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”

 

 

Hannover and Hiroshima and the church without roof

So many reflections after my recent trip to Hannover, Germany. I had the most unusual tour of the city. It told a story of significant past, diverse community, powerful kings and fascinating facts, but also tragedy, violence and beauty from the ashes. In the literal sense.

In just one night of October 8, 1943, more than 200,000 bombs were dropped on the city of Hannover. Not much was left standing. I think of my own city, Riga, and what it looked like after the war. I think of Sarajevo in Bosnia, Aleppo in Syria, Gaza in Palestine, towns and cities in eastern Ukraine…

Now you walk around and enjoy beautiful buildings and parks and street-side cafes. You see people enjoying a good life. You see diverse cultures welcomed here. Hannover is a very nice place to be. Still, the scars remain and I appreciate how people in Germany do not hide from these scars. As painful and ugly as they are. It speaks about healing and restoration.

There is a church without roof, now covered by our beautiful sky. Aegidienkirche originated in the 14th Century. It was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1943 and has not been rebuilt. Its ruin is now a memorial to the victims of war and violence. Like many other people before me, I stood there thinking, “If these ruins could speak…”

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The church has a Peace Bell, which the city of Hannover received in 1985 from its partner town of Hiroshima. The bell has a twin, which hangs in Hiroshima. Every 6th August a special memorial service to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is held in this church. As part of this service the peace bell is rung at the same time as its twin in Hiroshima chimes.

There is a statue of person who embraces. The person is on his/her knees. To me it shows humility, brokenness and longing to embrace and to be embraced. When we speak about forgiveness and repentance and redemption, there are many powerful and beautiful symbols. During workshops on reconciliation I ask for mental pictures and commonly people see ’embrace’ or ‘handshake’.

‘Ubuntu’ is an African thought and expression which is usually translated as “humanity toward others”. No wonder my African friends love to hug and to hold hands. There is something deep within us that tells us that an act of embrace is the acknowledgement that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa describes it like this, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

And one more thought as I reflect on this embrace. Theologian Miroslav Volf from Croatia said it the best: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

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Tale of two cities

What does Coventry, England and Dresden, Germany have in common? Beauty, life and forgiveness out of ashes and destruction!

I like history. Blame it on my dad who should be a history teacher. I just wish I had my dad’s memory for facts and dates and names and places. You know how they say that “one thing we can learn from history is that we never learn from history”. I guess I am not the only one with memory problems…

During my studies in the UK, we discussed a lot of history. Events and actions that become a part of our story. And I learned about some of these moments that have shaped the story of England. Here is one beautiful story.

Coventry was once described as the most well preserved medieval city in Europe, but it was all but destroyed during the German bombing in November 1940. One of the many buildings hit was the 14th century cathedral. Few months before the end of the war in February of 1945 Allied forces decided to replicate the Coventry Blitz. The bomb attacks were planned by looking at how Coventry was destroyed and trying to repeat it in Dresden, Eastern Germany, a city almost untouched by the war until that point. Well, the Allies succeeded in their mission… an eye for an eye… a city for a city…

Coventry

But this is not all that these two once beautiful but horribly scarred cities have in common. Following the destruction of Coventry Cathedral, its Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to revenge, but to forgiveness and reconciliation. From the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over they should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’

The words ‘Father Forgive’ were inscribed on the wall of the ruined church. Not ‘Father, forgive them’ but simply forgive. Forgive us all.  Two charred beams which had fallen in the shape of a cross were bound and three medieval nails were formed into a cross and the Cross of Nails became a sign of friendship and hope in the post war years, especially in new relationships with Germany. Few years later Coventry became a twin-town with Dresden in Germany.

I visited Coventry and I was struck by how special this place is. Especially the Cathedral. May I say that these are the most beautiful ruins I have ever seen? These walls tell a story that I cannot forget or ignore…

The million dollar question – can we learn to learn from history? An eye for an eye… a city for a city … or ‘Father, forgive’

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