"Tukums" - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Latvia and Estonia

(Latvia)

57°57' / 23°09'

Translation of "Tukums" chapter
from Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia v'Estonia

Written by: Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1988


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Acknowledgments

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Betsy Thal Gephart

Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia and Estonia:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Latvia and Estonia,
Edited by Dov Levin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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(pp. 135-139)

Tukums (German: Tuckum)

Translated by Barry Marks

District city in Zemgale (Courland)

Population Figures

Year Total
Population
Jewish
Population
Percentage
1800 1,221 225*  
1835   2,391**  
1850   2,287**  
1863 3,398 1,800 53
1881 6,151 2,858 47
1897 7,555 2,561 34
1910 12,000 5,500 46
1920 4,433 597 14
1925 7,167 1,025 14
1930 7,658 968 13
1935 8,144 953 12

*Citizens
**Includes the district

To the end of the First World War

History of the city

        The name Tukums is mentioned for the first time in a document from 1253. In the 13th century the Teutonic order conquered the locale from the local Kurs and established a fort around which a settlement developed. In 1561 the settlement became part of the duchy of Kurland. In 1795 Tukums passed over to the rule of Russia and was accorded the status of a city.

        In the course of the 19th century the population of the city grew rapidly. During this period Jews were a major factor in the city's economic and demographic development. At the beginning of the 20th century there were already established parties and political organizations in the city. On November 30, 1905, a revolutionary uprising broke out, in the course of which the Commandant of the city and 17 soldiers of the locally garrisoned Russian force were killed. The rebellion was cruelly crushed. A substantial percentage of the houses in the city were destroyed, and the number of dead and wounded came to 580 souls. In the First World War the majority of the population was either expelled or left the city because of the casualties of war. Only 10% of the residents remained in place. After the war, when the city became part of sovereign independent Latvia, the inhabitants began to return, but their numbers never came up to what they had been in Tukums prior to the war. From now on the Latvians constituted the overwhelming majority of the population. The city's economy was based on the agricultural surroundings. Tukums served as a market for grain and fodder, and there were small-scale enterprises for processing agricultural products.

The beginning of the Jewish settlement and its development

        During the era of the duchy of Kurland, Jews had no right of settlement in Tukums. But a few Jews resided in villages and at the courts of the nobility in the vicinity of the settlement. In a document from 1719, a Jewish community is mentioned in the village of Neuberg on the estate of the Baron von Recke. In the opinion of some of the chroniclers, this village was adjacent to Tukums. Also there is information about a Jew named Copenhagen, an expert in building, who migrated here from East Prussia at the beginning of the 18th century. At about the same time, Jews who lived in the villages and on the estates of the nobles began establishing communal institutions (a Chevra Kadisha –burial society- was founded in 1765). After the city went over to Russian rule, many of the village Jews moved their residence to the city itself. To their numbers were added Jews from East Prussia. Within a few years a local Jewish community of several hundred souls had established itself. In 1800 255 Jewish "citizens" were registered in Tukums (not including women and children) and 14 of them were registered in the merchant guilds. In 1801 a Chevra Kadisha and a rabbinic judge functioned in the community, and a communal minute book was kept.

        In the middle of the 19th century, the Jews constituted half of the city's population. In 1840 two Jewish families, together numbering 13 people, left Tukums to settle in Kherson province in southern Russia in the framework of a program undertaken by the Russian government. A fire that broke out in 1865 damaged the community's synagogue as well as the property of many Jews. Twenty three private homes went up in flames. The damage was estimated at 120,000 rubles, and many families were left destitute. The government helped then with a sum of money equivalent to 40% of the damage, a small part of that as a grant and the remainder as a five year interest –free loan.. Also Jews from surrounding cities contributed their money to help the fire victims.

        In the second half of the 19th century Jews from Lithuania began to arrive in Tukums and to settle in the city without a legal right of residence. They were called "Zamuter" by the local Jews after the Zamut district of Lithuania which adjoined the border of Kurland. The local Jews related to them with a feeling of superiority. As a consequence of an administrative order of 1877, the Jews who had come from Lithuania were expelled from their homes and their livelihood, and a number of them migrated to the United States.

        In 1883 the "draftees' pogroms" affected the Jews of Tukums. Young men from villages in the vicinity came to town in large numbers on the eve of their induction into the army, got drunk, and attacked the homes and shops of the Jews. The police were not able to control the rioters and their appeals to the army for help went unanswered.

        Jewish Socialists also took part in the 1905 revolution. Two of them, Saul Berman and Jacob Blumenthal, were sentenced to death but succeeded in escaping and saving their lives. Within the context of the regime's punitive activities, the city was shelled and Jewish homes were also damaged. Two of the community's notables, Gershon Paul Brenner and Leonard Gerson were taken hostage and freed only after the payment of a heavy fine. On the eve of the Second World War the economic situation of the community was good. They earned their livelihood from commerce and crafts.

        In 1911 -1912 a Savings and Loan Fund operated in Tukums to provide loans on convenient terms for merchants and craftsmen.

The community and its institutions

Religious institutions

        As mentioned, the Jews set up organized communal institutions even during the time they resided outside the city of Tukums. After a time, when they took up residence in the city itself, they brought their institutions with them. At the beginning of the 19th century Rabbi Yosef Kahana Blumenfeld began to serve as the rabbinic authority. His legal decisions were recorded in the community's Minute Book from 1801 on, and he signed them with his title "scribe of the Chevra Kadisha and teacher of righteousness to Tukums and its wings" (i.e., its vicinity). A little later an official rabbinate was established in the city (responsible to the government for registering births, deaths, marriages, and divorces). Until 1905 the near by Jewish community in Alt Autz (see Utza) was included in the domain of Tukums. The first rabbi and head of the religious court was Rabbi Abba Paslover. Rabbi Blumenfeld, whom we've mentioned, continued to serve alongside him for many years as a rabbinic authority for the community.

        In 1813, a new Minute Book was begun, and 100 community members were listed there. At about the same time Rabbi Mordechai Lichtenstein ascended to the seat of the rabbinate in the city. He was the scion of a family of 13 generations of famous rabbis and pietists. His legal decisions were registered in the community's Minute Book, and he left behind a Talmudic manuscript that was destroyed in the great fire of 1865. Rabbi Lichtenstein died in 1848 after more than 30 years of service and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein, known for his piety and severity. He opposed any deviation from Tradition such as a reformed cheder and membership in Zionist organizations, and under his influence the community of Tukums acquired an Orthodox and scholarly character more than any of the other communities in Kurland. His tenure continued more than 50 years until his death in 1896. After him his son Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Lichtenstein ascended to the seat of the rabbinate; he, along with the community, was expelled to Russia after the outbreak of the First World War and perished there. A collection of his sermons which is called "Meditation of the Heart" was published in Riga in 1911. In addition to the rabbis, there was a community chairman and trustees who were chosen every four years. On the eve of the First World War, the community had two or three synagogues.

Educational institutions

        The community's educational institutions were traditional: a communal Talmud Torah and several private cheders. Talmud lessons were conducted in the house of study for the young people. In 1850 a government school for Jewish boys was established, and it continued to be active until the First World War. Even though the school was funded by Jewish money and its teachers and students were Jews, the orientation that prevailed there was that of the Russian Crown. On the eve of the First World War a folk school for poor girls was set up. Also the ORT organization provided support for vocational education for the children of the poor. In the city, there was no modern institution with nationalistic objectives such as the "reformed cheder", either because of Rabbi Lichtenstein's opposition or because people of means preferred non-Jewish educational institutions such as the local business school, while the poor sent their children to the Talmud Torah..

Political and social activity

        From the end of the 19th century an association for the support of the poor, which extended assistance to the school for poor girls, among other beneficiaries, was active locally. In order to fund its activities, the association was also involved in cultural programs. For a short time a Lovers of Zion association also existed, numbering about 50 members. Even after the dissolution of the association many of the community's Jews continued to make donations for the sake of the Land of Israel. Among a segment of the intelligentsia and of the local youth sympathy for Zionism was prevalent. In the 20th century Socialist currents of thought began to spread among the Jews of Tukums. By 1905 branches of the Bund and of Poalei Zion were already active locally. Some of their members as well as other Jews took an active part in the revolutionary events of that year, and two of them, as mentioned, were sentenced to death. The Friends of Yiddish circles in town ran a library in the city for a short time. During the Beilis trial (1912) Jewish youth groups were secretly organized in opposition to the regime. During the course of meetings which they held outside the city, they engaged mainly in reading forbidden literature.

        In 1915 after the outbreak of the First World War, an expulsion order was promulgated against the Jews of Tukums. As a result of the efforts of one of the local notables, a German named Grotus, the implementation of the decree was postponed for six weeks. Ultimately, however, the Jews were expelled from the city with just 36 hours warning. During the war 6 members of the community were wounded or killed, and 50 private houses owned by Jews suffered damage or destruction.

Between the two world wars

Demography, economics, and society

        In the context of repatriation from Russia after the First World War, a gradual return of Jews to the city began. In 1920 the local Jews numbered 597 and by 1922 their number had grown to 830 souls. The economic situation of the returning refugees was relatively good. But the majority of Jews did not return to the city. In 1925 when the process of repatriation had been completed, the community numbered just 1025 souls, less than a quarter of what the number had been on the eve of the war. From the mid 1920's the number of Jews locally steadily declined as a result of emigration and of the aliyah of young people to the land of Israel, and the percentage of Jews within the general population went down (see table above).

        In spite of their shrinking numbers the Jews continued to play an important role in the city's economy. In 1935, 15 of the 61 local industrial enterprises (mainly light industry) were owned by Jews. The role of Jews was especially prominent in commerce. Half of the businesses in the highest tax brackets that year were Jewish-owned, as detailed in the table below:

Branch or type of business Total Jewish owned
Numbers %
Grocery 62 27 43
Dairy products 20 6 30
Butcher shops 16 11 69
Grain and seed 6 6 100
Inns, restaurants, lunchrooms 19 1 5
Books and paper products 9 3 33
Photography and electronics 6 2 33
Watches and jewelry 5 2 40
Linens and knitwear 21 18 86
Ready to wear clothing 13 8 62
Shoes and leather 13 10 77
Dyes and building materials 6 4 67
Iron, machinery, and tools 7 5 71
Pharmacies 5 3 60
Barber shops 16 4 25
Miscellaneous 2    
  237 113 48

        A substantial number of Jews engaged in the professions in the fields of teaching, clerking, religious service, and medicine. Three of the ten doctors residing in Tukums in 1935 and five of the six dentists in the city were Jewish.

        In 1928 there were three Jewish representatives on the city council and with their support a man from the Social Democratic party was elected to govern the city. Relations between the Jews and their neighbors were generally stable. From the middle 1930's the situation worsened. The Fascist and anti-Semitic organization Perkonkrust began to be active locally. In 1934 a Jewish student, a member of a branch of Betar, shattered a windowpane in a hall where a meeting of the Perkonkrust was taking place. In order to prevent his expulsion from the university his brother took the blame and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Communal life

The community organization and welfare and religious institutions

        After the war the Joint supported the strengthening of communal life for the Jews of Tukums. With its encouragement a community council was chosen consisting of 11 members: 4 representatives of the Agudat Israel, three non-party members, two representatives of Ze'irei Zion and two representatives of the butchers. At the same time a corporate bank was established called the "Savings and Loan Fund" (Lei und Spor Kasse) for the extension of cheap credit to merchants and craftsmen. It received one-time assistance from the Joint of 72,000 Latvian rubles. Wealthy members of the community ran the bank, and it filled an important role in the economic life of the city's Jews. In addition to the bank a traditional Gemilut Chesed fund (Hebrew Free Loan Society) was established called "Chafetz Chayim". For a number of years after the war a committee to assist the sick operated in the city, and in the 20's a women's organization (Frauenverein) headed by the teacher and educator Fanny Kramer. The organization was involved in different welfare activities such as assisting poor brides, supporting the education of children from poor families (free tuition and purchase of books and clothes), and helping Jewish soldiers. Among other efforts the committee tried to assure that Jewish inductees in the Latvian army were posted in locales where it would be easy for them to obtain kosher food. In 1933 the Ezra organization was founded, headed by a 15 member committee. The Jews of Tukums participated in extending assistance to other communities. For example, in 1926 they contributed towards assisting the Jews of Salant, Lithuania who were victims of a fire. The different welfare organizations were also involved in cultural activities such as charity balls and theatrical presentations.

        The rabbi of the community during the inter-war period was Rabbi Levi Lichtenstein, author of the book Pilpul Ha-chaverim and son of the previous rabbi, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Lichtenstein. He was sympathetic to Zionism and helped young couples emigrate to the Land of Israel by arranging fictitious marriages. In 1928, Rabbi Lichtenstein founded the Or Torah organization whose goal was to bring workers and craftsmen near to the study of Torah. Other religious organizations that functioned in the community included the Chevre Shomrei Shabbes (Sabbath observers' society) and the Daf Gemara (page of Talmud). Chaim Yitzhak Slaviachinsky served as shochet (ritual slaughterer) and mohel from the time preceding the First World War. After the Ulmanis revolution in 1934, the influence of Agudat Israel was prevalent in the community, and Rabbi Lichtenstein was its main representative to the regime.

Educational institutions

        The beginnings of the Jewish folk school in Tukums were in a class for the study of Yiddish that originated in 1919 within the framework of the Latvian government school, thanks to the efforts of local friends of Yiddish. The conditions of study in the Yiddish class were very difficult. The municipality allocated money for only one teacher. And he had to instruct 35 students of different ages and levels of competence. Only when the number of students reached 90 was an additional class opened. In the beginning the Jewish students studied according to the Latvian curriculum of the Union of Democratic Teachers, and the language of instruction was Yiddish. (at the request of the Jewish parents they added instruction in the Russian and German languages in the highest class). In 1922 the Jewish classes were taken out of the framework of the Latvian school, and a separate Jewish school was set up. The previous curriculum was changed to that of the Yiddishist network CYSHO. Reciprocal relations between the two schools continued. The Jewish school developed rapidly. By 1926 it already numbered 7 classes, a kindergarten that met in the community building and a library. That year 12 students graduated and were able to continue their studies in the local Latvian secondary school. The faculty consisted of eight teachers, but only four received their salaries from the municipality. The salaries of the others had to be paid from Jewish sources. Because the students came mainly from the poorer classes, the school experienced ongoing financial difficulties. Many Jewish students mainly the children of those with means studied in private non-Jewish schools where the language of instruction was Russian or German. In 1926, thirty Jews studied in the Russian school, and they made up the overwhelming majority of the students in that institution. In the early 1920's a religious educational institution called "Yagdil Torah" functioned in Tukums and received financial assistance from the United States. In addition to these institutions there was a private afternoon Talmud Torah in the city. It was attended mainly by Jewish students who studied in the Russian and German schools. In 1930 a night school was set up for adults to study languages and Jewish literature.

        The friends of the Hebrew language struggled to set up Hebrew educational institutions imbued with the spirit of Zionism. In 1927 Yeshayahu Slaviachinsky (the son of the city's shochet) founded a private Hebrew school. Because of the small number of pupils and the lack of communal support the school struggled with many difficulties. In order to attract the children of the well-to-do, the friends of Hebrew intended to set up a dual-language curriculum –Hebrew and German, but their plan never came to fruition. At the same time that they were pressing the government to make a communal allocation to Hebrew education, parents of Zionist tendency were demanding that their children should study Hebrew. As a result a tension was created between the Yiddishists and the Hebraists. Ultimately, the demand of the latter was fulfilled. In 1930 a Hebrew track was added in the Yiddish school, and Grade One was opened in Hebrew. In the latter half of the 1930's Fanny Kramer, one of the veteran non-Zionist teachers who was also one of the heads of the local women's organization, served as principal of the school. In 1938, eleven students graduated from the institution.

Political and cultural activity

        From the beginning of the 1920's a recognizable Zionist activity existed in Tukums. As mentioned, the Ze'irei Zion party had two representatives on the community council and one of them represented the community in the assembly of Latvian communities. Likewise, a branch of Hechalutz functioned locally. In the 1930's the party of the Zionist-Socialists was very active. Two of its members, Dr. Brenner and Dadiansky, participated in their party's third convention. In 1925 a branch of Maccabee was founded and in the early 1930's a branch of Young Maccabee. At the end of the 30's these two organizations had 140 members, youth and adults who were active in five different sports divisions. The soccer division included three teams: children, youth, and adults. The soccer and table tennis teams participated in national competition and won the Zemgale championship. The latter in 1938 even defeated the elite of Spain in international competition.

Young Maccabee in Tukums, Kurland (between the two world wars)

Young Maccabee in Tukums, Kurland (between the two world wars)

 

        Along with the diverse athletic activity Maccabee also sponsored cultural programs including a drama circle, a choir directed by Moshe Farber and cultural evenings with participation by local artists and visiting troupes. The heads of Maccabee were Dr. Copenhagen and Dr. Jacobson. In 1927 a branch of Betar was established in Tukums which in 1931 numbered more than 20 members. A branch of the youth movement Gordonia was also active locally along with a Hachshara (preparation) farm affiliated with the movement. The farm, which was set up on the land belonging to a local Jewish farmer, served members of the movement from the breadth of Latgale. Many graduates of the Zionist youth movement migrated to the land of Israel. In the Zionist Organization elections that took place in 1933, 178 Jews from Tukums participated. The votes were divided as follows: List of Labor Land of Israel – 79 votes; Revisionists -62; Mizrachi-29; List of the Zionist Organization - 6. On vote went to the list of "Al Ha-mishmar" (on guard) and one vote was disqualified.

In the Second World War and afterwards

Period of Soviet rule (1940-1941)

        The policy of Sovietization in the economic and communal spheres brought profound changes to the life of the Jews. Private businesses were gradually nationalized, and as a consequence Jewish sources of livelihood were partially wiped out. Some of the Jews in Tukums found substitute employment within the government staff and administration. A number of Jews from the Communist camp were even appointed to key posts in the city. Almost all of the Jewish communal organizations of various types were closed down in stages until they were totally liquidated. The decision to shut down the sports organization Maccabee, for example, was promulgated on November 16, 1940. The group's directors were requested to complete the process of liquidation within four months. In the process of arrests and deportations of those groups labeled "enemies of the people" which were carried out by the regime in mid-June 1941, Jews and their family members (more than thirty souls altogether) were also exiled from Tukums to the interior of Russia. The men were imprisoned in labor camps in Siberia, and most of them perished there due to the difficult conditions. Their family members – wives and children –lived under less difficult conditions, and some of them survived.

        Some days after the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 27, 1941 the Soviets retreated from Tukums. Before retreating they freed from jail prisoners who had served their sentences for various crimes, among them at least one Jew. In the context of the Soviet evacuation Jews who had filled key positions in the Soviet administration and young Jews who had served in the Red Army or belonged to the Workers' Guard left the city. Some of them, mainly the soldiers of the second brigade of the first Latvian Division, participated in the difficult rear guard battles that were waged in northern Latvia and Estonia.

        For several days following the Soviet retreat and prior to the entrance of the German army, the city was without a ruling regime. A Latvian "self-defense" organization stepped in and occupied itself, among other things, with preserving public order. The roads leaving the city still remained open. Many Jews however struggled with the question of whether to flee or to remain. Some of them including the principal of the Jewish school, Fanny Kramer, who had connections through her work with the Latvians, negotiated with the local "self-defense" and received from them assurances that nothing bad would happen to the Jews. It is told of Rabbi Levi Lichtenstein that he refused to be evacuated in a truck because of the sanctity of the Sabbath. Several hundred Jews in all left Tukums- about a third of the community. Among them were a substantial number of young people who volunteered or were drafted into the Red Army, mainly within the context of the 43rd Latvian Guard Division. According to careful estimates, no less than 109 Jews from Tukums fought in different units of the Red Army, that is 10 % of the Jews found in the city prior to the war. In actuality, most of the Jewish youth of Tukums took part in the war against the Germans and a substantial number were wounded in battle: 62 were killed in action; nine were seriously wounded and left permanently crippled.

Under Nazi occupation

        On July 1, 1941 the German army entered Tukums. A day or two later a former captain of the Latvian national army named Janis Nidara arrived with a group of armed Latvians and several Germans. The "self-defense" received legal authorization for its existence, and its ranks were enlarged by Nidara until it numbered 40 men. Its members were drawn from anti-Semitic and anti-Soviet elements affiliated with the nationalist organization Eizsargis, from the fascist organization "Perkonkrust", from the police and from the Latvian Army.

        The men of the "self-defense" began immediately to persecute the Jews: all Jews were expelled from their homes and their property was expropriated. They concentrated all of them in two synagogues on Elizabeth Street under the watch of Latvian patrols. Men and women who were able to work were sent to perform forced labor on farms in the vicinity. The rest remained imprisoned in the synagogues. At about the same time the German staged a public show trial of several Jewish community leaders, Dr. Copenhagen one of the heads of Maccabee, among them. The defendants were found guilty of conspiring with the Bolsheviks to assist in the annexation of Latvia to the Soviet Union and of carrying out the deportations to Siberia that took place on the eve of the war. All of them were sentenced to death and executed by shooting. After several days, in mid-July, 1941, the systematic murder of the Jews of Tukums began: The killings took place in several stages. First the able-bodied men were taken. They were ordered to dig pits and were shot on the same day. Women, children, and the elderly were brought to this place the next day by truck (25 to 30 people on a truck) and were slaughtered there. Among those murdered was the rabbi of the community, Rabbi Lichtenstein. The valley of slaughter for most of the Jews of Tukums was located next to Lake Valgums, ten kilometers outside the city. Some of the Jews who were imprisoned in the synagogue were burned to death as a result of the building's being intentionally set on fire. A month after the Germans had occupied Tukums there were no longer any Jews in the city. Lone individuals did succeed in escaping the slaughter, among them a woman saved by a local resident who claimed she was her illegitimate child. After some time those who were saved succeeded in reaching the Riga ghetto.

After the war

        In 1945, some of the Jews of the city who had tarried in the Soviet Union during the war began to return to Tukums; most of them were refugees, evacuees, demobilized soldiers, and a minority consisted of members of families who had been deported on the eve of the war. Some of the Jews of Tukums who did not return to the city participated in the B'richah movement to the land of Israel, and some of them succeeded in emigrating there during the 1940's. In 1950 the number of Jews in Tukums was between 250 and 300. Rabbi Lichtenstein's body was given a Jewish burial, and a monument was erected for him. An additional monument for those killed during the Nazi occupation ("victims of Fascism") was set up locally by the Soviet regime, but without any special mention of Jews.

        In the 1950's a rather sparse (?) Jewish communal life was conducted in Tukums. A local community council functioned, and it was headed by a Jew named Weinberg. The former house of the community's rabbi was given to the Jews, it was adapted for use as a synagogue and public prayers were held. Homeless Jews were also housed in this building. In the 1950's Jews came to reside in Tukums, who for political reasons were forbidden to live in the larger cities in Latvia. Those who came got communal support in finding lodging and employment. Among them was the Zionist activist Grisha Feigin. Also Rabbi Levin from Moscow resided for a while in an apartment which the Tukums community placed at his disposal. Holy books that were found in Tukums in one of the warehouses were handed over to the Jewish community which gave some of them to Jews in other places in the Soviet Union including Georgia. Jewish dead were buried in the old cemetery in Tukums. During this time some of the Jews from the city moved to Riga. Many of them took part in the movement of Jewish national awakening, and some of them migrated to Israel.

        At the end of the fifties a change for the worse occurred in the regime's policy toward Jewish communal activity. Attacks on the members of the community council and on Jewish religious activity were published in the local newspaper. In 1960 the synagogue was closed, and the building was converted to a factory. The Ark and the memorial tablet in memory of those slain in the Holocaust were transferred to the museum. The Jewish cemetery was closed, and Jewish dead were now taken to Riga. At the end of the seventies after many Jews from Tukums had died, moved to Riga, or migrated to Israel, only a few score Jews remained in Tukums, and all Jewish activity had ceased.

(Esther Hager)


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