Monday, September 18, 2017

from Riga with love

Riga should be similar to Tallinn--it's quite close, and the Baltic states share a lot of history.
But the vibe, even in old town Riga, is completely different.
The language is different too. Latvian is closely related to Lithuanian, whereas Estonian is close to Finnish.

Architecturally it's blessed, with lots of red brick and elegant, decorative Art Nouveau.
Saturday night, packs of weekenders descended on Riga to drink themselves silly. So I headed out of the old town to avoid them hungover and the cruise ship hordes who'd docked for the day.
It wasn't hard to do. I walked a few blocks away from the Old Town.

I stopped in at The World of Hat (sic) and admired their collection of hats and shoes from around the world. These top ones are Latvian. The bottom Lithuanian.
And more hats from the Costume Museum.

I got a terrible box seat for the ballet, which was good for people watching. Latvians dress up for the ballet, especially children. The matrons definitely did not approve of my casual leggings and shoes. (Note to self: wear pearls to opening night at the Danish Symphony.)

Food is excellent here, with a wide spread of prices. But the service lacks the caring attention I found so endearing in Estonia. 
Today I visited the Riga Ghetto Museum. This is not a happy part of recent history, so perhaps it was appropriate in the pouring rain. 
In the 1880s, the Czar banished Jews from St. Petersburg and Moscow, dispersing city people east into the so-called Pale of Resettlement, unfarmable land in the middle of nowhere. 
In 1906, Russia and China fought a war that required more troops, and many citizens were ordered to report for duty. 

Jews who were able to leave did, like my great-grandfather Morris Finkelstein, who stowed aboard a ship from Riga to New York at the age of 19 or 20. I felt some dread, walking through the market to the museum.
Life under Soviet occupation had been no picnic. At the start of WWII, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Latvia, half in Riga. Today, there are less than 7000 Jews in the country. 
When Nazis arrived in 1941-2, the brutality was ratcheted up. 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were taken to the forest and massacred in 3 days. 
But mostly Riga was a waystation for Czech, Hungarian, and Belarusian Jews on their way to Auschwitz.
What surprised me most in these exhibits was the innocent things families carried with them: bedrolls and satchels, as if they'd be home soon.
In an exhibit of lanterns remembering the dead, I was moved by the cheerful letters prisoners of the ghetto wrote to friends and family, begging for shoes, or cigarettes or jewelry which could be traded for favor.


The donations are mostly dollar bills. The great majority of descendants of European Jews left for America, Canada, and other parts of the world before the wars. Had they not, we would likely have met the same fate.
I asked the quizzical man at the museum if these buildings had been a railway station. No, he said, this wasn't where the selections occurred. The Riga ghetto was farther away—not a good neighborhood then or now. He said he they'd placed the memorial there, few tourists would make the journey. So instead it's near the market, where vendors were selling mushrooms and berries and plums.

I'm writing this from my cabin on the Isabelle, bound for Stockholm! I broke down and took a taxi to the port because of the pouring rain.

But I received the ultimate compliment from the Russian taxi driver, impressed I spoke his language. Bolshoi spaciba. See you on the other side.