Photo: Žanis Lipke Memorial museum

Photo: Žanis Lipke Memorial museum

Features Jānis Lipke. A hero of Latvian history

This article will present the story of Jānis (Žanis) Lipke, a Latvian man living an ordinary life who became a national hero by saving fifty-five Jews from the brutality of the Nazi regime.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 43-45
Published on on October 7, 2020

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When we open the great book of memory of the Holocaust in Latvia, the name of the dock worker Jānis (Žanis) Lipke and his legendary rescue act echo across celebrations, monuments and heroic national narratives.

This article will present the story of Jānis (Žanis) Lipke, a Latvian man living an ordinary life who became a national hero by saving fifty-five Jews from the brutality of the Nazi regime.

For a Latvian of the time, there is nothing remarkable in the way Jānis Lipke’s life starts. He was born in the year 1900. His father, Janis, was an accountant, and later a rifleman, and his mother, Pulina, was a housewife in the Latvian region of Jelgava. Jānis Lipke joined the army, 19 years old, as an artilleryman in the Latgale division in 1919. Coming back to Riga in 1920, he met Johanna Novicka (1903—1990), the woman of his life: his wife, the mother of their three children and an invaluable support for his future activities, that now are legendary.

Between the World Wars, the period from 1920 to 1940, Lipke worked at the Riga Docks. While there, he got closer to communist groups and leftist circles.

This period’s end also marks the beginning of one of the darkest pages of Europe’s history, and some of the bloody and tragic events that the European area was going through also happened in Latvia. The city of Riga witnessed the confinement of the city’s three thousand Jews in the ghetto district Maskavas Forštate and their progressive elimination in forced-labor camps around the capital and the Rumbula Forest. In previous years, Lipke had distinguished himself by some illicit activities: hiding social democrats and communists, and dealing with certain smuggling activities, disclosing what one could call a strong character despite restrictions.

He also proved to be an adaptable and skillful character: he spoke Latvian, Russian and German, used to drive a small bus between the Jelgava area and Valmiera, and completed a course in air defense with the German Commandant’s office in Riga. All these aspects and qualities turned out to be crucial for him, enabling him to make contacts among a large number of milieus and people. These contacts made it possible to create a network that managed to rescue fifty-five Jews from the Riga Ghetto.

The turning point in Jānis Lipke’s life can be pinpointed when he started his job at the Luftwaffe warehouses, the so-called Red Warehouses by the Central Market in Riga. It was this position that enabled him to start the secret transfer of Jews from the warehouse to several hidden shelters in the city, avoiding surveillance partly thanks to his knowledge of the German language. His extremely risky operations were helped by some of the Lipke family’s friends, who gave information about available means of transport and safe shelters in the city. Those rescue acts continued even when the situation became extremely dangerous, as the regime tightened its grip over the country even more. Janis Lipke still carried on his operations, not losing his courage and determination, as is emphasized in the narrative of this legacy.

A network of help

One of his most crucial acts was building up a network of helpers and shelters in the city. There were several hiding places all around the city which made it possible for him to carry on his activities; some were places where he used to work, like the warehouse in Vienība, while others became shelters partly thanks to his friends such as Barnets Rozenbergs who offered his workshop in Brīvības Street. Invaluable help was also given by Vilis Bīnenfelds, the local municipality head who managed to find a shelter in Dobele, and also supplied people with food. These were just some of the shelters found by Jānis Lipke and his friends in Riga. Still more people were involved in donating food or giving essential information. As stated on the official website of the Lipke Memorial: “At a time when fear and the struggle for survival were the rule, twenty-five people were ready to put their own lives and those of their loved ones on the line to help people in grave peril without betraying anyone”.

However, when even the most hidden locations in the city were becoming dangerous, the project of a bunker under the woodshed of Lipke’s house became reality.

A crucial role in the rescue operations was played by Johanna Lipke, who took care of the people in the bunker, gave them food and tried to meet all their basic needs. After witnessing bloody episodes in the Riga ghetto, she decided it was impossible to do nothing, guided by a deep sense of humanity and responsibility.

The narratives and stories about that time told by the rescued people depict Jānis Lipke, commonly known as “Jan”, as a knight in shining armor, ready to do everything he could to help people in danger, guided solely by a simple and pure feeling of humanity and empathy. The first Jew to be rescued was a close friend of the family, Chaim Smolyanski; however, many of the people saved did not even know Jānis Lipke or his family. They were helped regardless of their social position or nationality. As Jānis Lipke did not like to speak about the details of his activities, even after numerous interrogations and attempts by Soviet troops to find some sort of reward in return for his help, what we have nowadays are the memories collected from the people he saved and the Lipke family. The first act of recollecting all the experiences was done after the war by a group of people united by the desire to research holocaust memories. Two activists of the group, David Silberman and Harry Levi, started collecting stories from the people Lipke helped, later publishing the book Like a Star in the Darkness.

Righteous Among the Nations

In 1966, Janis and Johanna Lipke were awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Nazi regime and the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, whose main aim is to preserve the memory of the victims and those who fought against the Nazis. The same institute published some interviews witnessing to Jānis Lipke’s deeds, and information about how the rescue operations were conducted. For instance, in Izak Drizin’s testimony, we learn that Jānis Lipke did not expected to be paid for rescuing Jews. Drizin recounts how he asked Lipke for help in escaping the ghetto, although he had no money, and got the answer that he, Lipke, was not charging for his services; he helped those he could. Drizin further tells how hard this unselfishness was to grasp: “Why should he help us? He was not interested in money. He was not a communist. What was his motive? He risked his life and the lives of his dears one, for the sake of strangers. It was incomprehensible at that time.”

The “hidden” museum

Today, Jānis Lipke is recognized as a hero of Latvian history and promoted as such. The museum dedicated to him is a key point in the Holocaust ‘memory map’ of Riga, together with the monument in Riga’s Great Coral Synagogue. The Žanis Lipke Memorial museum was completed in 2012 in the Lipke family’s courtyard on Kipsala Island, not far from the bunker where Jānis Lipke hid Jewish families. In this 3 m² small shelter, from eight to twelve people were always hiding during the dark years between 1942 and 1944.

This address, Mazais Balasta Dambis, is quite hidden, partly as it is off the city map and difficult to find. This is one of the reasons why it was suitable as a shelter for the rescued people.

When entering the museum, the visitors discover a wooden labyrinth illuminated only by some light coming from the floor. There are a few items recalling the conditions in which the Jews lived in this small space, and to further illustrate the atmosphere there are simulated sounds from the outside, reminding visitors of the danger of exposure.

In contrast, the rest of the Memorial Musem building has enormous windows. The building’s architect was Zaiga Gaile, who conceived the structure in such a way that it is possible to look down from the attic to see the bunker recreated in the basement.

Her objective was to give to the memorial a significative and innovative function: going beyond the attempt to let the visitors identify themselves with the victims and refugees of that time, she imagined it as a place transcending history, able to have an important influence nowadays too.

The structure guides the visitor into a journey through time: it starts from the reconstructed bunker, that can be observed but not accessed, continues on the first floor that leads to a wooden structure with paper walls, called Sukkah in Hebrew, translated as a “temporary shelter”. The last stop is the attic, where there are pictures and documents of the Lipke family and the events of the epoch.

Visitors end their visit at the highest point of the building, giving them perspectives on the whole journey through the museum, as well as time and history, but also the possibility to look ahead into a future yet unknown. The visitors are thus guided through the memorial building from being an observer in the dark corridor on the first floor up to the luminous top floor, describing the experience of helpers and rescued, making feelings such as humanity, hope and courage come alive, existing beyond spatial and temporal barriers.

This museum is just one among the numerous places marking the Holocaust history of Riga. On the wave of remembrance of a great personality of historical and human relevance, the film The Mover, based on Lipke’s story, came out in 2018. The original title in Latvian is “Tēvs Nakts” [father night], directed by Davis Simanis and inspired by the Latvian novel Puika ar suni. Stāsts par nosargātu noslēpumu [Boy and his dog. Story of a secret untold], the story of how Janis Lipke’s son helped him in the rescue operations.

By defining Jānis Lipke as a hero of his time in Latvia, Latvians are given a sense of being part of the resistance movement in Europe during the war, fighting against the Nazi regime and also opposing the Holocaust. On the other hand, portraying Jānis Lipke only as part of Latvian historical memory in connection with the remembrance of “someone who once did something good” risks overlooking the importance of the timeless contribution he and his fellows in all European countries stand for. His and his wife’s decision to brave any risk, to retain their humanity and act accordingly, is perhaps the most important message to share with future generations.


  1. See the website Žaņa Lipkes Memoriāls at
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Izak Drizin’s testimony was recorded July 28, 2020 and is available via Žaņa Lipkes Memoriāls. See the recorded interview at:
  10. Ibid.
  11. Agnese Čivle “Žaņa Lipkes Memoriāls”, 23 July, 2012, online at Arterritory. Available at:–fashion/articles/3992-zanis_lipke_memorial .
  12. See the website Žaņa Lipkes Memoriāls at
  13. “Book «Boy and his dog. Story of a secret untold» by «Liels un mazs»” online at FOLD, published May 11, 2018. Available at: .
  • by Michela Romano

    MA in Interdisciplinary research and studies on Eastern Europe, University of Bologna. Research focus: Russophone identities, Baltic cultures and minority issues.

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