Mordehai Dubin The Leader of the Latvian Jews 1889-1956

For a nation that lost its homeland many centuries ago and was stranded in many countries a unity and strong leadership were needed. When Latvia gained its independence on 1918 Jews were living there for many centuries. The new democratic country although based on the national will of the Latvian nation offered equal possibilities for all national minorities. Latvian Jewry was never united in its cause. One part of them were Zionists, among them right and left wing ones. Some Jews embraced leftist and even communist ideas. Others stick to orthodox Judaism. On every parliamentary elections Jews submitted various rivaling party lists. Even at the municipal level their views often conflicted. Because of that many great personalities emerged among the Latvian Jewry. One of the most notable Jewish leaders were Mordehai Dubin. He was a Rabbi, businessman, political and spiritual leader. Despite being religious orthodox he often managed to find a compromise between various conflicting Jewish views and was well favored among Latvian politicians. Doing so achieved many humanitarian victories by saving lives and gaining great respect from many. Some have called him Shtadlan the intercessor a meditative figure between Latvians and Jews. This is a story about this remarkable person who deserves its eternal place in history.

Mordehai Dubin was born on January 1 1889 presumably in Riga. His father was a Rabbi Zalman Ben Dubin who made prayers at synagogue in the Marijas street. Dubin himself also frequently attended this synagogue for the most of his life. He received education at the Riga Heder. The First Word war was traumatic for the Latvian Jewry. During the German invasion in the Latvian territory in 1915, the Tzarist authorities ordered to expel all the Jews from front-line areas. This action was based on biased belief that Jews support the German invasion and may act as spies. During the long tsarist times, Jews living in the Russian Empire were subjected to various forms of discrimination. No doubt some of them hoped that the more progressive German Empire may bring positive change to their status. However, the forced move of nearly all Jews from Courland and Semmigallia was an ill fated act. The Tzarist laws for many years restricted Jews to live outside the former borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. That meant that living in places such as Moscow and Petersburg was mostly restricted. Now as large masses of Latvian and Jewish refugees, locals wrote in their diaries that Petersburg is full of “Latvians and Jews”. That seriously effected the revolution in 1917 when these masses were quick to support the revolutionary movement.

Mordehai Dubin was 26 years old at the time. Already a successful wood salesman Dubin also moved to Russia and joined the Jewish refugee supportive committee. That was the beginning of his social and political activity. There he met Mordehai Nurok – his future rival from Tukums, educated in foreign universities. From 1913 to 1915 he was already the main Rabbi of the city of Jelgava. Nurok was  a religious Zionist who believed in a Jewish return to the Promised Land-  Eretz Israel (Palestine). He was deeply affected by Teodor Herzl the founder of the Zionist movement of who he met personally. Dubin on the other hand was Lubavitcher Hassid who believed that Jews must stay were they were born and improve their culture on the spot.

On March 1917 a revolution took place in Petrograd (Petersburg) and Tzar Nicholas II abdicated from the throne. The new provisional government lead by Alexander Kerensky on March 20 made a historic step – all past restrictions to national minorities were abolished. Jews, Latvians, Estonians and many others were free to participate in politics and social affairs. However, many Jews and Latvians used this freedom to join Bolsheviks and on November 1917 deposed the provisional government.

Mordehai Dubin was not one of them. In 1917 he moved back to Riga. On November 18 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. The Latvian national leader Kārlis Ulmanis declared equal rights to all disregarding their ethnicity.  While many Jews were weary of the new government, Dubin  was one of the first to support it. At the end of 1918 Latvia was invaded by the Bolsheviks. The Latvian Provisional Government moved to Liepāja and was forced to ally with Baltic German Landeswehr because it lacked enough forces to stop the Bolsheviks themselves. When the Bolsheviks captured Riga, Dubin remained there. He almost managed to achieve approval to get flour to bake matzo. However, Bolsheviks saw this as a contra-revolutionary step and wanted to arrest him. However, Dubin was infected with typhus that made the Bolsheviks to think that he will die anyway.  However, Dubin managed to survive and was back on his feet just as Bolsheviks abandoned Riga.

After the harsh times of the Bolshevik terror and the defeat of the German armies near Cēsis, most Latvian Jews understood that Kārlis Ulmanis Latvian government is their only friend. On July 13 1919 The Peoples Council was called and had 6 Jewish representatives. 2 were from the social democrat Bund, 1 United Jewish Socialist party, and three Jewish National Party members. Dubin was one of them. While the Latvian government made many promises to support national minority rights, they did not accept calls for complete national autonomy. Demands for Jewish national parliament and Cadastre was impossible to meet. However, the national autonomy for Jewish schools was achieved. However, the Jews had arguments about the way the Jewish education must be taught. Zionists wanted to reintroduce Hebrew to make children ready to leave for future Israel. Orthodox Jews wanted a strict religious education with gender separation.  Socialist Jews wanted to teach children just Yiddish the local Jewish Ashkenazi language that most Latvian Jews spoke. Others insisted that Jews must have modern education and there is nothing wrong to get an education in Latvian, German and Russian schools. In 1934 there were 119 Jewish Schools with 14 gymnasiums. While Dubin stood up for religious schools he did not resist other schools since the orthodox education was not widely popular.

As the war for freedom ended with Latvian victory, Dubin rushed to form his own political party. His party was called Agudat Israel and was mainly religious conservative. It was also against Zionism and Bolshevism. His supporters mainly resided in Riga and Latgale. He had many rivals, the Jewish Bund, left wing Zionists Cerei Cion lead by Maxis Lazerson, Mordehai Nurok Mizrachi. Dubin managed to enter all four Latvian parliaments. His magnetism is expressed at best by the fact that the Jews of Jēkabils in the election day came over river Daugava to the city of Krustpils, because Dubin was listed in the Latgalia election district where Krustpils was located. As a man of willpower and ambition he received conflicting views of his personality. Mendel Bobe and Maxis Lazerson his rivals called him a man with “convinced Jewish hearth and soul that did not discriminate anyone regarding his class and political affiliation”. His distant relative Herbert Dubin called him a ruthless and intolerant towards others. Many Latvian politicians praised him for his support and cooperation. Nationalist Latvians feared him and expressed that Dubin holds too great power over Latvian governments. Kārlis Ulmanis was often criticized for his friendly relations with Dubin.

His close aide was Ruben Vittemberg from Daugavpils. He was later replaced with Simon Vittemberg who was not related to Ruben. His secretary was Abram Godin who managed to survive the  war and wrote his memoirs about his time with Dubin.

Dubin stood out as  a strong defender of the Jewish national rights. During the anti-Jewish riots in the rooms of the University of Latvia in 1922 Dubins along with his counterparts appealed to parliament to stop the beating of the Jewish students. The University administration and police was unable to stop angry hateful Latvian students from attacking their Jewish study mates. After main condemnation from the parliament the riots finally stopped.

In his quest for defending the rights for Latvian Jews, Dubin made many departures from his political and religious ideals. He helped the Jewish communist to get out of prison. He rescued the Jewish theater from closure by the state despite his disapproval of such free form of art. Not only that the theater worked on Saturdays, that was forbidden for religious Jews. When the director of the theater asked Dubin why he helped them despite of his disapproval,  he answered: “Yes, I truly never had attended your theater, and will not attend in the future and that does not mean that I like what you are doing there. However, we Jews must receive equal state support as others do!”.  From this on the Jewish theater no longer worked on Saturdays. He also socially supported the Jewish soldiers and veterans despite his pacific beliefs.

But, one of his main achievements was the rescue of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson from the Soviet repressions. In 1927 the spiritual leader of the Hassidic Jews was imprisoned by Soviet secret police. At the same the Latvian leftist government was making talks with the USSR about trade treaty. Dubin used his political influence to use the release of Shneerson as condition to sign the trade agreement. Shneerson was arrested and  sentenced to death, however the sentence was dropped and he was moved to infamous Solovki Monastery prison camp. Later he was moved to Kostroma prison and later released. But, it was apparent that he would be arrested again. Since the left wing coalition lacked support and had only one vote majority. The Dubin who was in right wing opposition the situation where his single vote could affect the vote for trade agreements. Dubin himself went to Moscow in risk of being arrested himself. Soviets who wanted the treaty to be signed, agreed to release Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, since he was released on Saturday that was a Sabbath, Rebbe refused to leave his prison cell angering the soviets. With nearly dooming all the Dubins efforts, Rebbe left the prison when the Sabbath was  over. He moved to Riga and gained Latvian Passport. He stayed in Riga until 1929 when he moved to Warsaw Poland.

Mordehai Dubin visits the US president Herbert Hoover  From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

Mordehai Dubin visits the US president Herbert Hoover
From Kultūras Balss Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

The influence of Dubin was so grand that on 1929 he was privately received from Hebert Hoover the president of the United States. Many Latvian politicians including the president himself could only dream of such possibility. However, on May 15 1934 Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup and dissolved  the parliament. All political parties were banned including Dubin’s party. In anger he called Ulmanis and declared: “If I am no longer needed here, I will leave!” Ulmanis however, talked him out of it and instead insisted on more personal cooperation. Kārlis Ulmanis limited the Jewish school autonomy and removed the Jewish school authority. He replaced it with the single senior administrator for each minority and that was Dubin for Jews. Dubin used his powers to enforce religious lessons in every Jewish school. He also insisted on teaching Hebrew rather than Yiddish. That lead to disappointment for many.

On 1933 Dubin along with other Jewish leaders took a stand against the rise of Nazi Germany. They organized a boycott of German products. In return Germany blocked Latvia butter exports. Latvia exported 59% of butter to Germany and such block was highly disadvantageous. Dubin sparked concerns about rise of support for Nazism and national radicalism. In return many Latvians started to boycott Jewish shops. In the end Germany dropped the restrictions on Latvian butter.

Soon however the deeply antisemitic Nazi Germany started to make even greater concerns for Latvia and Dubin. Large masses of Jews emigrated from Germany and emerged in Latvia. Many only considered Latvia as half-way to Palestine that was mandated by British or other safer places. Fearing national protests Ulmanis did not want to allow them to stay in Latvia for good. Instead he allowed them to remain here until they find safer destination. And Dubin was the man in charge to find a safe destination for them. Dubin did everything for each of the refugee and even worked with Zionist organizations to get them to Palestine. In 1935 there were 159 Jewish refugees, at the end of the year 55, and in 1937 only 48 remained in Latvia. The situation became much more difficult after Arab uprisings in Palestine that made the British authorities to limit the entry of Jews. In 1939 it was completely banned to enter Palestine.

In 1938 Austria was annexed by Germany. There were now 118 Jelws from Germany in Latvia. When a ship containing 77 Austrian Jews reached the port of Riga. They were told to leave despite Dubins efforts. His son Zalman’s wife was an Austrian Jew. On 1939 559 Jews from Germany and Austria remained in Latvia. Dubin could not sent everyone to a safe place as the international situation worsened and moved to world war.

On September 1 1939 Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. It was the beginning of Shoah – the Jewish catastrophe. Lubavitcher Rebbe who Dubin rescued from Soviets now was in prime danger since he was living in Warsaw. Dubin again rushed to rescue him. But, all contacts with Latvian embassy had been broken. Rebbe however had Latvian passport. At first it was considered to transport him with a car, but the main route to Riga was under German bombardment. Then Latvian Foreign Ministry managed to get German agreement to transport Latvian citizens from Poland. Since the railway was also bombed the refugees had to  go trough Koenigsberg. However, at the evacuation day a Yom Kipur festival was more important for the Rebbe and he again refused to leave. In the end Rebbe managed to reach Riga on December. On April 1940 he moved to US. Dubin had rescued him both from Soviet and Nazi genocide. Rebbe lived a long life and became famous worldwide.

However, after two months Soviets occupied Latvia. There was no one to rescue Dubin. Dubin declared: “I will go nowhere!” and vowed to remain in Latvia despite the possible Soviet arrest. Dubin in despair tried to keep Jewish youth from taking part in the pro-soviet demonstrations. They only laughed about him. The leader had lost his power. On February 1941 he was arrested and deported. After the pleas from international Jewry he was released and lived in Kuibishev (Samara) where he again helped the Jewish refugees. His whole family, wife and son perished in Riga Ghetto.

In 1946 he returned to Riga. His beloved synagogue in Marijas street was destroyed. He was told to leave by other surviving Jews. And he did so and never returned to Latvia, his homeland. He moved to Moscow suburbs and supported local Jews. He then was arrested again and died in  prison in 1956.

During his captivity he was imprisoned in the same cellar with German soldiers. He said to them: “Should it be known that I feel no hate against you and the German people, despite the fact that your compatriots destroyed my family. I understand that it was the will of the God and you fulfilled it”. He kept his religious traditions in prison and refused to open package that was sent to him on Saturday. Angered Soviets placed him in the locker room. Only when midnight approached he opened the package sent by the Russian Jewish community. Dubin said to the Germans that the cause of his suffering is carelessness towards his mother. After his father died, she asked him to stay with her, of what he answered that I must daily commit to 150 people not only her. He now viewed this a punishment for placing the interests of others rather than her own mother. He was buried in Russia, Malahovka.

Mordehai Dubin has been Latvian patriot since the very beginning until the very end. He was also a staunch defender of the Jewish rights and crossed many barriers for it. For his heroic and rightful deeds he is one of the most exceptional persons in Latvian history.

Selected Sources:

The Jews in Latvia / Ed.–board Mendels Bobe, S. Levenberg , I. Maor . – Tel Aviv: Assoc. of Latv. a.

Годин Абрам. Память о праведнике. Воспоминания о Мордехае Дубине. Иерусалим: Шамир, 5761 (2000).

Bobe, Mendels. Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga : Biedrība Šamir, 2006

Stranga, Aivars. Ebreji un diktatūras Baltijā (1926–1940). Latvijas Universitātes Jūdaikas Studiju Centrs. 2002.

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