Tag Archives: Jews in Latvia

Jews in Soviet Latvia. Assimilation, resistance and revival.

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

On May 14 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. It was the realization of hopes and dreams of many of the Holocaust survivors. Large masses moved to the new country, others watched it from their homes at the Diaspora.  In Soviet Union it was pretty much different. Despite initially supporting the Israeli independence, Soviet Union maintained hostile policy towards Israel for next five decades. Despite Soviet Union having one of the largest numbers of Holocaust victims and survivors, its policy was anti-Semitic and unfriendly towards the Jews in Soviet Union. The Soviet Anti-Semitism was not genocidal as the Nazi was. It was more oriented towards full assimilation, oppressive atheism and anti-Zionism. Soviet ideology was generally against practicing Judaism and embracing the Jewish national identity. In such climate the Jews around the Soviet Union had to choose between assimilation into Russian speaking “Soviet nation” devoid of religion and national values or resist. The resistance was not always active and open. The resistance was trying to preserve and maintain their religious values, commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and protesting to gain rights to immigrate to Israel. The post-war Latvia was one of the active parts of this resistance. The survivors and the newcomers all had to through the same choices that others had in the Soviet Union. At the end on late eighties the Latvian Jewish community was again on path to revival and restoration of the independent Jewish community.

 The Holocaust in Latvia killed about 75 thousand Latvian Jews. Only 15 thousand people managed to escape Latvia to the depths of the Soviet Union. A large number of Latvian Jews were deported by the Soviets on June 14 1941 mass deportations. Those who survived the camps later returned to Latvia. Not all returned, but those who did, found their pre-war life’s completely destroyed. There were no synagogues, no Jewish organizations; most of the old Jewish community was destroyed. On 1959 in Soviet Latvia there were 36 600 Jewish nationals 1,75% of the population, 80% of them living in Riga. Only 100 000 of them were born in pre war Latvia as large numbers of soviet Jews moved to live and work in soviet Latvia. Just 48% of them had Yiddish as their native tongue, 50% of them spoke Russian. In next decades the newcomers from Russia and other places overcome the native Latvian Jews. However in many cases they were united in their struggles against the Soviet assimilation policies.

The Jewish struggle against assimilation can be divided in two major parts. First: the preservation of religion, maintaining the religious values in defiance of the official atheist policy. Judaism is the most important aspect of the Jewish identity so it was crucial to keep and maintain it. Officially the Soviet constitution allowed religious practice that is separated from the state and schools. However, the Soviet authorities always tried to interfere in the affairs of the countries many churches and cults. The main authority concerning religious groups was the Council for the Affairs of the Religious Cults. At first the CARC was unable to control the Jewish congregations because of their small size and lack of unified spiritual center. Also because of transport problems, the religious live in rural towns was left beyond observation. The CARC representative Voldemārs Šeškens had very scarce knowledge about the Jewish religion and how to control it. He did not even know if the Soviet Union has any chief rabbi.

Despite that he began registering the Jewish congregations across Latvia. To register a congregation at least 20 people were needed, who then had to found a place for prayer and submit registration papers to local executive committee. It also had to be approved by the KGB.  If all sides approved then: the registry application had to be sent to Moscow where the People’s Commissar Council (later the Council of the Soviet Ministers) approved in the last instance. On 1949 seven congregations with 6 “cult servicemen” were registered across Latvia. Two in Riga, one in Tukums, Ludza, Krāslava, Rēzekne and Daugavpils.  However, there were also unregistered congregations with people unofficially or approved only by local authorities like in Jēkabpils, Liepāja, Ventspils ect. Most of the synagogues in Latvia were destroyed or damaged during the Holocaust, so it was difficult or impossible for the 20 people congregations to restore them. The only fully working synagogue in Latvia was the Pietav street synagogue in Old Riga that was left completely unscarred. Many synagogues were turned into libraries, restaurants and even sport halls like in Tukums.

The state policy became more hostile on 1948 trying to exclude and limit the Jewish religion. Sanctions were made against the young people who attended synagogue; many new regulations prevented Jews from maintaining their traditions. The anti-religious campaign was boosted by official state hostility towards the new State of Israel and the anti-cosmopolite campaign. Many of the religious activists were arrested and accused for the national treason. On 1953 the anti-Jewish campaign reached climax when the so-called “Doctors Trial” in Moscow boosted great fear of massive repressions towards the Jews. When the Riga Jews asked the Pietav Synagogue chief why there was no matzo bought this year, he replied “How can I ask for matzo if the head of the state himself (Stalin) writes anti-Semitic sounding article in the newspaper? One of the dearest rumors was that Stalin is preparing a mass Jewish deportation to Siberia. So far, no compelling documentary evidence have been found, but as Russian archives remain closed for the most part, it’s possible that such deportation was planned. After Stalin’s death the repressions against the Jews were ceased.

State policy became more liberal towards religion excluding the arrests and repressions. However, the anti-religious propaganda was omnipresent and often ignited hate and misunderstanding from the locals. On sixties as the Jewish national movement became strong worldwide the restriction and suspicion against the Jewish congregations became more severe. The new CARC rules removed the juridical status of the congregations and became fully controlled by CARC representatives. Taxing was increased to maximum; the local authorities could close down the congregation without higher approval as in Tukums in 1961 when the congregation was closed down.

Maintaining religion to preserve national identity proved not was the only working answer to assimilation. Not only because of the state restriction, but also because religion was not favored by all the Jews as their mean of the self identity. On 20th century two new self identity factors appeared among Jews: Holocaust commemoration and the State of Israel. Both of these factors became a challenge as the Soviets viewed them with even more hostility.

Both in Europe and Soviet Union the Holocaust commemoration begun in full-scale in the beginning of the sixties, when the Eichmann trial and Israeli victories made to talk openly about the Jewish Genocide and ask retribution. In Soviet Union the Jewish genocide was overly not mentioned in state media and history books. Only right after the war until 1948 the state newspapers mentioned the Jewish victims killed by the Nazis. Some novels like the Vētra (The Storm) written by Vilis Lācis famous writer and soviet statesmen described the Jewish killings in Latvia. The KGB made Extraordinary Investigation Commission and punished most of culprits who took part in the killings. However, later the Jews killed in Soviet Union were just part of “soviet citizens killed by the fascists”. It was done to avoid mentioning one nation not to boost the much feared Jewish nationalism.

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

In answer to that on sixties the first commemorative events started to take place in Rumbula, the mass killing site where 25,000 Jews were killed on November 30 , and December 8 1941. On 1961 first Jewish youth’s came to the site and started to mark the killing sites. The soviets were quick to issue warnings not to gather there. On 1962 first commemorative wooden plate was placed there. On 1963 at least every week people gathered to build memorial site. Artist J Kuzkovskis placed a large poster of Jew with squeezed fist rising from the grave in protest to what’s have bee done to him and his family. It was placed roadside alarming the soviets who removed the poster. After much friction between the state and the activists on 1964 a memorial stone was placed, with hammer and sickle and writing in three languages “For the victims of fascism 1941-1944”. Similar sites were made elsewhere, but not mentioning word “Jew”. Also if one dared to place the Star of David on the monument, he would be punished and the star removed. Soviets considered gatherings and seminars at the killing sites as the Zionist anti-soviet activity. Most of them were illegal, but were not dispersed, because sometimes more than 200 people came to them especially at Rumbula.

Soviet Union was hostile towards Zionism as it was Jewish Nationalism, and communism is primary against any kind of nationalism. However, on 1948 Stalin hoped that Israel would be ruled by leftist forces that would join the Soviet Block. Instead as in result of Arab-Israeli war the main force in the Israeli politics turned out to be right-wing Zionists; many of them having roots in Russia, Ukraine and Latvia. Soviet Union invested great sums to arm and train the Israeli enemy states Egypt, Jordan and Syria. During the times of Khrushchev, Soviet Union was the champion of the anti-Zionist ideology. It became even more active after the Six Days War on 1967 and Yom Kipur war on 1973 when Israeli military disgraced the Soviet Union by defeating the Arab states armed to teeth with the best Soviet weapons. The Israeli advances became known for many across the Soviet Union and movement begun to immigrate to Israel. However, the Soviets were against this and the resistance movement started across the union to gain rights to leave.

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Jews in Latvia were active in this movement writing petitions to the Soviet government and international organizations. During the seventies more than 40% such letters came from Riga. The petitioners were called “otkazniks” (in Russian refused). 24 Riga “otkaznik’s” wrote open letter to UN. Grigorijs Mincs member of the prominent pre war family even approached the British MP Piter Archer and the UK embassy to grant him rights to leave. Protests and sit-ins were made by the “otkazniks” at the soviet authorities like on 1970 in Riga at the Latvian Soviet Supreme Council. On 1971 March 56 Jews from Riga arrived at Soviet Supreme Council at Moscow and gave a signed petition to allow them to leave and also free arrested activists. Along with them, people from Lviv, Vilnius, Kaunas and other cities. After being rejected, new letter signed by 165 people was addressed starting hunger strike that lasted for 26 hours that in first time in USSR history took place in state rooms. When they were threatened by militsyia (soviet police) they left the building only to return to Ministry of Interior next day. The marching Jews confused the people on the streets of Moscow and brought western media attention. The action took place in the same time as the 24th congress of the Communist party. Embarrassed soviets finally gave in and granted all previously rejected appeals to immigrate to Israel.  Hunger strikes became frequent among many Latvian Jews who in such way protested to the denial of emigration or the arrest of their relatives.

One of the most radical methods to leave the Union was a plane hijack attempt by the Jews from Riga on 1970. A group of 16 people planned to hijack AN-26 passenger plane in Leningrad but, were arrested before doing so. Their trial caused protests both in Union and the west. Later four Jews were arrested in Riga for supporting the hijackers. One of the evidence for their guilt was illegal Jewish newspaper “Iton”. The Jewish illegal publishing was called “Samizdat” (Self Publishing). “Samizdat” was journals and books about the Jewish history and culture and religion. Soviets targeted this as anti-Soviet propaganda and often arrested the publisher. Getting in goods from Israel and making things with Jewish symbols also alarmed the soviets. Jews also organized private educative lectures, theatrical plays called “Purimshpīl” displaying stories from the Jewish cultural life. The Judaica lectures gathered people from all over the Union and abroad. Eventually rather large numbers of Jews managed to move to Israel. Not all stayed there however, and used legal rights to travel further to US or Western Europe to settle there.

Not all Jews choose to resist assimilation.  For many it was easier to adopt Russian name to hide their Jewish identity and live the lives of the ordinary soviet citizen. Some of them became too assimilated and became Russian nationalists after the fall of the Union. Some only after the fall of the Union re-discovered their Jewish identity. In early 90ies Israel became overflowed with Jewish immigrants from all over the Soviet Union. About 1.6 million Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States settled in Israel making rapid changes in the society.  Even the Arab tradesmen in the Old city of Jerusalem started to learn Russian.

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Meanwhile those who stayed in Latvia at the late 80ies were on path on making legal Jewish organization as the state reforms finally allowed to create national minority organizations. The Jewish community was divided in two fractions. The “culture” fraction did not insist on leaving, but on maintaining the Jewish culture at home. The “political” fraction meanwhile maintained that in current circumstances the national revival is only possible in Israel. On 1988 the Latvian Jewish Cultural Society was founded in Skolas Street 6th the former Jewish theater later turned in to Communist party congress building. When the new Congress building was made, the Jews regained the old Jewish theater. The main stage was full of people witnessing the grand event the revival of the Latvian Jewish community.

Skolas Street 6th became the center of the modern day Jewish community in Latvia. On 1996 the unified Council of the Latvian Jewish communities and congregations becoming the main representative of the Jews in Latvia. The rather small minority of six thousand people are one of the most active national minorities in Latvia. On 1992 Latvia established diplomatic relations with Israel. The contacts between Latvian and Israeli Jews are dense and helping the local Jewish community. The Holocaust has finally received its place in Latvian history. It has been studied in depth. New monuments have been built across Latvia to commemorate the events. The Jewish nation has survived many attempts of assimilation and extermination. Their successful struggle against soviet assimilation is another proof of how the strong is the Jewish nation.

Selected Sources:

Barkane, Karīna. Valsts varas attieksme pret ebreju reliģiskajām draudzēm Latvijas PSR (1944-1964). Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie laiki. 2013. 3 (91)

Aļeksejeva, Olga. Ebreju pretošanās formas PSRS pastāvošajam režīmam (Latvijas PSR ebreju nacionālās kustības kontekstā) Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie Laiki. 2014. 1/2 (92/93)

Алексеева, Ольга. Радикальные формы сопротивления советскому режиму в среде евреев Латвии в начале 1970-х гг.: призма Ленинградского и Рижского процессов. Евреи в меняюшемшя мире VII. Рига 2015.  Латвийский университет

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