Riga Ghetto and Holocaust Museum gets reprieve, 10-year lease extension

The Riga Ghetto and Holocaust Museum has just gotten a reprieve from possibly having to move or close down. It is located at the edge of the historic Spīķeru or Warehouse District by the Daugava River shoreline just outside the Riga Old Town and adjacent to the Riga Market in the Latvian capital. The newly-formed Riga City Council on October 27 extended the rent-free lease of the museum’s territory for another 10 years, but subject to restrictions on any new construction on the site.

The museum is the main project of the Jewish organization Shamir, which also does research and public information on Latvia’s largely destroyed Jewish houses of worship and other aspects of Jewish life and history in the Baltic nation.

Rabbi Menachem Barkahan, the head of Shamir, is pleased that the museum has been given a reprieve, but stresses that the restrictions, unless they can be softened by future negotiations, will prevent full development of the museum as envisioned and lead contribute to a slow “degradation” of the exhibit area, referring to the effect of weather on outdoor exhibits and the need to totally renovate some of the exhibit halls.

Memorial wall with 75 000 names

Shamir together with museum specialists and architects has developed a plan for building out the area and covering some of it with a roof to protect, among other exhibits, a wall inscribed with the names of 75 000 Jews who were herded into the Riga Ghetto in 1941 and later shot, mainly in the Rumbula forest outside the city. This event was depicted in the recent Latvian film The Mover (Latvian title Tēvs nakts).

In addition to the wall with victim’s names, there are also exhibits on the European Jews who fled the Nazis and were mainly granted asylum in independent Latvia in the late 1930s, sadly followed by forcible transfers of Jews under the Nazi occupation of the Baltic countries in 1941–1944, most of whom (along with the asylum seekers) perished.

Barkahan says independent Latvia’s treatment of European Jews is an important issue the museum hopes to underscore. “There were 1 100 Jews from Germany and Austria who were allowed to stay in Latvia while they applied for visas to the US and UK,” Barkahans said, adding that the museum has documentation of all of these cases. This happened at a time when most other European countries shunned Jewish refugees and when Latvia was led by an authoritarian leader, Kārlis Ulmanis, who, unlike other European dictators, was not anti-Semitic, the rabbi said.

Spīķeru nami, the owners of the Spīķeru/Warehouse District say they don’t object to the museum in principle, but say that it and its development plans (roofing over part of the museum open-air area) will break up the historic “ensemble” of the district and add elements that were never there — one is a wooden building recovered and reconstructed from the original 1941 ghetto. The restored museum building, different from the other warehouse area structures (many renovated for offices, businesses or artistic/creative facilities) is also on the site of a “missing” warehouse that was destroyed during World War II.

Spīķeru nami — We just want more access and remove a building

In a statement, the company wrote that it wants to ensure access to the buildings owned by Spīķeru nami, which borders the territory of the Riga ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, allowing the management of such buildings and ensuring public access. It also wants to preserve the appearance and landscape of the architectural monument of the Spīķeru quarter /Warehouse Area of Riga. Finally, Spīķeru nami wants to remove the wooden buildings it says were built arbitrarily by the Shamir, which do not fit into the Warehouse Area and damage its unity.

One of the buildings, according to Barkahans, is a once badly damaged and extensively restored wooden house from the original ghetto area, where Jews were crammed into two floors. A replica of their living and sleeping quarters has been installed in the building, which may be in an area where a historic warehouse once stood but was destroyed during World War II. Another building is apparently a souvenir and booklet shop.

Spīķeru nami also stress that they do not want to take over the land where the museum stands, only to ensure access between the memorial area and the rest of the historic warehouse site, which they say the museum has blocked with gates and a fence.

In the spring, Spīķeru nami filed a lawsuit asking that the Riga City Council break its rent-free lease of the museum territory. A lower court declined to hear the case, but was overruled by an appeals court, which directed that the case be tried.

Jewish interests on both sides of the dispute

One irony of the whole matter is that the owners of Spīķeru nami, the developer of the rest of the former warehouse area, are mainly Jewish, according to Dmitrijs Krupņikovs, a leader of the Jewish community. Krupņikovs said he could understand the concerns of both sides of the issue, and, speaking before the Riga City Council made its decision, said a reasonable compromise would be “to extend the museum’s lease for at least a couple of years” to allow them to consider alternatives. The Riga Ghetto and Holocaust Museum now seems to have gotten a much better, though far from ideal arrangement.

An undertone to the dispute, with Latvian Jews on both sides, may be both religious and “patriotic”. Barkahan, though born in exile in the former Soviet Union and educated in Israel, where he lived for many years, served in the military and became a rabbi, says he is a Latvian patriot with family roots going back centuries in the Baltic nation. He is an admirer of Latvia’s last pre-war president Kārlis Ulmanis (who ruled after a coup in 1934) and expresses sympathy for the conservative National Alliance, one of the parties in the current government coalition. He is also understood to practice a pious and conservative form of Judaism, while others in the wider community in Latvia are secular and many have come from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union when Latvia didn’t share in the harsh anti-Semitism of other parts of the USSR. The pre-war Jewish population of Latvia, who had lived there for centuries and participated in interwar economic, political and cultural life, was largely destroyed in the Holocaust.

Barkahan, who learned Latvian after moving back as a child, considers it one of his “mother tongues” along with Yiddish and Hebrew, says he doesn’t object to Jews in Latvia who primarily speak Russian but remarks that some brought with them “a Soviet mentality”.

Advocates of the museum say that they have invested much time and resources in developing a site that is a magnet for tourists (who then roam the rest of the Warehouse District) and a valuable historical memorial to what happened in the Riga ghetto (one of many established to oppress and ultimately exterminate Jews in cities in Eastern Europe). It is also located at the edge of the Riga Maskavas (Moscow) neighborhood, the site of the original ghetto.

The “other side” points this out and says that a better place to commemorate the ghetto would be a short distance away where the real ghetto once was. There is, to be sure, already a memorial site by the ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue (torched soon after the Germans arrived in the summer of 1941), but the area in the middle of mixed-use neighborhood might not be suited to building a museum.

Latvia already has a Jewish Museum in another part of town which looks at the centuries- long history of the community, as well as a section on the Holocaust in Latvia in the Museum of the Occupation (currently under reconstruction and expansion). However, as the last people with living memory of these events “leave the stage”, there can’t be too many (assuming they are accurate) depictions of these events.

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.

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