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.
JEWS IN THE FIRST REPUBLIC OF LATVIA (1918 – 1940)
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.
SOVIET OCCUPATION AND 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.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN INDEPENDENT LATVIA SINCE 1991 (1989)
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.