Back in 2013 when I was in Colombia, I inadvertently found myself involved in a pretty one-sided debate with an Israeli fellow about World War II, and his account of what happened was totally bizarre. According to him it was The World vs. Israel. Not Judaism, but Israel. Apparently everybody sided with Germany and our sole mission was to completely obliterate Israel and everybody in it. Nobody tried to prevent Hitler’s persecution of Jews, nobody berated what he was doing, we all just plodded along with it like it was all no big deal. Umm, okay.
After he’d finished his rather intense rant, I genuinely found myself speechless.
It was odd. He was incredibly passionate about what he was saying and he truly believed each and every word that came out of his own mouth. And could you blame him? It’s what he’d been brought up to know as “fact” from an early age.
Before that encounter I hadn’t really thought about how we learn about the past.
Each country recounts history from its own perspective.
Growing up in the UK you’ll more than likely find yourself studying World War II to some extent at one point or another, be it pre-GCSE, post-GCSE or any other notable point in your academic career.
You’ll learn that Hitler was the bad guy; that a lot of Europe ended up under German occupation; you’ll learn that thousands and thousands of British soldiers died in battle. You’ll learn about rationing, and maybe about how if you had certain jobs you were exempt from military drafting. You may learn about specific battles, particular dates on the timeline, or how the war affected your hometown.
But unless you specialise in the subject matter for your degree or something, there’s a lot that you won’t learn, like how the war impacted the countries that weren’t immediately responsible for keeping the baddies off our turf, the countries on the other side of Germany, those tiny little countries that are oft forgotten about even to this day.
It’s a combination of the aforementioned interesting encounter and my own genuine interest in how other countries learn about themselves and the world that makes me scout out any and all relevant museums and tours wherever I go.
Which is how I found myself at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia on my recent trip to Riga.
Due to ongoing renovation works at the museum’s permanent site, it’s currently being housed in what used to be the American Embassy in Riga, which as a result of its former occupancy is not the most attractive of buildings. Think fencing, barbed wire and one of those doors that it takes 3 fully grown men to open.
Prior to actually visiting the country, I knew nothing about Latvia or its history. I could have guessed by its geographical location alone that it was once under Soviet rule, but that’s about it. My mother, with her Degree in History, would be ashamed if she read this.
So going into the museum I was a blank slate, eyes wide in anticipation to learn, eager to get to grips with Latvia and its history.
Coming out of the museum I was full to the top with new knowledge, eyes brimming with tears, coming to the conclusion that I will never be able to truly understand nor appreciate what Latvia and its people have gone through.
Much like when I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, after an hour or so inside the building, I left feeling hollow, emotionally exhausted and ready for a good cry, yet somewhat more fulfilled for having been educated on something so horrible that affected this country all the way up to the year before I was born.
Despite what the leading few paragraphs of this post may lead you to believe, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia isn’t a museum focused on World War II. As the name suggests, it’s all about the occupation of Latvia and it’s eventual succession in becoming what it is today.
The museum’s mission, as written on the official website, is:
To identify, research, elucidate and commemorate the wrongdoings committed by the foreign occupation powers against the state and the people of Latvia from 1940 to 1991;
To preserve historical memory of the Latvian people about the occupation period;
To inform and educate the people of Latvia and other nations about the history and consequences of the occupation period in order to strengthen the Latvian state and its place amongst the free and democratic nations of the world.
Although only a few rooms, the museum is packed so full of information that it’s really difficult to take it all in!
If you don’t know anything about the history of Latvia, or its occupation by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, there’s a very succinct and useful timeline available on this website which will give you at least a brief overview.
The museum is set up with forty or so huge red boards packed full of information and pictures, all in chronological order, as well as artefacts to look at and videos to watch in each room.
The one part that had the biggest impact on me is the video in what I think was the second or third room. About ten minutes long, it was a reel of interviews with victims of Soviet and Nazi occupation of Latvia, many of whom were children at the time of being boarded on a train and sent away to the middle of nowhere Siberia. They recounted horrific tales of how they were treated, made to leave their homes in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs and packed up like sardines in train carriages.
One lady recounted how soldiers stormed her house one night, and she remembers her father being sat at the kitchen table, talking to them.
“The only thing they allowed him to do was hold me in his lap for the last time,” was the last line of her interview.
Others told how their siblings died in transit to Siberia, or shortly after arrival, either from illness such as dysentery, or starvation due to the lack of food provided by those who had taken them from their homes.
There were stories of elderly relatives and friends pricking their own fingers and allowing the younger children to suck their blood, as the meagre 100g of flour per person was nowhere near enough to survive, especially as there were no other ingredients to even make anything with.
One survivor, who was just a girl at the time, told how a lady decided to mix sawdust with the flour and made ‘pancakes’ which she encouraged the girl and her siblings to try, describing them as ‘delicious’. The girl’s mother pulled her children away saying “you’d better die than eat something with sawdust in it” and sure enough a few days later the lady and her family, whom she had fed the sawdust pancakes to, had all died.
Watching the recollections of these people who had lived through absolute hell was extremely difficult – but necessary – to watch.
I could go on and on and on for days about the contents of the museum, about the history of Latvia and its occupation, but to be completely honest there’s just too much to put into words. And a brief 2 hour visit to a museum in 2016 is nowhere near enough time to fully understand and be able to explain what happened between 1940 all the way up to 1991.