Riga, Latvia on its 800th Birthday – June 2001

What images do you think about when I say July Fourth?  Fireworks, picnics, summer evenings with fireflies, even freedom and independence come to mind.  Those used to be my images, and still are if I concentrate.  But for the past many years July Fourth calls to mind July 4, 1941 when the grand Gogol Synagogue in Riga, Latvia was set on fire with several hundred Jews inside.  There were 300 Lithuanian Jews fleeing north from the Nazi troops.  They were herded inside the synagogue along with a similar number of Latvian Jews rounded up by their neighbors.  The doors were barricaded, kerosene was poured around the building and the synagogue burned to the ground.  All told, sixty-four synagogues in Riga were destroyed at that time, leaving only one synagogue remaining in the entire city.  It was spared only because of its location next to a church and there was concern the fire might spread to the surrounding buildings.  Today it is an active synagogue, still the only one in Riga.  Since a 1999 bombing, a permanent mini police station sits in front as a deterrent to future acts of vandalism.

This year Riga commemorates its 800th year of existence and members of the Jewish Survivors of Latvia wanted to be part of the observance, to make others aware that Jews have had a presence in Riga since at least 1536.  Riga and St. Louis became Jewish sister cities in 1990 under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council.  It was a concerted effort to twin American cities with comparable Soviet Union cities to accentuate the fact that Jews were trapped in the USSR, not allowed to openly practice Judaism, not allowed to emigrate, often not allowed to work in their chosen professions.  St. Louis has been there from the beginning when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, were the first republics to declare independence.  It was an uneasy time in Riga.  Lenin’s statute was toppled, but would Soviet tanks roll in and try to recapture Latvia?  Latvia was independent between the two world wars; now freedom was in the air again and this time Latvia prevailed.  In 1992 the first independent government was formed.  Many of the legislators, government ministers, and today, even the President of Latvia, are individuals either born in North America or raised there.  They understand democratic principles.

It was only when Latvia became independent that the Jewish Survivors of Latvia felt they could return to confront the demons of the past.  As much as they loathed the Nazis, the Russians were exceedingly cruel at the end of the war. As Holocaust survivors wandered sick and dazed following liberation, they were captured and maltreated by Russians, who were angry that Jews had managed to survive.  As long as Russians controlled Latvia, the survivors refused to return to their native land.  Now, in the dawn of a new age, Jews return to Riga, rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust to proclaim victory over tyranny, sadism, and wanton killing.  These few survivors came to announce their triumph over hatred and brutality; they came to say kaddish for their parents, siblings, and other relatives who were murdered; they came to show their children their roots so they could better understand; and they came to witness their children praying in the synagogue, a final testimony to the strength of the survivors and their steadfastness of purpose. 

This June was our third trip to Latvia.  While each trip focused on Holocaust remembrance issues and the viability of the Jewish community, this recent visit was much more poignant because the survivors see they are aging and they desperately want to remain connected to their past, they want to share their memories and they want to assure continuity while they are still physically able to do so.

Latvia currently has a population of 2� million people.  During the time of the First Latvian Republic (1918-1940) there were 100,000 Jews in Latvia, mainly in Riga.  At the time of the Second Republic starting in 1992 there were 26,000 Jews.  Today there are between 12,000 and 15,000 Jews.  The decline is explained by two factors:  Much of the population is aging, and many young people are moving to Israel, although that rate has slowed recently. 

On each trip we reached out to the entire Latvian community, meeting with members of the legislature, foreign ministers, health and education ministers, and on the second visit a televised meeting with the then prime minister.  The main objective is to protect and promote the viability of the Jewish community:  A strong and secure Jewish community will also benefit the entire country.  Our multi-million dollar USAID medical grant helped the Jewish Bicur Holim hospital as well as the Children’s and Maternity hospitals in Riga.

This recent trip was very high profile.  Not only did the President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga invite our group to luncheon at the President’s residence, she and her family and other government officials also attended the official opening of the survivors’ reunion held at the Jewish Community Center.  In addition, our group was invited to a reception at the residence of James Holmes, the U.S. Ambassador to Latvia.  The invitation to the ambassador’s home also included Rabbi Barkan, spiritual leader at the synagogue, Dr. Arkady Ganz head of the Jewish hospital, Hanna Finkelstein, head of the Jewish Community Center, and Grigory Krupnikov, president of the Jewish Community of Riga.  Helping the local Jewish leadership maintain important contacts provides a stabilizing influence and bolsters confidence in the work they do against tremendous odds.

These were a busy eight days.  We spent one afternoon at the Community Center where the JCC members prepared lunch for over 200 people.  The older-adult choir performed for us.  They sang their hearts out to us with such joy and enthusiasm.  Then we were entertained by beautiful, young Jewish dancers, so talented, and so full of energy.  There is a real effort to connect everyone, young and old, with Jewish traditions and to offer meaningful activities in addition to providing meals and basic medicine.

On Saturday morning members of the group went to Shabbos services.  It was an amazing sight to behold the sons of Holocaust survivors davening at the bima.  In the dark years of the war, could these men possibly have imagined that they would have adult sons accompanying them to Riga and leading morning prayers?  There was a great deal of pride and wonderment that morning. The other significant events included memorial services at the site of the burned down Gogol Synagogue.  The site was officially dedicated in 1993, and there are a few plaques indicating what took place there sixty years ago.  But on most days, it looks like a small park where residents sit on the steps, oblivious to the carnage that occurred there.  We continued on to the Rumbula Forest, just outside Riga that was a major killing field.  Tens of thousands of Jews were killed in this forest, mainly women, children and the elderly unable to work.  Massive pits were dug.  Riga became a Nazi experiment to see how efficiently the Germans and their Latvian supporters could kill as many Jews as possible.  The men who survived this fate because they were young and healthy and fit to work are still filled with guilt and grief because they couldn’t prevent the deaths of their loved ones.  We said kaddish at the Rumbula memorial.  Both Ambassador Holmes and Karlis Freibergs, the son and press officer of the President of Latvia attended the service, a moving experience for everyone.

From Rumbula we drove farther on to the Bikernieki Forest where more than 50,000 Jews perished.  An amazing effective monument is about ready to be dedicated in this forest.  We met the local Jewish architect who designed and constructed this massive memorial.  On previous visits, this forest was unkempt and barely indicated the atrocities that took place.  Now it is a somber and reverent site.  There are thousands of granite boulders of varying sizes, standing erect as if each were a tombstone.  It is a way of personalizing each individual who died.  Yes, there are hundreds of mass graves, but we honor each one’s memory.  What is most incongruous to me is that these forests are beautiful, green and golden, with birds chirping and breezes stirring the leaves on the trees.  Why are these trees not barren?  Why is there not outrage for the inhumanity that occurred?  There are so many “why” questions.  The only answer I have is that we accept what is and continue to remember.

This reunion brought 85 survivors and their family and friends together.  It was a mixture of secular Jews and observant Jews.  Half came from Israel and the other half came from mainly the United States but also Germany and Colombia, South America.  For some, it was their first time back in Riga since the days of their youth.  A few left before the war but lost family members who were not so lucky to leave.  Some didn’t want to come but were glad they did; others came hoping to connect with someone from their past.

One evening at dinner our table of ten consisted of five from the U. S. and five from Israel and this was our first opportunity to get acquainted.  Our 80 year old friend George came from Lebau, today known as Liepaja, a coastal city about 5 hours drive from Riga.  He left before the war, came to the United States, was a paratrooper in the D-Day Normandy invasion and ended up in the CIA.  The older Israeli woman across the table mentioned a family name that George recognized from the past.  Turns out they were both young teens in Lebau, and, as George would say, “we bathed in the sea together!”  She was a good friend of George’s sister.  This woman survived incredible experiences in the ghettos and concentration camps and finally made it to Israel.  Neither had any idea what happened to the other.  It was a special moment to witness their reconnection, the tears and hugs and amazement at finding one another after all these years.  And they both look terrific!

There are so many stories to tell, but what overrides all the tsuris and heartbreak is the spirit of life that imbues each survivor.  On the last night we ate and danced and sang.  They endured unspeakable horrors, but they know how to laugh and enjoy their families.  They never forget the loved ones they lost but they celebrate life.  Even when the body was broken and the mind was a puzzle of shattered pieces, the soul remained intact.

My involvement in the Riga program came about because I was chair for several years of the committee on World Jewry and Other International Concerns for the Jewish Community Relations Council.  It turns out I have a personal connection to Riga, Latvia because my father’s father came from Latvia.  My grandfather was the youngest son, and he immigrated to the United States around 1910.  His oldest brother Joseph stayed in Latvia and lived very comfortably.  At some point the family moved from Riga to Lebau (Liepaja).  While in Riga this time, we learned that a database exists of all Jews in Lebau from 1941 to 1945 who were victims or survivors.  I was amazed to find information on my great-uncle, great-aunt and their two youngest children, my father’s first cousins.  Tomorrow, July 22nd, will be the 60th anniversary of the deaths of Joseph Mitauer, age 49, Lazer Mitauer, age 25 and Meishe Mitauer, age 18 shot by the Nazis.  My aunt, Hinde Mitauer, died December 15, 1941.

Prior to the war, Lebau (Liepaja) had over 7000 Jews.  By July 1, 1942 only 832 Jews remained alive and were placed in the Lebau ghetto temporarily before they were moved to Riga and eventually Auschwitz.  Every city should be as well documented as Lebau. Now there is a draft project underway at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia to recover the names and identities of all members of the Latvian Jewish Community who perished in the Holocaust.  In this way we give honor and dignity to those who died and we maintain our connection to them.  Through our laughter and tears we keep the memories alive.  That is why the sister-city program is useful.  Riga, like so many other European cities, is soaked in the blood of the Holocaust, and that is why we will continue to help the Jews of Riga, young and old alike, as they work to re-establish their rightful place in the community with pride and dignity.  And who knows, I might be going to Riga yet again!

Margaret Israel

July 21, 2001