Jews in Latvia

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.

Take care,

Love, Anne x

Anne E Thompson has written several novels and writes a regular blog each week. You can follow her blog at:

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

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Exploring Riga Old Town

Exploring Riga Old Town

Husband was working in Riga (Latvia) so I had tagged along for the ride, and we spent the second day exploring the Old Town (clue in the name!) It is full of pretty squares and interesting buildings, and although much of it was rebuilt after the war, they have preserved the historical feel of the city. It’s a nice place to be. We walked through the park which runs alongside the river, and into the pedestrianised zone. We passed Powder Tower (see yesterday’s blog) and saw The Swedish Gate, which is the only remaining gate from the old city wall, and was built below someone’s house — not sure if they were pleased, somewhat inconvenient to have people traipsing below your house I would have thought.

We arrived at St. Jacob’s Cathedral, which has a monument outside to remember the people who died in the 1991 barricades (more about this in a later blog). St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a red brick building, built outside of the original city wall. It has a cupola on the south side, which once held a bell—not to summon people to prayer, but to let them know that an execution was taking place in the city. The bell is no longer there. I am assuming the executions are also a thing of the past.


Opposite the cathedral is the Parliament building (some discussion with Husband about Riga’s flag—I can tell you that it’s red with a white stripe down the middle, and he was wrong. Just saying.)

During World War II, the building was the headquarters for the SS officer responsible for killing the Latvian Jews, gays and Roma. Later it was used by the Supreme Soviet of Latvia. This is an example, repeated around the city, of buildings which were built to look pretty, and later used for a variety of horrible things, and have now returned to simply being buildings. Latvia has a tangled history, and there are traces left wherever you go. I wonder if it’s better to not read any guidebooks or visit any museums, and to simply enjoy the beauty of the place in the sunshine and leave the ghosts in the past.

Around the corner from St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a hidden cafe in a courtyard, which claims to be the most romantic cafe in the world (good marketing strategy!) It offers free hugs at the counter (so I’m guessing it’s run by the church). There was also a Christian bookshop, and I bought my mother a scarf. Riga has lots of linen goods and knitted goods, probably because in the winter it’s usually snowy. This is the city to visit if you want to buy a warm hat that your family will mock.

There are three houses, known as The Three Brothers because they each have a distinct architectural style. Two men busk outside, playing music that the locals recognise and sing along to (I saw them there on several occasions). This means everyone has very confusing photographs, as they are of “The Three Brothers” but they show only two men.

Next on our tour was Dome Square. (To be honest, it wasn’t a very good ‘tour’ as it was simply Husband following a route on a map, regularly waving towards interesting buildings and informing me: “There’s a thing!”) Dome Cathedral has a cockerel on the spire, and the building is lower than the square, as they have raised the land since it was built, to stop the area flooding. (Not sure if this means the cathedral now floods instead—hopefully not.) There was a young girl playing a violin outside. She was very young, and played extremely well, and was receiving a lot of money, as almost everyone passing threw something into her violin case. There are a lot of buskers in Riga, many of them young, most of them excellent musicians. It’s rather lovely to wander around, looking at interesting buildings while accompanied by music.

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

Riga has several squares, and many churches/cathedrals. The next square on our tour had a very interesting building: the House of Blackheads—so named because it was a guild for foreign merchants, and their patron was St. Maurice (who was black). I began to realise that many of the buildings, built in the 1500s and 1600s, show how affluent Riga had once been. It was an important trading port, full of rich merchants, and the architecture reflects this. Further from the centre, the buildings were once beautiful, but are now faded, and sometimes derelict, whereas the ones in the centre of the old town have been rebuilt since the war. It must have been a magnificent place a few hundred years ago, and it is still pretty today. You should visit before it becomes too busy. It’s up to you whether you take a guide book and learn about the past, or simply enjoy what you see today.

Tomorrow I will show you some more pretty buildings which have rather nasty history (like the old KGB headquarters)—why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Hope you have an interesting day.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

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Riga in the Summer

Riga in the Summer

Riga is the capital city of the little country of Latvia, and I visited it last week, when Husband was working there. I have never visited Latvia before (I am loath to say that I didn’t even know that Latvia was across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, between Estonia and Lithuania—because that makes me look ignorant!)

Latvia has had a chequered history, belonging at different times to Sweden, Germany and Russia, and more recently being part of the Soviet Union. I had no idea what to expect from the city, but “ex-Soviet Union” musters images in my mind of austere buildings and ugly sculptures; so the pretty architecture and sunny parks were a pleasant surprise (I’ll mention the sculptures later…)

We arrived on Friday, and caught a taxi from the airport. A word of warning here: Taxis in Riga have their prices printed on the outside of the rear door, and there is quite a lot of variation in the price/km charged. There doesn’t seem to be any regulated pricing or official taxi rank at the airport. We chose a taxi with a similar price/km to others we could see, and set off. Husband (who notices these things) realised that the price that was showing on the metre, did not tally with the price displayed outside; you need to keep an eye on what you are being charged. (However, whilst this might be useful information, I have no idea what you do with the knowledge. Next time I am in Riga, if the taxi driver has an over-priced metre, I do not feel inclined to confront him and be dumped in an isolated spot with no transport. But at least you’ll know if you’re being ripped-off and can withhold the tip!) Note, we were later informed by the hotel that we had paid an inflated price. The red taxis (Red Cab) and the lime green taxis (Baltic Taxis) are much cheaper, and cost about .70/km (not 1.99/km, which is what we paid). They park slightly further away from the main exit door at the airport.

We were staying in the AC Hotel, which is an easy walk from the old town. It was okay—I’ve stayed in prettier hotels, and the rooms were as tiny as New York hotel rooms (ie they fitted a bed, but not much else). However, at about £80 a night, it compares to staying somewhere like a Premier Inn on price, and it was much nicer than that!

We set off for a walk to the old part of the city (about 15 minute walk). There was a park, complete with a river and bridges, and outside cafes. There were also lots of people on scooters. These can be rented (information according to Husband, so might be rubbish) and are left and found in random places around the city. They whoosh past you at unexpected times, and must, I imagine, be uncomfortable on the cobbled streets, but they were popular. Very popular.

The park also gave us our first taste of Latvian sculptures, which were as bad as I’d feared. They mostly have the whole cubist-looking Soviet Union chunky-art look. Apparently (read the guide book afterwards) many were put up during the Soviet rule, and many of the ones honouring Soviet people have since been removed. But the ones of famous Latvians remain, staring grimly at tourists, reminding us that the city has not always been a happy place. (Apologies if you actually like the style of Soviet sculptures, perhaps it’s an acquired taste. Everyone looks like Stalin to my eyes.) We did see some more pleasing sculptures, but the dominant ones were very ugly.

We found the Freedom Monument (called Milda—not sure if that’s her real name) and a woman was busking. During Soviet rule, there was a large statue of Lenin facing the monument, and people were not allowed to place flowers on the monument. Leaving flowers on monuments seems to be a thing in Latvia.

The main street through the old town is pedestrianised, which was good, as although there are crossings at the other roads, you are supposed to wait for the lights to go green, and they took hours. Latvians are very obedient about this. All the streets seem to be cobbled, which is probably helpful in the winter, when there’s lots of snow, but means you need to leave your heels at home.

We had coffee and beer next to the Powder Tower, which used to hold gunpowder and is now the war museum. Riga has a lot of museums. The outside of this one is interesting, because you can see cannon balls embedded in the walls, from an ancient battle.

Found ‘Cat House’. This was owned by a merchant who was told he couldn’t join one of the guilds, as it was only open to Germans. He placed two cat statues on his roof, with their tails raised, and their bottoms pointing towards the guild! Later, when the guild finally accepted him, he changed the cat’s position, but they are still on the roof. Many of the souvenirs in Riga have cats on them.

We walked back to the hotel, past lots of churches (Riga has a lot of churches) with scooters whizzing past us, watching our footing on the cobbled streets and waiting many hours at the pedestrian lights.

Riga is very pretty, especially when the sun is shining. I will show you more tomorrow–why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Thanks for reading.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Thanks for reading.
You can follow my blog at:

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

If you enjoyed this, why not read The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary?

Available from an Amazon near you…free if you have a Kindle. A travel diary to make you smile. Buy your copy today.

UK Amazon link