Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In downtown Riga, there is a monument called the Statue of Liberty. It was erected in 1935 during a brief period of Latvian independence and then used as a symbol of hope during subsequent occupations.
Between the World Wars Latvia was independent, but in 1940 the Soviet Union occupied the country before Nazi Germany moved in a year later. Do you remember from Hogan's Hero's the dreaded Russian Front--I think this was it.
After World War II, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic region until 1991. Tragically, one totalitarian regime after another after another with mass deportations; nationalization of property and the suppression of national culture. It is heartbreaking to think about and just as emotional to look around this city and see the cultural pride and restoration that has occurred in the last 18 years. My parents traveled here in 1992, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the description that they gave of the city does not coincide with what I see a decade and a half later.
Charlie's great grandfather was a moderately well-known artist in Latvia in the late 19th century and we are here on a exploration to learn more about him and to document his body of work for the family. Our first stop this morning was the National Art Museum where the curator showed us the one painting that awaits restoration in their archives. Another painting that has been restored has been loaned to an exhibit in a nearby palace where we will visit tomorrow.
Later in the day, we met with a historian who knew where the artist, Johann Maddaus, was buried.
Apparently, in the 1970's the Soviets began removing the grave markers from the cemetaries and putting roads and parks and buildings where families were buried. The man who helped us find Charlie's family plot told us that cemetaries had been his hobby since he was a child and he would look for the secret graves. That sent a shiver right through me--this man was my age and his childhood memories include mass killings and secret graves and the disappearance of people who dared to question.
The chapel in the picture was stripped and without a roof during the Soviet era and after 1991, the people who returned from exile in Siberia formed its congregation and re-built the church. The cross in the picture is built from pieces of the railroad that carried them to exile.
This trip is definitely turning out to be an eye-opener for me.
Tomorrow we are renting a car for a few days and heading out into the countryside to see more pieces of ancestor art in various churches throughout Latvia and Estonia.