With our traveling companions, we drove north from Kaunas and Kedenai through the rural lands of central Lithuania on our way to Latvia and Riga. Before we cross the border, however, let me suggest one more thing you can read to give you a good understanding of the accomplishments of the Litvaks, the Jews of Lithuania and its southern neighbor Belarus. I recommend the first sections of Mark N. Ozer’s “The Litvak Legacy”, which I found to be both thorough and readable.
Not much marks the Lithuanian-Latvian border. You drive right through, and see little change to the green, flat farmland and forest. Lithuania and Latvia are almost identical in size, although Latvia apparently lacks an area equivalent to the lake country which runs east from Moletai (although there is a part of Latvia called the Switzerland of Latvia, about which more to come). Also, the population of Latvia is about one third smaller than that of Lithuania, and Latvia’s capital, Riga, is larger than Vinius. Thus, rural Latvia is even more sparsely populated than rural Lithuania. I found little to distinguish the village architecture of the two countries, the unpainted wooden houses and accessory buildings with their highly steeped roofs, and their languages are related to each other, but their overall histories differ considerably.
While Lithuanian history is intertwined with that of Poland (and today’s Belarus), Latvia has more connection with Swedes, Danes, and especially Germans, first through its membership in the Hanseatic League, when Riga served (as it still does) as a major port.
During the 18th century, in pieces, Latvia became part of the Russian empire, partially but not completely through the Polish partitions. It was always treated differently than Lithuania by the Russians, and was given a greater degree of autonomy. Like Lithuania, Latvia had a significant Jewish population, but it did not increase greatly under initial Russian rule, because Catherine the Great, when establishing the Pale of Settlement (where Jews were permitted to reside), omitted Latvia.
During the interwar years, independent Latvia attracted a fair number of additional Jewish residents, including the Lubavitcher rebbe, who moved his organization to Riga after it became clear that the international reach of Chabad appeared to the Soviets as a threat resulting in the arrest and incarceration in the Peter and Paul Fortress of the rebbe.
The native Latvian Jews, interestingly, were not considered Litvaks. They were much more closely related to, and influenced by, German Jews, and thus it appears that the Latvian Jews were a bit more cosmopolitan than their coreligionists to the south.
Riga, too, was a very cosmopolitan city, big in trade and commerce. Its old city and center reflect this osmopolitan heritage, still today
We stayed in the Grand Palace Riga Hotel, a first class establishment just within one of the gates into old, walled city, a restored 19th century bank building. There are many things to see in the Old City and we saw more of them, although our timing was such that we were unable to visit the Museum of Occupation. We attended a concert in the gothic Cathedral, we visited the sites in Town Hall Square, and generally walked the streets of the old city marveling at the architecture, visitng many of the quality shops and craft and souvenir market stalls, and eating at some of the old city’s better restaurants, including (head and shoulders above the others)Kalku Varti (Latvian for Limestone Gate). The old city of Riga is very different from that of Vilnius. In Vilnius, the central area is both extensive and quaint – narrow streets, attractive old buildings in various condition, a combination of commercial and residential uses. In Riga, the old city seems much more apart from the remainder of the city (with more areas set aside for pedestrian usage, and even more tourism than Riga), and much more monumental.
We had an opportunity to visit the enormous food market, outside of the old city and situated in several old airplane manufacturing hangers – where there is a separate fish building, a separate meat building, etc. We looked at examples of the Art Nouveau architecture, not only adorning some of the buildings in the old city, but decorating office and residential buildings outside of the old city, in the impressive and comfortable commercial center. Many of these, including those on or around Alberta Street were designed by Jewish architect Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.
We also visited the one active synagogue (and art nouveau building with a striking interior Egyptian motif), and the site of the former Great Synagogue, which had been burnt by the Nazis and where now is visible only the footprint and some reconstructed half-walls, and the monument to righteous gentiles. They are located in the old ghetto, which now houses a thriving Jewish school, but has more unrestored buildings than other parts of the city we visited. The Jewish population today of Riga is more than twice that of Vilnius, and we visited the Jewish Community Center, located not in the ghetto, but in the downtown district, not for from Alberta Street, a large brick building which was built as a Jewish center, but later changed to other uses, before it was restored to the Community.
We also visited sites outside of the city where the Nazis murdered Jews during the German occupation (Rumbula Forest, where almost 30,000 were murdered and where an appropriate series of memorials exist, and Bikernieki Forest, where another 50,000 perished, and a memorial of boulders designed to look like a jumble of individual tombstones was installed), and an extraordinary monument at Salispilis which the Soviets built in memory of those who died fighting the fascists, with oversize statues of soldiers, and women and children, and a museum, all set in an area equivalent in size to several football fields. We understand that, in Soviet times, it was a must stop on all tours – now it is visited a little less often. It still should be a must stop – the scale of the sculpture is just that impressive.
We bought some gifts in Riga, and I bought an early 20th century drawing at a very interesting and comfortable antique store, located a few blocks from the Eisenstein apartments. This area is located only a few blocks from the entrance to the old city – the walls are gone, but they have been replaced by a beautiful thin, but hilly, park, filled with Latvians at leisure on a beautiful day. There are a number of cultural institutions including the large, impressive Soviet era opera house, which border the park. The park does a good job of bridging the old and the newer in Riga – making the capital of Latvia appear remarkably livable.
All in all, Riga is a very comfortable city. As a place to visit? Highly recommended.