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

(Latvia)

57°15' / 22°36'

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

Written by: Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1988


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Betsy Thal Gephart

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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. 130-134)

Talsi (German: Talsen; called by Jews: Talsen)

Translated by Barry Marks

District city in Kurzeme (Courland)

Population Figures

1881 3,407 1,398 41
1897 4,113 1,411 34
1910 4,350 1,290 30
1914 5,110    
1920 2,978 454 15
1925 4,077 637 16
1930 4,192 609 15
1935 4,116 499 12

To the end of the First World War

History of the city

        Talsi was one of the oldest settlements in Kurzeme, and its beginnings can be traced back to the period of the Livs, a Latvian tribe. In the thirteenth century it came under the rule of the Germanic orders, who built a fortress in the locality, around which a German settlement named Talsen developed by the end of that century. In 1561 Talsi became part of the autonomous duchy of Kurland, and in 1795 it came under the rule of Russia. At the onset of Russian rule Germans were still sixty percent of the residents of the locality. In the course of the century the population grew. Members of other nationalities (including Jews) joined the residents, and the percentage of Germans within the population declined. Nevertheless, they continued to preserve their status and their influence in the domain of administration, economy, culture, and education. Against the background of the revolutionary ferment which gripped Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the first underground branches of the Social Democratic party in Latvia was established here. At the end of 1905 an armed, revolutionary uprising broke out here, headed by a Latvian bookseller named Linde and a Jewish photographer named Steinberg. On December 5th units of the Russian Army shelled the city. Twenty men were killed, part of the city went up in flames, and the rebellion was crushed. At the end of the First World War the city passed from one governing authority to another. On January 4, 1919 rebels who sympathized with the Bolsheviks set up a Soviet regime which was removed after a short interval. In the course of the war and the events that followed a substantial part of the population was either expelled or left on their own. Ultimately Talsi became part of independent Latvia and was given the status of district city.

        After the war only half of the population had remained in the city. In the early 1920's the number of residents in the city began once more to increase. The Latvians constituted a decisive majority of the residents, and the percentage of national minorities declined: the number of Jews declined by half, and the Germans became a tiny minority of approximately 200 souls. Industry was based on the city's agricultural surroundings (lumber, ceramics, and the manufacture of starch).

        In the beginning of the 19th century, in the period of Russian rule, Jewish storekeepers and peddlers began to settle in Talsi. In the course of the century additional Jews arrived in the village from Lithuania and other places, and the number of Jews increased. Their percentage within the general population doubled from 20% at the beginning of the 19th century to 41% at century's end. As a result of the move to nearby cities, Vindau (see Ventspils) and Libau (see Liepaja), which were at the time in a phase of rapid economic development, and as a consequence of emigration abroad, by the beginning of the twentieth century a trend toward the shrinking of the local Jewish community could be observed.

        The Jews of Talsi earned their livelihood from commerce, crafts, and transportation. With the development of industry at the end of the 19th century, Jewish industrialists were to be found there as well. For example, the local starch factory was founded by a Jew named Berger.

        In the 20's of the 19th century, there was a shochet in Talsi. This function was carried out by R. Yakov Halevi Ephraimson, descendant of a learned family from Lithuania that settled in Talsi. At a later date he was appointed as the local rabbinic authority. In 1854, a bet midrash was built. In 1860 approximately, the rabbinate of Talsi was established and Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Leibovitz from Yelluk in Lithuania served as the community's first rabbi. Along with him the aforementioned Rabbi Ephraimson (until his death in 1882) and Rabbi Shimon Cohen, a native of Goldingen (see Kuldiga), served as the local religious judges. After the death of Rabbi Leibovitz in 1891 , the following served successively as rabbis of the community: Rabbi Mordechai Lichtenstein, from a rabbinic family in Tukum (see Tukums) –until 1896; Rabbi Yakov ben Hillel –until 1906; and Rabbi Yitzhak Eliezer Hirshovitz –until the expulsion of the Jews in 1915.

        The influence of the Lithuanian Jews was discernible not only in the domain of the rabbinate and other religious functions but also in the sphere of Jewish education, which was based on private "cheders". One of the most outstanding of these was the cheder of the Lithuanian teacher Berel Markovitz, which was founded in the 1860's and operated for several decades until 1905. The orientation of the cheder was traditional. However, the teacher put a special emphasis on the study of the Hebrew language. In 1905, a reformed cheder was founded by the teacher David Jacobson which incorporated changes that deviated from the curriculum of the traditional cheder, for example, modern study of Hebrew language and grammar, study of the German language by means of the Bible commentary of Moses Mendelssohn, and holding meetings with parents. The local rabbi opposed the innovations. But the parents of the students sided with the teacher, and the reformed cheder remained in existence until the First World War. Many Jewish students, including children from religious families, studied in the two local German schools, one for boys and one for girls. Some of them completed their Jewish studies in the cheders or through private lessons during afternoon hours.

        From the end of the 19th century, a circle of Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) was active in the city, mainly centering around the two Hebrew teachers. One of the participants in these circles was Jacob Helman, later one of the leaders of the Jewish press, a founder of the Ze'irei Zion party and an emissary to the founding assembly of the Latvian Sejm.

        Within the community a layer of important Jewish families who were educated in German culture was particularly prominent. They belonged mainly to the upper class of merchants, industrialists, and professionals. Most of them took part in the life of the community, but a minority were assimilationists who distanced themselves from Jewish affairs. Likewise Jewish Socialists were active in Talsi at the end of the 19th century. They took part in the development of the local Socialist movement and played important roles in the revolutionary events of 1905; for example, the photographer Steinberg, son of an assimilated Jewish family who, as mentioned, was one of the leaders of the local revolution, and Yonah Tevelson, who served for a time as a representative of the Social Democratic party in the municipality of Talsi. Jews were among those killed when the rebellion was crushed, and Jewish homes were set afire.

        After the outbreak of the First World War, on April 27 and 28, 1915, the Jews of Talsi were expelled from the city. The expulsion took place within the framework of the deportation of Jews from Kurland at the behest of the Russian military command. Eighteen private houses of Jews were destroyed through acts of war and three members of the Jewish community were killed.

Synagogue in Talsi, Kurland

Synagogue in Talsi, Kurland. After the war, repairs were made
and the building was adapted for residential use. Photograph from 1958

 

Between the two World Wars

Demography, economics, and society

        In 1920, one third of the Jews from the community were residing in the city. Several hundred additional Jews –some veteran residents and some newcomers – arrived in the city in the context of the repatriation of the early 1920's, and the local Jewish community grew to half of its pre-war numbers constituting 16% of the total population. At the end of the 1920's Jews began to leave Talsi; their numbers in the city and their percentage within the general population continued to decline until by1935 they were just 12%.

        The economic situation of the majority of Jewish refugees who returned to the city after the First World War was difficult, and they suffered from the absence of suitable sources for earning a livelihood. In the deliberations of the Joint from the beginning of the 1920's, it was reported that 35% of the members of the community were in need of assistance and an additional 55% were defined as "barely self-sufficient." Help from relatives who had earlier migrated to the United States and the supportive activities of the Joint eased the distress.

        With the stabilization of the economic situation, the situation of the Jews in Talsi was also consolidated and improved, and they became a sufficiently well-to-do community. The most important branch of the local Jewish economy was commerce. A substantial segment of the commerce in the city was in their hands. They played a particularly prominent role in the high level commercial establishments. They were dominant in textiles, jewelry, and in wood and metal products. In 1935, Jews (who were, as mentioned, 12% of the city's residents) owned 41% of the 146 high level businesses in Talsi , as detailed in the following chart:

Branch or type of business Total Owned by Jews
Number Percent
Groceries 29 19 66
Bakeries, bread and milk stores 20 2 10
Butcher shops 7 4 57
Alcoholic beverages 10 3 30
Inns and taverns 9 1 11
Textiles and notions 14 9 64
Hats 4 2 50
Shoes and leather 7 3 43
Watches and jewelry 4 4 100
Ironware 4 3 75
Furniture 3 2 66
Building materials and farm supplies 8 2 25
Writing instruments, paper, and books 6 1 17
Heating fuel 2 2 100
Inns and taverns 9 1 11
Miscellaneous 18 3 17

        The second most important branch in the economy of Talsi was crafts. A discernible segment of Jewish wage-earners worked as shoemakers, shoe stitchers, tailors, butchers, bakers, watch repairmen, etc. In the domain of industry, the Jewish role was more modest. Of 26 factories in the city only three were owned by Jews. Among them was the starch factory that was founded, as mentioned, before the First War and a workshop for pots. A small number of Jews were engaged as clerks and bookkeepers for businesses, and others were communal workers (mainly in the spheres of religion and education). Two of the four local physicians and one of the three dentists were Jews.

        From the early 1920's a corporate bank for loans and savings functioned in the city. It was called the "Talser Yiddishe Lei und Shpor Kasse" and it granted convenient loans to merchants, craftsmen, and in times of crisis to those in need. The bank was established with a one time assistance grant from the Joint of 46,000 Latvian rubles and operated on the basis of regular members who paid dues. Several salaried clerks were hired to work as cashiers and account keepers. The administrators and the audit committee were made up of the wealthiest and most honored members of the community who carried out their duties without compensation.

        In the elections for the city council held every three years, two representatives of Jewish parties were elected. Generally, these were the representatives of the Zionist-Socialist parties. A third Jew, Jonah Tevelson, was elected as one of the representatives of the Social Democratic party on the council. In 1924, the municipality intended to destroy the old cemetery belonging to the community. As a result of the intervention of Rabbi Mordechai Nurock with the Latvian authorities, the municipality rescinded its decision, and the cemetery remained under the community's control. Beginning in the middle 1930's a strong branch of the Fascist and anti-Semitic organization Perkonkrust operated in the town. Its members called for an economic boycott of the Jews, issued anti-Semitic proclamations, and created a difficult environment for the Jews. Nevertheless, despite the activities of the Perkonkrust, there were never any official measures against the Jews.

Communal life

Religious and educational institutions

        The community was organized in 1920, and Baruch Zelig Levinberg served as chairman of the community and its representative in the national assembly of Latvian communities. Rabbi Moshe Chilav served at first as rabbi of the community. After he left, he was succeeded by the aforementioned Rabbi B. Z. Levinberg, who was also the last rabbi of Talsi and perished together with his community in the Holocaust. In Talsi there was one central synagogue as well as a private minyan of one of the wealthy members of the community called Glezer's minyan.

        In 1920 a Jewish folk school was established with five classes and five teachers. More than half of its expenses were covered by the municipality of Talsi, and the remainder was supplemented by tuition and communal allocations. The institution's financial situation was stable. To begin with, the language of instruction in the Jewish school was Russian. As a result of political changes and internal struggles in the community, the language of instruction was changed a number of times. Russian was replaced by Hebrew in the lower grades and by German in the two highest classes. Later they taught in Yiddish and Hebrew. Rabbi B. Z. Levinberg gave religious instruction within the framework of the school. Torah studies outside of the institutional framework were taught by Rabbi Moshe Chilav, who founded a yeshiva in Talsi during the time of his service there. Rabbi Levinberg later continued this and gathered around himself a small group of students for the study of the Torah. The shrinking of the community's numbers had its effect as well on the size of the school. From 85 students who studied at the institution in 1922 enrollment declined to just 69. Up to the year 1930 52 graduates had completed their studies at the school. Some of them went on to complete their secondary education at the local Latvian gymnasium or at one of the Jewish gymnasia in Riga.

        Until the middle 1930's, many Jewish students also studied in the local German school. In 1922 just slightly more than half of the 130 Jewish children attended the Jewish educational institution, while the remainder studied in the German school.

Cultural and political activity.

        In the 1920's a drama circle and a community club were active in Talsi. Included in the club were youth and members of the intelligentsia from all parts of the political spectrum. Most of the activity that took place there was in the social and cultural domain. In 1921 a library was established in conjunction with the club which after 5 years numbered approximately 400 books. In addition to the savings and loan bank mentioned above, various volunteer welfare associations were active within the community to help the poor, the sick, and the orphans. The associations were supported by regular members who paid monthly dues, by one-time contributions, and by revenues from cultural and social events.

        In Talsi the following political parties were active: Ze'irei Zion, Po'alei Zion, General Zionists, Revisionists, the Bund, and various Yiddishist circles. Those who served on the city council were mainly the representatives of the Zionist parties, such as the aforementioned Jacob Helman who was elected in the 1920's with the backing of Ze'irei Zion and Z. Freier, elected with the backing of Po'alei Zion. In 1925 a branch of Betar was established which in 1931 numbered 26 members. Likewise branches of Hashomer Hatza'ir, Netzach and Maccabee were established in Talsi. Some of the graduates of the Zionist youth movements migrated to the land of Israel as pioneers. In the 1930's the influence of the Zionist movement was prevalent among the Jews of Talsi. In the elections to the Zionist Congress that took place in 1933, 229 of the city's Jews participated. The votes were distributed as follows: Eretz Yisra'el Ovedet (Labor Land of Israel) received 84 votes; the Zionist Organization list -35 votes; Mizrachi-5 votes and the Revisionists received 105 votes.

In the Second World War and afterwards

Period of Soviet rule (1940-1941)

        In the context of the policy of Sovietization, the political organizations and most of the welfare, cultural, and social institutions of the Jews of Talsi were shut down, and the public life of the Jewish community's was liquidated in stages. The Chevra Kadisha (burial society) ceased its activity as the result of a decision by the central authorities of December 12, 1940. As a result of the general nationalization of businesses, stores, and commercial establishments, the main branch of the livelihood of the city's Jews was cut off. Because there were not enough alternative sources of work available through the government, Jews left to seek work in the big cities such as Ventspils and Riga. Also many of the Jewish youth left the city to study in institutions of higher education whose doors were opened to them. As a result of these processes the dwindling of the Jewish community in Talsi continued in the Soviet period. In mid-June of 1941 a group of Jewish property owners and political activists was expelled from Talsi to the interior of Russia together with their families (50 or 60 people altogether). The men were sent to labor camps in the Ural region, and most of them perished in the difficult camp conditions. Women and children were exiled to kolkhozes (collective farms) in the Krasnoyarsk region east of the Urals. Some managed to survive and returned to Latvia at the conclusion of the war.

        After the German Army entered Latvia some scores of Jews escaped from Talsi to the interior of the Soviet Union, but most of the community remained.

Under Nazi occupation

        On July 1, 1941, the German Army entered Talsi. An armed group of Latvian "Self-defense" was already operating in the city under the command of a locksmith named Arthur Janfter. This group was quickly integrated into the Latvian auxiliary police and took an active role in the persecution and murder of the Jews. The first victims were four Jews: Paul Glezer, Meir Hirschfeld, Huna Talberg, and Meir Gerson. Very quickly Jews who had been active in the leftist political camp, such as the veteran Social Democrat Yonah Tevelson were arrested, tortured, and killed. Already in the first days of the occupation arduous forced labor was imposed on the Jews –cleaning the marketplace and loading stones. In many instances their property was expropriated.

        At the end of September and the beginning of October 1941 all of the Jews of Talsi were murdered. Prior to the slaughter all the Jews were gathered together in the house of study and transported from there to the murder site in the forest, 12 kilometers outside the town, where they were killed by shooting. The murder was carried out by a unit of shooters from the Arajes commando (see Riga) with the participation of local police. Among the victims were Yitzhak Helman, brother of the journalist and Zionist activist Jacob Helman, and the rabbi of the community Baruch Zelig Levinberg, who was sadistically mocked and degraded before being killed. A lone Jewish woman who found refuge with a Latvian farmer was discovered in 1944 and she too was killed.

After the war

        Near the end of the war, the Red Army conquered Talsi. Some of the Latvians who had collaborated with the Germans escaped to the forests and fought for a time against the Soviet authorities until they were wiped out. Jews from Talsi who returned from the far regions of the Soviet Union settled for the most part in Riga and only a few, one or two families, returned to Talsi. To their number were added several families of Soviet Jews. After some time a small Jewish settlement was once again formed, but no organized Jewish communal life was created locally. The synagogue became a warehouse, and the Jewish cemetery was found after the war desecrated and deserted. Some of the tombstones were privately repaired by the families of the deceased, but in the absence of care and supervision, the stones were stolen and the cemetery remained desolate. The regime erected in the city a monument in memory of the Nazis' victims, but without any special mention of Jews. In May 1962 a public trial was held in Talsi of five local Latvian war criminals, including the aforementioned Janfter, the commander of the "Self-defense". He and two other defendants were sentenced to death; two others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. After a time, even the few Jews who had settled in Talsi began to leave. By the late 1970's there were almost no Jews remaining in Talsi.

(Esther Hager)

Bibliography

Archive of the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews, II K 23
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