David Silberman: “I realized that I’d have to rely on my own resourcefulness and fund the project myself”

David Silberman

David Silberman

“The year was 2001 and I participated in an international gathering of Latvian Jews where a memorial to the executed Jews of Latvia and from Germany and other European countries was dedicated in Bikernieki Forest. The solemn mourning ceremony and the superb architectural concept were exceptionally moving.

The site was crossed by alleys and passages bearing names of the cities from which the victims had been deported. Burgomeisters (mayors) from towns and cities in Germany and several other European countries had delivered scrolls listing the names of deportees; these were encased in capsules and buried in the Memorial ground. Filled with emotion followong the ceremony, I approached Mr.Sergej Ryzh, the architect, to express my admiration of his architectural solution and to ask if he might consider creating another memorial, of course smaller, for my own landsmen murdered in Preili.

Surrounded by many high-ranking officials, visitors, and foreign guests, Ryzh nevertheless handed me his business card and agreed to meet with me the next day at his office in Riga. There I told him of my intense involvement in Latvian Holocaust history and provided him with ny writings – Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and descriptions of the Preili Holocaust. Within a couple of days, we would arrange a group trip to Preili.

Joining us were my friend and Preili native, Shmuel Latvinsky, and my old, good friend, Carolina Taitz, to act as a translator. Carolina was a member of our American delegation, a former prisoner of the Riga ghetto, and a survivor of the Rumbula massacre in December 1941. On this, my forst visit to Preili in more than 50 years, we met the mayor of Preili Dome (township), Janis Eglitis, and chief architect Valerijs Sturis. After a brief ride through the town, we arrived at the Jewish cemetery, behind which was a fence and the site of the terrible executions. 

I believe that the Preili administration was quite bewildered by our unexpected arrival and our proposal to erect a memorial ti the Jewish victims in a town with practically no remaining Jewish inhabitants – not to mention our interest in the Jewish presence of more than 60 years ago. 

The suspicious, negative attitude of the local population of the once-flourishing Jewish community had been stereotypically entrenched by the Nazi Goebbels’s propaganda and the Soviet anti-Zionist lies and anti-Semitic silencing of the truth of the Holocaust. I particularly sensed this attitude when we visited the Preili Township Museum. Nevertheless, we accomplished our purpose and returned to the township administration office, completed an application, and received permission from the Preili Dome to erect a memorial, provided that we would cover all costs of design and construction.

This was actually a dubious victory for me, as I had not the slightest idea of the memorial’s design, its cost, and construction – not to mention the source of funding. However, I was detrmoned to fulfill this dream and, upon returning to New York, I was ready to tackle the project.

Sergej Ryzh and I communicated frequently, spending long hours on the basic design concept. I explained the need to follow our tradition concerning Jewish cemeteries, since we had to erect a Holocaust memorial where former Jewish Preili residents had previously constructed a memorial as they could. That had been during the Societ era, in the 1950s, when the Communist Party permitted a tombstone inscription in Russian and Yiddish, following strict anti-Semitic, censored guidelines.

We included in our original design planning the ancient Jewish rule not to excavate or relocate existing graves. Therefore, all new memorial tombstones would be placed on special cantilever structures supported outside the existing mass burial place. On the central tombstone of black marble, we decided to engrave a phrase from Sheina Gram’s diary in the original Yiddish. Sheina Gram was Preili’s Anne Frank. She has continued to write in her diary until August 8, 1941, the day that she and her family were executed. We also agreed to collect as many names as possible of the Preili Jews and bury the scrolled list in a capsule similar to the Bikernieki Memorial’s concept. Such were the general ideas to be implemented in the Preili Memorial complex.

Ryzh began to investigate the site, preparing the geological survey and working on the general composition of the Memorial.

Shmuel Latvinsky began researching the names of the murdered Preili Jews, obtaining information from various sources.

We worked tirelessly on this mission for three years, collected information, and prepared an accurate description of the events that took place in Preili based on eyewitness testimonies od Holocaust survivors, including the sole survivor, Mordukh Khagi, who had been saved by a Preili nobleman, the Polish Vladislav Vushkan.

Ryzh prepared the design at his own expense, receiving approval for the Preili Holocaust Memorial complex, which would be constructed in two stages. The first would be the Holocaust Memorial Monument; the second – complete restoration and renovation of the Jewish cemetery and its conversion to a Preili Jewish Memorial Park in memoru of the former, distinquished Jewish community.

Although we had gotten the green light from the Preili Dome and obtained approval from the Latvian architectural authorities, we still had no real outside financial assistance. At that point, I realized that I’d have on my own resourcefulness and fund the project myself. I gave Ryzh permission to start the construction and guaranteed him the financing. He voluntary and without salary took on the obligation of supervising construction, and thus we cooperated. He regularly sent me accounts of work performed and I paid the bills. This forced me to intensify my professional work as consultant engineer for the next three years until the Memorial’s construction was completed.

Finally, on August 8, 2004, on the 63rd anniversary of the execution of Preili Jews in 1941, the Memorial honoring the memory of Preili Jews was unveiled.

As we neared the date, I wrote a special article, “Remember the Holocaust Victims,” for the local Latvian newspaper, Preili Novada. The article announced the dedication of the Preili Holocaust Memorial; I was hoping to attract many Preili residents to the Memorial’s opening event.

Present at the ceremony were numerous residents of Preili and of the surrounding districts of Latgalia, government officials of Latvia, and ambassadors from Israel, Germany, and Russia. On the same day, based upon our documentation and the eyewitness report written by the survivor, Mordukh Khagi, Vladislav Vushkan was post-humously awarded the title, “Righteous among the Nations.” The award was presented to Vladislav Vushkan’s descendants in Latvia by Israeli ambassador Garry Koren and is on permanent display at the Preili Novada (Regional) Museum.

During the course of the Memorial’s construction, we gradually earned acceptance and support, and were befriended by many Preili residents, especially the local top administration: the head of the Dome, the chief architect, directors of both the Latvian and Russian high schools, the director of the Township Museum, and others. We met every year in an amicable environment, usually the summer months, since July 4 is Latvia’s Holocaust Mourning Day. We supplied them with many books related to Holocaust history, the most valuable historical publication being Daugavpils’s Dr. Josif Rochko’s Holocaust in Latgale.

As a result of our many years of goodwill and cooperation since the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial in 2004, the Preili administration established an annual tradition of a Holocaust Memorial meeting in early August to honor the Preili Jews murdered by the German Nazis and their local collaborators…”

 

“The Latvian Jewish Courier”, Jewish Survivors of Latvia, Inc., March/April 2015, Adar/Nisan 5775, Volume 29, No. 1

Photos: Preili History and Applied Arts Museum.

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One Comment to “David Silberman: “I realized that I’d have to rely on my own resourcefulness and fund the project myself””

  1. Я много раз бывала в Прейли в 70-е-80-е годы.Мне нравился этот аккуратный и милый городок. Но больше всего мне нравился там парк–прямо в лесу. Я часто гуляла там,не подозревая,что именно там покоятся мои убитые родственники–семья прадеда,отца моей бабушки по фамилии Школьник. Это была большая семья,из которой я знала лично лишь одного оставшегося в живых– Якова Школьника и его сыновей. Яков–двоюродный брат моей мамы. Мама рассказывала,что она часто наезжала в Прейли к деду ,его детям и внукам.Моя бабушка умерла рано в Даугавпилсе,оставив сиротами 4х детей. Недавно я узнала поименно из кого состояла эта семья.А в альбоме хранилась фотография моей юной мамы в гостях у своих родных в Прейли. Из всей этой жизнерадостной компании после войны осталась в живых моя теперь уже покойная мама.
    Я очень благодарна Давиду Зильберману за то,что своим мемориалом он не даст забыть тех,кто когда-то так счастливо там жили,а затем были зверски убиты либо соседями,либо по навету соседей в том самом парке, в котором я так любила бывать..

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