History of Latvia and Courland

History of Latvia and Courland

by Arlene Beare

This history is derived from a few sources including A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Latvia and Estonia by Arlene Beare (published by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain) but mainly edited from the presentation made by Prof Ruvin Ferber at the 21st International Conference of Jewish Genealogy held in London in July 2001. Professor Ferber is the Chairman of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia in Riga.

Prior to the arrival of Jews in Latvia the country was ruled by German Knightly Orders (1201-1561). They imposed a total ban on the presence of Jews(1306). Neighboring Polish Lithuania had a considerable Jewish population from the 13th century. In 1561 Poland took Livonia and Latgale but Kurland was an independent Duchy. The history of the Jews from then on was different in the three Provinces and as they were ruled by different people each had a different Jewish History.

Present-day Latvia is divided into four regions

Today's Latvia is divided into four regions, Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme, and Latgale. Kurzeme in the northwest and Zemgale in the southwest previously made up Courland (Kurland) gubernia (province) under the Russian Empire. The largest towns were Libau and Mitau. Vidzeme, also known as Livonia, has Riga as the capital. It extends northeast, bordering Estonia, and was Liflandia (Livland) gubernia under the Russian Empire. It included the towns of Walk, Wenden and Wolmar. Latgale, also known as Latgalia, was part of Vitebsk gubernia under Russia. The largest towns were Rezekne and Dvinsk.

Kurzeme and Zemgale - Courland

From 1562-1795 Courland was a semi-independent duchy linked to Poland, but with a prevailing German influence. The local Jewry was closer to German Jewish than to Lithuanian Jewish.


The Livonian Order insisted that Jews should be forbidden from engaging in commerce or acting as farmers, which was interpreted by local authorities as a ban on living in the country at all. The result was that Jews were regarded as aliens, and nobles exploited the situation by levying various residence restrictions, license fees, etc. for hundreds of years under the rule of Poland (1561), Sweden (1621) and Russia (1710). There was a rather modern Jewish community from 1840.


Latgalia had been part of Poland since 1562, and came under Russian rule in 1772 after the first Partition of Poland. Latgalia was included in the Pale of Settlement that was established in 1791. Latgalia was home to Yiddish speaking Jewish communities (the Jewish intelligentsia spoke Russian) identical to those in Lithuania-Byelorussia.


(Zemgale and Kurzeme in Modern Latvia. Courland was Kurland in German and Kurlandia in Russian)

This is the most ancient Jewish community in Latvia. Courland was never part of the Pale of Settlement. From an early stage it consisted of two separate political entities.

The Province of Piltene (Pilten) included the districts of Grobin and Hasenpoth and part of Windau district. It is generally accepted that the first Jews arrived in Piltene around 1571 under the protection of Duke Magnuss, who obtained Piltene as a gift from his brother, the King of Denmark, to whom Pilten province was sold in 1559 along with the districts of Grobini (Grobin), Hasenpoth (now Aizpute), and part of Windau (now Ventspils) district. When the Piltene district was sold to the Polish king Stefan Batory in 1685, Polish legislation was extended to the Jews of the Piltene region and its neighborhood. The outcome was that while Courland was an independent Duchy under protection of Poland, Piltene was an enclave under the direct rule of the King of Poland. Even before selling to Denmark, the Bishop of Pilten allowed wealthy Jews to settle and contribute to the region’s development. Since Pilten lies near the sea, Jewish merchants probably settled there from Prussia. Politically, Piltene was ruled directly by Poland while Courland Duchy, with its capital in Mitau, was ruled by local nobility. The reason for the special interest in Piltene province was that all-season seaports such as Libau (now Liepaja) and Windau, were of utmost trade importance, even competing with Riga, whose port did not operate in winter. In Pilten there were no taxes imposed on Jews until 1717 (a charge of two talers). Then there were decrees of expulsion between 1727 and 1738 which were ineffective (as distinct from 1492, Spain). In 1708 the first synagogue was permitted to be built in Aizpute (Hasenpoth).

Jews became permanent inhabitants of Courland in the 18th century. Especially favorable was the ruling of Duke Ernst Johann Biron (1737-1747, then 1762-1769, the favorite of Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna), who even nominated a Jew, Louis Lipmann, to be his chief financial advisor. In the 18th century many skilled Jewish workers and artisans (construction workers, roof-makers, inlay workers, tailors) arrived in Courland from Germany, as well as a number of medical doctors, the latter forming a core of Jewish intelligentsia, actively confirming and bearing the ideas of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala). One of the founders of the Haskala movement in Courland was the medical doctor and philosopher Marcus Hertz (1743 - 1803). The German way of life dominated in Courland, having a great impact on the Jews. It is important to stress that mostly German (and not Yiddish) language was the spoken language of the Courland Jewish community and it continued until World War II.

Courland became part of Russia in 1795. The Russian Emperor Paul I, under the pressure of Haskala Jews, promulgated a law in 1799 whereby Jews in Courland obtained legal status as permanent inhabitants, while subject to double taxation. This allowed the possibility of taking part in local government elections and stimulated integration of Jews into German society in Courland gubernia. In 1852, there were 23,743 Jews in Courland gubernia, and 4,189 in Jelgava (Mitau), comprising 22% of the inhabitants. In 1780, the first Jewish school with three teachers was established in Mitau.

Courland Jews in the 19th century

Laws for Jews were passed in 1799, 1804, 1835. In 1835 a new legal code was published allowing permanent residence to the Jews living there with their families and registered locally according to the last census of the population. The same rules were applied to the Jews in the city of Riga and the town of Shlok.

Jews paid 500 rubles per person to avoid conscription into Russian army.

In 1844 Kehillot were officially abolished and finally in 1893, Jews moved to Courland and Livonia (Riga) from the difficulties in the Pale. More than 40% were involved in artisan/industrial professions, while 35% were involved in trade. The port of Libau had a special role in trade. By World War I, about 25% of all industrial enterprises in Libau belonged to Jews.


From 1850 to 1855, secular Jewish schools were supported by the state in Libau, Mitau, Goldingen, and Tukums, and also religious schools (talmud torahs). In 1897, there were seven state schools for boys, 22 private and 142 religious. In 1853 there was a book by the first Jewish historian, Reuven Wunderbahr. By the end of the 19th century German language was prevalent, but there was also literature in Yiddish and Hebrew. There were two great rabbis in Bauska (Boisk), Mordehai Eliasberg and Rav Kook.


(Latvian: Latgale, German: Lettgallen, Russian: Latgalia)

A quite contrasting Jewry settled and developed in Latgalia, the southwestern part of the country. Latgalian Jews were very similar to the Jews from the Lithuanian-Byelorussian region, in the Lithuanian and Polish kingdoms. After the liquidation of the Livonian Order (1561), Poland overtook the province and governed it under the name Inflantia until 1772. No exact data is available on the first Jews, who likely arrived from Poland in the early 17th century after pogroms in Vilna, Sandomir, Brest, etc. between 1605-39. A considerable number of Jews arrived in Latgalia in the mid 17th century escaping from the pogroms and massacres of Bogdan Chmelnitsky and Cossack Raids (1648-1653) in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. These Jews were Yiddish-speaking and Orthodox, living in a self-governing community (kahal). The Census of 1766 recorded 2, 996 Jews in the region (not including children). Many of these Jews were peddlers.

In 1772, after the First Partition of Poland, the Latgalian province of about. 5,000 Jews belonged to Russia. In 1784 about 3,700 Jews lived in Latgalia. The three Latgalian districts of Ludza (Lutsin), Rezekne (Rezhitsa) and Daugavpils (Dvinsk, Dinaburg) were, after 1802, part of Vitebsk province (gubernia), within the Pale of Settlement. Jews were expelled from rural places to towns and subject to double taxation. From 1804 Jews were allowed to live only in cities and small towns (shtetlach). As distinct from Courland and Riga, the economy of Latgalia was poor, being located in the east, far from the Baltic Sea and close to Russia. In spite of poverty they maintained their traditional way of life and had many children, increasing the growth of the Jewish population, which was up to 11,000 in Latgalia in 1847. Under Czar Nicholas I (1825-1856) there was obligatory conscription into the Russian army, followed by the cantonist tragedy, especially when the special powers of Recruit Kidnappers were established.


By the end of the 19th century 39% of Latgale’s Jews lived in Daugavpils . The match factory of S. Zaks employed 600 workers. I. Senderzon employed 60 workers in tobacco production. About 30% of the Jews were employed in trade.


The Jews in Latgale practiced traditional Yiddish culture. Their neighbors were Poles, Byelorussians, Russian, and ethnic “Latgalians,” who spoke a unique dialect. The Jews of Latgale practiced typical Eastern European Orthodoxy. The Haskala was only a minor influence on their culture. There were factions of both hasidism (led by the Rogachover Gaon Iosif Rosin) and mitnagdim (led by Rav Meir Simha).


(Latvian: Vidzeme, German: Livland, Russian: Livonia)

Vidzeme (Livonia), including Riga, is the central part of Latvia, north of the Daugava River bordered by Estonia in the north and by the Gulf of Riga in the west. Vidzeme (Riga) along with Courland is the original nucleus of Latvian Jewry. Riga was always the most attractive focus of Jewish activities. The first houses for Jews in Riga were built in 1638, however Jews were not allowed to settle in Riga on a permanent basis. In 1710 Riga was conquered by Russian troops (Count Sheremetev), and the articles of capitulation contained all the restrictions regarding Jews because of the fear by the Germans of economic and trade competition. In 1724 a non-Jewish resident was licensed to run a hostelry for Jews.

In 1724 Jews were expelled from the Russian Empire by Empress Elizabeth. Riga and Livonia were emptied of Jews. Only by January 1764 the few Jews (three!) were officially allowed to stay in the “Jew’s Shelter.” The official meeting of the Hevra Kaddisha (Jewish Burial Society) took place in 1765. In 1785 Catherine the Great allowed Jews (and in fact, people of any religion) to settle near the Baltic Coast in Sloka (Shlok), about 35 km from Riga, as well as in Dobele (Dubbeln). More shelters were developed and the Jewish population grew. In 1841 the Russian Senate allowed Jews already there to live officially in Riga.

In the middle of the 19th century there were about 4,500 Jews in Vidzeme, including Riga. Livonia was outside the Pale but there was a well established important Jewish community in Riga. This community was the most modern in the Empire, along with Odessa, with marked acculturation. In 1832 the community of “Jews of Shlok residing in Riga” applied for a Jewish school in Riga. Thus, one of the first (modern!) Jewish schools (Kaplan school) was established in 1840 in Riga, with German as the language of instruction.

The first Riga synagogue was built in 1850. Later, the most outstanding was the Great Synagogue on Gogol street, with Cantors Baruh Leib Rosowsky, later Hermann Jadlowker. Riga was a lively political center, which included the Club Ivria for Zionists and Carmel for left-wingers, etc.

While the Riga and Courland Jewish communities were new and geographically distant from the great centers of Jewish learning in Lithuania, they shared several Western-type Jewish characteristics. Even the modest acculturation was halted, at least temporarily, by the emergence of the independent Latvian State with a consequent decline of both Russian and German influence.

There were 21,963 Jews in Riga in 1893 and 33,600 in 1914.


The independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on November 18, 1918, and Jews, for the first time, were granted civil rights to their full extent. Eleven Jews became members of the People’s Council (later Saeima) of Latvia, while a lawyer named Paul Mintz was a member of Karlis Ulmanis’ government (1919-1921). 1,000 Jews took part in the war of liberation between 1918 and 1921 (eleven were awarded the Three Stars medal), and the monument to the fallen Jewish soldiers can be viewed today at the Jewish cemetery in Shmerli.

In 1919, a special law established a Jewish section within the Ministry of Education aimed to direct a network of state-paid Jewish schools, which brought into existence the unique environment for Jewish national education in Yiddish and Hebrew. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Jewish children attended Jewish schools (with studies in Hebrew – 31%, Yiddish – 48%, German – 14%, Russian – 7% in 1928-1929 ).

In 1920 there were 24 Jewish schools in Latvia. By 1933, the total had risen to 119. In 1925, the breakdown of spoken language by Latvian Jews was Yiddish (78,143), German (8,692), Russian (4,550), and Latvian (527).


Between 1920 and 1935, the number of Jews in the cities of Latvia increased from 24,000 to 44,000. According to official statistics, Latvian Jews numbered 95,675, or 5.2% of the total population in 1925. 41% of the Jews lived in Riga, where over one fourth of all commercial and industrial enterprises were owned by Jews.

Inter-war Latvia, as well as in the other two Baltic States, was a comparatively pleasant place for Jews to live in. The right-wing takeover by Karlis Ulmanis regime in 1934 was not accompanied by anti-Jewish violence, however the new government made efforts to “nationalize” the economy, with negative consequences for Jews. Jewish community life was interrupted by the Soviet occupation in 1940, followed by the tragedy of Holocaust.


The following is a high-level timeline of the Soviet occupation and Holocaust in Latvia:

17 June 1940 - Latvia occupied by 100,000 Soviet army troops

June 1940 - June 1941 - Soviets ended Jewish community life in Latvia

13/14 June 1941 - Soviet deportation of 20,000 citizens (including Jews)

22 June 1941 - Germans violated non-aggression pact, invading Latvia and all Soviet territory

23 June 1941 - First massacres of Jews under German occupation

4 July 1941 - Gogol Synagogue burned; Latvian State Holocaust Memorial Day

End of November 1941 = First action (Aktion) in Riga Ghetto (Rumbula)

3 November 1943 - Liquidation of Riga Ghetto

1944 -Liquidation of Kaiserwald concentration camp

Approximately 15, 000 Jews out of a population around 93,000 escaped to Russia

There is a difference of opinion as to how many Latvian Jews perished:

Marģers Vestermanis - 73,000

Andrew Ezergailis - 63,000

Germans - 70, 000

Latvia Names Project - 70, 000

For additional current information on the Holocaust in Latvia, see the Holocaust section of this website.


Since Latvia gained its independence in 1991, the Jews have been a traditional minority in multicultural society. In 1989, the first Jewish school in the Former Soviet Union opened in Riga. In 1989, the Latvian Society of Jewish Culture was established on Skolas Street. In 1991, the first flights in the Former Soviet Union were initiated by LATPASS Airlines. Later accomplishments included founding a religious school, kindergarten, Jewish Hospital Bikur Holim, Maccabi, along with restitution of property.

There are an estimated 9,000 Jews living in Latvia, 95% of whom reside in Riga, although the exact number is undetermined.


Aleksejeva, T. Die Juden in Herzogtum Kurland Aus: Das Herzogtum Kurland 1561-1795. Lueneburg: Verlag Nordostdeutsches Kulturwerk, 1993. Pages 153-168.

_____________ “Some aspects of Hebrew history in the Duchy of Courland (1561-1795).” Historical minorities in Latvia. Riga: University of Latvia, 1994. Pages 4-22.

Ailvars, Stranga. Ebreji un diktatras Baltij 1926-1940. Riga: 1997.

Bobe, Mendel.“Four hundred years of the Jews in Latvia. A Historical Survey.” The Jews in Latvia. Tel Aviv: 1971). Pages 21-77.

Dribins, Leo. “Ebreji.” Mazakumtautbu vsture Latvij. Riga: King Boduen Foundation and Zvaigzne ABC, 1998. Pages 175-198.

Levins, Dovs. Ebreju vsture Latvij. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1988 and Riga: Apgde Vaga, 1999.