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…

Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

IMG_3779

 

Inspired by the World’s Most Liberal City

Arriving at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam can be exciting and also overwhelming for it is three-in-one. Airport, shopping mall and train station. Leaving the customs area, you enter a very busy arrival hall. Straight from the airplane to the shopping plaza and straight to the trains located underneath.

I speak English and have traveled a lot but even I get overwhelmed with all the choices to make. Self-serve kiosks and other conveniences somehow make it more stressful. I always think, “what if I was an old lady from India who does not speak English?” Forget India… even my mom would have felt lost in this high efficiency world.

I spent two days in Amsterdam but did not see much of the city. “Next time”, I comforted myself since I came to attend the State of Europe Forum which is held annually in the  EU presiding country. Last year it was Latvia; this year Netherlands. (The rotating EU presidency goes for 6 months. Yes, my American friends, EU is visionary but complicated with 28 nations.) The forum is held on Europe Day, May 9, and you can see my post from last year talking about the story of Europe Day.

State of Europe Forum promotes a dialogue on Europe today in the light of the vision of Robert Schuman for a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values.  Lots of great professional and academic content, lots of great discussions and opportunity to network. I was inspired, challenged and motivated.

The venue of the Forum was so cool. Zuiderkerk was the city’s first church built specifically for Protestant services. Constructed between 1603 and 1611, the church played an important part in the life of Rembrandt and was the subject of a painting by Claude Monet.

This year’s theme was The Paradox of Freedom. Key topics included Refugees in Europe, Security and Terrorism and Reframing the EU.  Yes, this is the age old question how freedom works because it certainly needs boundaries. Your freedom should not hurt my freedom and vice versa. For example, we live in a free market society but how free is this market? One of the devotions reminded us that “freedom to buy and sell without restrictions leads to buying and selling human beings.”

Amsterdam, the so called ‘world’s most liberal city’, has an amazing story of freedom. Especially the 16th and 17th century, the Golden Age. From William of Orange to Modern Devotion Movement to Erasmus (whose translation of the Bible prepared the way for Reformation) to Baruch Spinoza. Amsterdam was a haven and destination for people fleeing religious persecution – Jews from Iberia, Huguenots from France, Flemish, Wallonians, English dissenters… the city attracted many groups searching for economic, political and religious freedom.

Of course, we all know that unrestrained freedom has its evil side. Including slave trade which was also a part of Amsterdam’s economic boom during the Golden Age.

Nothing could capture these reflections better then listening to a local African choir inside Zuiderkerk, singing the famous Gospel tune:

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

 

P1120271

Opening celebration at Zuiderkerk (photo by Cedric Placentino)

Latvian:

Ielidošana Amsterdamas lidostā ir gan patīkama, gan uztraucoša, jo te nav tikai lidosta. Te ir gan lidosta, gan iepirkumu centrs, gan vilcienu stacija. Iznākot no muitas, nokļūstu lielā burzmā un troksnī.  Liekas, ka pa taisno no lidmašīnas esmu ienākusi Centrālajā stacijā.

Pat ar angļu valodas prasmēm un ceļotājas pieredzi te var apjukt. Pašapkalpošanās kioski un citas ‘ērtības’ reizēm dzīvi tikai sarežģī, un rada lieku stresu. Iedomājos, ja būtu veca tantiņa no Indijas, kura nerunā angliski. Kāda tur Indija… pat mana mamma apmaldītos šajā ātrajā un ērtajā pasaulē.

Amsterdamā pavadīju divas dienas, bet nesanāca apskatīt pilsētu, jo šoreiz bija cits brauciena mērķis. Mierināju sevi ar domu, ka gan jau šeit vēl atgriezīšos. Biju atbraukusi piedalīties forumā “Stāvoklis Eiropā”, kas katru gadu notiek ES Padomes prezidentūras valstī. Pagājšgad forums bija Latvijā, šogad Nīderlandē. Datums gan katru gadu viens un tas pats. 9. maijs jeb Eiropas diena, par kuru rakstīju agrāk.

Forums “Stāvoklis Eiropā” piedāvā dialogu starp kristīgiem dažādu profesiju pārstāvjiem un vadītājiem. Sarunas galvenā tēma ir patreizējais stāvoklis Eiropā, ņemot vērā Roberta Šūmana redzējumu par ‘tautu kopienu, kas ir dziļi sakņota kristīgās vērtībās’. Daudz profesionāļu un akadēmiķu, daudz labu paneļdiskusiju un daudz iespēju sadarboties. Mani šis forums gan iedvesmoja, gan izaicināja vairākus manus pieņēmumus, gan motivēja tālakai darbībai.

Pati norises vieta arī bija iedvesmojoša. ‘Zuiderkerk’ bija pilsētas pirmais dievnams, celts konkrēti protestantu draudzei. Celtniecība ilga no 1603. līdz 1611. gadam, un dievnams ir ap stūri no Rembranta mājas. Tāpēc Rembrantam šī bija svarīga vieta, un arī Klods Monē to ir iemūžinājis gleznā.

Šogad foruma tēma bija Brīvības Paradoks, un īpaša uzmanība tika veltīta bēgļu krīzei Eiropā, terorisma un drošības jautājumiem and Eiropas Savienības pārvērtēšanai. Kopš cilvēces iesākumiem svarīgais jautājums par brīvību un tās robežām. Jo tava brīvība nedrīkst darīt pāri manai brīvībai un otrādāk. Kaut vai fakts, ka dzīvojot brīvā tirgus sabiedrībā, redzam, ka šis tirgus nav nemaz tik brīvs. Vienā no svētbrīžiem tika atgādināta patiesība, ka “brīvība pirkt un pārdot bez ierobežojumiem noved līdz cilvēku pirkšanai un pārdošanai.”

Amsterdama tiek dēvēta par pasaules visliberālāko pilsētu, taču tai ir apbrīnojama vēsture, kas palīdz saprast daudzus brīvības pamatus. It sevišķi 16. un 17. gadsimts, tā sauktais Zelta Laikmets. Gan Orānijas Vilhelms; gan Jaunā Pielūgsmes Kustība; gan teologs un domātājs Erasms, kura Bībeles tulkojums sagatavoja ceļu Reformācijai; gan filozofs Baruhs Spinoza. Amsterdama bija patvēruma vieta, uz kuru pārcēlās savas pārliecības un reliģijas dēļ vajātie – jūdi no Ibērijas pussalas, hugenoti no Francijas, flāmi, valoņi, angļu protestanti… pilsēta pievilka ar savu toleranci un ekonomisko, politisko un reliģisko brīvību.

Protams, mes zinām, ka šai brīvībai bija ļaunā ēnas puse. Ieskaitot verdzību un cilvēku tirdzniecību, kas veicināja ekonomisko izaugsmi tajā pašā Zelta laikmetā.

Tāpēc mani ļoti iespaidoja atklāšanas vakars un vietējais koris, kurā dziedāja āfrikāņu izcelsmes holandietes. Vecajā un skaistajā Zuiderkerk dievnamā skanēja senais un pazīstamais gospelis:

Beidzot brīvs, beidzot brīvs
Paldies Dievam, beidzot brīvs
Beidzot brīvs, beidzot brīvs
Paldies Dievam, beidzot brīvs