Tag Archives: Jews

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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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.

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Jews and Latvians in the 1905 Revolution

The Bloody Sunday on the January 22 (9 according to Julian calendar still used in Russian Empire) was a wakeup call for many nations across the Russian Empire. For Russians it was a fight for more political and social rights. For Latvians it was fight also for greater national rights. This was shared also by the Jewish people living across the Russian Empire. Their main strive was to defend themselves from the violent anti-Semitism and abolish all restrictions towards them. Together with Latvian revolutionaries they were united under one common goal – to bring down the oppressive absolute tsar Nicholas II monarchy. The revolution of 1905 was one of the interesting moments in history where despite cultural and ethnic differences the Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries fought together and even averted the anti-Jewish pogrom attempt in Riga.

Russia was stranger to Jews until the first partition of Poland on 1772 . After the final land grab on 1795 Russia gained enormous territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For centuries Poland had large Jewish population. They were in large numbers in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. The 1897 First All-Russia national census counted 142 315 Jews within modern borders of Latvia 7,4% of the population. To keep Jews from moving to Moscow or Petersburg Russia introduced the Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) a territory for permanent Jewish settlement and it was forbidden to live outside it. Originally only the eastern Latvian part of Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement as it was part of the Province of Vitebsk. But, a sizable Jewish population already lived in Courland. Despite many restrictions Jews managed to settle or work in Riga. Northern Latvian part of Vidzeme renamed almost unreachable to Jews with very small population. Jewish youth faced hard conscription rules for 12 years to serve in army, taxes were higher for them.

During the reign of the liberal Tsar Alexander II the Jewish relations with the state eased but after his assassination the relations gotten again to worsen level. Reactionary forces blamed Jews in the murder first pogroms took place. Pogrom – a large scale violence soon became a synonym for major violent attacks directed towards Jews. A violence that led to a political response from the Jewish nation. One part of them joined the Zionist movement that called for unification of the Jewish people under national means. They rejected assimilation and conversion to Christianity as it would not completely erase anti-Semitism. As Jews will always be regarded as strangers no matter how emancipated in the society they are. There were Zionist movements in Latvia, but their part in the revolution of 1905 was insignificant. And it’s another story to be told in future. The main force of the 1905 revolution was the far left social democrats and within them the Jewish Bund.

The Bund represented the masses of the Jewish workers or the so called Proletariat. Although Jews were always stereotyped as wealthy traders, large masses of Jews worked for 14 hours in a day with low wages and lived in poor unsanitary conditions.  Plus the nationally based restrictions made then to unite under the Red Banner that promised equal rights for all nations. The Bund was founded in Vilnius on 1897 as the Universal Jewish Labor Union in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Later it was commonly known as the Bund (alliance).Bund was the first major Jewish party in Russia and also the first social democratic party. As the Russian Social Democratic Workers party (RSDWP) was founded a year later. Bund joined them and took active part in the strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities persecuted them and arrested their leaders. Later because of the national differences on 1903 Bund left the RSDWP, but cooperated with them during the revolution. While the Bund rejected the nationalistic Zionist ideas, they agreed in need of having Jewish schools and keeping the national traditions. However, they were strongly against the role of the religion and insisted on secularity.

The industrialized Riga and other parts of the Baltic province was no stranger to the workers movement. Some Jews  like Jankel Epstein from Daugavpils were first to direct the movement. Bund was popular among the Jewish students within the Riga Polititechnical Institute some of them were ejected from it. Daugavpils with major Jewish population –  most of them workers was the main headquarters for the Bund. They took part in all strikes and protests including the major First May demonstration that took place in many cities of Russia. Because the demonstration in Vilnius caused rough government response by publicly whipping the organizers, that in response caused attack on the general governor, in Riga local Bund members created a armed resistance group. The external Bund bureau however asked to resort from violence.

The Russian defeat in the war with Japan led towards economical downfall. On January 9  (22) 1905 in Petersburg the large peaceful crowd marching towards the Tsars main palace asking him to listen to their petition was fired upon by the Tsars guard causing bloodbath known as the Bloody Sunday. The largest country in the world with modernizing society, but with decadent absolute monarchy went into rage. Nicholas II witnessed the murder of the Alexander II  who was killed by anarchists despite abolishing serfdom and intending to write a constitution. Because of this, Nicholas II was slow and reactionary to reforms. But, the people across the Russia had enough of this. So as the Latvian people.

The leading force of the Latvian revolutionaries was the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, united with Bund on January 13 it hosted a demonstration march in Riga for the fallen comrades in Petersburg. The large demonstration of 10 000 people lead by LSDWP leader Ansis Bušēvičs marched from Moscow Street to the city center. Despite Buševičs calling to end the demonstration and lower the red flags , large parts of crowds did not listen and moved towards the armed cavalry of Cossacks.Police and Cossacks responded with fire killing more than 70 people. Many tried to cross the frozen river Daugava to escape the shooting and drowned. Among the killed were five Jews and 9 wounded. The fallen were young men 22 year old Eliass Epstein, Michael David Abramovich of the same age, 17 year old Izrail Jaschikov, Chaim Jankel Sperling 18 years old and 22 years old Michail Ucca. Two among them were from the Bund.

Revolution sparked out in Latvia. Bund started major activities. On 1905 and 1907 two general strikes were held in Daugavpils. An odd form of strike was held in Riga on 1905 May and June a strike of the producers and traders of the kosher meat that left the kosher eating Jews of Riga without kosher food for almost a month. It’s not known how significant was the kosher only population that suffered from this as not all Jews applied to the religious rules. On summer of 1905 the rural workers in Kurzeme (Courland) issued a general strike and Tsarist government issued a state of war within the Courland province. On September 16 the Jewish-Latvian students of the Riga Politechnical institute issued protest in support of the striking field workers.

When the protests resorted to arms Jews joined Latvians in armed assault against the Riga Central Prison to free their imprisoned comrades. In the night of September 6 to 7 47 Latvian and five Jewish fighters raided the prison and freed two main revolutionaries J Lācis and J  Šļesers. Also the famous LSDWP commando who became an anarchist Jānis Žāklis later known as the Peter the Painter whose mother was a Lutheran Jew. He took part in most of the armed actions against the Tsarist authorities. However, later he became too violent and was rejected by his social democrat comrades.

The use of violence was a great issue for the Latvian revolutionaries. At the end of the 1905 the revolution was close to failure. On December 9 armed uprising begun in Moscow. Some Latvian, Russian and the Bund called for armed uprising in Riga too. They even insisted on storming the Fortress of Daugavgrīva where the main Riga garrison was stationed. The majority of LSDWP was against such bloodshed, however the Bund did not back down and joined the radical Russian social democrats who wanted the uprising. In long frantic talks from December 11 to December 16 the LSDWP convinced the Bund not to start uprising and general strike. On December 18 the interim Baltic general governor general-lieutenant V Sologob arrived in Riga and started the punishment expeditions.

In one cause the Bund and LSDWP was united without question. Do not allow any pogroms in Riga and elsewhere around Latvia. LSDWP as marxist party was against anti-Semitism and called for general human rights regardless of nationality. Even the future Latvian nationalist leader Arveds Bergs called for full cooperation between Latvians and Jews and asked to give them full rights. On the other side the Latvian monarchist Fricis Veinbergs published anti-Semitic slogans supporting the pogroms.

The 1905 revolution again ignited the pogroms in Russian Empire. The last major pogrom took place in Kishinev modern day Moldova. While Tsar openly condemned this, in private he expressed support for anti-Semitism that could unite nation in support for his regime. The major radical supporters of the Tsar Nicholas II were the far right radicals often with ultra-orthodox views. These people were called the “Black Hundred” (Чёрная сотня). The ideals of the Black Hundred were mix of Russian imperialism, chauvinist nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. Together with violent anti-Semitism the Black Hundred was the first early fascists. Sadly this form of Russian far right is gaining prominence again in the modern day Russia.

It was not just Black Hundred that was responsible for waves of pogroms in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On October 18-20 in Odessa 400 people were killed. The Tsarist police although condemning the attacks and trying to arrest the perpetrators, often did nothing on purpose as they believed the majority of the revolutionaries were Jews. Tsar and the Church condemned the attacks, but they also thought that they help them to quell the revolution. Such pogroms could take place in Latvia also but were stopped by the joint Latvian and the Jewish efforts.

First violent attacks against the Jews took place in city of Ludza. But, they were small scale attacks on shops and were stopped by locals. Daugavpils was filled with rumors about coming pogroms in April but did not happen. On August the Riga port workers turned violent and wanted to attack the Jews. This time the police and Cossacks stopped them. On October 17 Tsar was forced to issue his manifesto that gave some of his powers away. The reactionaries blamed the Jews and on October 18 a pogrom started in Kyiv. Then in Riga the local Russian workers who supported the Tsar became violent. They mostly lived in the Moscow district where many Jews lived too and were angry that they liked the new freedoms granted by the weakened Tsar. Riots started on October 22-23. However, these riots only were a attempt to start a pogrom.

On October 22 first clashes between the Russians, Jews and Latvians took place on Lielā Kalna Street near the Orthodox Church. The angry Russians were from the Kuznetsov porcelain factory who assaulted both Latvians and Jews. The fight was stopped only by the arrival of the Cossacks. After learning the news both the LSDWP and Bund decided to form the self defense groups to defend both Latvian and Jewish supporters.

On October 23 the workers of the Kuznetsov factory gathered for a patriotic march a small crowd of 100-150 men. Despite having support for the Black Hundred, there was no such working Black Hundred organization within Latvia at that time. The marchers holding the pictures of Tsar and holding icons marched along the streets of  the Moscow district. The marchers started to attack everyone who they disagreed with along the way even Russians. Bloodshed erupted between the marchers, Cossacks and the LSDWP and Bund armed units. Among them the future foreign minister Fēliks Ceilēns. Angry mob joined by homeless and scoundrels attacked the Jewish shops reached the Yaroslavl street 44/43 (now Ludza street) where the Jewish Social home was located and was ready to attack it.

Fortunately the Jewish defenders along with Latvian comrades had already taken the defensive positions. Attackers were held back by the fire, and the Cossacks rushed to the scene to stop both of them. The major pogrom attempt was stopped although later in separate incident one Jew named Jankel Poplak was killed. Also Jew Zalman Gurevich was killed before him. 4 Latvian self defenders were killed in the clashes. 2 Latvians were killed by the angry mob. 3 Russians died along. A total of 47 people were killed or hurt. Majority of them were Latvians. Meaning this was not just pogrom attack against Jews but also against Latvians. As the Russian monarchists regarded Latvian revolutionaries as enemies too.

On October 24 the governor of Vidzeme Nicholas Zvegincev banned all patriotic demonstrations with the pictures of the emperor and the Russian anthem. With Tsar still in place this was clearly attempt of preventing pogrom. Similar clashes on the same time took place in Daugavpils resulting the death of the Jewish combatant Aron Feldman.

The major pogrom was avoided in Riga, because there was no major support for it among Latvian population. Also the Riga Tsarist police and the Cossacks were on the active side of the law. And of course the Latvian-Jewish joint defense groups fought off the Russian radicals. This is a rare event when pogrom was prevented in the major city of the Russian Empire. Other cities were not so fortunate.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution both the LSDWP and Bund worked underground. The outbreak of the First World War caused many Latvians and Jews to take refuge in Russia. The Pale of Settlement was broken. The Revolution of 1917 again took Latvian and Jewish leftists on the streets. Some joined the Bolsheviks. Other sided with democratic Republic of Latvia. During the period of 1918-1934 both LSDWP and Bund took part in the Latvian politics and worked together.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars (2006) 1905-1906. gada revolūcijas lappuses. Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Nr.2.

Stranga,Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam 14. gadsimts-1945. gads. Rīga. LU Akadēmiskais Apgāds.

Mendels, Bobe (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga. Šamir.

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Jews of Latvia fighting for Latvian Independence 1918-1920

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac "The Liberator"

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac “The Liberator”

During the war of independence the new Latvian Republic faced many enemies and nearly impossible task to form own Latvian armed forces. The Bolsheviks wanted Latvia as part of the new Worldwide Socialist republic, while the Baltic Germans striven for Baltic Duchy. However, Latvian Provisional government managed to form an army capable to secure our independence. Not only Latvians fought under the Latvian banner. Latvia was a multi-ethnic country and many national minorities also came to help. One of them were Jews. During the war for freedom more than 1000 Jews fought in the lines of the Latvian army. Some of them received highest state awards. 22 men lost their life’s. Many continued their service after the war. This is a story about them. Some of these soldiers were my personal relatives that make this story even more special.

Latvian Jews were at first quite skeptical about the new Latvian state. Many did not believe it could last for long, others still had a sentiment for collapsed Russian empire or even the new Bolshevik regime. Many searched ways to escape conscription and acquired the citizenship of the short lived Peoples Republic of Belarus and Ukraine. Some just declared allegiance to  non-bolshevik Russia, that was still legally acceptable. However, there were people who joined the Latvian army voluntarily or did not resist conscription.  Some Jews gave charity to Latvian army in Ludza the most contributors for the funds to buy a new flag of Latvia were the local Jews.

On Autumn 1919 most Jews started to support the Republic of Latvia. The support rose sharply during the attack of the Army of Bermont.  Jews understood that the free democratic Latvia is the best form of rule for them. The chance for autonomy of education, political and economic freedoms were more tempting than the brutal Bermont rule and the Red terror.

According to latest research 1000- 1200  Jews took part in the war of freedom. With them 12 officers, 19 medics and war employes. Jews also took part in the Latgalian Partisan Regiment. There were also Jews serving the Landeswerh and German land guard.  The most oldest Jewish soldier was 59 year old Haims Šteins and the most youngest was 10 year old Kopel Gorelik. He could be the youngest Latvian soldier ever. He took part in the 2th Cesis Battalion, later 2th Ventspils battalion where he fought the Bolsheviks for four months. He died in Riga in 1935. Jēkabs (Jakovs) Rics was 13 year old when he joined the 4th auto service. Many young Jewish boys either joined or were conscripted. Some had wrong birth date in the passports Mozus Dobrins was considered as 16 year old, while really he was 3 years younger. He was wounded near Jelgava on 20 November 1920 and later discharged as underage.

Many 18-19 year old’s took part. Hiršs Hermanis from Dobele took joined by his own will already on March 1 1919. He was lost in action against the Bermont army on October 9 1919, in the same day 18 year old Hiršs Hirholm also auxiliary soldier lost his life. Many Jews joined simply because they were unemployed and short of money.

On July 1919 when the Estonian army entered Vidzeme, a mobilization for Latvian armed units were issued. From 40 Jewish families, 20 youths showed at the draft point on the first day. Most of them were sent to 4th company, that was nicknamed the “The Mozes Squad”. In the battles of Cēsis 1 man was lost and six were wounded 2 Jews with them. Some Jews from Estonian towns were also called in the Latvian ranks. Jews supported Latvian army in the Latgalian front and joined the partisan units. Others helped in field hospitals. Many Jewish schoolboys defended the city of Liepāja during the Bermont attack, later they came to Latgalian front.

After the war Jewish veterans formed their own societies. Jewish Liberators of Latvia were active society releasing the journal “Liberator” where they gathered all the info about the Jewish soldiers. Also Jewish retired soldier’s society was present.  At the end of the war there were 84% of Latvians, 5,6% Germans, 3,9% Russians, 1,8% Poles, 1,3% Belorussians, and 1,7% Jews. It was a rather high number knowing the situation. Most Jews were only soldiers or private first class (dižkarievis), first class sergeants were Movša Hemohs Maļeckis, Sergejs Mahmoņiks, Jēkabs Zilberbrants, sergeants Boriss Kessels, Mirons Solomonovičš, Boriss Joffe, Leo Goldarbeiters, Šloms Taube, Rafails Sļedzevicš, Josifs Aļšvangs, corporal Oskars Goldblats, Nahmans Hiršovičs, Leiba Models, Nikolajs Zilberts, Nahmans Jakubovicš, Zamuels Klemptners, Jozefs Taics, Šloma Sandlers and others.

According to information gathered by the Jewish organizations 37 men lost their life’s for Latvia. Their names were imprinted on memorial stone made in 1935 in the Riga Old Jewish cemetery.  However, the latest research concludes that actually 23 Jews lost their life’s, 3 died from other causes, one was part of the Landeswerh unit before it was submitted to the Latvian command. One actually survived. 4 men were not Jews, who simply had surnames that resembled Jewish surnames. 4 others may not be Jews. That however does not wash away the courage and dignity of each of these men who gave their lives for Latvia.

Four Latvian Jews received the highest Latvian military award – The Order of Lāčplēsis. All of them were awarded with 4th Rank of the order.  Josifs Hops born on 1898 was from Parnu Estonia and was mobilized into Latvian forces. Before he served in the Russian armed forces. He was admitted to the 1st Valmiera infantry regiment. He fought the Bolsheviks and the army of Bermont. From September 1 1919 he was the squad commander. He was promoted to private first class. He was decorated  with 4th Rank of the Order of Lāčplēsis  for crossing the enemy lines from behind, cutting the telephone wires and assaulting the Mamoņu house. Under heavy crossfire they first reached the enemy post and captured the machine gun along with its crew. After that they turned the machine gun towards the enemy and retreated leaving behind many dead and wounded soldiers. After retiring from office in 1921 he and his brother who also served returned back to Parnu Estonia. In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Estonia he joined the Soviet destroyer battalion where he was lost in action.

His brother Zamuēls Hops born on 1890 also served in the Russian army was medic, he then was admitted to Latvian army where he gained the rank of sergeant. He was decorated for his outstanding service as a medic. He survived the Holocaust by evacuating to Russia. He then returned to Estonia where he died on 1962.

Robrts Simons Maļeckis born in 1899 September 17 in Riga was mobilized on October 3 1919. Together with his brother Herman he was admitted to the 1ts Liepāja Infantry regiment. He was decorated for outstanding courage against the Bolsheviks. His brother lived in Soviet Russia and was a high rank official. He joined his brother in USSR and became a communist party member. He and his brother was killed in Great purge of the 1937.

Maksis Gringūts was born in 1896 in Jēkabpils. Served in the Russian ranks, was decorated with the Cross of St George fourth rank. On 1919 he was mobilized in the Latvian army North Latvian brigade. He fought both Germans and Bolsheviks. He received the award for entering the enemy lines from behind and with a rifle fire he dispersed the whole enemy squad allowing for attack to continue and capture two enemy canons. He was later suffered a concussion  and was sent to Border guard. After retiring was caught in smuggling over the Estonian border and fined. He went to France on 1923, later on 1935 returned. He was soon arrested for using fake Czechoslovakian passport. He was jailed from 1936 to 1938 and was dishonored by the Jewish Liberators society. He died in Riga on 1941. Latvian first foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was a Jew from a fathers side, but considered him a Latvian.

Four Latvian Jews received The Order of Three Stars. They received the 5th rank. Hiršs Berkovičš  was from Estonia and voluntary joined the Latvian army. He was a brave soldier who was assigned to difficult tasks and left memoirs of his action in the field. Eliass Rihters fought the Bermont army in Ķemeri, Rīga and Jelgava and was outstanding first line soldier. Zālmans Levinsons and Dāvids Bērs also were awarded.

Nine others were nominated for the order but did not received. Filips Farbmans was a Lithuanian citizen, but joined the Students Company. He showed courage at the battles near Jelgava and Kalnciems. Later he joined the Lithuanian army, but went back to Latvia after the war. Beiness Bērmans a lieutenant of the 5th Cēsis regiment and sergeant Leopolds Šalīts who was the member of the Oskars Kalpaks special Latvian battalion were among the nominated.   The corporal of 4th  Valmiera infantry battalion Jāzeps Binders also my distant relative received the award for capturing the enemy machine gun and as a skilled mechanic he repaired it and used against the enemy. He fought both Bermont and Bolsheviks. Later he was a member of Aizsargi (Civil Guards) and received the Civil Guard cross. From the same 4th Valmiera infantry regiment Zālamans Levitāns made an outstanding act of courage by capturing two Red army soldiers and their machine gun with out using a single weapon. Mozus Lihmans was captured by the Soviets, but escaped captivity. Together with other Latvian soldier he for nine days in cold and hunger reached back his army lines. Leiba Blumbergs was part of the original Kalpaks battalion. Mozus Špungins was one of the first who joined the Latvian army by his own will. Izāks Jāzeps Usikers was nominated to be awarded posthumously.

There was some deserters among the Jews, however their numbers were low. Some Jews fought in Latvia in the enemy ranks mostly in the Bolshevik army together with Latvian Red Riflemen. The Latvian Army was not always tolerant to Jews, there was event of looting the Jewish shops and assaults. Polish army who was present at Daugavpils also made many robberies were Jews suffered. However, in this hard years were Latvia faced many enemies and little support the outstanding courage of these men is to be remembered for ever.

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks (2013)  Aizmirstie karavīri – ebreji Latvijas armijā 1918.-1940. gadā.Rīga : Biedrība “Šamir”

 Atbrīvotājs : almanachs : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrības izdevums.  (1931-1933.) Rīga : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrība.

Dribins, Leo. (2002)  Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga : Elpa

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The 1905 Revolution in Latvia

Piektais gads (Cirulis)

The 1905 revolution in Russia is mostly known for its Bloody Sunday and the Battleship Potemkin and the Jewish pogroms. But in Latvia, then part of the Russian Baltic provinces the revolution of 1905 was a wakeup call and the beginning of social and national liberation. The revolution took place on the streets of the cities, rural areas and forests. Latvian revolutionaries fought Czarist police and Baltic German landlords. Not only that, the fire of the revolution lighted up in Helsinki and London as the actions of the Latvian revolutionaries reached international level. There are many aspects of this revolution that need separate articles. This is a concise survey of the 1905 revolution that took place in Latvia.

In Russia the causes for the revolution was the great social inequality, the defeat in Russo-Japanese war, national divide and the despotic authoritarian government by Czar Nicholas II. For Latvia, one of the main reasons was the national inequality between Latvians, Jews and the Baltic Germans. Despite most Latvians enjoying relative freedom for education and carrier, the overall situation was still against them. In rural areas Latvian peasants were still fed up with the Baltic German landlords, from whom they had to rent their lands and work for them. The movement by intellectual Latvians faced many restrictions. Latvian press was censured; the rights for political activities were stripped down and the use of Latvian language was limited in public places. Latvians faced double oppression from Baltic German elite and Russian administration. Also Jews and Poles in many cases felt the same oppression. Latvians were also no strangers to war with Japan; many Latvians were sent to frontlines and the Russian navy that was destroyed in Tsushima, originally left from the port of Liepāja.

However, the main movement for revolution was not the nationalists, but social democrats who aspired from teachings of Marx. At the end of the 19 century the New Latvian movement had lost it original power for it could not answer the new emerging problems created by industrialization. The New Latvians were mainly middle class intellectuals, descendants of the Latvian farmer families. Their main strives were education, making their own business and national conservation. The rising working class needed different answers and many found them in internationalist social democracy. The main pushers of this new kind of thinking were The New Current movement that expressed their views in the newspaper “Daily Sheet”. The main person behind the paper was the new student Jānis Pleikšāns who called himself Rainis. He and his colleges took the ideas of social democracy from Germany where there was already an official Social Democrat party. Their ideology was internationalist and was based mainly on working class of whom only 5,6% were Latvians. While they certainly talked about the rights of the Latvian landless peasants and Latvian education, their cosmopolitism did not go along well with Russification policies that weakened the Latvian national strength. Latvian social democrat slogan was: “The worker has no fatherland!”

On 1897 at Vilnius the Jewish social democrats founded the General Labor Bund party. In 1898 the Russian Social Democratic party was born. Latvian Social Democrats became more and more inspired by their Russian and Jewish colleges. On 1899 Russian Authorities closed down the “Daily Sheet” newspaper and forced Rainis and his colleges to exile.

The one of the first Latvian political movements emerged in 1903 in Switzerland. Latvian exiles founded the Latvian Social democratic Union. Their first congress took place in Riga on December 29-30 1905. The party did not last long and was outmatched by Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party that was founded in 1904. There was a great difference between these two parties: the LSDU was more national oriented while LSDWP was overall internationalist. Their main leaders were Miķelis Valters, Ernsts Rolavs and Kārlis Skalbe. Their political platform was full rights of self-determination, the formation of Latvian parliament, and in case of break up of Russian empire – the formation of independent Latvian state. The LSDWP did not believe in full independence, but fought for free Latvia in united free Russia. As their colleges in Russia they desired to overthrow the Czarist regime and then establish autonomous social democratic Latvia. In the end the LSDWP was the main force behind the 1905 revolution.

The start of the 1905 revolution in Latvia is considered the January 13 (26 January according to Western calendar) when in Riga a large crowd of people marched along the Moscow Street to the city center. A day before a general strike was called in Riga and other cities. The action was inspired by the bloody events in Petersburg at 9 (23) January. The crowd singing revolutionary songs and waving red flags were stopped by junior officer squad at the Iron Bridge near river Daugava. As the protesters tried to break trough the soldiers opened fire killing more then 70 people and injuring more. The precise death toll of the Latvian Bloody Sunday is not known and varies in the different sources.

The general strike was one of the biggest in whole Russia. However, after winter passed the fires of revolution reached the country side. Thousands of landless peasants were united by the revolutionary ideas of equal rights and mainly the free land for all. Land workers started strikes against German landlords. Demonstrations waving red flags took place near churches sometimes protesters invaded the church mess and held revolutionary gatherings. Such sights were not common in Latgalia where Catholic and Orthodox churches were respected. The Lutheran church was associated with the Baltic Germans.

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905

 

On 15 (28) June almost at the same time when mutiny on battleship “Potemkin” took place, the Russian sailors at Liepaja took arms. The reason was the same as in case of “Potemkin” – maggots in meat. Sailors took over the guardhouse and forced commanding officers to flee. However, on 17-18 (30-1) June reinforcements came from Riga and disarmed the sailors. 138 men were taken to war tribunal.

When Baltic Germans started to took arms to protect themselves, the blood spilled on the countryside. In Sesava church two barons opened fire against people calling “Down with the Czar!” and in return Latvians killed one of then injuring the other one. Baltic Germans asked for help from Russian army. Russia sent ruthless Cossacks, Germans themselves formed self-defense squads. Latvian peasants attacked the German mansions, took away their arms and money. In August LSDWP formed fight groups. In Riga 1000 men joined the ranks. On the night of 6 -7 September (19-20 Sept) a group of 52 men raided the Riga Central prison rescuing two of their comrades Lācis and Slešers. In this daring raid few Jews from Bund also helped their Latvian comrades. Latvian Jews took active part in the revolution. While in other places in Russia bloody Jewish pogroms took place, there was a relative unity between Latvian and Jews. Instead on 22-23 October Latvian social democrats helped to stop rioting in Riga Moscow district that could turn in t0 Jewish pogrom. The main leader of the Latvian Jewish revolutionary movement was Simon Nachimson.

At 12-13 (25-26) October General Strike in whole Russian empire took place. Latvians also took place in it. Czar Nicholas II was forced to issue a “October manifesto” where he promised to give people freedom of speech and meeting. Also a freely elected State Duma parliament was promised. Latvians met this with great joy and gathered in many demonstrations. At the Grīziņkalns Park in Riga 80 -100 thousand people gathered to celebrate “freedom”. However, there were bloodsheds between loyalists and revolutionists. At countryside locals abolished local Czarist municipalities and elected their own people. The October Manifesto did not ease the situation but heated up it as people were asking for more. In the end Czar was forced to  use armed force and break up the revolt.

 At November great battles erupted in Kurzeme (Courland). For a short time Russian authorities only controlled Liepaja and Jelgava. A large bloody battle took place in the city of Tukums. Latvian militia managed to chase away the dragoon squad and infantry. Then Russian forces tried to recapture the city, Tukums was bombarded by cannons. Revolutionaries were forced to retreat. Russian suffered great causalities. Similar events followed in town of Talsi. The last bloodiest battle took place at Aizpute on 16 (29) December. Revolutionaries lost 100 men.

On 17 (30) January 14 revolutionaries raided the Riga Secret Police headquarters. The aim was to rescue LSDWP Central Committee member Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Pēteris Liepa. The Secret Police building was located at Aspazijas Boulevard in the city center. The building was guarded by 160 soldiers and there were more on the city streets. 14 men managed to slip trough the heavily guarded streets and invade the secret police building by surprise. Six men with them Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Teodors Kalniņš were rescued. Police men fled the scene, but 160 Russian soldiers barricaded in their rooms.

Situation in Latvia was so extreme that the Russian authorities decided to send reinforcements. On 12 December 1905 a state of war was issued. The Russian punishment corpus lead by general Orlov entered Latvia to completely suppress the revolution. At the morning of 20 December revolutionaries raided the rubber factory Provodnik where 60 Russian dragoons were located. In four minutes 30 revolutionaries killed 17 and injured 20 dragoons.

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

In the country side the revolution had gone to extreme. Latvian peasants started to execute the German barons and burn down their mansions. Many architectural wonders like the castle of Stāmeriene were burned to ashes. 449 mansions were burned down. As the Orlov men came the bitter fights and executions erupted all around. The core of the Orlov army were Cossacks from North Caucasus. People were tortured and executed. For the first time some few thousand Latvians were sent to Siberia.

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The revolution was completely defeated in 1907. 2041 revolutionaries lost their lives, 7-8 thousand men were imprisoned, 427 were executed and 2652 were sent to Siberia. The fires of the 1905 revolution reached the outside world in the following years. Latvian revolutionaries escaped Russia and continued their fight. Jānis Luters Bobis was the leader of the attack on Helsinki (Helsingfors) bank and lead the arms smuggling from the West. On 26 February 25-30 Latvian fighters invaded the bank owned by Russian state in the main city center. Their gain was 100 to 150 thousand rubbles. Social democrats called the bank robberies- “expropriations”. Joseph Stalin also started his revolutionary carrier with expropriations. Latvians managed to bring in to Latvia a large numbers of arms, explosives and money.

Some years later in December 1910 a group of Latvian anarchists lead by the Peter the Painter or Peter Piatkow started a wave of attacks on jeweler’s shops in London killing two officers. On 2 January 2 police became informed about their hiding spot at Sidney Street they blocked the street and started siege. Despite being outnumbered revolutionaries had superior weapons and showed stiff resistance. The Tower of London was called for backup and Home Secretary Winston Churchill arrived. He directed the siege and after six hours of shooting the field artillery strike set the building where Latvians were hiding alight. Churchill prevented fireman to dose the flames, instead he waited for Latvian attempt for escape. But, no doors ever opened and instead they found two burned bodies. There was no sign of Peter the Painter however.

The mystery of the Peter the Painter still lies unsolved. There are no clear facts of what happened to him after the Sidney Street siege or what  was real his identity. Some historians associate him with later Cheka agent Yakov Peters. British historian Philip Ruff first suggested that Peter the Painter was Latvian painter Gederts Eliass, however in his latest book he points to Latvian far leftist Jānis Žāklis.

The revolution in Russia in 1905 was a peoples and nations revolution. Similar national sentiment was present in Estonians, Lithuanians, Caucasians, Poles and Jews. Many Latvian Social democrat leaders exiled and continued their fight against Russian czarist regime. Some became anarchists. While others came to conclusion that international revolution is not the answer and started to fight for full national independence. In 1914 the First World War erupted and in 1915 it came to Latvia. It was the time of next Latvian national awakening – formation of the Latvian national rifleman regiments and the birth of Latvian Republic in the end.

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

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Latvia’s national minorities in Latvian caricatures 1920-1934

Svari_1925_4dec_nr47

Jews, Russians and Germans shown as the main rulers of Latvian government.
From Svari 1925

The parliamentary period of independent Latvia had two common things the vast ethnic diversity and great freedoms for press. Latvia with her many national minorities outlined in whole picture of Europe. For centuries in the small geographical area of Latvia Germans, Russians and Jews lived side by side. All of these minorities had its own culture and national elite that made Latvia a multi-ethnic nation. According to national census made in 1935 Latvia was inhabited by 75% Latvians, 10,59% Russians, 4,79% Jews, 3,19% Germans and 2,51% Poles.

The founding fathers of Latvia had to cope with these minorities and since the very start at November 18, 1918 Kārlis Ulmanis said these words: “All citizens, without no ethnic distinction are asked to help, for all nationality rights will be ensured in Latvia. It will be democratic country of justice where they cannot be any repression or injustice!” It was a strong promise that had to kept in order to gain support from non-Latvians who were skeptical about new Latvian state. The goal of founding Latvian right-wing politicians was to form a national democratic nation with emphasis on Latvian language and culture, but to give equal rights to all national minorities including them in the state political and social system.

Steps were made for this. The citizenship made in 1919, granted citizen rights to all who lived in Latvia before 1914 without any national restrictions. Already in 1925 96% people of Latvia held citizen rights. The main step towards the minorities was the Law about minority school autonomy issued in 1919, that granted minorities to get education in their maiden language and maintain their own schools. Also the election the law  that did not require no 5% barrier and needed only 100 people to found a party made relative easy to be elected in to parliament.

As for unknowing observer this may seem that national relations in Latvia were quite good and there were no serious problems. However that was only on paper. The nationalistic calls in newspapers, anti-minority talks in parliament and even some national violent outbursts (that were still pretty rare) and rise of radical nationalist movements showed that there is something wrong within Latvians and the minorities.

The cause for this was cross national economical and ethnic rivalry. In every ethnically uneven country it’s not matters how sizable is the minority, but how much influence does it have in state level. And this was the main problem in Latvia. For centuries Latvians faced economical and political discrimination from foreign rulers. Latvians were mainly limited to agriculture sector, in finance and industry Latvians were minority. Still at the end of 19 century and the beginning of 20 century Latvian middle and upper class was still weak and unfolded.

After gaining independence Latvians were still behind the minorities in many sectors. In 1935, of all commercial companies 58% belonged to Jews, 24% to Germans and 5,4% to Russians. Jewish tradesman were present in Riga and the province and Germans owned the large industrial companies. This made many Latvians envious and unsure about their position in their own country. From saying: “Everything belongs to Germans and Jews, we Latvians still are not the masters of our land”   a slogan came “Latvia for Latvians!”. And this were the caricatures come in that shows pretty much what Latvians thought about their national minorities.

Caricatures were integral part of every newspaper at those times. Satirical art was favored by the readers and there many caricaturists. In this article we only will take a look on caricatures published in satirical magazines, for almost all main newspapers had caricatures. Satirical magazines were usually a hobby contribution of many caricaturists who came to together. The magazines consisted from caricatures, anecdotes and funny stories.

From all 40 satirical magazines that came out between 1920-1934 some can be mentioned with distinction. “Svari” (Scales) was the biggest magazine that came out from 1920 to 1931. It first came out already in 1906 in Petersburg, and after short live of fame was banned by Czarist authorities. The main authors of the caricatures were Roberts Tilbergs, Rihards Zariņš and Jānis Zeberiņš. It is worth to note that first version of “Svari” was leftist minded, but after the 1920, the journal became more nationalistic and anti-Semitic. Caricatures were made in national realist style. A contrary to “Svari” was “Ho-Ho!”  a magazine made by young generation artists – expressionists, Cubists and suprematists. Something that was strongly opposed from “Svari” artists. The main artists of “Ho-Ho!” was Romāns Suta, Sigusmunds Vidbergs, Otto Skulme and Aleksandra Belcova. It was extraordinary magazine in arts and style and leftist minded. However leftists were pretty anti-German at those times. The journal came out from 1922 to 1924 after went bankrupt. The third main journal was “Sikspārnis”  (The Bat”) Journal came out with gaps from 1922 to 1940. A nationalist minded it was a big journal and was very found of satirizing Jews.

According to my calculations the most depicted minority in caricatures were Jews a satirized a  total of 204 times, Germans were depicted 204 times, Russians 19, Gypsies 5 times, and Poles 3 times in a period between 1920 to 1934. Before the World war and the Holocaust there was no political correctness towards the minorities, nobody expected the tragic events that would happen with Jews and other minorities. And minorities themselves did not mind much about caricatures and there were no or less complaints registered from them. Today a anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic caricature would cause a large scandal or even violence. None of this was present before the world  war.

A dream by "Svari" editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place From Svari 1930

A dream by “Svari” editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place
From Svari 1930

As the biggest minority in Latvia the Russians were often associated with old Czarist past. The past Russifaction  policies made a large resentment towards Russian language and Russian culture. Caricatures showed antipathies towards Russian monarchists who wanted to restore Russian Empire. “Sikspārnis” suggested to kick them out of Latvia back to Russia. Satirical press praised the removal of Orthodox chapel in Riga Railroad station square in 1925 (it was done to extend the square and chapel was intended to be moved to Pokrov Russian cemetery, but Orthodox church wasted the money and chapel was lost forever). But, that was not enough as “Svari” even wanted to remove the Orthodox cathedral in city center and place a Monument of Liberty there. The church was a symbol for Czarist past for many. Interestingly enough Russians were not associated with Soviet Union at those times.

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baronFrom "Ho-Ho"! 1922

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baron
From “Ho-Ho”! 1922

Germans were lesser than Russians and Jews but held a large influence. They still played a great role in national politics and economy. The past experience the myth of 700 years of slavery made Germans as the main Latvian enemy. Germans were shown constantly plotting against Latvia and Latvians. Great anger was made against Germans that still held large influence and took important governmental posts. The political demands by German parties that were constant were depicted as a threat to Latvian nation. Satirical magazines praised the controversial took away of St. Jacobs and Riga Dome cathedral from German congregations. The most noted German politician Paul Schiemann know for his liberal policies and progressive national ideas was shown as a German nationalist and chauvinist. While Scheimann really had a progressive liberal views he still played the role of German national right defender.

Jew as the ruler as the worldFrom Pūcsspieģelis 1923

Jew as the ruler as the world
From Pūcsspieģelis 1923

The main satirical slur was headed towards the Jews. While Jews had no political claims against Latvian state and no past as a Latvian oppressor, their influence in trade and finance was so clearly seen that they got themselves many enemies. There were many myths about Jews in Latvia that were present in caricatures. Satirical magazines outlined the uneven Jewish role in Latvian society; while being overly present in economy and education almost no role in state sector and army. The magazine “Lapsene” (The Wasp) called Jews the artificial insects and asked how to destroy them. Jews were accused of speculating the new Latvian currency and later even taking over all Latvian money capital.

Another paranoid view since gaining independence was that the many Jews from Russia that never lived in Latvia before, came in large masses along with Latvian refugees. That was partly true, but it should  noted that the Soviet government and the Checka simply loaded many undesired people on the refugee trains to get rid of them. Another thing is that many of the Jews really lived in Latvia before the war. But satirical magazines were talking about the “new Palestine” in Latvia and influx of swindlers. It all came to climax at 1927, when the changes in citizenship that extended the list of people eligible for citizen rights were made. Nationalist parties initiated a referendum to turn down the changes. The nationalists insisted that even more Jews will gain citizen rights.  For whole year till December that was the main theme in satirical press. The referendum failed to reach its purpose as the quorum was not reached.

Jews were also accused of being communists and plotting against Latvia. While there were really some underground Jewish communists and Soviet agents their role and size was not significant as depicted in caricatures. Latvian communists were more a threat and larger in size.

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover
From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

One of the most remarkable Jewish personality was rabbi Mordehajs Dubins who was also a Orthodox Jewish politician. He was elected in all parliaments was a personal friend of Kārlis Ulmanis and talented businessman. He even gained audience to US President Herbert Hoover office a something that could not be done by many Latvian politician. He was true leader of Latvian Jewry. In so the Latvian satire depicted him as oligarch and real mover of many governments. Sometimes he even was show as a President or Prime Minister. He really had a large influence on governmental decisions, but his power was overestimated by Latvian satires.

The disinfection of the parasites of the earthFrom Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

The disinfection of the parasites of the earth
From Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

One interesting siting in Latvian satirical press was a journal “Intīmās poltiskās aizkulises, jeb mazas piezīmes par “lieliem” vīriem”  (Intimate political back scenes, or a small notes on “great” men”) with such peculiar name you could not guess that this journal was published by United Latvian Nationalsocialist Party a small political party inspired by Nazi Germany. This was one of the most anti-Semitic publisher of caricatures calling for complete “disinfection of Earth parasites” and removal of “council of Elders of Zion”. Jews were accused of selling cocaine, seducing Latvian women and harming the Latvian state. Party was short-lived from 1933 to 1934 and did not gain any significant popularity but its journal its example of the limits of Latvian anti-Semitism.

The caricatures showed that national question in Latvia was actual and hardly addressable. A Latvian desire for “being masters in their own land” and the presence of nationalism was clearly seen. Despite the fact that caricatures could be accused of spreading the hate not always they called for violence. In place of that a notion was seen that these problems could not be solved by democratic meas. But without democracy no political satire was possible. After Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup all political satire and anti-Semitic remarks were banned. A national problems were solved simply by not talking about them. That was a proof that Latvia between 1920 to 1934 was very democratic country that allowed freely talk about the national issues.

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Holocaust in Latvia

Memorial Site at the mass killing site at the Biķernieki forest in Riga

Memorial Site at the mass killing site at the Biķernieki forest in Riga

Throughout the history many nations had become victims of mass killings. The slaughters made by the Assyrians, Mongols and the destruction of native Americans have its bloody marks in history. Then there was genocidal actions by the Christian church against non-believers and enemies of the church. The massive scale of the Communist genocide has not yet been fully witnessed. But the most “famous” genocide was a Nazi Germany action against the Jewish nation. Its large scale the industrial character of the killings was the most extreme genocide in the 20th century. In every part of Nazi captured lands Jews were predestined for destruction. Their age, gender or social status did not matter every Jewish person had to be killed. It was different from other genocides that often had a random pattern of killings.

National socialist  antisemitism was based on many false beliefs. The concept of superior Aryan race was German ultra nationalism. Adolf Hitler personally blamed Jews for German defeat in 1918 the so-called “stab in back legend” that was created by the German military to put the blame on others for the their defeat. Also Nazi antisemitism was based on economic reasons, the belief that Jews share an unequal portion of state market.

In Latvia antisemitism was mostly marginal before 1920. Latvians and Jews lived together and shared the same national status while Baltic Germans and Russians had ruling rights. After 1920 Latvians became the main political nation in the country. Despite that Jews had influence in finance, culture and politics throughout the years of Latvian independence. That was met with resentment from Latvian nationalists. Latvian – Jewish relations were not violent but very tense in the questions of economy, politics and traditions. By reading the newspapers of provincial towns you can see that in places where Jews and Latvians lived together; they often had quarrels and disagreements.

However the radical anti-Semitism was rather low. It was mostly present in radical newspapers. But they were radical nationalist groups like the Latvian National Club and the Thundercross that sparked violent actions against the Jews. Both of these organizations were banned. They were popular among the youth but never gained enough popularity to tackle the  ruling regime. Before 1940, Latvia was ruled by authoritarian president Karlis Ulmanis. While he tried to make certain nationalist policy and repressed some Jewish organizations, he was generally friendly to Jews. He helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape from the Nazi regime and suppressed antisemitism in state media. In so the independent Latvian state was never capable to make direct actions against the Jews, it was the Nazi Germany who set the necessary climate for such actions.

The Jewish killings started on  June 22 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded in the Soviet Union. The task was entrusted to four special security  service groups the Einsatzgruppe EG. In Latvia the Einsatzgruppe A with 990 members took action. The large number was intended for the Jewish community of Leningrad. The commander of the Einsatzgruppe was Walter Stalhlecker. Also all local German power structures such as police and army took part in the actions.

First killings begun in June 22 near Grobina Courland. 6 Jews were killed by Germans. Soviet army was retreating rapidly so German military set command posts and issued anti-Jewish orders. Jews were prohibited to appear on the streets, go to the shops and all were registered and marked. After that the murders begun in Durbe, Priekule, Asite and Riga, nearly every place captured by the Germans.

However the systematic killings only begun a few weeks later. The Germans needed to take complete order of Latvian territory. First days of the war were rather chaotic, the battles with Red army and increased activity of Latvian paramilitary formations. Jews were first killed in towns and villages and the first wave of murders continued till August. Germans used local Latvian collaborators to assist the crime.  Local administrations registered the Jewish citizens, the local Latvian self-defense units and Latvian SD units took direct action the crimes.

In June- August approximately 30 000 people were killed. However SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was not pleased with “rather slow” temps of the killings and sent SS obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln to boost them up.  The previous leader Walter Stalhecker left Latvia to Leningrad front where he was killed by Soviet partisans in 1942. The obergruppenfuhrer H. A. Prinzmann was removed from office because he wanted to spare a quantity of Jews for slave work. Jeckeln was known for his actions in Babi Jar in Ukraine where his men killed 33 00 Jews from Kiev.

Memorial Site at the Rumbula forest

Memorial Site at the Rumbula forest

Jeckeln gathered all Jews from Riga Ghetto and with help of German Security Police and four Latvian units killed 24 000 Jews of Riga in Rumbula forest in  November 30. Only 6000 Latvian Jews were kept alive after it for slave work. They were stationed in the remains of old Ghetto and various concentration camps. In 1944 what was left by then were sent to camps in Germany. Along the way Jews from Western Europe were sent to Latvia and murdered there.

Germans also killed mentally ill people and Roma people in Latvia. People were taken from mental hospitals and killed. Roma killing were not systematic, because Nazis could really sort out whether Gypsies were members of lower race or not. Because they originated from India, they could be Aryans either way. They were killed until 1943 when Himmler changed his mind and issued that Romani have positive racial element. The killings of Gypsies in Latvia were not consequent, they were killed in Liepaja, Kuldiga, Tukums, Ludza and other places.

One of the bitter questions of the Holocaust is local Latvian involvement in the crime. The Jewish saviors were minority because of tough sentences for such actions. A majority of Latvians were neutral and did not take any action in the crime. Those who were involved were either shooters or guards who escorted Jews to killing spot. Others took part in registration of the Jews. Many people robbed the houses of their Jewish neighbors.

The self- defense   (Selbsschutz) units were gathered from Latvian national partisans who took arms in the first days of the war. They were man lusting for revenge against the Soviets and had a desire of restoration of Latvian independence. The scale of Soviet crimes in 1940 – 1941, was so high that the majority of Latvians greeted the Germans as liberators. The Germans had no intention for Latvian independence, Latvia was to become part of the Nazi empire. Massive Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation and incited hatred. So Latvian units were put under German control and used for their crimes. In August 1941 almost all of these units were disbanded because they were no longer useful. Also the Latvian Auxiliary Police took part.

The main Latvian unit was the  Latvian SD commando lead by Viktors Arājs. They were the main Latvian killers who traveled all Latvia to kill Jews in various places. The typical scenario of Latvian involvement was such: local self-defense units “gathered” all Jews to one place. Then the Latvian SD unit arrived and killed the Jews. Even if all the orders were carried out by the Germans, it was rare that Latvians resisted to take part in the killings. A known exception was the head of the local self defense guard at the town of Aknīste Jānis Valdmanis. He refused to take part in the killings and directly asked: “Is this  the order by the state of Germany?” In result he and his unit was replaced by other Latvian unit who carried out the killings instead of them.

Latvian involvement was necessary for Nazis carry out their crime. Nazi aim was to make create image that killings was done solely by Latvians without much German assistance based on their hatred towards Jews. It may be several thousand Latvians who were involved in those actions. However it’s not right to give the collective fault to Latvians and Latvia for the Holocaust. The intention came from Germany and those who were involved in this were pure criminals a shame of the Latvian nation. Holocaust took part in Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and and whole Eastern and Western Europe where locals were involved in actions against the Jews. Collective blame should not be placed on any of these nations as well no collective blame should be placed on Jews.

From 1941 to 1945 a 90 000 Jews were killed. Among them Latvian Jews, Lithuanian Jews and Jews from Western Europe. It was the largest criminal act ever done in Latvian history. Today is the remembrance day of the Jewish holocaust in Latvia. July 4 was the day when the Germans with Latvian SD Arājs commando burned down the  Jewish synagogues in Riga.  As long as there is a Jewish community in Latvia this crime will not be forgotten.

The site of the Riga Grand Choral Synagogue burned down by Nazis on July 4 1941

The site of the Riga Grand Choral Synagogue burned down by Nazis on July 4 1941

Selected Sources:

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

Ezergailis, Andrievs. (2005)Nazi/Soviet disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia : Daugavas Vanagi–who are they? Rīga : Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds.

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

Nollendorfs, Valters. (2007) The hidden and forbidden history of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi occupations 1940-1991 : selected research of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia. Rīga : Institute of the History of Latvia Publishers.

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