European Memories

of the Gulag


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Rafails Rozentāls was born to a highly educated Jewish family in Riga in September 1937. His father was a successful lawyer, his mother was an educationalist and at home they spoke Russian and Yiddish.

Some months after the USSR’s annexation of Latvia, his father was denounced for having chaired a Zionist association when he was a student at Riga law faculty. He was arrested and sentenced to forced labour on the night of 14 June 1941. Rafails and his mother were deported to a village in the Tomsk region of Siberia. The rest of the family stayed in Riga and died in the ghetto, some were shot in the Rumbula forest, where all the Latvian Jews were murdered a few months after the Nazis arrived.

A year later Rafails’s father was released from the Solikamsk labour camp in Perm region. He managed to find out where they were and join them. In 1946, the three of them went to live in the city of Krasnoyarsk. His father found a job as an accountant and they managed to find a small flat.

Rafails registered at the Krasnoyarsk faculty of medicine. This was where from 1952 many leading lights of Soviet medicine were banished after the “doctors’ plot” affair, many of them Jewish, accused of murdering members of the Politburo. Rafails had the good fortune to study with many of them.

In 1956, Rafails Rozentāls’s family was released from the requirement to live in Siberia and returned to Riga where Rafails completed his studies and began his career as a surgeon. He became a major international specialist in liver transplants.


“The Communists saved our lives”

“My grandmothers and grandfathers stayed behind in Riga. They were all murdered in the ghetto.

You know, I want to stress the fact that we stayed alive thanks to the Communists. Because if the Communists hadn’t deported us, we would have died in the ghetto. My father would never have left, because my mother was very ill and they were very close; he would never have left her. That’s why the Communists saved our lives!


That’s exactly it. If we hadn’t been deported, we’d have stayed in Riga during the war and we’d have been killed in the ghetto. That’s one of life’s paradoxes. Really. There were no other possibilities. Otherwise my parents wouldn’t have left. All the others stayed. My parents thought as I do, of course. There’s nothing else to be said, that’s how it was! Because in Riga, all the others were killed, with a few exceptions.”


 First childhood memory
Arrest and deportation

“My memories begin with the day of deportation. It was a lovely day and we were due to go to the dacha. When in the morning I woke and saw strangers in the flat, I thought they had come to take us to the dacha. But our destination was somewhere completely different.

So that’s all I remember, because I was only three and a half. I also remember our flat, my teddy bears, one for daytime and one for nighttime. We were comfortably off. My father was a highly successful young lawyer, he had completed his studies at the University of Latvia, he spoke perfect Latvian and he could have had an excellent career.”


How his father and mother kept in contact

“…then, out there, the enquiries. He had been sentenced to deportation, not prison. And my father wrote my mother a letter and that’s how they found each other.”


The “doctors’ plot”

“I remember that time, when there was the ‘doctors’ plot’ affair in late 1952. My father was in Moscow at the time. He came back from Moscow, completely cast down.

He said that if he hadn’t had children he would have committee suicide. He was afraid of the sequel. Personally I didn’t feel that way. I had a friend in my class, another Jew, we got on well with people, no one attacked us for it, or spoke to us about it. The whole thing was made up in the centre, when Stalin wanted to send all Jews to Birobidzhan. But that I didn’t know.

I just remember how my parents were affected. I just remember the day I came home from school, it was full of people.”


I have no bad memories. I have known no other life