Beneath the Earth
Yosef Mendelevich was sixteen when he saw the killing grounds for the first time. It was the fall of 1963. He had heard about the place: just outside of Riga, in the vast woods of tall fir trees and sprawling brush that the locals called Rumbuli. All one had to do was follow the train tracks east, toward Moscow. There, underneath the black soil, in five narrow ditches, lay twenty-five thousand bodies, Jewish bodies, killed by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators in ten days at the end of 1941. Mendelevich knew this. All the Jews of Riga did. And they knew too about the small group of Jews -- Zionists, they were calling themselves -- who had searched the year before under the dark shadow of those trees for the exact place of the massacre. In the end, it hadn't been so hard to find. Poking out of the earth were fragments of charred bone, the shriveled brown leather of a child's shoe, a broken Star of David on a necklace.
Mendelevich was a shy, withdrawn boy with pale, pimply skin and thick, horn-rimmed glasses. Most days when he wasn't in school he was alone inside his parents' house in a poor section of Riga. The outside world entered mainly through its brutal noises -- the shouts of his Latvian neighbors stumbling home full of vodka; glass breaking; drunken fathers beating their children. Like any sensitive teenage introvert, he found his home, his only comfort, in his imaginings. In Yosef's case, the world he escaped to in his mind was a real place, though a rather fantastical destination for a young Soviet boy. It was a country so far away, so obscured and unknown, it might as well have existed under a different sun. That place was Israel. And he constructed his idea of it with what he had at hand. His aunt Fanya, one of the rare Soviet citizens allowed to immigrate in the late fifties, had once sent a color postcard of a swimming pool at Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz in the northern Galilee. Mendelevich took a magnifying glass to it, counting all the people, scrutinizing the shape and shade of every tree. The sight of so many Jews gathered together wearing swimming trunks seemed unreal. Fanya had also written his family a letter in which she recounted the history of the one-armed Joseph Trumpeldor and his last stand at Tel Chai, not far from Kfar Giladi, where he was killed in 1920 while defending the settlement from local Arabs. He became a legend for his famous dying words: "Never mind, it is good to die for our country." At night, Mendelevich's father would tune their shortwave radio to Kol Israel, the Voice of Israel, and hold the receiver close to his ear, translating the news from Hebrew to Russian. Before the war, his father had studied in a cheder, a Jewish religious school, and so he understood the language. But to Mendelevich the sounds were unfamiliar, a mystical, warm tongue from a better place, one he knew little about but felt, even as a teenager, that he was destined to go to.
Mendelevich didn't exactly trust the person who'd first told him about Rumbuli, a boy who sat next to him at the college he attended at night and who seemed to be a bit of a daydreamer. Still, if what the boy whispered to him was true, that young people were gathering on Sundays to clean up Rumbuli and make it a proper memorial ground, then Yosef wanted to go. So the next weekend, he set out with a friend.
What he found there, at the place he began referring to as Little Israel, startled him. Jews, most of them young but some in their sixties, were on their knees, digging their hands into the earth, lifting it up and dumping it clump by clump into homemade crates. Others were filling in the spaces with sand from two enormous mounds. Dozens of people with shovels and pails, rakes, and baskets, working. Some of the men had their shirts off.
In the middle of it all, static amid the activity, stood a huge wooden obelisk, taller than a man, painted pitch-black with a splattering of red at its top. On the obelisk's face, framed and behind glass, hung what looked like a large photograph of an oil painting. In somber browns and grays, it depicted a long line of tearful women, babies clinging to their breasts, followed by ashen-faced, downtrodden men, all marching under a threatening sky - Jews being led to the slaughter.
The scene actually before him was altogether different. The only time Mendelevich had ever witnessed so many Jews in one place was when he'd gone with his father to the synagogue on Peitaves Street in the old town. But those were old men. Here were young people, young Jews, sweating together under the sun. One man in particular caught his eye. He was tanned, strong, straight backed, just what Mendelevich thought an Israeli would look like. In the shock of the moment, he was willing to believe that such a miracle - an Israeli in Riga - might have occurred.
Mendelevich quickly grabbed a crate, got down on his knees, and began moving the earth with his bare hands. He rarely missed a Sunday after that. He would spend the week looking forward to Little Israel and to the bus rides from Riga. The group of young people grew through 1963 and into 1964, and eventually they took up almost all the seats on the bus leaving the city. And they sang. Mendelevich learned Israeli songs, such as the rousing anthem of the Palmach, the scruffy, pre-state paramilitary force in British Mandate Palestine:
All around us the storm rages
But we will not lower our heads
We are always ready to follow the orders
We are the Palmach.
From Metulla to the Negev
From the sea to the desert
Every fine young man to arms
Every young man on guard.
Though he understood not a word of the Hebrew, for the first time in his life, Mendelevich felt like part of a group. And when he listened to himself singing along with the whole bus filled with Jewish youth, he also felt, strangely, like a fighter.
Passengers faced with a busload of young Jews singing vociferously in a foreign language would often get off. One day, the driver stopped Mendelevich as he was exiting the bus. "Where do you come from like this?" he asked with a mixture of shock and contempt. Mendelevich didn't answer. He knew that the driver was bewildered and perhaps a little threatened by the loud group. Jews did not generally comport themselves like this, unabashedly strident and unafraid. But on the way to Rumbuli, they did.
It was strange but not entirely unexpected that in the early 1960s the Jews of Riga felt compelled to claw at the earth in search of their recent past. Most people living in the Baltic States were afflicted with a deep nostalgia. Until the summer of 1940, when they lost their independence and were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia had spent over two decades as free, prosperous, and democratic countries. The devastation of the war and then the total subjugation by Moscow's overbearing regime made for a defeated and demoralized population. In the early 1960s, most middle-aged people had a strong memory of and longing for the world they had lost.
For Jews, this tear through history was even more brutal and dramatic. They had seen their entire universe erased, and what they'd lost was a diverse and rich Jewish life.
To judge from population and emigration numbers, the interwar years were good ones for Jews in Latvia. Riga's Jewish population nearly doubled between 1920 and 1935, going from twenty-four thousand to forty-four thousand. Even at the height of the Zionist movement's popularity, few of these Jews opted to go to Palestine - only seventyfi ve went in 1931. Latvia, which gained its independence and established a parliamentary democracy following World War I, accepted and even to some extent encouraged a Jewish presence. Jews served in