Land of blue lakes

Head to eastern Latvia to discover the birthplace of artist Mark Rothko in Daugavpils


Most visitors to Latvia never get beyond Riga but a few hours away on the other side of the country is Latgale, the “Land of Blue Lakes”. This attractive rural region, bordering Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, still retains its own language and as well as its natural attractions, there’s art and Jewish history to tempt visitors to the area’s capital, Daugavpils.

Founded in the 13th century as Dinaburg, the city then became known as Dvinsk, whose strategic position between the Baltic Sea and St Petersburg turned it into an industrial powerhouse in the years leading up to the First World War.

Attracting workers from all over the Russian Empire, it still has a large Russian-speaking population, gaining its present name in 1920, following Latvian independence. These days its industrial heyday is long over and Daugavpils makes a pleasant base for exploring Latgale.

The Daugava River runs right through the centre and there’s happily little evidence of those architectural monstrosities so beloved by the Soviets.

The present city was built in the early 19th century, when the population was relocated to allow construction of the massive fortress. It‘s largely flat, with no tall buildings; the only high ground home to four churches, Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Old Believers, along with a synagogue.

Jews had started settling here from the mid 1770s and by 1910, the city had 34 functioning synagogues, a dedicated hospital, nursing home and theatre.

The Jewish population peaked in 1913 at around 56,000, roughly half of the city’s inhabitants — but some were already on the move to the west.

As the First World War broke out, numbers decreased even further with mass Russian Imperial army recruitment and by the end of the war the population had shrunk to a fifth of its previous size.

One of those to leave was artist Mark Rothko. The leading abstract expressionist was born here in 1903 as Marcus Rothkowitz, the fourth child of Dvinsk pharmacist, Jacob Rothkowitz.

At the age of five he was sent to study the basics of Talmud at a Jewish religious elementary school, but by 1910, under growing antisemitic oppression, Cossack violence and the threat of being drafted, his father and brothers set off for the USA.

Along with his mother and elder sister Sofia, Marcus joined them in 1913 and settled in Portland, Oregon. He died in 1970, without ever coming back, but in 2003, on the centenary of his birth, a memorial was unveiled on the banks of the river.

His children wanted something more and helped set up the Mark Rothko Art Centre in the former Daugavpils Fortress, just outside the town. It opened in 2013 and is a multifunctional hub for contemporary art, culture and education.

Temporary exhibitions show the work of contemporary local and international artists and there’s also a digital display dealing with Rothko’s life, plus an extensive library.

The main attraction, however, is the gallery of five Rothko originals, worth millions of dollars. They’re on loan from the family’s private collection and rotate every three years.

In the restaurant, you can even try a dessert inspired by the artist’s paintings.

Surrounding the Arts Centre are the sprawling fortifications, started in 1810 as preparation against the imminent threat of invasion by Napoleon, which make up the rest of the fortress.

Later an important military centre for the Russian Empire, in Soviet times it was used as an air force training school.

Now it’s being extensively renovated, apart from the former stables on the other side of the river, which are still a working prison — and which are also the site of one of the darkest chapters of Daugavpils history, after the Nazis entered the city on June 28, 1941.

In the first week, more than 1,150 Jews were murdered, beside the railway behind the city jail. And by the end of July, a further 15,000 had been rounded up, including those from the surrounding Latgale countryside and refugees from Lithuania, and moved to the fortress stables.

This became the Daugavpils Ghetto: for most, this overcrowded and insanitary home was a temporary one. In just three weeks, starting on July 28, around 9,000 people were taken and killed in nearby Mežciems forest (also known as Pogulyanka).

After another massacre in early November, only 962 inhabitants remained in the ghetto by the end of the year, fewer than half surviving to October 1943 when they were transferred to Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga, and sent onward to Poland.

Before the Second World War, the city had 40 synagogues and around a quarter of its population was Jewish, approximately 11,000 people.

Only 500 Holocaust survivors returned after the war ended: one of them the father of Josif Rochko, who has been instrumental in keeping the memory of the city’s Jews alive.

I spoke to him inside Daugavpils’s only remaining synagogue to hear his family’s story and learn of the work he has done. On his return, his father remarried and started a new family in the city, where they were joined by Jews from other republics of the former Soviet Union.

In 1959 the population numbered 2,235; now it’s down to just over a hundred. Some rather grand Jewish buildings also remain, despite extensive wartime bombing.

The Apter Synagogue is home to the Jewish community centre, although the Great Choral Synagogue is now city council offices, while the former gymnasium, hospital and artisanal trade school have also been repurposed.

The old Jewish cemetery was destroyed in the 1970s, supposedly a victim of town planning, although some of the more prominent gravestones were moved to the communal cemetery.

But the Kaddish Synagogue, built in 1850, remains active and was extensively restored in 2005, funded by the family of Mark Rothko. And it’s here, on the first floor, that you can find a museum founded and directed by Josif Rochko.

He had been collecting relevant materials for several years, keeping them in folders and boxes until, in 2007, the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund supported the opening of the museum. It reflects the history and culture of Jews from Daugavpils and small Latgale towns.

With tears in his eyes, he tells me his father’s harrowing story. Today, along with the museum’s displays, memorials to the victims of fascism stand in the forest and by the railway.

In this lake-filled part of Latvia, the community into which Mark Rothko was born, along with the actor Solomon Mikhoels and some of the most famous rabbis of their day, is still remembered.


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