These stones make me stumble

I am from a city that still has cobblestone streets. These roads in Riga are not the most comfortable for riding a bicycle or walking with high heel shoes (women in Latvia do it anyway) but they are beautiful. The old stones make you think of previous generations, even centuries and people who walked here. If only these cobblestones could speak…

Some cobblestones have spoken to me. Not in Riga, though, but in the German city of Hannover. These special stones are a part of memorial art project called Stolpersteine” or literary “a stumbling stone or block. Stolpersteins are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for victims of National Socialism. It is a project by German artist, Gunter Demnig, who remembers individual victims of Nazism by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice.

The ‘stumbling stone’ is slightly raised to “trip up the passerby” and draws attention. I stood on the street in Hannover and looked at these stones. Each stone begins with the phrase “Here lived…” and gives the name of the person who used to lived there. Used to live! Not anymore…

This project has gone beyond Germany where thousands of these ‘stumbling stones’ are placed. You can find these in Austria, Hungary, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Italy, Norway and others. 18 countries all together which makes it the world’s largest memorial. In August of 2016 there will be a ceremony in Lithuania. While the majority of the stones commemorate the Jewish victims, there are also memorials to Sinti and Romani people, physically and mentally disabled, Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, homosexuals.

No memorial ‘stumbling stones’ in Latvia yet but we could place thousands. I once walked around the neighborhood which was Riga Jewish Ghetto in 1941 during the German occupation. I imagined the fences around these city blocks and those people of Latvia who were put ‘inside’ the ghetto and those who were lucky to be ‘outside’. Most of the streets and buildings have not changed much; even many old wooden ones are still standing. The old Hebrew cemetery was bulldozed over during the Soviet period and now is just a park.

There are the streets and cobblestones that witnessed people being marched down to Rumbula forest where in just two days – November 30, 1941 and December 8, 1941 – most of the people from Riga Ghetto were killed. About 24,000 Jews from Latvia and 1,000 from Germany.

I knew many of these facts but on that day in Hannover I could not ignore these small stones in the pavement. It would be so easy to miss but how can you step over it once you notice? If I was to step over, it would make me stumble. When the stone in Germany tells me a story that ends in Latvia…

“Here lived… Born on… Deported… Died in Riga”

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‘Stolperstein’ or ‘stumbling stone’ in Hannover, Germany

Latvian:

Man patīk, ka Rīgā vēl ir bruģa ielas. Riteņiem un augstiem papēžiem varbūt gan nepatīk, bet toties ir skaisti un senatnīgi. Bruģis liek aizdomāties par pagātni, par cilvēkiem no iepriekšējām paaudzēm, kas pa to ir staigājuši. Ja akmeņi spētu runāt… un akmeņi to spēj.

Mani uzrunāja bruģakmeņi Vācijas pilsētā Hanoverē. Tie ir ļoti īpaši akmeņi, kas radīti vēsturiskās atmiņas un mākslas projektā “Stolpersteine” jeb tulkojumā “Klupšanas akmeņi. Tie ir maza bruģakmeņa lielumā, izgatavoti no vara, un veltīti Nacionālā Sociālisma upuru piemiņai. Šī projekta autors ir vācu mākslinieks Gunters Demnigs, kurš nolēma godināt individuālu cilvēku piemiņu, novietojot šos akmeņus viņu pēdējās ‘brīvprātīgās’ dzīvesvietas priekšā.

“Klupšanas akmens” ir ar mazliet paceltu virsmu, lai garāmgājējs varbūt aizķertu kāju, apstātos un padomātu. Tik daudzas metaforas zem šī vārda “klupšanas akmens”. Mēs to lietojam, kad runājam par kādu potenciālu problēmu, kuru nedrīkst ignorēt. Parasti šis klupiens atklāj mūsu pašu problēmas. Patiesību par to, kas mēs esam, un kā reaģējam uz dzīvi, uz lietām, uz cilvēkiem, kuri liek mums “klupt”. Lai kā censtos šai “problēmai” pārkāpt pāri.

Uz mazajiem vara bruģakmeņiem ir iegravēta pavisam īsa informācija, kas iesākas ar vārdiem “Šeit dzīvoja…” Kādreiz dzīvoja, bet vairāk nedzīvo.

Šis piemiņas projekts ir izgājis ārpus Vācijas robežām, un tūkstošiem ‘klupšanas akmeņu’ ir uzstādīti Austrijā, Nīderlandē, Francijā, Beļģijā, Krievijā, Ukrainā, Baltkrievijā, Norvēģijā… kopumā 18 valstīs, kas to padara par lielāko memoriālu pasaulē. 2016. gada augustā pievienosies arī Lietuva. Iegravētos bruģakmeņus var pasūtīt par 120 eiro. Kaut gan lielākā daļa ir veltīti upuriem no ebreju kopienas, ir uzstādīti arī akmeņi romu jeb čigānu tautības cilvēkiem, kristiešiem un Jehovas lieciniekiem, cilvēkiem ar garīgās veselības traucējumiem, melnādainiem, homoseksuāliem.

Latvijā vēl šie “klupšanas akmeņi” nav uzstādīti, kaut gan varētu būt tūkstošiem. Pirms dažiem gadiem padzīvoju Maskavas forštatē un kārtīgi izstaigāju bijušā Rīgas ebreju geto rajonu. Vācu okupācijas laikā bija Lielais, pēc tam tika izveidots Mazais geto. Atradu robežas un gāju – pa Maskavas, Jersikas, Ebreju, Līksnas, Lauvas, Lielā Kalna, Katoļu, Jēkabpils un Lāčplēša ielām. Centos iedomāties šo rajonu apjoztu ar dzeloņdrāšu sētu un tos cilvēkus, kuri bija “iekšpus” sētas un “ārpus” tās. Kas es būtu bijusi? Garāmgājēja, kaimiņiene, novērotāja? Kas nofilmē ar savu viedtālruni?

Ir ielas, kur liekas, nekas daudz nav mainījies. Vēl stāv vecās koka mājas, vēl tas pats bruģis. Senā ebreju kapsēta padomju laikos tika nolīdzinata ar buldozeri, un tagad tur ir parks. Bet visgrūtāk bija iet pa ielām, kas ved uz Rumbulas mežu. Divu dienu laikā – 1941. gada 30. novembrī un 8. decembrī – Rumbulā tika nošauti lielākā daļa Rīgas geto cilvēku. Apmēram 24,000 Latvijas ebreju un kāds tūkstotis no Vācijas atvesto.

It kā zināma vēsture, bet tik daudz nezināmas lietas, kad skaitļi pārvēršas par vārdiem un sejām un kaimiņiem. Es, piemēram, agrāk nezināju, kur kara laikā atradās Rīgas geto. Nezināju, cik daudzi tūkstoši ebreju no citām Eiropas valstīm tika atsūtīti uz Latviju un nogalināti mūsu mežos.

Todien Hanoverē es nevarēju ‘neredzēt’ tos mazos bruģakmeņus uz ietves. Tik viegli nepamanīt un uzkāpt virsū vai pārkāpt pāri… bet var arī paklupt. Varbūt vajag paklupt.

“Šeit dzīvoja… Dzimis… Deportēts… Miris Rīgā”

 

 

“Son of Saul” is hard to watch but so worth it

There are good movies and then there are special movies. There are stories and then there are powerful stories. I love movies that tell a good story and engage my emotions and imagination. A good story draws you in and helps you to relate to the main characters. It helps you to try to imagine yourself in their shoes.

“Son of Saul” (2015), movie made in Hungary, is a heartbreaking story. Sometimes we may think – why another movie about the Holocaust? We know the history, we know the suffering, we know the banality of this evil. What else can we say about this evil? What else needs to be said that has not been said already?

I must say that “Son of Saul” moved me more than most movies about the Holocaust. It follows two days in the life of Saul, a Hungarian Jew, who is forced to work as Sonderkommando. These were prisoners in extermination camps like Auschwitz who were made to dispose of the bodies. Saul tries to give a proper Jewish burial to a young nameless boy who could be his son.

What makes this story different from others? Many things. The soundtrack is haunting – there is no music but only the every day sounds of the camp. People, shovels, doors, prayers, screams, commands, whispers. Also there is no melodrama. The camera blurs the background where you can see the indescribable things but the focus is on the faces of main characters. It is a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of one guy trying to keep his humanity in this hell.

Saul is trying to survive but more than anything he is trying to survive as a person. He is desperately trying to hold on to something higher and deeper and eternal. He is fighting to keep his soul and not caring anymore if he loses his body. Looking in his face, I try to imagine his thoughts.

I like that the director found native speakers (sorry but I often don’t get convinced by an American or British actor) and all the characters speak in their own languages. Hungarian, German, Russian, Polish… I don’t know what it is about the language but it is such a part of who we are. There is a scene in the movie where a German SS officer who is deciding whether to keep Saul alive or not, says, “Hungarian is such a nice language.” The paradox of evil – to like the language and maybe even the culture but to kill the people who belong to that culture and language.

It is more than just a story about the Holocaust and I find it very relevant.

For me it is difficult to relate to Oscar Schindler or Władysław Szpilman but here I felt I could put myself in the time and place. Saul could be anyone. Saul is anyone and everyone. He could be speaking Latvian or Armenian or Rwandan or Arabic or Farsi or Hebrew or Rohingya… son of men.

 

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Images from the movie “Son of Saul”

 

 

Why is Angelina Jolie causing a traffic jam in Battambang?

It turns out I have a few things in common with Angelina Jolie. She is in Cambodia and I am, too. She was in Battambang and I was there, too. She was shopping at the Night Market in Siem Reap and I was, too. She is researching the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide of 1975-79 and I am, too.

I guess that is where our commonalities end. She is spending much more money and actually making an important movie about the history of Khmer Rouge, based on the autobiography “First They Killed My Father”, written by a survivor Loung Ung. Angelina Jolie has been interested in Cambodia for years and one of her sons was adopted from here. So, obviously with such a high-profile global celebrity in town, the people of Battambang have noticed the presence of film crews and other entourage.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It is a sobering place. The Khmer Rouge (or Red Khmer) were a very radical Communist group with a utopian idea of restructuring the whole society. To create a class-less society,  they turned against education, religion, private ownership and any kind of freedom. Here are some of their slogans: “If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals” or “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.” (Mind you, many of the leaders were highly educated and had studied in Paris. Including Pol Pot himself.) The cities were emptied and the whole country was turned into a big labor camp with starving and suffering people. Almost 2 million died.

The Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 (S-21) had been one of the best high schools in the city before it became a place of torture. This was a special prison for mostly Khmer Rouge cadres and their families and many other random people. Approx 17, 000 people were held, tortured and killed in this place. The torture was meant to extract ‘confessions’ of what kind of traitor are you and who are you spying for – Americans (CIA) or Russians (KGB)? Men, women, teenagers and children, even babies… all were killed.

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The Khmer Rouge had photographed every victim at the time of arrest and many after their executions. Now there are thousands of photos of faces… smiling, sad, angry, confused, beaten, hopeful, hopeless and scared. I look at these faces and I think, it could have been me since I was born in the 70s. These could have been my parents, my grandparents, my brothers. I was fortunate to be born in Latvia and they were unfortunate to be born here.

I met on the survivors of this horrible place. His name is Bou Meng and he is 72 now. What saved him? His skill of painting and ability to draw portraits of the Khmer Rouge leaders. His wife and two young children perished. Bou Meng has written his testimony and advocates for justice and truthful remembering of Cambodia’s past.

One researcher said, “Wartime brutality, Marxist fanaticism, obsessive and threatened nationalism – these seemed to be three of the principal elements that had contributed to this totalitarianism. … I was disturbed not by the banality of evil but the intellectual pretensions behind it.” Words to reflect upon since these kind of ‘intellectual pretensions’ still exist. How to vaccinate yourself against it?

And no, I did not meet Angelina Jolie… but I will be waiting to see her new movie.

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Meeting Bou Meng, one of the survivors of S-21

Latviski:

Izrādās, ka man un Andželīnai Džolijai ir šis tas kopīgs. Viņa ir Kambodžā, un es arī. Viņa bija Batambangā, un es arī. Viņa iepirkās Siemrīpas nakts tirdziņā, un es arī. Viņa pēta Kambodžas vēsturi, konkrēti Sarkano hmeru (Khmer Rouge) režīmu un genocīdu no 1975. līdz 1979. gadam.

Te laikam kopīgais beidzas. Viņai ir daudz vairāk naudas, ko tērēt, un šobrīd viņa uzņem spēlfilmu par Sarkano hmeru teroru. Stāsts būs autobiogrāfisks, balstīts uz grāmatu “Vispirms Viņi Nogalināja Manu Tēvu” un Lungas Angas atmiņām. Andželīna jau daudzus gadus interesējas par Kambodžu, palīdz dažādos humanitāros projektos, un viens no viņas dēliem ir adoptēts no šejienes. Tāpēc saprotams, ka tādas pasaules mēroga slavenības un filmēšanas grupas uzturēšanās mierīgajā Batambangas pilsētā rada lielu burzmu un sastrēgumus.

Kambodžas galvaspilsētā Pnompeņā es apmeklēju Tuol Sleng Genocīda muzeju (S-21). Ļoti traģiska vieta. Sarkanie hmeri bija radikāla un fanātiska komunistu organizācija ar utopisku ideju par visas sabiedrības pārkārtošanu un ideālas zemnieku valsts izveidošanu. Tika likvidētas, skolas, rūpnīcas, nauda, privātīpašums un aizliegta jebkāda reliģija. Viena no šī režīma devīzēm bija “Ja vēlies iegūt bakalaura diplomu, dari to, būvējot dambjus un kanālus.” Vai arī “Izglītība nav svarīga. Svarīgs ir darbs un revolūcija.” (Tas nekas, ka paši ‘revolūcijas’ vadītāji bija guvuši augstāko izglītību, piemēram, Francijā. Arī pats Pols Pots bija studējis Parīzē.) Pilsētas tika iztukšotas, un visa valsts pārvērsta par vienu lielu darba nometni ar izsalkušiem un nomocītiem cilvēkiem. Aptuveni 2 miljoni bojāgājušo četru gadu laikā.

Paaugstinātas Drošības cietums Nr.21 (S-21) tika izvietots vienā no galvaspilsētas labākajām vidusskolām. Bijušās klases kļuva par cietuma kamerām. Pārsvarā te turēja, spīdzināja un nogalināja ‘savējos’ – Sarkanos hmerus, kuri tika apsūdzēti nodevībā. Arī viņu sievas un bēŗni, pat mazuļi, un ģimenes locekļi tika nogalināti. Apmēram 17,000 upuru. Spīdzināšanas mērķis bija noskaidrots, kā labā tu spiego – vai amerikāņu (tātad CIP agents), vai krievu (tātad VDK)?

Sarkanie hmeri fotografēja visus apcietinātos aresta laikā, un daudzus arī pēc nāves. Tagad piemiņai un liecībai ir tūkstošiem fotogrāfiju. Sejas, kas raugās uz mums… ar skumjām, ar smaidu, ar dusmām, apjukumu, cerību un reizē bezcerību un lielām bailēm. Skatos šajās sejās un domāju, kā tā varēju būt es, jo esmu tās desmitgades bērns. Tie varēja būt mani vecāki, vecvecāki, brāļi. Man bija tā laime piedzimt Latvijā, un viņiem bija tā nelaime piedzimt šeit.

Muzejā satiku vienu no nedaudzajiem, kas izdzīvoja. Šo vīrieti sauc Bou Mengs, un viņam tagad ir 72 gadi. Kas viņu izglāba? Spēja zīmēt un gleznot Sarkano hmeru vadītāju portretus. Viņa sieva un divi mazi bērni gan tika pazudināti. Bou Mengs ir pierakstījis savu liecību un atmiņas, un aktīvi piedalās taisnīguma un dziļas pagātnes pētīšanas procesā. Viņš bija liecinieks tiesas prāvā pret vienu no bijušajiem Sarkano hmeru vadītājiem, kas notika visai nesen. Šie tiesu procesi sākās tikai pēc 30 gadiem. (Taisnīguma meklēšana Kambodžā ir garš un sarežģīts stāsts.)

Viens no Kambodžas pētniekiem nonāca pie šāda secinājuma. “Kara laika brutalitāte, Marksistu fanātisms, milzīgs un it kā apdraudēts nacionālisms – tie bija trīs no galvenajiem elementiem, kas noveda līdz šādam totalitāram režīmam. … Mani satriec nevis ļaunuma banalitāte, bet gan tā ‘intelektuālās pretenzijas.” Svarīgi pārdomāt šos vārdus, jo līdzīgas pēc dabas ‘intelektuālas pretenzijas’ jeb pamatojumi pastāv vēl šodien. Kā iegūt imunitāti pret šādām idejām?

Un, nē, es nesatiku Andželīnu Džoliju, bet es gaidīšu viņas jaunāko filmu.

 

Rwanda’s road of thankfulness…

Few days ago our friend tagged me in his post #TURASHIMA. It is a Kinyarwanda word that means “We are thankful”. Rwandans and friends of Rwanda are invited to reflect on Rwanda’s last 21 years and express why they are thankful. My friend invited me to join this campaign!

I feel blessed to be considered a friend of Rwanda, ‘Land of a thousand hills’ even though I have not had the chance to visit this beautiful country yet. I met my amazing Rwandan friends during our reconciliation studies in England and they have impacted my life in so many ways. It is April and it is the time of the year when Rwanda grieves the terrible tragedy of 1994. My friends survived the genocide and each has an incredible story.

DSCF0467With their permission I hope to share some of their stories in the future. But they are not ‘survivors’… they are artists, story tellers, peacemakers, leaders, advocates, truth seekers, brothers, sisters and dear friends and simply beautiful people.

Olivier is Olivier! Just like his famous saying, “Life is life”. He is very wise and deep thinker and a good leader. He is a true advocate for the voiceless and becoming a very thoughtful filmmaker. His experience of surviving the genocide as a street kid gives him great compassion for the fatherless. He encourages me when the hard questions of life get too heavy. I will insert the link to his short video #Turashima

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Antoinette is too much fun. She is beautiful inside and out, strong and passionate. Her laugh is contagious and she knows how to celebrate life. She is a great dancer (well, all Rwandans are great dancers) and she gives the best hugs. I know Anto gets very sad in April, missing her loved ones who were killed in 1994. I am so thankful for the way she loves God and people.

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Noel is a man of so many talents. Artist, filmmaker, songwriter, worshiper… and a smooth dancer, too. He even tried to teach Gary some moves with no success but we had great fun. He can get anyone to join, to sing and to smile. But he also likes to dig deep and ask provoking questions others are afraid to ask. And guess when is Noel’s birthday? Christmas, of course!

Then there is Immaculee, Michael, Fidel, Innocent and Godfrey. Everyone has taught me so much about life, relationships, God’s faithfulness, joy, pain, forgiveness and hope against all hope. These things you cannot learn from the books or lectures.

‘Murakoze’ (thank you!) for being who you are! ‘Murakoze’ for being a part of these ‘peaceroads’! Cannot wait to dance with you, my friends, again and have some great celebrations. Bring out that African drum… because there is so much to be thankful for!  #Turashima