof concentration camp in Riga, Latvia

“The grave, containing up to 800 bodies, was described by eyewitness reporters in testimonies and self-published memoirs, but no one bothered to do the research,” Frostig said. “I am pleased we were able to accomplish this.”

While such a discovery is bleak, it is important to remove more of the mystery surrounding a grotesque and evil chapter in human history.

“For many Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims, the date and place of murdered relatives is vague or missing altogether,” said Professor Frostig, who has taught Art and Expressive Therapy in our College of Art and Design as well as our Graduate School of Education and our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences.

“Sites of murder, coupled with the disturbing evidence of a mass grave, warrant our deepest attention,” said Frostig.

Ilya Lensky, director of the museum Jews in Latvia, and partner to the Locker of Memory project, was the primary Latvian historian at the site, coordinating the work with local authorities. Staff and students from the United States and Canada were also present.

“Efforts to bring this forgotten camp into the realm of public memory, to engage Latvian officials, Holocaust scholars and descendant families worldwide in a process of remembrance, has been the focus of my work,” Frostig said.

She added that the technology allows scientists to find unidentified grave sites without disturbing buried bodies, but cannot identify them.

“Definitive proof, however, only occurs if the bodies are exhumed,” Frostig said. “General trends are to leave the bodies undisturbed but to mark the gravesite. The German Riga Committee is responsible for determining what happens to German bodies found outside of Germany.”

This memorial project follows Professor Frostig’s Vienna Project, a sobering multimedia art installation in 16 sites across the Austrian city. That project, which ran from 2013-14, was the first public art memorial of its kind in Europe and the first public naming memorial in Vienna to represent the multiple groups of persecuted Austrian victims and dissidents of national socialism murdered between 1938 and 1945.