Riga Synagogue - Latvia

posted 1 Jun 2016, 13:13 by Charles Greene   [ updated 1 Jun 2016, 13:48 ]

Riga Synagogue - Latvia

Here comes a piece of the jigsaw picture of my childhood.
In the 80s, our small but very determined group of practicing refuseniks would spend every summer - the whole 3 months - in Latvian countryside near Riga.

We tried it first, indeed, in the vicinity of Moscow but the KGB was on to us within days. The Baltic republics however were a world apart, a speck of Europe behind the Iron Curtain. Up to fifty families at once, we rented annually a dacha where we studied, learned, played, prayed, celebrated, and engaged in other activities common to the treacherous Jewish saboteurs of the communist dream.

It was really tough for the adults. We the kids, while understanding the hardship all too well, even knowing the risk our families took, always felt some sense of excitement, almost invincibility. As in, "Wow, we take on the empire of evil - and win the fight, too!".

Summer House - Šarlotes iela 2a, Centra rajons, Rīga, Latvia

Sarlotas 2a_w600.jpg

Most of the complex has been rebuilt now but I still see the steps that led to our improvised community Schule,

By the time the Soviet forces retreated from Latvia in late May 1941, Riga had 14 synagogues and about 20 small schtiblech and prayer houses.
By June 5, only one synagogue remained standing, the rest destroyed and burnt to the ground. The pogroms started right away, and went on throughout the 3 days gap between the departure of the Russians and the arrival of the Germans. Latvian enthusiasts may not have been any worse than the German Nazis but they certainly weren't any better.

The only synagogue that survived the pogrom owed the fortune to its location; standing in the heart of the Old City amidst closely clustered mostly wooden structures, the risk of the fire spreading was too great.

This is the Sanctuary where my bar-mitzvah took place. Believe it or not, I still remember my D'var Torah. Most of it, at any rate.

Riga Synagogue (Peitav Shul)
Riga Schule_w600.jpg

Nowadays, it's undergone some serious restoration, with a large portion of the funds coming from various European governments in addition to the private donations.

Note the verse above the Ark. The two most common quotations thus placed in Schules are either the powerful reminder "Remember before Whom you stand" (we have it above our Ark at Lodzer, too), or the pious "I will set my God before me at all times".
Here, however, you read a very different line from another Psalm: "Blessed is the Lord Who did not let us fall prey to their teeth". The old minyan goers always said it was there from even before the war; no photos remained from that period so we can't know for sure.

It is evident though that it was there ever since the end of the Shoah, in silent defiance of both the nazi and communist regimes.

There is way more to tell about the synagogue and Riga Jewry than I could possibly post on this page. Let me know if you'd like to hear more; we could set aside a special evening for that story.