The Jews in Latvia

Main Jewish Synagogue in Riga 1870-1941.

Every nation has its own historical territory that has been inhabited by them for centuries. Unfortunately because of wars and other calamities some nations have lost their homeland and are forced to scatter around the world. Most notable of them are Jews. Jews originated from the Middle East and settled in Palestine. There they established the Kingdom of Israel that was ruled by such notable leaders such as David and Solomon. However, the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and Persians. The first Jewish Diaspora was deported Jews from Palestine to Babylonia. They later returned and had autonomy. But when the Palestine was conquered by Romans Jews had a hard time. Jews were known for their specific religion- Judaism. They worshiped only one god while others had many gods. Jews disobeyed all attempts of converting to pagan religions. Therefore they caused bitter hate by the Romans who could assimilate other cultures with ease. Roman attempts to ban Judaism caused Jewish revolt from 66 to 73 CE. The war ended in the tragic destruction of Jerusalem and caused Jewish exodus to Roman Empire.

Since them Jews have settled in all continents around the world. The State of Israel founded in 1948 is too small to hold all Jews living on the planet if they ever want to come back all at once. Jews have left a notable heritage in Western culture. Christianity has long roots in Judaism. Jews have great influence in academic fields, culture and finances.

When Latvian land became part of German controlled Livonia, Jews were banned to enter its territory. Crusades made the rise of antisemitism in medieval Germany, first antisemitic violence occurred there. The situation changed after the end of Livonian war when Livonia was added to Poland-Lithuania. Poland was generally friendly to the Jews so they settled there in large masses. In 1559 Bishop of Courland Johan von Munchausen allowed Jews to settle in the district of Piltene. In 17 century 3 thousand Jews from Germany entered the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. They were craftsmen, traders, money lenders and also official employees.  Jewish presence was disliked by German nobles who asked to expel Jews from Courland. However no expulsion was ever realized.

In 18 century more Jews came to Courland because of favor of future Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna who ruled the duchy in 1710-1730. She appointed German Jew Levy Lipman as her financial advisor who brought foreign credits and specialized Jewish workforce.  Furniture designers, glass makers and Jewellers helped duke Johann Biron to build a marvelous castle of Rudale and the Academy of Peter in Mitau (Jelgava). Biron invited over 200 educated Jews to his duchy. Courland Jews spoke in Yiddish with German accent but could speak well in German. In 18 century 9000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia most of them in rural areas. Such towns as Jacobstadt (Jekabpils) and Friedrichstatd (Jaunjelgava) had a large Jewish population.

After Courland was added to the Russian Empire, Jewish rights were downsized. The Russian government after annexation of Poland suddenly got problems with a large Jewish population. Jews had to pay more taxes and live there only if they were registered. About 2500 Jews from Courland went to inner Russia in Volga and Uralian region. However many Jews came to Courland from Poland and Lithuania. In middle of 19th century the province of Courland was inhabited by 23000 Jews. They established schools and build many synagogues in the large centers. They organized their societies to help each other. According to the census of 1897 51000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia a 7,6% of the whole population. In Friedrichstadt they were a majority of citizens. Jews had a large part in economic and owned many fabrics. Most of Courland Jews spoke in German that’s why they were mistrusted by the Russian government in 1915 when 40000 Jews were deported to Ukraine and Inner Russia.

Notable Jewish presence was in Latgalia. In 17 century mass migration of Jews in Latvia took place because of bloody uprising led by Ukranian cossack Bogdan Chmelmnitsky. Cossacks massacred hundreds of Jews in Ukraine, South Poland and Lithuania. Those who migrated were refugees from Ukraine. In 18 century 5000 Jews lived in Latgalia where they established their self-governments qahals. They could settle minor offences and cast taxes.

After Latgalia was added to Russia all Jews were made to move to cities. Russian laws harmed Jews by forcing them to move to Southern Russia and make Jewish man to enter army from 12 years. They could leave army only when they reach 25 years. It was done to convert Jews to Orthodox Christianity. Jews tried to escape army by hiding and bribing army officials. To prevent this government banned qahals in 1844. Despite this Jews kept their religion. A popular among Latgalian Jews was a Hasidic movement that offered a more positive way of practicing Judaism. Jews had large families and in 1897 there were 64239 Jews in Latgalia. The main Latgalian city Dvinsk (Daugavpils) had 50% Jewish population while Latvians were minority. Many other Latgalian cities had a Jewish majority.

Because of tough policies met by Czar Alexander III revolutionary movements were popular among Jews. In 1898 a Jewish Marxist party Bund was founded and operated in Daugavpils. During the revolution of 1905 Jews were active in the revolutionary movement. After the defeat of the revolution they were forced to emigrate to US and Canada. Because of first Zionist sentiments some left Latgalia for Palestine.

In Riga and Vidzeme even after the collapse of Livonia Jews was forbidden to enter. Riga town council however allowed Jewish traders to enter Riga for a small period of time. They were allowed to live in a special building outside city walls. After Riga was captured by the Russians the wartime Governor Alexander Menshikov allowed the family of Hirch Israel to live in Riga. Others were allowed to live outside the city walls in a Moscow suburb. In 1727 Empress Katrina II issued to expel Jews from Riga but because of resistance from Germany and Netherlands such step was never taken. There were 60 Jews living Riga at that time.

However in 1742 Empress Elizabeth Petrovna ordered to expel Jews from Riga and despite the resistance of town council the order was met. Things changed when empress Katrina II allowed Jews to come back. 36 Jews from Germany entered Riga but were forced to live outside the city wall. In 1780 the first synagogue was built in Riga. In 1784-1785 many Jews came from Courland city Sloka to Riga. Sloka was added to Vidzeme province. Sloka Jews could live in Riga for 6 weeks. In 1811 736 Jews lived in Riga a 429 of them came from Sloka.  When Napoleons army invaded Latvian territory they were deported as “unchecked foreigners” but after Napoleons retreat were allowed to come back.

In 1840 the first Jewish state school was opened in Riga. Because of rapid industrial growth more Jews came to Riga from Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.  In 1871 the Large Horal Synagogue was built-in Riga. Also many other synagogues were built in Riga most notably in Old city district in 1905. In 1897 21963 Jews lived in Riga.

Because of the rise of antisemitism in Russia and the pogroms that happened there Jewish nationalism sparked in Riga. In 1890 Zionist group was founded in Riga. Also Marxist Bund operated in Riga that had close ties with the Latvian Social Democratic party. Jews took place in armed attack on Riga Central Prison and other revolutionary activities. In 1906 a right-wing Jew founded Jewish constitutional democratic party led by Paul Minz. In 1907 Jews opened newspaper “National Zeitung” written in Yiddish. Because of First World War about 11 000 left Riga for Russia.

In Vidzeme Jews came only in the end of 19 century because of strict laws that allowed to arrest Jew if he comes near Cesis. Before the war Vidzeme was inhabited by 6000 Jews.

New era for Latvian Jews came in 1918 when the Latvian Republic was proclaimed. New state granted equal rights for all minorities. On December 8 1919 Jews were allowed to have school autonomy. However at first, Jews did not believe that the Latvian state could properly function. Only Jewish National Democratic party sent Izak Rabinovich  to represent the Latvian Peoples Council. About 100 Jews joined the German Landesver army. Leftist Jews supported the Latvian Soviet Government led by Peteris Stucka. But the soviets harmed many wealthy Jews and pursued Zionists.

After Latvian victory of Cesis in 1919 democratic Jews supported Latvian government. Paul Minz became State Controller. 14 Jews took part in Peoples Council. More than 1000 Jews took part in the war for independence on the ranks of Latvian army. 4 Jews were decorated with Order of Lachplesis, 11 received the Order of Three Stars.  50 Jews died in action.

Democratic laws allowed Jews to have Latvian citizenship. In 1935 92,46% Jews were citizens of Latvia. After the war 95000 Jews lived in Latvia. For the first time Jews had unrestricted civil rights to participate in politics and the economy. 60% of Latvian bank capital belonged to six Jewish banks. I. Friedman and Doctor B. Zivs were finance advisors that helped to establish national value- Lats. 20, 2% of industrial companies belonged to Jews. Jews also owned 28, 5% of shops and 36% of stock companies. Despite the fact that almost 40% taxpayers were Jews a large of part of poor people was Jews, especially in Latgalia.

Leader of Latvian Jewry Mordehai Dubin

Jews were active in politics.  The most prominent Jewish politician was Mordehai Dubin who led the religious Orthodox party Agudat Israel party. He took part in all Latvian Parliaments and had a large influence among Latvian Jewry. Dubin fanatically defended the rights of every Latvian Jew. His greatest effort was rescue of famous Hasidic “Lubavicher” Rebbe Yosef Shneersonh from Soviet imprisonment and Nazis in Poland. He also helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape Nazi repressions. He had close friendship with Karlis Ulmanis and achieved high prominence during the Ulmanis dictatorship. Also Mordehai Nurok a religious Zionist was presented in all parliaments. Zionists were active in Latvia. Maxis Lazerson led leftist Zionist party Ciere-Cion. Right wing Jewish Revisionists led by famous Zeev Zhabotinsky were active in Latvia. Militant Zionist organizations Betar and Brit Trumpeldoor were core for future army of Israel.  About 4500 Jews left Latvia for Palestine.

Visible Jewish presence in the Latvian economy sparked minor rise of antisemitism among Latvians. In 1920 Jews were attacked by hooligans in Riga parks. In 1922 Jewish students in the Latvian University were attacked by antisemitic study mates. In 1922-1925 a national-radical organization Latvian National Club sparked antisemitic propaganda. After members of the club unintentionally killed young Jewish social democrat, the club was banned. In the thirties a national-radical party “Thunder-cross” made some attacks on Jews. It was banned by Ulmanis regime. Antisemitic remarks were common among Latvian press however antisemitism never reached a critical point. After Ulmanis took power by coup antisemitism was officially banned, but the Ulmanis government suppressed many Jewish organizations and made limitations on school autonomy. Ulmanis was friendly to Orthodox Jews and Zionists but repressed Jewish leftists. Because that some of them started to support communist party that was illegal in Latvia. Ulmanis also tried to suppress the Jewish presence in the economy but Jewish businessmen mostly kept their place in company director seats.

Soviet occupation in 1940 was celebrated by leftist Jews. Many Jews took place in  June 17 Riots when Soviet tanks entered Riga. The people that came to greet the tanks eventually started a biggest riot in Latvian history. However, the majority of rioters were actually local Russians. Jews took place in occupation regime and took responsible seats. Among them Alfon Novik and Simon Shustin were part of the local NKVD that organized deportation of  June 14 1941. However, the Jewish presence in Soviet government has been exaggerated, only a small number of Jews took most important offices. Many of them were not locals, but from Russia that came along with the Soviets. Jews hoped that Stalin’s regime will be friendlier to Jews than Hitler’s but on June 14 1941 1200-1300 Jews were deported to Siberia.

Memorial Site for killed Jews in Rumbula forest Riga 1941

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Invaders planed to exterminate all Jews in Soviet Union. In Latvia the extermination was led by SS brigadierfurer Walter Staleker. The director of German SD Reinhard Heydrich ordered to use antisemitic Latvians in killings to make look like it was done only by them. The Germans gathered 200 Latvian emigrants with antisemitic notions to make contact with locals. The Germans already had a list of 700 Latvians that needed to take part in the operation.

About 16000 Jews escaped Nazi occupation.  Many Jews did not know about Nazi intentions and stayed. First Jews were killed on  June 24 in city of Grobina in Courland. After all Latvia was occupied by Nazis, the killings were done in all Jewish inhabited places. They were done by SS einzac-groups and local self defense units. Latvian shooters were strictly controlled by German authorities. Most notorious Latvian unit was Arajs commando led by Viktors Arajs. Large killings took place in Riga and Liepaja. Synagogues were burned in all Latvia sometimes with people inside. In July 1941  Germans ordered to build Ghetto in Riga to enslave those Jews that were still alive. In September Heinrich Himler ordered to bring Jews from Germany to Latvia to destroy them. On November 30 2600 Jews were killed in a forest of Rumbula in Riga.

73000 Latvian Jews were destroyed in Latvia. After the return of Soviet occupation 14000 Jews returned to Latvia. Soviet regime suppressed the Jewish national movement. Jewish schools and organizations were banned the use of Yiddish was disliked. Many Jews came along Soviet immigrants that entered Latvia during Soviet occupation.  They spoke only Russian and had little connection with Latvian Jewry. However many among them were well-educated and took part in the Soviet elite.

Soviet government was also antisemitic. In the 1949 campaign against cosmopolitanism hit Latvian Jewish intelligence, many writers, artists and scientists were arrested.  In 1953 “Doctors Plot” triggered massive antisemitic campaign. Leaflets saying “Beat the Jew!” was found in Jurmala. Many historians say that Stalin ordered massive deportation of Jews to Siberia. There are documents that reveal that also Latvian Jews were intended for deportation.  However his death in 1953 cancelled these plans and campaign against Jews were halted. However throughout the Soviet Era Soviet government was generally hostile to Jews. In seventies campaign against Zionism sparked waves of antisemitism.  Publications describing the Zionist conspiracy were published in masses. Holocaust studies were excluded from academic fields and remembering the Holocaust was illegal.

Jews resisted by organizing underground Zionist organizations helping Jews to leave the Soviet Union. 400 Latvian Jews illegally left the Soviet Union in 1945-1946 Religious activity was also underground and repressed by the KGB. Israel victory in Six Day War 1967 sparked rise the of Jewish national awakening. A 40% of demands to leave the Soviet Union for Israel came from Latvia. Because of foreign attention Soviets were forced to allow Jews to leave. 16000 Jews left Latvia to Israel and other Western countries. In 1989 22900 Jews remained in Latvia.

Jewish community divided on the question of restoring Latvian independence. Jewish journalist Mavrik Vulfson was first to publicly call the events of 1940 as Soviet occupation in 1988. Jewish 1st congress supported Latvian Peoples Front and called for democracy. Latvian Jewish Culture Society supported the fight for Latvian independence. However those Jews who came from Soviet Union supported the communist party and Interfront movement.

In 1989 Jewish High School was founded. In the stormy events in 1991 when independence movement was in danger Jewish organizations supported Latvian independence. After restoration of independence Jews once again had a free hand. 12000 Jews left Latvia for Israel. The Latvian Jewish community was founded in 1992. Also important Jewish organization is Shamir that is publishing books on Jewish history. Religious movement was restored in Riga and Daugavpils. In the times of independence Holocaust studies has taken an important role in Latvian historiography.

Jews have taken a role in Latvian politics. Most of them are taking part in left pro-Russian parties. Notable Jewish politicians are Boriss Cilevics from Harmony Center and Jakovs Pliners from PCTVL. Jews still have the role in Latvian economy; Valerie  Belokon is owner of English football club Blackpool. Kirov Lipman is president of the Latvian Hockey Federation and owner of pharmaceutical company Grindex. For a long time largest national Latvian bank Parex was owned by Valery Kargin and Victor Krasovitsky. The current leader of the Latvian Jewish Community is Arkādijs Suharenko. The center of Jewish community is located at Riga Skolas Street 6.

Antisemitism in modern Latvia has been mostly marginal. Antisemitic remarks have been visible in the radical nationalist press and internet. The synagogue in Riga has been bombed by unknown forces. There are unproven theory that the synagogue was bombed not by radicals but by members of organized crime, who were trying to disgrace the minister of interior to stop his crackdown on them. Relative rise of antisemitism has been caused by bankruptcy of Parex bank that triggered financial crisis in 2008. Bank was owned by Jewish bankers. Since 2006 discussions about the return or compensation of the lost property of the Jewish organizations, has been unsolved problem, sparking even governmental instability.

By the census 0f 2000 there were 10336 Jews living in Latvia. The last census in 2011 counted 6437 Latvian Jews.  . Most of them are in senior years, speaking in Russian and are atheistic. Original Latvian Jewry has been mostly extinct. However, because of the active support from Israel a new generation of Latvian Jews are emerging who are rediscovering their religious and national identity.   Jews have left notable signs in Latvian history and will not be forgotten.

Only working synagogue in Pietava Street in Old Riga

Selected Sources:

Mendels Bobe, S. Levenberg , I. Maor  (Eds.) (1975). The Jews in Latvia.  Tel Aviv: Assoc. of Latv. a.

Dribins, Leo. (2002) Ebreji Latvijā 2., papild. izd. Riga : Elpa.

Bobe, Mendels. (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Riga: Shamir.

Stranga, Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā : no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam : 14. gadsimts – 1945. gads. Riga: LU žurnāla “Latvijas vēsture” fonds

Dribins, Leo. (2007) Antisemītisms un tā izpausmes Latvijā : vēstures atskats. Riga: Rīga : Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.

Ezergailis, Andrievs, (1996) The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944 : the missing center. Washington, DC : US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Barkahan, Menachem (Ed.) (2008) Extermination of the Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945. Riga : Society “Shamir”.



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