The Jews in Riga
When I was in Latvia last week (that’s a fun sentence to write!) I visited the Jewish Museum. Riga has several monuments and memorials dedicated to the Latvians who died during the 1991 barricades, but there was little reference to the Jews who died during the Nazi occupation. I found directions to the Jewish museum in the guidebook, and set off.
The museum is in a tall building in the Art Nouveau section of the city. The door was locked, and I had to be buzzed inside by a lady in a booth—perhaps even today the Jewish people are unsure of their safety. The museum is in a Jewish Centre, where you can also sign up for Jewish dancing lessons, and language courses.
The displays were all in glass cases (not an attractive museum to visit) but I was given an audio guide in English, which helped. The guide was rather long-winded, and the man speaking was rather pedantic, but there was a fast-forward feature, so I gleaned what I could from his descriptions and muted the other bits (be nice to do this in real-life sometimes). The museum is Jewish, and I guess any museum is likely to have a bias. Whilst what happened to the Jews was unforgiveable and too horrid to properly grasp, I’m not sure if the pre-war Jews were all quite as perfect, fully integrated and wonderful as the museum portrays. It felt a little like when you attend a funeral, and you don’t recognise the person everyone is describing because they sound like a saint but you know they could be an awkward individual when they were alive. Is that right, or should we be more honest? I don’t know. We like our victims/heroes to be perfect and our villains to be completely evil, but life is not like that. Here is my understanding of the history of Jews in Riga, based on what I saw:
In the early 1900s, the Jews were poor, but rather clever at business. An example was given of a merchant who could initially only afford to employ 3 men, and two years later due to clever business skills he owned 3 factories. However, there were limitations on their social status, and they were only allowed to work in certain areas.
In 1905, during the revolution, there were attempts to suppress Jewish people, and many left the Baltic region at this time.
The Jews were part of society, but they were seen as inferior. Literature shows the Jew as a figure of fun, they are portrayed as slightly dim and generally unhealthy and dishonest. They were laughed at, though not particularly disliked. Jews often appeared in children’s stories as a travelling peddler, a thin man with a big nose, who would try to trick you if you weren’t careful.
In 1918, during the Latvian fight for independence, Jews signed up to fight. The Bolsheviks, known as ‘The Red Terror’ were violent and unfair. In 1919, many Jews joined the army, some as young as 15 years old. The museum had medals, showing the awards Jewish soldiers had received for bravery, though it didn’t state what percentage of Jewish men joined the army.
In 1920, rumours began to spread that the Jews were against the new Latvian nation. There were reports that Jews had refused to fight, that no Jews had joined the army, that they were not truly part of Latvia. The Jews attempted to combat this by publishing their own newspapers, in Russian and German as well as Yiddish. Jewish students set up clubs (fraternities) to balance those that were anti-Semitic. Jewish business flourished in free Latvia, and Jewish people owned banks and businesses (though the anti-Jewish cartoons were still around). The Jews took part in sports, to try and dispel the idea that they were physically weak, and set up competitions and tournaments.
When the Nazi party took control of Germany, people in Latvia boycotted German goods in protest. Many Jewish refugees arrived in Latvia, trying to escape the Nazis.
In 1940, the Soviets entered Latvia. All Jewish societies were closed and some Jews were deported to Siberia. Then the Nazis arrived, and the horrors increased.
In August 1941 a Ghetto was set up in Riga. All Jews were forced to leave their homes and live in the Ghetto. Synagogues were burnt—sometimes when filled with people trapped inside. Propaganda depicted the Jews as weak, ugly, thick and greedy. It was said they refused to be part of society, they hid their wealth, they were the cause of all the troubles. The Nazis tried to turn Latvian citizens against the Jews, and they became outcasts.
By the autumn of 1941, the Ghetto had been emptied of all Jews apart from men deemed strong enough to work. Everyone else had been murdered.
The museum even has films of Jews being shot (after being forced to run into a pit). The Nazis were so sure of their absolute supremacy, that they would never be held to account, that they filmed and photographed the killings.
Somehow, seeing these photographs was harder than seeing the ones when I visited Auschwitz. Perhaps because the people were well-dressed and healthy. I found it more shocking, to see attractive teenaged girls being killed, rather than the gaunt pictures of starving people in the camps—it’s always easier to relate to people who look like the people around us, I suppose. And that is the point—these people were like us. They would have been good people, and not so nice people, and some who were kind and others who were rude, just like us.
One display case showed the passage from Psalm 22, used by Jews to express their agony: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” These are familiar words for Christians, but in the later context of the crucifixion.
In 1943, the Ghetto was emptied of men, when they were sent to the death camps. The Riga ghetto was then divided, and became a stopping place for Jews from other countries who were on their way to the camps in Germany and Poland.
I was interested to read that there had been some Jewish resistance to all this. Some people smuggled weapons into the ghetto, hoping either to escape or to at least die with dignity, defending themselves. There was a big escape attempt from the Riga ghetto, but most escapees were later caught and shot, and 80 other Jews were shot in punishment. However, some Jews did manage to escape from the ghettos, and from the death marches.
One area of the museum was dedicated to people who had helped the Jews during the war. Not everyone believed the propaganda, not everyone sided with the Soviets and the Nazis. Some people were brave enough to risk their own lives, and helped Jews to survive. (Would we be wise enough today, to resist the messages in social media, to be able to discern what is actually true?)
In 1940, it was estimated that there were 95,000 Jews living in Riga. In 1945, it is thought that only 1,000 were still alive.
There is a big memorial, in a forest, in memory of the slain Jews. One day, I hope to visit it. Perhaps by remembering the horrors of the past, we can help to ensure we don’t repeat the same evils today.
I recently read a novel, which examines the idea of national bias, set amidst the more recent conflict between Zionists and Palestinians. I’ll tell you about it on Monday — why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?
This is my final blog about Latvia for now. Next time we visit will be in the winter, I’m so looking forward to seeing the city with snow.
Live well today.
Love, Anne x
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