Tag Archives: Jewish history

Žanis Lipke

Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna

Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna

Holocaust was the most massive crime in the Latvian history. About 70 000 Jews from Latvia were killed and 19 000 Jews brought from Western Europe were killed on Latvian soil. It was time of despair for Latvian nation as they had to make a very tough choices. Took part in crime, assist the crime or be a bystander.  Most took the second choice, but there were many who sadly took the first. However, the most toughest choice was to rescue Jews from killings. This action was associated with great risk as it was punishable by death and Nazi authorities carefully searched for any Jew that escaped the murders. So such act of humanity and resistance was rare and brave thing to do. In 1945 in Jerusalem a memorial museum “Yad Vashem” was established to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, documentation and research and special focus for them was the Jewish rescuers. Yad Vashem issues special Honorary Title “Righteous Among Nations” to all Jewish rescuers. A special tree is planted in memorial garden to commemorate them.  65 of them are persons from Latvia. The small number can be explained due to the suspicion by the Soviet authorities towards rescued Jews preventing them to establish connections with Israel and Yad Vashem. Only if the persons were permitted to emigrate they could safely report their rescuers to Yad Vashem commission. According to research done by Marģers Vestermanis 400-500 Jews were rescued during Nazi occupation. Many Jews were failed to rescue and their rescuers arrested. 32 people are known to be repressed for rescue attempts. Museum “Jews in Latvia” has gathered 220 events of Jewish rescue attempts with 400 people involved.  Among the rescuers most known were Roberts and Johanna Sedols in Liepāja who rescued 11 Jews in Liepāja,  Sonja Švarca rescued nine persons in Riga, Elvīra Rone eight, Artūrs Motmillers seven people. Baltic German politician Paul Schiemann is known hosting young Jewish woman before his death on 1944 and gained title “Righteous Among Nations”. The person with the most rescued people count was Jānis (Žanis) Lipke. He helped 55 people to survive the war hiding them in various places in Riga and rest around Dobele in Kurzeme (Courland) region. With assistance of few trusted associates he did frantic work rescuing people during Nazi occupation and was the one of the first of Latvian rescuers who gained international recognition. This story is about him and his rescued ones.

Jānis Lipke nicknamed Žanis for most of his life was born on February 1 1900 in Jelgava then known as Mittau. He finished three classes but was fluent in German and Russian. His parents did not live long, father lost his life in the frontlines of the First World war and mother died in 1920. Žanis himself joined the Latvian Rifleman on 1918 and year later joined Latgale Artillery regiment. After the war was over he came to Riga and met his future wife Johanna Novicka who 17 years old at the time of their marriage.  From 1926 to 1940 he worked in Riga harbor in docks and storage facilities. There he mastered his underground work abilities by giving refuge to social democrats and communists who were persecuted by Kārlis Ulmanis authoritarian regime. He was also called in for smuggling, made private bus rides between Jelgava and Valmiera and owned yacht.

On 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Latvia Lipke started to work in “Luftwaffe” storage near Riga Central Market. The Riga Ghetto established by Nazis to prison all the Jews in Riga was close. Before 1941 Ghettos were never established in Latvia. Jews lived where they wanted, sometimes in larger concentrations in one place than other. The Moscow district near the Riga Central Market and Railway station was one of the most Jewish populated districts in Riga. Nazis moved all the Jews in Riga there and surrounded the territory with barbed wire and guard posts. Similar ghetto was established in Daugavpils the city with most Jews and many other smaller cities were Jews were separated from other citizens until the time of their death.

Lipke gained Nazi trust by graduating air defense courses and was appointed to transport Jews to forced labor sites and back. That allowed him to start his rescue mission. First rescued was family friend Chaim Slomensky  who was picked up by Lipke during transport from ghetto to labor site. Few others were prevented from returning to ghetto. As the ghetto security became tougher every such attempt became more difficult. Few trusted friends and relatives were involved in rescue attempts. He found people who hosted rescued Jews in various places in Riga and rural house around Dobele. The success of his mission was contributed by his talent of talking people in, bribing the guards or divert their attention by use of alcohol or casual talks. Lipke lived in small house in Ķīpsala an island in Riga. Ķīpsala was located in front of city center separated by river Daugava. During the Nazi occupation Ķīpsala was made of small tensely build wooden fisherman houses that were ideal for covert rescue shelter. There he made small bunker for some of the rescued while others were sheltered elsewhere.

Žanis Lipke shed under which the bunker was made for his rescued ones

Žanis Lipke shed under which the bunker was made for his rescued ones

In such way he and his rescued ones made until October 13 1944 when Red army marched in Riga. Before soviets marched in he also managed to smuggle out Latvians who deserted Latvian Waffen SS Legion. He did so by working in German Forestry service and transported captured trophy vehicles from Riga to Kurzeme. Soviet paratroopers brothers Rozenbergs were also sheltered by him. He was arrested by Soviet secret police NKVD who questioned him about his son Alfrēds who served in German army support service. After finding out that he rescued Jews the NKVD then started to question his reasons and tried to find the hidden Jewish gold and diamonds. During questioning Lipke lost his patience and shouted to Soviet officer that communists are the same bandits as Nazis, Nazis shoot you by looking in the eye, while Soviets shoot from the back. Despite such grave insult he was released by the Soviets and not bothered again.

After the war he continued to live in his house in Balasta dambis in Ķīpsala. His rescued ones who made it to Israel made him popular and on 1977 when he visited the country he was greeted warmly by crowds of people. Yad Vashem recognized him as the Righteous Among Nation   and holds documents related to his actions and planted a tree in alley of heroes within the memorial complex. Those who remained in Latvia visited Lipke two times in a year. He was very popular among Latvian Jewish community. One of his rescued Dāvids Zilbermans wrote a book “As a Star in Darkness” where he gathered the accounts from rescued ones about Lipke.

Žanis Lipke memorial

Žanis Lipke memorial

On May 14 1987 Lipke died from stroke and was buried in Riga II Forest cemetery. Since then actions were made to commemorate his name. A memorial stone to Lipke and his family was placed in Riga New Jewish cemetery,   on 1995 at the location of main Riga Ghetto gate a memorial plaque was placed commemorating him. Lipkes relatives continued to live in their small wooden house in Balasta dambis 8. On 2005 a society “Žanis Lipke Memorial” lead by ex Prime Minister Māris Gailis was established to create a memorial next to Lipkes house. The project was designed by his wife Zaiga Gaile. The memorial was finished on 2012 and was instantly praised for his architectural design and interior. The museum holds permanent exhibition about life and work of Žanis Lipke and his family. The basement levels holds space for temporary exhibits and small guest hall is often used for lectures and presentations. The wooden building was made to recreate the Lipke’s shelter in form of Noah’as ark and the bunker within the lover levels of the memorial. The memorial itself is perfectly hidden between the buildings in Ķīpsala as the original Lipke’s shelter was. To this day is the most modern and popular Holocaust memorial in Latvia. The Lipke museum also has made a project “Underground Riga” to mark all the sites in Riga where Lipke and other rescuers made shelters for Jews, Communists and Legion deserters by erecting small   plaques on the ground next to the buildings. Thanks to the memorial Žanis Lipke has became popular in Latvia and abroad more than ever.

Lipke himself described his actions as purely non-selfish. To question how much he rescued he said he did not count, those who saved he saved without much counting. Lipke was remembered as nice person and a risk taker that contributed to his savior person. His efforts and names lives till this day and serves as example to how to act in times of war and despair.

Selected Sources:

http://www.lipke.lv/lv

PRETDARBĪBA HOLOKAUSTAM LATVIJĀ Marģers Vestermanis

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/lipke.asp

 

Comments Off on Žanis Lipke

Filed under Historical Articles

Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

On 18-19th century the nationalist movement became popular among many nations among Europe. Nationalist idea presented the unity by ethnic and cultural means and formation of a national state. For each nation the nationalism manifested in different ways. For French and British nationalism evolved into imperialism. For nations under foreign rule like Latvians the nationalism evolved into struggle for self determination. For the Jewish people their unique position in Europe made them create a specific type of nationalism – Zionism. For the nation left without homeland living in Diaspora among many places of the world the Zionism meant many things. First the rejection of assimilation and conversion to Christianity instead openly display their Jewish identity and demand equal rights in countries they lived. Second the ultimate goal – the creation of a Jewish state in their historical homeland in Middle East. Zionist movement appeared in late 19th century and reached Latvia that had significant Jewish population. At first it was rather weak, but after the foundation of the Republic of Latvia it became prominent even among other Jewish movements among Europe. This article is about these Zionist movements in Latvia, who were they and what they meant for Latvians and the Jews.

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The term Zionism was first used by Nathan Birnbum on 1982 in Vienna. The roots of the idea were at least 20 years older and expressed by thinkers including Rabbi from Bauska Mordechai Eliasberg who said people is only possible in their homeland. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who was born the Grīva present day Latvia on 1865. He is regarded as one of the most prominent religious thinkers who developed these ideas further. Ultimately this Latvia born scholar became the first Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate of Palestine. But, the Zionist idea on the political level was raised by Jewish physician from Odessa Leo Pinsker. His book Auto-Emancipation published in Berlin on 1882 outlined the idea of the political Zionism. In his pamphlet he urged his fellow Jewish people to strive for independence and self-determination and reject assimilation and conversion that will not entirely remove anti-semitism. A state governed by Jews in the place of their own was further elaborated by Theodor Herzl in his Judenstaat – The Jewish State on 1896 and made the zionist idea widespread. There was a reason why one of the first proponents of Jewish national idea came from Russian Empire like Rabbi Cook and Leo Pinsker – the Jewish rights were in backwards state comparing to Western Europe. Thats why the ideas of Leo Pinsker where not generally accepted in Germany but praised in Russia.

The first Zionist organization in Russia was BILU society on 1882. On 1884 it was replaced by Hovevei Zion society. They established branches in Liepāja, Daugavpils, Krustpils, Bauska and other cities within present day Latvia. They did not manage to start colonization of Palestine owned by the Ottoman Empire. The boost was given by more practical ideas of Theodor Herzl and formed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland on 1897. Russia’s Jews faced pogroms as early as from 1880ies causing them to look for common political ideology of defiance. Herzl works were known in Latvia and evolved in different movements. Some called them Palestiophiles, among them V Kaplan, L Shalit,  Z Berman J Tron and others. They split up in political and spiritual Zionists. The third movement was Socialist Zionism organized in movement Poaley Zion and Ceire Zion who worked in Riga, Daugavpils, Ludza, Tukums and many other places. They were outscored by the Bund who were Jewish Marxists who played major role in the 1905 revolution and enjoyed greater popularity. As Marxists they rejected national and religious ideas instead focused on social issues and rights of the Jewish workers.

The First World War disrupted the lives of Jews in Latvia. Many were deported from combat areas in false accusations of spying, many took refuge by themselves. Large portion of them ended up in Russia. Together with Latvians, the Jews had the most organized refugee support societies. After the fall of the Russian monarchy on 1917 the Jewish movement split up in many ways. Many joined the Bolsheviks, others stayed true to the social-democracy regarded as Mensheviks. The Bund in Latvia rejected the communist party. Others in the light of the events in Palestine saw chance in revival of Zionism. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” however failed to match the Zionist expectations. The Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann made agreement with Arab leader Emir Faisal for Jewish-Arab cooperation that would give Palestine to Jews, while Faisal receives a united Arab kingdom within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Faisal’s logic was that Jews were wise and rich enough to turn Palestinian desert into garden while Arabs have the great kingdom in Baghdad and Damascus. However, the Allied powers failed his expectations by creating the Palestinian Mandate governed by British, giving Syria to France and Iraq to UK.  Such betrayal to the both to Arabs and Jews created a decades of war and hate still not solved until this day.

Meanwhile for Jews in Latvia there were three choices: support the Bolshevik Latvian Soviet Republic that was hostile to religion and national self-determination.  Support the Germanic Baltic Duchy that may give some rights to the Jewish minority or support the Republic of Latvia that promised equal rights for all nationalities in Latvia. At first the third choice did not seem obvious- the Latvian Provisional Government was weak and seemed short lived. However, some Jewish representatives joined the Latvian Peoples Council from the start. After the victories over Bolsheviks and Germans on the summer of 1919 the third choice was now the primary one. More than 1000 Jews took part in the ranks of the Latvian army. Some were decorated. After the independence was won it was time for Jews in Latvia to make out what is best for themselves.

The Republic of Latvia was a champion of the minority rights in the post war Europe. Jews finally had chance for their own schools supported by state, cultural movements and political parties to elect in parliament and local municipalities. The 93 479 Jews in Latvia (according to 1935 census) were different kind of people. Some of them were traders, shopkeepers, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, workers and poor. And different was their political and even religious views. In 20 years of independence the Jews in Latvia failed to create united organization to represent the entire Jewish community. The zionists were not united among themselves. The socialists and orthodox opposed them and each other. So the Jewish political climate in Latvia was diverse.

Zionism in Latvia had many wings. The Histadrut Chazionist party founded on 1919 represented the general right wing bourgeoisie Jews. They had sections in all Latvia, their idea was to create a national zionist center in Palestine and improve the lives of Jews within Diaspora. Other aspect of their ideology was to increase the Jewish involvement in the agricultural and industrial sector. Party was influential at first but failed to get elected in parliament only in some municipalities. Only the Constitutional Assembly from 1920  to 1922 had one elect Zh Thorn. The party contributed to the creation of the Palestine Bureau that was a center of communications between Zionists in Latvia and the settlers in Palestine. Also it organized the emigration from Latvia to Palestine. Party made many youth organizations Chatio (Hope), Bney Zion (the sons of Zion), and Herzlia. The youth organizations worked in cultural, sports and social fields.

An alternative Zionist movement was the religious Zionism movement Mizrachi. Judaism was the main force uniting Jews around the world. However, Judaism was not primary nationalistic and rejected political solution to the Jewish problems. As mentioned before the two Rabbis from Latvia Mordechai Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac Kook were the ones who promoted the middle way between secular and religious solution. The idea of combining both truths for the common good of the Jewish people created the religious Zionism that accepted secular state as part of the messianic way. The religious values can be kept in the Jewish state, thus for the religious Jew moving back to their ethnic homeland is a obligation and the Zionism is the will of G-d. Not all orthodox   Jews agreed on that, however the Mizrachi party in Latvia was quite influential.

Nuroks

Mordechai Nurock (left) speaks to the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis (right)

 Mizrachi (the Religious Center) party was run by rabbi Mordechai Nurock was born in Tukums on November 7 1879. He served as rabbi in Jelgava, on 1903 he took part in the Zionist Congress. He moved to Russia during the war and played key role in refugee organizations. He also joined the All-Russian Jewish Committee and established a religious Jewish group known as “Tradition and Freedom”. On 1921 he returned to Latvia and was elected in the parliament. He was consequently elected in next three elections until 1934. Nurock was active man, both in Latvia and abroad. He cooperated with many organizations and contributed to their work. He was well recognized among the Latvian politicians, his main allies however were the Social-Democrats who were mostly in the oppositions. The anti-semitic Latvian press always pointed to Nurock as the main patron of the two short lived leftist coalitions. But, Nurock was just and tolerant towards his opponents and supported democracy. The coup by Kārlis Ulmanis on May 15 1934 came to his disappointment and created opposition. In result his movement was rejected by the regime. On 1940 the Soviets exiled him to Turkmenistan. His wife and two children were killed in the Holocaust, while he was freed on 1947 and moved to Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel he was elected in the Israeli Knesset on 1952 he was elected as minister of Postal service, he was also a candidate for the President of Israel. He served in the Knesset until his death on 1962 November 8 becoming the most successful Zionist from Latvia who actually took part in creation of Israel.

However, there were people who rejected the both general secular way and the religious way.  They were the left wing Zionists or Socialist Zionists. Already mentioned  the Poalie Zion (The Workers of Zion) and Ceirei Zion were already known before WWI. In socially unequal Latvia the left wing Zionism was apparently popular. Their leader Max Laserson was elected in many elections and stood united with social democrat organization. One of his main ideas was the Jewish Political and Cultural autonomy in Latvia greatly extending the Jewish rights. Also Baltic Germans and Russians pushed for the same making the Latvian legislators fear the creation of “state within state”. His proposals were not entirely rejected but politely “delayed” in parliamentary commissions. His socialism was not radical but more moderate achieving unity and progress in both national and social means. The left wing Zionists opposed the idea employed by the right wing and religious Zionists that Hebrew language used only in Torah and religious rituals should be brought to life.  Instead they insisted on keeping Yiddish the mix of Hebrew and German that was main language for Jews in the Eastern Europe. Not all Jews in Latvia used Yiddish as primary language. In Courland and Riga some preferred German; in Latgale some spoke only Russian. The both parties argued over the teaching of Hebrew in schools and the common ground was not achieved; some schools taught only in Hebrew, some in Yiddish. But, Hebrew was never used in the daily lives of the Latvian Jews.

On 1931 the Ceirei Zion united with their counterpart Zionist-Socialist party and created the United Party of Zionists-Socialists of Latvia”. But, the new force never made it to elections on 1934 after the coup they were banned by the anti-left wing Ulmanis regime. Max Laserson survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel and was elected in Knesset.

Zeev_Jabotinsky

Zeev Jabotinsky

The Zionist movement was not complete without its far right wing. And Latvia played significant part in it. After the Zionist hopes to achieve statehood with the help of the Balfour declaration failed there was common sense of disappointment. The parties mentioned above continued to work on diplomatic solution and start colonization of Palestine. However, the hostility between Arabs and the new settlers resulted in violence. Palestine was not entirely devoid of Jews before the start of Zionist movement. The small Jewish population living there for centuries were generally tolerated by the Muslims who came there on 6th century. However, now the influx of the new settlers raised hostility boosted by the British inability to control situation in their mandate. This made some to come to conclusion that the only way to achieve Zionist goals is using radical force, by using self defense and armed response both to British and Arabs. This was a radical thinking for Jews in those times, as Jews living in other countries had no real militaristic tradition since the fall of Kingdom of Israel. The main leader of these people was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa 1880 October 18 Jabotinsky started as moderate Zionist. He came to militarism during WWI when he pushed for the Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight the Ottomans. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, he saw action in Palestine as Lieutenant within the 38th Royal Fusiliers. After demobilized he started to train Jewish Self Defense corps. After his unit was repressed by the British he became even more radical. In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren Hayesod and served as its director of propaganda But after having major disagreements with moderate leading Zionists he left the Zionist Organization.

Jabotinsky considered that his political carrier is over. Then he was invited to Latvia and Lithuania to hold lectures. On 1923 he arrived in Riga to speak in  front of student organization Hatiho. As he preached his radical views he was told that he has no rights to preach them if he is not intending to create a political movement. That made Jabotinsky think over his intention the local students of Riga inspired him to start a new political movement called Zionist Revisionism. It was to revise the Zionist policy that failed to achieve its goals on 1917.

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

As Riga was the cradle of the revisionist movement the first of its organization was established in Latvia. The Latvian Union of Zionists-Revisionists came to being on 1925. The main Jabotinsky organization Betar is claimed to be founded in Riga. Betar soon spread all around the Europe and made its way in US and even Australia. In Palestine the Betar was often viewed by the British as terrorist organization. Some more radical offspring’s as the so called Stern Gang  or Lehi and Irgun were responsible for terrorist acts against the British like the King David Hotel bombing and the murder of the UN negotiator Folk Bernadotte on 1948. But, Jabotinsky movement major achievement was the contribution of making strong Jewish military to defend the new state of Israel. The Israeli Defense Force was created from these Jewish self defense units. Also major political parties like Likud and Kadima are followers of the Zionist-Revisionist movement. Without the Zionist-Revisionists the creation of Israel would not be possible and the fact that Riga was the starting point of this movement puts Riga as important place in the history of Israel.

The other wing of Zionist Revisonism active also in Latvia was Joseph Trupeldor movement. Joseph Trupeldor was a charismatic war hero that became famous in the Battle of Tel Hai on March 1 1920 where died in battle. Already famous war leader he was recognized as the national hero. To his honor a youth organization “Brit Josef Trumpeldor” (The Union of Josef Trupeldor) was created and was active in Latvia. The organization employed a militaristic lifestyle, marched in uniforms and often were called the “Jewish Fascists” because of their brownish uniforms. The brown color was to resemble the Palestinian desert and brown British uniform Trumpeldor wore. The organization made major contribution to youth sport and education.

There were two major opponents of Zionists among Jews in Latvia. The Bund that was the oldest socialist party in Russian Empire was still true to their pre-1918 views and rejected nationalism. They also opposed the teaching of Hebrew. Other major opponent was Agudat Isroel lead by Rabbi Mordechai Dubin. Influential politician and businessman was a Orthodox Jew who opposed moving to Palestine and create a new state before the arrival of the Messiah. Instead he pushed for staying in Latvia and maintain the religious traditions. He supported the teaching of Hebrew but only for religious means. Dubin who once even visited the US president Herbert Hover, had great influence on the Latvian politicians even Kārlis Ulmanis. Dubin however broke his principals when he made major effort to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany stranded in Latvia. One part of them was sent by him to Palestine because for Dubin the main prinicipal was to save help his common people regardless of his views.

Kārlis Ulmanis banned all the Zionist parties after his takeover. But, he banned every party regardless their nationality even his own Lavian Farmers Union. But, Ulmanis was not against Zionism in general as he saw nothing wrong of Jews moving away from Latvia and leaving more space for Latvians. Zionists except left wingers worked and non-political movements. The marching Trumpeldor’s were tolerated by Ulmanis. Then came the 1940 when the Soviet occupation closed all the Jewish societies and took over their property. Many of the Zionist leaders were arrested, sent to Siberia or shot. A year later Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population in Latvia.

But the story of the Zionist movement in Latvia does not end with that. While the surviving Zionists worked in Israel, the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement in Latvia appeared again in 1960ies as response to the anti-semitic Soviet policy. But that is another story to be told in future.

Selected Sources:

Волкович, Б. (2012) Сионистское движение в Латвии (1918-1940) 2-е изд., доп. Daugavpils

Sinkēviča, Eva (2014) Reliģiskā cionisma kustība Latvijā: vēsture,organizācija, ietekme. Promocijas darbs. Latvijas Universitātes Teoloģijas fakultāte.

Walter, Laquer (2003) A History of Zionism. From the French Revolution to establishment of the Sate of  Israel. Shocken Books. New York.

Comments Off on Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

Filed under Historical Articles

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.

Comments Off on Mordehai Dubin The Leader of the Latvian Jews 1889-1956

Filed under Historical Articles