An artist’s journey to uncover her family history grew into a decades long mission to establish a memorial for the victims of the Jungfernhof concentration camp.
For years, two small greying photographs of Karen Frostig’s paternal grandparents, Moses Frostig and Beile Samuely Frostig, hung inconspicuously on a wall in the Frostigs’ living room. A strange silence surrounded their names and faces, which were all that Karen had ever known or seen about them while growing up in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Though Karen’s father, Dr. Benjamin Frostig, seemed to lead an ordinary life, there were moments that hinted otherwise. Karen remembers how he would suddenly jolt his hands up from the steering wheel while driving and exclaim “six million!”
Dr. Frostig was a Holocaust survivor. Vienna, his home, was struck with terror in 1938 following the Anschluss of Austria, and it was not long before the Gestapo had arrested him. Released with 48 hours to leave the country, Dr. Frostig was forced to flee across the ocean in June 1938. He spent the next years doing all he could to save his parents, but to no avail. Years later, in 1969, he received a letter from the Jewish community informing him that his parents had been deported from Vienna to Riga, Latvia on 3 December 1941.
In 2004, Karen received sixty-nine letters from her aunt that had been exchanged between her father and grandparents and translated them from German to English. A conceptual artist working with memory and truth-seeking, Karen began to research the names and places mentioned in the letters, putting together snippets of her grandparents’ story, and beginning a decades-long journey to find out what had truly happened to them. “There is no expiration date on the memory of human atrocities,” she says.
As her research expanded to outside her family, Karen began to connect with individuals and memorial organizations that could help her discover more. In 2007, she met Max Michealson, a Latvian survivor and historian of the Holocaust at her art exhibit, who invited her to his apartment to discuss her upcoming visit to Latvia. Looking at transport routes, maps, and existing historical evidence, Max showed Karen that her grandparents had not been deported to the Riga ghetto, as she had assumed, but had likely been sent to Jungfernhof, a concentration camp just three miles outside Riga. Karen began to contact museums and relevant organizations in Europe and found Inese Runce from the Museum “Jews in Latvia,” who promised to take her to Jungfernhof.
As soon as she stepped onto the site, Karen knew she wanted to make a memorial at Jungfernhof. Strewn with waste material, the site was deserted. There were no signposts acknowledging the camp’s long and dark history. In 2010, she presented a Jungfernhof memorial proposal to a Jewish audience in Latvia, but it didn’t turn into a project. Most had never heard of Jungfernhof and there was little interest in remembering it.
Nine years later, Karen called the Museum “Jews in Latvia” again, which was then being managed by Ilya Lensky. He remembered Karen’s presentation, supported the idea of a memorial at Jungfernhof, and welcomed her back to Latvia. During meetings with Latvian officials, Karen was told that she would not be able to recognize the area anymore. But Karen couldn’t see the transformation as something positive. Jungfernhof had been turned into Mazjumpravmuiža: a sunny public park, where children ran happily across the grass, unaware of a mass grave that possibly lay beneath it. Not even the sign mentioned that the space had been a killing site. “The park was a complete eradication of the camp. Its memory was lost more than ever,” Karen says.
Standing in the park, Karen knew that the world needed to know about Jungfernhof and what had happened there. She was now determined to create a memorial here and with Mr. Lensky’s support, it no longer seemed like an impossibility. But how would Karen find, establish, and justify the site’s history? Who was going to help her?
Karen knew that bringing countries, organizations, survivors, and families together was a big commitment. After countless meetings, Karen finally acquired an advisory board, formed a team of researchers, scientists, graphic designers, and historians, and began planning to create digital maps and tours of Jungfernhof to be made accessible on a website.
But more and more obstacles began to appear in her journey after she had taken this first step. Few photographs and nearly no records existed of Jungfernhof. Very few survivors were still alive, and testimonies were either lost, scattered, or buried deep within archives around the world. Even the camp’s exact parameters remained unclear. The more she learned, the more painful it became to see Jungfernhof’s story be forgotten. Unlocking Jungfernhof’s memory became a necessity. Then, as the team continued its research, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world, bringing with it tragedy and loss of life. Organizations and companies struggled to move their work online. Like many other countries, Latvia’s borders were completely sealed.
But while the pandemic limited travel and meeting in person, it also began facilitating communication. Karen recalls that online meetings began to help further the project, connecting her more easily with officials from Latvia, Austria, Germany, and across the United States. Finally, as the world began to adapt to the conditions of working online, Karen applied for a grant at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which was approved in 2021. “Receiving this grant from the IHRA was a turning point in the Jungfernhof project. It was a huge sum that made all the difference,” Karen says. Unlocking Jungfernhof’s memory was now well underway.
The IHRA understood how political and administrative realities could be navigated to bring archival, scientific, and artistic insights together to create sources that could educate the world about Jungfernhof. Encouraging Karen to perform extensive outreach activity alongside research, the IHRA motivated her to document and preserve each step in her journey. Karen drew up detailed contracts, updated reports and forms, and stayed meticulously informed about the project’s trajectory.
Helping Karen strengthen the organizational infrastructure she had built for the project, the IHRA’s documentative and interactive approach allowed Karen’s team to create a large and detailed educational database on Jungfernhof’s history. A 3D tour of the killing sites at the camp was made accessible on the website and supplemented with audio tapes of commentary by researchers and survivors. A month by month, interactive timeline of the camp’s history was established. “With the IHRA on board, serious research began that advanced our content. The obstacles to building a memorial were removed because we could clearly tell the story. We just knew more,” Karen says.
With Jungfernhof’s story accessible online, a global community began forming around its remembrance and education. Even before its memorial could be made, Jungfernhof had revealed undiscovered depths of the Holocaust and brought scientific, artistic, and archival communities together. But Karen knew that this was not enough. The Jungfernhof memorial could only be created if Latvia, Austria, and Germany worked together.
“There is no expiration date on the memory of human atrocities.”
– IHRA Grant recipient Karen Frostig
After connecting with the Latvian ambassador who received her work with enthusiasm, Karen became a part of an international correspondence that worked towards introducing her project at the United Nations. At the same time, when individuals from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design heard that its former student had created this multimedia project, they immediately reached out to Karen and offered to connect her with Ralph Blumenthal, who wrote for the New York Times. As the war in Ukraine raged on, Karen and the IHRA knew it had become even more important to speak about collective remembrance and continued their outreach. Finally, Karen was invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly for 27 January 2023, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Her speech and the article published on her research journey in the NYT catapulted Jungfernhof to the international stage. European countries were now onboard with the United States and seemed determined to work together to make the memorial a reality.
“We can no longer bury the past, but some of us still choose to,” Karen says. Bringing countries together on the Jungfernhof project ensured that the memories Karen unlocked would never be locked up again. But The Locker of Memory project does more than just unlock closed pasts. It also opens a conversation that strengthens our consciousness and sense of social justice about us, our past, present, and future. The memorial’s construction will not be an end but a new beginning; it will lead to an exhibit and other profound ways to keep talking to each other. Karen, her team, and the IHRA had done what was inconceivable not long ago. Karen is now planning a commemorative event at Jungfernhof that will honor its victims with a ceremony. This will be the first formal act of remembrance held at Jungfernhof, opening the gateway to memorialization.
Karen hopes that the knowledge that she and the IHRA collected is just the beginning of further research that unlocks the truth about the Holocaust. When she looks back today, she can hardly believe the results of her commitment and outreach work. She recalls her speech at the United Nations as one of the greatest moments of her life. As the delegates in the General Assembly rose to applaud her speech, Karen looked at the screen behind her. It showed the two greying photographs of Beile and Moses from her childhood home, now larger than life for the whole world to see.
Learn more about the IHRA Grant Program and how to apply by visiting our Funding page.