Not ashamed of history. Interview with Māris Gailis

Not ashamed of history. Interview with Māris Gailis
Kaspars Garda, Rīga 2014 . Entrepreneur Māris Gailis showing Žanis Lipke Memorial
30-07-2013 A+ A-
While walking at the narrow 8 Mazā Balasta dambja Street, you may smell Daugava and tar. In there, Žanis Lipke Memorial is currently located. It's a building made from tarred boards reminding some boat or even an ark overturned upside-down. The museum is oficially opened on 30 July, but, in fact, it works from the last summer when the building work was finished. Entrepreneur Māris Gailis, one of the founders and idea authors, meets us next to the museum. He has plenty of stories about the upcoming project and Žanis Lipke himself, the man who saved sixty Jews during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. Are you interested in those stories? Then you have to go to Ķīpsala!

„They were such a great couple!”

While waiting for the photographer, Gailis gladly shows the museum exhibition laughing that he has to work as a guide from time to time. Though, recently bought audio guides will be available soon, so museum employees won't have to work so hard. The main hall of Lipke Memorial is located in half-light where visual atmosphere is created by a stage designer Reinis Suhanovs and an artist Kristaps Ģelzis, but the musical background is supported by the work of a composer Jekabs Nīmanis who also included Lipke's heartbeat in his score.


We walk along the glass-cases which are called stops. In general, those are twelve. The thirteenth stop is a dugout or so called bunker where people protected from ghetto or concentration camps lived. They were transported to Dobele shortly. While hearing the story, we are studying statements from that time such as some historical materials and documents. Meantime, Gailis tells about Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna: how they helped people to survive. He also reminds that Lipke had several assistants. Their names are also known.


"He was just a harbour worker though he was mentioned as an asssitant in some Soviet Union documents. Lipke was endangered not only by Germans. Also KGB questioned Lipke trying to find out why he helped Jews and if he received money for it.

Look, in this glass-case you can see the drawing made by Lipke's eight-year-old son. He has pictured the pit or so called cellar dug beneath the house where people were hiding. To get in there, you had to walk along the entrance under the doghouse."

Gailisr does not forget to add that Lipke was assisted by his wife Johanna, she was a count's daughter. She had to bring food to refugees and take care of them otherwise. „They were truly a great couple!” says Gailis showing a photo of Lipke and Johanna at their young age. As well as this photo, documents from the museum were found in Lipke's family archive: in the attic or verandah. „Ārija gave us everything, so now we have the museum collection, described and digitized,” tells Gailis.


A suitcase is set in one of the glass cases. In there, smoked fish were brought to refugees. By the side of this case ther is another one where you can see gratitude letters written by refugees and their descendants. Soon after the war, those „travelled” to Ķīpsala from all sides of the world. „To tell the truth, Lipke deserves a whole book. I hope it will be written. There have been negotiations with historians about that,” Gailis says soon after.

Everyone has to help

When asked about the idea to make Žanis Lipke Memorial, Gailis tells that it started in 1997 when terraced housing became popular in Ķīpsala. It came by accident, that they found out Žanis Lipke house was located in there. „Me and my long-term friend Augusts Sukuts with whom I had been creating ”Arsenāls„ Film Forum decided to do something about this house.”

In 2000, a granite sheet was ordered and set up on the wall of Žanis Lipke house(currently, his daughter-in-law lives there with her son – edit.). Also Latvian president of that time Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga joined the event if opening the sheet. „Back then, we figured out Lipke deserves a museum. The idea ”travelled„ around for a long time. We even have sketches created by an architect Ivars Strautmanis. Unfortunately, our intention stopped.”


In 2005, Gailis and his confederates founded NGO „Žaņa Lipkes memoriāls”. „We based our decision on a fact that Ārija Lipke, daughter-in-law of Žanis Lipke, agreed to to let a land at the historical place. We ordered Viktors Jansons, a colleague of mine from ”Arsenāls" times and a true theatre enthusiast, to proceed research and concept development. He then attended many holocaust museums such as Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, similar institutions in Berlin, Tallinn and Vilnius.

Considering all research materials, the concept went something like this: Žanis was the one God had chosen in order to save as many people as possible from evil overflow, like Noah's Ark."

Zaiga Gaile then started to work on a building project (in fact, it has gained much attention in several prestige architecture competitions- edit.). Māris Gailis collected the funding saying it was not easy, but some people were really responsive (a tablet with all people's names who involved with material and other support is available on the first floor of the memorial).


„In 2008, we put the foundation-stone and finished the construction work last June. As long as the money ran in, someone always was there doing some work,” resumes Gailis saying that, in general, many people were involved into the process, and he is proud of that. „Money and involvement comes from the community. No governmental support, though I did not ask for it. Some support came from the State Culture Capital Foundation (SCCF) and Riga City for the technical designing. Indeed, we get governmental support starting from 2013.”

A film, a book and some music

The new memorial is involved into the programme of The European Capital of Culture in 2014. Some new themes are being developed right now. „Young people do interviews and collect video materials. It has to be done this year up to the first part of 2014. We have to find grandchildren and other relatives who still remember holocaust. Yes, there have been such stories before, but there are always some new memories to explore.” Gailis remembers the time he and Sukuts managed „Videocentrs” („Video Centre”). They ordered director Herz Frank to make a documentary called „Izglābtie” („The Rescued”). The piece was about Žanis Lipke and other rescuers. „I went to the first expedition in Israel as a producer that time. We met people Lipke had saved. Herz then took Johanna's story, a part of it is at the memorial. Scientists and historians would find the material pretty valuable.”


One more event of the museum programme is a youth book that a writer Inese Zandere agreed to make. It's going to be a reflection of the mysterious Lipke story told by little Zigis. Indeed, all Lipke's children are dead by now, but many grandchildren still live in Australia, says Gailis. Another project is expected from a historian Gustavs Strenga showing the places where people once searched their rescue from death.

"Those places are still being recognized in order to gather all information into digital map. For instance, Lipke's assistants hid all rescued people in six different places, it was a true transit station!

They hid in some attic at Avotu Street two or three days, but then were transferred to Ķīpsala or Dobele. „The fourth theme is an upcoming musical piece by a composer Arturs Maskats called ”Johanna and Žanis„. Gidons Krēmers and his ”Kremerata Baltica„ Chamber Orchestra agreed to perform the piece next July. ”It will most likely happen at Great Guild Hall, but we also wanted to perform it in there," says Gailis pointing at the meadow near the building. They had to decline this idea so that musicians could spare the expensive instruments, he adds.

A book about Žanis Lipke written by a historian Zilbermanis is being translated, though Gailis admits he could wish for more. „We need a monograph about Lipke. It should be done by a professional specialist. I have already talked with a couple of potential authors. Ambitions are high, so we want two scientists who could work here.”

„That was history!”

Has Gailis found out why Lipke had to risk his life in order to rescue other people, while he works at the museum? "It's a complex thing. Humanism came first. 

He rescued one of his acquaintances keeping him in the house attic. Then there was more. Finally, they dug a bunker, and so on. Lipke went crazy about that. At first, he said he had rescued fifty people. He thought it was nothing. Five thousand would be something else..I think it was a combination of both humanism and adventurism. What a mad man! 

He bribed and speculated in order to feed everyone. Lipke hid legionnaires after WWII, but before that he helped communists who tried to rescue from Ulmanis' manhunt. Lipke was not a communist, he just saved different people through difficul times.


What was the motivation for Gailis himself to make this all happen? "Unfortunately, for the rest of the world, Latvians are known as the people who shot Jews. Yes, we had Arājs and others, it is true. Still, there is another part of the story telling that there were bad people and there were the good ones, as well. I find it extremely important to show the world we have such men as Žanis Lipke. A real human being who rescued Jews from death with the help of twenty five assistants.

They risked their lives. It just has to be told!

Gailis is sure that Latvians don't have to be ashamed of the holocaust theme. „We are forced to think about the responsibilities for shootings and all the same time, there were two types of people. Those who shot and those who rescued. We can not be ashamed of what happened in Rumbula, instead, Lipke is the one we should remember. Again, there were two parts. The same in France, the Netherlands, everywhere. ”We are no better or worse than others," says Gailis noting that the museum will be accredited on 20 August. Therefore, it will be an official private museum where everyone is kindly invited to come.


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