They took it all –
Our native land, our honour, and our name.
They punished us for being human beings.
They numbered us like things or cattle, all the same,
they fingerprinted both our hands
to search us out like criminals on land
or even in the midst of hell.
The handkerchief that those in freedom
employ to wipe their eyes I use to stitch
the names of those who are my mates –
to read if life is what decree their fates.
Translation from the Latvian.
Friday afternoon I rode the KLR into Riga, capital of Latvia (Letland in Afrikaans)
The sun was still shining with a max. of 18 degrees. Shortly before I got to Riga I was dumped into South African road conditions with Stop and Go’s and a good but dusty gravel road where the highway was ripped into pieces.
I was invited by Mrs Dace Skrauča who offered to help me with some basic Russian.
Saturday was still a sunny day so went by minibus taxi into the center of Riga for some sightseeing.
Much is written over the history of Riga and Latvia. The country was ruled for a time by Sweden, then by the Russians for two centuries. After World War I Latvia became independent on 18 November 1918. By the 1930s Latvia had achieved one of the highest standards of Living in Europe.
Then a period started in the history of Latvia which was stained with blood, tears and never-ending suffering brought onto this brave small nation by the so-called world powers of that time.
Soviet occupation of Latvia began in 1939. Nationalization, killings and mass deportations to Siberia followed. Then came Nazi-Germany, drove the Soviets back and was greeted with bouquets of flowers by the Latvians who saw the Germans as their rescuers from the Soviet oppression. However, the joy was short-lived. Latvia was occupied partly or wholly by Nazi German from 1941 to 1945, during which time an estimated 175 000 Latvians were killed or deported.
When World War II ended the Soviets re-took Latvia in claiming to ‘save’ Latvia from the Nazi invaders. A series of deportations to Siberia and mass killings began anew as the Latvian nation was forced to adopt to communist ideology.
This coming Thursday 14 June Latvia remembers the first big wave of deportations / genocide that took place on 14 June 1941. During the night of 14 June 1941 families were removed from their homes, the father separated from their families, and then sent on a murderous train journey to Siberia to the gulaks, the forced labour camps of the Soviets. Especially the old and young, especially babies, didn’t survive the long journey.
It broke my heart so see those pictures. Very little of those people deported survived the gulak camps.
After the Soviet Union took over control of Latvia at the end of WW II another round of deportations to especially Siberia began. Again horrifying pictures told the story of people being herded together to the cattle trains, people fetched from their work places, children escorted after school not to their houses but to the trains, from where they were deported. Especially influential people, economy and political leaders, were targeted.
The first of them were freed only in 1953 but they were not allowed to return to Latvia and had to resettle in Russia / Siberia.
The happy ending is that Latvia declared independence on 21 August 1991. At the time the Soviet Union was rocked by an all-important Moscow coup and that opened the gap for Latvia and the other Baltic states to finally break free.
On Saturday I visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. I left there with a heavy heart. The question burning in my mind wasn’t how the Soviets or Nazis could do that to the Latvians, but how could human beings do that do human beings?
More than ever before I am glad that my ride is dedicated to Operation Smile. There is no way that one can undo the suffering of all those people during the many wars or armed conflicts but now we can restore the faith in humanity by helping those children with deformed faces to start a new life. Even if their suffering may be insignificant compared to what I’ve seen yesterday they deserve not to suffer at all. Please, let us donate a few R 10’s to say ‘Thank you God that we were saved from the unspeakable suffering of WW II’. To donate go to www.fsa-youthexchange.co.za or www.naboom2germany.co.za
About Riga: It is one of the most impressive and beautiful cities that I’ve ever visited. South Africans, consider visiting Poland and the Baltic states in the future! With our Rands we can do more here than in many other developed countries.
It is a pity that pictures not really can tell the story completely, but I am going to try.