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House of History: the Riga Ghetto Museum

By Inese Timuka . 29.03.2010

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If we don't know the history, we cannot make the future!

At the beginning of February 2010 in the Riga City Council building, the city’s vice mayor, Ainars Slesers, and the chairman of the Jewish community, “Shamir” Rabbi Menachem Barkahan, signed a protocol of intent on the foundation of the Riga Ghetto Museum. The event is important as for the Jewish community and the descendants of Latvian Jews who live all over the world, the memory, history and culture of the past are vital.
The Holocaust in Latvia began in 1941 with the invasion of Nazi Germany. Initially, six Jews were killed in Grobiņa Cemetery near Liepāja. From there it escalated rapidly, and mass killings were carried out swiftly and thoroughly in every town and city.
One of the main places of genocide in the capital was in Rumbula, a forest on the outskirts of the city. It is reported that Riga lost as much as 92 percent of its Jewish population during the Holocaust. In total, Latvia lost more than 70,000 of its Jewish citizens.
Rabbi Menachem Barkahan told RigaNOW! that in his opinion the museum project is important as a part of Latvian history.
“In the first half of 1941, around 15,000 people were deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities, 12% of whom were Jews. Some of them died on the journey. But in some respects they are lucky, because once the Holocaust started they actually had the chance to live. Those who stayed here didn’t have a chance at all.”

Ghetto area

Jewish people started to settle in Riga in the 17th century, arriving at the port from other Hanseatic cities. They were, however, only allowed to live in a “Jewish inn”, so called because Jews were not allowed to stay in Riga permanently.
These were set aside for them by the city of Riga at the intersection of Maskavas and Lāčpleša streets. Until World War II, this remained the main Jewish area in Riga where Jews lived, and was the site of the Jewish “ghetto” during the war.
This area can be considered a unique place in Europe as it has undergone few architectural changes within the last 60 years. There are still lots of small wooden houses with woodcarving shutters and the roads are paved with cobblestones.
But not all the residents of the area know what happened there in 1941. More than 70,000 Latvian Jews were killed during the Holocaust and 20,000 Jews from Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary passed through the infamous ghetto here.

House of history

The Riga Ghetto Museum will be located nearby, in a historical part of the city behind the Central Market, about five or ten minutes’ walk from the Old Town.
The exposition will be arranged on two floors of the building and also in the yard. The courtyard will be arranged using cobblestones from the central street of the former Riga Ghetto, from Ludzas Street. Visitors will be able to reach the courtyard through a railway car resembling those in which the Jews were brought to Riga from Western Europe.
The Rabbi says that they have planned an original house from the ghetto area, which will be moved into the courtyard of the museum covered with a transparent roof. Visitors will be able to experience the grim lives of the inhabitants of the ghetto at that time and attempt to reproduce the atmosphere.
The furnishings of the house will be based on the memoires of ghetto survivors, namely E. Rivosh, A. Bergman, G. Friedman, and others.
But it’s not only artifacts of ghetto life that will be placed in the museum. The plan is also to enrich the venue with multimedia devices through which visitors will be able to get a full picture of the life and history of the Riga Ghetto.
“Visitors will have access to various databases we have collected over years, for example the children who were killed in the territory of Latvia, Jews who survived the Holocaust and lived on in Latvia after the war, and the ghetto house registers,” Rabbi Barkahan explains.
We were told that the museum will house rooms for seminars and a library, and a hall for cultural activities will be located on the second floor and possibly a café too. Educational and cultural activities, seminars, and concerts will help to fill the building with life.
While the museum is being developed, the Shamir Society is organizing various cultural events.
“Two of the biggest this year are the March of Live Riga on July 4, in which locals and foreigners alike will be able to join in silence to commemorate the victims of genocide. Then on September 2, there’s a conference called Every Child Has a Name,” the Rabbi said.
 He added: “It is impossible to show this chapter of Latvian history in a positive light, but still we need to have a place where the real history can be told.”
The initiators of the museum idea are searching for sponsors for the project. Rabbi Barkahan thinks that the project can be implemented with the support of around 5 to 6 million euros, and a two-year time period before the museum opens its doors.

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