Repatriate gives back to Latvia, his first home

  • 2004-06-01
  • By Aziza Freutel
Valters Nollendorfs was born 1931 in Riga. In 1944, at the age of 13, he fled Latvia with his family to Westfalia, Germany where he lived in a refugee camp for almost six years. He immigrated to America in 1950, where he studied German and later became a professor of German at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Since 1996, the repatriate has been living in Riga and working at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. He is currently deputy director for development at the museum. Like so many of the foreign Latvians to which the museum - funded completely by donations - owes its survival, Nollendorfs has given hours of research, German translation and support to an establishment that exists to understand and explain Latvia's occupation. In his opinion, this is more than a worthy cause.

Why did you decide to return to Latvia?

I came back in January of 1996. When I reached 65, I left the university [of Wisconsin]. It was not a sudden decision because at the time I had been involved here for eight years. In 1988 I came back for the first time. Then I spent the spring semester as a Fulbright professor at the university in 1990. I was also involved in the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and from that time on I came quite often - every year at least once. But I discovered that in order to achieve something here, you have to be present. And no matter how strange it may sound, this is home. This is emotionally home.

You have been working at the occupation museum since your return to Latvia. What is the significance of the museum?

It's reclaiming the past, which was not only hidden, but was distorted by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Of course the Nazis were a much shorter time, but both of these totalitarian powers basically wanted to take [Latvia] over and when you want to take over, you impose history on a country. The museum is historically reclaiming the nationhood of a time when the Soviets and Nazi Germans ruled and imposed their history here. Among the Russian officials' circle, certainly one could hear of the notion that there was no occupation. There was a revolution, which the Red army only helped to guide through without blood shed. Well, if you have a huge army contingent coming in - with tanks and so on - we call it an occupation. In the three Baltic states the revolution took place at the same time. Elections and admission to the Soviet Union took place on the same day, too. The Latvian nation certainly thinks, feels and has enough facts to prove it was an occupation and the West actually never recognized Latvia as a part of the Soviet Union legally.

The majority of museum visitors are coming from abroad. What is the museum's significance to foreigners?

The history of the East was basically not known, and if it was, it was the Soviet version. A part of our mission is to tell the world the story of this country and of its survival during the years of occupation and annexation. I think it's a good thing that most of our visitors are foreigners, because they are learning a different view on WWII and its after mass than the current view held in the West. There, of course, the big enemy was Nazi Germany. Soviets were maybe not the best, but they were allies, fighting against Hitler, and the Holocaust was the big crime. Neither are to be denied, both took place here under Nazi guidance, but we also had the Gulag and we had deportations to the East. And then somebody might say, 'But those things are not comparable.' But how can you compare suffering? The West should start realizing that we also went through other traumas.

The museum is planning to expand. What kind of role could the museum play in the future?

Such museums have a role to reappraise history. We have not finished researching - that still will take a long time. We have to deal much more with the consequences of the occupation, to show how some of the institutions and enforced policies at that time still affect life today and how they sometimes make our integration into the Western world difficult. We will be dealing with the occupation period as a point of departure for that. But we have to look more to the future.

How important is your research for this future?

Research will go on forever. This country and society needs to have a clear picture and understanding of the 50, 51 years of occupation against a background of all the half-truths, myths and misinterpretations that were passed on. We have to do a lot of basic research to know exactly the things that happened. We have reached a consensus on the occupation. We are trying to reach a consensus on the number of victims, but that will take long because during the war nobody kept statistics. We are still doing research on the partisans, the repression mechanisms of the KGB and the Cheka. We have done a lot in the last six years, but there are not enough people doing it and so it will take another six years maybe. I think the next generation and the one after that will be over the hump. And I would like to see that when I am still alive.


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