The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

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.

photo of display boards at the museum of the occupation of latvia

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.

What I will say is that if you ever find yourself in Riga, be sure to make some time for this incredibly insightful museum.

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20 Comments

  1. 12th December 2016 / 5:11 pm

    Museums like this one always remind me of how little I know about other countries’ past – as does my job which has necessitated a ton of research into Irish history over the last week or so. Also a really interesting point you make about how countries recount history from their own perspective (ties in nicely with my research on Irish history – no wonder we never learn about that at school as we were hardly heroes there!) This museum sounds like a fascinating place to visit, I had absolutely no grasp of the difficulties Latvians (and I presume many other Baltic countries) had experienced in that time frame and I’ll definitely recommend a visit to my mum who’s off to Riga next spring!

    • rhiydwi
      13th December 2016 / 12:31 am

      Same here! It’s actually incredibly interesting to learn about historical events from someone else’s perspective. Kind of makes me understand why UK gets ‘nil point’ from almost every other country in Eurovision!
      Irish history? That must be interesting! The only thing I ever learnt about Irish history is the potato famine. Oh, please do recommend it to her! I completely forgot to mention in the post (may go back and edit now!) but it’s a privately owned museum so it’s free entry, but voluntary donations are encouraged.

      • 13th December 2016 / 9:16 am

        It really is – seeing it from a different angle can help you to make more sense of an event and the implications it still has today. I used to hate history at school (dropped it pre-GCSE), but in recent years I’ve realised it was due to the way it was taught (didn’t help that I had a PE teacher for it) – I love visiting museums (especially WW2-themed exhibitions) and teaching Anglophone history has made me curious to learn more! Irish history is so much more interesting than I thought it was – so far I’ve got lessons planned on the Irish Famine, Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War, I’m having far too much fun finding songs and videos to link into my lesson and sourcing articles for reading comprehension activities! I’ll pass that key information on 🙂

  2. 27th December 2016 / 11:20 pm

    I visited this museum and the film with the clips from people being interviewed moved me to tears. The whole exhibition was very well put together. Did you make it to the KGB house as well? That was extremely harrowing but learning about a countries history, whether happy or sad is crucial to understanding it better. I absolutely loved Riga and it has got me wanting to visit more Baltic countries now! x

    • rhiydwi
      30th December 2016 / 12:46 pm

      No, unfortunately I didn’t make it to the KGB house! My initial plan was to go after the museum, but I was honestly so emotionally drained that I just couldn’t. Absolutely agree with you there, it’s not all sunshine and daisies and we should all make ourselves aware! Same here – almost as soon as I got home I was pricing up a weekend in Tallinn and/or Vilnius. x

  3. 16th January 2017 / 9:04 am

    Thanks. I remember going to Hiroshima, intending to be unmoved. But I left in tears. It’s the stories of the children, innocent victims, that move me most.

    • rhiydwi
      23rd January 2017 / 10:14 pm

      Definitely! When it’s just soldiers and fully grown men you kind of don’t connect to it, but when children get involved it’s a whole other story.

  4. 17th January 2017 / 2:32 pm

    Whenever I get to travel, museums are always on my list. It helps me know more and understand its history. 🙂 though sometimes if not most, you get to be curious on who’s perspective are we seeing.

  5. 18th January 2017 / 1:37 pm

    Museums like these are so much full of information. That is why I like going to them. And don’t worry, I am from India and at some point during my schooling, I was taught the same things that you talk about. So its not just about UK 🙂

  6. 22nd January 2017 / 12:25 pm

    i like museums a lot, my fav is the one in Zagreb : Museum of Broken Relationships. I have never been to Riga and this looks very interesting from the historical point of view, i liked what you said that “every country recounts its history from its own perspective”, this is so true .

    • rhiydwi
      23rd January 2017 / 10:15 pm

      They have a museum of the same name in LA! I was going to visit but ran out of time. However, I’ll be in Zagreb in early March so I’ll definitely have to check it out there.

  7. Michelle d
    22nd January 2017 / 1:42 pm

    Wow it’s amazing how much information you can obtain from a museum. Especially museums like this. It’s crazy how much you learn in school and then forget and relearn in a museum haha

    • rhiydwi
      23rd January 2017 / 10:15 pm

      Yeah it really is! And even crazier how much you just don’t ever learn.

  8. 22nd January 2017 / 11:00 pm

    Such a poignant post. Your opening is so true & a subject I have pondered throughout my travels, most recently so in Cambodia. The horrors of WWII never cease to completely astound me. I’m going to check out your link and learn more about it from this angle. If I ever find myself in Latvia, I won’t miss this museum!

    • rhiydwi
      23rd January 2017 / 10:20 pm

      I’m actually in Krakow right now and for some reason WWII seems so, so much more real here than back in the UK! If you’re ever in Riga you should definitely check it out!

  9. 23rd January 2017 / 3:24 am

    I would like to visit this museum because it sounds like such a different perspective than usual so thanks for writing about it! I would like to visit Riga one day!

  10. 23rd January 2017 / 3:36 am

    I hate that I didn’t get to see this when I was in Latvia! Now I have a reason to go back. I loved Latvia– it was an amazing country.

    • rhiydwi
      23rd January 2017 / 10:21 pm

      It really is! I’ve only been to Riga but can’t wait to go back when the weather’s a bit warmer and see more of the country.

  11. 23rd January 2017 / 7:36 am

    What an interesting museum and perspective! I would be very interested to go.

  12. 23rd January 2017 / 10:15 am

    And this is exactly why I love visiting museums. Such a huge eye opener and you realise how much you don’t know about history. I would have been so emotional being there. Thanks for sharing as I won’t be getting to Latvia any time soon.

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