Blog from Riga - INTO THE LIGHT
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), I share with you a short film of my recent visit to the killing fields of Rumbula forest in Latvia. In July of 1941, the Nazis entered Riga. They killed some Jews immediately and moved the remaining ones into the Riga ghetto, closing it in September. On November 28 and 29 and December 8, 1941, they marched 24,000 Riga Jews and 1,000 German Jews to the Rumbula forest and murdered them. They kept 4,000 young, healthy Jews in the ghetto to do slave labor. Kalman Aron and his brother were among them.
In 2004, when I was researching Kalman’s life for the book INTO THE LIGHT: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron, I went to Riga and visited the relatively new memorial at Rumbula. I arranged to have a stone placed in honor of Kalman’s mother and father. Ten years later the memorial has grown as more stones have been placed to remember those who died there.
Let us remember those who were lost and celebrate those who survived. May we learn to live in peace with ourselves and each other.
In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I share a recent interview with Dr. Margers Vestermanis, Holocaust survivor, historian and expert on the history of Jews in Latvia. Born in Riga in 1925, he endured the horrors of the Holocaust. He escaped from the death march from the Dundaga concentration camp to the sea in the summer of 1944 and joined a group of partisans in the forests of Northern Courland until the war ended. After the war, he studied history in Riga, earned his PhD, and became an archivist in the State Historical Archives. He was dismissed in 1963 for writing a paper about the Holocaust, and he then worked as a high school teacher for many years. In 1990, following the Independence of Latvia, Dr. Vestermanis founded the Museum “Jews in Latvia” and served as its first director for many years.
I first met Dr. Vestermanis in Riga in 2004 when I was researching Kalman Aron’s life for my book—INTO THE LIGHT: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron. He kindly agreed to an interview in his office at the Jewish Community Center in Riga. Ten years later, I returned to Riga to present Kalman Aron’s story at an international conference at the same Jewish Community Center. Dr. Vestermanis agreed to a second interview to reflect on his experience and what he learned about human nature.
His responses to my questions are powerful, profound and insightful. I thank Dr. Margers Vestermanis for letting me share them with the world.
During the Holocaust, about 70,000 Latvian Jews lost their lives. Dr. Vestermanis has devoted his life to preserve the memory of Jewish life and culture in Latvia. He remains a vibrant voice, reminding us to “never forget.” I honor him and welcome your responses which I will share with him.
Magee: What words can you use to describe the evil you experienced and how it affected your heart and soul?
Vestermanis: It was the first time that we felt outcast; we felt that our pain and the torture of death hardly disturbed anyone. It did not matter neither to our local society, nor to the rest of the world. This injury we, as individuals that survived the Holocaust and as the Jewish society as a whole, will harbor in our souls until the end of the days.
Magee: What is your understanding or view of human nature in general?
Vestermanis: A human is an egoist by nature. Love to our family and relatives, as well as friendship, should be brought up by our family members, teachers at school, and, in the end, by the society and the state. Of course, even the inveterate egoist feels the necessity of doing something good, positive, but usually this spontaneous glimpse is extinguished by arguments and ice-cold calculation.
Magee: What have you learned about your own nature?
Vestermanis: It is said, that a human comes from his or her childhood, from ancestral home. I come from a family focused on German culture that would decline even thoughts of possible assimilating. In contrast, there was cultivated the feeling of Jewish national pride for our input into civilization and culture. Since I was six years old, a private Rabbi taught me the Holy Scripture and other ancient Jewish books that were perceived in my family not as religious tenets, but mythological basics of our national culture. This sense of significance of our people, high national self-consciousness was, with no doubt, the most important and decisive aspect that helped me to survive the Holocaust.
Magee: How did you survive? What resources within yourself did you use to survive?
Vestermanis: Surviving the Holocaust was a mere accident. I was young, physically strong, and, what is the most important, I saved the will to resist. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, an accident helped me: the concentration camp Dundaga, where also Kalman Aaron was held, due to the approach of the Red army in the end of July in 1944 was moved in a strong pace of “death march” to ports in Liepaja and Ventspils. Many people died on the way, but when our path ran through the forested place under Ugale, many people made the last effort to jump over the ditches on the sides of the road and rushed to the forest. I was one of them. I managed do join the antifascist partisan troop of Latvian people, who did not want to join the SS legion. In our troop, there were also soviet prisoners who escaped from German camp and even one German deserter (defector) Obergefreiter “Luftwaffe” (driver of anti-airforce artillery) Egon Klinke, who became my friend later.
The western side of Latvia later transformed into “Courland pocket”, where the Red army locked about 300 000 German soldiers – 16th and 18th Wehrmacht armies that could not escape from the “pocket” up to 9 may 1945. During this time the armies hurled all effort into going through forests searching for those who escaped, and on the 26th of December our troop was destroyed. My German friend Egon and I were among the few people that managed to break through, but after 5 days – on the New Year night of 1945 I lost my friend too, and until 9 may 1945 I was wondering around the forest as an “armed partisan loner”. I would like to highlight that without help from a friendly part of Latvian people I could not survive in the forest during the time of “Courland pocket”. Professor of the University of Jerusalem Dov Levin, historiographer of the resistance of Baltic Jews, writes: “Marger Vestermann was the last Jewish partisan of the World War II, who met the day of German capitulation going out of the forest with weapon in his hands.” This is only partly true – one more armed partisan was the other former prisoner of Dundaga concentration camp Jakov Rossein, who has already passed.
Magee: How did the Holocaust inform the choices you have made in your life since and how have you found meaning, given the experience?
Vestermanis: I would like to answer your fifth question with the words of the great “hunter of Nazi war criminals” Simon Wiesenthal. He writes: “When I will die and fall into another world, the millions of souls of killed Jews will surround me and ask: “What did you do with your life, that you managed to save?” I could answer in many different ways, but I will tell them the most important thing: I did not forget you! (ich habe euch niche vergessen)!” Of course, it would be a sacrilege to compare myself with the famous Wiesenthal. However, his words were “credo” of all my “post-Holocaust life”: I devoted myself to preserving the memory of the world of Latvian Jews that died in horror, tears and seas of blood. This duty, this mission will not leave me until my last breath. And I am happy that it so happened.
Magee: How are Riga and Latvia different today? How are they the same?
Vestermanis: Latvia and Riga had never known brutal anti-Semitism; however, it existed, and still exists, in a latent form. Our major difference is that currently the recognition of our suffering is not enough, we demand the principal condemnation of those who are guilty, “our” murderers, a part of which as “displaced persons” escaped the responsibility on the West. The other part of them was arrested and condemned by the Soviet authorities of KGB, not always objective. Their families also suffered, they were deported to Siberia. Guilty or not – all of them are considered victims of the “red terror” and national martyr, to which are dedicated monuments, museums and so on. They use their special status. This inability and unwillingness to deal with the dark spots of national history are “neurological sensitive points” in our, in fact, good relationships.
Magee: What wisdom/what message do you wish to give the world and particularly to the children…to your grandchildren’s generation?
Vestermanis: To the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – to learn to live together, in peace. Peace is the main thing that our ancestors were dreaming of, and what we, the generation that went through all the flames of hell, bequeath to the entire world and to America as well.
Magee: What message do you want me to take home to Kalman Aron in America?
Vestermanis: I wish him – take it easy, my friend! Search for the last, the most important theme. For me it is still Holocaust.
My cousin, who subsequently survived in concentration camp Buchenwald, Boris Lurne, and who later in the States became one of the “apostles” of a new art movement called “No-art” shortly before his death sent me a large poster – on the black background with a yellow paint was pictured something strange, scary and unimaginable, like a nightmare. This work he dedicated to our common, eternal theme – Holocaust. In my opinion, it is the most exact attempt to deliver graphically to the consciousness of people something that can be called “unimaginable”. Good luck, my friend!
© 2015 Susan Beilby Magee
Susan Beilby Magee presents INTO THE LIGHT: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron
at the 9th International Conference
JEWS IN A CHANGING WORLD
Monday, November 24, 2014
Having returned from Riga, Latvia, three weeks ago, I have had time to reflect on my experience there and formulate questions I invite you to answer.
Let me first say that visiting Riga this second time was more difficult. I understand at a deeper level the impact of the killing and brutality that occurred there.
I was honored to present Kalman Aron’s story—INTO THE LIGHT The Healing Art of Kalman Aron–in the place where he was born. It feels like I have come full circle since my last visit 10 years ago when I was in Riga to research Kalman’s life.
I am deeply grateful to Gita Umanovska, Executive Director of The Council of the Jewish Communities of Latvia and the organizer of the International Conference “Jews In A Changing World” and to the US Department of State for hosting me. I am grateful to survivor and historian, Dr. Marger Vestermanis, for answering my interview questions. I also thank my dear friend and guide in 2004, Elena Spungina, my interpreter during this trip, Viktorija Andzane and filmmaker, Nikolajs Krasnopevcevs. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to the other excellent conference speakers–professors and researchers from Latvia, Germany and Canada.
Everyone at the Conference understood and celebrated Kalman Aron’s survival and success in creating a new life in America, devoted to his muse–making art. His journey deeply touched members of the audience.
Several things struck me during the trip:
- The Jewish people in Latvia are resilient, forming a community of about 12,000 people today. In 1935 there were about 93,000 Jews living in Latvia. Among the survivors is the extraordinary man, Marger Vestermanis, an historian and founder of the “Jews in Latvia” Museum. I will devote another blog to my conversation with him about his life and reaction to his experience in the Holocaust.
- Individuals continue to educate and honor the memory of their ancestors. Professor Leo Dribins discussed the history of the Russian deportation of 40,000 Jews from the Courland Province to Inner Russia and the Ukraine in 1915 during World War I. Then, I believe his grandparents’ were among the deportees.
- Historically, Jewish communities in this land have not been trusted in time of war. I learned that during the Napoleonic War the Russians moved Jewish families deeper into Russia for fear they would aid the French. I have already mentioned that the Russians deported 40,000 Jews from the Courland Province during World War I for fear they would aid the Germans. In 1941 just before retreating back into Russia as Germans entered Latvia, Stalin ordered 1,200 to 1,300 Latvian Jews to Siberia. So the long history of distrust and persecution of Jews continued during the 19th and 20th centuries in the land known today as Latvia. In spite of a difficult history, Jewish families live in Latvia and contribute richly to its national life.
I don’t believe in coincidences. I see meaning in everyone’s life journey. So given this history of persecution, I ask the following questions and invite you to share your answers:
*What are the gifts of being Jewish in today’s world?
*What are the challenges?
*What personal treasures result from overcoming these challenges?
*What is the Jewish legacy to the world?
Please share your answers and participate in a conversation about the meaning of being Jewish in the 21st century.
I conclude by inviting each of us to turn inward to heal our anger, hatred and fear so that we may live in peace with ourselves and each other. I believe that peace occurs one person at a time. We will see an end to genocide, brutality and killing around the world.
Note that in 2015 we will produce a video documenting the seminal places in Kalman Aron’s life in Riga. My hope is that this video will further supplement the rich documentation on the life of Kalman Aron.
© copyright Susan Beilby Magee, 2014
After spending a few days in St. Petersburg, I flew back to Riga, Latvia, yesterday. On the plane I asked myself how I felt, returning after 10 years. Part of me does not want to look again at what happened here over 73 years ago. My breath was shallow, and I felt like I was physically bracing myself for this visit. I plan to go to Kalman Aron’s home, the ruins of his neighborhood synagogue, the ghetto where he was imprisoned for 2 ½ years as well as the killing fields in Rumbula forest where his mother, Sonia, was killed with 25,000 other Riga Jews on 2 days in 1941. So I ask myself:
How do I ground myself and stay fully in my body?
How do I honor and hold all involved—the victims and the perpetrators—in light and love?
How do I heal the fears, shadows and darkness in my own body and transmute them into light?
I do not know the answers. I think this is a practice. But I am ready to see the places that defined Kalman Aron’s life.
I first visit his home on 40 Moscow Street. I looked and looked for it ten years ago, but I only had a description: a 5-story building with a courtyard and a two-story building at the back of the courtyard, facing the Daugava River. Kalman lived on the second floor at the back, overlooking the river. I found it today. It is in the photo across the street from me where a man is entering the five-story building. I walked around the back and saw the small building where he lived and I saw the window Kalman looked out across the river to an island where his first “love” lived with her mother. He proudly took her to a ball at the his art school, the Riga Fine Arts Academy. After the Germans entered Riga on July 1 of 1941, he snuck across the river to the island to see if they were OK. The small home was empty. Mother and daughter were gone, never to be seen again.
I next go to the memorial for the Choral Synagogue in Kalman’s neighborhood. Several hundred Jews, hiding from Lithuania, were burned alive when the Nazis locked the doors and set it on fire. Kalman saw the flames. Since I was here in 2004 a new white monument has been built to honor the Latvians who risked their lives to save Jews by hiding them in their homes. Throughout Latvia 729 Jews were hidden, of which 544 survived. In Riga alone 256 were hidden, of which about 200 survived. Janis Lipke, who saved over 50 Riga Jews, is listed on this monument as well.
I then stop at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Founded in 1725, it was the first Jewish cemetery in Riga. By the end of the 1930s it was full. On July 4, 1941, when the Nazis burned all but one synagogue in Riga, they burned the buildings associated with the cemetery. They later buried in mass graves Jews who died in the Riga ghetto. Today it is a park although stones remain from old graves.
After having lunch, I go to Ludza Ilea where Kalman, his mother, Sonia, and his older brother, Henech, were imprisoned in the Riga ghetto. Eight thousand, mostly Russians, lived in the 8-block area. The Nazis moved them out and moved 30,000 Riga Jews into these small two-story wood clapboard houses. Kalman shared one room on the second floor with his mother and brother. The ghetto was closed in September of 1941, and every day he had to walk through the guarded gate to go to work and to return. A photo below shows me looking at a map of the ghetto on Ludza’s street where they lived with my interpreter, Victoria. The other photo shows the entrance to the ghetto during the war. I walked these streets in 2004, but I only recently found his address on Ludzas Iela 75/77.
Finally, I drive to Rumbula forest where Kalman’s mother was brutally executed along with 25,000 other Jews in 1941. This is the most difficult visit. Today there is a memorial amidst the large trenches the Nazis prepared for the Riga Jews. They lined the prisoners up in single file; told them to put their shoes in one pile, their clothes in a second one and walk to the trenches. They were then told to lie down in the trench where they were shot, and as one layer of people was executed, a second group of human beings were told to lie down on top, and of course they were then shot. This continued the afternoon and early morning of November 29/30 and then again on December 8. We know exactly what happened because a young girl, Frida Michelson, dropped down in the shoe pile, hiding; then waited until it was safe; and she returned to the ghetto to report what had happened. She wrote the book: I Survived Rumbuli.
In 2004 to honor of Kalman’s parents, Claim and Sonia, I arranged to have a stone placed with their names engraved at this memorial. I have a photograph of it, but today I could not find it. It was hard to read the engraving on the stones damp from fog.
As I stood on this ground, I focused on Kalman’s gifts and legacy. His parents can be proud and grateful that he survived and maintained his integrity; that he was faithful to his muse, creating art; and that he found peace in his 9th decade after choosing to tell his story. I honor him, all his kindred spirits who survived and those who died in the Holocaust. May their sacrifice invite us all to resolve human conflict peacefully and no longer resort to killing as a solution to anything.
Photos ©Nikolajs Krasnopevcevs 2014
IK “Froggy Studio”
© copyright Susan Beilby Magee, 2014
The Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia, and the Jews in Latvia Museum are pleased to announce the 9th International сonference “Jews in a Changing World” devoted to the 25th anniversary of the restoration of the Jewish community in Latvia
Susan Beilby Magee presents INTO THE LIGHT: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron on Monday November 24 at 3:10pm. The conference program follows below:
November 17, 2014
I have just arrived in Riga, Latvia, where Kalman Aron was born.
Ten years ago, I came to Riga to research Aron’s life here after he asked me to tell his story. Born in 1924, Aron grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on Maskavas Iela, and at age 13 he painted a portrait of the Latvian President Karl Ulmanis. So impressed by his talent, Ulmanis enrolled Aron in the Riga Fine Arts Academy in 1938.
On July 1, 1941 the German Nazis entered Riga and immediately took his uncle, David, and his father, Chaim. Aron, his brother, Henech, 5 years older, and his mother, Sonya, were ordered out of their home and marched into the Riga ghetto. Kalman and Henech would spend 2 ½ years imprisoned doing slave labor. His mother, a woman who believed in a world of beauty and love, would be killed in the Rumbula forest in the winter of 1941 along with 25,000 other Riga Jews.
As I drove into the city from the airport, I caught my breath as I looked at one of the old clapboard buildings so similar to those on the street where Kalman grew up. My heart paused as we passed the imposing red stone building where Kalman went to art school—the Riga Academy of Fine Arts.
In 2004, I was excited to find Kalman’s roots. I was searching for any evidence of his life here. I found the street where he lived, Maskavas Iela; I walked among the ruins of his neighborhood Chor Synagogue (burned down in 1941 by the Germans) to the streets of the ghetto where he was imprisoned. I also honored his parents by visiting the places they were killed and having a memorial stone placed at the killing fields in the Rumbula forest.
This visit, I know so much more. In addition to Kalman, I have interviewed 5 other Latvian survivors…3 of whom lived in Latvia: Max Kit who has since died, Aleksandrs Bergmannis and Dr. Margers Vestermanis whom I will interview again, this time on film.
I am subdued, reverent and quiet. Anti-semitism is still alive in Latvia. I have read about recent incidents, one involved damaging the memorial to Zanis Lipke, a docker at the Riga cargo port who saved over 50 Jews during the Holocaust. He simply knocked on the door of a friend and said: “Here, you take care of this man or this woman.” He didn’t give them a chance to say “no.”
This time, I am fully aware of what man is capable of doing to man. Evil is real, and it had its full run over Europe under Hitler. Hitler had many accomplices. He alone could not kill six million Jews and countless others without help from citizens in all the countries occupied. Certainly, some Latvians helped the Germans kill the Jews.
I know too much.
© copyright Susan Beilby Magee, 2014.
In The Book
On 02, Nov 2014 | In The Book | By KL
INTO THE LIGHT The Healing Art of Kalman Aron Exhibit
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
September 9 – October 4
EVENT ARCHIVE : Photos + Podcasts
9th Annual Conference “Jews in A Changing World,” Riga, Latvia
Cape May Stage, Cape May NJ
Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, Washington DC
KALMAN ARON ART EXHIBITION at Studio 55, Palm Desert CA
Seattle Central Library
Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, Washington DC
Pheo-Para Alliance / Katzen Arts Center, Washington DC
Healing Arts Panel, Dinner & Auction
The Center for Living Peace, Irvine CA
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC
Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York NY
Barnes & Noble, (86th & Lex), New York NY
Tolerance Education Center, Rancho Mirage CA
Herb Nathan Educators’ Conference on the Holocaust, Scottsdale AZ
Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC
Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles CA
Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC
In The Book
On 13, Oct 2014 | In The Book | By KL
Jewish Book World Magazine
The Healing Artwork of A Survivor – Beliefnet.com
Moment Magazine “Notable Book of the Year 2012.”
Jewish Book World Magazine “A Book of Note,” Spring 2013.
The Blog From Battery Place, Museum of Jewish Heritage
WDEV-AM & FM Burlington VT, 25 min, Live, with Mark Johnson Show
KCTA-AM Corpus Christi TX, 10 min, Taped, with Morning News
WBEX-AM Chillicothe-Columbus OH, 10 min, Live, with Dan and Mike in the Morning, AM Talk Radio
WISR-AM/Pittsburgh PA, 10 min, Taped, with The Dave Malarkey Show, AM Talk Radio
WAMV-AM Amherst VA, 10 min, Live, with Morning Show, AM Talk Radio
WLW-AM Cincinnati Ohio, 10 min, Taped, with The Jim Scott Show
KMIR News Channel 6 (NBC), Palm Springs, CA
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