Latvia Journal

The following is a brief account of my last visit to Latvia in 2003.

In August of 2003, I had the incredible experience of traveling to Latvia and meeting an entire branch of my family that I had learned of just a few months before.   It was a life changing experience.  Not only did I gather a great deal of genealogical information, but the week I spent in Latvia drove home to me the differences between the family histories of those who left Latvia and those who stayed.  

            In April, I received an e-mail from Yuri Bregman, who introduced himself as a descendant of Moshe and Sarah Thal from Sassmacken.  As part of my research into the descendants of Moshe and Sarah, I had posted information on a website on the internet.  At the time he contacted me, I only knew about his great-grandmother, Rosa Thal, a daughter of Moshe and Sarah.  Yuri introduced me to his entire branch of the family, and put me in contact with several cousins, including Victor Shatz, still living in Riga.  In the end, I was able to arrange to visit Riga at the same as Yuri was there with his wife and children.  Victor and Yuri are my father’s third cousins.  Rosa Thal’s brother, Pesach, was my family’s progenitor, and he and his entire family came to the United States more than one hundred years ago.  To my knowledge, that was the last time that the two families had been in contact with each other.

            Victor turned out to be a perfect guide.  Not only did he take a week off from his job, he was already well acquainted with and interested in his Shatz family history.  During the process of denationalization of real estate in Latvia that has taken place over the past ten years, he and many other citizens tracked down proof that their family owned property in 1940 that was nationalized by the Soviets.  They also were asked to prove their relationship to the property owners.  In effect, he did a certain amount of genealogical research.

One of the first things that Victor had planned was a trip to Kurzeme or Kurland.  We drove out to Talsi and Valdemarpils (Sassmacken), stayed in Ventspils overnight, and spent the following day in Liepaja, returning to Riga that night.

Talsi

            In Talsi, our first stop was the Registrar’s office, where I had been told were a number of birth, marriage and death records from Valdemarpils that hadn’t been transferred to the main archives in Riga. Ieva Ratniece, the registrar, was extremely helpful, and brought out all of the records for us to look through.  Unfortunately, the policy at the Registrars’ offices is not to allow photocopying of their documents, so I made my own transcriptions.   After we finished with the records from Valdemarpils, we found that her office also held the vital records for Talsi and Valdemarpils for the period after 1921.  She searched through her entire set for my surnames, and we located several records of the Thal family, including birth records of cousins I hadn’t yet discovered.  While we were working, Victor’s wife went down the street to get a box of chocolates for Leva.  She was very helpful, and asked that I send a copy of my book when I finish it!

            When we left the Registrar’s office, we wandered up and down Liela Iela, the “Main Street” of Talsi, and what was called “Grosse Strasse” at the time my great-grandfather grew up there.   Talsi is now a city of about 12,000, and many of the buildings in the center of town have been nicely renovated.  While the walls have been painted, and the storefronts now advertise internet and computer businesses, the buildings are still the same ones that were there more than a hundred years ago.  Although I don’t have the exact address where my great-grandfather grew up, I know that he lived on Grosse Strasse by the lake.  Walking along that street, we saw several potential sites for their house, and I even saw their sledding hill behind the church across the street!

            On our way out of town, we visited the Talsi Jewish cemetery, which is quite overgrown.  Many of the tombstones have been toppled, but a large number of them are still legible. 

Valdemarpils

            Our next stop was Valdemarpils (Sassmacken), where we visited with Eric Prokopovics.  He invited us into his small country house, where we sat at his table as he brought out a number of photographs and documents of Valdemarpils.   Because of a kindness shown to a member of his family by a Jewish doctor, he has taken it upon himself to preserve the history of the Jewish community of Sassmacken, and has accumulated quite a number of materials.  He has also put together a small historical museum for the town, which we visited. 

            Valdemarpils has not changed much since Latvian independence.  The process of renovation and revitalization has not come to towns as small and far-removed as Valdemarpils, and it remains a somewhat disheveled country village. 

            Before leaving town, Prokopovics showed us the site of the Jewish cemetery, as well as the pile of tombstones that had been removed from it, apparently for “recycling”.  A monument to the cemetery is being planned to incorporate those stones.

            The most powerful experience of my trip occurred when Prokopovics led us to one of the mass killing sites for the Jews of Valdemarpils in 1941.  He showed us a copy of the list of 120 of the 150 Jews who were killed.  The list, compiled by the town council, indicated those who were “able to work” and those who were not.  Those unable to work were apparently killed immediately in July of 1941.  Those who were able were forced to dig turf for fuel.  Among them were three descendants of Moshe and Sarah.   According to Prokopovics, these workers were killed on August 7, 1941, the last day that wages are recorded for their guards.  By eerie coincidence, we were visiting on August 7.   A few miles out of Valdemarpils, and a several-minute hike into the woods, we found the site, marked only by a rectangle of evergreens planted shortly after the war.  Most likely, Prokopovics is one of the only people living who can find the site, and even he had a bit of trouble.  There are no markers.

Ventspils

            Ventspils is apparently one of the wealthiest cities in Latvia, probably second to Riga.  Its money comes from the oil industry.  It is a very large port, shipping out oil that comes from Russia.  During Soviet times, it was a closed city, and home to a large military presence.  It could only be visited with a special permit.   Today it is home to about 40,000, a large part of the city has been renovated, and visitors are encouraged.  The old part of the city is particularly attractive, including the very nicely renovated museum in the old castle.

Liepaja

            In Liepaja, we met Ilana Ivanova, a representative of the city’s Jewish community.  She gave us a wonderful tour of the city, including the park and its historical fountain, the beautiful beach and the headquarters of a shipping company where many left from to go overseas.  We then visited the Jewish cemetery in Liepaja, which is huge and very overgrown.  Though I knew that there were relatives buried there, and we looked for a while, it was hopeless to try to find the stones.   Most were so overgrown they couldn’t be read, and it was very difficult to crawl around, as many of the stones were surrounded by small fences.  Before leaving Liepaja, we stopped at the memorial at Skēde, where the largest killing took place nearby.  The site is difficult to find, near the Baltic sea, in a grove of trees.  There is a memorial stone.

Later in the week, we visited Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt), the home of Victor’s ancestors, Ure Schatz and his wife Rosa Thal.   It is a small town with very little renovation in evidence, but with more businesses than Valdemarpils.  Victor has been involved with the rebuilding of the Holocaust monument at the Jewish cemetery, but the cemetery itself is greatly overgrown.

            We also visited Tukums, now a city of about 18,000 people.  The town square has been nicely renovated, each building labeled with a brass plaque telling what it used to be before Soviet times.

Jurmala

            Victor and other members of the family spend most of their time in the spring and summer in their homes in Jurmala, an old resort town about twenty minutes drive from Riga.  It is here that many of the newly wealthy Latvians are building their large American-style houses.  Many beautiful old homes are being slowly renovated.  As in the United States, there are regulations governing the renovation of historic homes, so that the flavor of the place is still retained.  The old main street of Jurmala is now a bustling pedestrian street with the definite air of a resort.   On the Saturday evening that I was there, stalls were set up selling jewelry and other items, and musicians were performing on the street. 

            In addition to the towns I’ve mentioned, we spent a great deal of time in Riga, where Victor and his family live during the winter months.  It is now a lively European capital, refreshingly free of American chains, with the exception of a couple of McDonald’s and Baskin-Robbins.  A great number of the buildings have been renovated, and the Old City is quite lively.  The weekend I visited, there were several performances happening on stages set up there.  Apparently, this is not uncommon on weekends during the summer.  One of the biggest problems, according to Victor, is the automobile traffic.  The number of cars has increased dramatically over the past several years, and the roads have not kept up.  This has led to major traffic backups, especially on the road to and from Jurmala.  Much has been written about Riga, the Ghetto, Rumbula, and many other monuments that we visited, so descriptions of them are probably unnecessary. 

I’d like to finish with a few words about the powerful education I received during my visit.  As students and genealogists, we have probably all studied a certain amount of Soviet history, as well as that of Latvia.  We have all read – probably at great length – about the fate of the Jews living there in 1941.  I had done the same before my trip.  But somehow, meeting a family who had lived through all of this made it all much more real.  I was forced to remember things I hadn’t thought about since my college days.   Unlike their American counterparts, these cousins are lucky to have any family photos at all.  The few they have were given to them by non-Jewish friends after the war was over.   And unlike my American cousins, they were not allowed to openly observe their religion for the greater part of the last century.   Their 20th century family history stands in stark contrast to that of my branch of the family in the United States.

But the 21st century looks much brighter in Latvia.  It is very much revitalized.  Even Yuri, who moved to Israel in 1990, was very impressed by the changes that had taken place since he left.  I urge anyone with a family history there, and especially a family, to go visit! 

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