Žanis Lipke Memorial

Lolita Tomsone


Žanis Lipke Memorial

Mazais balasta dambis 8 Riga, LV -1048 Latvia


Riga, Latvia

European Museum Forum / Kenneth Hudson Award 2014

Riga's Best Hidden Museum

The Lipke family used to live and still lives on Kipsala, at 8 Mazais Balasta Dambis. Mazais Balasta Dambis is a tiny cul-de-sac that resembles a small, buttoned pocket sewn into the lining of a jacket. It can’t be seen from either the river or the main artery of the peninsula, Kipsalas Street; it is often left out of city maps. When the ridgepole celebration was held at the Lipke memorial building, many of the invited guests, dressed in their party clothes, walked the pockmarked pavement of Balasta Dambis back and forth, knocking on neighbours’ doors in search of this unknown place. The Lipke Memorial, which is actually not so small, may become Riga’s best hidden museum. This concealment is not only factual but also symbolic for this place used to serve as a hideaway.

17lipk2xIn the yard that is the endpoint of the tiny street, an underground bunker had been dug out. That is where Žanis Lipke had made a hiding place for people saved from the Jewish ghetto. One exit from the bunker was under a doghouse, the other on the northern hillside. During the Second World War, eight to twelve people used this 3x3 meter hole in the ground as a shelter, often for long periods of time. The visitor should note that it was impossible to build the memorial above the actual bunker, for then it would be located right in the yard of the Lipke family. Above the hole, that has since been filled in but after the war served Žanis as a pit for fixing his car, the family now keeps their firewood. It is important to stress that the German police never found this shelter, Lipke was never caught and none of the people involved were ever betrayed. If that had been the case, there would be no Lipke family here today.

The Lipke Memorial has been built next to Lipke’s house in an empty space overlooking the Daugava. The ascetic, windowless building of dark grey wood resembles an overturned boat resting ashore – like a ferryman’s boat that has completed its mission. It could also be seen as Noah’s Ark that has descended back on dry land after the flood with the lucky survivors, the new humanity that God has decided not to annihilate. Finally, the building also resembles a black shed, a building that used to be common on Kipsala, once inhabited by fishermen: tarred, made of barge boards with their inimitable scent, leaning to one side from the wind. From the interior, where light is trying to find its way in through rough boards, the structure seems to tell us about the Kipsala we have never experienced and never will: with a steamer landing, scattered farmsteads and curing sheds separated by open sandy spaces.

Architect Zaiga Gaile has designed the memorial so that the passage through the enclosed tunnel that begins by the large entrance gate bears no suggestion of the real scale and structure of the building, and it takes a while for the visitor to locate its centre. It is astonishing, as one realizes that the monolith building actually has three levels joined together by an open shaft in the centre, allowing a glimpse of the basement from the attic. The basement level contains a concreted bunker in the original dimensions with nine bunks dropping down from the wall. The visitor cannot climb down and enter the bunker, only look down into it from above, from the attic. Yet, it may very well be impossible to give a modern person an idea of what it was like to live in such extreme circumstances for prolonged periods of time: a dark, cramped, cold, airless space without water or a toilet. By making this bunker inaccessible to the visitors, who can only look at it from afar, the architect emphasizes that the memorial is not aimed at making one identify with the people who once found shelter there or to foster one’s sense of history by simple, almost childish means. The notions of hiding, hope, rescue and courage of which this place speaks should be able to transcend the memory of the particular historical event and acquire a wider and deeper significance.

17lipk1xOn the first level, right above the bunker, there is the sukkah – a fragile, scaffold-like wooden construction without a roof and with transparent inner walls made of paper. From the outside it is covered with black boards to resemble Lipke’s wood¬shed. In Judaism, sukkah is a temporary shelter or shed whose religious significance is celebrated during Sukkot or the Feast of Booths. To Jews sukkah serves as a reminder of the tents and other fragile shelters of the ancient Israelites where they lived for forty years after God, with the help of Moses, had freed them from slavery in Egypt but had yet to bring them to the Promised Land.

Viktors Jansons, the author of the artistic concept be¬hind the memorial, has conceived of the sukkah as a symbolic double of the bunker: a temporary shelter that seems to be sus-pended between the heaven and the earth. On the thin walls of the sukkah artist Kristaps Gelzis has drawn – with light strokes discernible only in good light -- a landscape with a verdant valley at the height of the summer. This landscape, which Gelzis calls “a meditation”, can be seen both as a meditation on the Promised Land and a vision of the Latvian summer countryside before the war. It is nature in its primeval simplicity and beauty, an arche¬typical testimony to life, the source of life and constant rebirth. The drawing is dim and less than concrete for it is an image held in one’s memory or an image conjured in one’s imagination by hope and longing for freedom.

Above the sukkah on the attic level, there is an open hatch in the floor through which the lower two levels can be observed. The authors of the memorial consider it essential for the visitor to look at the real shelter, the bunker, and the symbolic shelter, the sukkah, from above. First of all, it implies looking back at the past from a point in the future where one no longer can discern details but has gained a perspective on the bigger picture: interconnections, immutable values, the intransient. On the one hand, the importance of individual choices is brought home to one. On the other hand, one looks from the vantage point of a narrator or, figuratively speaking, God, for we know that the people who found shelter in the bunker survived the war whereas at the time, they could only hope for such an outcome.

On the attic level, there are a number of showcases that tell the story of the Lipke family, people who helped Lipke with his rescue efforts and the complex personality of Žanis Lipke himself. A number of versions exist regarding his calling as a saviour: a personal disdain of the German occupiers; adventurism; exceptional “goodness” of character. The memorial aims to be not only a place where one stops, looks back and remembers, but also a place where one continues to try to find out who Žanis Lipke was.


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