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Why I Didn’t Want To Visit a Concentration Camp—and Why I Changed My Mind

In Latvia, visiting a site where thousands were killed seemed too much to bear, until I saw a place where the living still gather

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Salaspils. (Wayne Hoffman)
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Wayne didn’t reply. He was thumbing through our guidebook, reading about something or other and then finding it on the map we had picked up at the tourism office in the bus station.

There was a brief break in the weather the next morning, and the sun shone through the gauzy clouds for minutes at a time. He touched my shoulder and said we were taking a walk. I asked where we were going, and all he would say was that it was someplace nearby. I grabbed an umbrella, just in case.

Our destination turned out to be surprisingly close, on a cobbled lane just a few blocks from our hotel. It was the Peitavas Street Synagogue, Riga’s only synagogue. Carefully restored a few years ago, the Art Nouveau structure had survived the Nazis because it was wedged between several large apartment buildings. Had they tried to burn it, this entire section of the city might have gone up in flames. I had no idea it was here.

This synagogue, I realized, was probably where the two Orthodox Jews had been hurrying the day before. It was almost Simchat Torah, after all. We could see just one man standing outside, but the gates were flung open and from inside we could hear the murmur of voices occasionally punctuated by a burst of laughter. Perhaps not a lot of people, but enough to make it sound like a holiday gathering.

I glanced over at Wayne, who had a half-smile on this face. This was what he had been researching in the guidebook the day before. He knew, even if I didn’t, that I needed to come to this place. I guess after 24 years, he knows me pretty well.

Standing on that unremarkable street, I realized that I didn’t need to know all the stories about how a handful of Latvian Jews had survived the Nazis. I just needed to know that such stories existed. Seeing this synagogue, and hearing the laughter coming from inside, let me know that there were people who could tell the tales. The concentration camp on the southeastern edge of the city no longer seemed like the end of the story.

When the driver arrived an hour or so later to take us to Salaspils, I climbed into the front seat. I wanted to see everything.

***

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Why I Didn’t Want To Visit a Concentration Camp—and Why I Changed My Mind

In Latvia, visiting a site where thousands were killed seemed too much to bear, until I saw a place where the living still gather

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