RIGA, Latvia — Each pair of eyes turns to spy the foreigner walking through the ghetto neighborhood here called Moscotchka, or “little Moscow.” This street has witnessed dark chapters of Baltic history, including the communist oppression of counter-revolutionaries and Nazi internments of Jews.
I pretend not to notice the locals while they pretend not to notice me. Russian, Latvian and Gypsy conversations spill out of the shops, parks and buses. The whole of Riga is a mash-up of cultures and customs, of history and modernity. But the bright LED signs and international businesses I spotted upon arrival at the airport disappeared once I rode across the bridge and arrived in Little Moscow.
Jordan Sanchez, another Texan far from Texas, lives here in Little Moscow and works as a NGO photographer in Riga. As we walk down the street he stops to point out an old building with cracked white paint and arched windows.
“When the Nazi’s gathered the Jews in Latvia, they used this as an operation center. They stored all the Jews stolen possessions here,” Jordan explains.
After a short train ride, we arrived at the Occupation Museum of Riga. As a private museum they are independent of government or other influences over the content of their displays. They have the freedom and responsibility to represent the long history of atrocities in Latvia.
Carlis Regis, 34, is a guide at the Occupation Museum. He explains that “In 1918, when we established our country, our independence was declared. Latvia was independent ’till 1940 when Soviet troops came; then [in] 1941, Nazis, and after the war Soviet troops again in 1945.”
Menacing displays of Stalin and Hitler look down on Europeans and Russian tourists who walk slowly by the displays of videos, photos, written accounts and historical artifacts. In a side room a model of one of the internment camp rooms shows rough wooden bunks and a barrel that prisoners were forced to use as both their toilet and their container for drinking water.
“It is hard to represent things evenly,” Regis says. “Some Russians want us to show more about the Nazis and less about what Communists did. And Jewish groups want more about what happened to the Jews.”
When asked if young Latvians understand their history of occupations, he answers, “A lot of children that are coming to museums, they are not interested really; because it is just another story about history. Regis continues: “People don’t understand so much the consequences. They don’t understand why it happened, just dates, numbers, names. … It doesn’t show the whole picture. If some of their family members were deported or suffered from regimes, for them it is easier to understand. It is a personal experience.”
Aly Bailey, a museum visitor from the United States, commented said “I’m really still processing this — it’s almost too much to take it all in.”
Back in Little Moscow, I wonder: if people don’t value history without personal experience … how will the young Latvians avoid these tragedies without suffering it personally? Is the next generation doomed to repeat a past that is too painful and complicated to grasp? Looking out on the streets, I see a young woman negotiating drug deals. At the park a boy no bigger than my 10 year old son crosses the street while carrying a cigarette behind his right ear.
Knowing a little more of what their parents and grandparents suffered makes their looks of fear and mistrust a fitting response to my foreign presence. But what will his eyes see next? That is the subject of the next Baltic Journey column — Latvia’s future.
J. Thomas Rogers is the co-founder of Resonate News.