On July 2nd 2008 the Names and Fates Project was launched at the University of Latvia. This was an occasion of great significance to Latvians, Latvian Jewry and their descendants world wide. I was privileged to attend and be invited to speak.
The Project was officially opened by the President of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, the Rector of the University of Latvia, Professor Mārcis Auziņš, and Professor Ruvin Ferber, Chairman and Project Leader and Head of the Board of the Centre for Judaic Studies.
Among the speakers were Professor Aivars Stranga, Head of the Department of Latvian History; Mr. Margers Vestermanis, Director of the Museum and Documentation Centre Ebreji Latvija [Jews in Latvia]; Rabbi Mordechai Glazman; Mr. Boris Maftsir, Manager, The Shoah Victim’s Names Recovery Project in the FSU; Mr. Benjamin Kaem of the Council of the Jewish Communities of Latvia and Henry Blumberg, President of the Latvia Special Interest Group.
Among the many guests who were present: Irina Veinberga, Chief Archivist, Department Head, Latvian State Historical Archives Methodology and Data Analysis; Rita Bogdanova and Lena Polovceva both also of the Archives of Latvia; Constance Whippman, a coordinator and sponsor of the project and former Co-ordinator, All-Latvia Database of the Latvia SIG with her daughter Ruth Whippman both of the United Kingdom; Gita Umanovska, Executive Director of the Jewish Community of Latvia; Ilya Lensky of the Jewish Museum Latvia and Aleksandra Lurje, archivist at the Jewish Museum; Bella Blumberg, a Holocaust Survivor, living in Riga and born in Liepaja; Elena Shpungina, a Latvian guide in Riga with special expertise of Jewish ancestral and heritage sites.
The website of the Project states that the project attempts to investigate, identify and record the fate of Latvian Jewry in the Holocaust and in Holocaust related events and is divided into three stages which I list below directly quoting from the website.
1st stage is to create a list of the names of the Latvian Jewish community other than Liepaja, (see The Project Jews in Liepaja, Latvia 1941-1945) on the eve of the war, using a wide range of archival sources both in Latvia and abroad. The 1935 census forms the basis of the list which can be corroborated by a variety of pre-war material including inhabitants lists of 1939-1940, house lists, passports, business directories and records, birth, marriage and death records for 1935-1941 which will supplement the list with persons born at that time and will allow the exclusion from the list of persons who died during this period of time.
2nd stage is to identify each member of a community
a) on the basis of documents of the Soviet State Extraordinary Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Crimes Committed by the German-Fascist Invaders and Their Accomplices – these documents in microfilms are held in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Institute of Yad Vashem, b) The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names,
c) documents of the concentration camps Kaiserwald, Buchenwald etc, and also materials of the Museum “Jews in Latvia”.The lists of deportees on June 14, 1941 issued by the Latvian State Archives and also the lists of evacuated families (part of the list is accessible on the webpage of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington) enable the exclusion of these Jews from the number of victims of the Holocaust. The interest in Holocaust studies has increased since Latvia got independence and the articles of leading researchers in the editions of the Commission of Historians for 2003-2006 are the best testimonies to that fact. A significant contribution to establishing the fate of the Jews during the war was the persistent work of some local history researchers who compiled detailed lists of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust in some small villages. Many memoirs of Shoah survivors were published during the past few years. These are all extremely valuable sources used working on the project. The approach developed in the Project of Professor Edward Anders of those who were living in Latvia in 1940-1941 but who cannot be traced as survivors or have not previously been recorded as victims and are likely to have been potential victims of the Holocaust, can be considered as the „indirect” approach which is complementary to the „direct” approach in identifying victims of the Holocaust. The disadvantage of the „indirect” method is that it will inevitably include some of the living among the dead, e.g., refugees who fled to the USSR, prisoners omitted from the camp records, etc.
3rd stage gives the survivors an opportunity to examine the list and submit reliable information about the fate of their relatives and friends during the war.For more information about the Project consult the website:http://names.lu.lv/en.html
The following is the presentation given by Henry Blumberg at the launch of Names and Fates Project.
Mr. President, the Rector of the Latvian University, Professor Ruvin Ferber and other honored guests.
It is a privilege to be present here today on this auspicious occasion and bring greetings to the Names and Fates Project from the Latvian Special Interest Group.
As the President of the Latvia SIG, which focuses on Jewish genealogical research in Latvia, we congratulate you on the Names and Fates Project which we know will be an invaluable resource to the people of Latvia as well as researchers internationally interested in genealogy.
Your project investigates, identifies and records the fate of Latvian Jewry of the Holocaust. It is important to acknowledge the work of Professor Ruvin Ferber and three dedicated volunteers, who have contributed immeasurably to this huge task. So much is owed by so many to so few.
As a result of the atrocities committed during the holocaust, families were dismembered or obliterated. This project enables a literal re-membering and assists in a virtual reconnection of families and communities. The Latvian Names and Fates project is a model for other countries and their communities.
I have been personally enriched by this work. My father tried for many years to reconnect with family after 1945 through the Red Cross. He was unsuccessful. With the use of new technology I decided in 2000 to fulfill his wish to find out what had happened to family members in the hope of finding some still alive. Unbeknown to my father nearly all of his family had been murdered in Liepaja and Grobina or sent to Siberia where they perished.
This process of trying to reconnect the few threads that remained entailed considerable data base research, as well as enlisting the help of the Latvian Archives, attending conferences on Jewish Genealogy and visits to Latvia. In addition to having learnt something about the fate of those who perished , after years of diligent research, I was very fortunate to discover and connect with extended family members in places as far afield for us as Riga, California, Vancouver, South Africa, Israel and Ireland; nearly all of the families were descendants of those who had left Latvia before the Second World War.
From the outset of the research I have shared the process with my whole family. This visit to Latvia has been especially meaningful as I was accompanied by my wife and the oldest of four sons.
For my son who has never visited Latvia before the power of the narratives of two surviving family members living in Riga as well as meeting Ruven Ferber and the archivists touched him in a way that was quite unexpected.
We were all born in South Africa and have been Canadian citizens for almost 3 decades and my son always thought of himself as not only Canadian but also part of the South African diaspora. However after only 2 or 3 days in this country the work you are doing has created a relationship that is in some ways even more interesting because it is unexpected.
After our two year old granddaughter, Sasha Bella, passed away we were asked by our daughter in law to bring some pebbles back with us on a trip to South Africa as she said: “Sasha had never been able to travel anywhere”. In the Jewish tradition it is customary when visiting a grave to leave a pebble on the headstone and so we brought some pebbles from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had spent over 2 decades. When I saw my son walking on the beach at Liepaja last week picking up some pebbles I was very moved by what he was doing. He was reconnecting the past of her former Liepaja family with himself and with Sasha.
The research of the data bases and the Names and Fates project have provided a base and a beginning that reconnects the next generation and makes them aware that they are getting a rich and important legacy in learning about the lives of their ancestors.
In the modern political economy we are all the sum of our networks. This genealogical work impacts on so many levels. It is deeply meaningful to the families who have rediscovered their own history as I have seen in the case of our family. Latvia has a diaspora that in a sense does not even know it is a diaspora. The dialectic between the Latvians and those of Latvian ancestry and the expanding Latvian diaspora is exciting.
The work of preserving history, creating memorials, creating museums and networking and creating this project has ripples beyond Latvia Genealogy has become more than providing names and dates but about a passion for sharing real Latvian history and the Names and Fates Project in a very meaningful way contributes to that sharing.
I congratulate you and wish you well in your significant work.