New introduction

Avraham Shpungin was one of only a handful of Latvian Jews to survive WWII in Latvia. There is a larger number of German and other western European Jews who survived the Holocaust in Latvia after having been deported there by the Germans during the war. And there is an even larger group of Latvian Jews who survived after having fled (or been deported by the Soviets) to Russia before the Germans invaded Latvia in 1941.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Shpungin’s story is incredible. It contains an unbelievable series of coincidences, each of which is in itself unbelievable. This is as it must be; otherwise he would not have survived. And Mr. Shpungin himself appears to have been a remarkable individual. This is also probably as it must have been; otherwise he would not have survived. Most of us wouldn’t have.

So who was Avraham Sphungin? And what are Latvian Jews? Was there ever even such a thing? Latvia only became a country after WWI. For centuries, the Baltic region had been part of the Russian empire. The pale of settlement where Jews were allowed to live extended as far north as the southeastern reaches of the valley of the Daugava (Dvina) River, an area historically known as Selonia. Most Latvians lived, as they do today, to the north and west, around the Gulf or Riga and in Courland (Kurzeme). And of course most Jews of the Russian empire lived far south of Selonia, in Lithuania, Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. The Jews of Selonia, like most Jews living in the rural shtetls of the pale of settlement, had lived for centuries much as had they had since the Middle Ages. As Jews of the Russian empire, they were considered a separate nationality, different from Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, and other ethnic and religious groups they often shared villages with. While the tsarist government restricted Jews from living in certain parts of the empire and engaging in certain professions, it did not intrude much in the daily life of the towns. The ethnic communities largely managed their own affairs according to their traditions, living almost in separate worlds from their neighbors who were not of their community. School was not mandatory. Jewish children, if they did go to school, went for a few years to a heder, where they learned some Hebrew and the basics of their religion.

Avraham Shpungin was born in the town of Jakobstadt (Jēkabpils) in Selonia not long after World War I. He was of the first generation to grow up as a citizen of Latvia, a modern country, a parliamentary democracy with equal rights for all its citizens. As a child, he almost certainly attended a government school for at least a few years, where his classroom almost certainly would have displayed a Latvian flag and a framed portrait of the President of the Republic. As a citizen of Latvia, he was free to pursue any profession and live anywhere he wished in Latvia, although he could not so freely travel to most of what had been the old pale of settlement, as this was now located in the newly independent countries of Lithuania and Poland, and the Belarussian and the Ukrainian republics of the Soviet Union.

The Latvian capital Riga had a Jewish presence going back to the middle ages, when it was part of the Hanseatic League. But it had been outside the pale of settlement in tsarist times, so very few Jews lived there at the time of Mr. Shpungin’s birth. Jews made up only about 5% of the population of the new Republic of Latvia at the time of its independence, but the small towns of sparsely populated Selonia were often heavily Jewish, some even more than 50%. Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, roughly a third of the country’s Jews had moved to Riga. It was and is the only large city in Latvia, and the site of the University of Latvia. Mr. Shpungin enrolled there as a student, leaving behind him the traditional provincial life his forefathers had known for generations, a mere 75 miles away.

The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 left Latvia on the Soviet side of the line Hitler and Stalin had drawn through the heart of Eastern Europe. Nazi Germany invaded the western two-thirds of Poland, while the Soviet Union annexed the eastern third of Poland and the three Baltic states. Thus Latvian independence came to an end, less than 20 years after it began.

Ironically, one of the first acts of ethnic cleansing of WWII was the evacuation of Baltic Germans from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia following the pact. These hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans were descended from the Teutonic knights who had colonized the Baltic in the middle ages. They had lived in the Baltic for over half a millennium. They had been subjects of the tsar for centuries and then became citizens of the Baltic states during their two decades of independence. They had never been subjects of any of the kings of Prussia or emperors of Germany or been citizens of the Weimar Republic, and had not voted in the German elections of 1933. Yet overnight they were forced to abandon their homes and extensive land holding in the Baltic and flee as refugees to Germany, a country they had never seen. To this day, they have never been compensated for their losses. Their unique dialect of German has been lost from the world and their culture, literature, and folkways have been all but completely forgotten, even in Germany.

Many Latvians, especially intellectuals and members of the Latvian government, also fled to Germany ahead of the Soviet annexation. The year 1940 is remembered in Latvia as the year of red terror. The Red Army and Cheka (precursor of the KGB) were the law. The lot of the local population was poverty and fear. All land and businesses were nationalized. Large swaths of the population, especially property owners and educated people, were exiled to Siberia.

By the time of Operation Barbarossa in the spring of 1941, many Latvians were apt to see the invading German army as liberators. When the German army conquered Latvia in the summer of 1941, roughly one third of Latvia’s Jews had either already been forcibly exiled by the Soviets, or actively fled at that time into the Soviet interior together with the retreating communists. Of the two thirds who were left behind, roughly 70,000 people, only a handful were to survive the war.

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In his writing, Avraham Shpungin comes across as a man of the modern world, a scientist. There is an individualist and surprisingly humorous quality to a lot of his narrative. He identifies strongly as a Jew and his writing delights in wry Yiddish turns of phrase. But there is nothing to suggest he had much interest in religion or traditional Jewish folk life of the kind he had left behind in his native town of Jakobstadt.

While some Holocaust survivors have experienced a crisis of faith, it is not clear what role faith played in Mr. Shpungin’s life even before the war. He is clearly familiar with Jewish beliefs and customs, but he mentions these more as narrative stylings than as theological principles that guided his life. He suggests many times in the telling of his story that modern civilization with its promises of rationality and civility proved to be a barbaric lie. It’s possible his early interest in science was part of a belief that science could alleviate the problems of the past. While he did complete his scientific training after the war, it’s possible his faith in the promise of science and modernity did not completely recover.

The Christian family who risked their lives to save his were essentially peasants who had little formal schooling and were more religious than he was. We learn little of what he thought of communism as a political or economic system. But he does express resentment that the Communist authorities never publically recognized or rewarded the Vanags family for their selfless acts during the war, even though the story soon became known throughout the area after the fact.

He expresses few political opinions. His main concerns were his family and work. For most of his life, he seems to have considered Latvia to be his home under any form of government. He doesn’t seem to have minded living after the war in the same city where he had witnessed the Jewish population being murdered, and where he himself had been a slave laborer for two years, all to the indifference, ridicule, and even active participation of many of the inhabitants. Neither does he show any sign of being bothered by the communists’ hostility towards religion. What was important to him was commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. Not political or ideological commemoration, but actual physical commemoration of the victims he had known as they were persecuted and killed in Latvia, in isolation from the rest of the population, because they were Jews.

After the war, he and other survivors (most of whom had survived the war in the Soviet interior) spent much of their weekends and days off searching out the fates of their loved ones. They travelled the country, marking the killing sites and even, at their own expense, disinterring the dead and burying them in Jewish cemeteries, and erecting gravestones and monuments. This was no small feat in the Soviet Union.

These are all acts that might have gotten him into trouble with Soviet authorities, blacklisted from working in his profession, interrogated by the KGB, or worse. But as far as we can tell, he was not harassed and was allowed to live and work in peace, at least up until he made a formal request to leave the country to go Israel. What pushed him to emigrate was that monuments he and others had erected were removed, or the star of David filed off the memorial stone. The Soviet Union made much propaganda out of the German atrocities committed during the war, but it tightly controlled their memory. The Soviets themselves erected many monuments, some of them very large, creative, and in their own way impressive. But they were all educational in the Soviet sense, providing the correct political frame of reference. They were very short on details, names, times, places, specific events, anything that would inform as to the mechanics of the war and its victims. And they didn’t mention Jews. They didn’t even mention Germans. They all read “to Soviet victims of fascism”.

Mr. Shpungin began to write the stories that became this book in the 1960s, while he was still living in Riga. The earliest stories are mostly not about himself, but about acquaintances whose fates he learned about after the war. In the Soviet Union, the government controlled the power of the press, and no publication would publish any of his writing. He was able to live with the personal memory of pain, but he was not able to live with the fear that the collective memory of it would be suppressed. It was only towards the very end of his life, after living in Israel for 20 years, that he undertook writing a complete account of his own story of survival. His writings were first published as a book in Yiddish in 1991. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mr. Shpungin visited Latvia and met again with the remaining members of the Vanags family and also with other survivors from Latvia. He obtained additional photographs and wrote an additional chapter, which appear in the Hebrew version of the book published in 1994.

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