Monday, June 6, 2011

Latvia: New Report on Vidzeme Region Burial Grounds

Riga, Latvia. Memorial at Rumbula, the site of the massacre of tens of thousands of Latvian Jews. Photos: Samuel Gruber.

Latvia: New Report on Vidzeme Region Burial Grounds

Lo Tishkach has published its latest report about Jewish cemeteries in Europe. This report presents information about the location and condition of the Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust-era mass graves in the northern Latvian region of Vidzeme, including Latvia's capital Riga. The report outlines the current situation and location of eleven Jewish cemeteries and 28 mass grave sites. Truth by told, because these sites are near Riga, they are among the better documented and protected sites in the country. Still, they also represent some of the most important places, including many sites of mass murder.

Phil Carmel, director of Lo Tishkach writes: "Set up in 2006, the Lo Tishkach Foundation European Jewish Cemeteries and Holocaust Mass Graves Initiative aims to collate all known data on Europe’s Jewish cemeteries and mass graves, and to incorporate this vast source of information in an online database so that it is readily and easily accessible to everyone. This database now stands at close to 11,000 individual records of cemeteries and mass graves and when complete may well contain details on close to 20,000 sites. Much of the core information for this project was gathered from multiple sources but our records cannot be truly accurate and up-to-date without details of the situation on the ground...During the summer months of 2010, thirty-nine burial grounds in Vidzeme were located, visited, surveyed and photographed, creating a unique record of the region’s Jewish heritage. Moreover, the surveys took place within the context of broad educational seminars for local youth and students in Latvia, building skills in leadership and volunteerism and raising awareness of Jewish history, heritage and identity."

The report builds on a decade of earlier documentation work of researcher Meyer Meler which resulted in the publication Jewish Cemeteries in Latvia published in 2006 [ISBN 9984-19-904-5]. That work was sponsored by the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, the Museum "Jews in Latvia," and the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad.

The new report finds four cemeteries need in proper demarcation and maintenance, two other sites to be partially demarcated and protected, with a final fives sites lacking any appropriate form of identification and demarcation. Regarding mass grave sites, only four of them lack identification, and three sites require memorial markers that make mention of the Jewish victims buried there. The remaining 21 sites are appropriately marked.

The report is the second to be published of Latvian regions by Lo Tishkach and follows extensive surveys, local interviews and additional research undertaken by local students over the summer of 2010. A report covering Latvia’s Zemgale region was published last year where eighth cemeteries and three mass grave sites were identified as needing proper demarcation and signage, as well as removal of excess vegetation.

For a full list of surveyed cemeteries and information on contributing to cemetery care and repair see the Foundation's website, which also reports monthly on news affecting Jewish cemeteries.

Riga, Latvia. New Jewish Cemetery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2004.

Riga, Latvia. New Jewish Cemetery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2004.

Arkady Suharenko, Chairman of the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, wrote in the introduction to the report that "The majority of the mass graves remained unmarked for the entire Soviet period, and only in a few places, the local authorities erected memorial signs, although these did not specify that those murdered at these sites were Holocaust victims. Jewish life in Latvia revived from virtual non-existence in the late 1980’s, with the liberalisation of the political system of the USSR.

Among the goals of re-established Jewish communities, one of the main ones was the preservation of Jewish heritage and memory. Over the last twenty years, extensive research has been undertaken and currently, most of the mass graves are surveyed and marked; the cemeteries have been surveyed, and at some sites, restoration work has been conducted.

The participation of the Latvian Jewish community in the Lo Tishkach project was important for us both in evaluating the current state of Jewish burial places and in making an in-depth research of some of these sites, as well as in enabling the young generation of Latvian Jews to be in touch with their roots and the Jewish history of the region. We hope that this project will contribute to the development and advance of the Latvian Jewish community, providing a new dimension of understanding the importance of preserving our cultural and spiritual heritage."

Riga, Latvia. New Jewish Cemetery. Detail of contemporary gravestone. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2004.

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