Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.

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.

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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