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Jews in Latvia Museum, Riga

 
   - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
A small museum about Jewish life (and death) in Latvia and especially Riga, founded by a group of Holocaust survivors. But besides an obvious emphasis on that especially dark time, the exhibition is also a celebration of Jewish history from as early as the 16th century onwards.   
More background info: Like Vilnius (the former “Jerusalem of the North”) in Lithuania, Riga once had a thriving Jewish community with a rich cultural heritage.  
  
The earliest traces of Jewish life in Latvia date back to the 14th century and Jewish settlements became properly established from the 16th century onwards. In Riga, a Jewish community began to form in the 18th century. 
  
The Jewish contribution to the economic growth of the city in that period was initially immense. Countless factories as well as banks were in Jewish hands. 
  
The first downturn for Jewish life in Latvia came in the late 19th century when a wave of anti-Semitism engulfed the then Russian Empire (as well as many other parts of Europe), to which Latvia belonged at the time. This triggered a first wave of emigration (e.g. to the USA, but also Britain and South Africa).
  
Things got even worse in the early stages of WWI, when Latvian Jews were suspected of supporting the side of Germany – what an irony, given what happened less than three decades later at the hands of the Germans! – and many were forced to resettle deep in Russian territory. 
  
After WWI and the Latvian War of Independence, things looked up again for a while as Jewish life resumed and Jews again played important and active roles in the economy, culture and politics of the new republic, whose constitution guaranteed minorities, including Jews, equal rights. 
  
However, this was not to last either. The first setback came with the coup in which Karlis Ulmanis seized power in Latvia in 1934, after which all political organizations were banned and economic activity was restricted for Jews. 
  
When the Soviet Union first occupied Latvia in 1940 the entire economy was nationalized according to communist principles, and so all private Jewish businesses were dissolved too. In addition there were many Jews amongst those ca. 15,000 Latvians who were deported to Siberia during that time (cf. Tornakalns). 
  
But the very worst was of course to come next, namely when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR and with it Latvia in the summer of 1941. The Holocaust hit Riga's Jewish community immediately and with the utmost brutality. Mass executions by the Einsatzgruppen, with some eager help from Latvian collaborators, were carried out at sites such as Rumbula or Bikernieku
  
And those Jews who weren't murdered right away were imprisoned in a specially set-up ghetto in the east of Riga. When the Riga ghetto was liquidated in 1943, most remaining Jews were moved to the Kaiserwald concentration camp, only to be transported westwards as the Red Army returned to recapture Latvia in 1944. By then, about 75% of Latvian Jews had been killed. 
  
The skeleton Jewish community who had somehow managed to survive the war were later joined by new emigrants from elsewhere in the USSR, so that the community grew back again to ca. 36,000. But increasing repression under Soviet rule meant many emigrated to Israel or the USA during the 1970s. 
    
Jewish life only began to bounce back in the very last, more liberal phase of the USSR, and in particular after Latvia regained full independence in the 1990s. Today it is again the largest Jewish community within the Baltics, albeit at just about 10,000 members only a fraction of what it once used to be.  
   
The Jews in Latvia Museum grew out of the personal initiative of a group of Holocaust survivors, and a first documentation centre opened in 1989. In 1996 a first permanent exhibition was established and it thus became a museum. But it continues to serve other roles as well, such as aiding in genealogical research, collecting documents and promoting tolerance, as well as serving as a cultural centre, an archive and a library. 
  
The museum is housed in a historical building that was once a Jewish theatre, originally built in 1913-14. During the Nazi and Soviet occupations the building was seized from the Jewish community and was only given back in the early 1990s. It is now again a Jewish Community Centre, of which the museum is just one part of many.
  
You can still find it referred to as a 'documentation centre' though it is now officially called the “Jews in Latvia Museum” or “Museum Jews in Latvia”, but often it's simply abbreviated to “Jewish Museum”. I, too, use all these designations interchangeably. 
  
  
What there is to see: The permanent exhibition of this museum is fairly small, crammed into just three smallish rooms, but covers a lot of ground content-wise. 
  
The first section is about the long history of Jewish life in Latvia and especially Riga (see background), which is exemplified in particular through the display of countless posters for various cultural events, but also family photos, documents and the odd artefact. 
  
Unless you are really into the older parts of Jewish history in the Baltics and the prehistory to the darker chapters, these parts can probably be skimmed more quickly by most visitors to this website. 
  
This changes when you enter the darkened room that is about the Holocaust. The presentation of this extremely dark period for Jewish Latvia is indeed very grim, in particular due to some rather graphic photos. Amongst these are infamous images of the Skede massacres that, as so often, stand for the whole brutality of the mass killings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen.  
  
Textual interpretation or information as such is a bit thin, however, even though labels are provided giving English translations of the Latvian originals. The English is a bit broken at times, but still helpful enough. Many original documents, however, are in German, Latvian, Russian or Hebrew and are not translated. So if you can't read any of these languages, you'll feel a bit restricted in what you can get out of this exhibition.  
  
One of the most infamous documents of the Holocaust in the Baltics, on the other hand, the “coffin map”, doesn't require much linguistic explanation. It's the copy of a map drawn by the Nazis to plot the “success” of the Einsatzgruppen in these parts and neighbouring countries (Belarus, Russia). The figures next to the little drawings of caskets are clear and grim enough. And for Estonia it even says “judenfrei” ('freed of Jews'). 
  
Amongst the other familiar grim exhibits typical of this type of museum are yellow stars, bits of striped concentration camp inmate uniforms and singed documents. I found the display of bullet fragments right next to the photo of the shootings at Skede especially poignant. 
  
In the main staircase of the building leading to the museum also note the plaque that points out some of the helpers of Jews during the dark times of the Holocaust. Naturally, this includes Janis Lipke.
  
All in all, this is a specialist museum that one should visit somewhat pre-prepared. Otherwise you won't get enough background information about what you're seeing (which can be shocking for the uninitiated). On the other hand, if you are already quite familiar with the topic of the Holocaust in the Baltics, you won't learn many new things here about this, rather about the prehistory of Jewish life before the Holocaust.
  
Yet it is an important contribution to the commemoration of not only Jewish heritage but also the Holocaust, especially given that most of the authentic Holocaust sites in or near Riga tend to be even less commodified (cf. Rumbula, Bikernieku, Kaiserwald). 
  
  
Location: right in the centre of Riga, at No. 6, Skola iela, just half a block from the Esplanade park to the south and one block from the main thoroughfare of Valdemara iela to the west. The Old Town of Riga lies ca. two-thirds of a mile (1 km) to the south.
  
Google maps locator: [56.9563, 24.1165]
  
  
Access and costs: centrally located, free/by donation 
  
Details: Located in a quiet but very central side street, and not too obviously marked (just one small plaque amongst others next to the entrance). To find it from the Old Town of Riga walk up to Esplanade park (with the gleaming landmark of the Orthodox Cathedral) and then head north-west on Elizabetes iela and turn right onto Skola iela. 
  
The entrance is on the right-hand side, just before you get to the next corner, in a faded grand building whose first-floor balcony is covered with green protective netting (at least it was at the time of my visit in April 2014). 
    
To get to the museum from here, you still have to climb the stairs to the second floor of this building, where the museum is in the wing to the left (south). There are signs.   
  
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Fridays and Saturdays. 
  
Admission: free, but donations are welcome.
  
Guided tours can be arranged by request (info(at)jewishmuseum.lv).
  
  
Time required: Since the sections on the darker chapters of Latvian Jewish history aren't that extensive, seeing only these would probably require between 20 minutes and half an hour, but viewing the whole exhibition will obviously require much longer than that.   
  
    
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Riga
  
Probably amongst the most obvious sites to combine with visiting the Jewish Museum should be the Riga Ghetto Museum. So I found it strange that the two do not seem to engage in much (if any) co-operation. At least that's the impression I got when I asked about the Ghetto Museum's opening times (because I found it closed the day before when it should have been open) and the staff at the Jewish Museum barely seemed aware of the other museum's existence, let alone be able to offer any information about it. But don't let that deter you from taking in the Ghetto Museum as well if you have the time. (Maybe they consider each other competitors?)
  
Not too far from the Ghetto Museum you can also find the ruins of the old Choral Synagogue on Gogol Street (see under Riga), where there is also a memorial to those who helped Jews during the dark times of the Holocaust
  
The latter includes most prominently a certain Janis Lipke – and his story is celebrated in full at the Janis Lipke Memorial Museum on the other side of the river. Well worth the detour!
  
Much further away still and requiring a genuine pilgrimage effort are some of the very darkest authentic sites of the Holocaust in the Latvia: the massacre sites of Rumbula and Bikernieku, as well as the sites of the former concentration camps of Salaspils and Kaiserwald
  
Those on such a pilgrimage should also consider going beyond Riga and visiting the related sites in Liepaja (especially Skede) as well as those in neighbouring Lithuania, particularly in Kaunas and Vilnius (as well as Ponary in the vicinity of the latter).
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The central location of the museum makes it perfectly suited to combine a visit here with some of Riga's prime tourist attractions, especially the Old Town as well as the splendid art nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture nearby. 
  
See under Riga.  
  
  
 
  • Jews in Latvia museum 1 - hallJews in Latvia museum 1 - hall
  • Jews in Latvia museum 2 - general historyJews in Latvia museum 2 - general history
  • Jews in Latvia museum 3 - Holocaust sectionJews in Latvia museum 3 - Holocaust section
  • Jews in Latvia museum 4 - starJews in Latvia museum 4 - star
  • Jews in Latvia museum 5 - singed IDsJews in Latvia museum 5 - singed IDs
  • Jews in Latvia museum 6 - artefactsJews in Latvia museum 6 - artefacts
  • Jews in Latvia museum 7 - tragedyJews in Latvia museum 7 - tragedy
  • Jews in Latvia museum 8 - the end for so many at SkedeJews in Latvia museum 8 - the end for so many at Skede
  • Jews in Latvia museum 9 - savioursJews in Latvia museum 9 - saviours
   
    
  

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