A relatively new and highly unusual little museum in Riga
, about one of the largely unsung heroes who, taking a lot of personal risk, instead of collaborating with the Nazis
saved a remarkable number of Jews from the Holocaust
More background info:
Janis Lipke, whose first name is also often found in the nickname spelling of Žanis, was probably the most prominent of the Latvian heroes who helped Jews at the time of the Holocaust
. For his good deeds he was declared Righteous Among the Nations – a title bestowed on him in the 1970s by Yad Vashem
Lipke seems to have been a generally rather adventurous and resourceful daredevil of a man in many respects. And despite limited formal education he was fluent in Russian and German as well as his native Latvian, which helped him deal successfully with the respective powers during the Soviet
occupations of Latvia
He worked as a driver in the docks of Riga and was apparently adept at various not always legal wheeling and dealing, including smuggling. But clearly there was also a lot of goodness in him:
When the Holocaust came to Riga
and the Nazis
either massacred or imprisoned Jews in the ghetto
, he didn't hesitate to try his utmost to help. His rebel nature and readiness for risk-taking will have come in handy, but ultimately he must have seen it as his humanist duty to try and help these doomed-to-death people who, after all, were total strangers to him.
And help he did, in ingenious ways, frequently assisted by a good portion of luck, and so neither he nor the Jews he helped were ever found out (otherwise they would hardly have survived to tell the tale). His most trusted ally was his wife, Johanna, but his children were also of important assistance.
At first he arranged hiding places in Riga, helped by friends and relations, cleverly disguising the disappearance/non-return of “his” Jews from the ghetto so that the Nazis didn't notice their absence.
As the situation became more difficult he decided to take the Jews into hiding on his own premises in the Kïpsala district on the left side of the Daugava River where he rented a house in a hidden back street. The backyard of the house could be seen neither from the main road nor from the river.
Here he dug out an underground shelter beneath his barn, with bunks on the walls but little else. An emergency exit was hidden under a dog kennel. In this basic hole he managed to shelter up to 13 Jews at any one time. He later arranged for groups of them to be moved on to premises outside Riga that he specifically rented so that he could take in new refugees in his underground bunker at home.
In total he managed to save 55 Jews from almost certain death in the Holocaust
. The number may not seem so great compared to the numbers of the victims that could not be saved, but as the saying goes: “he who saves one life saves the world”!
After the war most of these saved Jews emigrated to Israel
or the USA
, but Lipke stayed put in his home country.
rule commemoration of WWII
was largely limited to declaring the Red Army's victory against Nazi Germany
simply an anti-fascist triumph of the communist
ideology, whereas the memory of the specific plight and victimhood of Jews in the Holocaust
was suppressed. So Lipke never got any recognition for his good deeds under this system.
And when he received the honorary title of one of the Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem
, he wasn't even allowed to travel to Israel
to collect it.
But again he beat the system and managed to get out on some pretext and went to Yad Vashem after all. Here he planted one of the trees in the grove associated with the Righteous Among the Nations Alley at the site.
Long after the death of Janis Lipke, recognition also came at home, at a time when Latvia
was striving for independence from the USSR
. In 1990, documentary film-makers were able to record interviews with Johanna Lipke in which she narrated her recollections of their saviour operations during the time of WWII
The idea for the memorial museum partly grew out of this documentary film. It was also helped along by the fact that one of the descendents of the Lipkes had got somewhat annoyed with the trend at the various commemoration sites/institutions of emphasizing the collaborative
role of Latvians in the Holocaust
while not acknowledging enough those who had not only not
collaborated but instead helped
Jews, just like Janis and Johanna Lipke had done.
In 2000 a memorial plaque was attached to their old house. In 2005 a foundation was formed to work on a plan for a proper memorial museum, involving a famous local architect, and in 2012 it was finally finished and opened to the public.
The location of the museum is next to the original plot of land, where some of the current generation of the Lipke family still live. This means the museum does not stand directly above the original shelter. The one you see in the museum is only a reconstruction. The original was filled in after the war and the location is now used for storing firewood.
What there is to see: not so much to see as such, but a lot to hear if you use an audio guide or go on a live guided tour. When I visited, these options were offered up straight away by the museum warden in attendance as I entered the reception area.
I often avoid audio guides because I prefer to go through exhibitions at my own pace and not necessarily in the “correct” order. But the warden was insistent that a guide was needed to bring the exhibition to life. So I finally took her advice. I'm glad I did. In this museum the audio guide is indeed absolutely essential! I later saw a couple of visitors walking through the exhibition without a guide – and they were out again in less than five minutes!
After negotiating the entrance, the maze-like corridor and the steps to the upper levels (there was also a lift, if I remember correctly), you get to the main exhibition hall.
To say it is rather unusual would be an understatement. You find yourself under the wooden roof of what looks like the bare interior of a barn. There's almost no light except for a couple of weak bulbs under the ceiling and thin streaks of daylight coming in through gaps between the wooden planks. The space at first appears almost empty until your eyes have got accustomed to the gloom.
In the centre one big box-like structure emerges, about hip-high, with a faint cold light coming from the inside. When you approach it you see that you can look down through an illuminated shaft that leads down to the bottom of the cellar level. That's the reconstructed hideout bunker down there. A video projection onto the floor of this space shows images from the Johanna Lipke interview (see above
Along the walls left and right of the centre installation are rows of smaller wooden boxes. Inside these are the museum's only displays of original artefacts, documents and photos.
The majority of these do not come with much labelling, let alone explanatory texts, so they hardly speak for themselves. It's indeed only the audio guide that brings them to life (a live guide would too, presumably).
This elaborate audio-track will tell you the stories behind the various arrangements in the boxes – about Janis Lipke's life, his family, how he got into saving Jews from the Riga ghetto
, the tricks he played and the deals he struck in doing so. Maps show the locations of other hiding places. There are family photos from different times.
And then there are those who were helped – on one photo a group of them is shown together with the Lipkes at an advanced age. This is part of the section about Lipke receiving the title Righteous Among the Nations. On display is also a copy of the relevant certificate and photos of his trip to Israel
There are no big original artefacts to impress you. Instead it is all rather small-scale and focused on the stories behind the displays. Once you get into it, it really is quite captivating.
You then descend the stairs at the far end of the room to the level below. It's still like a dark labyrinthine maze of wood. But in the centre, directly underneath the view box down to the bunker hideout, you now find a strange scaffold-like structure that looks like a temporary shed without a ceiling or a floor at the bottom. This is apparently an allusion to the Jewish concept of a “sukkah” (a religious structure laden with symbolic meanings, which I cannot go into here – google it!).
On two sides of the sukkah are “windows” – holes through which you can, again, peek down into the underground bunker hideout. But you will not be able to actually go in it or even level with it. This is also part of the overall museum concept – to maintain this distance between the visitor and the story of the hiding, since we in our modern day and age won't be able to fully imagine what it must have been like. Or so the argument went.
The final exhibit is a scale model of the house you are in – i.e. the barn-shaped museum building and its three levels. Here you see how the underground level bunker reconstruction, the sukkah in the middle and the box at the top level in the exhibition room hang together, as it were.
Behind the model is a photo map showing the locations of many of the wooden houses of the area – so this can be of help if you want to go off exploring this area afterwards (see below
You finally emerge back into natural daylight at the end of the building, which has a floor-to-rooftop glass wall on this side (while the rest is completely windowless).
There's also a guest book here … as well as a piano in the corner next to a small kitchen niche – I presume this space gets used for some memorial events.
But for me it was the end and I handed back the audio guide to the museum warden – who had reappeared just in time for this.
I now gather from the museum's website that they have since (I went in April 2014) expanded the exhibition, possibly incorporating the cellar rooms of the building too. But I can't comment on this from first-hand experience.
All in all I found the Janis Lipke Memorial Museum a real positive surprise. It is indeed very idiosyncratic, but I thought it worked well. It is without a doubt a most valuable recent addition to Riga
's wide portfolio of specialist museums, and one that closes a significant gap.
It's out-of-the-centre “hidden” location will probably ensure that it remains a “secret” kind of destination for tourists. But if you really are into the local dark history of the Holocaust
in the Baltics then this is an essential site to make the effort to go and see!
at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac in the Kīpsala district of Riga
on the left (west) side of the Daugava River, address: 8 Mazais Balasta dambis.
Access and costs: a bit out of the centre and slightly tricky to find; free/by donation
Details: Getting to the Janis Lipke Museum isn't so straightforward, and that's partly deliberate (symbolic of the hideout it once was).
Coming from central Riga
you first have to make your way across the river – several trolleybuses (lines 5, 9, 12, 25) and buses cross the bridge that takes Valdemara iela across the Daugava River. Bus 57 even carries on one stop in the direction you then want, but unfortunately it is very infrequent (just one an hour at peak times and none around midday), so you will most likely have to walk it from the bridge.
The first bit is easy: just head north either on Kīpsala iela and then turn right just behind a big indoor pool building (a brutalist concrete structure you cannot miss) and up the steps and then right. Or walk along the riverbank road, Balasta dambis, and turn left at a grand wooden building in faded green. There are small signs saying “Žana Lipkes Memoriāls” to guide you, but these are not always easy to spot.
You will now be on Mazais Balasta dambis and you have to keep walking all the way to the dead end of this street. You may think you are wrong, and viciously barking dogs behind fences may also sound less than inviting, but this is the correct way.
Eventually you come to a gate and low bungalow-like structure on the right made of dark grey wood. Here you are. You may have to press the doorbell to be let in.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Saturdays from 12 noon to 6 p.m., on Thursdays to 8 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Admission free, but donations are welcome (as is usual at memorial museums in Riga).
The audio guide is also free of charge – and you can now also download it as a free mobile app from lipke.lv/en (though it wouldn't work on my Android version).
Live guided tours are also available and are bookable online via the same website.
Time required: depending on whether you use an audio guide or not and to what degree you can read some of the original (non-English) documents on display, between less than 10 minutes (without guide) to an hour and a half.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The two other museums most related to the topic of the Janis Lipke Memorial Museum are the Jews in Latvia Museum
in the centre of the city and the Riga Ghetto Museum
behind the Central Market Halls.
For more see under Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The suburban part of Riga
that the museum is located in is not amongst the classic touristy bits of the city, but it does have its merits!
Those after the fabled art nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture that Riga is rightly famous for can find some pretty good examples of the style on wooden architecture in the vicinity of the museum, especially to the north of it.
There are also several picturesque, Scandinavian-looking wooden houses along the waterfront. A bit further downstream still you'll come to an old factory complex that has been lavishly refurbished … and turned into upscale flats with an equally upscale restaurant on the corner.
En route also keep your eyes open for the unexpected sight of a big black plastic kangaroo on the top of a spire on a building, which is, accordingly, locally known as the “Australian house”. Maybe the owner is a nostalgic Australian
, or maybe just a big fan of the fifth continent? I don't know.
For the more established sights of Riga
you'd have to make your way back to the city centre, though.
- Janis Lipke memorial 1 - modern structure
- Janis Lipke memorial 2 - entrance
- Janis Lipke memorial 3 - dark interior
- Janis Lipke memorial 4 - map of hiding places
- Janis Lipke memorial 5 - acknowledgement from Yad Vashem
- Janis Lipke memorial 6 - Johanna Lipke
- Janis Lipke memorial 7 - installation
- Janis Lipke memorial 8 - hideout reconstruction
- Janis Lipke memorial 9 - model