An Unplanned Stop – Lou-Ellen Barkan

After three weeks touring Russia and the Baltic, Riga was the last stop. Not our first choice, but an unexpected change in airline schedules made it the only option to catch our transfer back to the states. My husband, Michael, the family travel planner, hit the guidebooks and organized a guide for our one day in town.

“A Jewish Tour,” I raised my eyebrows. “Are there any Jews left in Latvia?”

Most definitely, our guide, Marta, told us. She was part of a small, active Jewish community organized around a restored synagogue in the heart of Riga. This was where we would begin our tour before walking through town to the war memorial. Later, on our own, and guided by a trail map, we could visit the site where the Jewish population of Riga was massacred in 1941.

My first instinct was to decline politely, return to the hotel and spend the day reading the latest Grisham. The truth is, I had been avoiding exactly this experience for years. After I wept non-stop during visits to Holocaust museums in DC, New York and Miami, I failed to understand why anyone would spend a vacation visiting death camps. I had studied these events, seen the movies and plays. Read the novels. That was enough for me.

But here we were, unexpectedly, in Latvia, so I watched Marta unlock the synagogue door and lead us into a cool, empty sanctuary. Surrounded by exquisitely restored stained glass windows, we sat on wooden benches with unforgiving straight backs while she described the history of the Latvian Jews. It was not a pretty story, centuries of rampant anti-Semitism, collusion with the Nazis, eventually, the annihilation of the Latvian Jewish families. An exhibition brought the story to life. Drawings, paintings, photographs. The faces of the dead looked out at me; families enjoying picnics, boat rides.  Children flying kites. Teenagers sitting on a stone fence, laughing at the camera. A pregnant woman holding her child’s hand. Four stolid grandmothers, dressed in black. They more closely match my mood. If not for the clothing styles, these could have been our friends and neighbors.

We left the synagogue and walked through town to the massive Biķernieki Memorial, designed by a Latvian architect. There is some irony, or is it justice, in that it was financed primarily by Germans.  The stones’ symbols represent the affiliations of the dead. I touched the Star of David and hid tears behind my camera.


The formal tour over, Marta handed us a trail map and pointed to a path leading into the forest. “The trail starts there,” she said. “The route is unmarked. Follow the map and walk to the end.” She kissed me on both cheeks and, in surprisingly good Hebrew, wished us long life and good health. Before we left, I was tempted to ask about her family’s experience. But something held me back. In this place, it felt too private, too personal a story to share with strangers.

After Marta left, I suggested to Michael that we skip the walk, but he insisted, so we headed off to a clearing deep in the forest. According to our guidebook, this was where the Jews of Riga were shot and their bodies thrown into a communal pit. With well-practiced Nazi efficiency, the Jews were forced to dig their own grave. Shortly after the massacre, the Nazis proudly announced that Latvia was free, at last, of Jews.

Michael and I held hands as we walked, trying not to trip on the roots and stones that had fallen on the wide dirt trail. There were no markers, no other tourists or locals, just dark woods on both sides. At the end of the trail, a small field, cleared of trees and thick brush, covered with white gravestones. The stones were grouped, each engraved with a name and a birthdate. All with the same date of death; December 18, 1941.

Michael bent over, examining the stones, calling out the names.  “Eckstein, Ettinger,” he said. “Brider, Eidelmann.” And then a pause.

“Barkan?” He gestured for me to join him. “You need to see this.”

Walking over, I saw a group of gravestones, in various sizes, clustered together in a corner of the site. “Barkan? You had Latvian relatives?”

“Not that I know of,” Michael said. “But family records date back to the 15th century and we’re scattered, so I guess it’s possible.”

And then, one gravestone caught our attention; “Sara Barkan, 1933 -1941.”  I caught my breath. Sara Barkan. Our daughter’s name. Sara, without the “h”. My Sara was a mother now, with two children of her own.

But this gravestone marked the death another Sara Barkan, a child murdered when she was eight years old.  I pictured her walking the trail, hurried along by harsh German soldiers, holding her mother’s hand, kneeling, head down. Did she cry? Was her mother’s warmth enough? How did her mother have the strength? Would I?

Many of my Russian and Baltic memories have faded. But Riga? Riga remains as sharp in my mind as yesterday’s subway ride. The synagogue. The smell of the forest. The killing field filled with simple white gravestones. Our silent walk back to the hotel, lunch and a strong brandy. Our toast of thanks for our Sara, for our grandchildren.

“L’chaim,” Michael raised his glass. “To life.”

Lou-Ellen Barkan is native New Yorker, spending her retirement years teaching creative writing classes, running a writers’ group and publishing stories in literary journals. Some of these stories can be found in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Potato Soup Journal and Clever Magazine. She holds a BA Summa Cum Laude from Hunter College and an MA in adult education from Columbia University.

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