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NewsJan 27, 2023

Professor speaks to UN about her ‘Lock(er) of Memory’  

A descendant of Holocaust victims and survivors, Dr. Karen Frostig brings attention to forgotten concentration camp 

In the more than 80 years since Professor Karen Frostig’s grandparents were transported to Jungfernhof concentration camp, it has been all but forgotten.  

“I call it an unremembered site,” says Frostig, whose teaches courses on the intersection of art, injustice and memory in our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences and Graduate School of Education.

A photo of Expressive Therapies Professor Karen Frostig in an art studio.
Professor Karen Frostig

On the spot, located in Riga, Latvia, there now stands a beautiful riverfront park with open fields and a paved track for rollerblading. The city has plans to add additional recreation spaces and other improvements.  

What the site lacks is direct mention of the almost 4,000 people who were transported there from 1941-43, very few survived the horrific conditions of the camp. 

With her latest project, the Lock(er) of Memory, Frostig wants to bring attention to this neglected concentration camp and the people who lived and died there. She got the chance to do that on Friday in a speech at the United Nation’s Holocaust Memorial Ceremony (see Frostig's speech at 1:52), where she spoke about her relationship to her grandparents as a descendant of Holocaust victims. 

“The memorial is about bringing a sense of belonging to the land — to create meeting places to review and reflect upon the history,” she says. 

‘Walking into history’ 

Frostig first visited Riga in 2007. At the time the site was full of trash and rubble.  

“To me, it felt like I was walking into history,” says Frostig.  

Her grandparents were transported from Austria to the camp in 1941 and died within a couple of months after arriving at the camp. Although she doesn’t know how they were killed, 1942 was the coldest winter on record in Europe, and the prisoners at Jungfernhof were forced to sleep in barns with partial roofs. On March 26, 1942, a major massacre took place in a nearby forest. Given their age, they did not live past that date, Frostig explains. 

From Frostig’s research, only 149 people interred at the camp survived the Holocaust, but the ones who perished didn’t all die there. That means explaining the history of Jungfernhof isn’t straightforward. She has found that 800 died on the site, succumbing to malnutrition, weather and illness. One record showed that a group of five elderly Austrian men were shot by Nazi commanders at the camp, but there are no names. 

“It’s possible that my grandfather was one of those five men, which means he would definitely be in the mass grave at the site. I don’t know about my grandmother,” says Frostig. 

Still others were moved to different camps where they were used as slave laborers and likely killed.   

“They were destroyed bit by bit and piece by piece,” she says.  

Frostig returned to Riga in 2010 and met with city officials to propose a memorial for Jungfernhof. No one was interested. 

‘A burden of responsibility’ 

In the meantime, she continued her work, including the large-scale Vienna Project, which began in 2013 and spanned 16 districts of Austria’s capital city. 

Returning to Riga, she got support from the Jewish community in Latvia. Partnering with the director of the Jewish museum in Latvia. They are now pursuing a search for a mass grave together on the site. Frostig invited renowned Holocaust archeologist Dr. Richard Freund and a team of geophysicists who spent the past two summers attempting to locate it.  

Every discovery “creates a burden of responsibility” for the countries that participated in the Holocaust and Frostig often asks herself, “What’s the commitment to restore justice?” 

As she continues to raise money for the project, Frostig is hopeful that the grave can be found and incorporated into the memorial. 

In the meantime, she and her small team are working on an interactive timeline and 3D map of Jungfernhof and organizing the extensive history she has researched, including the names of victims, collaborators and perpetrators, with the hopes that more historians will build on it.