Thursday, August 27, 2009

Touring in Tallinn

After our travels in Belarus, we prepared for the last leg of our journey, a flight to the magical city of Tallinn, Estonia. Thus far on this trip we have been in the roles of student, genealogist and explorer of Jewish heritage. In Estonia we anticipated being more relaxed and unburdened from the responsibilities we have had in the past weeks, no more homework and no more living in the shadow of the Holocaust. We were tourists!

Tallinn is a beautiful city with many buildings that date back as far as the 1400s. We meandered through the cobblestone streets taking pictures of the many interesting architectural features and street activity. After two days which had started at 4AM, we had the luxury of sleeping a few extra hours. It dawned on us that we had been in four different countries in 24 hours. Our plan for the day was to meet our friend Judy, from the Vilnius program, who was arriving from Helsinki by ferry. We caught a taxi to the ferry building only to discover her ferry had arrived at another terminal a twenty minute walk away.

We soon found our friend and began to walk towards the Old Town. While we walked our friend shared her tales of her past few days in Finland. We had learned that there was a market near the docks and we decided to stop in to look for a few last gifts. It was comprised of stalls selling a variety of products, but especially clothing. As we wandered through the market we discovered a stall which contained memorabilia from WWII. The stall had Nazi and Russian uniforms, guns, helmets and medals. We saw a bottle of Fuhrerwein, wine with an image of Hitler, but what was most appalling was a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Adolf Hitler European Tour 1938-1945” as if he were a rock band. This was not a "collectible", but a newly manufactured good. When we took pictures, the stall owner became quite agitated. We saw these products at many stalls in this market. At one stall we saw armbands with yellow stars stitched on, these were worn by the Jews to isolate them and to identify them for extermination. We were sickened by this vivid reminder. Our plans to be just tourists were thrown awry as we we were forced to recall the horrors that occurred in this area. At one stall I asked why they sold such items, and was told because people purchase them, especially young men. We remembered that the neo-Nazi rally in Vilnius this past March was composed of such participants. What was distressing was that this area was seriously affected by the war and it was being treated like a joke. After this sobering moment we attempted to resume our tourist role, but it continued to come up in our discussions. Interestingly we did not see the Hitler t-shirts for sale in the many shops of the Old Town.

We found Estonia to be more costly than either Latvia or Lithuania as it was clearly a tourist region. By costly we mean a nice meal would cost at least the equivalent of $20 or more. In Vilnius and Riga such meals could cost half of that. Many of the buildings are quite old and the city has done a nice job of posting historical plaques for English speakers. The city has a well preserved old town where each street is worthy of a photograph. There are many shops with handcrafts as well as the linen and amber for which this area is known. There is also a city wall on which one can walk.

One of the highlights of our time in Tallinn was when we spotted a group of women who told us they were Moldovan.  They were wearing brightly colored and richly decorated native costumes.   They were all gathered around a telephone as one of them tried to determine if her daughter had given birth yet. When they spotted us taking photographs they asked us if we would like them to sing for us. We responded “absolutely” and were treated to a song and dance. Colorful skirts swirled as they moved and we enjoyed both the music and the visual spectacle.

The following morning we caught our bus to Riga which now felt like an old friend. We exited the bus station and saw our hotel in the distance. It was a beautiful sunny day for our last day of travel and we remembered how on our departure from Riga we had to drag our bags in the rain across the trolley tracks and to the bus station. Upon our arrival, Fran had the disconcerting discovery that her wallet was missing. After trying to verify if it had been discovered, we reported her credit cards lost before venturing out. Fortunately her passport remained with her.

We wanted to find the area of the city where the old synagogue had been housed and was set on fire by the Nazis with 300 people locked in. It stood in a run-down area of the city which was very Russian and had some very old wooden houses. We had been warned that it was not an area one would want to be after dark so we wanted to see it during the afternoon.

We walked through an underground tunnel where it felt as if we had entered another world. When we emerged we walked beneath an overpass lined with shops selling more war memorabilia. Fran began to take a picture of it and a hand suddenly appeared over her camera lens. Attached to it was a rather rough looking Russian man. Apparently those who sell these products prefer to operate under the radar. In one of the shops I found the deck of Russian cards I had been looking for with the Cyrillic Russian letter for the Queen, King and Jack. We proceeded down the street past a Russian Orthodox Church filled with paintings of icons against gold.

A little beyond it we found a memorial to the synagogue which resembled a ruin. We believe it may be the same footprint as the synagogue. The floor was composed of cracked red and white tiles and decorative elements were set into the walls. We both were thinking of the 300 Jews who were burned alive there as we walked on that floor. Flowers on the ground spoke to someone else who had paid their respects. Also on the site was a memorial to those who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. The old ghetto was in that area and we found one of the streets that bordered it. The street was lined with worn wooden houses now inhabited by the Russian community of Riga.

We walked through the streets until we arrived at the market. Part of it is open air and another part has been housed in converted Zeppelin hangars since 1930. As we walked towards our hotel a woman approached Fran as she took a photograph of the hangars. She proceeded to pantomime the attack by the “Deutshland Fascists” with sound effects and broad hand motions. She said “Bom, Bom, Bom” to describe bombs falling as well as imitating the sounds of machine gun fire while she held an imaginary machine gun. She then held her hand at a level to indicate the height she had been at that time. We didn’t understand her language, but her gestures told a vivid story. While young men purchase Nazi memorabilia, she remembers with horror what the Nazis did in Riga.

As our trip comes to an end, I want to do a special thank you to Fran, my traveling companion, co-editor and contributor. I’ve learned that writing a blog every day that deals with some very serious topics is a challenging and time consuming effort. I often felt as if I were writing on deadline as the activities of the day would quickly become old news as new activities eclipsed them. While the purported purpose of our trip was to learn a language, the cultural and historical components were an important part of the total experience. It greatly helped to be with someone who was sharing the same experiences so we could discuss, process and capture our responses. Fran also generously shared many of her wonderful photos, not to mention her spare camera, after mine was damaged.

So what now? I anticipate writing a few more entries to summarize what we took away from the trip. These were experiences which I will continue to process in the weeks ahead. I will also share my artistic efforts around the themes that emerged in this journey. In October I will meet up with Fran in Utah where we join a group of Jewish genealogists doing research at the Family History Library and will report on any discoveries and the search process itself. I welcome your comments on this blog and would be happy to share more specific information with anyone who is exploring such a trip. And finally, as I get photos organized I will put out some web albums with links in the blog and invite you to take a virtual trip along with us.

1 comment:

  1. While my sister might not have realized it, she has become a journalist in the finest tradition of our craft.

    I do not have an employee who could have done what she has done so well and I doubt that I could have matched the power of her story-telling.

    If you can read this set of stories, and still conclude that the evil perpetrated by the Germans in World War Two could never happen again, than you are truly naive.

    Well done, Susan.

    I hope this gets the attention that it deserves.