As we stepped off the ship in Riga, Latvia - our final stop on this magnificent cruise - we were all smiles. The sun was out, its warm embrace telling us to leave our heavy jackets on board. Little did we know what lay ahead on our chosen tour.
Riga was founded in 1201; it is the capital and largest city in Latvia. Similar to Tallinn, Riga is made up of an old and new portion of town, boasting beautiful Art Nouveau on one side, historic medieval structures on the other.
Our tour was titled "Riga Jewish Heritage," and after visiting so many historic churches it was time for some diversity. The first stop was a short walk through the historic Old Town to one of only two remaining synagogues in the country, and the only one left in Riga, Peitav Shul.
The synagogue was built in 1903 to accommodate the growing Jewish community in the Old Town of Riga. After the city was occupied by the Nazis in 1941, all synagogues in Riga were burned down. Peitav-Shul was the only one to escape this fate - as the building was located in the Old Town of Riga where buildings were so close together, the fire could have easily spread to the adjoining houses and nearby churches. The synagogue building was spared for use as a stable and warehouse during the war.
At our next site, the tour took on a much more somber tone. We stopped at the former location of the Great Choral Synagogue, the city’s largest at the time, able to fit more than 1,000 worshipers.
On July 4,1941, hundreds of Jews perished in the city's largest synagogue. According to our guide, the Nazis chased more than 300 Jews into the synagogue, boarded up the doors and set the building on fire. Today, a memorial marks the site of the mass murder. On one side, a large structure made up of seven criss-crossed columns pays tribute to those who helped save Jewish people during World War II. On the other side, a memorial was constructed using stones from the ruins of the burnt down synagogue.
Intriguing how something so horrific can be turned into something so inspiring.
As we delved deeper into Riga's Holocaust history, our tour took us through the streets of the Riga Ghetto, where Jews had been relocated in the early 1940’s, and forced to live under deplorable conditions. As our guide told us, because of the historical significance of the remaining structures, they are protected and cannot be torn down.
Around the corner from Riga Ghetto was the site of the Old Jewish Cemetery, where 2,000 Jews had been buried during the atrocities of WWII. After the war, tombstones were stolen, brick walls were demolished and it fell into ruin. In 1960, when the city was under Soviet control, the cemetery was transformed into a park with no mention of the former Jewish cemetery. When Latvia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 a memorial was installed at the park's entrance.
As we walked through the grounds one could still see fragments of the old headstones. Look closely at the second picture and you can make out what appears to be a Star of David.
Our next stop was the most disturbing - a chilling visit to Rumbula Forest, where on two days in 1941 some 25,000 Jews were systematically shot and buried in mass graves on the outskirts of Riga.
It was a carefully orchestrated plan. The Nazis arrived at Riga Ghetto November 30, 1941. They told the Jewish families they were to be deported east for work and to pack a suitcase with their most important belongings. After being driven out of their houses, they were forced to walk the entire distance to Rumbula Forest. Upon arrival they were told to strip naked, leave all their belongings and were promptly marched to the killing pits where they were forced in and shot.
After the war, during the Soviet occupation the local Jewish community was able to get a memorial erected, but it was with general wording that was more in line with Soviet policies.
It wasn't until after the collapse of the USSR that the Rumbula site was more appropriately recognized. Memorials were added at the entrance, along the path and at the mass grave sites.
Keeping with Jewish tradition, I placed a stone on the grave site to pay my respects, and “never forget.”
Our final stop of the tour was at the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. A fairly new facility, its aim is to preserve the memories about the Jewish community in Latvia and the tragedies of the Holocaust.
The large wall of faces personalized the many victims and survivors of the Holocaust atrocities.
A train car with pictures inside gave insight to the emotions of the Jewish families being sent to the ghettos and concentration camps.
There is a small house, recreating the difficult living conditions in the Jewish ghetto. Imagine several families, cramped together in this tiny living space.
Our museum docent explained, she does not feel sad or depressed working here, but rather inspired, by showing others the humanity that the Jewish people maintained while struggling through horrific treatment during the Holocaust.
We really needed to finish our day on an upbeat note! We dressed to the nines for Formal Night dinner, watched an incredible sunset over the Gulf of Riga, and delighted in the towel baboon our Stateroom Attendant Wayan had left hanging over our bed!
Sailing back to Sweden tomorrow, a quick city tour on our way to the airport and then home sweet home!