In Riga Reality Hits. Hard.
The night we arrive in Riga is dark and rainy. The following day’s weather follows suit. It’s fitting for the mood of the day.
We visit the Riga ghetto where my great-grandparents and great-aunts were taken before being murdered. It’s eerie: the houses down the streets are now just as they were then. Outside one house we see a wooden structure — the dilapidated bathroom. When our guide, Victoria, tells us that people live in these houses today we can’t believe her. She tells us she’s visited people in these houses and felt the ghosts of past atrocities.
We see the art-nouveau apartment building where my grandfather once lived with his parents and sisters (now renovated), the school where he studied (now apartments) the building that once housed his father’s hat shop (now being renovated). I imagine him walking to school, just two blocks from his home, his father taking the trolley to work, a few blocks away. We drive by the university where he studied economics, a beautiful building — I imagine him walking the halls.
We see one of the synagogue that was burned down on July 4, 1941. My grandfather, Eliezer Blankfeld, had already been drafted into the Latvian army by then, which was soon absorbed by the Red Army. Six years later, as a journalist recording the life of Jews in Germany after the war, he would write in an article entitled Why?:
“I remember that day, the 22nd of June 1941, as if it were today. I was a soldier, far away from home without any possibility of contacting my parents or my sisters, and they—not knowing the fate of their only son . . . .”
I wonder when he learned that his family had been taken to the ghetto. Did he hear about the Jews being killed in the middle of the ghetto streets? Or did he hear about the 25,000 Jews who’d walked 6 km in their summer clothes to the Rumbula forest to be frozen to death, shot or burned and buried in mass graves? Could he imagine they might be part of that group?
We visit the only synagogue in Riga that survived the war and see the Sukkah where around 30 Jews celebrated Succot only the night before.
We drive by the Freedom Monument where I have one of my biggest shocks. Every year, Victoria tells us, neo-Nazis hold a parade celebrating Waffen SS divisions in Latvia, created in 1943 on orders of Hitler. This year three members of the Latvian parliament tore up pictures of Nazi concentration camp victims. I cannot believe the Jewish community here still puts up with violent, court-approved hate and anti-semitism. It’s devastating.
I have no words.
Today we see a memorial with thousands of victims’ names. We light a candle.