30 Years of Independent Museum Work. Creative Museum conversation with Marģers Vestermanis, founder of the museum "Jews in Latvia," and the museum’s director Iļja Ļenskis

This interview is part of the thinktank’s series “Thirty Years of Independent Museum Work”. 

We personally have experienced only half of this period. But our guests for these interviews, some of whose careers began in the 1970s, have a wealth of experience.

The members of this generation, who lived through the change of political regimes, have directly witnessed the liberation of Latvian museums from ideological dictates which allowed our museums to develop in an independent and professional direction in terms of both content and administration. This series examines how this transformation took place and how prominent professionals view it from today’s standpoint.

The background to these discussions are ongoing shifts in society, which while they may not be as radical as in the 1990 are still taking place. This may turn out to be a highly suitable time for documenting the contemporary history of museum sector.

PhD in Museum Studies, Raivis Sīmansons


Ineta Zelča Sīmansone: In the 1990s, you founded the museum and documentation centre “Jews in Latvia.”

Marģers Vestermanis: I’ve made a rough summary of my story. 

When the expressions of the nation become free, people are no longer afraid. They want to return to their roots. This is very interesting. During the Third Latvian Awakening, many ethnic associations were formed. This was impossible under Soviet rule. The rights of Jews to assemble were extremely restricted back then. Although people tried. For example, Mendels Bašs founded a Jewish choir.

Iļja Ļenskis: That was in the late 1950s. 1957 to be precise.

MV: It started right after the war.

IĻ: After the war there was a theatre troupe based at the Philharmonic, led by Cisers. But only for two years or so.

MV: A very short time. 

IĻ: Yes, that was from 1946 to 1948, and then in 1957 Bašs tried to start a choir, which was officially the City of Riga Moscow District House of Culture Choir. But it was smothered quite quickly. The choir was liquidated in 1963.

MV: Yes. And after that no one was prepared to do anything. Then in the summer of 1988, Ruta Šaca-Marjaša phoned us and invited us to her apartment. Her mother Reha was still living. Estere (Esfira) Rapiņa, deputy director of the Philharmonic, was also at the apartment. She had many contacts in the cultural world. She had already tried to establish a Latvian Jewish Cultural Association and had been allocated a room on Dome square, where the Board of Fishermen used to be beside the Radio House. But as she sat there, she realised nobody would come. There was also the issue of what the association would be about. How Soviet would it be? That was still in the Soviet period. How Jewish would it be? 

In parallel, I also clearly recall the founding of the Jewish War Veterans’ Association – one of the biggest Soviet war veterans’ societies. There was Samsons with his partisans’ association, and the Latvian Riflemen’s Association, which became smaller and smaller, but the Jewish organisation was one of the largest. 

So at that time, the Jewish War Veterans’ Association was a serious organisation. The Jewish Cultural Association was intended to rejuvenate the theatre (as veterans of the Jewish theatre were still alive.) But we weren’t allowed into our hall (the historic Jewsish theatre building at Skolas iela 6), as the administration of the puppet theatre was in there. If I recall, the minister of culture at that time was [Raimonds] Pauls.

IĻ: Not yet. Pauls came after independence.

MV: In any case, there was so much pressure from the top that we were allocated a room in the Jewish Association house, where Ilja’s office is now. And we were allowed to meet there. 

IZS: In 1988? 

MV: Yes, gradually. At first Rapiņa sat there, later she managed to get a seat downstairs where the coatroom is now – her office was next to that. The official position was declared as the following – to preserve Jewish culture which had been persecuted both under the Nazis and later by the Soviet regime. We had interesting conversations about what may have survived. Of course, we knew of one place where there was a very rich collection indeed – the special library of the KGB, which held all the publications from the Ulmanis period (not from the tsarist era, that didn’t interest them) – not just Jewish ones, of course, all sorts. There were many of them in a cellar in Anglikāņu street in Old Riga, but the cellar had been flooded. So I was called over to help drag the materials out into the sunshine to dry out. There were publications by the Jewish Bund and whatnot, but they weren’t usable anymore. But it surprised me how much Jews had accomplished in the cultural sphere in the 1920s, and also under the Ulmanis regime when things were more difficult.  I said at the time that our cultural programme was about more than just Jewish history… There was a Jewish historian named Mendels Bobe. He was the only one who had tried to chronicle the main events of Jewish history. 

IĻ: He published his book in the 1960s in Israel, in various formats. And it was published in Latvian in 2006. 

MV: He was a sort of left-wing, social democratic Zionist. Initially he was mainly a social democrat, a Bund activist. And then he gradually switched to the social democratic Zionists. I think this shows he had a high level of objectivity. I think that is essential if you’re going to understand history. Not only the fact that there were Jews, but what they had done to benefit their own people and the country they lived and worked in. The founding document for the Jewish Association must be somewhere too. There was no one to hand it to because we didn’t get registered. But on that basis, they gave us the room. 

And in the autumn of 1988 we met with many members, for example Herberts Dubins, who was at that time a very popular lecturer at the Academy of Art, a designer by profession. He had suddenly rediscovered his Jewish identity. No one would have guessed it would happen to Herberts. He sat in the archive and wrote a very interesting little brochure. The Riga Jewish Association had written the minutes of its meetings in German. With the help of my wife’s cousin Mrs. [Lija] Germane, who is still alive (she is our age  my wife and I are 96), we decided that the first thing we would do would be to bring together all the Holocaust survivors. This interested me, because in the Soviet era while two or three of us could meet up, no one would have dared to arrange a bigger gathering. I knew a few people. I knew somebody Andrejs, we sent him a letter informing him that we were preparing a large meeting, and could he maybe give us some addresses. People sent their addresses. And then we sent them on further. That was in 1988. In total 123 Latvian Jewish Holocaust survivors gathered. After a lot of back and forth, we received permission to hold a meeting in our theatre hall on November 11, as long as it didn’t run for longer than two hours. At 6 pm, it was clear we wouldn’t be able to do that. I had written down my ghetto song for the first time, and Paša had made a musical score. We prepared a programme of ghetto songs. One of the activists was Bella Nocham, who now works for the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.

IĻ: She is responsible for the former Soviet archives department. 

MV: She was an English teacher at Riga’s Andreja Pumpura School. We created the programme with her. She also obtained permission to make an archaeological dig at the site of the Great Choral Synagogue, where there was just grass growing. Later she told me she had been approached by neighbours who had seen the synagogue burning on July 4, 1941. And one woman said she had heard screams. My granddaughter Sandra (a medical student and a painter) later decided to paint an open window and a woman turning away in horror (without preparation, but at the time Bella would come around, and we were in a communal apartment – we only had one room, plus there were neighbours).

IĻ: That painting is now displayed in the Jewish Museum. 

MV: There’s nothing there, the woman is turning away. And we see on the other side the burning synagogue. This painting by an amateur artist has travelled to Berlin and also once to Frankfurt where it was exhibited in a show by amateur artists dedicated to the Second World War. 

Getting back to the meeting – I met people who I hadn’t seen since the camps. We hugged with tears in our eyes. And sang. And Iļja Heifecs’ son Zamuels (my pupil at the Dārziņa School) had prepared a version of the ghetto song for piano and violin. That was interesting. And we talked and talked. And of course, everyone told their stories. One story I told. It happened after the last mass murder at Rumbula on December 8. The men who had been collected in the Small Ghetto, some 400-500 people, were drafted for forced labour in the Export Port. They had to move frozen hay blocks for the German army. Amazingly, we were taken along what is today Elizabetes street, past Antonijas street, and there a man stood by the side of the street. On seeing the column of men, he removed his hat. We realised it was Pāvils Vīlips, a beloved teacher of Latvian literature, remembered by all who studied at Ezra’s private secondary school [the private Jewish Ezra College]. Valentīna Freimane and Gunārs Cīrulis (Gabriels or “Gaba” Civjans) have both written about him. He had just been released from jail, his wife was still in Salaspils concentration camp, but here he was, paying tribute to his students. It’s a shame I can’t include it in my book. 

IĻ: You can. In the introduction. By the way, I was recently looking at Vīlips’ file in the archives. There are photos of him and pupils from Ezra’s School. 

MV: We have them too. Ones with my brother, too.

IĻ: It could be. 

MV: With Lēvenšteins – the school principal – and others. And getting back to the meeting again, of course we discussed founding an association. At that time, Latvians who had been deported to Siberia were starting to organise. 

And what would the association of formerly imprisoned Jews do? Everyone agreed that we had a duty toward those who didn’t survive. At the start of the occupation, more than 70,000 Jews in Latvia fell into the hands of the Nazis. According to official figures, there were just 400 survivors in Latvia. And just over 1,000 came back from concentration camps in Germany. There are probably some we don’t know about, so there are perhaps a little over 1,200 people. It was suggested we found a museum. Who would be its head? A person who had spent much of his life, 15 years, working at the Museum of the Revolution. I worked there while I was a second-year student, beginning in January 1948, until I became a head of department at the State History Archives in 1961. 

I understood from the beginning what a museum is. But I had nothing. Just a desire to open a museum. I diplomatically decided to try and cloak the idea in another formulation. I called it the Jewish Documentation Centre, hoping the name would help to bring in materials. And so, we became a documentation centre. We were encouraged to do it by the Ministry of Welfare, we were encouraged by Ruta Šaca-Marjaša, because Jews started protesting that there weren’t any documents. There were plenty of documents about those sent to Siberia by the NKVD, each of them had a personal file. But there was nothing about the Jews. 

IĻ: This is in reference to the process for gaining the status of a politically repressed person. 

MV: We had the right to issue certificates certifying that these people had been in camps or had been repressed. Since I had worked in the archives, I had quite a lot of documents pertaining to the Holocaust. Photocopies. People started to come over. Then I said: “If you want a certificate, first tell me your story.” People very reluctantly talked and handed over items. We have just the cuff of a prisoner’s uniform because the owner didn’t want to part with the rest. Then there are the Jewish stars. People mostly just kept their numbers. If they returned from the camps. Saša [Aleksandrs] Bergmanis gave us a spoon. If a prisoner loses his spoon, he will starve. He might find an empty tin to use as a bowl, but without a spoon he’s finished. A camp blanket. That was what we started with. We had the archive documents, and we asked everyone requesting a certificate to write a short biography so we would know more about the individual. There are no personal files about Jews in German documents. We had to organise the giving of testimonies. This was at the request of the Ministry of Welfare, who wanted us to collect testimonies, and we were responsible for ensuring that these were accurate. 

IZS: Did the museum or documentation centre get funding from the Ministry of Welfare?

MV: No. It was purely a private matter. Back then I was still working at Meža School at the Tuberculosis Hospital [now Jugla Sanatorium Boarding School], and lived next door to it, in Upeslejas. I was already retired. I was teaching older classes up to grade 8, as well as a history group. 

That school gave me my first piece of furniture – a cupboard for storing exhibition items we didn’t even have yet. Which were just starting to trickle in. 

The accounts department made a space between some cupboards available for me to sit in on the fourth floor of the Jewish Association’s building (but only for three days a week – Saturdays, Sundays and Thursdays). Later one of the former prisoners, a carpenter by trade, made an extra box for the cupboard because we were getting quite a lot of items. 

Mavriks Vulfsons and I had the idea that with the assistance of Art Academy students we could mark those houses where Jews had been hidden. [Andris] Teikmanis, now an advisor to President Egils Levits, was then the mayor of Riga.

IĻ: The head of the mayor’s office. 

MV: He was also Latvia’s ambassador to the UK. 

Although the city fathers didn’t help us, the German embassy paid a great deal of attention to us. They wanted to learn not only about history, but also about Jewish activities as a whole. We had to establish what institutions or organisations there were. Not only synagogues, but also Jewish cemeteries and schools and everything else. I began working on “Jews in Riga,” an address book for Jewish institutions. It was published in 1992. We didn’t manage to find a publishing house. At the printing house "Paraugtipogrāfija", the director, who by the way was Jewish, said she would gladly print it as long as we paid all the workers who would have to work overtime. And as long as it was recorded that the work was released in 1991. At the time, the Americans were giving money for Jewish heritage research, and it’s noted in the publication that they had given money in support of the museum. At that time the Latvian roubles were being issued, and in dollar terms they gave around $1000. That was a lot of money back then. We used it to publish the book. Around that time, a Social Democrat from Bremen named Hermann Kuhn, who is today one of my best friends, asked – why only in English? Why not in German?

I wrote the brochure in Latvian. Then it was translated into English. [Grigorijs] Krupņikovs said it was rubbish – that’s not proper English! So he translated it himself. Then Mrs. Germane tore into Krupņikovs’ translation. 

IĻ: That brochure in English was published in hardcover. 

MV: Sort of hardcover. The father of one of my pupils from the Dārziņa School, a graphic artist, came up to see me on the fourth floor. What would we put on the covers? He says – let’s do a scene from Old Riga. Today I wouldn’t have done it, but that’s what happened then. And the first edition was in English, not Russian. We received messages from Switzerland, Indonesia, Asia. A former student from the Riga Jewish School wrote that we had made a mistake that rather than School No 4, School No 11 was at Lāčplēša street 141. It changed for some reason. I looked at archive materials, phone books. The street numbering in the documents didn’t align with that at the time of my research. Then the book was released in German, and in that edition, I found the courage to write – “In the footsteps of a murdered ethnic minority.” That was how deeply the fear was ingrained in us. If we were mentioning some organisation, it would have been logical to also mention certain people, but it still seemed wiser not to. When I was working at the Museum of the Revolution, the policy was if a person was still alive, then it was better not to mention them, but if they were deceased, then we could include them in the exhibition. And then the newspaper “Lauku Avīze” (now called “Latvijas Avīze”) made a proposal to me. The Americans (some Shapiro) had published a book titled “100 Famous Jews,” starting with the Virgin Mary and of course including Moses, David, Solomon etc. Didn’t Latvia have any famous Jews? I had another big job to tackle. When [Leo] Dribins published his book “The Jews in Latvia,” I appended my list to it, but the editor, a very prominent person (I won’t name him), criticised my list, saying there are too many famous Jews. We had to remove about a third of them. Later I thought of compiling an encyclopaedia, but that hasn’t moved forward. 

IĻ: The book “Great Jewish Personalities of Latvia” was published in 2003.

MV: It probably included some of my work.

IĻ: I don’t know, [Grigorijs] Smirins was behind it. And then there was the book “One’s Own Colour in the Rainbow.”

MV: That was very well written. 

Then we, the cultural associations, were permitted to present our work once a week in our respective languages, and I was entrusted with Yiddish. I wondered – who will understand me? I spoke about how we were shaping the museum, about our duty to ensure that the murdered Jews of Latvia were forgotten. That they were not only destroyed physically, they were also not commemorated. The museum’s duty is to preserve memory. It is also a condemnation of the world which had permitted such a brutal crime and looked on silently. But amazingly, Latvians responded, and they brought books and said: “We dont know what this is, but it’s in your language.”

IĻ:  What year was that? 

MV: It was right at the beginning. In the late 1980s, early 1990s. When was the Moscow coup?

IĻ: August 1991. 

MV: At that time the Baltic Military District Headquarters was located across from us. 

IĻ: Where the Ministry of Defence is. 

MV: Yes. Planes flew over Riga dropping leaflets. I picked up one of the leaflets and it’s in our collection. The situation became quite threatening, so I brought over a large suitcase from home in which I place our entire collection at the time. As bus services to Upeslejas were erratic, I stayed with my relative Mrs. Germane, and the suitcase came with me. I left the suitcase with the museum’s collection there for a few days, then a few days later I brought it back to Skolas iela 6. 

Back then the Museum of Medicine was very helpful, and the head of its library was Mrs. Lifšica. A very knowledgeable person. If you didn’t know something, you asked Mrs. Lifšica. I had contacts with that museum because when I was the head of the publication department in the archive, I published brochures such as “Healthcare Then and Now.” If I recall, the deputy director of the Museum of Medicine at that time was some docent Matīss. I consulted him about publishing the brochure. I went and told him I was starting a museum. He said: “You know what, there’s a rich collection of leatherbound books in our collection overseen by Mrs. Lifšica.” To this day we don’t know which Jewish family these belonged to, but they were probably wealthy. I put the volumes in a potato sack and hailed them over to the museum. 

At that time Jews were fleeing the country because they were afraid the borders would be closed again, and they left behind everything they wouldn’t need abroad, such as their libraries and even their albums. Most of them lived in communal apartments, and their neighbours came to us and said the Jewish neighbours had left things behind. Unfortunately, they usually left their things downstairs with the concierge, so for quite a few albums we don’t know who they belonged to. It’s clear they are Jews, but we know nothing else. 

The problem at the time was that everyone wanted to establish his or her own museum. I won’t name our camp comrades who were convinced they would open their own museums at home. And create exhibition about themselves on all the walls. They said to me: “When you have your museum, will you at least show me? At most you’ll only show one photograph.” 

In parallel the historian [Izajs] Augustons, a very nice man, was also principal of the Russian school on Grēcinieku street and Bregmanis’ deputy for administrative matters.

IĻ: Hone Bregmanis was principal of the Jewish school…

MV: …who in the Soviet era, thanks to his contacts (he was a party committee instructor in the Lenin District), managed to get a Jewish school opened. We have a protocol of the meeting where Goldmanis, also a historian, asks whether or not we need a Jewish school. And Latvia was the only place under Soviet conditions which had such a school. I highly doubt if Moscow gave permission for it.

IĻ:  We spoke with Valdis Lapiņš, then the head of the Education Section of the Riga City Proletarian District, who said that it was cleared by the Riga Executive Committee and some people in the Popular Front. With whom he just went to have a conversation. 

MV: Our main secret defender was [Ivars Jānis] Ķezbers. An extremely wise and intelligent man who you could rely on, but who was afraid of openly demonstrating his support – he suggested we meet in a park or a cantine. There were no real cafes at the time. 

In 1992, the German embassy gave me money for the first exhibition. We didn’t have proper space for it yet. But in the lobby, you can still see a display case, and there were wooden rectangles fixed to the walls, and in each box there was a photograph. I chose the theme “Saviours.” Anna Alma Pole – I had already met Pole’s daughter in the Soviet times. The Krūmiņš family etc. And in the display case I placed the numbers of Jewish concentration camp survivors, fragments of their striped uniforms, photographs. This interested people and quite a few came to see it. 

IĻ: Hadn’t you already held an exhibition at the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation in 1990?

MV: Yes. That was the Dome Museum. They had hurriedly liquidated the exhibition “Socialist Riga”, and there was a large, nice space on the second floor. Mrs. [Līvija] Blūmfelde, Edgars’ wife...

IĻ: Edgars Blūmfelds was a historian.

MV: He passed away years ago. He was the only member of the Academy of Science who dared to mention what we now call the Holocaust in the book “The Latvian People’s Struggle in the Great Patriotic War.” 

IĻ: Only four paragraphs, but still.

MV: No one else dared.

IZS: And Līvija Blūmfelde was then the director of the museum?

MV: Yes. Her mother-in-law was from Russia, they were Latvians from Russia. She had some party position, but they were very nice and honest people. That was in 1989. Each cultural association (and we had gained that status by then) was given a stand in the museum. The mathematician Vladimirs (“Vova”) Rabinovičs approached me. By then I had not only a cupboard, but also a safe – I don’t recall who gave it to me, but it’s the same safe that’s in the museum now. He had inherited silverware with Jewish ornaments from his parents or grandparents and wanted to show them in the museum. Although I was worried about them, I said: “Tell you what, Vova, let’s put them in the exhibition. And let the Dome Museum take responsibility if they get stolen!” They were very eye-catching items. But I had nothing else to put in the stand. Bella Noham and I walked all over Riga, and she had already arranged a photographer. We photographed the most beautiful buildings designed by the Jewish architect Pauls Mandelštams. For example, the Radio House, originally built for Riga Commercial Bank. He had left his mark on the Old Town. But there’s scant mention of him in Latvian architectural history. He also wanted to build a synagogue. He was an active member of the Riga committee of the Russian Jewish Education Society along with Pauls Mincs and the others. He designed the metal fence for the Stabu street synagogue, a very interesting work. He did the House of Mourning for the Old Jewish Cemetery. 

IĻ: And in the New Jewish Cemetery…

MV: That’s completely different, that was more experimental. But the Old Jewish Cemetery was from the tsarist times – there was great sensitivity shown in finding an authentic Jewish style. 

IĻ: For Riga’s 700th anniversary, he wrote an article about Jewish houses of worship for the very important collection “Riga und seine Bauten” [Riga and its Buildings, 1903]. 

MV: As we didn’t have any money, we couldn’t do very much. But people came. The silver cup we have for the winner of the Liepāja “Makkabi” – the auxiliary policeman who stole it from a Jewish apartment or a murdered Jew thought it was pure silver and had bricked it into the wall of his apartment. Later he either was arrested or fled, and the apartment was occupied by a teacher, who found the cup during renovations of the building. She didn’t know it had a Jewish connection, she found out by chance. I was reading lectures at continuing education courses for teachers, and she knew me from there. She brought in the cup and asked me what it was. I said: “Don’t you read the Bible? The Book of Maccabees?” So she gave the cup to us. The annotation states that it was donated by teacher such and such. People came forward totally randomly. 

IZS: Did they have any objections to you documenting information about the persons who brought in items? You probably documented the stories of the objects whenever possible. Had people overcome their fear of providing information about the object’s history etc.?

MV: No, that had passed. I was particularly moved by one event. On Blaumaņa street, where the printing house of the newspaper “Cīņa” was located, you could order stamps. And I ordered a “Jews in Latvia Museum” stamp. I didn’t have much money back then! My wife and I lost all our savings thanks to Repše’s financial reforms. They wrote out an invoice for the stamp and I said I would pay it when the stamp was ready. But they replied: “We won’t take your money. We won’t take money for such an important museum.” 

The museum was beginning to generate documents, and we needed envelopes, so my wife used large envelopes containing X-rays for the museum’s needs. 

And then in the early 1990s, I gave a lecture in Frankfurt, where Jewish cultural activists from the former USSR had been invited to share their experiences. One of the other speakers was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (the last survivor), Bund member Dr. Marek Edelman. I spoke in German although I hadn’t spoken German for so long, I practiced and manged it. Walter Scholeck came up to me at the time, he supported us later. And Hermann Kuhn, who is now my best friend. He took me to Bremen to give another lecture there. 

So began my connection with Germany. Cilly Kugelmann, now the head curator at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

IĻ: I think she left the position a few years ago. 

MV: But she writes a lot. And wrote a lot back then, too. We spoke for a whole night. I could speak freely for the first time, and I spoke about what had happened during the Holocaust. Walter Laquer, also a German Jew, who had survived a camp, walked around everywhere with a tape recorder and talked with everyone. His wife was also an ex-prisoner. He gave me a copy of his book, about what nobody wanted to know at the time. 

So began my international contacts. On 22 June 1991, the 50th anniversary of the Nazi invasion, the Evangelical Church and Berlin University held an international conference. They invited me, because while it is important to know what happened, it is even more important to understand why it happened. Why did so many people get involved – perhaps very willingly, perhaps out of fear or cowardice? 

Anita Kugler published my entire lecture in the Berlin newspaper “Tageszeitung.” She also became a supporter of our museum. Anita Kugler took me by the hand and introduced me to all the German historians. And so I met Walter Scholeck, who was in charge of the German Industrial Association’s Welfare Fund. He was also a former prisoner. We became friends. He gave us a whole box of envelopes, paper and other basic things which we couldn’t afford and which weren’t even available in Latvia. He systematically sent various materials. He made copies of the “Ereignismeldung UdSSR” [the Einsatzgruppen operations reports] for the museum, which we weren’t even able to open, and he sent these sheets with what looked like scales on them, which contained copies of 100 top secret German documents. At the time we were the only ones in Latvia with access to this important document pertaining to the Holocaust, which also had a lot of information about Latvia. Even [Andrievs] Ezergailis (his German is poor) didn’t know about this source. Today it has been published in its entirety.

IĻ: We published a book containing these documents ten years ago. 

MV: Yes. And so the museum expanded, thanks to benefactors. 

IZS: Were you initially the museum’s only staff member?

MV: I was alone. But then one day a tall man with a long, well-tended, grey beard came in – Jānis Neilands. He was a shoemaker from Ventspils. A Roma language expert, I believe, who has translated the Gospel of St. Matthew into Roma. So we became friends, and he said: “you see, they murdered Jews, but they murdered Roma as well.” And in parallel I began gathering those materials. He had them too. Back then the History Faculty of the University of Latvia published the monthly journal “Latvijas Vēsture.” Some philanthropist sponsored it. I said to Jānis: “Listen, you’re the only person who has gathered materials about Latvia’s Roma tragedy (I helped him a little with arranging them), let’s publish!” Then suddenly Ezergailis wrote in that publication – as if it wasn’t enough that they are accusing Latvians of murdering the Jews, now they’re also studying the destruction of the Roma. That offended me. And I began writing about the Roma genocide. It got to the point where Ezergailis wrote that this was being published with the intention of blackening the name of the Latvian nation. And then it all ended. But soon after that I got a call from Bern or Zurich, and it was [Vita] Matīss: “You know, we need contacts with the Roma.” I asked: “Why are you calling me?” “You’re the only one writing about the Roma genocide.” I couldn’t deny that. She said we would be visited by a lady who was an interpreter for the United Nations. Kristīne was her name. Billionaire [George] Soros had given a lot of money to Roma organisations, including in Latvia. But there weren’t any Roma. I said: “If you are going to give me money to study the Roma, I’ll need an assistant.” “Yes, of course.” That was a lot of money at the time. So we were joined by an activist named Svetlana Bogojavļenska, now she’s a lecturer in Mainz, she lectures on Jewish issues. 

IĻ: And about the history of Latvia and the Baltic States. 

MV: We sent her to courses in Germany, a very gifted girl. And then things were easier for me and I could start to publish. And in 1994, thanks to the fact that my lecture had been published in Germany and Hermann Kuhn had published “Juden in Riga” [The Jews in Riga], which came out in five volumes, I was invited to Hamburg, where there was an exhibition titled “War Crimes of the Wermacht” (“Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941–1944”). 

IĻ: The exhibition took place in 1995/1996. And it made a big impression on society in Germany, because prior to that it had been believed that the SS were the bad ones and the army didn’t commit any crimes. That exhibition showed that the army was also deeply involved. 

MV: That was also the Soviet position. 

I was never the director of the Jewish Museum – I was its head. When I was developing the exhibition in Germany, people asked what I did and I answered that I was creating a museum. “And who is funding it?” “No one. It’s my own private initiative.” I’ve never asked anyone for anything. The exhibition’s curator Hannes Heersaid to me: “Mr. Vestermanis, if you get a donation from someone, I’ll match it.” But no one had given me the first part. But with his assistance we obtained many documents, because at the time we had no clue about what had been published about the Holocaust in the free world. And of course, we gained important contacts. Exhibitions in Germany were always accompanied by articles. I lived there for two months, and I had a very generous stipend, but I had to write an article for this publication. I proposed “Ortskommandantur Libau: Zwei Monate Deutscher Besatzung im Sommer 1941” [Local Command Liepāja: Two Months of German Occupation in the Summer of 1941]. They didn’t know what was in the Soviet archives. It was a revelation to them. 

Speaking of Liepāja, I don’t know why those sailors were so anti-Semitic and organised the shooting on their own, even jumping ahead of the SD. That was clear from the Hannover trial. 

When I was in Hamburg, I worked on an article about Liepāja. I knew that in the 1970s there had been a trial in Hannover of Erhard Grauel and Georg Rosenstock – they had been the responsible members of the SD in Liepāja. Company commander in the 13th German Police Battalion etc. While I was working in the prosecutor’s office in Germany, the local official became bored, because if someone from outside was sitting there, one of the staff members had to sit there too. He said to me: “Why are you sitting here? Send a truck and we’ll send everything you need to your home address that will be more convenient for you.” 

I knew that in addition to the film of Liepāja women being shot at Šķēde, there was also one of the men. Our collection includes films about the Liepāja shootings. 

IĻ: They are in our exhibition. 

MV: Yes. That’s the film. Then the prosecutor’s official said to me: “We have several copies of those films.” I said: “That’s good.” And then he repeated the same thing to me, and… I can honestly say that he didn’t have to repeat it a third time – if they had so many copies and they were thrusting them upon me, I was going to take them with me. Back then I was the only person in the east who had this film. We also got the “Wochenchau” (the wartime German newsreel) from German journalists. I helped them a lot, and they wanted to thank me. 

And so, thanks to these foreign contacts, the museum developed.

IZS: What about contacts in Latvia? How did the museum forge contacts with other Latvian museums?

MV: Yes, there were such relationships. During the premiership of [Andris] Šķēle (the Board of Museums existed by then) I was still independent. And a private foundation paid my co-worker quite a generous salary for the time. In addition, Anita Kuglere organised contacts at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, which helped us a great deal. “And how about your funding?” “We have no funding.” “No problem, we will organise lectures for you all over Germany.” I visited nine or ten cities. These activists were there to greet me. I didn’t take the money, they collected the money themselves, and by the end I had 14 000 deutschemarks, which was a lot. I deposited the money in the bank. Then the Revenue Service sent a message that I had to pay tax. I realised it was time to register as a museum. That was before the Hamburg episode. 

I also went to the State Board of Museums and said: “I want you to know that such a museum exists and you can list me.” [Jānis] Garjāns didn’t invite me to come under his wing. Prime Minister [Vilis] Krištopans’ secretary came to me late one night and took me to see Krištopans. I said that I would like state support for the museum. The Ministry of Culture follows my activities we report regularly. We agreed to sign an agreement on cooperation, that every year we would produce studies on, for example, traditions of cooperation between Latvians and Jews during the First World War and the 1905 Revolution. And we were paid on that basis. We had to register how many hours we had worked.

IĻ: But that was after the first exhibition was already completed.

MV: Yes, you’re right. When I returned from Hamburg in 1994, I was given a small room. That was where I first held the exhibition “Historical Evidence of Latvia’s Jews.” That was in 1994.

In 1996 they gave me another room. In one room there were materials about Jews in Latvia. It turned out quite nicely. The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation allowed us to make a copy of the Jewish War of Independence Veterans’ flag [the Jewish Workers’ Association flag] and the flag of the student fraternity “Vetulia.” It stood out vividly at the end of the room. Then we agreed with Garjāns that every year we would make a report and sector specialists could come and see how we were working. We had number of items requiring serious restoration, such as letters written on birch bark from a Gulag camp. We got down to business. 

IZS: When did you gain accreditation?

IĻ: Accreditation came much later, in 2001.

MV: In the beginning, before we had anything, a committee would come along, for example the director of the National History Museum of Latvia [Arnis] Radiņš came and checked our card indexes, how we stored materials and whether we had potential. And we were officially acknowledged as a museum. That was before 1994. 

IĻ: But the museum was only officially accredited in 2001.

MV: Our first large (for those days) exhibition came about a month before we were accredited. But we were already known as a museum, visitors came, embassies wanted to collaborate with us, we held lectures. 

I didn’t want to be under state control because I sensed we would be forced to adopt policies and concepts which I couldn’t accept. And then Minister of Culture [Kārina] Pētersone, who supported us in many ways and included us in the list of museums under her ministry’s wing, agreed that we had to be allowed to operate independently. For quite a long time we didn’t have a space. The ceiling had collapsed in the Blue Room of the community house and there was no money. In 1999, the German ambassador Reinhart Kraus approached me and asked: “Could you do with 30 000 marks?” “Certainly.” “But it has to be done in the next two months.” We signed a contract, and the renovations took half a year. And in 1999 we staged the first exhibition in the Blue Room. There was music and Jewish songs at the opening, artists performed. But we lacked materials, especially about “Jews in the Duchy of Courland.” And it is still our duty to expand and improve it. But for those 30 000 we should have created the entire exhibition. We just had enough money for the exhibition section “The History of Latvian Jews in Independent Latvia,” and we created the Holocaust exhibition ourselves. We continued improving the exhibition, then we received a letter from two German ladies from the Krauss family (one is the head of a department in the Nuremberg Art Museum, the other is an architect), offering to support the museum.

IĻ: That was in 2015.  

MV: Yes, we unveiled the exhibition in 2016. The ladies visited the museum the following summer. 

Considering the space and the resources available, that was the best we could do. Including my skills. 

IZS: In recent decades, when it is possible to openly discuss and research these issues, quite a few studies have been done. Including the collections of articles by the Committee of Historians. 

MV: Yes, I have been a member of the Committee of Historians since 2003. I was appointed by President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga with the specific task of preparing materials and encouraging my colleagues to write about the Holocaust, which had been little studied before then. I had the support of Professor Aivars Stranga. That was very important work. I wrote about sources, memoirs which had been published. Until Vīķe-Freiberga’s presidency, it had been practically impossible to write about the Holocaust in Latvia. 

IZS: Due to funding or attitudes?

MV: The only time I had been able to write about the Holocaust was in the collection “Ārzemes par Latvijas vēsturi” [Abroad about Latvia’s History]. I believed that the museum should be the place to gather literature about this great Jewish tragedy. Foreign Jews had written a lot. Interestingly, Lithuania’s Jews write about themselves a lot. It’s much harder to get Latvia’s Jews to write. There are lots of articles in Israel, because there’s a state programme – whenever a Holocaust survivor wants to write, they are assigned an assistant and the state pays for publication. Now Ina Mihelsone has been published, thanks to funding given by the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel. The museum is the place where interested persons can find materials and documents about what happened, where, in which parish etc. We tried to gather surnames. Based on this, a book about the history of the Jews of Tukums has been written (written by Jakovs Karasins). 

IZS: When I was working on the collection of articles “Kārsavas stāsti” [Kārsava Stories], we made extensive use of your museum’s collection. Your museum helped me as the compiler of the book. One sensed that the reputation of the museum which you had created meant that people trusted you and they were prepared to entrust their stories and family photo albums to the museum. Your work was appreciated. 

MV: Yes. In 1999 Izraelits Junior came to see me, because he wanted to go to Germany and he asked me for a reference. I said to him: “Write down your story for my museum.”

IĻ: He was one of only three people who were saved in Rēzekne. 

MV: He and his uncle. And another one we don’t know much about. There was one case where a Jew was found dead on the street. 

IĻ: Kačerginskis. 

MV: Yes. There are all sorts of versions. 

IĻ: Together with a colleague from Rēzekne we searched, but we weren’t able to reconstruct the story in full. He was hidden by someone named Iļjins.

MV: We also gathered information about Iļjins. 

When we first started gathering information, it was tough going. Then after 2000 letters began pouring in – people wanted their families to be regarded as saviours. The sorts of letters we got, sometimes even making threats! I will use a few of these in the book anonymously of course. We were helped a lot by the German embassy, who opened the way to the German archives for us. The German embassy paid for this – we gave them the surnames and they returned the information to us. 

IĻ: But Mr. Vestermanis, you ensured that prizes were given to the saviours in 1993 or a bit later. 

MV: That was very difficult. And without Bella’s hep it would have been even harder. 

To be honest, we disputed one of the medals. 

IĻ: I think you ensured that the state of Latvia also gave them awards.

MV: That was Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga.

IĻ: Wasn’t it during Guntis Ulmanis’ presidency? When they all gathered for the first time in the Jewish Community Hall, and they were given certificates of honour or something.

MV: Yes. But certificates of honour – no. You could talk with Ulmanis at a basic level. He had invited a small group of historians to a richly laid table. Together with academician [Jānis] Stradiņš, we thought – how good to be here with Ulmanis. But then Ulmanis asked in a hushed tone: “What should we do with the Latvian Legion? Commander Bruno Streckenbach, one of the worst murderers. The 19th Division.” I said: “But that is no secret.” Germans enabled the top commanders to fly to Germany before the capitulation. Apparently Streckenbach did not receive permission, which is why he stayed. 

By the way, it was Guntis Ulmanis’ idea to publish the brochure about the history and tragedy of the Jews. I called it “Resistance to the Holocaust in Latvia.” We also had to have the term approved by the Committee of Historians. 

And then I said that it would be good to invite the saviours of Jews who I was aware of to an audience with the president. He was deeply against the idea. He said: “I will come and visit your museum, the Jewish community.” But I said: “An invitation to the castle to meet the president is totally different.” He finally agreed. Saviour Elza Pūķe was brought in on a stretcher as she could no longer walk, and the president went up to her and said a few works. Cameraman Rodrigo and I filmed it. Unfortunately, we never received the material. 

IĻ: Because he died.

MV: Yes, and his family has the material. We made three films about the saviours – “Žanis un citi” (Žanis and Others, which was recommended by Ābrams Kleckins), “Mīli savu tuvāko” (Love thy Neighbour) and “Līdzjūtība” (Compassion.) Back then there were still some saviours and saved alive. Professor Anderss gave money for the films to be made. With great effort I persuaded a TV station to broadcast “Žanis un citi,” which they did at lunchtime, when no one watches TV. Those films are in the museum to this day. I said to Māris Gailis that you could make a great movie from the material we filmed. Why hasn’t Lolita [Tomsone] got down to it? We have unique material no one will ever find again. 

IZS: The time will come when someone will examine it and use it.

MV: We are currently working on a project. There is the case of Ina Mihelsone, whose mother decided she would try to pass as a German and had even prepared documents. Another woman wrote a statement attesting that it was her child. And a doctor wrote that he was the father. So there were even “parents” for this supposedly German child who was adopted and raised by a Jewish family. On this basis, the mother lived for six months in Riga after the liquidation of the Large Ghetto of Riga. Then she was called to the Gestapo, where she continued promising she would produce documents. But she died, leaving behind a ten-year-old daughter who appeared to feign ignorance – who knew, maybe she was German after all. She was taken to an orphanage. The director of the orphanage asked for her birth certificate, but it was clearly stated on the certificate that her mother was a Jew. He took a risk and kept the child there until October 1944. All the other children knew that because of the child’s education and behaviour – she played the piano and knew foreign languages – he wasn’t a typical orphanage resident. But the children didn’t say a word. Imagine that – the children and staff knew but didn’t betray her, and they were jealous because she didn’t have to go to school (she couldn’t go to school without a birth certificate). But she wanted to go to school. 

I know that lady. Her daughter and my son are childhood friends. I have sparked the interest of our local German lawyer Teiss Klaubergs. He has found a film director interested in the subject. Children’s solidarity. A wonderful subject. 

IZS: Thank you so much, your story has richly contributed to the 30 years of independent museum series. That will help us greatly in understanding the museum sector’s development. 

MV: There were hardly any such regional studies museums during the Ulmanis period. They popped up in the Soviet era, for example Jēkabpils Museum, which was founded by a teacher, an enthusiast. Very interesting indeed.

IĻ: During the Ulmanis period there were school museums, and before that association museums. 

MV: You see, I was responsible for the exhibition at the Museum of the Revolution, and I decided to show school museum exhibitions every year at the Young Pioneers’ Castle. There were interesting materials there about 1905, 1919 etc. 

In the late 1980s, when society was in upheaval, all the ethnic minorities wanted to create museums. The Russians, whose numbers in Latvia are so great they are almost not a minority, were promised a museum (and they had received permission to house it on Palasta street, where the so-called Peter the Great house is). They were even given a loan. But there were two Russian associations which wanted to open the museum. And nothing came of it in the end. 

IĻ: If I’m not mistaken, one exhibition was held. 

MV: Yes, and it was created by our former museum staff member Feigmane. Based on our example – “The Russians in Latvia”, just like our “The Jews in Latvia.” 

IĻ: Another important thing about our museum – whereas before the Second World War there was no Jewish museum, unlike in several German cities, Austria, Poland. In Vilnius there was a Jewish museum from 1944 to 1949. 

MV: That was a museum founded with a degree of support from [Ilya] Ehrenburg. Many Russian Jews sent him materials. Then one night in 1949 trucks arrived, loaded all the materials and took them to the pulp mill. The end. 

IĻ: Today we know that a small amount of materials survived. Unlike in Lithuania, before that nothing was collected in Latvia. 

MV: Sorry, but about Lithuania again. Activists or museum staff had hidden something. And during the Soviet era there was the Ninth Fort Museum, and what was saved was the core of the Ehrenburg Museum. Another thing, during the war Rosenberg searched for the YIVO archive [a Jewish research institute which moved its operations from Vilnius to New York in 1940], which the Jews had buried in the ground. The director of the Lithuanian Academy of Science library knew this. Jews entrusted this secret to him – that it lay buried. After the entry of Soviet forces he must have dug it up and illegally or unofficially kept it in the library. 

IĻ: It was more complicated than that. In 1944, part of the materials ended up in the Jewish museum which was established in Vilnius, then in 1949 they were transferred to the library. Partially, yes – that wasn’t described (in some cellar and also somewhere else). There’s a good book about it. [Fishman, David E. (2017). The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. Lebanon, New Hampshire: UPNE ForeEdge]. 

MV: In 1992, I was invited to seminars at Yad Vashem. The invitees were Holocaust survivors and historians writing something. There was also a woman who was neither a Holocaust survivor nor a writer – from Kaunas…

IĻ: Estere Bramsone.

MV: Estere, correct. She was in charge of all the YIVO materials hidden by the director of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciencew which had by then been legalised. She wanted to compile a catalogue about everything that had been saved. 

IĻ: And now it has all been transferred to the Jews of Lithuania Museum, founded in 1990 as a state museum, and to the national library. And the National Library of Lithuania is scanning and processing it all. And they have a special Judaica research centre.

MV: Yes, I had contacts and discussions with the director of the Lithuanian Jewish Museum, after which I understood that I didn’t want to become a state museum. Because the state sets the concept for the museum to operate and how Holocaust history should be written. 

IĻ: Now no one dictates to them, but for the last seven years their main building has been under reconstruction, and it’s not known when it will be open again. It is in the former Jewish College. Typical for state institutions – renovations drag on. 

MV: We also had the chance to get the building next to the synagogue on Peitavas street, where the Sports Museum is now. We were also offered Lāčplēša street 141, a building without a roof. And we wouldn’t have been able to renovate it or expand its content.


Thank you to Iļja Ļenskis, Director of the “Jews in Latvia” Museum, for his support in making the interview possible

The series of interviews is funded by the State Culture Capital Foundation target programme Documentation of Cultural Sectors

Graphic design: Edvards Percevs

Translation: Filips Birzulis

Ineta Zelča Sīmansone

Museologist, Project Manager and Consultant

Raivis Sīmansons