A Journey to Latvia, by Lois Ogilby Rosen

When David Rosen, my husband’s father, died in November 2003, a box of documents, photos, and letters fell to me to organize. As I began to identify, and clarify the information stored in the old box, and in various envelopes subsequently mailed to me by my mother-inlaw, I communicated with family members about what I had discovered, and asked them for more information and for stories and explanations. I also asked for their permission to unravel and chronicle their family history. They were gracious, helpful, and excited. I sought vital records in the United States and made inquiries at the Latvian State Historical Archives in Riga. I contacted family members from disconnected family branches, and asked many, many questions of many, many people. I created a family tree, revising it constantly and sharing it after each revision. What was originally begun as an effort to sort old papers became a journey to Latvia.

Finding Family in Latvia
The discovery of the original internal travel document from the Russian Empire for David’s father, Louis Rosen (Bine-Leib Rozinko) was very exciting: It gave us the family surname. Using the JGFF (JewishGen Family Finder) I made contact with a woman in Latvia searching for members of the Rozinko family. We connected our families through her great grandfather Schmuel Rozinko, Louis Rosen’s brother. Her English was excellent, and she shared what she knew about our family history, and relayed to me stories about how her branch of the family had survived the Holocaust. Her family in Riga consists of her mother and uncle, my husband’s second cousins, and their families. She explained to me that many buildings in the Riga ghetto might be razed and sections gentrified, with only a small part of the area’s Jewish identity preserved as a museum. I was eager to see and photograph the ghetto before it was too late, and to meet our newly found, and very welcoming, relatives. With their help, I began to plan my trip.

I wanted very much to let my journey unfold as I traveled rather than have it prepared in advance; therefore, I did not want to hire a guide. This decision was based on finances as well as my wish to be keenly aware of what I was seeing and doing each moment without a go-between interpreting the experience for me. Although there were specific places I wanted to visit, I also wanted to be able to leave part of my trip to chance encounter. I did need a translator to help me understand the words I would hear, yet I did not want a guide to plan and interpret the sights and sounds of the journey. I sketched out a rough overall plan: four to five days in Riga, see the ghetto, the Archives, the Jewish Museum, Rumbula, and Salaspils, and visit with family. Then I wanted to go to Lithuania to see what I believed was the family’s shtetl, Pasvalys. I hoped to return to Latvia by way of Subate, where some family members had owned property, and then go on to Daugavpils, where our earliest family photos had been taken and where I’d arranged to meet members of the local Jewish community.

My translator and companion in Riga was Lena, the youngest member of our Latvian family. Lena, a nineteen-year- old university student speaks English, Latvian and Russian. Not knowing very much about our family history she would be exploring the Jewish history of Riga for the first
time with me. Arriving in Latvia, I went immediately to my hotel in Old Riga. Lena arrived at the hotel soon after I did. We set out immediately to see the magnificently preserved center of the old town. The streets are cobblestone, and the buildings are restored. They are painted amazing shades of blue, pink, green, amber and peach. The buildings have preserved or restored adornments, cornices, doorways and
window boxes. We visited St. Peter’s Church, and ascended the spire to get a bird’s-eye view.

I was invited to dinner at the family’s apartment. I brought a large printout of our family tree. With Lena as over-tasked interpreter, we talked and shared family stories well into the night. Over the next few days, I learned how to take buses all over the city—the most inexpensive way to travel. We visited the ghetto, the Old Jewish Cemetery, the New Shmerli Cemetery, the Jewish Museum, and the Latvian State Historical Archives. At the Archives we met the researcher assigned to our research request, and were able to thank her in person for her work locating many Rozinko family documents. She seemed nervous and a little jittery, as if she might be more comfortable in the document room. I wondered how often the archivist had the chance to meet those whose ancestors she had researched. I was eager to see the Riga ghetto, but I could tell Lena was apprehensive. She explained that it was not the best part of town, and she worried about my bag being stolen. The ghetto, also called Maskavas Forstate (the Moscow Suburb), in contrast to the old town, is striking and sad. It is made up of tumbledown houses, vacant lots, burnedout shells that were once houses, boarded up buildings, and some much newer soviet style structures. It is a poor neighborhood where it is not uncommon to see someone drunk falling off a front stoop onto the sidewalk of a busy street. The inhabitants were mainly Russians and some gypsies.

Lena and I walked the streets there together looking for the homes where our relatives once lived. The old Jewish Cemetery, on the ghetto’s periphery, is now a park. It is there that Abram Rozinko (1845-1925), father of Louis and Shmuel Rosen and their seven brothers and sisters, is buried. There are no gravestones left, only the bases buried in the ground from which the stones were sheared. On one edge of the park is a large stone bearing a Magen David. There are no names inscribed anywhere. There is no plaque telling that this ground was the first place in Latvia given to the Jews for the burial of their dead. Before this cemetery existed, Jews had to take their dead to Poland for burial. There is no sign commemorating the Jews murdered there in 1941. It was very lonely, but beautiful. Near the old decrepit homes, it is a peaceful grassy knoll with large shade trees, a path, and benches. Except for one man walking his dog, we were alone.

Nearby are what remains of the walls and the foundation of the Choral Synagogue. The grounds are now a park, where old ladies sit and chat on the benches and kids roughhouse in the ruins. This is the site where Louis Rosen’s brother, Schmuel Rozinko was killed. On July 4, 1941. Latvian self-defense units serving the Nazis burned the shul to the ground with Schmuel and his wife Lea, together with hundreds of Jews, locked inside. After the war, the site was leveled and made into a park with no mention or ceremony made to commemorate the murders of these Jews. Forty-seven more years passed before a large stone bearing a Magen David was placed on the site as a memorial. Relatives of those who were killed, including Schmuel’s son, Ilya Rozinko, helped to preserve the ruins in memory. No one there that day seemed conscious of the history buried there!

We went to the Shmerli Cemetery (the new Jewish cemetery) in a northern suburb of Riga, in hopes of finding the grave of Enta Schuwal Rozinko (1853-1938), Abram’s wife. We found many monuments and carefully cared-for graves. Most stones are in Russian, though I did find a few in Hebrew. I searched for Enta’s grave, to no avail. I had been told at the Jewish Museum days earlier that unless our family had evidenced continued care for her grave over the years, the grave would have been deemed abandoned, and the stone removed. The plot would have been reused. We had no family in Riga from 1940 until 1968. Lena’s grandfather, Ilya Rozinko, had survived the Holocaust, but only because he had been sent to work in the coalmines of Vorkuta, Russia. He was not able to return to Riga until 1968.

Rumbala and Salaspils
On a day when Lena was not able to accompany me, I contacted Boris, a survivor of the Riga Ghetto, whose phone number was given me by a colleague of my husband. I had never met him or his wife before, but they welcomed me warmly and sincerely. It was serendipitous that they happened to be in Riga when I was there, and that they spoke English. I asked them about our family names, Rozinko, Greditor, Abramowitsch, and Berkowitsch. Sadly we found no connection.

Boris would have been in the ghetto at the time our relatives might have been there, and I hoped maybe a name would ring a bell. It did not. I had many addresses of our family members from the results of our archival research, and I wanted to continue my search for these homes. Boris knew these streets, and was certainly not afraid to travel them. I knew our family had probably left these homes either to escape to the east or to move into the ghetto in 1940-1941. I had read many accounts of the Nazi entrance into Riga, July 1, 1941, and of the establishment of the ghetto, one of which is told by Max Michelson in his book City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga. There was little hope that our family had survived the mass murders that occurred on November 29, 1941 and December 7-8, 1941.

I learned something about Boris’ spirit and determination when he suddenly pulled the car off the road and onto a sidewalk in the ghetto. He got out of the car with no pause for thought and walked up to a construction worker rebuilding a home. His wife could hear what he had muttered as he put the car in park. She explained that the house under construction was where a notorious and brutal ghetto commander had lived. Boris demanded to know who would ever have the audacity to buy, remodel and live in the home once occupied by this evil man. Boris returned to the car and told me how this man would decide who would live and who would not. The man stood by that very house each day as those working outside the ghetto, including Boris, returned. The ghetto inhabitants passed his house, and he stood surveying the passing Jews with a toothpick in his mouth, moving it from one corner to the other, and back. Boris and his wife spent the whole day with me and told me everything they could, speaking openly and with heart. Together, we visited Rumbula Forest, the wooded area outside Riga where 25,000 Jews were murdered and lay buried. I fear many family members are there but the only ones I know about are Miriam Greditor and one-year-old son, Anatoly (listed in the Yad Vashem database). We also visited the concentration camp called Salaspils. Both places were somber and moving and very, very lonely. Again, no one was there but the many souls of those who were killed.

I was amazed again and again as I visited each place marking the presence and annihilation of the Jews of Latvia that there were simply no visitors— no tourists, no families, no Latvians, no Russians visiting these sites. No one.

From Riga I planned to go to Pasvalys, Lithuania, then back to Latvia via Subate on my way to Daugavpils. My cousin could not accompany me, and I needed to find an interpreter who could speak Russian. I considered hiring a professional guide, or taking a bus (and perhaps finding an English-speaker there), or hiring a driver. I was aware that I was at a disadvantage being a foreigner unsure of the value of the Lat. I knew a bus ride from Daugavpils to Riga would cost only a few Lats, but a taxi ride within Riga itself might run me 7-12 Lats. How could I trust someone to quote me a fair price for my trip from Riga to Pasvalys to Daugavpils? A guide I contacted from a list I had brought with me wanted five hundred dollars for the job. I needed to find another way.

I visited the tourist bureau near my hotel in Old Town Riga. Those working there were young, very friendly, and spoke English. I decided to sit down with one of them, and explain my situation. I did not describe my research in detail, but explained that I needed a driver with a car, who could also speak English and Russian, and who would agree to drive and interpret for me. I explained that I had an appointment in Pasvalys midday, and that I then wanted to be taken to Daugavpils by way of Subate. I would need to be dropped off at my hotel in Daugavpils by evening, but would pay gas and mileage for the driver to return to Riga. I explained that by contacting the tourist bureau I hoped to find a safe and affordable way to make this unusual trip. A tall order? Within five minutes, the tourist agent had arranged my passage with a young Latvian named Edgars who owns a car rental company. He agreed to take his day off, Sunday, to test drive one of his new cars, make some extra money, and practice his English. He wanted the equivalent of one hundred dollars for the day. That Sunday, it was overcast and drizzling. I had with me all I had brought on my trip: my briefcase carrying my notes and cameras, my suitcase and an umbrella. I was excited about the day ahead, and intrigued by what this man Edgars’, a young Latvian in his twenties, perspective might be about my agenda. We drove south from Riga to Lithuania. It is about a 60- mile journey to Pasvalys. During the drive, Edgars told me he was a musician by training, but was also an entrepreneur with a computer business as well as his car rental company. He was courteous, open and contemplative.

As I slowly explained the purpose of my trip, I tried to gauge his views. I thought of Lena advising me not to visit the Occupation Museum in Riga because it portrayed a misguided Latvian perspective of what actually happened to the Jews. Edgars listened carefully, was intrigued with my mission, and seemed genuinely interested in his job as chief translator and transportation manager. He was very calm, which, unbeknownst to me that morning, would prove to be essential. Edgars and I pulled up in front of the Pasvalys Museum in plenty of time for my appointment with the museum director. I had received an e-mail confirming the day and time of our meeting, in which I was reminded to bring a Russian-speaking translator. It was Sunday, and the museum was closed. Edgars found a concierge who was helpful, and opened the museum for us. We were then told that the director was in Germany on holiday. Her assistant was also on vacation. Edgars didn’t seem fazed, so I thought I had misunderstood. Not so. I reviewed my notes and letters, and found the name of the town historian, recommended by other American researchers I had been in e-mail contact with while in the planning stages of my trip. He was contacted, and quickly arrived at the museum exclaiming that he had been expecting my arrival. He was an elderly gentleman who was a bit confused about exactly what it was I wanted. He seemed confused about other things as well. Edgars was able to establish a good relationship with him, and explained that I had records showing that my Rozinko ancestors had lived in Pasvalys. I had names and addresses, and had heard that there were photos in the museum of some of the Jews of the town. The gentleman was more interested in telling tales of his own rather than trying to address my questions.

I was impatient and pressed Edgars to find other ways to ask my questions. At Edgars’ suggestion, we decided to let him take us on his journey, rather than asking him to help me find the thread of mine. He showed us the museum and then invited us to his home. There he showed us census lists of a neighboring town as well as the piano his granddaughter plays. He talked, and we interjected facts we knew or questions we had. Our ancestor was a flour seller, and the large mill stones right outside his home led us to a long discussion of the mills in town and of the Jewish homes down by the river. Edgars became quite adept at steering the discussion. We were able learn the new names of the old streets I had in my documentation. After a humorous, but very pleasant, afternoon we expressed our thanks and set off on our own to explore the town. Ironically, the address of my flour-selling ancestor, Mowsha Rozinko, was right near the site of the present-day museum, where we first parked the car that day!

Subate, Latvia
We crossed the border back into Latvia in the northeastern corner of Lithuania just east of Rokiskis. We immediately entered Subate. This small border town is off a dirt road from the main thoroughfare towards Daugavpils. The town is absolutely beautiful, set on only a few streets, amid peaceful lakes. I wanted to find the home of Lea Berkowitsch, daughter of Haim, who married Schmuel Rozinko. The home was easy to find, and was simply lovely. It is a small lakefront cottage surrounded by gardens. It is within easy walking distance of the town center, but removed enough to seem miles away. Two addresses from this town appear in my documents, and that has intrigued me. I know that although Schmuel and Lea lived at times in Dvinsk and other times in Riga, this town must have seemed a safe harbor for them. Lea came home to Subate from Riga in 1914 to give birth to her first child, Michael. Although her second child, Ilya, was born in Dvinsk (present-day Daugavpils), a Subate address is among those on his Riga house register listing. Ilya was struck off the Riga house register in 1938, with the “words unknown to where”. We know now that he was sent to Vorkuta.

We left Subate and reached Daugavpils after a short drive. Edgars drove me to my hotel, and after I expressed my thanks for his help and for his willingness to go on this adventure with me, we said goodbye. Daugavpils I checked into the lovely guesthouse, and was immediately handed a letter from Olga, the translator I had arranged for through my LatviaSig connections. I needed an evening to unwind and to think about my experiences in Riga, my adventure of the day with Edgars, and to review my notes on Daugavpils. I called her and we arranged to meet.

The next morning, while we ate breakfast together, I listened to the plans she had made for our two days together. Olga was exuberant and eager, and wanted very much for me to have a positive experience in Daugavpils. She had done a great deal of research for me based on information in my letters to her, and had arranged for me to meet members of the synagogue as well as Blume, the new President of the Jewish Community Center. In addition, Raisa, a member of the Jewish community who had written about the Holocaust in Daugavpils for local publications, would take me to see their memorial sites. Olga called for a taxi, and immediately began negotiations to hire the driver for our use throughout the day. She must have sensed my concern about cost, immediately explaining to me that the cost of a full day taxi hire in Daugavpils would be less than one overpriced trip in Riga. She was right. Having him on call for us the whole day cost me eleven Lats. The trip by taxi from the Riga airport to my hotel there alone was ten Lats. This young man would be with us as we explored the city’s Jewish past. What would he be thinking? He was a tough-looking young man wearing a sleeveless white tshirt and a cross around his neck. Hanging from the sun visor of his taxi was a photo of a voluptuous, scantily clad woman.

First we went to the newly restored synagogue. The exterior of the building had no sign identifying it, and no apparent entrance. The main door could only be found after entering a side gate. There was nothing easily visible outside in writing or ornamentation identifying the building as a synagogue. I did see one Star of David ornamenting a façade high above the windows. I met various members of the congregation. They were very welcoming, and eager to have photos of our Rozinko family to keep in records there. They knew of one Rozinko who recently emigrated and moved to Israel, but otherwise could not place any of our family names. I asked not only about Rozinko, but also about Enta’s maiden name Schuwal, and her sister’s married name Goldberg. I showed them photos taken in Daugavpils (Dvinsk) of my husband’s grandfather as a child and then as a young man. I also brought photos from the early 1900s of all Abram and Enta Rozinko’s children. The Rozinkos moved from Dvinsk to Riga in 1920, but as far as I know, the Schuwals and the Goldbergs remained.

The synagogue was beautiful, and the members were proud that I was eager to photograph it. They wanted to show me the ark and the Torah. A member’s young son of about nine was there, and I wanted to know about his religious education. They told me there was no rabbi for that synagogue alone, and that there were no classes to prepare boys to be Bar Mitzvah, much less the girls. We drove from there to the Jewish Community Center, where Blume, the President welcomed me with tea and cakes. She explained to me the programs they offered, including one of medical assistance for the elderly as well as for mothers and children. To qualify, she explained one must have at least one grandparent who is Jewish.

I was very interested in a series of books Blume showed me on the Jewish history of Daugavpils. They were in Russian and had been written by various members of the community. One of the authors, Raisa, was there to meet me. She and her sister, Faege, both survivors, joined us for the afternoon. Raisa had prepared notes on WWll in Daugavpils, and we set off in our taxi to see the ghetto and the forests where the Jews were murdered and buried. We stopped on the bank of the Daugava River, and stood looking across the river from where the city was to a large fortress on the opposite bank. It was very windy. Raisa had her notes, and Olga stood ready to translate. Raisa kept brushing aside her hair to be able to see her notes. There were four of us there: Olga, Raisa, Faege and me. Our taxi driver stood off to one side, and listened. Raisa spoke of the history of the fortress, which she called simply The Fortress Before the Bridge. This was once housing for Napoleon’s cavalry. There were stables and secure walls. It is now a functioning prison. During the war, however, it was the Jewish ghetto. Most Jewish ghettos in Europe, Raisa explained, were a part of the city where the Jews already lived. This was not the case in Daugavpils. The Jews were forced to leave their town and walk across the rail bridge to the fortress. To murder the Jews, the Nazis forced them to march back across the rail bridge to the forests outside of the city.

To find the forest memorial today was no easy task. Raisa knew where it was, but neither the taxi driver nor Olga had any idea where to go. Raisa, a calm soul, a knowledgeable speaker, and a careful listener, became animated as she tried to direct the driver. She looked intently at the woods as we passed, and suddenly called to the driver to pull off on the shoulder of the road. There was no sign or marker. There was no driveway or parking lot. We got out of the car and began to walk into the woods. Raisa was quiet. Everyone was quiet. There was no one there. The taxi driver followed us, but did not stay too close. All we could hear was the crunching of stones and leaves under our feet. We walked amid stone markers labeled with the name of a country and the number of Jews from that country who perished. We approached a central large stone memorial. Raisa spoke of the creation of the memorial, and of the large ceremony held there which even the mayor of the city attended. The taxi driver moved closer to us as we walked and slowly joined us. That evening I shared a wonderful meal with Olga and Blume. We agreed that it felt more like a celebration of three old friends talking freely over a glass of wine than a dinner party attended by three strangers. We spoke of our many hopes that our relationship would grow and that our communication would continue.

The rest of my time in Daugavpils was spent with Olga exploring the places related to my family’s history. Where I had thought I was a stickler for precision, thoroughness, and always being prepared, I quickly realized I had met my match. Olga was either thumbing through her dog-eared Russian-English dictionary in search of an exact word she needed to use, consulting the copious notes she’d taken on my family, or was wrapping up breakfast leftovers of salmon and bread just in case we became hungry mid-morning. I was impressed. She never tired, and was completely committed to her job as my caretaker, translator and guide. I smile now remembering the moment we reached the corner of Ogorodnaya and Bolotnaya Streets. This is the location listed on the All-Russian Census of 1897 as the address of Abram Rozinko and family. We stopped first so Olga could explain that Ogorodnaya was now Saknu, and Bolotnaya was now Alejas.

I stood looking at each building, and thinking. Olga looked at me, and then at my notebook, which was closed and tucked under my arm. Ah. I opened it and began writing the new street names. Olga was pleased, and was able to continue. She led me to each of the four corners of that intersection, explaining each of the existing buildings and whether or not that corner was more or less likely to be where our family home had been. I was sure to photograph each corner separately, as well as the intersection as a whole. I returned to Riga by bus. It was easy, and very inexpensive. Olga and Raisa saw me to the station to send me on my way. It was a sweet good-bye, with them waving to me for as long as I could see them out of the bus window.

I flew home the next day, taking many thoughts, hopes and memories with me. I had met our Riga cousins—I thought of the happiness of found family. I had explored Jewish history—I thought of Boris and of his accounts of Latvian and Nazi brutality. I had learned about Latvia today—I thought of how much both Boris and Edgars loved their country, and of young Lena’s burgeoning connections to her Jewish heritage. I had seen so much—I thought of the lonely monuments, unknown and unvisited. On the plane, I took out my journal and started a new page—what I must remember to do and see when I return.