Latvia’s community reborn: Jews foster renewed hopes

Labdien from Riga, Latvia.

Labdien is the Latvian form of greeting, and literally means “good day.” As I write from our apartment in the city center of Riga, it is a cold autumn day. The sunny skies of Phoenix seem very far away. Still, we have spent so much time in Latvia over the past year that it has come to feel like home. We have come to love this charming city and feel fortunate to have been able to spend so much time exploring this interesting country and learning about Latvia’s Jewish community.

This is a fascinating time to visit Latvia. Located in northeastern Europe, the country achieved its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Latvia has made great progress in reforming its government and economy. The country is preparing to join NATO and the European Union in the near future. National elections were held on Oct. 5, resulting in a change in leadership of the government through democratic processes that were inconceivable just 15 years ago.

The Jewish community is also experiencing a revival, as I was able to experience firsthand by observing holidays and attending two international conferences on Jewish themes in Riga.

Approximately 10,000 Jews now live in Latvia. Most Latvian Jews live in Riga, the country’s capital and largest city.

The Jewish Community Center symbolizes the revival of Latvia’s Jewish community. The center is housed in the building that once served as the Jewish Theater before the destruction of the Jewish community in the Holocaust. The center, known as “Aleph” within the Jewish community, was established in 2000 with assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee.

The Jews in Latvia Museum, located on the third floor of the Jewish Community Center, is the best place to begin exploring Riga’s Jewish past.

At the museum, I purchased a guidebook to the historical sites of Riga’s Jewish community. The guidebook offers a heart-breaking walking tour through the void that was once a vibrant Jewish community. Although Jews have lived in Latvia for centuries, the Nazis destroyed virtually every aspect of Jewish communal and religious life. The subsequent Soviet occupation of Latvia further suppressed signs of Jewish life.

Today, there is one synagogue in Riga. Built in 1905, the Peitavas Street synagogue (Peitav Shul) is located in Riga’s Old Town and has a beautiful, traditional interior. It is the only synagogue in Riga to have survived the Holocaust.

We attended High Holiday services at the synagogue in September and were pleased to see the large number of people in attendance. Sadly, like American synagogues today, police were on-site to provide security.

In addition to worshipping at the synagogue, we enjoyed celebrating Sukkot with the Jewish community. Chabad erected a sukkah in one of Riga’s main parks. A number of curious Latvians also came by to peek into the sukkah and watch the festivities.

Such a public celebration of Sukkot could not have been imagined just 50 years ago.

When the Germans occupied Latvia in 1941, they immediately began exterminating Latvia’s Jewish community. Jews were herded into a ghetto in a poor section of Riga. On July 4, 1941, hundreds of Jews died when the Choral Synagogue was set on fire. Its remains still exist, in a busy part of the city.

All told, more than 70,000 Latvian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Most were executed in Latvia in 1941, rather than deported to concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were executed in mass killing actions in the Bikernieku Forest. In just two days – Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941 – approximately 28,000 Jews were murdered in Rumbula Forest. Mass killings also took place in other Latvian towns. The executions were carried out by German and Latvian forces.

In addition to the Biker-nieku Forest and Rumbula Forest killings, concentration camps were built at Salispils and Kaiserwald, near Riga. We took a day-trip to visit the remains of the Salispils concentration camp, located about an hour’s drive outside of Riga.

The Latvian inscription at the entry to the Salispils memorial advises visitors that “behind this gate the earth groans.” Enormous stark statues are placed throughout the grounds. A metronome echoes the sound of heartbeats. But the explanatory materials at the memorial do not identify Jews as having been among the camp’s victims.

To date, Latvia has not successfully prosecuted any suspected Holocaust war criminals. However, the Holocaust is receiving renewed attention in Latvia in other ways. Last November, I attended an international seminar in Riga on “The Issues of the Research into the Holocaust” dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the mass killing of the Jews in Rumbula Forest.

Immediately following this conference, a new Holocaust memorial was unveiled in the notorious Bikernieku Forest. The main memorial features inscriptions in Russian, Hebrew and Latvian on a large white stone block, covered by intersecting arches. The surrounding area is filled with jagged rocks, with each collection of rocks representing an exterminated Jewish community.

Since 1998, the Latvian government has been vocal in its support of the Jewish community and increased Holocaust research activities. These developments in Latvia’s relations with the Jewish community were further illustrated at the international conference on “Jews in a Changing World” that I attended in Riga last fall.

Conference speakers and participants came from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Israel and Germany. During the opening ceremony, the President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga addressed the conference and spoke of its importance in helping establish Latvia’s image as a “modern, democratic country where all minorities, including Jews, can discuss their interests.”

After the tragic events of the 20th century in Latvia, the activities and accomplishments of Riga’s Jewish community are impressive indeed. The official support now being given by the Latvian government to recognizing and researching the crimes committed against the Jews in Latvia during World War II is also encouraging.

In closing, I would like to share one other special experience. This year on Sept. 11, we attended a memorial service commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The memorial service was organized by the Latvian government and took place in Riga’s grandest cathedral. Mozart’s “Requiem” was performed by the local symphony and chorus. Latvia’s prime minister spoke warmly of Latvia’s appreciation of the United States for its support during the 50 years of Soviet occupation.

But what impressed me most of all was the huge turnout of Latvians who came to the early morning service. The cathedral was completely filled, with crowds of people in the aisles. It was a gratifying message of support and appreciation for our country in these difficult times.

And so, the view from Riga is one of hope: hope for the continued revitalization of Jewish culture and the spread of democratic values and tolerance in this part of the world.

Amy and Dan Fellner of Gilbert are spending the fall 2002 semester in Riga, Latvia, teaching at Latvian universities through the U.S. government’s Fulbright Scholar program.

Amy Fellner can be reached at awfellner@hotmail.com.

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