This past week Israeli President Shimon Peres embarked on a four day trip to Latvia and Lituania from July 29 to August 1, 2013. Although it was a diplomatic mission filled with state dinners and meetings with the heads of states, Peres spent a majority of his time at memorials honoring victims of the Holocaust from both countries and a museum opening ceremony for a Lituanian couple that helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
On the first day of his trip to Latvia on July 29, 2013, President Peres attended a Holocaust memorial ceremony in the Rumbula Forest where mass murders of Jews occurred in 1941 and 1944. Over 25,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis in the forest. The location is marked by a monument written in German, Russian and Yiddish.
The engraved inscription reads; "Here in the forest of Rumbula on November 30 and December 8 of 1941, the Nazis and their local collaborators shot dead more than 25,000 Jews - the prisoners of the Riga Ghetto - children, women, old people, as well as around 1,000 Jews deported from Germany. In the summer of 1944 hundreds of Jewish men from the concentration camp 'Riga- Kaiserwald' were killed here."
The Lituanians originally did not want a monument erected, but relented in 1965, but would not allow for it to say Jews were killed, just "victims of facism." In 2002 the present monument was put up to memorialize the Jews that lost their lives.
Peres was joined at the memorial by Latvian President Andris Berzins. Berzins had been reluctant to participate, and backed out of attending, prior to Peres leaving Israel on the trip. Peres had been accommodating and said he would change the schedule within his trip to fit the Latvian President's timetable and ability to attend. The Latvian President's original statement on the event read; "There is an important educational message in both presidents attending the memorial ceremony marking the massacre in the killing fields of Rumbula."
The Latvian government however, has continually refused to acknowledge that their citizens had been involved in the Holocaust. Standing by the memorial and the inscription was a direct acknowledgement.
However, Berzins relented after, deciding it would not look good for diplomatic relations and attended the ceremony. In the morning the Latvian President received Peres at the House of the Blackheads and then they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument. The afternoon memorial was followed by a meeting with the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, and an evening state dinner.
On his second day of his two days in Latvia on July 30, 2013, President Peres attended again with Berzins a ribbon cutting ceremony marking the opening of the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum in Riga, Latvia. Lipke, a dock worker and his wife, Johana are credited to have saved 55 Latvian Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem already named the Lipkes as "Righteous Among the Nations" in 1966 as gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The museum is meant to recognize and honor the couple's bravery. Lipke died in 1987, and his wife in 1990.
The Lipkes hid Jews they saved from the Riga Ghetto, and concentration camps from the area in the dark cellar under the house's shed that was 90 square feet. The museum which was built next to their house was an attempt to replicate the feeling the Jews hiding in the cellar must have experienced. The memorial was designed by architect Zaiga Gaile and shaped as an upside down boat or ark built of dark wood on the outside, with a glass façade and wood panels in the inside. The three-story building has art and music that was commissioned to be exhibited and included in the museum's interior.
Speaking at the Ribbon cutting ceremony Peres declared; "Lipke symbolizes what is best, deepest and truest within people." While President Berzins stated; "Today we are building something reminiscent of Noah's Ark, which is a testimony to the fact that even in the darkest moments of history, people can be found who are able to act with humanity and compassion."
In the afternoon of second day of his trip, Peres also had a chance to meet with the Jewish community and speak at a synagogue in Riga. At that engagement Peres spoke about the Europeans Unions boycott of Israeli products coming from areas beyond the 1967 borders and the Holocaust. The Latvian Jewish population went from 85,000 and 5 percent of the total population before the Holocaust to a community of only 6,400 today. Around 70,000 were murdered in the Holocaust decimating the once lively and thriving Jewish community; though some sources have the numbers higher and with only 200 surviving.
Peres ended his visit to Latvia with a state dinner hosted by Berzins. Peres in his remarks at the dinner spoke of the former Latvian Jewish community, its history, Latvian Holocaust survivors and their contributions to Israel. Peres stated; "The Jews of Latvia invested a lot in Latvia's prosperity, but the Holocaust destroyed them." Peres also mention the Latvians that risk their lives to save Jewish lives saying the Nazis "were resisted by several dozen Latvians, who were saving Jewish lives during these frightening times, risking their own lives. Such people were awarded the honorary title of "Righteous Among the Nations". We will never forget this," He described how during the two waves of Jewish immigration from Latvia, Holocaust survivors enriched life in Israel in all ways. He also discussed how the small present Latvian Jewish community is now thriving and able to participate completely in Jewish life and its dedication to preserving the memory of those that perished.
The second half of his trip consisted of a two day visit to Lituania. There Peres attended a memorial ceremony in Polnar in the Paneriai forest and said Kaddish for the Jews who were killed in the country; the forest is called the Valley of Slaughter. Over 100,000 were killed by the Nazis in the woods, approximately 70,000 were Jews from the Vilna Ghetto. Peres was born 90 years ago in Vishnyeva which is 60 miles from Vilnus, the city was then located in Poland, but is now Belarus.
Peres had diplomatic meetings on his first day in Lituania, July 30, 2013 with the speaker of the parliament, Vydas Gedvilas. He then attended a state dinner hosted by President Dalia Grybauskaite. He spoke with President Grybauskaite, who is also serving as the European Union President in a six-month rotation that began in July about the EU's guidelines boycotting all areas in Israel beyond the 1967 borders, which consist of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while at the same thanking the EU for recognizing Hezbollah's military wing as a terrorist organization. Peres also met Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius on his second day in Lituania.
The ceremony at Polnar was held on August 1, 2013 and included addresses by the heads of states, Holocaust survivors and religious leaders including Chief Rabbi Chaim Burstein, and Fania Kalinski who lost her whole family there. They all spoke at the monument that is placed at the forest's entry.
President Peres also gave a speech at the Polnar Memorial Ceremony. Speaking, Peres described the misleading view of the forest years later; "The pastoral scenery surrounding us here is misleading. Its color remains green. But the ground is red. The screams of the victims detonating from the damp soil will remain a disgrace to humanity." He also spoke of the lost of the great Jewish center Vilna; "Vilnius was considered the Jerusalem of Lithuania, where hopeful and vibrant Jewish communities built their own life by the hospitality of the Lithuanian people. And suddenly, a third of Lithuania's Jewish people were slaughtered in these fields. Their bodies were tortured and burned at the sound of a short-range burst of fire."
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated in her remarks; "It was also the tragedy of Lithuania, because our brothers and sisters were murdered. We must speak out and talk about it."
After the speeches, Peres, Grybauskaite and Kalinski went into the forest, stopping at the precipice of the gorge where those that were killed fell into after being shot. Approximately 500 were killed each day in the forest. Peres recited the Kaddish and laid a stone in memory of those who died there.
Prior to the Holocaust over 220,000 Jews resided in Lituania. However 206,800 Lithuanian Jews, 95 percent of the Jewish population were killed by the Nazis, when they occupied the country between 1941 and 1944. Today there are only 5,000 Jews residing in the country.
Peres also had the opportunity to visit Vilnius, once the Jewish scholarly center in Europe prior to the Holocaust. While in Vilnius, the mayor Arturas Zuokas awarded Peres an honorary citizenship. The leader of the Jewish community Faina Kukliansky called Peres a prominent Litvak, stating; "By visiting here on the eve of his jubilee he showed the greatest respect to Lithuanian Jews."
Vilna as it was called was the center of rabbinical scholarly activity for over three centuries, the greatest Hebrew and Yiddish writing of the 18th and 19th century came from the city. At the start of the 20th century it also became a center of Zionist activity and philosophy with some of the early movements being born in the city. Among the organizations were the Mizrachi Party and the Poalei Zion Movement. The Gaon of Vilna, the Jewish leader of the city had messianic visions coupled with Theodore Herzl's visit in 1903 led to the first and second aliyahs to Israel then Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century.
In advance on his trip Peres issued a statement where he said what he will be doing to commemorate the Holocaust victims on his trip; "I will recite the Kaddish and memorial prayer for these wonderful communities which were annihilated. We remember the past but turn our eyes to the future, and I hope we will find a common language and reach agreement on current issues." With rising anti-Semitism in Europe and in Lituania, combined by the new anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, hatred and actions against Israel with boycotts movement such as the European boycott of Israel beyond the 1967 borders, it's more important than ever to remind the world of the suffering Jews experienced and the mass slaughter that occurred not that long ago during the Holocaust and that we should never forget.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.