Living History: The Scars of Anti-Semitism and the Soviet Past Are All Too Apparent in Lithuania and Latvia, Writes Julia Pascal
Pascal, Julia, New Statesman (1996)
My airport taxi breaknecks through streets of rotting 19th-century wooden houses into Riga's centre. Latvia holds the European record for road deaths. I can see why. From the cab, there is evidence of two simultaneous time zones. One is the dog-end of the Soviet years, the other a frenetic rush towards the high-speed reconstruction of a long-neglected city.
Riga's greatest draw is its pedestrianised Old Town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. In this bijou centre, with its churches, discreet hotels, museums and mysterious winding streets, massive international investment is highly visible. Construction is 24/7. Fifteen years after the euphoria of independence, most Rigans look depressed. Pensions are lower than under the Soviets. There is even some nostalgia for communist times among some of the older Latvians.
In central Riga, an 80-year-old woman in white gloves, plaid skirt and an elegant jacket, pirouettes to a cassette hoping for a few lats. Here, beggars are elderly or disabled. These are the losers in the free-market of independence.
To the historical tourist, Riga is a seductive place. Germans arrive in coachloads to see Lutheran churches. Art historians come to the unmissable Art Nouveau area. But the majority of travellers are from the former Soviet bloc. Everyone is searching out a particular history. And, at the official level, there are questions about how that legacy is to be narrated.
Opposite the town hall, the ugly, cuboid Museum of the Occupation of Latvia contains a catalogue of terror from the two Soviet occupations. However, the display skates over Latvia's pro-Nazi past. Any mention of the murder of Jews by collaborators is minimal. Fifteen minutes' walk away, Riga's Museum of War shows images of Latvians welcoming the Nazis as liberators. Today, elderly former SS Latvian volunteers still parade, which embarrasses a government eager to show its shining EU credentials.
Here, official histories tend to document Latvian Nazis either as an aberration or an expression of hatred against communists who were seen to be supported by Jews. The strains of political allegiances are just under the surface. My 50-year-old taxi driver tells me: "My father was with the Nazis against the Soviets and his brother fought in the Red Army. They still fight." As for any Jewish presence, it is notable by its absence.
Close to my hotel is Riga's only synagogue. In Latvia, about 50,000 Jews were killed either in the Rumbula Forest, or Salaspils camp 20 kilometres south of the city. No sign marks the Riga ghetto, which housed 30,000 Jews. Or the famous Great Choral Synagogue, which the Nazis burned down with the Jews inside. All that remains is a few stones surrounded by rubbish.
Evelyne Waldstein, 76 years old and a former biochemist, was born in Riga. She escaped to Leningrad. Waldstein remembers the Latvian mob. "When occupation happened, the Latvians were ordered to dig two death pits. One for the Jews and one for the Gypsies. …