Riga – the hub of the Baltic Way

Exploring Latvia, where a human chain broke the bonds of Soviet oppression.

THE 1989 Baltic Way demonstration in Riga (photo credit: VITALIJS STIPNIEKS)
THE 1989 Baltic Way demonstration in Riga
(photo credit: VITALIJS STIPNIEKS)
I was not expecting the wave of emotion that suddenly swept over me.
The evening had started as just another in a series of events over several days commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. The demonstration in 1989 had two million people – men, women and children – join hands to form a human chain extending 660 km. across three countries, from Estonia in the north to Lithuania in the south, with Latvia in the middle. Cracks were beginning to show in the oppressive Soviet Union, and the citizens of the Baltic states wanted general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to know they were standing up for freedom.
This particular Friday evening, however, was the exact anniversary of the massive demonstration: August 23. A crowd gathered at the Freedom Monument, a spire in downtown Riga, and a choir of young men and women sang patriotic songs and hymns (although I confess I do not understand the language). Off to one side was an exhibition of mostly black-and-white photos depicting the participants in the Baltic Way – young and old, standing and in wheelchairs, sometimes in single file, in other places two or three people deep – as it wended its way through cities and towns, along narrow country roads and empty freeways, at a moment that seemed frozen in time.
Then, without warning, it happened. As I looked at the photos and read the captions, the choir reached a crescendo in beautiful harmony, causing me to look up and notice the hand-painted signs reading “Freedom” (in English) and a young boy walking with a long pole from which streamed the flags of three nations – and my eyes filled with tears. This was a living expression of one of the loftiest aspirations of human existence, one that I as an American-Israeli always took for granted and certainly never had to fight for.
I began to video the visual record of the Baltic Way while recording the strains of the sounds of freedom, all the while tears streaming down my face and a lump growing in my throat. I did not know the people in the photos, and the boy with the flags – like the members of the choir – were not born when they were photographed, but for the moment, we all coexisted in a celebration of freedom and a triumph of the human spirit.
(Actually, the anniversary of the Baltic Way was having an impact half a world away as well. Protesters in Hong Kong entering their second month of demonstrations also formed a human chain, crediting the Baltic Way as their inspiration.)
When the singing stopped and the speeches started, my emotions subsided. It was not the fault of the passionate orator, however, a man that we visiting journalists from Israel had met the day before, one of the original organizers of the Baltic Way. It was during our immersion in the history of the Baltic Way that we learned of the pivotal role of a Jewish journalist, politician and leader of the independence movement, Mavriks Vulfsons.
In the wake of the Baltic Way, Vulfsons gave an impassioned speech in the Communist Latvian parliament in which he condemned the “Soviet occupation” of Latvia, a turning point in the perception of the Soviet “liberation” of the Baltic states. Vulfsons also exposed and denounced the secret protocols to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 dividing Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence,” the pretext for the USSR’s annexation of the Baltics. Vulfsons’s exposé culminated in Gorbachev’s official renunciation of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact before 1989 was out. Latvia and its neighbors ceased to be part of the USSR four months before the Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now members of NATO and the European Union.
The switch from songs to speeches was my cue to leave, just in time to get to the synagogue for Friday night services. The old town of Riga is not very large, so it was just a few blocks from the Freedom Monument to the Peitav Synagogue – named after the street on which it is located – a sort of living monument itself. It is the only synagogue in Latvia to have survived the Nazi occupation. The dozens of other synagogues were all destroyed.
The legend of the synagogue’s survival is a testament to Latvian solidarity. As the German occupiers prepared to burn the synagogue, a priest asked them to reconsider. The old city is so crowded, he argued, his nearby church might also catch fire. The synagogue won a reprieve, and was turned into warehouse instead.
The synagogue, originally built in 1903, with Egyptian decorative elements that were popular with the art nouveau style that was to become fashionable in Riga, has been lovingly restored, and today is a beautiful reminder of what was once a glorious Jewish community. In the 21st century, there are 8,500 Jews living in Latvia, the vast majority (approximately 7,000) in Riga.
Surprisingly, there are two sanctuaries, both overly large for the small minyanim they attract. Following the Kabbalat Shabbat service in the less formal chapel, about 20 locals and tourists repaired to the courtyard for kiddush and a modest meal of salads and a kind of hamin, even though it was not Saturday lunch.
The community is served by a young Latvian rabbi who speaks some English and Hebrew, but whose dvar Torah at the Shabbat table was delivered in Russian. Quite a few Latvians still speak Russian, and locals are as likely to address foreigners in Russian as in English.
There is a separate Chabad synagogue in Riga, and the Chabad rabbi runs the city’s Jewish preschool. In fact, Chabad has a long and storied history in Riga, dating back to the 1800s. The sixth Lubavitcher rabbi lived here.
In addition to the two active synagogues and private preschool, the community boasts the state-supported Shimon Dubnov School and maintains a large Jewish secular cultural center housed in an imposing building in an upscale downtown neighborhood. This center houses a kosher restaurant (named “7:40”), a spacious auditorium/theater, rehearsal rooms for a choir and Israeli dance group, and the Jews in Latvia Museum.
The museum tells the story of Jewish Riga, with audio guides helping you navigate the visual exhibits. Among the interesting historical facts on display: the Betar Youth Movement was founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in Riga in 1923; chief rabbi of pre-state Israel Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook led a congregation in Bauska (Boysk), with an ornate, folk art floor-to-ceiling ark; the owners of Riga’s Laima chocolate factory moved to Israel and founded Elite.
THE JEWS in Latvia Museum is not the only Jewish museum in Riga worth visiting. The Riga Ghetto museum is a stark Holocaust museum, complete with a train boxcar and wooden house replicating life under the Nazi occupation. The real horrors, however, took place in the forests outside the city, where the second largest killing fields after Babi Yar are located. Today, the modest memorial in Rumbula is unmistakably Jewish, but a small unassuming plaque sheds light on the Soviets’ indifferent attitude to Jewish suffering. The 1965 hammer and sickle version is dedicated to “victims of fascism,” with no mention of the Jewish innocents.
More uplifting is the Janis Lipke Memorial Museum, in a reconstructed bunker where this hero and his wife smuggled, hid and saved dozens of Jews, up to one-fifth of the only 200 Latvian Jews who survived the Holocaust. Nicknamed “the Latvian Schindler,” an award winning movie – The Mover – was recently made about his exploits.
Needless to say, Riga’s Jewish face is not why tourists flock to this picturesque city – three million visitors per year, including 30,000 Israelis. The city’s history dates back to the 12th century, when it was already a thriving commercial center and member of the fabled Hanseatic League. Its rich merchant class built magnificent edifices, like the stunning House of the Blackheads; majestic churches, like the Riga Cathedral, which houses the third largest organ in Europe, and for whom Franz Liszt composed the dedication (there are frequent concerts); and impressive fortifications, like the still intact Swedish Gate from 1698. Because of attractions like these, Riga’s historic center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But this is only half of the intriguing story of the largest Baltic city. It is also the Art Nouveau metropolis of Europe, with the biggest concentration of residential buildings in this style on the Continent, surpassing Paris. One notable building bears an eye-catching plaque, denoting that it was once the home of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
There is also plenty to see and enjoy in Latvia outside the capital. Rundale – known as the “Latvian Versailles,” for its sumptuous interior and extravagant gardens – is an Italian baroque palace designed by the same architect who went on to design the Hermitage (Winter Palace) in St. Petersburg. The similarity is striking.
More and more Israelis are also discovering Jurmala, the largest resort town in the Baltics, with a 24-km. long sandy beach stretching from a shoreline of pine forest. Jurmala hosts a prestigious international musical festival each summer in its open-air concert hall. Our visit coincided with a sold-out concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Jurmala is ideal for families, with spa facilities for adults and amazing “jungle” playgrounds for children of all ages, with challenging courses even for teenagers. There is also a welcoming synagogue in “Jewrmala,” with a dynamic young Israeli rabbi who speaks fluent English.
Another rural attraction is the Gauja River Valley National Park, with more innovative playgrounds for kids, and an incredibly scenic cable car. Moreover, in 2017, Riga-Gauja was designated a gastronomy region of Europe, showcasing the culinary stardom of Latvia. As Janis Jenzis of the Latvian Restaurants Association pointed out, “during the course of its history, the country was under the influence of Sweden, Russia, Poland, Germany and Lithuania – all of whom left their mark on Latvian cuisine.”
Certainly a highlight of any visit to Riga is a tour of the Central Market – remarkably, the largest covered food market in Europe, comprising five separate halls, each one dedicated to different food categories. For expert and comprehensive guidance, chef Martins Sirmais and his colleagues at the acclaimed 3 Pavaru Restaurant offer culinary tours of the market, in addition to cooking classes and other experiential forays into local cuisine.