German-funded memorial to help shed light on Holocaust

  • 2001-11-29
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - After years living opposite the ruins of Riga's Choral Synagogue, Nadezhda, 23 and unemployed, only recently learned of how it was razed to the ground with hundreds of people inside, in an atrocity that marked the arrival of the Holocaust in Latvia.

"So few people know about this. I went to school just up the road, but no one told us," she said, prodding at the ice-encrusted remains. "Now, when I meet friends here I tell them about it."

Jewish leaders, aware that knowledge of the Holocaust in Latvia remains scant, hope the opening on Nov. 30 of a memorial at a Nazi-era killing ground outside the capital, paid for by the People's Union, a German charitable fund, will raise awareness of a period obscured by decades of Soviet rule.

The 150,000 lat ($241,935) memorial, one of many the fund has paid for in Central and Eastern Europe, is built on the site at Bikernieku forest where 30,000 Jews, many transported from across Nazi-occupied Europe, were shot by German soldiers, often lying on the bodies of those who came before.

The explanation engraved at the entrance, which replaces a Soviet-era plinth, states clearly that most of the victims were Jews. Their towns and cities of origin are engraved on miniature obelisks, which fill a hollowed-out section of the forest floor.

Although the Bikernieku memorial will be unveiled on Nov. 30, that date is actually the anniversary of the killing of 28,000 Latvian and Lithuanian Jews at another forest, Rumbula. There, the current memorial to "victims of the fascists" is barely noticeable behind a used-car market on the Moscow-Riga highway.

The director of Riga's Jewish Museum, Margers Vestermanis, whose parents and sister were among those shot at Rumbula, welcomes People's Union-funded work to create a memorial there, due for completion next year.

After the disappearance of thousands of Latvia's inhabitants in distant Soviet labor camps, he is unsurprised that many are reluctant to face Latvians' role in the Holocaust, which included driving Jews out to the Rumbula killing grounds and burning down the synagogue.

"Three or four generations have grown up with the thought in their minds that they were victims, and of course they were, but in part they are guilty and that is difficult for them to consider," he said.

Armands Gutmanis, under-secretary at Latvia's Foreign Ministry, says attitudes are changing. A Holocaust education program initiated by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and funded with assistance from the U.S., Sweden, the Netherlands and Israel now includes visits by schoolteachers to Holocaust museums abroad, seminars and conferences, and ongoing publication of teaching material.

But Tobijs Gurevichs, a doctor and historian whose grandparents died at Rumbula, is angered that the former ghetto area where he now lives is better known for its drug dealers than the barbed-wire fences that encircled it in the Nazi era.

He points to efforts to educate the public in neighboring Lithuania as an example of what is possible. "In Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, there are tours of the ghetto, and you can see plaques explaining what happened. But here there is nothing. Some young Jewish people painted a yellow line round the area a few years ago, but it's washed away now," he said.