by Jono David
When I asked Riga Jewish Museum
curator Lia German if she had a message for other
Jews, she said, “I have no message. If they
want to know about us [Latvian Jews] they can come
here.” As she stated, I was in the Latvian capital
to know about a part of my heritage. Lia's message
hangs on the walls of the museum in the form of a
small but moving tribute to the victims of the war
which she helped collect and translate.
Downstairs in the foyer, Lazers Bindeman, a former
Russian soldier, considered some photographs. He was in his native
city to visit his family, though not a reunion filled with merriment.
His mother and three brothers are in the cemetery. They were killed
by Germans in World
War II. ”The conditions during the war were
very bad,” he explained, “I don't know how anyone
survived.” Considering the barbarous events of the war, it is
indeed a wonder.
Lazers, 74, was back in Riga for only the second
time since emigrating to Brooklyn, New York in 1978. A former shoe
factory manager here, he took his lawyer wife and five other members
of his family, leaving behind Soviet controlled Latvia. He didn't
speak a word of English then but somehow managed to land an
engineering job with the Omni Hotel. “It was my first and only
job in America,” he boasted. “But it wasn't an easy
History tells us that times have never been easy
for the Jews of Riga, though with the advent of perestroika, today's
community of 15,000 (only half of which are native Latvians) has it
easier than perhaps any time preceding it. Lia and Lazers have
experienced the best and worst of those times. Though their
experiences are different, they share a bitterness.
Even on Latvia's regained independence, Lia
commented spiritlessly: “It wasn't bad. I was born in an
independent Latvia. [Independence] was quite natural. I always had
Latvian friends, so my feelings didn't change [after
independence].” By contrast, Lazers was a bit more spry,
remarking, “It's wonderful to be here in a free Latvia
The Jewish history of Riga reaches as far back as
the 13th century, but it wouldn't be for at least 200 more years that
Jews would make an economic impact. In the early 14th century, he Master of the German Order ruled that Jews were banned from settling the region. In 1561, when the Polish gained control of the territory, Jews slowly began to settle. In the 15th and 16th centuries, only the most prominent Jews were allowed to live in Riga, but were
confined to Judenherberge, or special inns.
They were banned from being buried within city limits, therefore Jewish dead were taken to cemeteries in Poland until 1725, when permission to build a cemetery finally came. By the mid-18th century, there were still only a couple hundred Jews in Riga. In the 18th century, rules binding Jewish movements in the city were
relaxed and Jewish residents started to appear. Of those first
tenants there were skilled craftsmen, producing the finest shoes,
furs, and furniture. Intellectuals led the way in finance, medicine,
and law. But whilst a fair number of Jews prospered, many others were
vagrants. The Jewish community was centered in Maskavas, a ghetto just southeast of Old Town. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed most of Maskavas, leaving few remnants of early Rigan Jewish history. By 1824, there were 513 Jews registered in Riga and by 1897, there were more than 20,000, which was approximately 8 perecent of the population of Riga. Though the
number was small, it was nonetheless significant. (That number would
peak in 1935 at 43,672, more than 11 percent of the city's inhabitants. By 1944, it was cut to 150.)
Partway through the 19th century, housing restrictions were lifted and many Jews left Maskavas for other parts of the city.
Trolley on Maskavas Street, the Ghetto area,
In the late 1920s, Riga became the center of the global Lubavitch movement due to its leader, Joseph I. Schneersohn, receiving citizenship and protection by the Latvian government after being exiled from the Soviet Union.
In the early part of the 20th century, Jews were
charged for provoking riots by the enemies of the revolutions of 1905
against Tsar Nicholas II, and again during the Bolshevik Revolution
of 1917. Supporters, on the other hand, blamed Jews for the failures.
After the Germans invaded Riga, the balance of political power was
destabilized and again Jews were reproached. The peace which followed
would be short lived, as the rise of Hitler loomed forebodingly on the political horizon.
When the Red Army entered Riga in June 1940, many
Jews scrambled to the USSR, for faith in the West was lost. During
this period, Jewish leaders were arrested and deported to Siberia and
never returned. Lia German and her family were some of the lucky
ones. When war broke out in June 1941, they went to Semipalatinsk,
Kazakstan. “It was a long, uncomfortable journey. But we lived
okay there,” she told me. “My mother worked for the Latvian
ministry, so she came back to Riga about a year before me. And then
one day (in 1944) she just telephoned me and said, Œlia, come back
to Riga.'” At 19, she entered the Institute to study philology,
a perfectly suitable topic for a girl who grew up surrounded by
German, Yiddish, Latvian, Russian, and Hebrew.
View around the Old Ghetto area
Only about 150 Jews from Riga survived the Holocaust.
After the defeat of Hitler,
thousands of Jews returned to Latvia, including Jews from other parts
of the Soviet empire. By 1989, some 23,000 Jews were registered in
Riga, a number which continuously diminishes due to emigration to Israel, Britain, and the United
States. Still, Jewish doctors, scientists, engineers, artists, and
teachers are making a noticeable impression on the culture of the
city. Today's Jews live freely and with the full support of the
Rabbi Mordechai Glazman came to Riga in March 1992
with his family to make good on the biblical command, “Ahavat
Yisroel - Love of a fellow Jew,” to which Chabad,
an international movement to raise the Jewish consciousness of world
Jewry, adheres. We met after a Tuesday morning service at the
synagogue in the heart of the Old City. “In the beginning, it
was really tough for my wife and me,” he confided over some
latkes and salad in the soup kitchen he oversees adjacent to the synagogue. “I couldn't speak Russian (which most older members of the
community speak), so getting anything done was difficult. Our
apartment was awful, too. And the shops didn't have the basic
essentials; just finding toilet paper was an ordeal. But things have
improved immensely in the last few years, for everyone here, not only
Jews.” Since his arrival, he told me the biggest change has been
“the general interest of the community in their Judaism.
The community as a whole has been reinvented.”
Riga's religious life is led by Rabbi Nathan Barkan, the chief rabbi of Latvia. In the past few years, most notably since 1992, striking changes have occured in the Jewish community. The Ohel Menachem
Kindergarten and Day School opened in September 1995, providing
education in both Judaic and secular studies. A yeshiva for advanced
Jewish studies opened in January 1992. There is also Jewish school
for teens. Since August 1993, Chabad has organized summer youth camps. Kids have been preparing for Bar
and Bat Mitzvahs since February of that same year, and moreover,
are encouraged to learn about their heritage. Men and women, too, are
actively courted to participate in religious studies which aim to
rekindle and enhance a long dormant Jewish way of life with import
and relevance in a newly emerged Latvia. Since March 1992, the soup
kitchen has provided some forty hot meals a day in a cozy atmosphere
for those elderly members of the community who cannot survive on
their pensions. The kitchen serves up an additional 300 meals a month
for those who are homebound.
In 1998, the Center for Judaic Studies was founded. Located at the University of Latvia and headed by Professor Ruvin Ferber, the center offers classes on Jewish history, tradition, and philosophy.
The Riga Synagogue, also called Peitav Shul, is the sole survivor of Riga's fourteen synagogues. The Jewish community of Riga celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2005. Merely a shadow of its former self, its two stories stand behind a heavily chained gate giving the
first time visitor the impression that it is firmly shut. Upon entry
from a derelict back entrance, I found eleven seasoned men wrapped up
in the leathery web of morning tefillin,
davening rhythmically beneath grand chandeliers suspended above a
bimah of brass and marble. In front, Rabbi Glazman's entire body
rocked with prayer. I took a seat in the back next to a man who just
glared at me. A late arrival approached me and said,
“Jewish?” When I replied I was, he extended his hand in
welcome and said “Shalom”. Another man passed me a note on
a tattered scrap of paper that read: “Let's go to the Riga [old
The Riga Synagogue
The Peitav Shul escaped destruction by the Nazis because of its architecture. Wedged between two other Old Town buildings, the Nazis decided against burning it down as they did to the rest of Riga's synagogues, due to its close proximity to the neighboring buildings. The synagogue served as a warehouse and horse stall until the end of the war.
The ghetto is situated about one kilometer to the
southeast of the old city in a three-quarter square-kilometer area
known as Maskavas Forstate. Little remains of the area's once vibrant
Jewish character save for a legion of derelict wood and brick
buildings and a few memorials to the victims of the holocaust. Still,
a walk through the area is rewarded with stops at such places as Die
Greise Hor Shul, The Big Choral Synagogue, on Gogola Street, which
was completely destroyed on 4 July 1941. On that morning, about 300
Lithuanian Jews were rounded up and taken into the basement of the Big Choral Synagogue. Nazis threw grenades at the shul's windows and burnt down the building, leaving no one left alive inside. Such was the fate of many other Jews and synagogues, a
seemingly favorite means of Nazi
execution. On 4 July 1988, a memorial was dedicated on the very
The Old Jewish Cemetery on Liksnas Street was the
first tract of Jewish land in Riga; it was obtained in the early 18th
century. The road leading to it was known as Hebraische
Begrabnisstrasse, or Jewish Cemetery Street. The location became a
killing ground in July of 1941. After the war, the cemetery was
desecrated. Today, it is the Park of the Communist Brigades.
Strewn all about today's Old Town are fragments of
yesterday's Jewish past: Gmilas Hesed, a Jewish philanthropic
society, on Stabu Street; a society for the promotion of education
among Riga Jews on Abrenes Street; the first Jewish press in Riga on
Peldu Street; the first secular school on Lacplesa Street; the
central office of the Jewish National Fund on Daugavas Street; and a
good deal more. The ruins of the Big Choral Synagogue are located at the intersection of Gogola and Dzirnavu Streets. In 1988, a large gray memorial stone was erected in its honor.
Riga is an open book of Jewish history. Like Lia
German and her exhibits at the Jewish Museum, messages from the past
are strewn about the place. As she had said: a visit to Riga is know
Jewish history here.
The Jewish Community Center (Aleph)
The Jews in Latvia Museum
Skolas 6 (Located within the Jewish Community Center)
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
Sources: Jono David. “The
Jews of Riga.”Jono David Media.
Jono David. HaChayim
HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (Jono
Fellner, Dan. “The Jewish
Traveler: Riga.” Hadassah
Magazine, October 2003.