Saturday, 9 May 2015

Riga ghetto and Latvia Holocaust Museum

The area around Riga Central market is a bit dodgy to say the least, though in recent years it's seen some serious development. Now narrow alleys are lined with rows of recently renovated buildings housing beauty salons, small boutiques, cafes and art galleries.

The street right behind it, Maskavas iela, marks the beginning of a peculiar neighbourhood consisting of run down wooden houses. 

Once upon a time this was Riga Jewish ghetto.

Technically the occupation of Latvia divides into three phases. Between the years 1940-1941 and from 1944/45 to 1991 the Soviet was in charge. During the years in between the legacy of tyranny was successfully overseen by the Nazi Germany.

In July 1941 the synagogues of Riga were burned. Latvians were actually encouraged to turn on the local Jewry and even kill them. The Jews were required to wear not just one star, but two: one in their chest and another in the back - making them easier to spot. Thousands of Jews were beaten to death on prisons with total impunity. Public spaces were banned from the Jews.

Gestapo set up its own headquarters in the building of Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, located in Raina bulvāris street. The basement of that building became the place were Jews were interrogated and tortured. Those thrown in jail starved to death.

In October that year the Jews of Riga and area surrounding it were gathered in the ghetto. Almost 30 000 Jews were killed in Rumbula massacre that lasted from late November to early December.

Logistics and meticulous planning were things that Nazis had mastered. Eventually they started to bring in trainloads of Jews from Germany, too. Most of them were killed here in Riga. 

The open air exhibition tracks these journeys. And the people on them. 

In the spring of 1943 Kaiserwald concentration camp was built in the suburbs of Riga, in a place today known as Mežaparks. Some of the Jews were transferred there. 

At the end of that year the ghetto was emptied and the remaining Jews who'd managed to evade one of the many mass killings, were loaded onto a train.

Destination: Auschwitz.

Museum's exceptional approach gives faces to people behind these names and keeps the stories of their lives alive in a novel way.

In a dark hall the visitor is greeted with lanterns featuring photographs, travel documents and background stories of the perished.

From family portraits taken on happier, care-free days to diary extracts and notes hastily scribbled on postcards. 

Ordinary people describing extraordinary conditions  and the journey to a destination that no-one in the 20th century Europe could have imagined lay ahead of them.

Why? Kāpēc? Warum? 

?פֿאַר וואָס 

Third Reich might have been the dream of one sociopath, but thousands, if not tens of thousands of people were either directly or indirectly responsible for turning into harrowing reality. 

No country in the world can have that many twisted, pathologically citizens with no conscience to tell them killing innocent people is ok,  right? Let alone exterminating an entire group of them?


That just tells how well the groundwork had been done; how successful the demonisation of one minority had been. The whole country had been sold this idea of them as non-humans; a pile of garbage with no rights or value. 

And all simply because their religion was different. 

Like tour of the Corner House, visit here is a powerful experience that leaves one silent. 

Travelling really does broaden your horizons. It brings history, other nations and tragedies they've faced close and keeps memories of them alive in your heart for the rest of your life.

One question remains - always the same. And will probably always remain unanswered. How is it that we, the humanity, don't seem to have learnt anything? How is it that devastating acts of terror, such as the Holocaust are not something we left in the past; as cautionary tales we read about in history books, shaking our heads in disbelief?

How is it possible that, instead of mere footnotes in those books they remain the storyline in the book every single generation after that, ours included, is writing? That genocides have continued: in Cambodia, in the region of former Yugoslavia, Rwanda? How can it be explained that they still do, today? Ukraine, Somalia, North Korea, Syria?

I wish one day we learnt.

Hey, how are you all holding up over there? I know, I know. But you know what, I promise this was the last difficult place. I swear! From now on, the remaining posts will be all about holiday and good food and wine, ok? 

And speaking of which - where to next? Should we pop over to the Central Market, seeing how it's right over there? Or are you guys getting hungry? Should we stop for a meal?




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