A family, looking for closure and discovery, feels like a stranger in their homeland.
By Amber Bartlett (’18)
If these walls could talk, they would never shut up. My parents and I stand in the town where our family lived for a couple hundred years. “I feel sick. Please get me out of here,” my mother whispers. I grab her hand in an attempt to comfort her. I peer down to see the tips of my shoes covered in a fine, grey dirt. I stomp my foot directly into the hard earth to mark my territory. I imagine the sweet smell of my great-great-grandmother’s baked Challah and the warm touch of her soft fingers on my face.
Bauska, this small village in Latvia, was once bustling with a thriving population of almost three thousand Jews.This place was lovingly called “home.”
That was then.
Now, it is a run-down town that is recognized for a monument that glorifies Nazism. The streets are barren and dull except for a few scattered flowers on the window ledges.
“I felt it was a little bit like how hunters go out and put their dead animals on the wall.”
Two tour guides accompany us: the woman is merely a translator and the male tour guide is a total fraud. He wears a Magen David choker around his swollen neck. My dad politely asks him where he purchased the necklace. In a thick accent, he answers “Israel” however my intuition tells me that he has never set foot in the Holy Land. My skin crawls as he leads us, emptying out his bucket of lies. Both tour guides are Latvians. Their families were likely complicit in the murder of Bauska’s Jews in 1941 during the Nazi occupation.
Many disappointed Jewish families have likely traveled to quaint towns in Eastern Europe, like this one, to explore their roots. Undoubtedly our feelings of deception are not unique.
While researching the history of Bauska, my father met another San Diegan who had a similar experience when visiting Bauska. Yehudi Gaffen, CEO of Gafcon, has been working on building a Holocaust memorial in Bauska. In the summer of 1941, his grandparents, great-grandparents, and other close relatives were marched into the Likvertine Forest, just outside of Bauska. Under command of the Nazis, the Latvians shot eight hundred innocent Jews dead.
Mr. Gaffen, who serves on countless boards also wants to be a driving force in creating a monument that reminds the people of Bauska of their wrongdoings and highlights the influential Jewish inhabitants of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The problem is many of the Latvians, who killed the Jews in 1941 still have relatives living in the town. As Mr. Gaffen points out, “They just don’t want to be reminded of that because I think they know the horrible things that were done. I don’t think they really want to come to grips with it or come to terms with it. I think they want to bury and forget about it.”
While being led by the townspeople into the Likvertine Forest our curiosity curdles into fear. I was being led to the spot where my people who sanctified the ground in blood.
The town-sponsored Jewish museum felt like deceit. As Mr. Gaffen admitted, “I felt it was a little bit like how hunters go out and put their dead animals on the wall. It was like commemorating this lost community, but it didn’t feel like it was respected.”
I stare back down at the dirt I just kicked up with my heel. I feel connected to the past Jewish history of this town even though the current Bauska glorifies the wrong ideals. Even the bottled water in the local store is called “Mangali,” a variant of the name of the infamous Josef Mengele. The Nazi monument in the center of the town is adorned with fresh flowers daily.
I feel thankful that my immediate family smelled trouble and left in 1900 for the United States of America. My family and I were meant to feel vulnerable in order to truly appreciate the decisions our family made to leave Bauska when they did, 40 years before the Nazi occupation and genocide. As I clean the fine dirt coating my shoes, I am determined to remember Bauska in a positive light, the way my family did.