According to the 1935 census, there were 93 thousand Jews living in Latvia of which almost one half, 40 thousand, lived in Riga. At the start of the German occupation, 75 thousand Jews had remained in Latvia, whereas after the war their number had shrunk to 7-8 thousand. More than fifty of them were saved by Žanis Lipke, who put his own and his family's safety on the line saving each and every person. Different sources mention 55 to 60 people, but the exact number is unknown because in postwar Latvian SSR it was not easy to talk about these events. Neither Žanis, nor the others involved tried to make lists – only later was it done by David Silberman and other history buffs, surreptitiously recording the testimonies of the rescued.
Nowadays, the Lipkes are widely recognized as saviors of the Jews but there is much less information about the others he helped. In her interview, Johanna Lipke talks about the brothers Rozenbergs, Soviet parachutists who were hiding in the Lipke garden. There is also information about Latvian legionnaires, deserters from the German army, whom Lipke allegedly helped get out of the Courland Pocket, the Soviet-encircled territory in western Latvia. This information, however, is yet to be confirmed.
First rescued was Chaim Smolyanski who was a close friend of the family. A few others were somehow related to Smolyanski and were saved at his request. For the most part, however, the rescued people did not know Lipke and were in no way related to him. They either found Lipke themselves, after having heard his name mentioned, or Lipke found them. There was no particular reason for choosing this or that person: Žanis simply saw someone whose life was in danger and offered his help. The nationality, social position or political affiliation of the person was not of any importance to him. The Lipkes saved a man nicknamed Motke Ganef – which means a thief in Yiddish.
There were people who felt that Žanis Lipke's plans were too risky. It seemed safer to remain in the ghetto rather than risk being caught and shot, so some refused Lipke's help. When Lipke offered his help to Professor Vladimir Mintz, the famous Riga surgeon, he answered: "Thank you, my friend. I will never forget it, but how can I abandon my patients in the ghetto? They need me here, they will perish without me. As far as I am concerned, I decided a long time ago: I will share whatever happens to my people." Many years after the end of the war, Lipke was full of regret that he did not plan things carefully enough and did not save many more people.
Žanis Lipke did not like talking about his activities during the war. The Soviet regime did nothing to acknowledge his accomplishments; on the contrary, the KGB several times searched his house for Jewish gold and subjected him to interrogations on the belief that his actions could not have been selfless.
For many years, the Soviet regime condoned more or less open anti-Semitism. Interest in Jewish history and collecting testimony from Holocaust survivors could even earn a person a prison sentence. For a long period after the war, the survivors feared provocations and were unwilling to discuss their past.
Despite Soviet censorship, a group of people in the 1960s turned to researching the Second World War and Holocaust. They started to take care of the place in Rumbula forest where Jews were murdered and put up a monument there. An active participant was Samuil Bubi Tseitlin – while he was not in any direct way related to the people saved by Lipke, he did much to help the Lipke family. This group was led by Max Michelson, a former inmate of the Riga ghetto. It was him who suggested to two young activists, David Silberman and Harry Levi, to meet with the people rescued by Lipke and record their memories. The two met with all those among the rescued who were still living in Riga. They recorded the stories, copied them and secretly disseminated. Later it became possible to publish these testimonies in Silberman's book "Like a Star in the Darkness". The exhibits in this museum are, to a large extent, based on these testimonies.
Those sheltered by Lipke did not forget about him after the war. The ones remaining in Riga helped whichever way they could and twice a year, at Christmas and Midsummer's Night, they gathered at the Lipke house. Those who had left Latvia tried to help the Lipke family who lived in very modest circumstances. Things were sent from abroad that could be sold if the family could not use them. he aforementioned Jewish activists sold the coffee or household appliances, which was rather dangerous in Soviet times, as it was considered speculation and could be punished. These packages were a real support to the Lipkes in the postwar years.
Žanis could not have saved so many people alone. He had his family's support, of course, but it was clear that all possible help was needed so that the people rescued from the ghetto and the labor camps could be hidden and supplied with food and clothing. In time, Lipke formed a network of rescuers involving twenty-five people, Žanis's friends, acquaintances and co-workers. These people were as different as those Žanis rescued: among them, were ordinary workers and peasants, doctors and even the head of a municipality. One would think that they had nothing in common, but they were linked by Žanis Lipke and the desire to help those who were facing imprisonment and death.
The first to come to Žanis's assistance were his friends and acquaintances who helped him to find and set up hiding places in their flats or workshops and to bring people out of the ghetto and labor camps.
Žanis's friend, Jānis Briedis, who lived by the Biķernieki Forest, had seen mass murders that took place there and could not stand aside. Briedis was a driver for the meat packing plant and he participated in the very first rescue operation, helping to bring the group of Jews from the ghetto to the warehouses of the consumer society "Vienība” across the street from "Lāčplēsis” cinema. It was Briedis's truck, that was used to transfer people from Riga to Dobele more than once.
Other friends of Žanis's, among them, Edgars Zande, Barnets Rozenbergs and Kārlis Jankovičs hid Jews in their apartments, offices and cellars. Janitor Andrejs Graubiņš, with whom Žanis had worked at the consumer society "Vienība”, hid them in a small workshop, which Žanis had rented at 75 Avotu Street. Graubiņš was caught by the Germans and tortured, yet he did not betray anything or anyone. Graubiņš was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and died there.
Fricis and Žanis Rozentāls and their friend Jānis Undulis became Lipke's trusted helpers in Dobele. The family of Fricis Rozentāls welcomed the rescued people in their farm called Miltiņi. One of the rescued, Izak Drizin, says about the Rozentāls that it had been a very nice and helpful family. Drizin emphasizes that Žanis seemed to possess a special talent to find such people in the endless desert of humanity.
Soon Žanis met the local municipal head, Vilis Bīnenfelds, who helped him to set up two hiding places in Dobele, in the farms Mežamaki and Rešņi, and supplied the rescued people with food. Despite his participation in the rescue mission, Bīnenfelds was arrested after the war, charged with high treason and deported to Siberia. Having learned of his fate, the rescued people decided to act and, after many attempts, managed to secure Bīnenfelds's release.
Aleksandra Dagarova (the wife of the rescued Jew Epstein) and Marija Kellere with her sons Arnolds and Henrijs moved to the Rešņi farm. During the German retreat, Arnolds was killed by a stray shell. The Mežamaki farm was hit by a bomb and burnt down, with the owners inside.
Of course, not everyone could or dared to offer shelter to the people who had escaped from the ghetto or labor camps. Yet they helped in other ways. Fisherman Alfrēds Ludvigs Krauklis lived not far from the Lipke family. His wife Aneta and her daughter used to bring fish to the Lipke house in a suitcase to feed to the people hiding in the bunker. At the time when fear and 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.