Latgale reconnects with its Jewish heritage

Rezekne, the Latvian town regarded as the capital of the eastern Latgale region of Latvia, took the fascinating and sometimes disturbing plunge into its Jewish history on Thursday and Friday at a groundbreaking conference.

Titled "Jewish Rezekne", discussions at the GORS cultural center covered attempts to fill in the gaps in the region's Jewish history but also discussed how to fully acknowledge the role Jews played in forming Latgale's identity before they were all but wiped out during the Second World War. 

Conference organizer Ineta Zelca Simansone told LSM about how and why the conference was happening, plus her work at the head of a trailblazing project to restore the town's 'Green Synagogue' to become a focal point not just for the small remaining Jewish community but for the town and region as a whole.

Ineta Zelca Simansone on Green Synagogue

    Historians revealing the complex history of Jews in Latgale and Latvia bore testimony to how under-researched the topic has been until recently.

    "As a kid I used to play by the old Jewish cemetery in Preiļi, even though we were told by adults not to go there," said historian Didzis Berzins. 

    "I knew nothing about Jewish history in my own town. Then when I went to Riga and began my studies I learned about the mass killings that had taken place right by where we were playing and I was shocked. I think that's a common story... Until about ten years ago more people in Latvia knew about Oskar Schindler than knew about Janis Lipke," [who bravely saved many Jews' lives in Riga].

    More than 3,000 Rezekne Jews were murdered during the war and today's Jewish community in the city numbers just over 50 people.

    Launching the conference was Israel's ambassador to Latvia, Lironne Bar-Sadeh. Speaking in Latvian she told attendees:

    "Jews have always been part of Latvian society and will be so in future too. Society needs good relations between different ethnic groups and to have that we need to understand and be aware of our shared history."

    During a break in proceedings, she told LSM about the current revival of interest in Latvia's Jewish heritage and some remaining problems with anti-Jewish attitudes.

    Israel's Ambassador on Jewish Rezekne

      Anyone planning on visiting Rezekne, perhaps to trace their own roots, can follow a virtual tour of the city's Jewish sites HERE. Or just close your eyes and listen to take a tour through history wherever you are in the world...

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