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Riga Ghetto Museum

  
 3Stars10px  - darkometer rating:  4 -
  
Riga Ghetto Museum 03   looking through barbed wire
A partly open-air kind of museum in Riga that is about the Riga Ghetto specifically but also about the Holocaust in Latvia in general.   
More background info: in general see under Riga and also the Jews in Latvia Museum and cf. Rumbula, Bikernieku, Kaiserwald as well as the Janis Lipke Memorial Museum
  
The Riga Ghetto Museum is a fairly recent addition to the city's dark museum portfolio. The first part was opened in September 2010, the Green House (see below) followed in 2011, and the site continues to develop. In recent years additional indoor exhibitions have been added and the outdoor part now features a deportation train carriage.
  
Its physical exhibition is augmented by a dedicated website (at rgm.lv) that tells a few selected stories from the Holocaust (including Janis Lipke's) in a rather “cartoonified” trimmed-down way, which also appears to be specifically made for viewing on smartphones. So it will be well-suited for younger generations who rather get into the topic through such simple, brief dramatizations.  
  
Also integrated into the website is a virtual walk through the area of the former ghetto, featuring recorded commentaries (in heavily accented English) that are allegedly spoken by Holocaust/ghetto survivors. Street View images of today are furthermore contrasted with historic photos. It could bring to life an area where otherwise little to nothing still hints at the history of the place as a ghetto. 
  
On the whole, however, hard factual historical background information does not seem to be the primary focus of the museum's web presence. This may make it more digestible to newcomers, and more dramatic and exciting to a younger audience, but for those with a bit more of a historiographical grounding in the topic it may appear a bit “thin” and too emotion-focused. 
  
  
What there is to see:  The central part of the museum is wedged in a courtyard between two old warehouses in the Spīkeri district of east Riga, and its main feature is a wall of names – of all ca. 70,000 Jewish Holocaust victims of Latvia. In addition there are statistical bits informing about deportations to Riga, countless portrait photos and family group photos. 
  
One section of the wall has numerous contemporary photos of the area where the ghetto used to be, matched against a number of maps of the ghetto.
  
The most captivating part of the exhibition (in my view) consists of a row of text-and-photo panels opposite the main wall, with the panels mounted along a fence that is supposed to be a reconstructed ghetto fence. 
  
The ghetto fence reconstruction comes complete with barbed wire and lamps at the top of poles. The cobbles you walk on are said to be original ones from the former ghetto too (though whether this is really true is hard to ascertain, of course). There's also a reconstructed ghetto gate at the back. It does all look quite concentration-camp-like. 
  
Ghetto fences also feature prominently in the many photos on the information panels. Otherwise these show plenty of scenes from the Riga Ghetto but also more graphic images from the mass executions by the Einsatzgruppen in Latvia and the concentration camps.  
  
Amongst the images are familiar ones, such as those horrific ones of the shootings at Skede, Liepaja. But there are also more rarely seen photos, e.g. of  Kaiserwald shortly after the camp's evacuation by the SS in autumn 1944. 
  
In addition to the photo collections with explanatory captions there are also a couple of slightly longer topical texts, e.g. about the prehistory, the Holocaust in general, the formation of a resistance movement within the ghetto or about helpers such as Janis Lipke.
  
All texts are in Latvian, Russian and English, with the English translations of decent quality. None of the texts are particularly long or taxing so it is all fairly easy to digest, information-wise, that is. Topic-wise, of course, it remains hard. 
  
There are also little boxes at the far end of the outdoor-part that supply single sheets of orientation texts in a range of languages.  
  
A separate part of the museum is a refurbished house from the ghetto – called the Green House (not to be confused with the one in Vilnius). Allegedly it is an original structure from the old ghetto that the museum rescued from total dilapidation and moved here. It does look so reconstructed, so new, however, that you have to wonder if anything of the walls, roof or whatever really still is from the original edifice.
  
Nevertheless, the reconstructed ghetto living quarters upstairs are in their own way impressive. You seem to get a glimpse of ghetto life. However, the rooms are of course empty and lifeless, so you have to use your imagination hard to picture what it must have been like in such quarters with up to 13 people living in each room. 
  
Downstairs were a few models of synagogues destroyed in WWII, as well as some dolls hanging from the ceiling and paintings/drawings on the wall. This part remained rather obscure and disconnected from the rest of the museum. 
  
Part of the complex is also an information centre (basically the museum's reception kiosk – unstaffed when I was there), a “Creative Studio”, which I found locked, and a brick wing next to it that seemed to be undergoing renovation at the time of my visit. So I could not check these parts out myself.
  
On the whole I left with a bit of an ambivalent feeling about this place. On the one hand it does manage to convey a certain drama with its reconstructions, and to a degree underpins it with historical photo material and information, but never really to much depth. It also felt a bit disjointed, with its constituent parts not always hanging together properly.
  
Nevertheless this is certainly a worthwhile addition to Riga's vast range of museums, partly despite, partly because of it being so different from all other museums here. 
  
UPDATE: I went back to this museum on my Baltics trip in the summer of 2021. Going past it on the bus to Tallinn I noticed that there was a railway carriage in the middle of the outdoor exhibition space, so when I was back in Riga on the last day of this trip I slotted in a revisit.
  
The railway car is now the largest exhibit. It bears the names of several cities from where Jews were deported, e.g. Hamburg, Vienna, Berlin, to the Riga Ghetto as well as to other destinations such as Auschwitz which also features on the carriage walls. Steps lead up to the sliding door and you can go inside. Here, mirrors create a “Tardis” effect, making the space appear significantly bigger than it actually is. A few birch tree trunks, also multiplied in reflection, suggest being in a forest (perhaps Bikernieku?) There is also a small exhibition with panels in four languages (now also with German) and some photos and facsimile passenger lists.
  
In one of the former brick warehouses I found a new exhibition entitled “3000 Fates”, which is about the deportation of Jews from Theresienstadt to the Riga Ghetto in 1942. Wooden boxes suspended from the ceiling on wires feature selected individuals and their fates.
  
A set of panels explores the run-up to WWII and the fate of Jews trying to flee, including those aboard the ship St. Louis, who were refused disembarkation in Cuba and the USA and had to return to Europe. Another section is about those “righteous” diplomats who helped Jews, such as Raoul Wallenberg (see Budapest) or Chiune Sugihara (see Kaunas). Yet more panels explore the fate of surviving Jews after the war, especially emigration to Palestine and the newly formed state of Israel.
  
An additional indoor exhibition, created in collaboration with the Janis Lipke Memorial, is focuses on Latvia under Nazi German occupation from 1941 and features drawings of the various massacres and atrocities.
  
In the outdoor part a series of newer panels outlines the stories of other ghettos, such as in Warsaw, Vilnius, Minsk and elsewhere, and also covers massacres against Jews in Babi Yar, in Romania or Transnistria.
  
All in all, with all those newer additions the Riga Ghetto Museum has improved significantly since my first visit back in 2014, so that I have raised the star rating above from 2 to 3.
  
  
Location: in the refurbished Spīkeri warehouse complex in the Maskavas district of Riga, just south-east of the Central Market Halls. 
  
Google Maps locator:  [56.941, 24.117]
  
  
Access and costs: easily reachable from the city centre, free/by donation 
  
Details: To get to the Riga Ghetto Museum you can either take a tram or walk. The distance isn't great, less than ¾ of a mile (1 km). However, you have to either negotiate major roads with heavy traffic and/or the bustling Central Market en route (which isn't a bad thing, of course – the market is a fantastic sight in itself!). So if you want to use a tram to get there you have a wide choice of lines (2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10) that stop just north of the museum on Maskavas iela (the stop Turgeneva iela is even closer to the museum's location).
  
Note that while the official address of the museum is on Maskavas iela (at No. 14a), the actual entrance to it is on the other side of the Spīkeri complex, i.e. from Krasta iela. But you can walk through the renovated warehouse complex's pedestrianized squares to get there. 
  
Admission: free, but donations more than welcome – they suggest 5 EUR per adult.
  
Opening times, officially: daily except Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed on a few Jewish holidays as well. HOWEVER: when I was in Riga in April 2014 I had one failed attempt at visiting this museum, even though it was neither a Saturday nor a Jewish holiday I found the gate locked when I turned up the first time (and it was within the regular opening times). There was no explanation, no sign, and when I asked at the Jews in Latvia Museum the next day, they had no clue either. When I went back two days later and was able to go in there were no staff about who I could have asked what had been the matter two days earlier. So it remains a mystery. Maybe take the published opening times with a pinch of salt. 
  
  
Time required: if you want to read everything, probably between  an hour and an hour and a half, but some parts could also be skimmed.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: The location of the museum is actually very close to where the real ghetto would have been back in 1941-43. However, today there are few clues to this (but the museum's website helps recreating/reimagining these – see background!). 
  
One exception is the very physical remains of the Choral Synagogue on Gogol Street (see under Riga) just a few blocks from the museum. Although little more than the foundations remain, their size are a reminder of what an imposing building it must have been. 
  
Next to it is a memorial to those heroes who helped Jews survive the Holocaust, with great risks to their own lives, of course. One of these heroes is specifically celebrated at the eponymous Janis Lipke Memorial Museum.  
  
More background about Jewish life in Latvia and the Holocaust can also be found at the Jews in Latvia Museum in the city centre. 
  
And the actual sites of the mass murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen are these days marked by imaginative memorials at Rumbula and Bikernieku (though these remain largely silent in terms of information). The memorial at the former location of the concentration camp of Kaiserwald is more basic and humble, though. All these sites, however, are far from the city centre and require a bit of determination to get to them.
  
Not related to the museum's topic but physically the closest other site is the impressive Soviet-era skyscraper of the Academy of Sciences, just two blocks to the north east from the museum. 
  
For more see under Riga in general. 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Spīkeri warehouse complex in which the museum is located and which once was a forgotten derelict corner of the city has undergone a wholesale “rejuvenating” overhaul. The buildings have mostly been done up and cleaned. Lots of design and fashion companies have moved in, as well as clubs and restaurants. For me, however, it is the solid brick industrial style of the architecture that is the main draw here. 
  
Not far away you can also still see many wooden buildings for which Riga is well known. 
  
Just north of Spīkeri is the vast modern complex of the Central Market Halls, a must-see when in Riga. And the most classic mainstream tourist part of Riga, its Old Town, is also just a short walk away to the west.  
  
  
 
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 01 - open-air exhibition in 2014Riga Ghetto Museum 01 - open-air exhibition in 2014
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 02 - recreated ghetto gateRiga Ghetto Museum 02 - recreated ghetto gate
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 03 - looking through barbed wireRiga Ghetto Museum 03 - looking through barbed wire
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 04 - lots of names, few facesRiga Ghetto Museum 04 - lots of names, few faces
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 05 - deportation car addition in 2021Riga Ghetto Museum 05 - deportation car addition in 2021
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 06 - inside the railway car, mirroredRiga Ghetto Museum 06 - inside the railway car, mirrored
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 07 - additional indoors exhibitionRiga Ghetto Museum 07 - additional indoors exhibition
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 08 - shadowy artworkRiga Ghetto Museum 08 - shadowy artwork
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 09 - in another indoors exhibitionRiga Ghetto Museum 09 - in another indoors exhibition
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 10 - exhibitsRiga Ghetto Museum 10 - exhibits
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 11 - grown sculpure collectionRiga Ghetto Museum 11 - grown sculpure collection
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 12 - refurbished green wooden house in 2014Riga Ghetto Museum 12 - refurbished green wooden house in 2014
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 13 - living quarter recreation in the atticRiga Ghetto Museum 13 - living quarter recreation in the attic
  • Riga Ghetto Museum 14 - spot the yellow starsRiga Ghetto Museum 14 - spot the yellow stars
  
  
  

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