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Handmade prisoner badge worn by a Latvian Jewish concentration camp inmate

Object | Accession Number: 2005.567.3

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    Handmade prisoner badge worn by a Latvian Jewish concentration camp inmate

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    Brief Narrative
    Prisoner patch used by Elja Heifecs when he was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, Rehmsdorf section, in 1944. In July 1941, Germany invaded Latvia. A vicious pogrom was unleashed upon the Jews of Riga by German killing squads and roving gangs of Latvian fascists; thousands were murdered. In October, Elja, a musician and band leader, with his parents and brother, was forced into the ghetto. One day, his 22 year old brother, Liebel, was told to report to work at a factory and never returned. Over three days in December, the Germans, with Latvian support, rounded up and killed at least 26,000 Jews in the forests outside the town; Elja’s parents were murdered on December 8. In December 1943, as the Germans were preparing to destroy the ghetto, Elja was deported to Kaiserwald concentration camp, then to Muhlgraben, Stutthof, and in August 1944, to Buchenwald. He did hard labor in the rock mines, until one day a kapo found out that he could play the guitar and made him his servant. In April 1945, as Allied forces moved towards the camp, the prisoners were sent on a death march to Theresienstadt. The camp was liberated in May by the Soviet Army. Elja weighed 84 pounds and was sick with typhus and pneumonia. After he recovered, he returned to Riga, the only survivor of his extended family. He resumed his career as a musician, though he could no longer play the cello due to the severe damage to his hands from the hard labor.
    use:  1944 August-1945 April
    issue: Buchenwald (Concentration camp); Weimar (Thuringia, Germany)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Samuel Heifetz
    Subject: Elja Heifecs
    Elja Heifecs was born December 5, 1912, to Samuel and Zilla Epelajtis in Riga, Latvia. His mother’s family was from Lithuania. He had one brother, Leibel, born in 1915. His father worked in the cotton trade. Elja had a traditional Jewish upbringing and attended Jewish schools. Elja musical gifts were noticed early and by the age of eight he was singing with his father in the choir at the Great Choral Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Riga. When Elja was twelve, his father bought him a cello and he began taking music lessons from Mr. Ciganov, the concertmaster for the Riga Opera Theater. He and his brother also learned to play the mandolin. In 1930, Elja decided to form a Jewish mandolin orchestra, the Eljas Heifecs Mandolin Orchestra, which became a popular success. They performed classical music as well as Elja’s original compositions and the Klezmer music his family had played for generations. Elja also introduced jazz to Latvia. His brother was a member of Elja’s orchestra as well as first mandolin for the Riga Radio Orchestra.

    In August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Latvia and made Riga the capital of the Latvian SSR. In the spring of 1941, Germany launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union and by July the Germans occupied Riga and made it the capital of the Reich Commissariat Ostland. German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), assisted by local Latvian auxiliaries, shot several thousand Jews. Jewish homes were raided and property destroyed during the pogroms. On July 4, several hundred people were trapped in the Great Choral Synagogue which was then set on fire and burned to the ground. Elja remembers standing on the street looking at the charred remains of the synagogue.

    A Jewish ghetto, sealed off from the rest of the city, was established by the Germans in October and Elja and his family were forced to move there. Water and electricity were cut off and food was scarce. Elja was given a work assignment at a woodworking shop outside the ghetto. The family’s former housekeeper gave him a place to stay in her garage. Elja had blonde hair and blue eyes, and did not look Jewish, thus he was able to walk around without raising suspicions. He procured food for his family with the help of Latvian friends, including a guard at one of the ghetto gates who helped him smuggle the food inside. However, once the housekeeper’s boyfriend returned from the country, Elja had to return to the ghetto every night. The Germans had enacted increasingly punitive anti-Semitic legislation that persecuted Jews and those who dealt with them and there were increasing deportation actions with the ghetto. One day, Leibel was sent to work in a factory but never returned home. The family later learned that all the factory workers had been taken to the Bikernieki forest and shot. In August 1941, Elja received an order to appear for work. Thirty young men were selected; the rest were dismissed. None of these men returned to Riga. The Germans conducted major purges of the ghetto on December 1st, 8th, and 9th of 1941 and Elja’s parents were among those who disappeared and were presumed killed. At least 26,000 Jews were rounded up and murdered by the German killing squads and their Latvian supporters in the Rumbula Forest, five miles southeast of Riga. Elja and friends such as Perc Braun, a violinist, continued to perform music for ghetto residents whenever possible.

    The German continued to deport ghetto residents and the ghetto would be destroyed in December 1943. Elja was sent to Kaiserwald concentration camp, then to a smaller sub-camp, Muhlgraben (Milgravis), and in the summer of 1944, to Stutthof. One of the Kapos there sought out musicians. Elja and a few others were given instruments that had been confiscated from other prisoners and asked to perform. Afterwards, the Kapo arranged for their transfer to Buchenwald, allegedly as a reward. Elja traveled with some eighty other people by train. The prisoners were given nothing to eat or drink during the three day trip, and many died. At Buchenwald, Elja was put to work in the rock mines and disengaging unexploded mines and given the prisoner number 82932. As American troops approached near the camp, the inmates were sent on a death march to Theresienstadt. Elja arrived there extremely ill from dysentery and typhus. The camp was soon liberated by the Russian Army. After his recuperation, Elja returned to Riga and resumed working as a musician, though he had to switch to the double bass, as he could no longer play the cello due to the damage to his hands from his time in Buchenwald. He met his wife, Khaya, (b. 1931) through a friend, Moshe Chernobrov, who was with Elja in the ghetto and later in Buchenwald. He was married to her elder sister, Dobe. They had one son, also a musician, who continued the family’s musical tradition first in Latvia and then in the United States. Elja died in 1991, aged 78.

    Physical Details

    Identifying Artifacts
    Physical Description
    Rectangular, soiled light brown, once white, cloth patch with frayed edges and the bottom corners cut at an angle. There is handwritten text in blue ink across the center.
    overall: Height: 1.750 inches (4.445 cm) | Width: 6.750 inches (17.145 cm)
    overall : cloth, ink
    front center, hand printed in blue ink : K.L. BUCHENWALD. / (ap. rems) [ap Rehmsdorf]

    Rights & Restrictions

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    Conditions on Use
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    Administrative Notes

    The identification patch was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2005 by Samuel Heifetz, the son of Elja Heifecs.
    Record last modified:
    2022-07-28 18:29:58
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