Apr 2012 Journal

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Latvia: A personal march through history

Riga, 8 September 1940
Dear Mum
I’ve just found out that it’s possible to write letters to England from here. As I haven’t heard from you in such a long time, I’m writing this letter to you by airmail and hoping for an answer by return of post. You might wonder why you’re hearing from me from Riga. I’ve been living here for two or three months now. My exact address is: Paul Loewenberg (Kahns), Riga, Latvia, USSR, Marijas iela 33, Flat 10.

‘Marijas iela 33, Flat 10. Do you know where it is, Aleksandrs? Is it this street?’ I point to Marijas iela on the free town map I was given in my hotel. ‘No, the streets are different from what they were before,‘ Aleksandrs replies, ‘It’s not far now.’ Dutifully I follow him as the Baltic wind kicks leaves around our feet.

I can still see the fish market and the golden sprats flapping their fins and crying for the sea; the oldest wooden house in town, standing defiantly in the midst of a busy street and dwarfed by Stalinesque administrative buildings; the regal white opera house and the less regal production of Don Giovanni with singers flirting in bikinis; the state archive with its classroom seating which introduced me to my Latvian family over the last few days; the amber sellers; the flower sellers; the burlesque night clubs; the pastel-coloured buildings; the cobbled streets; the town hall and its impressive spire with a view of the River Daugava and the House of the Blackheads (a group of unmarried merchants). And then I think back to my discoveries in the Latvian State Archives in Slokas Street the day before: the names of my Latvian family. They are names in black ink on time-stained pages, in Russian, in black, leather-bound books. I have ten piled up in front of me and a piece of paper the archivist has kindly given me with the Russian spelling of the name Levenbergs.

I search the names and scrutinise every sweep of a pen. Over three days I find them. They come alive and wave to me from the pages. They open a window into a patriarchal world that nurtured traditional roles, dates telling me when they were born and married but not where they died ... ‘Your grandfather’s father was called Lazzers Levenbergs. He was an omem,’ the archivist says, ‘a soldier’. A soldier? Yes, a soldier who fought for his country, no doubt proudly, and married Minna - Minna Bernstein - and they had eight children and lived by the sea in Libau and ran a furniture shop and worked hard and traded as commercial merchants and hoped their business would do well enough for their children to be educated. And they helped my grandfather David go to Dresden University to study engineering. Their eldest twin boys, Moishe and Abraham, born shortly after they married in 1867, left Latvia too. Moishe went to Paris and Abraham to Tehran. Their daughter, Tante Gertrud, married a German lawyer by the name of Schindler and lived in Switzerland. But their other children, Joseph and his three other sisters, Zlato, Rivka and Judith, and his aunts, the Lazzers sisters Miriam and Deborah, stayed in Libau and lived in Libau and had children in Libau and lived by the sea and played in the dunes and kicked the sand.

Did Roland, the legendary knight, patron of merchants and protector of peace and merchants’ rights, who proudly surveys all who pass him in St Peter’s Church, protect them?

I’m tired. My feet hurt but we can’t stop - it’s way past lunch time and most of the restaurants and cafés are no longer serving latkes with sour cream. A hot coffee would be welcome to fight off the cold and I’m grateful I have two pairs of thick socks on but we can’t stop. Before I fly back to London tonight I have got to see the place where my uncle lived before he was sent to the Riga ghetto. I’m hoping as I walk down the cobbled streets of old Riga that I’ll have a moment of revelation and that the stones will suddenly speak to me and help me understand why. Why a 19-year-old young man who was born in Halle an der Saale, Germany, on 20 January 1922, one year before my father, a young man whose father David, a self-made man, a hard-working man, an engineer who was born in Libau in Latvia on 29 November 1875, whose factory in Berlin was taken away from him in 1935 and had to put his sons in an orphanage, who in early 1941 left his last address in Berlin, Altonaer Strasse 16, to head a tool factory in Moscow and disappeared; whose mother Marianne, an opera singer and violinist born in Leipzig in 1893 who, with the help of the Hinrichsens of the music publishing company CF Peters, managed to get to England in April 1939 but never sang again ...

Why was he taken from his lodgings in Marijas iela to a ghetto? Who would do such a thing to a young man - still really a boy - homesick, lonely and scared? Who would do this? When they came for him on 4 October 1941 at Flat 10 at Marijas iela 33, when they knocked on the door, what did Frau Kahns say? Did her heart stop still as they knocked on the door and Paul was told to leave the building with them? Did he put his beret to one side as my father remembers him always doing? Was he wearing thick socks, did he take anything with him or did he have to leave everything he owned behind, in his small bedroom in Flat 10, Marijas iela 33? Did he put on a brave face but secretly yearn to have his mother wrap her arms around him? Who would do this to a boy? Did the men who came for him speak in German or Latvian? Even though my grandfather was Latvian, Paul and my father were born in Germany: Paul wouldn’t have understood them if they had spoken to him in Latvian. When they saw him, didn’t they see he was just like one of their sons, one of their nephews, one of their cousins? Did he look so strange, so alien, so dangerous that they needed to come for him and take him to a ghetto? Did he perhaps tilt his eye in such a way that said sub-human or dangerous Communist sympathiser?

‘This is Lacplesa Street,’ Aleksandrs calls out. Paul lived here too. ‘Yes, it was part of the ghetto.’ It’s a long street. We walk along it with traffic rushing past. Maskavas Street, Vitebskas Street, Ebreju Street, Lauvas Street, Liela Kalna Street, Lazdonas Street, Kijevas Street, Jekabpils Street, Lacplesa Street - the original boundaries of the Riga ghetto, officially announced on 23 August 1941. On 25 October 1941 its gates were locked and 29,602 Jews were driven together under strict custody behind barbed wire in an area where about 13,000 people had lived before. Among them 5,652 children, 8,300 invalids, 9,507 women, 6,143 men and my uncle. ‘What day is it today?’, I ask Aleksandrs. ‘Wednesday 26 October 2011.’ When did the archivist solemnly hand me a small rectangular book with Paul’s name in it, the black book that neatly listed his address, Mariajas iela 33, his date of birth and the word ‘geto’ beneath the date 4 October 1941? Yesterday, 25 October 2011. Time stands still and I freeze.

‘How many people were killed?’, I ask Aleksandrs.’ Paul was a workman, he was 19, he was young, he might have survived. Did he survive? Do you think he survived?’ ‘Perhaps, I don’t know.’

Between 29 November and 8 December 1941 the great ghetto was annihilated. Some 25,000 of its inhabitants were taken to Rumbula to the woods a few kilometres out of Riga. Over 1,000 Latvian Arajs commandos robbed them, went with them, guarded them before SS soldiers shot them and packed them in pits like sardines.

‘This is the first Jewish secular school, Lacplesa Street 141, run by Rabbi Dr Max Lilienthal. A German translation of the Torah made by the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was one of the main teaching aids used at this school. Up to the Holocaust, Riga was a thriving hub for artists and musicians: the composer Oscar Strok, the violinist Sarah Rashin, even Wagner worked here. Only one in ten Latvians survived - only one. This is a photo of the famous historian Professor Simon Dubnow, whose last words in the ghetto were ‘Write, Jews, write!’

Aranka, David, Israel, Jossel, Mark, Mordechay, Rebecka, Rivka, Fanny, Jenny, Lilia, Minna , Rafael, Rosa, Rachel, Wiliam, Abram, Selig, Scheine, Sore, Rosa, Paul. Albert, Benjamin, Eugenia, Haim, Judith, Lia, Minna, Paul. Their names and plaques in the ghetto museum flash past me - all Lewenbergs, all taken to the ghetto. I stare at them and they look back at me in black straight suits made of capital letters. Look at this photo. It’s the burning of the synagogue: 300 people, 300 Jews were burnt alive in there. Look at this man. ‘He looks as if he’s laughing.’ ‘Yes.’ He’s not a German soldier. He looks like an ordinary man, a man who buys furniture and sits and sleeps on it.

‘Here, this is Marijas iela 33.’ Aleksandrs points to a beautiful Art Deco building in a street that was once a thriving hub for tailors. The street is now called Aleksandra Caka iela. I would never have found it. Inside, a sweeping banister dominates the landing and on the wall is a list of businesses located in the building. A company called Manol is working in Flat 10 now. The walls around its office are neon yellow. We knock on the door. There’s no one in but somewhere behind that yellow door Paul wrote the last words his mother ever received from him:

Please use the address soon - I’m waiting eagerly for an answer from you! I’m alright here. I’m working and earning a living. I’m expecting Dad to arrive soon. It’s my only comfort that Dad’s coming because I won’t be so lonely any more. I’m always thinking of you, dear Mum! How are you? I hope the address at Dr Whelen at Horton hospital is still the right one. In case it’s not, I’m sending the letter to this address too. I beg you once again to answer as soon as possible, by airmail! I’m longing for an answer from you. How is Ernst? Best wishes to him and tell him he’ll hear from me soon. Dear Mum, I’m so happy I can write to you at last. I’m very worried because of the long separation. Can I even hope to see you again? How happy I would be if I could be with you. In my thoughts I’m always with you, dear Mum. When I get a reply from you I’ll give you more details about me. Until then, this short greeting. All my love, your loving son, who is always thinking of you! Paul.’

‘Who is always thinking of you!’ These words rush through my mind. I can’t let them go and I think of a photo a friend of mine sent me of a plaque inside the oldest ghetto in the world, the one in Venice. It was created in 1516 and is the very place where the word ghetto originates. The plaque reads ‘Perche le nostre memorie sono la vostra unica tomba’ (For our memories are your only graves). Did we see a plaque in the former Riga ghetto? I don’t recall.


I visited Riga for the first time in October 2011, 70 years after the formation of the Riga ghetto and when Latvia officially commemorated 450 years of Jewish life in the country. In the same year, the Jewish community drew attention to an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. In Riga on 16 March 2011, at the heart of NATO and in an EU country, over 2,500 people paid tribute to Latvians who fought on the side of Nazi Germany in Waffen SS detachments during the Second World War. Approximately 62,000 Jews, or 90 per cent of Latvia’s pre-war Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42 by German SS and Latvian Arajs commandos, many of whom later joined the 15th and 19th Divisions of the German SS. The brutal murder of Latvian Jews was one of the second-worst atrocities of the Holocaust, yet the Museum of the Occupation in Riga devotes only a couple of stands to their deaths.

On 20 January 2012, on my Uncle Paul’s birthday and 70 years to the day after the Wannsee Conference, I launched the petition ‘Stop the 16 March marches in Riga and Latvians revising history!’ (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/27795). In a little under two weeks the petition has gathered worldwide attention and over 900 signatures.

If you too wish to research your Latvian families’ roots, information is available from the Latvian State Historical Archives, Slokas Street 16, Riga LV-1048 Latvia; email Lasitava@lvva.gov.lv; www.lvva-raduraksti.lv; and Aleksandrs Feigmanis at http://www.balticgen.com/

Monica Lowenberg

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