Representing the Holocaust

  • 2008-11-26
  • By Kristina Pauksens

A HISTORY OF JEWRY: Each room in the museum shows a different aspect of Jewish history in Latvia.

RIGA - The Jewish Museum is an important site of memory in Latvia that should not be missed by anyone who wants to fully understand the history of the country.
The museum's extensive display is organized into four rooms, each with its own historical theme and its own mood. The museum is specially organized a bit like a spiral sea shell. The first room is broad and bright, but with each subsequent room 's as history becomes more and more painful for Latvia's Jews 's the rooms become darker and more constricted.

The first room focuses on the early history of Jews in Latvia, showing their longstanding place in the region. The museum displays photographs, documents, and other materials testifying to the Jewish role in Latvia's early industry and commerce, religious life, political life 's and in particular in the Bund and the Social Democratic Workers party.

The first room also gives an explanation of the internal split of the Jewish community within Latvia, which was deeply divided between right wing and left wing Jews. Most fascinating is the story of the left wing Jews, many of whom were urban factory workers and members of the Zionist movement. This portion of the museum also includes some physical objects including a tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl.
The second room of the Jewish Museum portrays Jewish life in Latvia during Latvia's first independence. This period was marked by the start of widespread anti-Semitism. The museum collection includes some disturbing examples of Latvian political cartoons which equated Jews with communists, and others which caricatured Jewish facial features in a grotesque and dehumanizing way.

The Holocaust is represented by a third, dark room, filled with horrifying evidence of a shameful yet un-erasable part of Latvia's history. The Holocaust room includes a heartbreaking letter written by a young Jewish girl in Riga, similar to Anne Frank both in her age and in wisdom beyond her years. She describes how her community and her family were taken away, and her own desperate feelings of impending doom.
The Holocaust room includes irrefutable evidence showing that Jews 's both local and brought in from locations across Europe 's were killed en masse in Latvia. The display explains the atrocities that took place at different Latvian ghettos, killing sites and concentration camps, including the ones at Salaspils, Kaiserwald (Mezaparks), and Dundaga.

The Holocaust display also includes a collection of Stars of David, and other well-worn marks of Judaism that Jews were required to wear in Latvia during the Nazi occupation. These tattered, homemade stars have a strong impact on visitors. The Holocaust room also contains an example of the striped prison clothes worn inside a Latvian concentration camp.
In the Holocaust room, there are also descriptions and photographs telling the story of pogroms, where regular Latvian citizens pillaged the property of their fellow neighborhood Jews. One striking document is the letter of a German soldier involved in the killings, who describes his scorn for the apathetic bystanders who gathered to gawk at the Jews' misfortune.

However, the fourth and final room of the Jewish Museum commemorates those Latvians who did not simply just stand by and watch, but actively saved Jews, risking their own lives to do so. This final and tiny room is filled up with a giant illuminated map of Latvia, showing the different towns and cities, and listing the number of Jews who were hidden in each one, and the number who were successfully saved.
Screens tell the touching stories of Latvian men and women who took in Jews from their own communities, hiding them in cellars, and providing them with nourishment, companionship and the other bare necessities of life. This portion of the museum is intended as a thank you to the Latvians who risked their lives to help to save Jews during the Holocaust 's one person at a time.

The Jewish Museum
(Rigas Ebreju Kopienas Muzejs) is located at 6 Skolas Street, in Riga's center. To ensure access
to the museum, or for a guided tour, call ahead at (371) 6728 3484.