I started my tour of Jewish Riga at the Community Center on Skolas Street. Constructed in 1913 it originally accommodated various Jewish organizations, a Jewish theater, a Jewish library and served as the preeminent venue for Jewish functions (Jews were excluded from town guilds). After regaining independence the Latvian government returned the premises to the Latvian Society for Jewish Culture (LSJC), who in turn allotted the property to the Riga Jewish Community (RJC). Having resumed her original purpose, the building now hosts the Jews in Latvia Museum. Alas, it was closed for a student gathering. I overheard the young people speaking in Russian and I even saw one boy wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat- testament to the Russian persuasion of Jews in Eastern Europe (as in Vilnius).
Passed the astonishing Roman Catholic Nativity Cathedral (1876) en route.
Took a short bus ride to the Old Jewish cemetery located in the suburban Moscow District. Jews first settled in Riga on a permanent basis with the Polish occupation during the Livonian War (1558-1583); however, the first Jewish burials were not allowed until 1725- when the Old Jewish Cemetery was established.
Headstones were removed during the Soviet occupation, and in 1960 the Communists Brigades Park was established therein. The only evidence of her original purpose are two monuments that stand near her entrance.
It is an otherwise hideous park.
To reach Old Town I walked through the Moscow District, which was once designated the Riga Ghetto. While a quarter of Riga’s Jews scrambled to the interior of the Soviet Union in the months before the Nazis arrived, the 30,000 remaining were forced into the ghetto in October of 1941. Only a few thousand survived the massacres of early December in the Bikernieki and Rumbula forests. The dead were replaced by some 20,000 transports from Western Europe, who in 1943 were shipped to their deaths in concentration camps. Roughly 50,000 ghetto inhabitants perished during the Holocaust.
I was surprised to find a sign that read ‘Bikur Holim’ (Hebrew for ‘heal the sick’). Turns out it was a Jewish hospital established in 1924 that still serves its original purpose.
Finally reached the Great Choral Synagogue just after noon. Constructed in 1871 it was the largest and grandest in all of Latvia.
Her establishment would have coincided with the arrival of my great-great-great-grandparents, Moses Smulson and Minnie Brenner, originally of the Siauliai region in Lithuania. It was in Riga that the Smulsons (who then went by Shmuelov) bore and raised five children, including my grandmother’s grandmother, Lena Weisbond nee Smulson. Lena immigrated with her parents to Baltimore in 1891.
In July of 1941 some 400 Jews were led into the synagogue. Grenades were thrown inside and the synagogue, with her occupants, burned to the ground.
A memorial to the victims was erected adjacent earlier this year.
A nearby monument honors Zanis Lipke (1900-1987) who used his position in the Nazi military to smuggle Jews from the ghetto. Roughly one quarter of the 200 Jews from Riga who survived the war attribute their lives to Lipke’s efforts.
By then the falling snow had thickened and my hand was entirely numb from neglecting my glove in order to take pictures. Was excited to reach the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, but was disappointed to find an outdoor exhibition.
Used an indoor display to warm up. It traced the history of the Armenian Genocide. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide for the United Nations Convention, noted that ‘a strong parallel may be drawn between the extermination of the Armenians by the Turks and the extermination of the Jews by the Germans’.
The main exhibition features a double-sided display structured along a path intended to replicate a typical street in the ghetto.
One side offered a detailed chronology of Jewish life in Latvia through the Holocaust, the other listed victims.
Towards one end stands a cattle car used to transport Jews to and from the ghetto.
It contained an exhibit about the transport from Berlin.
At the other end stands a memorial to the 70,000 Latvian Jews massacred by the Nazis.
Adjacent stands a factory where ghetto inhabitants were marched each day to serve as forced labor.
Behind the memorial stands a home transplanted from the ghetto in recent years. It housed thirty inhabitants during the war.
The bottom floor holds impressive models of the incredible synagogues that crowded Latvia before the war.
The top floor recreates the conditions of a typical ghetto residence.
Made my way from the museum to the only synagogue in Riga that survived the war. Located in the heart of Old Town, it was feared that burning her would threaten adjacent properties.
Built in 1905, the Peitav Shul serves the 12,000 strong Jewish community of Riga.
Designed in Art Nouveau style it is surely one of the most beautiful synagogue interiors I’ve seen (along with the Temple Synagogue in Krakow).
The original torah scrolls miraculously survived the war inside the Aron Kodesh.
With that I made my way to the bus station where I ate lunch and blogged. Also had time to vent to my parents.
Blogged on the bus, arrived in Vilnius at 9:00.