Grapevine: The Latvian connection

This week's social news.

Moshe Arens, flanked by Eliahu Valk and Latvian Ambassador to Israel Elita Gavel (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Moshe Arens, flanked by Eliahu Valk and Latvian Ambassador to Israel Elita Gavel
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Changing territorial borders in the Baltic States has enabled some people to live in four or more different countries without budging from their homes. Thus when we look at some of the Eastern European immigrants who contributed so much to the creation and development of the State of Israel, it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint whether they came from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine or Estonia. The ambassadors of those countries are always willing to claim as their own, the native sons and daughters of any of the above, regardless of which country ruled which city in which year.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Latvian independence together with 70 years of Israel’s independence, the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel headed by Eliahu Valk, with the blessing of Latvian Ambassador Elita Gavele, published a delightful trilingual booklet on Latvian immigrants who made a difference in Israel.
Not all came immediately to the Land of Israel. Some went to other countries first but the bottom line is that Israel is the country they finally decided to call home.
The Latvian Embassy and the Association this week co-hosted the launch of the booklet at the Einav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. In the audience were some of the family members of the 28 people whose stories appear in the booklet. Also present was former Foreign and Defense Minister and former Israel Ambassador to the US Moshe Arens who is the only one of the 28 still living. Everyone should look as good as he does at 92, and should speak with such eloquence, energy and clarity. Arens was the third speaker after Gavele and Valk.
During the Holocaust, Latvians did a lot of shameful things to their Jewish neighbors, but unlike the case in some other countries, a series of Latvian governments have accepted responsibility for the dark chapters in their country’s history. “I will never see justification for those whose hands are stained with Jewish blood,” said Gavele.
Valk who was lavish in his praise for each and every person who had been engaged in the production of the booklet said that according to Jewish Agency files, 6500 Latvian Jews had made aliya up till 1940.
Deciding who should be included in the booklet was a difficult task, he said, because the aim was to find people who had distinguished themselves in different fields, but sometimes there were several in more or less the same field.
To do justice to each of the 28, Valk had a large screen video presentation of the pages in the booklet showing them sometimes in English, sometimes in Hebrew and sometimes in Latvian while he explained who the people were and what they had done. Some of the better known personalities listed in the booklet include: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Nurock who served in both the Latvian Parliament and the Knesset; industrialist Eliyahu Fromchenko, who founded the famous Laima chocolate factory in Latvia, and Elite in Israel; Riga-born Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, the founder of World Emunah, and the grandmother of MK Isaac Herzog; Shaul Avigur, the founder of Israel’s intelligence community; Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the outspoken intellectual, who never hesitated to criticize Israel Government policy, and his sister the great Torah scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz; Dr. Aryeh Dissenchik, who had been Jabotinsky’s private secretary in Paris, and who took over the editorship of Maariv following the death of founding editor Ezriel Carlebach; spymaster Isser Harel who was the Director of Mossad and oversaw the capture of Adolph Eichmann; Nehemiah Levanon, intelligence agent, diplomat and head of Nativ – the aliya liaison office in the Soviet Union; Aharon Yariv who was a Golani Brigade commander, and later a government minister who was known as Mr. Intelligence; Holocaust survivor Shlomo Kor who was one of the leaders of Betar in Latvia and a member of the Likud Central Committee in Israel as well as head of the Maariv advertising department; and celebrated music man Nachum Heiman.
Arens recalled an idyllic childhood and adolescence in Riga where he skied and skated in winter and spent summers at the beach. Minorities including the Jews were autonomous and had their own schools, places of worship and cultural centers.
He went to the Ezra School in which the language of instruction was German, but in 1934, a new rule gave Jews the right of choice for the language of instruction between Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Latvian.
With the onset of the Second World War, his family went to America. Arens was 14 at the time, and the language that he knew better than any other was Latvian.
Over the years, he had no use for it and forgot it. “But I have not forgotten the wonderful years of my youth in Latvia or the Latvian landscape,” he said.
Then on a somber note, he recalled that 90% of Latvian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust most of them by Latvians.
The worst of these crimes was the massacre in the Rumbala Forest, where thousands of Jews were systematically killed on two non-consecutive days.
When he learned of this, Arens said, “I could not understand where this evil had come from. Yet it had been there all the time, beneath the ground.” When he read the names in the booklet of distinguished Latvian Jews, he thought to himself how many more educated, talented and active Latvian Jews could have done great things for and in Israel had they not been murdered.
“All of that has disappeared,” he said.
Fast forward to 1992, Arens said that he had been in Latvia that year and had met with the Latvian Defense Minister after Latvia had been freed from the Soviet yoke.
The country was still suffering from lack of resources and they sat in their coats because it was freezing cold. Arens had told the Latvian minister that if Latvia wanted good relations with Israel it had to admit to everything that happened in the Holocaust and to acknowledge its responsibility.
“It wasn’t the only place where they killed Jews,” said Arens leaving little doubt to what he implied.
■ DURING THE period in which the employees of the now-defunct Israel Broadcasting Authority were campaigning to prevent its closure, one of its champions was President Reuven Rivlin who happens to be a former Minister of Communications and a strong believer in public broadcasting.
Now that there are mutterings about the possible closure of the IBA’s successor, the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, Rivlin is again championing public broadcasting.
At the meeting that he held this week with a mock 22 member all-women cabinet of high school students, Rivlin urged “Communications Minister” Noga Shtir to ensure the continuity of public broadcasting “because the public should be given not only what it wants, but what it should have.” On the morning following the meeting haredi (ultra-Orthodox) “Prime Minister” Isca Shaki was interviewed on Reshet Bet by Aryeh Golan who asked her if she wants to go into politics when she’s older, and if so, whether she aims to be prime minister. “I did it for one day and it was interesting. I’ll think about it,” she replied.
Golan warned her of the pitfalls and cited the situation in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently enmeshed.
After conversing with Shaki, Golan had the impression that she would make a very good prime minister.
■ THE GALA opening of Fashion Week Tel Aviv is always a glittering affair, more so this year, because the opening tomorrow night, Saturday, March 10 at HaTahana – the old Jaffa railway station – is being sponsored by international jewelry company Pandora, which will unveil its new gold and silver Shine collection for which 25 leading Israeli designers have created complementary gold and silver dresses. Moreover, female invitees to the opening have been asked to wear silver or gold and men have been asked to wear black.
At last year’s opening, which was a tribute to Gottex, Tel Aviv Fashion Week founder and producer Motty Reif, brought back retired models going back to almost the beginning of the Gottex story. This year, the models will include women of different ages, shapes and sizes because fashion is after all for everyone. Former model Stella Amar, who several years ago gave model legitimacy to oversized women compared to the skinny waifs and dominated the catwalk, will be among those parading gold and silver fashions and Pandora jewelry as will actresses Evelyn Hagoel and Evgenia Dodina. Many of the who’s who of Tel Aviv, headed by Mayor Ron Huldai, will be on hand to see and be seen. There will also be buyers and fashion writers from abroad.
■ INCREDIBLE AS it seems, there was no government representative this week at the funeral of Uri Lubrani, whose wide-ranging services to the security of the state ranged over a period of more than six decades.
Lubrani was so important a person that his death this week was reported in numerous overseas publications but, according to Yediot Aharonot and Channel 10, there was no minister from the present government – though former ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yitzhak Mordechai, as well as former Mossad heads Nahum Admoni and Danny Yatom, were there. The lack of government appreciation for a man of Lubrani’s character could lead to a strong negative impact on patriotism.
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