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The Jews of Riga
Text and Photos by Jono David
When I asked Riga Jewish Museum curator Lia German if she had a message
for other Jews, she said, "I have no message. If they want to know about
us [Latvian Jews] they can come here." As she stated, I was in the
Latvian capital to know about a part of my heritage. Lia's message
hangs on the walls of the museum in the form of a small but moving
tribute to the victims of the war which she helped collect and
Downstairs in the foyer, Lazers Bindeman, a former Russian soldier,
considered some photographs. He was in his native city to visit his
family, though not a reunion filled with merriment. His mother and three
brothers are in the cemetery. They were killed by Germans in World War
II. "The conditions during the war were very bad," he explained, "I
don't know how anyone survived." Considering the barbarous events of the
war, it is indeed a wonder.
Lazers, 74, was back in Riga for only the second time since emigrating
to Brooklyn, New York in 1978. A former shoe factory manager here, he
took his lawyer wife and five other members of his family, leaving
behind a Soviet controlled Latvia. He didn't speak a word of English
then but somehow managed to land an engineering job with the Omni Hotel.
"It was my first and only job in America," he boasted. "But it wasn't an
History tells us that times have never been easy for the Jews of Riga,
though with the advent of perestroika, today's community of 15,000
(only half of which are native Latvians) has it easier than perhaps any
time preceding it. Lia and Lazers have experienced the best and worst of
those times. Though their experiences are different, they share a
Even on Latvia's regained independence, Lia commented spiritlessly: "It
wasn't bad. I was born in an independent Latvia. [Independence] was
quite natural. I always had Latvian friends, so my feelings didn't
change [after independence]." By contrast, Lazers was a bit more spry,
remarking, "It's wonderful to be here in a free Latvia again."
The Jewish history of Riga reaches as far back as the 13th century, but
it wouldn't be for at least 200 more years that Jews would make an
economic impact. Even at that time, they were confined to Judenherberge,
or special inns, when they came to Riga. In the 18th century, rules
binding Jewish movements in the city were relaxed and Jewish residents
started to appear. Of those first tenants there were skilled craftsmen,
producing the finest shoes, furs, and furniture. Intellectuals led the
way in finance, medicine, and law. But whilst a fair number of Jews
prospered, many others were vagrants. By 1824, there were 513 Jews
registered in Riga. Though the number was small, it was nonetheless
significant. (That number would peak in 1935 at 43,672. By 1944, it was
cut to 150.)
Trolley on Maskavas Street, the Ghetto area, Riga
In the early part of this century, Jews were charged for provoking riots
by the enemies of the revolutions of 1905 against Tsar Nicholas II, and
again during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Supporters, on the
otherhand, blamed Jews for the failures. After the Germans invaded Riga,
the balance of political power was destabalised and again Jews were
reproached. The peace which followed would be short lived, as the rise
of Hitler loomed forebodingly on the political horizon.
When the Red Army entered Riga in June 1940, many Jews scrambled to the
USSR, for faith in the West was lost. During this period, leading Jewish
leaders were arrested and deported to a Siberia from which they would
never return. Lia German and her family were some of the lucky ones.
When war broke out in June 1941, they went to Semipalatinsk, Kazakstan.
"It was a long, uncomfortable journey. But we lived okay there," she
told me. "My mother worked for the Latvian ministry, so she came back to
Riga about a year before me. And then one day (in 1944) she just
telephoned me and said, ŚLia, come back to Riga.'" At 19, she entered
the Institute to study philology, a perfectly suitable topic for a girl
who grew up surrounded by German, Yiddish, Latvian, Russian, and Hebrew.
After the defeat of Hitler, thousands of Jews returned to Latvia,
including Jews from other parts of the Soviet empire. By 1989, some
23,000 Jews were registered in Riga, a number which continuously
diminishes due to emigration to Israel, Britain, and the United States.
Still, Jewish doctors, scientists, engineers, artists, and teachers are
making a noticeable impression on the culture of the city. Today's Jews
live freely and with the full support of the Latvian government.
View around the Old Ghetto area
Rabbi Mordechai Glazman came to Riga in March 1992 with his family to
make good on the biblical command, "Ahavat Yisroel - Love of a fellow
Jew," to which Chabad, an international movement to raise the Jewish
consciousness of world Jewry, adheres. We met after a Tuesday morning
service at the synagogue in the heart of the Old City. "In the
beginning, it was really tough for my wife and me," he confided over
some latkas and salad in the soup kitchen he oversees adjacent to the
synagogue. "I couldn't speak Russian (which most older members of the
community speak), so getting anything done was difficult. Our apartment
was awful, too. And the shops didn't have the basic essentials; just
finding toilet paper was an ordeal. But things have improved immensely
in the last few years, for everyone here, not only Jews." Since his
arrival, he told me the biggest change has been "the general interest of
the community in their Judaism. The community as a whole has been
The changes in the Jewish community have indeed been striking, most
notably since 1992. The Ohel Menachem Kindergarten and Day School opened
in September 1995, providing education in both Judaic and secular
studies. A yeshiva for advanced Jewish studies opened in January 1992.
There is also Jewish school for teens. Since August 1993, Chabad has
organised summer youth camps. Kids have been preparing for Bar and Bat
Mitzvahs since February of that same year, and moreover, are encouraged
to learn about their heritage. Men and women, too, are actively courted
to participate in religious studies which aim to rekindle and enhance a
long dormant Jewish way of life with import and relevance in a newly
emerged Latvia. Since March 1992, the soup kitchen has provided some
forty hot meals a day in a cozy atmosphere for those elderly members of
the community who cannot survive on their pensions. The kitchen serves
up an additional 300 meals a month for those who are homebound.
The Riga synagogue is only a shadow of its former self. Its two storeys
stand behind a heavily chained gate giving the first time visitor the
impression that it is firmly shut. Upon entry from a derelict back
entrance, I found eleven seasoned men wrapped up in the leathery web of
morning tafillin, davining rhythmically beneath grand chandeliers
suspended above a bimah of brass and marble. In front, Rabbi Glazman's
entire body rocked with prayer. I took a seat in the back next to a man
who just glared at me. A late arrival approached me and said, "Jewish?"
When I replied I was, he extended his hand in welcome and said "Shalom".
Another man passed me a note on a tattered scrap of paper: "Let's go to
the Riga [old ghetto]" it read.
The Riga Synagogue
The ghetto is situated about one kilometre to the southeast of the old
city in a three-quarter square-kilometre area known as Maskavas
Forstate. Little remains of the area's once vibrant Jewish character
save for a legion of derelict wood and brick buildings and a few
memorials to the victims of the holocaust. Still, a walk through the
area is rewarded with stops at such places as Die Greise Hor Shul, The
Big Choral Synagogue, on Gogola Street, which was completely destroyed
on 4 July 1941. On that morning, about 300 Lithuanian Jews took refuge
from the Nazis in the basement of the synagogue. The doors were locked
and the synagogue was set alight by Hitler's henchmen. Such was the fate
of many other Jews and synagogues, a seemingly favourite means of Nazi
execution. On 4 July 1988, a memorial was dedicated on the very spot.
The Old Jewish Cemetery on Liksnas Street was the first tract of Jewish
land in Riga; it was obtained in the early 18th century. The road
leading to it was known as Hebraische Begrabnisstrasse, or Jewish
Cemetery Street. The location became a killing ground in July of 1941.
After the war, the cemetery was desecrated. Today, it's a park.
Strewn all about today's Old Town are fragments of yesterday's Jewish
past: Gmilas Hesed, a Jewish philanthropic society, on Stabu Street;
a society for the promotion of education among Riga Jews on Abrenes
Street; the first Jewish press in Riga on Peldu Street; the first
secular school on Lacplesa Street; the central office of the Jewish
National Fund on Daugavas Street; and a good deal more.
Riga is an open book of Jewish history. Like Lia German and her exhibits
at the Jewish Museum, messages from the past are strewn about the place.
As she had said: a visit to Riga is know Jewish history here.
Discovering the history of Riga's Jews is made more thorough with a
visit first to the Jewish Museum, 6 Skolas Street, Old Town. There, pick
up The Jews in Riga: a guide. This 31 page booklet comes complete with
a map pinpointing all the places referred to in the guide. If you would
like to make a financial contribution to the community, you may send a
moneyorder payable to Chabad of Latvia, P. O. Box 96, Riga, LV-1047,
LATVIA. Tel: (371) 733-4147. Fax: (371) 783-0444.
from the July 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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