Survivor Profiles: Sia Hertsberg
If they understand how bad it was then, [they can understand that] if it happens again, it’s the end of the world.
Sia Hertsberg was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1927. In Riga, Sia lived with her mother, father, and little sister. Her father owned a coat factory, and her mother helped with the business bookkeeping. The family lived a normal and peaceful life, but as the Russians came to occupy Latvia, unrest soon followed. The family lost their business and Sia and her sister were forced to learn and speak Russian.
The occupying Russians were also looking to arrest Sia’s father because of his business. One night, the family got a call that Russian soldiers were coming to deport the family to Siberia. However, given that war in Europe had escalated, the Russian authorities abandoned deporting the family. However, a couple of days later, the country became occupied by Nazi Germany.
The occupation of the Germans immediately resulted in the establishment of anti-Semitic laws and the normalization of anti-Jewish propaganda. The Jews of Riga were no longer allowed to walk on sidewalks or shop at certain stores. They were all also forced to wear yellow stars when out in public. The level of physical violence against Jews also greatly increased. The local synagogue was burned down with people inside it, and Jews were attacked for simply being outdoors.
Under German occupation, the family lived in their home for two months before they were interned in the Riga Ghetto. In the Ghetto, the family spent most of their time in their apartment. However, the men, including Sia’s father, were forced to work in a workshop.
Sia, her sister, Margo, and her mother were eventually sent to work as slave laborers in a nearby factory. Her mother cleaned, and the girls did seamstress work making German army uniforms. On September 24, 1944, they were sent back to Riga. From Riga, they were deported to Trupen Wirtschaftt Lager concentration camp and then deported by boat to Danzig, Poland.
From Danzig, Sia and her family were transferred to Stutthof concentration camp on October 3, 1944. To keep the family together, they altered information about their ages and abilities to appear as skilled workers. In Stutthof, every four people had to share a bed and a food bowl. The barrack chiefs not only constantly abused the people within the camp but would also force them to do physical exercise for no other reason than to torture them. Sia and her family were not even allowed to use the washroom when they needed to, rather everyone had to wait for permission from the barracks chiefs. During the winter, Sia contracted typhus. She grew increasingly ill and developed a very high fever. Her mother went outside to gather some snow for Sia to drink in hopes of bringing the fever down. However, a German guard saw her outside and hit her over the head with his boot. Sia’s mother lost consciousness and passed away three days later.
After the death of their mother, Sia and her sister were alone. Sia recovered from typhus, but soon she and her sister were sent on a death march to Burggraben concentration camp. On March 23, 1945, they were finally liberated by the Russian army; Sia was 18 years old and weighed 50 lbs. The Russians placed Sia and her sister in a local school which had been converted to a hospital. At the hospital, Sia’s sister, at ten years old, died from gangrene.
After the war, Sia assumed her father had also passed away. She sent letters to her cousins who had returned to Riga, hoping to reconnect with some family. They informed her that her father was alive but that he was in a hospital in Russia. Sia returned to Riga in October of 1945 and reunited with her cousins. In November of that year, she reunited with her father, her only surviving immediate family. Sia later immigrated to the United States in 1975.
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Photo credits: John Pregulman