Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 27-28) marks the remembrance of the 6 million Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps.
For survivors of the Holocaust, remembering the past is a difficult and painful experience. Even though Sia Hertsberg’s memories of her own survival are still raw and arduous to relive, she is well aware retelling her story is essential to preserving history and ensuring the atrocities of this dark period are never repeated.
“It should never happen again—that is why I fight and tell the new generation,” says Hertsberg, a Glenview resident. “If they understand how bad it was then, [they can understand that] if it happens again, it’s the end of the world.”
Hertsberg was born in 1927 in Riga, Latvia, a small country near Ukraine. On the outskirts of Riga is Rumbula Forest, the site of the Holocaust’s second largest massacre. Over 25,000 Jews (nearly one-third of the country’s total population at the time) were killed during a two-day period in late 1941. The executions were carried out by firing squad under the direction of Schutzstaffel and Police Leader Friedrich Jeckeln, infamous mastermind behind similar slaughters in the Ukraine.
Hertsberg was only 14 at the time of the Rumbula Forest massacre, and her family had been forced to live in the Riga Ghetto. One evening, Latvian police officers forced their way into her home. One of the officers attempted to rape her. Another officer, a former school friend, recognized Hertsberg and distracted the other officer. He also warned Hertsberg’s mother not to join the forced march to Rumbula leaving the ghetto that evening.
Though their lives were spared that night, there would be many hardships to come. Her family was eventually imprisoned at Camp Stutthof, a German Nazi concentration camp where her mother was brutally murdered and incinerated in the ovens. By the time the camp was liberated in May 1945, Hertsberg and her younger sister, Margo, both emaciated and barely clinging to life, were taken to a Soviet hospital.
“One more day later and I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Hertsberg says. “When they took us and undressed us, they asked our gender—so terrible we looked, you couldn’t tell who’s a woman and who’s a man. So how I survived it, I don’t know.”
Sadly, Margo died in Hertsberg’s arms a few months later of gangrene, and she was buried behind the hospital in an unmarked grave. Determined to recover, Hertsberg spent five months learning to walk again. Once released from the hospital, she returned home to Riga, where she reunited with family, including her father. Hertsberg went on to complete her education, marry and have two sons of her own. Her husband died unexpectedly, leaving Hertsberg to raise her sons alone. To provide a better life for her family, at age 48 and with little English, Hertsberg made the decision to emigrate to the United States in 1975, settling near family in Chicago.
A Lasting Legacy
Hertsberg’s sons knew little about the details of their mother’s tragic past; years later, Hertsberg’s grandson asked her to speak at his Hebrew school about her experience.
“My sons knew I was a survivor,” Hertsberg says, “But how I survived—that I didn’t talk about.”
Hertsberg found great purpose in telling her story, and she frequently volunteers to speak to school-age children visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. She was honored in March at a high-profile Humanitarian Awards dinner along with four other survivors.
Now the hope is for Hertsberg’s story to reach an even wider audience with the release of “Rumbula’s Echo,” a documentary film produced by Chicago filmmaker Mitchell Lieber. The film chronicles the massacre at Rumbula Forest from which Hertsberg was spared.
Lieber discovered the story of Rumbula 15 years ago while doing genealogical research; he had named his baby daughter for his great-grandmother from Latvia and sought more information about his family. Not only was he shocked to find that several family members had lost their lives at Rumbula, but he was baffled by how little had been written about a massacre of such extraordinary proportions.
“In Latvia, estimates are that fewer than 1,500 Jews survived the Holocaust in the country,” Lieber says. “In addition to documenting Rumbula and the Holocaust in Latvia, the film is about the cost to society and to all of us of genocide, even though it may have occurred half a world away.”
In 2007, during a World Reunion for Latvian Jewry in Israel, a chance meeting between Hertsberg and Lieber would lead to a special collaboration between the two. Lieber was impressed by Hertsberg’s story and asked her to participate in the film.
“Sia escaped certain death more times than a cat with nine lives, in part through sheer will,” Lieber says. “I was impressed by her ability to articulate her story in such a compelling way.”
Besides providing her testimonial interview to the non-profit film, Hertsberg has personally raised funds toward its production.
Several work-in-progress screenings have taken place in four countries, including a March 23 event in Chicago, where post-screening reviews were positive. Lieber hopes it will be ready for release in 2015, but he needs further funding to cover editing and post-production costs.
“I just want it should be finished,” Hertsberg says. “That is my dream while I am alive.”
Tax-deductible donations to help fund the film’s completion can be made online or by mail to Luminescence Media Group NFP, 3740 N. Lake Shore Drive, Suite 15B-3, Chicago, IL 60613.