History of Estonia

Estonian Jewish History - Overview

by Arlene Beare

The Estonians have closer linguistic links with Finland than the Latvians but both countries had foreign rulers from the 13th to the 20th century. The name “Estonia” derives from “Aestii”, used by the Romans in 100 BCE to describe tribes east of Germany. The second language of Estonia is Russian, and English is increasingly spoken. There is evidence of a Jew called Johannes Jode living in Tallinn in 1333. In the 16th century Jews were not allowed to live in Estonia and Livonia. The Cantonists founded the Estonian Jewish community and according to verbal tradition, their first illegal community. A prayer house existed in Tallinn in 1830. Young Jewish boys aged 8-11 were raised in the Russian Orthodox faith in military units. During the Crimean War the Nicolai Soldiers with their families were settled in Estonia; these were Jewish soldiers who had been drafted into the Russian army for 25 years. There were 60-80 families in Tallinn in 1856 and approximately ten families each in Tartu and Parnu (Pärnu) in 1859. Regular Jewish communities were created later. In 1884 they were expelled from the regions not belonging to the Jewish Settlement Area but were permitted to remain if they had arrived prior to 1879.[1]

The first documents in the Archives mentioning Jews date from 1786, in connection with an agreement to permit a small number to settle in Tallinn. By 1820 the number had increased to 36. As a community, Jews did not live in Tartu until 1866 when 50 Jewish families arrived and established a prayer house (Tartu is now in south Estonia but up to 1917 was in Livland, a province of Latvia). In 1882 Jewish prayer houses also opened in other south Estonian cities, Pernov (now Pärnu) and Arensburg (now Kuressaare), and in 1891, in Valk (now Valga).

The 1846 census stated that 5,265 Jews were living in the province of Curonia (Courland) and 524 in Livonia. Official Russian documents of the 19th century stated that persons confessing to be Jewish were forbidden to settle, form communities or open synagogues in Estland up to 1856. Nevertheless some Jews lived in Estland before that time, foreign and baptised Jews, illegal traders from Poland and Lithuania and vagrant Jews.[2]

Throughout the Swedish and early Russian occupation, the province of Estonia was a summer resort for the nobilities of those countries and was completely closed to Jews. Nicholas I and his government devised a plan to force the Jews to assimilate through compulsory military service in the early 19th century. By the time of World War II the community had peaked to about 4,500 souls spread out through Tallin, Tartu, Valga, Parnu, Narva, Rakvere, Viljandi and Voru as well as small family groups in a further 8 townlets. During the first Soviet occupation a considerable number of the well-to-do Jewish “enemies of the State” were deported to Siberia, thereby having their lives saved from the Germans. With the German invasion, many more Jews fled into Russia; those that remained behind were slaughtered to the last man or were deported to camps. The numbers varied between 1,100 and 1400 and the German commander in Estonia was able to report that Estonia was Judenrein, clear of Jews. About 60% were in fact saved by the Soviets, due to deportation.

Those that had been deported, mostly to Siberia, were forced to sign an agreement to remain there for a long period to help in the Russian effort to populate Siberia. When the war was over many of the Jews gravitated back to Estonia, some legal, others not. Some of the latter were hounded and either forced to flee or were arrested and deported back from whence they had come. As the Russian administration eased up after Stalin, many Jews from other areas were encouraged to settle in Estonia in a Soviet effort to Russify the province. By the time of Perestroika there were 5,000 Jews in the country, the only country in the Eastern bloc that had a Jewish population greater than its pre-war one. With the opening of the gates to Jewish emigration, large numbers left for the west or for Israel. In fact most of the Estonian part of the community moved to Israel leaving behind a population of only1500.

[1] Toomas Hilo, Jewish Students and Jewish Organisations at University of Tartu, Annual Report (Tartu: History Museum, 1998).

[2] Tatiana Schor, Avotaynu, vol 9, no 3, 1993.

This article first appeared in Arlene Beare's A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Latvia and Estonia (London: Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, 2020). Used with the author's permission.

Additional Historical Resources

One of the best sources for the history of the Jewish community in Estonia is the history section of the Estonian Jewry Archive, which is part of the Estonian Jewish Museum’s website. Articles appear in three languages – Estonian, Russian, and English – covering all aspects of the community, from earliest times, through both world wars, and the Soviet occupation. There are also articles about individual communities, as well as a spreadsheet of links to YouTube videos of Prof. Dov Levin’s interviews with Estonian Jews (in Hebrew or Yiddish).

The old Latvia SIG website had links to the following documents, also on the EJA website:

  • Ella Amitan-Wilensky's historical summary of Estonian Jewry

  • Eugenia Gurin-Loov's article titled “Jews in Estonia

  • “The Jewish Community of Estonia” by Eugenia Gurin-Loov and Gennadi Gramberg. The English translation of this article can no longer be found, but the Estonian version includes captions in multiple languages, including English.

The Estonian Jewish Museum’s catalog has a timeline of Estonian Jewish history towards the beginning of the museum catalog.

The Research section of the Latvia & Estonia Research Division website contains additional information about the Estonian Jewish Museum and its wide range of resources.