Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

Lest we forget…

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)

Beautiful October day and I am enjoying my morning coffee. Checking the news, Facebook, e-mails… thinking about something fun to do later in the day.

I was planning to write my weekly blog about something fun, too. I thought to myself – enough of these serious topics and challenges and problems and wars and suffering. Let us look at the blue sky, at the changing colours, at the birds and flowers and beautiful people! I know some amazing people who inspire, encourage and teach me the better ways. Or I could write about the incredible historic peace deal just made in Colombia which some years ago seemed impossible.

I cannot even turn on the TV because the destruction in Syria upsets too much. What is the point to know and to see how many people were killed today and how many homes were destroyed if I cannot stop those planes, drones, bombs and guns from my comfortable living room? Years later people will make movies and documentaries and write history books but I am part of the generation that made this history. What kind of history am I making? What can I change or impact or avert?

So, you see… I cannot get away from this serious stuff. What sparked it today was reading about the 75th commemoration of Babi Yar massacre. Babi Yar is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and a site of massacres carried out by German forces and local collaborators. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place from 29–30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed.

The fall is the time of the year when many of these WWII massacres took place in Central and Eastern Europe. I have visited some of these sites in Latvia. September, October, November, December… you could go from one commemoration to another. Too many to count and too many to visit.

There are many things these killing places have in common. Like the fact that the sites are either in the city or right on the outskirts. Usually in a wooded area or by the sea or in some ravine. The execution squads were looking at the landscape and choosing areas with natural ditches. How practical! Less digging and something to obstruct the view.

We, Latvians, love our woods but I look at these old trees in Biķernieki forest in Rīga or the dunes of Sķēde in Liepāja and I grieve even for them. Now I look with very different eyes. There was a time when I was not interested because of bad memories from my childhood. Growing up in the USSR, we had to participate in so many annual commemorations of WWII and hear so much propaganda that you became immune to it. Also, the facts of history and how they might apply to me today became meaningless because they were manipulated by those in power.

Therefore it is hard for some to understand why are we still so “obsessed” with WWII history. Time to move on, isn’t it? Time to look to future and not to the past? I agree with both but I also think that it is time to properly grieve for things that we were not allowed to know or to grieve over.

I look at the countless mass graves in Biķernieki forest (the headline photo… I really never knew how massive this site was) and I think to myself – these graves are no different from the ones on Rwanda or Bosnia or Iraq or other places. And how many new graves are dug today in some place that flashes across my TV screen?

“Lest we forget” also means “we should remember”…

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The dunes of Šķēde, Liepāja (photos form personal archive)

By losing our neighbors we lose a part of ourselves

I continue to reflect on my recent trip to Ukraine. Particularly the city of Lutsk, the regional center of Volyn province. It is a very nice, slow paced city in northwestern part of Ukraine with very fascinating story. It has a beautiful old castle and lots of other interesting cultural, historical and architectural sights.

But there was a day when I got very sad. In fact I was grieving. We walked around the historical center of Lutsk and I realized what a multicultural and multi faith place it used to be. Many of the places of worship are still there but it is only a shadow of the former things. You can still feel and see the tragedy of the destructive wars of 20th century and the intentional neglect of the Soviet years.

There is a beautiful old Roman Catholic Cathedral named after St.Peter and St.Paul and built in the 17th century. It used to have a Jesuit college where education was free and conducted at a high level. Inside the church I saw many Polish names and later found out that in 1939, about 34% of the population of Lutsk city was Polish. After the war, the Soviet regime closed the church and later it was even the Museum of Atheism.

There is another church building, originally Lutheran. It was built in 1907 as the principal place of worship for the Germans living in Volyn. The church fell into decline as a result of the Second World War. Then for many decades it was used as an archive. (The Soviets were very practical when it came to using the church buildings. If not a museum for atheism or science, most became storehouses.)

And then I found the Great Synagogue, completed in 1629. Located in what used to be the Jewish quarter, it was the religious, educational and community centre of Lutsk. Again the tragedy which destroyed this community and this temple was the Second World War and the Holocaust. In 1939, the city’s population was 40% Jewish. In December 1941 the Łuck Ghetto was established. In August and September 1942, about 17,000 prisoners of the ghetto were killed. After the war the synagogue stood empty. Then came another practical Soviet idea –  it was reconstructed as a movie-house and a gym.

I was thinking about these tragedies and brutal Nazi and Soviet regimes, changing the fate of community and the face of the city completely. Old neighbors were gone and new neighbors moved in. I know that this is the story of so many places (too many) but somehow Lutsk really broke my heart.

It felt like there is still a big, open wound which needs healing and redemption and restoration. I believe as Ukraine is defining its national identity, the story of its rich multicultural and multi faith heritage needs to be told and reminded.

It has a lot of parallels with my own nation of Latvia and other places around the world which used to be much more multicultural before wars and conflicts that drive people out of their home. In the past or in the present.

I grieve. We all should.

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The Great Synagogue of Lutsk. Currently a gym.

Latvian:

Joprojām ir daudz ko pārdomāt pēc nesenā brauciena uz Ukrainu. Īpaši par Lucku, Voliņas apgabala centru. Jauka, lēna, mierīga pilsēta Ukrainas rietumos, un tai ir ļoti interesants stāsts. Ir arī skaista, veca pils un daudz citu kultūras un vēstures pieminekļu.

Man tur bija visai neparasta diena. Diena, kurā pārņēma skumjas. Pat tādas kā sēras. Mēs ar vīru staigājām pa Luckas vecpilsētu, un es aptvēru, cik multikulturāla un multireliģiska bija šī pilsēta savā pirmskara dzīvē. Daudzi no dievnamiem vēl pastāv, bet no šīs raibās kopienas ir palikusi tikai ēna. Joprojām pāri kā neredzams palags ir pagājušā gadsimta karu sekas, un padomju laika apzināta vēstures aizmiršana.

Te stāv skaistā Sv.Pētera un Sv.Pāvila Romas Katoļu katedrāle, uzcelta ap 1630. gadu. Agrāk tur darbojās jezuītu dibināta koledža, kurā izglītība bija par brīvu, turklāt augstā līmenī. Uz katedrāles sienām ir daudz poļu vārdu un uzvārdu, un vēlāk uzzināju, ka vēl 1939. gadā apmēram 34% iedzivotāju bija poļu tautības. Pēckara gados padomju režīms aizslēdza draudzi, un pat izveidoja Ateisma muzeju.

Vēl stāv bijusī luterāņu baznīca. Celta 1907. gadā, lai kļūtu par galveno pulcēšanās un draudzes vietu Voliņas vāciešiem. Arī šis dievnams padomju laikos tika nolaists un izmantots kā arhīvs un noliktava. (Kā jau zinām, komunisti atrada ļoti praktisku pielietojumu šādām ēkām.)

Pavisam netālu es atradu tā saukto Lielo sinagogu. Pabeigta 1629. gadā, tā atradās bijušajā jūdu kvartālā, un kalpoja kā reliģijas, izglītības un kopienas centrs. Tā pati traģēdija – Otrais Pasaules karš un tad Holokausts – iznīcināja gan šo kopienu, gan šo pielūgsmes vietu. Pirms kara ap 40% pilsētas centra iedzīvotāju bija ebreji. 1941. gada decembrī tika izveidots Luckas geto, un nākamā gada augustā un septembrī apmēram 17,000 geto ieslodzīto tika nogalināti. Sinagoga stāvēja tukša, līdz padomju varai atkal radās ideja  tur ierīkot kino un sporta zāli. (Tagad tur ir fitnesa centrs.)

Es domāju par šo lielo traģēdiju, kas pilnībā pārmainīja gan pilsētas, gan kopienu seju. Agrākie kaimiņi tika padzīti vai iznīcināti,  jauni kaimiņi sāka dzīvot to vietā. Protams, ne jau Luckai vienīgajai tāds stāsts, bet nez kāpēc tas man šoreiz riktīgi aizķēra sirdi.

Tāda sajūta, ka šī dziļā rēta vēl stāv vaļā. Vēl nav pilnībā dziedināta un atjaunota šī pilsēta. Šobrīd, kad Ukraina un tās cilvēki tik strauji meklē savu nacionālo identitāti, šo stāstu par daudzajām kultūrām un ticībām un kopienām vajag stāstīt, atgādināt un iekļaut savējā.

Jo zaudējot savus kaimiņus, mēs visi zaudējām daļu no sevis pašiem.

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”

Gustav_Rüdenberg_Jg._1868_Deportiert_15.12.1941_Tod_in_Riga_Elsbeth_Salmony_Jg._1886_Stolpersteine_Podbielskistraße_36_Hannover_List

‘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”