The ‘R’ Word

8 Apr

Something I wrote a little while ago, for a talk at my synagogue. Inspired in part by my trip to Riga. Posted today in honour of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

Take an amble down Riga’s trendy East London-esque street and you’ll find it hard to avoid one particular emblematic T-shirt adorning the city’s finest. Its monochrome design screams out the city’s name, transforming the wearer into a walking advert.


These day’s while the upper case lettered T-shirt is de rigueur on the street of Riga, there’s another ‘R’ word drifting around the city’s consciousness, and that of its visitors – Rumbula.

Back in the 1930’s yellow stars of Davids gazed out from heaving chests and hunched shoulders – but rather than the latest must-have trend , this Jewish symbol, twisted into an icon of anti-Semitism, hollered its hatred into the occupied city. This symbol was as far from fashion as the catwalk of Riga’s streets was likely to get.

The onslaught of yellow stars was of course a predecessor to the slaughter to come – the murder of over 6 million Jews in Europe. In Lativa, 25,000 of these deaths occurred in Rumbula Forest.

The formation of Latvia’s Riga Ghetto began at end of August, 1941, with a fence erected on October 10th. The area, which had once played host to an integrated population of both Jews and Non-Jews, was plunged into a microcosm of barbed wire-surrounded hell. Food was scarce and homes were grossly overcrowded. But it was about to get worse.

On November 27, 1941 the Jews in the ghetto were told that they would be shifted further east. By the next day certain streets would be evacuated, and the Jews would be told to get ready for a journey. They didn’t know that the journey was to the Rumbula Forest, where they were to be shot. The last day of the month was also to be the last of their lives. The atrocity was repeated on December 8, 1941. In two violent, fell swoops the Nazis had wiped out almost all of Latvia’s Jews.

There has been some debate over the culpability of the Rumbula murders, and the persecution of Latvia’s Jews. Some believe that high ranking Nazi SS leaders attempted to shift blame onto a resistant local population of Latvians, stirring up deadly riots, pogroms and rumours. An exhibit in Latvia’s Museum of Occupation includes a Nazi “Comprehensive Report”, in which the Nazi unit charged with the elimination of Latvia’s Jews complains that it was difficult to start organized pogroms, and stir up anti-Semitic hatred in Latvia. Furthermore, we now know that a small number of Jews survived the Holocaust in Latvia with the aid of Latvians who risked death to hide them. The names of 269 Latvians who hid Jews during the Holocaust are inscribed on the Saviors Monument in Riga.

Extended Nazi influence on the Latvian Auxiliary Police, however, did initiate one Jewish pogrom in Riga, during which all synagogues were destroyed and around 400 Jews shot. Haviv Retig Gur asserted in a Jerusalem Post article on the subject,that Riga’s Museum of the Occupation greatly details the plight of the Jews, but also goes to great lengths to explain that it was the Nazis, not the Latvians, who committed the murders. Little to no mention is made throughout the museum of the responsibility of the Latvian Police. He cites Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a historian and Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who argues that in addition to the Nazi units, the Riga Municipal police were also involved in the operation –  and that it is very difficult to distinguish Latvians from Nazis in the chain of command. He points out that some Jewish groups see the debate over historical culpability as a debate over the country’s sense of victimhood, the feeling that Latvia was the victim of both Nazism and Communism – and Communism more acutely and for a longer period. With the small nation of Latvia still watching Russia’s movements warily, he refers to Leon Greenberg’s question: “Can you use historical terms as a cover for present-day geopolitics?”

In other words – should modern day inter-country relations affect how we retell the past, no matter how fraught their political discourse is?

"Massacre in Korea" by Pablo Picasso (1951).    Inspired by the No Gun Ri Massacre of July 26-29, 1950.

“Massacre in Korea” by Pablo Picasso (1951). Inspired by the No Gun Ri Massacre of July 26-29, 1950.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s, the trees of Rumbula forest, once the witnesses to nightmareish bloodshed, began to let in a little bit of light. When Latvia found itself back under Soviet rule, young Riga Jews began gathering at the Rumbula murder site to tidy and mark the mass graves, while discussing their Zionist dreams. These saplings of hope grew into the Refusenik Movement, a collective credited with pushing the USSR to permit the emigration of Jews to Israel in the early 1970’s.

And so although the Rumbula Forest can never quite breathe easily, its pained sighs possessed by screams of the past, at least the trees can sway gently in the Baltic breeze, bowing towards the state of Israel.



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