‘It Was Important to Record the Human Stories’
Archives and biographies
In her tv series ‘At the Length of the Street,’ people in Riga have remembered this time and shared the accompanying emotions many times. But, working on this film, she had to study the history records. ‘Our main objective was to document the testimonies of people who lived through this experience – on both sides of the barbed wire; to examine lots of material of Latvian State Archive and the Museum ‘Hebrews in Latvia.’ We used the archives collected by the historians Andrievs Ezergailis and Kārlis Kangers, and lots of material previously un-known to us was discovered in the book of German historian Anita Kugler ‘Scherwitz: Der judische SS-Offizier.’ The scholar of Holocaust Tamara Zitsere, who has researched thousands of Riga’s housing registers and Hebrew death certificates, shared her findings with us as well.
Filming the program ‘At the Length of the Street’;photo: Kaspars Garda – Riga 2014
We highlighted the former territory of city ghetto in the film and searched for the history it holds, and tried to find people who had lived there before it was established and turned out of their homes to return back afterwards.
And we found two very interesting gentlemen who had been just little boys at the time…’ But the heroes our story were people who either were in the ghetto or lost their families there. ‘Historian and creator of the Museum ‘Hebrews in Latvia’ Marģers Vestermanis, French language teacher Riva Sheffer, lawyer Alexander Bergmanis, teacher of music Gabriela Parasha, and the legendary historian of film Valentīna Freimane,’ Lilita Eglīte recounts the names of participants of her film, adding that, coming from a mixed family of Jewish mother and Latvian father, Gabriela Parasha’s story was particularly interesting.
It still has not been told exhaustively
In our discussion, we came as far as to the location of the ghetto in Riga. ‘The gates where on what is now the big crossing of Lāčplēša and Sadovnikova streets, Ludzas street…’ Lilita Eglīte explains, continuing that this territory had further extended by one of the sides of Lāčplēša street to Maskavas street, up by what is now the Ebreju street, and touching on Katoļu and Jēkaba streets, therefore, taking up quite a big part of Maskavas suburb.
Map of the ghetto of Riga. Photo: the Museum of the Ghetto of Riga and Holocaust in Latvia
‘The border of the ghetto lies in the Ebreju and Lauvas streets, where there are education establishments now…’ With historian Ilya Lensky, the filming crew walked through the territory of ghetto and one of the surprising finds of this excursion was something of a paradox that many of the streets it covered had been split into parts, which were and which weren’t ghetto and had carried on with their urban lives as usual. We realize that many people who live in Riga may never know where the ghetto had been.’
‘Yes, this is one of the darkest, scariest and tragic pages in Riga’s history, which could be the reason why people wish to avoid this topic and these memories all together.’
Of course, it may be difficult to imagine a situation today when people you know – your neighbors, school-mates and friends are just herded into an enclosure and suddenly have become people, on whom all the possible crimes can be perpetrated... So, maybe, this is what makes people to maintain that there is no reason to discuss it and it should be forgotten. But the history has ways of reminding of itself all of a sudden, which was what happened to a family in Kalna street, which started to build a house there… And you have to think, whether you want it or not, that this suburb is historically heavily burdened and, possibly, there are things, which fail because of the silence kept about these matters…’
Filming the program ‘At the Length of the Street’; photo: Kaspars Garda – Riga 2014
Lilita Eglīte also mentions the older Jewish cemetery which was turned into Park of the communist brigades in the Soviet period. Foundations of old memorial plaques are still seen around there, but the park is used to walk the dogs and for entertainment of hobos…
Free of evaluations and interpretations of history
Returning to their film, Lilita Eglīte underlines that people the film tells about were by no means keen to discuss this time, as their memories are a heavy burden indeed. ‘It was harrowing even for me to ask to return to that past and recount the details of those experiences. But these people have had really long lives, and it is important to retain these testimonies, so that we know how it had been.
We are very strict in our views about history today and hold ready-made opinions; we are the ones who know best what was right and what was wrong to do and who was right and who wasn’t… But I think it couldn’t have been so simple.
Latvia lived through two occupations in a single year back then as the Soviet and German powers replaced each other. The Soviet repressions were followed by the holocaust. And we can only guess what was felt, experienced and thought by people at the time. We interviewed the eye-witnesses and historians. And we tried to understand, ourselves, why something like this could be possible.’
The film was produced by association ‘The Center of New Democracy’ (“Jaunās demokrātijas centrs”), producers Antra Gaile and Gints Grūbe, director Linda Olte, cinematographers Mikus Meirāns, Juris Pīlēns and Andrejs Rudzāts, and composer Kārlis Auzāns.