In Latvia, today is not a day of celebration but a day of mourning—Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 1941, the synagogues in Riga and elsewhere were torched—the one that survives in the Old Town survives because burning it down would have posed a hazard to nearby buildings.
Though the incineration of Jews at the Great Choral Synagogue is likely a myth , the conflagration seventy-one years ago marked the beginning of the end for most of Latvia’s Jews.
Volume 23 of the works of the Historians’ Commission, devoted to Holocaust research, is available online as a .pdf file. Some of the articles are in English.
If you’ve not read Andrew (Andrievs) Ezergailis’s monumental history, here is its well-written introduction.
I usually listen to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” on this day; it was premiered in 1941 in a prisoner of war camp in what was then Germany.
I append an early poem by one of Latvia’s greatest poets, Uldis Bērziņš.
That rain that roams the world
That rain that splashes in the yard
That rain that hesitates behind the window
That summer rain
Should come inside.
Open the window and let the summer rain inside
And also its
The smell of the street of the fleet of earth of buildings of parks of arks of potatoes of tomatoes of smoke of oak of pine of brine of nettle the smell of speed and of slowness the smell of the sun of shadow of carp of melon – a whole host of smells.
Of New York Mallorca and York of the Mediterranean and Carribean of Istanbul and Liverpool of Berlin and Sakhalin, all those smells
Come along with the rain.
Also one sharp smell that rots.
Come inside summer rain
And wash the blood off the walls.
Rain as you rained over trenches open and closed.
Rain summer rain rain
And wash off that rotting blood.
Wash it off the forests and the pavement.
And off the face I just imagined.
And off the other one I cannot imagine.
And off the girl in the trench.
And off the pages of the book.
And off the leaves of the alder.
And off the sleeve of the soldier.
Wash it off Latvia and off myself.
The summer rain raining Jānis and Juris shooting Jews in the forest.
Each has just one rifle but there’s a whole big crowd of Jews.
The barrels are getting red hot but Jews keep on coming.
And twenty years pass and then twenty-five and there’s again a Jānis and a Juris and they are singing that song and as the summer rain is raining I walk up to them and sock them between the eyes.
A part of my nation was shot dead and buried in the ground to rot and I was in my mother’s womb and could not defend them.
Jews were shot they were born in our country they spoke Latvian they served in the army with the Latvians this land belonged to them as much as to us.
A part of my nation lies in trenches in Biķernieki and in other trenches from Liepāja to Daugavpils (what for?)
What for sh_t f_ck go f_ck yourselves you as_holes you motherf_ckers you f_cking pigs tell me why?
Because they leafed through the paper right to left?
Because they went to the synagogue?
Because they had curly hair?
Oh, I see!
Because they smelled of garlic?
Because they had crooked noses because their shops were closed on Sabbath?
Because they babbled in Yiddish?
Why oh why am I not yet alive the axe lies by the stove how come you go on living give me that axe my God why am I not yet alive.
(Jānis dries his clothes by the stove goes off again.)
Where was the Latvian God hiding
When the summer rain was raining?
The summer rain smells of Nicosia.
The summer rain smells of Nigeria.
It smells of blood when it rains.
He who was born in that land is a Latvian.
He who goes to my school is a Latvian.
He who knows that language is a Latvian.
He who builds those cities is a Latvian.
He who ploughs those fields is a Latvian.
And if you say no he is not I walk up to you and sock you between the eyes before it’s too late.
Translated by Ieva Lešinska [I had to censor a line because of the blocking software.]