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Latvia SIG hopes to have many more shtetl memories on this site. Rita Bogdanova has painted a moving picture of what it feels like to return after many years to a home and a place that no longer exists other than in memory.

Note: Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Reminiscences of Liepaja

The three days trip to my mother's native town
By Rita Bogdanova


The comfortable bus took us to Liepaja in only three hours. I went there with mixed feelings- on the one hand it was my mother's native town, which we used to visit every two years and the town where the family disintegrated, on the other hand because I knew the town was in a bad condition I was really afraid I would be disappointed. My fear was not in vain…

My mother Bella Bogdanova neé Blumberg was born in Liepaja in the family of a watchmaker from Grobina, Hessel Blumberg and his wife Bertha Braina Brenner from Kuldiga. I asked my mother how the grandparents met in Liepaja, but she did not know as she was a child and never asked.

My mother was the eldest child and had two brothers Abram, Abrasha as he was called in the family, and Hirsh. Hirshele was six years younger than my mother and she does not remember him much, but Abrasha, three years younger, was my mother's real friend in every way. When alone at home they used to put on their parent's clothes playing grown ups. They stole jam and my mother was always the leader. Abrasha was an intelligent, smart boy and very sensitive. Some three hours before being taken forever he told my mother philosophically:" Weiss du, Muttchen, heute lebe ich noch aber morgen weiss ich nicht…" He was only 12.

We walked through the streets and my mother was like a "walking encyclopaedia" telling me who lived in every house on our way- where they learned and where they used to shop. She was excited to be there but in that moment I realized that we were looking at the town through different eyes: my mother saw it as it was before the war, a wealthy, good-looking town, clean and well kept, the famous health resort on the Baltic sea, and I saw rows of half destroyed wooden buildings, so unfriendly and strange, and from which the passage of time had removed the traces of mezuzot on the Jewish houses. I tried to imagine Liepaja some sixty years ago, fanned by warm sea winds, full of happy people and as wonderful as it was… but could not.

Ghetto House

Thus we came to the ghetto suburb. The house in the picture at Barinu Street was the house in the ghetto where my mother lived. The window she is standing below was her room, which she shared with Ella Stern and her husband and mother's cousin Sheinele Lifshitz.

Mother showed me where there was a gate behind the house, separating the world from the ghetto, the gate my mother went through every day on her way to work at the Military port (Kriegshafen).

Ghetto Memorial

But life continues and around this place is a multistory house and only a memorial stone in the yard reminds of this terrible time.

The 24th July was the day my grandfather Hessel Blumberg was taken from the street to the fish factory wall and shot down with many other men whose families would never again see their husbands and fathers. The men were taken from 22nd to 27th July and my grandfather's friend Kalman Linkimer told him not to go to the street but my grandfather believed in fate and told him that "what would be, would be". Could he have avoided his fate and was it really fate or just an unbelievable injustice? I too am convinced that every one has his destiny given at birth but I cannot understand how 6 million people could have the same fate…

My mother remembered that in the 1930's in the long evenings when my grandfather used to work at home, and he worked very hard to maintain the big family, my grandmother Bertha would be sitting nearby, knitting or darning late in the night and tried to persuade my grandfather to leave for America to start a new life but my grandfather did not want to go abroad. He had his job, was well known in the town, had a good living and did not want to change anything, as he was not sure how they would settle there. This was the first lost opportunity to avoid the terrible future.

The second one was at the time when men were no longer allowed to leave the town but wives and children could catch the last train to flee. It was my mother who did not want to leave without her father. She loved him so much and they could not imagine life without each other. If they but knew…

Fisfac

We came to the wall of the factory. No flowers, no traces of any human being, just a red cat that crawled out of the bushes with a sad mew which was a "hi". We put down the flowers and stood for a while. There are only two old ladies in Liepaja whose fathers were killed there: Fanny Pavlova-Genton and Fruma Tukmachova-Tevelov. I thought about the Jewish community in Liepaja now a small one made up of mostly of Jews who came to the town after the war. Do they care?

The factory was on the seaside and we went to the sea. It was completely empty and somehow lonely, as it was not very warm. I could hardly imagine ladies in modern swimsuits of the 1930's, some older women with parasols and happy children building sand castles. Around the seaside there was a park (Anlage), where there was at one time a bathhouse which does not exist now and a tennis court which is happily still in use. For a moment my mother forgot how much time had elapsed and exclaimed-"And here was a lawn. Why are here trees?" I saw so much sadness in mother's eyes as if some one had spoiled the beautiful view. The trees were maybe my age…

We went slowly back to the town. Unfortunately not one house remained in which my mother had lived. She was born at Avotu Street, where they had a three-room apartment, then they moved to Vitolu Street 7 and the last pre-war house at Sofijas Street 6, where they had five rooms, burned down. It was a bombing and the whole family was sitting in the cellar when they heard some bangs. They ran out and saw their house burning. My mother had house shoes and a coat.
And so they moved to the great grandmother Malka Blumberg. She was born in Pikeli, Lithuania, was very religious, had a wig, knew well how to cook and every shabbat the family went to her for the shabbes dinner. My great grandfather Lewin Leib Blumberg was a carter and horse trader and was unique in the family as he died a natural death in 1935.
The apartment of Malka was not large and so the family decided that my grandfather should go to the house of his brother Meyer Blumberg, which was in front at the same street. This house has remained and some years ago my mother took heart and went in. At the beginning the house wife was terrified that mother would claim it but when she got to know we that we did not want this house back as it was purchased right after the war, she became very friendly, let mother come in, gave her some tea and had a nice talk. The house was well kept, there were roses around it and my mother was happy to see it. Now the woman has died and her children do not care much about it. However it is still in good condition and it is really a nice feeling to see that the house of mother's uncle as still there.

Bobe's House

This wall in the photo is all that remains of Malka's house at Alejas Street from where all the family was taken away. They were six Latvian policemen, who went on December 13, 1941 to take women and children, apart from my mother and her cousin Sheinele. They were Bertha, her sister Paula Brenner who lived always with the family, Abrasha and Hirshele. Malka was thrown in to the car as a sack - she could not climb as she was about 74.

At five in the morning two Latvian policemen came to take my mother and cousin. They were brought to the prison. When mother saw a heap of dresses and shoes, big and little, in the yard of the prison, she realized at once where the family was and where her father was. The last hope to see her beloved father was gone. At the same moment the chief of the prison Krastinsh, who was mother's neighbor at Sofijas Street passed by and saw my mother. "What are you doing here, Bella?" asked he.
"I don't know, I was taken here right now". "Where is your mother?" asked the chief. "She was taken yesterday", answered mother. The chief scratched his head: "Oh, God" and this was the last proof my mother had that she would never ever see her family again.
The chief of the prison ordered mother to go home. When she told him that she would not be allowed to go out through the gate he called two policemen and directed them to bring this girl home safe, so that no hair falls from her head. So my mother and her cousin came back to the great grandmothers house, empty forever, as orphans- only one Blumberg remained in this world. Was this fate?

Skede Next day we went to Skede, the place where all the Liepaja Jews were shot. It was terribly cold and the biting wind was blowing as if it wanted us to remember these December 1941 days, when women and children were standing bare footed and nude in the snow at 0 degree on the brink of carefully prepared ditches, taking their last deep breath of life and asking "why?"
My mother scattered flowers on the places where the ditches were now covered with green grass, the tears rolled down on her cheeks and I stood far away to give her a possibility to talk to them and to think her thoughts.

I put flowers at the memorial, which says, that in that place were killed more than 19.000 of Liepaja inhabitants. There is a red star on the monument. I realized that in the Soviet time no other monument could be made but isn't it now time to change the inscription? The eternal memory to the Soviet patriots… I thought were my uncles Abrasha of 12 and Hirshele of 9 years like thousands other children and women Soviet patriots? No, I don't think so. They were Jews and that was why they were killed. I know there have been discussions about this monument for several years but it takes too long. I am not against the red star as there were communists killed but I am for the Magen David to respect the truth.

Sea I went to the sea. It was gray and not friendly. I took some pictures and this is one of them; these dunes and sea will be a really eternal memorial to my family and families of all Liepaja inhabitants who lived there.

I hope also that some day they will put a signpost there indicating the way. Now there is just a Neptune as a part of the purification construction and nothing indicates that this is the way to people's pain and loss.

The morning was sad. We came back to the town just to walk. Liepaja is so small that wherever you go you come back to the center. We stayed at the hotel Liva, built in the Soviet time but not too bad to spend some nights there. My mother showed me that near that hotel at the Liela Street 6 was Ruseniek's house and his watch factory where my grandfather worked. After 10 years of work J. Ruseniek gave my grandfather a very nice fob watch with a watchstrap of which he was very proud. When in 1940 the Russians came and Ruseniek's factory was nationalized my grandfather was offered a chief's job but he respected his director so much that he refused and stayed as a consultant. The Ruseniek family was deported in June 1941.

My grandfather was a really good specialist who had lots of apprentices, who came to him to learn the trade. My grandmother was very welcoming and the house was always full of people. She let nobody go without giving them dinner or just a cup of tea. On Fridays there was a tea-table gathering at home, men played kun-ken (a card game), women played lotto and spent a nice evening in chatting and laughing.

My mother's family was not very religious, except great-grandmother Malka as I have said, and grandfather who went to the synagogue on high holidays. He had purchased his own place in the synagogue and my grandmother had her own upstairs- sometime my mother went with them. They kept a kosher house and had special nice dishes for Pesach. All this got lost by burning down and what I was sorry about were the pictures. Only- after fifty years I have found at the Archives photos of my great grandparents and grandparents but still do not have one of my great grandparents from the Brenner's side from Kuldiga, who died very young.

One day I called my mother from work and said "Hi Betty". She was surprised as to how I could know her name given to her at birth. I had found it in the documents and was just as surprised. She had forgotten it as everyone always called her Bella.

The last day we decided to go to the cemetery and maybe find the grave of mother's grandfather Lewin Leib Blumberg. Paul Berkay was kind and sent me a copy of the Liepaja cemetery book with the entry about my great grandfather's death.

The picture I saw at the cemetery made me almost cry and I understood that I would never find the grave of my great grandfather. Stone by stone, destroyed and broken, over-grown with long green grass, no more inscriptions on the grave stones so even if we would find some which could be of mother's grandfather we could not be sure it would be the right one. My camera broke at this place so I could not take any photos and I felt that it was really significant.

We had been there in 1992 when our relative Norman Brenner from Los Angeles came to Latvia and we went together to Liepaja. It was the beginning of new Latvia and everything seemed to be so hopeful. The cemetery seemed that time to be even better kept and did not made such a terribly sad impression but even then though we tried we could not find anything.

We left the cemetery with a heavy heart thinking what would be there after years and what was one to do? The way back to the town was more pleasant as this was the private part of the town and people living there tried to care about the buildings and the surroundings.

On the way we saw the building where the Liepaja Jewish elementary school had been with Hebrew as the language in which pupils were taught and where mother's brother Abram went to school.

What we were wondering about was the color of the decorated houses. The same building was pink and blue, yellow and brown and all at the same house. The strange love for lilac which is so unusual for Latvia with it pastel colored towns was something new and it was hard to accept. Maybe we were too conservative?

We came back to the Alejas Street and mother showed me the place where there was a house in which she was living with Anna Bub and family Schwab - Klara and her children, Bubi and George, Mia Kessel, who cared about my mother when she stayed alone. They shared the apartment, food and fate.
And then it was time to go back. It was 59 years since mother was forced to leave Liepaja, to return not on her own but to come back there as a visitor and to her childhood, to say hi to every house and stone she knew so well, to the sea and her friends there…

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