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 Museum and Documentation Centre "Jews in Latvia"

In the late eighties a group of survivors of ghettos and Nazi concentration camps in Latvia decided to create a Holocaust Centre in Riga, because during Soviet rule any studies or publications on this subject were forbidden. The group was headed by the historian Marger Vestermanis, a former prisoner of the Riga ghetto and concentration camp "Kaiserwald". In 1990 the idea was realized and the Museum and Documentation Centre "Jews in Latvia" was opened as an archive in the Riga Jewish Communitybuilding. Its goal was to save what little remained after two devastations - the Holocaust and Soviet repressions - and to start scientifc investigations of the history of Jews in Latvia. Thanks to help of L. and I. German, in 1996 the permanent exposition of the Museum "Jews in Latvia" was opened. For the first time in the history of Latvia there was a museum that acquainted the public with the fate of Latvian Jews. The museum became very popular. During the first two years of its existence it received visitors from all parts of the world; its guest book covers nearly as much ground as an atlas. In 1998 the Museum and Documentation Centre became an officially registered public institution.

The holdings of the Museum comprise unique materials: documents, photographs, videotapes and objects testifying about the history of Jews in Latvia. Noteworthy document collections include personal archives of outstanding Jewish personalities, extensive records of Jewish organizations in the twentieth and thirties of the 20-th century, and documents on the Holocaust. In the Museum files there also are editions of Jewish books that have become bibliographic rarities and many unique objects: works of Jewish craftsmen, personal belongings of ghetto and concentration camp prisoners, and objects found in mass graves and ruined synagogues. There is a large collection of photographs, especially of Jewish schools in Latvia, the everyday life of Jews, and the Holocaust.

The Centre was able to secure the cooperation of leading scholars of the Republic: the scientific council of the Museum consists of prominent historians. Since the opening various scholarly articles havebeen published in monographs and academic journals in Latvia and Germany. They include studies onthe history of Jews in the Courland duchy, history of the Jewish press in Latvia, the Holocaust inLatvia, solidarity actions of the population with the persecuted Jews, and problems of genealogicalresearch in Latvia. A major focus is the murder of Jews in provincial towns and rural areas in the summer of 1941.

The Museum is also working on an encyclopedia "Famous Latvian Jews" and on a catalogue of historicLatvian Jewish records that are scattered in local archives, museums, and libraries. These works aresupported by the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The Centre is also creating a documentary film on the
rescue of Latvian Jews by gentiles during World War Il, which will be named "Love yourNeighbour..." Special efforts are made to familiarize wider circles in Latvia and abroad with the historyof Jews in Latvia. For this purpose, teaching materials have been developed for schools and universitiesin Latvia. The Museum has also organized several mobile expositions. One of them - the photo-exposition "The lost Jewish world"- was opened on January 13, 1998 in the Bundestag building inBonn. This exposition will travel to other German cities. A similar exposition has been presented bythe Museum in December 1998 in Washington at the Claims Conference on Holocaust assets. The Museum has become a site for Christian-Jewish encounter and dialogue.

Although the Museum and Documentation Centre "Jews in Latvia" is officially recognized, it receives no government support and exists solely from private donations. During the last decade the organizational and scientific work was done mainly by unpaid, elderly volunteers. Now this resource isdwindling due to advancing age, but to replace it by younger people steady financial support isrequired. During its earliest, formative stage the Museum received a 2-year grant from the "MemorialFoundation of Jewish Culture" (New York), and during the next, organizational stage support camealmost exclusively from private contributions, gathered in Germany mainly by Dr. Anita Kugler
(Berlin, "die tageszeitung"), the member of the Bundestag Winfried Nachtwei (Munster), Dr. HerrmannKuhn (Bremen) and Edmund Pollack (Meckenheim). The opening of the Museum's permanentexhibition was made possible by a grant of the "Soros Foundation Latvia", covering display cabinetsand design. Technical equipment was financed mainly by the "Hamburger Institut fiir
Sozialforschung". The "Rroma Foundation" in Zurich currently funds a multi-year research position.From 1998 on the "Robert Bosch Stiftung" (Stuttgart) has supported collection of visual materials on20th century Jewish life in Latvia and completion of video records on rescuers of Jews. This foundationalso covers part of the cost of enlarging the Museum. Now the museum receives partial support from
prof. Edward Anders (Bern and Chicago).

The Museum and Documentation Centre "Jews in Latvia" strives to collect the last remaining testimonials of Jewish life and to create poignantly impressive expositions and historical analyses, thus creating a monument for the lost Jewish world of Latvia.

The living have to fulfil their duty towards the perished. But this duty can be fulfiled only with the support of the world-wide community.

Feder, Feder!
Westu kenen
Blut of tint farbaiten?
S'wern doch farblutikt wern
In main heft di saiten!

Pen, my pen!
Will you be able
to replace by ink our blood?
Because the blood will cover
Every page I write

From the diary of the prisoner of concentration
camp "Kaiserwald"-Riga Abram Bloch (1902-1981)



What should a Jewish museum be like in a region where everything that was Jewish perished in theHolocaust and where only miraculously preserved tombstones remind us of the past of Jewish people?  Should the Jewish museum in this historical reality be only a collector and curator of things saved fromdestruction - relics? Or should it be a memorial of the world that perished forever in torments and sufferings?

We choose the last.

The Nazis and their accomplices swore not only to annihilate our people, but also to blot out the historical truth about it. According to their intention the Jews should appear in the world's memory as theincarnation of evil or "if worst comes to worst", as a featureless statistic quantity. They have considerably succeeded in both cases. But today we are neither powerless nor unarmed in front of malice. We are able to preserve the genuine picture of Jewish life in historic documents and images, we havethe opportunity to give a true notion of Jewish life on weekdays and holidays, of their expectations and accomplishments, which need not be revised or glorified. The four hundred years` hard history of Jewsin Latvia developed on an uneasy patch of land at the Baltic Sea-coast, that was since old times anobject of imperialistic claims by neighbour powers. The military conflict of rivals, lasting for centuries,
and the frequent change of alien rulers kept the Jewish people for ages in trouble. The achievement of sovereignty by the Latvian people promised a better life. And, indeed, the time of the first Latvian Republic (1918-1940) especially during its democratic period, before the establishment of the 
ethnocratic authoritarian regime (1934), was a period of highest flourishing of the Latvian Jewish community. But not only armed conflicts characterize the history of this area of Jewish residence - since long ago two influences blended here - the occidental and oriental, two great cultures - German and 
Russian which determined to a great extent the way of life, mentality and linguistic orientation of the Jewish society. Besides the influence of the Latvian environment strengthened in the XX century. It is significant that notwithstanding these multilingual state of the Jewish population and the mighty pressure of the multicultural environment, the Jewish community avoided assimilation and nothing could shake the position of the native language "mameloshn" - Yidish. Only in the last pre-war decade did Ivrit - the language of the Jewish national revival - endeavour to take the first place. Historically the
religious communities, formed here by Jews who came from Germany and Lithuania, belonged to "Mitnagids", - opponents of any reforms of the faith of our forefathers. But from the Eastern part of Latvia, where most of the town and townlet Jews had come from Ukraine and Byelorussia, the influence of Hasidism introduced into the rationalistic mentality of the Courland and Riga Jews elements of romanticism, unconstrained and ineradicable joy of living. The Latvian Jewry as a whole has never been deeply religious, nevertheless they never doubted the need to observe the main requirements of the religious traditions - they were considered an integral part of national identity. No wonder that the ideas of "Haskala" - the Jewish secular enlightment- found their way into this region
sooner and more easily than anywhere else in the Eastern European diaspora.

No less variegated than the kaleidoscope of cultural influences was the spectrum of political movements. At the end of the XIX century and especially during the revolution of 1905 enthusiasm for socialist slogans was widespread
among Jewish craftsmen and students and "Bund" was at that time the most popular Jewish organization. But beside the "Bund", Zionist circles and organizations arose and developed and in the years of the first Latvian Republic the influence of Zionism left all the other political trends far behind. But that circumstance did not prevent the Zionists from dividing into left-wing, religious, and rightwing or "revisionist" factions. Their political militant organization "Brit - Trumpeldor", which was later on widespread over the world, arose and took its first steps just in Riga. Zionists from Latvia afterwards played a significant part in the revival of ancient Palestine and the creation of the State of
Israel. Two distinguished Jewish philosophers of the XX century - Yeshayahu Leibovitch and Isaiah Berlin - came out of Latvia, a country open to many cultures and ideas. The intellectuals renowned religious thinker Abraham Kook grew up amidst these spiritual traditions. Later on he became the first
chief Rabbi of Palestine and played an invaluable role in reconciling the ideas of political Zionism with the postulates of orthodox Judaism. Here are also the spiritual roots of a whole galaxy of prominent Jewish creative personalities: the experts of the Yiddish language, father and son Weinreich, the worldrenowned sculptor Nahum Aronson, "the best baritone of Europe" Joseph Schwarz and many, many others who left their trace in the world's culture.

A museum cannot replace a library, because it is impossible to tell everything by means of exhibits. The power of the museum lies in the stark authencity of historic originals reflecting a given epoch without tendentiousnes and embroidery. Exactly in this way we want to show our history to anyone
wishing to know the truth about ourselves, our past and our tragedy. Then the wish with which Jews from time immemorial see off their deceased - "Let his soul be tied in the bundle of the living" - will really come true.

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