Letter from Riga, Latvia

November 23, 2006 Michael Kaufman

There are many deep shadows along the cobbled streets of Riga. Shadows not only from the low sun on these short days of early winter, but the ones that cut much deeper from the years of Nazi and Soviet occupation.

Those shadows are mine to see for I think of my Grandmother on these streets when she was but eight or ten. Was this a building she stared at? A sidewalk she walked along? Were these stones the remains of the synagogue her family attended? Anna Zabezhinsky left around 1905, after one of the periodic pogroms against Jews, when her family had raised enough money for one boat passage. Only sixteen years old, she waved goodbye to her mother and father as her ship slipped away from the dock and into the Baltic Sea never to see them again. Most of her cousins, her aunts and her uncles were not so lucky: Were they among those herded into the Great Synagogue on July 4, 1941, to be burned alive? Into yet another synagogue to suffer the identical fate? Brought to a forest on the outskirts of the city and mowed down in waves of machine gun fire? Or were they among those who survived these massacres only to be deported to the extermination camps? I expect we shall never know.

But I am not in Riga for these shadows, nor the shadows of the Stalinist years, but yet others. They are the shadows of a terror that greets far too many women in Latvia when they come home at night. It is a country where the issue of violence against women is barely spoken about; where police can “arrest” a man who is beating his wife for three hours when they must let him go, presumably to return home; where a woman is murdered every twelve days; where men have decamped in at least 30% of the households; and where one of the fruits of their new capitalist economy is a flourishing sex industry: on one cab ride, it took the driver only thirty seconds to ask if I “wanted a girl.” He later claimed that eighty percent of his foreign male passengers ask for prostitutes for that is why they have come here. There are organized tours from England; bachelor parties are apparently a specialty.

There are not many people working on these issues: a few women in government offices, a handful of brave women who are running crisis centers or shelters, a few men and women who have tried to get education efforts off the ground. But until recently, they tell me, their efforts haven’t gotten far.

Now there are European Community funds which for the first time will help them study the extent of the problem. There are fresh demands for better laws. Another new initiative has been a White Ribbon Campaign started by the Equality Office of the Ministry of Labour. Their first action was a huge banner in downtown Riga. They organized for some prominent athletes to outline their hand on the banner as a statement that “this hand will not be used for violence.” Within a week, on every free bit of cloth, there was a handprint: 1000 in all. Not a bad start for a country where the issue has been treated with silence.

While in Riga, I gave a talk at the university, met with colleagues to hear about their work and share ideas, and led a training workshop for a small group that included social workers, counselors, teachers, government employees, and activists. At the end, I listened to their plans with delight.

And on my last morning, in the hour before I left for my plane, I walked quickly across town in a drizzle and found a broken-down building where, a hundred years ago, my young grandmother and her siblings had lived. I looked up at the windows where she must have stared out at their world.