The Virtual Jewish History Tour
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 time.”
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 again.”
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, Riga
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, Ślia, 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.
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 Latvian government.
View around the Old Ghetto area
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 ghetto].”
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.