Difficult Heritage:
Holocaust-Related Sites in Latvia, in the Context of Tourism and Memory Culture

Geopolitically, the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea region (present-day Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) has been (especially in the 20th century) at the intersection of local and global military conflicts and ideological clashes. Its difficult historical heritage, with the Holocaust and its memorials as one of the central and most visible themes, is a symbolic witness to this geographic intersection.

The Holocaust was one of the biggest crimes committed during the Second World War when Latvia was under Nazi occupation (1941–1945). Until the beginning of the Second World War, 30 % of the Latvian population consisted of minorities of various ethnic and ethno-religious groups. According to the 1935 census, more than 93,000 Jews lived in the Republic of Latvia.

Because of the Holocaust carried out by the repressive authorities of Nazi Germany, more than 70 thousand local and about 20 thousand European Jews were killed in Latvia. During the Soviet occupation, the Holocaust was ignored and the topic was not part of official Soviet history and ideological memory. After the Second World War, the communist regime erased diversity from discussions, traditions, values, travel experiences, memories and people’s daily lives. Furthermore, Holocaust memory and related commemoration did not have a public place in the communist regime’s interpretations of history, commemorative culture, urban space or rural landscape, museums, archives and tourism.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, attitudes towards the subject of the Holocaust changed significantly and gradually gained wider coverage in Latvian society. Travellers’ interest, especially Jews, in the former Soviet Union, gradually encouraged the inclusion of Holocaust memorials in travel itineraries.

The difficult legacy left by the two totalitarian regimes not only ripped apart the sufferings of various communities marginalised and ignored by the communist regime for decades in Latvia but also divided the society into several competing fronts of memory trying to prove to each other politically and intellectually whose sufferings and which memorials should be highlighted.

After 1991, the commemoration of the Holocaust also gradually took shape, including the creation of new memorials, often implemented by local Jewish communities in cooperation with municipalities and non-governmental organisations. Since 2002, 284 different Holocaust-related memorial sites have been identified within a project implemented by the Jews in ­Latvia museum (Director Marģers Westermanis). The project was led by Meijers Meller (1929–2015), whose personal influence, commitment and dedication to the work inspired many researchers, activists and interested parties to participate. Most of the Holocaust memorials are included in a database created by the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Latvia and in academic research published by the museum and Melers (Melers, 2013).

The revived memories served as the basis for the institutionalisation of Holocaust memorials, attracting different target audiences, creating new educational programs and building international bridges of cooperation with both state institutions and international organisations, including cultural and memory institutions and the tourism business.

Travel and tourism have traditionally been associated with recreation, entertainment, and tourist attractions and events that the country’s residents are proud of and willing to show their guests. However, historically, travellers have always been attracted to places associated with death and tragedy (Seaton, 1996). Visiting the sites of natural disasters, wars, genocide, real or imaginative places of individual deaths is known as dark tourism, a concept introduced by Foley and Lennon (1996). Although still controversial in academic and professional circles, dark tourism has evolved from an academic concept into a recognisable brand. In chapter 3, Aija van der Steina summarises the theoretical aspects of dark tourism in the context of places related to the Holocaust, reveals the most important concepts and research directions, and describes the supply and demand aspects used in the conceptualisation of this tourism phenomenon. Today, dark tourism has become an integral part of the tourism system. Still, considering the dissonant and difficult nature of dark tourism, it is necessary to continue the interdisciplinary dialogue so that the parties involved in tourism do not perceive the concept with a different meaning. Along with the term dark tourism in Latvian, the author also recommends using the term sombre tourism, applying it to the darkest sites of dark tourism.

During the first decade of the conceptualisation of dark tourism, the main emphasis was placed on the supply side of dark tourism, focusing on the typology of dark heritage sites, revealing the differences between real places of death and places associated with death (Lennon and Foley, 1999; Miles, 2002). Philip Stone’s (2006: 151) dark tourism spectrum offers a framework for positioning dark tourism products, based on the intensity of the “darkness” of different sites and the distinctive aspects of the tourism product.

The political and ideological dimension of dark tourism places requires considering them in a broader social and political context and understanding the functions of this heritage in society (Roberts & Stone, 2014). Many dark tourism sites play an essential role in collective memory (Allar, 2013) and are closely linked to broader politics of remembrance (Seaton, 2009). In Chapter 1, Didzis Bērziņš explains the processes of Holocaust memory formation in Latvia, describing the layers of Nazi and Soviet propaganda. The author emphasises that remembering difficult historical experiences and critically evaluating them, provides an opportunity to understand the reasons behind today’s attitudes and helps identify discourses that are still directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously influenced by various cultural strata. Raivis Sīmansons, using the insights of social memory and museum research, examines the Holocaust memorialisation processes in Riga’s urban environment since the mid-1980s and concludes that the action model of Holocaust memorialisation in Riga’s urban territory has remained unchanged since the 1980s. The author considers the memorial museum to be the most effective instrument of memorialisation in Latvia in the last three decades, which equally preserves and communicates the difficult heritage, offering the range of services necessary for modern cultural tourism. Solveiga Krūmiņa-Koņkova, studying the symbolic language of Holocaust memorials, concludes that their development in Latvia is similar to the development of this art genre in Europe after the 1960s. The monuments erected during the Soviet occupation have deprived the victims of the Holocaust of their identity, and the message of their symbolic language is misleading. The memorials created at the beginning of the 21st century, especially in Riga, fully meet the requirements of the contemporary Holocaust memorial art genre – their iconography includes specific Jewish religious symbols and symbols with a universal and forward-looking message.

Within the dark tourism spectrum, seven dark tourism products are distinguished, referring to the darkest sites – dark resting places, dark genocide camps and exhibitions (Stone, 2006, 152–157), emphasising that the darkest of the dark tourism sites are not purposefully created as tourism products. In Chapter 5, Kaspars Strods, analysing the coverage of the Holocaust in Latgalian museums, reveals that although there is an exposure of the Holocaust, it can only be assessed as fragmentary in most of the analysed museum exhibits. The Holocaust is presented as part of the overall Jewish historical narrative and cultural history, partly determined by demand. Therefore, new ways of talking about these past tragic events should be sought in the future.

Over the last decade, researchers have focused on the demand side of dark tourism, studying visitors’ motivations, behaviour and experiences. Empirical studies in Holocaust sites reveal that visitors’ motivations are diverse and closely related to the motives for visiting cultural and historical heritage sites. They go beyond or are even entirely unrelated to a  fascination with death (Biran, Poria and Oren, 2011; Isaac & Cakmak, 2014; Lewis et al., 2021). Aija van der Steina and Maija Rozīte (Chapter 6) reveal Latvian inhabitants’ motives, behaviour and experiences visiting Holocaust sites based on data gathered in a representative survey. The author believes that including Holocaust sites in tourism will promote the recognition and visitation of these sites, stimulating an emotional, cognitive and reflective experience in visitors and influencing processes related to collective memory and remembrance. Using a quantitative approach, the experiences of foreign tourists who visited the Riga Ghetto and the Latvian Holocaust Museum have also been analysed. The study confirms Reynolds’ (2016) findings, that although tourists are often considered an uneducated, entertainment-oriented mass, in the context of Holocaust sites, we can talk about educated and critical tourists who are able to identify and point out a lack of correct interpretation and authenticity.

The question of authenticity has been one of the central issues in attempts to conceptualise dark tourism. According to Lennon and Foley (2000), commodification turns Holocaust sites into consumer products and reconstructing them or making other changes makes the visitor experience no longer authentic. Reynolds (2016) critically evaluates the likelihood of offering historically authentic experiences at Holocaust sites due to changes caused by time. In this context, a correct and high-quality interpretation of sites and events is essential, providing a real educational experience (Lennon, 2017). Inese Runce focuses on interpretation issues, highlighting the knowledge of guides exploring and interpreting Jewish heritage and Holocaust sites for tourists in Latvia from a historical and contemporary cross-sectional point of view. The author concludes that the narrative of Holocaust history and memorials, shared by guides working in Latvia for decades, is not easily understood without a walk through 20th-century history. The guides’ personal challenges, professional development and formation processes were closely intertwined with the Latvian Jewish community’s past, tragedy and rebirth in Latvia.

The combination of educational functions and entertainment aspects is still controversial and often biased in favour of entertainment (Sharpley & Stone, 2009), as well as towards modern technologies and communication channels, both on the part of memory institutions and tourists.  Although modern technology solutions and forms of self-expression, such as the selfie, have become an integral part of the everyday and tourism experience, especially among young people (Wight, 2020), dark legacy is primarily seen as an adult domain (Kerr et al., 2021). Therefore, questions of how to communicate and interpret the tragic pages of history to younger generations are still in need of research. In Chapter 13, reviewing the example of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Diāna Popova reveals the challenges faced by dark heritage institutions in reaching children and young audiences. Later, in Chapter 10 on Holocaust memory in social media, she analyses the presence of the Latvian Jewish community and cultural, historical and Holocaust memory institutions on social networks. She concludes that, parallel to the official or sanctioned narrative of memory institutions, social media has become a platform where various expressions of Holocaust commemoration and self-interpretation can be observed. Elizabete Grinblate analyses issues regarding transferring Holocaust commemoration and education to the digital environment. Authenticity, education, interactivity, historical gamification, and embodied experience are considered when evaluating several local and international digital solutions. As a result of successful interaction, the aforementioned aspects promote positive changes in the Holocaust memory discourse and reduce prejudices regarding digital solutions in interpreting difficult heritage.

Sites and memory institutions dedicated to Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust have received little study so far. However, such memorial institutions have emerged in the last decade in various Eastern European countries. In chapter 15, Raivis Sīmansons presents a case analysis of the Žanis Lipke memorial in Riga, dedicated to the most prominent Jewish rescue initiative in Latvia during the Nazi occupation, and its communication and innovative museum-pedagogical practices using augmented or virtual reality technologies in Holocaust education. Research confirms that augmented reality technologies that provide an opportunity to work with both physical and virtual space can help solve the problem of memory crisis in an era when the “living memory” of the Holocaust is disappearing (Future Memory Foundation). Diāna Popova, Elizabete Grinblate and Raivis Sīmansons have conducted a case study by testing the virtual reality experience Lipke’s Bunker created by the Žanis Lipke Memorial for a youth audience. Using focus group interviews and empathic mapping, researchers analyse the benefits and challenges of using virtual reality to interpret dark heritage. The study concluded that high quality, detailed and historically accurate virtual reality content could be a physically, cognitively and emotionally stimulating educational aid for museums.

In chapter 12, Diāna Popova and Kaspars Strods examine Holocaust memorials in Latvia, focusing on how memorials and cultural-historical sites related to the Holocaust and the Jewish community’s history are included in tourism websites. The authors conclude that information about Holocaust heritage is included only in some municipal tourism information websites, and it is difficult to include it in the categories of traditional tourism products or activities.

Although management aspects of dark heritage sites are still under-researched (Light, 2017), one of the main tasks of administrators and management is to prevent dissonance and potential conflicts between different stakeholders or involved groups (Ashworth & Hartmann, 2005). Dissonance may exist between local community groups, the commemorative goals of residents or groups, and the expectations of foreign tourists. Stakeholder involvement and respect for their interests in tourism sites are proven and important (­Timothy & Boyd, 2003; Li et al., 2020). Recognising the difficult nature of dark heritage and the possible differences in opinions among different groups regarding these sites and the historical events, the views of inhabitants at both micro and macro levels are critical to ensure the sustainable development of these sites and destinations and to avoid potential conflicts between inhabitants and visitors. In chapter 8, Maija Rozīte, Aija van der Steina and Kaspars Strods reveal the results of a representative survey of Latvian residents and an analysis of the case of Rēzekne regarding the attitude of residents towards the inclusion of Holocaust-related sites in tourism. The research results show that in Latvia, the attitudes of the majority of the residents regarding the inclusion of Jewish heritage and Holocaust-related sites in tourism information are generally favourable. However, tourist site managers must ascertain the opinion of the local population and the community about tourism development or the inclusion of these sites in tourism, as well as to inform and educate the local community that the use of these sites in tourism is for commemorative and educational purposes, not for entertainment purposes.

Based on stakeholder theory and a heterodox heritage approach, Aija van der Steina analyses the example of Bauska (chapter 7), revealing the local community’s attitude towards including Jewish heritage and Holocaust sites in tourism. Similarly, Maija Rozīte analyses the case study of the Maskava district in chapter 9. Here, difficult heritage such as that of the former Jewish ghetto territory can be identified, marked and included both in tourism and in the development of the city’s neighbourhood. In both studies, an analysis of the opinions of city developers, residents and tourism experts reveal the main challenges in this process, emphasising that when developing a neighbourhood or travel destination, a balance must be maintained between historical heritage, tourism, architectural monuments, and the development of the neighbourhood as a place to live. It is clear that the involvement of industry and promotional activities alone is not enough for tourism development; local initiative, support and long-term activities are also needed.

Neither memories, nor tourism, nor dark heritage sites are static and unchanging over time. Over time, individual sites of death and suffering become memorials, and later difficult legacy sites can become heritage sites and even attract visitors, including tourists (Convery et al., 2014; Hartman, 2014). However, as the Holocaust becomes a shared European memory, there is an ethical obligation to remember and talk about these dark pages of history in the future (Diner, 2007, cited in Assmann (2010: 100)). The disappearance of living memories of the Holocaust, the growth of the tendency to deny the Holocaust, the development of radical Islam, migration trends in Europe and the rise of nationalism fuelling anti-Semitism are just some of the factors that will affect visits to Holocaust sites in the future (Podoshen, 2017). At the end of the monograph, Aija van der Steina and Maija Rozīte, outline three future scenarios for developing these sites in the tourism context based on analysing typologically different Holocaust sites in Latvia using the scenario method. A conceptual model for including dark heritage places/sites in tourism is also proposed. The authors conclude that only an inclusive culture of memory, together with the local community’s desires, power and legal opportunities to influence decision-making; will ensure a balanced development of the place and tourism.

Developing future visions of tourism development in difficult heritage sites in the post-witness era, the answer depends on whether this heritage will continue to remain difficult. Only an understanding of the reasons and aspects of the “difficulty” of the legacy, an open dialogue between all parties involved and the professional work of memory institutions in preserving and interpreting the Holocaust heritage can reduce the difficulty of it.


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