Travels: Living history
The scars of anti-Semitism and the Soviet past are all too apparent in Lithuania and Latvia
My airport taxi breaknecks through streets of rotting 19th-century wooden houses into Riga's centre. Latvia holds the European record for road deaths. I can see why. From the cab, there is evidence of two simultaneous time zones. One is the dog-end of the Soviet years, the other a frenetic rush towards the high-speed reconstruction of a long-neglected city.
Riga's greatest draw is its pedestrianised Old Town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. In this bijou centre, with its churches, discreet hotels, museums and mysterious winding streets, massive international investment is highly visible. Construction is 24/7. Fifteen years after the euphoria of independence, most Rigans look depressed. Pensions are lower than under the Soviets. There is even some nostalgia for communist times among some of the older Latvians.
In central Riga, an 80-year-old woman in white gloves, plaid skirt and an elegant jacket, pirouettes to a cassette hoping for a few lats. Here, beggars are elderly or disabled. These are the losers in the free-market of independence.
To the historical tourist, Riga is a seductive place. Germans arrive in coachloads to see Luth eran churches. Art historians come to the unmissable Art Nouveau area. But the majority of travellers are from the former Soviet bloc. Everyone is searching out a particular history. And, at the official level, there are questions about how that legacy is to be narrated.
Opposite the town hall, the ugly, cuboid Museum of the Occupation of Latvia contains a catalogue of terror from the two Soviet occupations. However, the display skates over Latvia's pro-Nazi past. Any mention of the murder of Jews by collaborators is minimal. Fifteen minutes' walk away, Riga's Museum of War shows images of Latvians welcoming the Nazis as liberators. Today, elderly former SS Latvian volunteers still parade, which embarrasses a government eager to show its shining EU credentials.
Here, official histories tend to document Latvian Nazis either as an aberration or an expression of hatred against communists who were seen to be supported by Jews. The strains of political allegiances are just under the surface. My 50-year-old taxi driver tells me: "My father was with the Nazis against the Soviets and his brother fought in the Red Army. They still fight." As for any Jewish presence, it is notable by its absence.
Close to my hotel is Riga's only synagogue. In Latvia, about 50,000 Jews were killed either in the Rumbula Forest, or Salaspils camp 20 kilometres south of the city. No sign marks the Riga ghetto, which housed 30,000 Jews. Or the famous Great Choral Synagogue, which the Nazis burned down with the Jews inside. All that remains is a few stones surrounded by rubbish.
Evelyne Waldstein, 76 years old and a former biochemist, was born in Riga. She escaped to Leningrad. Waldstein remembers the Latvian mob. "When occupation happened, the Latvians were ordered to dig two death pits. One for the Jews and one for the Gypsies. The Latvians refused to make one for the Gypsies."
In my hotel, Radi un Dragi, I meet 70-year-old Vitauts Roberts Vitolins. A Latvian-born Cath olic, who came to the US as a child, his parents fled the Red Army in 1944 and ended up in Detroit. Vitolins still speaks Latvian. After the accidental death of his daughter in the US, he befriended a Rigan teenager to deflect his grief. He sponsored her education. "If I hadn't," he tells me, "she would have ended up on the streets."
I can confirm his opinion. My hotel is all that the guidebooks promise: reasonably priced, great breakfast, friendly staff. Opposite, two competing bars are fronted by mini-skirted Viking-looking women waiting for clients. All night their continual raucous brawls mean no sleep. The brothels close at 7am. Riga is Sex City.
I take the bus from Riga. It is cheap and comfortable. As we roll through forests and flat lands, farmers milk their solitary tied cow just before sunset. My hotel is the Domus Maria guesthouse, once the home of a monastic order associated with the church next door. There is a cross on the wall and the television doesn't work, but nights are not disturbed by yelling prostitutes and the only noise is church bells.
I come across an elderly American Latvian who was exploring his family's roots. He is a retired Chicago businessman, here for a wedding. For years he has wondered how his family farm escaped forced collectivisation. A cousin explains that Soviet policy was never to take land if the owner was not in the house. Tipped off in advance, his uncles "disappeared" until the Soviets moved out of his area.
Vilnius has the charm of an elegant European provincial capital. There is a feeling of fast spending in the race to refurbish the splendour of the city's churches. Billions are being invested to restore façades, frescoes and structure, whereas a few streets away, dilapidated flats are crumbling. In the city centre, the Church of St Casimir, once a museum of atheism but returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1988, is the focus of Catholic triumph alism.
Saturday here is Wedding Day and in Vilnius Cathedral I watch a series of brides dressed in bright polyester ballgowns and Marie- Antoinette hairstyles walking down the aisle. They may look like Lithuanian Barbie dolls but the accompanying soprano singing "Ave Maria" is worthy of La Scala or Covent Garden.
The Church has won the battle against communism, but for the Jews of Vilnius, once the pinnacle of Jewish enlightenment, their absence is a gaping hole that few now notice. In 1939, Vilnius had 100 synagogues; today there is only one. On Friday night, I visit it. It is empty except for an international group of Jewish and gentile Yiddish summer school students. At the service, the locals are seven elderly Jews, relics from a decimated community. As one of them tells me: "Hitler got his wish. People have to go to museums now to find out about us."
Julia Pascal is a playwright