04 July 2007

The Fourth of July

The United States Embassy marked Independence Day in the Wörmann Garden on Sunday (Vērmanītī -- this caused considerable resentment last year, as the entire park was sealed off for the Americans), but the Fourth of July in Latvia is a day of mourning -- on 4 July 1941, the Great Choral Synagogue was burned down, along with other Jewish houses of worship in Rīga, at the order of Franz Walter Stahlecker.

This is the day set aside for remembrance of the genocide against the Jews -- ca. 70 000 Latvian Jews and 20 000 foreign Jews were murdered here during the Nazi phase of the occupation.

At noon a monument to Žanis Lipke and others who rescued Jews will be unveiled at the ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue. According to Uldis Neiburgs, a researcher at the Occupation Museum, ca. 400-450 Jews were hidden from the Nazis by ca. 400 persons. Žanis Lipke, his wife Johanna, his sons and friends saved a total of 55 Jews.

Marģers Vestermanis, founder and director of the Rīga Jewish Community Museum, has observed that Lipke is sometimes called "the Wallenberg of Latvia," but notes that the comparison, though flattering, is imprecise -- Raoul Wallenberg had considerable resources and Swedish diplomatic cover; Žanis Lipke was a dock worker who had nothing but a burning desire to rescue as many people as he possibly could.

Lipke, one of 103 Latvians recognized as Righteous Among Nations, was repeatedly interrogated by the KGB and could not travel to Israel (with which the Soviet Union had no relations); his son Alfrēds, who had helped him hide Jews prior to service in the Latvian Legion, lives in Australia, and Lipke finally obtained permission to visit him in 1977. Once he was in Sydney, the Israeli Ambassador to Australia accompanied him to Tel Aviv, where he was carried through the streets as a hero.

Unrecognized by the Soviets, Lipke hosted those he had saved every Christmas and Jāņi at his small home on Ķīpsala, an island in Rīga, until his death. The International Film Forum Arsenāls has embarked upon a project to reconstruct and restore the property, including the bunker in which Jews were sheltered.

The photograph of Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna in the 1920s is from Latvijas Avīze. Lipke’s grave was vandalized recently… not out of anti-Semitism but to get at the bronze, which can conveniently be sold very near the cemetery, even nocturnally (just as we have 24-hour pawn shops where you can trade in what you’ve robbed, you can also sell stolen copper and brass all night...). The thieves had no idea of the monument’s significance, it seems—the metal has been recovered and the monument will easily be restored.

Labels: , , ,