Riga, Latvia — This gray city with a distinctive European flair just a few miles from the Baltic Sea had never seen anything like it. Reporters from all over the world descended on this capital city of 2.4 million last week to record the first distribution of money from the Swiss humanitarian fund to needy Holocaust victims. But it wasn’t the money the survivors were primarily interested in, it was the international attention focused on their plight, according to survivor Jane Borovska.
“It reminded the world that we are still alive,” she said a day after receiving the money at the Jewish Community Center in a ceremony witnessed by more than 30 media representatives. “If people had wanted to speak only about the money, it would have been nothing. The reporters who focused on the people who live horrible lives did right. Mankind should bear in mind that these people exist and that Germany is still responsible for them.”
“If my family had survived [the Holocaust], my life would have been different — it would have been a very good life,” said Borovska, 75, who became an English teacher after World War II and now lives on a pension of about $100 a month. “When I think about [what could have been], I can’t help but cry. If my mom had [died normally], I would know where her grave is and I’d come and speak to her. Now, I don’t know where her bones are.”
The day after the ceremony, Borovska and nine other survivors went to the bank, each carrying the $400 checks they had received from the Swiss fund for needy survivors. Seventy other survivors who also received $400 were to go to the bank on other days.Borovska cashed her check, withdrawing half in U.S. dollars and the rest in the local currency, lats. She did not deposit any of it, she added, because she had “so many things to buy.”
Among the first things was to pay her rent for November and December. Borovska said she had never before paid for two months but did it now “while I have the money.” And she said she was considering buying a pair of high, warm shoes.
But the very first thing she did after pocketing her check and heading for her apartment was to buy two small cream cakes — one for herself and the other for her grandson. He represents the future of a once-thriving Jewish community of 100,000. Decimated by the Holocaust, it now numbers 11,000 and is struggling with a low birthrate and a disproportionately high number of elderly.
“My cake has already disappeared,” she said with a grin, “and his is waiting for him.”
Her grandson, Yarik Masutin, 21, is a law student at the Baltic Russian Institute and president of the Union of Jewish Youth of Latvia, which has a membership of about 150 to 200 students.In an interview in the group’s office on the fourth floor of the Jewish Community Center, which once housed the Yiddish theater here, Masutin said the organization is open to Jews 16 to 25. He said it holds a series of activities, including Chanukah parties and Israeli independence day celebrations. In addition, in May 1996 the union held a day of activities for survivors, including getting them donated medicine and staging a concert.
About 400 Jewish youth are involved in the Baltic states, which in addition to Latvia are Estonia and Lithuania.
“Riga has the biggest Jewish youth group and last year we organized a Jewish youth conference for the Baltics that 100 students attended,” said Masutin. “We just finished a leadership seminar and money from the JDC [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] helped to fund it.”
Leadership DilemmaHe acknowledged, however, a problem in “finding young leaders and giving them an opportunity to feel they are Jewish. … Many young leaders in the Baltics have left to make aliyah, but I’d like to stay and try to do something here to develop the Jewish community.”
Masutin said he first became involved with the Jewish community in 1993 when he took a trip to Poland and Israel.
“I had known I was a Jew but I never connected it before that trip,” he said. “Afterwards, I started to work at the JDC as a counselor and I worked in the communications bureau of the Israeli Embassy. At first it was a little shock for my mother because she never thought I’d be a leader of the Jewish community in Riga. But she helps and gives me advice.”
The union office is filled with photos taken at various events, a poster of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, a map of Israel and the group’s large banner. A computer bought by the JDC sits in a corner of the room; the JDC also pays the group’s phone bill. A poster announcing an International Day Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism in Europe is pasted to the front door.
“There is some anti-Semitism here, but it’s not very big,” said Masutin.The union occupies just one office of the JCC building. There are other offices for seven different Jewish clubs, theater groups and cultural activities, according to the JCC director, Karmella Skorik.
“Jews can come here not only to relax but to see each other,” she said while sitting in a hall lined with artwork. “We have programs for Jewish singles — young and old — for Jewish intellectuals and for those interested in Jewish literature. Our large building is too small for all of our activities.”She estimated that about 3,000 Jews each year are touched by the JCC’s programming, including activities for mothers and children and even gymnastics classes. Skornik noted that she is also the coordinator of activities for Jews in small communities far from Riga.
In addition, the JCC has a welfare division that provides home care, medicine, shoemaking services and meals for lonely and needy Jews. Volunteers bring food to the homebound; those who can get out are served meals four times a week at the JCC, the local synagogue and the Jewish hospital, located on the border of what had been the Jewish ghetto established in Riga by the Nazis.
The Riga Jewish Hospital-Bikur Holim, a 140-bed unit that also operates a 60-bed hospice in another part of town, provides free hospital care to Jews, who constitute about 15 percent of the caseload. Non-Jews must pay 70 cents a day for medical care, and the state must add to that another $10 per day.
The director, Dr. Arkady Gandz, said the hospital was organized as a Jewish hospital in 1924 but was nationalized by Stalin in 1940. After the war it became a community hospital, but in 1992 it returned to being a Jewish hospital specializing in internal medicine, cardiology and abdominal surgery. Of the staff of 55 doctors, 35 are Jewish.With more than 40 percent of the Jewish population older than 60, Gandz said he is hoping to raise $1 million to open a geriatric unit.
Andres Spokoiny, director of JDC programs in the Baltic states and the Soviet enclave of Kaliningrad just south of Lithuania, pointed out that there are 35,000 Jews in this area, about 15,000 in Latvia alone and 11,000 in Riga. Lithuania and Latvia, which once were the centers of Jewish scholarship, were decimated by the Holocaust. The Nazis killed 94 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews; Latvia’s 100,000 Jews were similarly murdered.
With the end of the Soviet empire, Spokoiny said the Jewish community faces two main challenges: providing assistance to Jews who live on an average pension of $100 in Latvia — $50 in Lithuania — and Jewish renewal.
Noting the aging population of the region, he said “the challenge is to take care of them because there is no safety net. Their pension barely covers the cost of heating, utilities and taxes. And many of these old people are completely alone. … There was a whole generation of men who disappeared during the war and left a lot of widows who never remarried.”
When Soviet hegemony ended here in 1990, there was no Jewish life to speak of in this area. Spokoiny said the JDC had to help the community develop lay leaders and executives, as well as youth movements.
“The Joint tends not to provide services itself but to empower the local community so it can someday become self-sufficient,” he explained. “We don’t see as our task to be here forever. So we ask them to provide volunteers and matching funds where possible, or even just a symbolic fee. … Riga is better off than Estonia and Lithuania, where we provide better than half the funding.”
The JDC budget for the Baltics is $200,000 annually. Spokoiny, whose office is in Paris, said he does not have an office in the region but rather spends half his time driving throughout the area. He stays in hotels and conducts business with a cell phone.
“It’s cheaper and more efficient and if we don’t have an office here, we empower [local Jews] to do more for themselves,” he said.
The JDC has an institute for social workers in St. Petersburg at which three people per country are trained annually. In addition, the JDC runs a six-week leadership training program in Israel for middle management people worldwide. Twenty-five people from this region have been trained there in the last four years.
“We believe in the double right,” said Spokoiny. “The right of grandparents to live in dignity and the right of grandchildren to be Jewish wherever they live.”