Chasing Ghosts in a History-Haunted City
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On the Trail of a Family Mystery, a Writer Learns How His Ancestors' City Faces Its Past
By BLAKE ESKIN
In his new history of Latvia through World War II, "Walking Since Daybreak" (Houghton Mifflin), historian Modris Eksteins writes that, before the war, Jews in Latvia were seen as an elite. In Riga and other cities, the Jew was "on occasion more German than the German," he writes, and "could be a better spokesman for Russian culture than the Russian." My ancestors from Riga were not quite the cosmopolitans Mr. Eksteins describes; far from being the prominent merchants or worldly professionals of this multiethnic Baltic port city, they worked as tailors and silversmiths, living on the wrong side of the tracks in a neighborhood known as the Moscow Vorstadt, or suburb.
I had traveled to Riga to learn more about my ancestors, who went by the name Wilkomirski when they lived in Riga, and also to see what I could learn there about a man who goes by that name now. Binjamin Wilkomirski is the name used by the author of "Fragments," a book presented as a memoir of a child's experience during the Holocaust, and the earliest scenes in the book's chronological sequence unfold in the Moscow Vorstadt. But as the Forward reported last fall, "Fragments" may not be an authentic memoir, and its author may not be Jewish, may not be a Wilkomirski and may never have lived in Riga as a child. In other words, I had come to Riga to chase after ghosts, some that I knew were real and others that I suspected might not be.
Much of my time in Riga was spent meeting with archivists and trudging around the Moscow Vorstadt in search of traces of various Wilkomirskis, but in between I visited several museums. The most compelling of them were not those that collect art, but rather the ones that deal with the effect of World War II on Latvia. This is not surprising, considering that Riga, the capital of an independent Latvia through the 1920s and 1930s, changed hands three times during the war.
Amid the ornate Lutheran churches and the crumbling 13th-century houses of Old Riga sits a windowless box of steel and stone constructed in a Soviet modernist style. Once home to an exhibition honoring the Latvian sharpshooters who guarded Vladimir Lenin following the October Revolution, the low-slung eyesore is now occupied by the Occupation Museum of Latvia, which documents the horrors of the half-century between the first independent Latvian republic, which met its end when the Red army invaded in June of 1940, and the second republic, which declared its independence in March of 1990 but could not follow through on the declaration until the attempted coup in Moscow failed the following year.
The occupation of Latvia, the museum points out, was a tragedy in three acts. First came the annus horribilis made possible by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence; Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would belong to Moscow, as they had before World War I. Beginning in June of 1940, the Bolsheviks nationalized Latvia's flourishing economy, banned religious activity, brought Marxism-Leninism into the schools and let the Soviet secret police extend their terror west to the Baltic Sea. After 12 months, the Germans, having abrogated the treaty, swept through the region. The Nazis held Latvia from July of 1941 until the summer of 1944, when the Baltic republics were retaken by Soviet forces. The Communists soon resumed centralized economic planning, Russification and deportation campaigns, which sent tens of thousands of Balts to the chillier climes of Omsk and Tomsk.
The Occupation Museum describes the years of Soviet rule in painstaking detail. Entering the gallery, I found a reconstruction of a Gulag barracks, with low double-decker bunks and, in one corner, an open metal barrel called a parasha. An accompanying essay by a Latvian former prisoner explicates the manifold indignities of using the sharp-edged parasha, which served as, among other things, a toilet. The hall is also filled with mementos from the Siberian prison camps: makeshift postcards made from birch bark, handkerchiefs embroidered with the names of the deported, a shiv used by Latvian political prisoners as protection from the hardened criminals among whom they were incarcerated. There are photographs of the four border guards who were the first to be killed by Soviet troops during the 1940 invasion, of anti-Communist partisans and massacred troops, of the swollen, decaying faces of Latvian men tortured and killed by the Cheka.
The bodies of the torture victims were unearthed, the exhibit explains, during the German phase of Latvia's tripartite subjugation, which is viewed less harshly here than are the Soviet periods. "The greater part of the Latvian population look upon the German invasion as liberation from the Soviet occupation forces," a text panel announces in an eerie narrative present, "which continue arrests and the preparation of new deportation lists until the very day of the arrival of the German army."
The sentence expresses the views of the Latvians of 1941, but the attitude runs deep throughout the exhibit. Another panel at the end discusses the 800,000 people of "other nationalities" who Soviet authorities resettled in Latvia during the postwar years with the intent of diluting local folkways and bolstering Soviet culture. (Though the migration was an aspect of Russification, the newcomers included Ukrainians, Belorussians and those whose passports indicated that they were Jewish.) This influx, the museum says, "dwarfs the 164,000 Germans that were to be sent to Latvia according to the Nazi plan," an unfulfilled scheme of the Third Reich to Aryanize the eastern Baltic.
Most Americans, though they may be comfortable with the paradox that the Soviet Union was both a valued ally in the fight against fascism and a paragon of totalitarianism even during that fight, would recoil at the notion that anyone in 1941 could have seen the Nazis as the lesser of two evils, let alone that they could still see history that way today. For a Jewish visitor, of course, this idea is particularly repellent -- and not just as a generalization about Europe, but as a statement about Latvia. The "liberation" of Latvia hardly meant freedom for all of its residents. The S.S. made quick work of the Jewish population of Latvia --nearly all of the 35,000 Jews living in Riga in July of 1941 were dead by December -- and, more often than in many other occupied lands, Latvians were eager partners in the Nazi-initiated genocide. "To many Latvians, caught up in a mood of growing paranoia and crude nationalism," Mr. Eksteins writes in "Walking Since Daybreak," the Jew "represented all things foreign, all things dangerous."
The Occupation Museum approaches the Jewish question gingerly, preferring to emphasize oppression of the Jews by the Communists or the Nazis over what was done by the Latvians. When it comes to the first Soviet occupation, the exhibit posts the Communist government orders banning the Jewish National Fund as well as the Latvian Boy Scouts. The museum comments on how the NKVD barred foreign Jews, "who have received asylum in Latvia in the second half of the 1930s," from entering the country.
The Holocaust takes up a discrete part of the display on the Nazi period. The museum shows pamphlets in Latvian with names such as "Mordechaism and Marxism" and photographs of Jews forced to wear yellow stars and to walk in the gutter. There are no images displayed that are as brutal, however, as the ones of the Latvian victims of the Soviet secret police. And while allowing that "like the Soviets before them, the Nazis attract and recruit malleable elements in the population in their apparatus of terror" -- people like Viktors Arajs, whose anti-Semitic forces slaughtered tens of thousands in 1941 -- the museum trumpets how "the unprecedented widespread persecution of Jews arouses sympathy" among the Latvians, who hid and saved some 300 Jews. In anticipation, perhaps, that Jewish or philo-Semitic feathers might be ruffled by this treatment of the subject, the museum explains that the Holocaust section was mounted with the help of Jews in Latvia, an archive and museum that is a 15-minute walk away.
Jews in Latvia is on the third floor of a four-story white building just outside the old city that, in 1926, housed the largest Jewish theater in the Baltic region. In the intervening years, the building became a Jewish Workers' Theater (which was Jewish in name only), a Nazi repository for confiscated Jewish artifacts, a meeting hall for the Communist Party of Latvia and a puppet theater before it was returned to the Jewish community of Riga and restored with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Jewish museum takes up two rooms, linked by a hallway filled with family portraits of Latvian Jews from before the war.
The first room of Jews in Latvia is devoted to the years before 1939. Although there are a few specimens documenting anti-Semitism dating back to the 18th century, the main point here is to celebrate Latvian Jewish achievements in religious scholarship, Zionist activity, business, sports, art and writing and to provide glimpses of the vibrant community in the days of the tsars and during the first independent republic. Among the people featured here are O. Strok, the local Tango King of the 1920s; J. Vestermanis, center forward on the national soccer team in 1937; Simon Dubnow, author of the 10-volume World History of the Jewish People, and three veterans who received the Order of Lacplesis, named for a national folk hero. The group portraits include the bearded members of Agudath Israel, the clean-shaven Bundists and the men of Mizrahi, some of whom sport mustaches.
The other room documents the destruction of Latvian Jewry, including the torching on July 4, 1941, of the Great Choral Synagogue, where hundreds seeking refuge perished. There are photographs of what is only hinted at in the Occupation Museum: men being marched down Brivibas Street toward the Latvian Statue of Liberty, naked women on the sand dunes at Liepaja about to be shot. Jews in Latvia also honors Latvian Jews who fought against the Nazis: those who tried to form a resistance movement in the ghetto, those who fought with the partisans and those in the Red army.
This note aside, the museum is guarded about drawing attention to a Jewish preference for the Soviet terror over the Nazi terror, which has been described as a "choice" between surrendering one's property to Stalin and handing one's head to Hitler. Still, it could not exactly be said that the Bolsheviks pampered the local Jewish population. The Occupation Museum tells of a deportation of 15,000 Latvians to Siberia on June 14, 1941, but it is only when one arrives at Jews in Latvia that one learns that any Jews were deported. In fact, one reads that 5,000 Jews -- a much higher proportion of deportees than among ethnic Latvians -- were sent to the north and east.
Only 150 Jews returned to Riga after the war. That number swelled to 27,000 with the arrival of "other nationalities" during the second Soviet occupation (since emigration became easier, it has declined by more than half), but neither museum says much about them. A token mention makes more sense in the Occupation Museum, with its Latvia- for-the-Letts perspective, but Jews in Latvia shows the cover of exactly one Jewish samizdat publication and the hand-colored logo of one underground Zionist group. These play a small part in a display on the rebirth of Jewish life in Riga that came with the demise of Soviet rule.
The day after my visit to Jews in Latvia, I met with its director, Margers Vestermanis (no relation to the soccer star), to discuss the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski and to present him with copies of photographs of my Latvian Jewish relatives. I asked Mr. Vestermanis why his museum all but ignored the years between 1945 and 1989. He said that in these years Jews came to Riga as individuals and were not able to operate as a community, so there wasn't really any Jewish life of this period to commemorate. Although I didn't argue with him, I'm not sure I agree; there must be some refuseniks from Riga or some well-known examples of intellect and bravery as worthy of a mention as O. Strok, the Tango King.
Mr. Vestermanis, a white-haired man of 74 who is fond of telling Jewish jokes, then shared with me his own story of Jewish intellect and bravery. While working as a supervisor in a Soviet archive, he researched and wrote a study of Latvia during World War II that included a pioneering discussion of the Holocaust. To protect himself, he used a non-Jewish pseudonym. Nevertheless, on the evening after he submitted his manuscript, he received a phone call ordering him to report to Leningrad the next day for three months' training. When he returned, he learned that his manuscript had been shelved and that his job had been eliminated. Mr. Vestermanis went to work as a high-school teacher.
I also tried to communicate my discomfort with the Occupation Museum's treatment of Jewish subjects. Mr. Vestermanis told me he was on the advisory board of that museum -- which, he said, is funded not by the Latvian government but by Latvians living in exile in North America. He says he speaks his mind with them, and they do what they will in their museum.
On my last full day in Riga, I return to Mr. Vestermanis's office, and he explains to me the precarious position of Jews in Latvia, his museum and archive. He tells me he is looking for a krysha; literally a roof, it is the Russian word for protection of the sort offered by a benevolent protector or a mafia clan. In Mr. Vestermanis's case, he is seeking an organization that will allow the museum and archive to affiliate with it and will commit to keeping the collection in Riga. He presents me with a list of Jewish organizations that have already shown him a cold shoulder. It's not hard to see why they have refused him, given the history of Jewish life in Riga since 1940 and the ongoing exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union. "I have an agreement with Yad Vashem, that if anything happens to me or if the museum is about to be liquidated, they are ready to sweep in here, take everything out and put in on a plane to Tel Aviv," he says. "All they need is the container; they're all ready to go."
Still, Mr. Vestermanis is insistent that he wants the sponsoring organization to be a Jewish one. The Latvian government, he said, "offered us to put the museum under their auspices, but I don't want to be under the Latvian government. As soon as I am under them I become a representative of the government, and I don't want to be under their control. I want independence. I want Jewish independence."
For the time being Mr. Vestermanis has his Jewish independence, just as the Occupation Museum proclaims Latvian independence from the Soviet regime. Both museums emerged at a historic moment of independence, when the Iron Curtain had been raised and frank discussions of national and religious identity once again became possible in Eastern Europe. And both exhibits are put together by victims with a newfound freedom to tell their stories -- stories that, when told in their full complexity, are inextricably linked, sometimes in disturbing ways.
I had come to Riga to learn more about another pair of overlapping stories: the early years of the boy-hero of "Fragments" and the history of my Wilkomirski ancestors. The author of "Fragments," whose story of his early years in Latvia is based in his memory and has not been corroborated by any documentation, remained as mysterious as ever. My known ancestors, however, became less ghostly presences as I found their births and marriages and emigrations recorded in the local hall of records and the national archive. My uncle Avram, one archivist discovered, lived in the city as late as 1941. She was unable to say, however, what happened to him, his wife, and his 11-year-old son...... ..
Reports from Yad Vashem;
Avram Wilkomirski was born in Riga, Latvia in 1888 to Moshe and Liebe. He was a tailor. Prior to WWII he lived in Riga, Latvia. During the war was in Riga, Latvia. Avram died in the Shoah at the age of 53. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 21/11/2001 by his family in New York (BLAKE ESKIN)
Shimon Wilkomirski was born in Riga, Latvia in 1930 to Avram and Baseva. He was a child. Prior to WWII he lived in Riga, Latvia. During the war was in Riga, Latvia. Shimon died in 1941 in Riga, Latvia at the age of 11. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 27/11/2001 by his cousin
Baseva Wilkomirski nee Pinhusovich was born in Plavinas, Latvia in 1889. Prior to WWII she lived in Riga, Latvia. During the war was in Riga, Latvia. Baseva was killed in the Shoah at the age of 52. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 24/11/2001 by her great-nephew
Pere Volkamirski was born in Russia in 1897 to Shmuel and Feiga Koidin. She was married. Prior to WWII she lived in Riga, Latvia. During the war was in Riga, Latvia. Pere died was killed in the Shoah . This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted by Zalman Mankov, the son of her sister,
Khava Volkamirski was born in Riga, Latvia in 1924 to Pere. Prior to
WWII she lived in Riga, Latvia. During the war was in Riga, Latvia.
Khava died in the Shoah. This information is based on a Page of
Testimony submitted by her cousin Zalman Mankov in Jerusalem