From the ashes of the Baltic ghetto to where the earth breathes fire

Penny Young visits the last Jewish communities in Latvia and Lithuania, and wishes her grandparents had settled in Riga rather than London's East End
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The Independent Travel

The path I had taken wandered through one of the most run-down areas of Riga Old Town, with its boarded-up, falling-down buildings. At one point, the labyrinthine streets were so narrow that I could scarcely breathe.

The path I had taken wandered through one of the most run-down areas of Riga Old Town, with its boarded-up, falling-down buildings. At one point, the labyrinthine streets were so narrow that I could scarcely breathe.

But there it was, to quote the guidebook, Riga's first building "to display the perpendicular art nouveau architectural pattern". It rose, square and massive behind high walls and iron gates, the Star of David visible on the highest points: the only surviving synagogue.

The iron gates at the front were chained up and a notice informed that the entrance was around the back. I stumbled along the alleyways, slipping on broken, grimy cobbles and sneaking in like a thief through a gate in the wall. On the right of the courtyard was the Lubavitch soup kitchen.

Inside, old women with watery blue eyes were busy preparing lunch - bowls of what looked like herrings and onions with chunks of rye bread. The gallery that looks down from the women's section, in traditional Orthodox synagogues, into the men's below, was curtained off. I pushed the curtain back and stared down. A handful of men, old and young, draped in prayer shawls, were standing around, chatting. The rabbi sang in Yiddish and was followed by a community leader who broke off his talk to wag his patriarchal finger at the children tumbling happily over the benches.

I crept around, capturing the sounds on my tape recorder. "You can't do that on the Sabbath," muttered two young women as they read their Old Testaments. It turned out they were from Israel and were in Riga for three months to teach the community Hebrew.

The synagogue has magnificently decorated ceilings, vibrant stained- glass windows, and rich tiled floors. But there are massive steel gates that can block the stairs off, and the windows are protected by iron grilles (though some are still smashed). It says it all. Out of about 60 synagogues in the Latvian capital, this is the only one to survive the Nazi terror, the Second World War and the long years of Soviet occupation.

I had come to Latvia and Lithuania to search out the remnants of the Jewish communities that had survived and decided to remain, even after the Baltic states got their independence in 1991.

My grandparents were Russian Jews who lived alongside the river Dnieper in what is now Ukraine, but packed up and left at the end of the 19th century. One day I will visit their birthplaces. For the moment, the Baltics is the furthest east I have got.

I found myself wishing that my grandparents had settled in Riga rather than in the East End of London, because I fell in love with it. It is a beautiful and civilised city, with its Old Town on the river Daugava and the wide boulevards of the art nouveau town around it.

It is difficult to take in the enormity of what the Germans and the Soviets did in Latvia and Lithuania. Visiting both countries is like experiencing a living history lesson, especially on the Jewish trail.

I got my map and guidebook from the Jewish museum, which only opened its doors to the public four years ago, and set off on the Riga tour. I headed for the derelict district of Vorstadt on the eastern outskirts. Vorstadt is where the Jews first lived en masse in the 19th century. It became their graveyard, and a ghetto of Riga in the 20th century.

My first stop was on the corner of Gogola Street, on the site of what used to be the Big Choral Synagogue. It was burned down in 1941, together with most of the Jewish houses in the neighbourhood. The trail continues: prayer houses, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, homes for the poor, sports clubs - all gone, all dead. Of Latvia's estimated 85,000 Jews, about 95 per cent were murdered by the Nazis with the help of Latvian collaborators.

"Why have you stayed, when so many went to Israel as soon as they could?" I asked Gregory Krupnekov, head of the Jewish community in Riga. Mr Krupnekov's ancestors originated in Russia and Ukraine, and he can still lay claim to a property close to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. His grandfather was killed in the Riga ghetto.

"This is my country," he said simply. "My community is here."

The only way I could cope with the Jewish trail in Riga was to live in my sunglasses, behind which I could cry in private. The city's cafes, where I made regular refuelling stops, stocking up on tiny cakes crammed with fruit and cream-filled meringues, also provided some comfort.

There are lots of ghosts in Riga and there are even more in the medieval Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, a five-hour bus ride south from Riga, and my next stop. Vilnius used to be known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, and a Jewish newspaper is still published there called just that. The Jews have been there for hundreds of years and they inhabited much of Vilnius's lovely Old Town. During the Holocaust, more than a quarter of a million Lithuanian Jews were killed - the highest proportion of any European community. There are now some 5,000 left.

Rahel Costanian remembers, as a little girl, leaving on a train with her mother for Central Asia, then part of the Soviet Union, to escape the invading Germans. Her father stayed behind and was killed. Only six people out of 100 in her family survived. She grew up in Vilnius under Soviet rule, knowing she was Jewish but not much beyond that.

"I only really found out about the Holocaust 10 years ago, when I was able to visit Israel," she said. "I spent a year reading books about it and crying. Then I stopped and decided to do something."

What Rahel did was to organise the Jewish Museum in Vilnius. It is now her life. The museum is in two buildings, though there are plans to bring everything together in the former Jewish theatre. I trotted round the corner to the second building, to gaze at the unique Purimspiel dolls salvaged from the synagogue in Kaunas. The wooden dolls would have been used to tell the story of Queen Esther and how she saved her people in exile in Babylon.

My Jewish trail in Vilnius continued with the help of the No 8 minibus to the forest of Panerai, just outside the capital. It costs just 30p to ride out of the city, past Soviet-style blocks of flats and rusting factories, and into the forest.

It had been snowing heavily and it should have looked like a fairytale. But it didn't. The atmosphere broods. I trudged alongside the railway line up to the place where more than 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis with the help of their Lithuanian collaborators. There were no birds singing, although there were plenty on the other side of the line. The only sounds were the hiss of the snow and the drips from melting icicles.

Back in Vilnius, I went to see how the Lithuanian establishment would treat the story of their Jews in the Museum of Genocide Victims, set up in 1992 in the former tsarist Palace of Justice. The Soviets and the Germans both used it as a prison and place of torture. Despite its name, I could find nothing to mark the fate of the quarter of a million Lithuanian Jews, although there was one reference in a leaflet.

Both Latvia and Lithuania are slowly coming to terms with what happened to their people, including the Jews who lived among them for hundreds of years. As we know only too well in western Europe, such readjustment takes decades.

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 03451 222111) flies to Riga from £ 230 return. This is a cheaper option than flying in and out of different capitals and there are frequent buses between Riga and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which take about five hours and cost about £ 6.

In Riga one of the most popular tourist hotels is the Hotel de Rome (tel: 00371 7820050; fax: 7820059) in the heart of the Old Town. Rooms around £ 100. The Jewish Community Centre is at 6 Skolas Street where you can buy maps and leaflets and arrange tours.

In Vilnius, the writer stayed at the spectacular former Soviet hotel opposite the train station on Naujoji gatve, Hotel Gintaras (tel: 00370 2634 496). Its official address is Sodu 14. Basic rooms with showers and breakfast cost about £ 8. There are modernised rooms for about £ 20. There are also several beautiful hotels in the Old Town.

The Jewish Museum is at the Green House at 12 Pamenkalnio gatve. Information and books are available and tours can be arranged. To get to Panerai, either find a No 8 minibus from near the station or take a taxi.

Further information

The Lithuanian Tourist Board is at Vilnius 4/35, 2600 Vilnius, Lithuania (tel: 00370 2622610; net: www.neris.mii.lt/). The Latvian Tourist Office is at Pils laukums 4, Riga LV-1050, Latvia (tel/fax: 00371 7229945).

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