EDRS VISIT TO RIGA – MAY 2014
On Sunday, May 11th this year, 36 people set forth from EDRS, initially by coach to Gatwick Airport. The plane rose into the air, reaching terra firma after dark at Riga. Where is that ? You may well ask. Why, Latvia. Where ?? The middle one of the three Baltic States, so small that you can almost miss it on the map. Our superbly efficient tour managers, Andrea, Ros and Jeffrey made sure that we were comfortable for the night.
Next day, we were collected by Ilya, our friendly, knowledgeable, English-speaking Jewish guide, who took us first to a part of town full of an amazing collection of Art Nouveau buildings, including the childhood house of the great philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. Next we visited the picturesque old quarter of Riga with its narrow windy lanes, ending up at the Peitav Shul, the only synagogue still in use. We learned that whereas in 1939 there were over 100,000 Jews in Latvia, now there are only 8,000 but with an Orthodox Kehila and a thriving community. However, as most of the Jews there are relatively poor, the shul and other communal institutions are maintained financially by just a handful of families. The synagogue itself was saved during the war because the Latvian government told the Nazis that if they burnt the synagogue, the fire would spread to other buildings nearby. They then built a wall behind the synagogue and hid the Torah scrolls and artefacts, until the war was over.
In the afternoon, we took to the water, cruising the River Daugava by river boat. This river runs out to the Baltic Sea and is navigable by ocean going ships, so that for centuries Riga has been a major ice-free commercial port. In the Middle Ages, it was a member of the Hanseatic League – a German trade association.
The following day, Tuesday, we went to Riga’s Jewish Community Centre, a huge building with ornate interior décor, housing a museum, a theatre and a meeting hall, as well as providing kosher meals for the elderly at a Day Centre. The museum’s exhibits included a lot of information about the history of Latvian Jewry, together with many photographs and personal stories of Jews who lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries. It also has a section about the Holocaust, including ghastly photographs of the death squads at work (from the camera of a German soldier). Ilya, our guide, told us that on 1st July 1941, after attacking the Soviet Union, the German army invaded Riga and, just four days later, one of their first actions was to burn down the main Great Choral Synagogue with over 200 people trapped inside. We were then shown the Moscow district of Riga which was the old traditional Jewish area, which during the Nazi occupation became the Jewish Ghetto. There is still a Jewish school and hospital, Bikur-Holim, in the area. We later visited the Rumbula forest, where thousands of Jews were murdered by the Nazis with the aid of Latvian collaborators. This is now commemorated by a memorial in the form of a forest of standing stones, and here we all recited Kaddish.
After having some free time in the afternoon to wander about by ourselves, that evening, we all joined together for a communal meal, which we had at a lovely Latvian restaurant in the centre of the old town.
On our last full day, we first travelled about 40 miles to a small provincial town called Tukums, where there used to be an important Jewish community, amounting to half the town’s population, but now there was only one old lady left. The synagogue there has been renovated by an American family whose ancestors used to ‘daven’ there, but the building is now used as a sports hall. We also visited the local Jewish cemetery, which was much over-grown and neglected save for a few gravestones that have been renovated by descendants living abroad. One of the renovated stones was over the grave of a Mr. Kramer (no relation of mine) who appeared to have been a leading member of the community. Driving on the way back, we stopped for lunch at a seaside resort called Jurmala. This is the largest resort area in the Baltic’s, with romantic streets and wooden cottages surrounded by pine trees, as well as its wide white-sand beaches. Our final visit on that day was to a museum commemorating Zanis Lipke, who rescued more than 50 Jews by finding hiding places for them during the Holocaust. He has been posthumously awarded the title ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ by Yad Vashem.
To lift the cloud of sadness that had settled on us, in the evening we went to the opera to see ‘Marriage of Figaro’ by Mozart. This was performed in the beautiful National Opera House and was most enjoyable.
Finally it was our last day and after having some more free time in the morning, we took to the air again, back to London, and the coach subsequently deposited us safely once more outside EDRS. Yet another triumph of organisation and planning by Andrea, Ros and Jeffrey on this, the eighth European community trip by EDRS.
Sylvia and Jonathan Kramer