David Silberman Honoring the Memory of Holocaust Surviviors

David Silberman
Participant of the Reunion
 
The Sixth World-wide Reunion of Latvian Jews took place in Riga from June 30 to July 5, 2011. Simultaneously, the 8th International Conference “The Jews in a Changing World” was held in the Jewish Community Center, located in Riga at 6 Skolas Street. Both gatherings were dedicated to two historical events: 70 years since the start of the Holocaust in Latvia, and 450 years since the Jews first settled in this country, in the Duchy of Courland.
 


For 450 years the Jewish Community presence on Latvian soil has worked creatively, making a large contribution to the development of the country. The Holocaust period was tragic for Jews, and approximately seventy thousand, or more than 90% of  Latvia’s Jewish population, were murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators. This dark period was followed by 46 years of Soviet rule, and  a cruel anti-Semitic policy aimed at the elimination of all Jewish roots.
 
In the 20 years following re-establishment of the Latvia Republic as a sovereign state, which occurred in 1991, there has been a genuine renaissance of Jewish national life in Latvia in Jewish culture, Jewish education and restoration Jewish religious traditions.
 
As one of its first activities, the Latvia Jewish Community set about institutionalizing collective memory with formal monuments, markers and historical accounts. It began by investigating of the sites of Holocaust mass shootings. There are more than 200 such sites in Latvia, with memorial markers placed on each one. The large killing sites now have formal memorials that, in addition to identifying the location of these atrocities, evoke a feeling for the scale and personal nature of the loss at each place. Some feature lists of victims names. Additionally, books with Holocaust survivors’ stories have been published.
 
The Jewish Community has successfully restored the religious aspect of Jewish life in Latvia. The Peitav Shul, the synagogue in Riga’s Old Town, is Riga’s only surviving synagogue from before the war. Recently it was splendidly renovated. A network of Jewish schools has been established with high educational standards. This past year, the school named after Prof. Shimon Dubnov moved to a newly renovated building, where it is now operating.
 
The Reunion was opened on June 30 by Mr. Arkady Sukharenko, Chairman of  Latvia’s Council of Jewish Communities. Other speakers included Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Girt-Valdis Kristovskis, Israeli representative Mr. Naftoli Tamir, U.S. Ambassador Mrs. Judy Garber, and representatives of other foreign Jewish Organizations.
 
The first day of the Reunion ended with a deeply impressive and emotional show of excerpts (work in progress) from a new documentary film “Rumbula’s Echo,” by filmmaker Mitchell Lieber of Luminescence Media Group in Chicago.
 
The next day’s program included a visit to the Rumbula Memorial, the site of mass murder of Riga Ghetto Jews. At this site, participants heard speeches by representatives of the Israeli and U.S. delegations to the Reunion, and by representatives of the Jewish Community of Riga. They shared their stories of the Soviet times in the 1960’s. This is when they took the first steps  to identify these terrible places, carefully preserve them and install memorial markers. The ceremony ended with the laying of wreaths and the memorial prayers “El-Malei Rachamim” and “Kadish.”
 
Following the visit to the Rumbula Memorial, Reunion participants traveled to   large and small towns of Courland and Latgale. Visits and meetings were held at the sites where Jews were shot during Nazi occupation, reminding us of our sad memories. A special visit to Liepaja (Libau) was organized with three days of activities. These included visits to the Skede Memorial, the site at the Lighthouse where mass shootings of Libau Jews occurred and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
 
The 4th of July marked the peak of all Reunion activities, and is Latvia’s official national “Holocaust Day” All National flags were lowered to half staff and bore black strips of cloth as symbols of mourning.
 
A special event took place at the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Moscow Forstadt (suburb) neighborhood. A memorial plaque, in the form of an open Torah Scroll, was installed and unveiled at the cemetery by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.  During Nazi occupation, thousands of Jews from the nearby Riga Ghetto were murdered and buried in this cemetery. During Soviet rule the cemetery was deemed problematic and demolished. The grave stones were used as construction material elsewhere in the city and the cemetery was converted to a public park.  Official representatives of the Latvia Government and Riga Jewish Community spoke at the ceremony.
 
As a symbol of Jewish revival in Latvia, the Riga Jewish Religious Community known as Shamir, arranged a “March of the Living” from the Old Jewish Cemetery to the main ceremony at the Gogol Choral Synagogue site. The Gogol Synagogue was burned by Latvian collaborators operating on instructions from the Nazi occupiers, on July 4, 1941 with Jewish victims inside.
 
The Memorial Ceremony on the 4th of July is an annual tradition in Latvia. On this occasion marking 70 years since the beginning of the Holocaust in Latvia, it was attended by a particularly large crowd. Among the speakers were representatives of the Jewish Community and the government of Latvia, including President Valdis Zatlers, as well as Ambassadors from Israel, Russia and the USA.
 
An unusual event at this year’s memorial service was the arrival of many buses of young people from Germany. These include grandchildren and great grandchildren of Nazis and German soldiers who carried out Holocaust crimes and fought for Hitler. Today these young Germans recognize their nation’s responsibility for these crimes. They attended this memorial event to express their repentance, and solidarity in grief, with the Jewish People for the unforgettable crimes of the Holocaust. The community ceremony concluded with the tradition of laying wreaths and flowers on the nearby Monument to Rescuers of Jews and chanting the prayers, “El-Malei Rachamim” and “Kadish.”
 
On this same day, Reunion participants visited the Museum of Janis and Johanna Lipke that is nearing completion on Kipsala (an island in the Daugava River). The memorial is being built near the Lipke home, next to a former barn yard that was the site of the underground bunker where the Lipkes hid 7 Jews during the Nazi occupation.  On this same July 4, 2011, the Latvian government issued a commemorative postal stamp bearing the images of Janis and Johanna Lipke in their younger years. The background shows the Yad-VaShem “Righteous among the Nations” medal awarded to the Lipkes for saving Jews during Holocaust.
 
On July 5, 2011, the last day of the Reunion, the U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Mrs. Judith Garber, hosted a reception of our U.S. delegation in the newly   constructed and sophisticated embassy building. She shared comments about topics related to the relationship between the U.S. and Latvia. One topic of special interest was U.S. diplomatic assistance in securing the return of, or compensation for, public and private Jewish properties seized by the Nazis in Latvia.
 
In our meetings at the U.S. Embassy, and in all of our meetings, Professor George Schwab underlined his strong opposition to a practice engaged in by some Latvian historians and political figures. This is the treatment of the Soviet deportation of Latvians in 1941 and 1949 and the Holocaust of the Jewish people as equal and equivalent tragedies.  Professor Schwab asserted that the two forms of oppression are entirely incomparable, and the practice is unacceptable.
 
The Reunion participants then visited the Memorial in Bikernieki forest. Here, German occupiers and Latvian collaborators murdered young male Jews in mass graves during the first days of German occupation. The Jews were arrested in night raids or in the streets, because their oppressors feared the possibility of Jewish resistance. Later in the Holocaust, many thousands of Jews from Germany and European countries occupied by the Nazis, such as Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, were transported to Riga for shootings in the giant pits at  Bikernieki.
 
In 2001, with the financial support of mayors of German cities from which Jews were deported, the  Riga Jewish Community erected a majestic memorial in memory of the Holocaust  victims at Bikernieki.  Architect Sergei Ryzh created a unique design with an arch engraved with a mournful saying of the prophet Isaiah, and a niche-grave where the lists of victims names is buried.  On top of one of the mass graves were placed a field of rough cut stones symbolizing the number of Nazi terror victims. The mass grave has been divided into sections with passages like streets bearing the names of the German and European cities from which the deportation of the Jews took place for murder in Riga.
 
This World Reunion of Latvian Jews concluded the evening July 5, 2011 with a dinner in a prestigious Riga restaurant. It was hosted by the Council of Latvia’s Jewish Communities in honor of the foreign guests and with the goal of strengthening the community’s ties with Israel and with Jewish organizations throughout the world.
 
David Silberman
Participant of the Reunion