Starting Research

Jewish Ancestors: A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Latvia and Estonia

By Arlene Beare, JGSGB Latvian Special Interest group.

JGSGB Publications, PO Box 180, St. Albans, Herts. AL2 3WH, UK.

It is always a pleasure to receive another new publication from the tireless JGSGB publications department under Rosemary Wenzerul. This marks the 8th publication in the series, and is a revised edition of the original guide published in 2001. The first edition had 76 pages; this has 144 pages and thus indicates the significant advances made by the archivists and researchers in expanding the range of resources now available.

It must be noted that no other guide to Jewish Latvian genealogy has been published. The Latvia section by Mike Getz in the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu Inc., 2004 runs to just over 6 pages, and although very useful is nowhere near as comprehensive.

The structure and section titles are basically along the lines of the first edition. But there is a world of difference in the depth of content and the ease of usefulness.

As the title suggests the book is divided into two sections, Latvia and then Estonia.

The first part deals with a concise history of Latvia and Courland. This is followed by "Starting your Research" and gives simple steps and hints to finding original surnames and place names, and resources in the United Kingdom and Israel. These will direct any beginner to the appropriate resource and how to use it.

The next part is about research resources in Latvia. A detailed description of the holdings of the Latvian State Historical archives is given, and contact details of archivists together with descriptions of how a query should be phrased, the information that the archivists require and a schedule of fees from the archives, in Latvian and then translated into English.

The types of documents that can be found for any region or town are listed, with descriptions of what constitutes a revision list, a conscription list, a census list etc.

A most useful addition is that of Jewish firms in Riga in 1891. Of great interest to me were the many names of Jewish firms that became common in South Africa in the next century. This also gives a socio-economic insight into Jewish trading activities at that time.

Other archival sources in Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus are given where these may show details of Latvian families. In particular information on passports and other travel documents can be of great use.

Migration from Latvia, with special reference to the Port of Libau, is given in some detail. Nicholas J. Evans has supplemented this section with details of the process of migration, the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter, and a note as to whether or not a passport was required. (Although Windau is listed as a Port of Embarkation it seems doubtful that this was used for any great length of time, and few of these records have been located).

The Holocaust in Latvia is dealt with in some detail and very good references are given.

Details of the extant cemeteries, what they still contain and how to locate them, together with the Latvian details on the Jewishgen World wide burial database are listed.

Museums and Libraries that are not specifically Jewish are given together with their relevant holdings.

A very useful section is Latvia and the internet, it never ceases to amaze me as to just how much new material is constantly being put online and made accessible to a larger public. This section also has very helpful hints to users who may not be all that familiar with the internet.

The special interest groups (SIGS) relevant to Latvia and Courland are listed.

A useful and informative section on travel in Latvia has been has attractively illustrated by Arlene Beare with many quality colour photos and maps showing details of places of interest, both Jewish and general.

There are details of some famous Jewish Latvians such as Sir Isaiah Berlin. A table of old and contemporary Latvian place names is most useful. There is a guide to the Latvian language. It is a pity that the use of diacriticals in this publication is somewhat erratic, they appear on some but not all place names.

The much smaller Estonia section is similarly well structured, and has sufficient useful material to enable anyone to undertake research in this area. Estonia was possibly the smallest of all the former USSR countries. The section on the Holocaust omits details of Klooga, a mass murder site p where many Lithuanian and other Jews were exterminated.

A minor criticism is that there is no consistency in style of references. Some foreign language titles are translated, others are not. The JGSGB should develop a consistent house style for Shemot, newsletters and all publications. There should be a uniform policy regarding footnotes, endnotes, font styles and references.

It would have been useful to include a list of Family History Library (FHL) films relating to Latvia as is given for Estonia. Nevertheless these can be easily looked up at any FHL or on the FHL websites.

A huge amount of work has gone into this publication and we must congratulate Arlene Beare on a superb addition to the guides. This is a particularly "user friendly" guide, and anyone from a beginner to a more advanced researcher will benefit greatly from having a copy available.

Saul Issroff

September 2002

Latvia SIG is delighted to publish two reviews and an endorsement from Eli Wiesel of the excellent book by Max Michelson entitled:

City of Life, City of Death, Memories of Riga

Comments on Max Michelson's Book by Eli Wiesel. Reprinted by Permission from Professor Eli Wiesel.

With each memoir by a survivor, Riga's tragic fate becomes better known. Thus Max Michelson's book, filled with poignant and moving episodes, deserves to be read by anyone wishing to learn more about the life and death of a Jewish community which included the great historian Shimon Dubnov. But it is also a story of courage and rebirth of a young man who wants to find meaning in his survival. -- Elie Wiesel

Short Biography of the Author

Max Michelson was born in Riga, Latvia where he lived with his parents when that country was overrun by the German army in June, 1941. Together with the entire local Jewish community he was forced into the Riga Ghetto. Following the liquidation of the Ghetto in December, 1941, he went through a number of concentration camps and was liberated in Germany in May, 1945

Max, the sole survivor of his family, came to this country after World War II. Upon completion of his education as an engineer in New York City, he settled in Massachusetts and has lived in Framingham for many years. He is now retired from Raytheon, where he was a Consulting Scientist working in the design of radar systems.

Max is the author of City of Life, City of Death, Memories of Riga, a memoir published by University Press of Colorado. The book describes his childhood and youth in pre World War II Latvia and tells of his experiences during the Holocaust years.

Review from: The Jewish Advocate,Boston,Mass Dec 7-13, 2001 page A27 Reprinted by permission

Local author looks at life in Latvia By Sylvia Rothchild

City of Life, City of Death, Memories of Riga

By Max Michelson University Press of Colorado, 186 pages, $24.95

Latvian Jews didn't leave Europe in the time of mass migrations before World War I. Unlike the stetl Jews in Russia and Poland, many were well educated and multi-lingual. More than a quarter of Latvian commercial enterprises employing a hundred or more people were owned by Jews. Jewish intellectuals tended to be secular rather than religious. They sent their children to German rather than Latvian schools. Their children learned Latvian from the nannies and cooks who worked for their families.

Max Michelson, now a retired engineer living in Framingham, Massachusetts, was born into an upper middle class family in Riga in 1924. His father and both of his grandfathers were prominent businessmen. Riga was the largest and fastest growing city in the Baltic area and entrepreneurial Jews were able to take advantage of the growing economy. He has happy memories of growing up in a two story Victorian villa and describes the furniture, rugs, the clothes, vacations, even the menus of the dinners. Most of all he remembers the feelings of safety, the certainty that persecution and pogroms were part of ancient Jewish history and that the twentieth century brought an end to old fears. In his ten years of schooling, however, the language of the schools he attended included German, Russian, Latvian and Hebrew. He claimed to have studied many languages without mastering any of them. He had Hebrew lessons when he was nine and had a bar mitzvah. His father went to synagogue on the High Holidays and Passover but religion was not central to their lives.

Jews, however, had been permitted to live in Riga for only a hundred years. Michelson experienced anti-Semitism as fights and name calling with kids but it was not taken seriously. Jews had limited social interaction in the general community and were not aware of how much they were perceived as outsiders and strangers. Michelson had no non-Jewish friends. Few Jews left Latvia when it was possible. It was difficult to part with property and assets they worked hard to acquire.

In 1940 the Red Army occupied Latvia. Family property and factories were expropriated. The factory, house and car were taken. Michelson's family moved to a small apartment and could no longer have servants. The family had survived World War I in Moscow but tried to survive World War II in Riga, thinking they would do better with the Germans than with the Russians. When the Red Army abandoned Riga to the Germans it was not possible. Only 1% of the Latvian Jews survived. Jews living in the countryside were executed in the early days of the German occupation, Michelson's mother among them.

He describes the Russian and German occupation as he and his family experienced them. It is a familiar tale of dehumanization and cruelty and he tells it in a straightforward, unemotional way, an engineer's report of events full of the facts as he remembered them, feelings kept at bay. His memory is extraordinary. He could not speak of his experiences for twenty-five years but is now a resource person for Facing History and Ourselves and is available to those who want to learn what happened and how and to whom.

He honors the lost members of his family and friends with brief sketches and photographs and also describes those who spent the war years in the Soviet Union and Western Europe. He candidly includes the details of times when he might have escaped but lacked the courage. He describes himself as a cautious man who sought stability and continuity, who is grateful for his long marriage, his grandchildren and the life he was able to make in the United States.
One can find in his story answers to questions the Holocaust still raises. How much trauma can a person live through and still have a good life? How does an "ordinary" person live through an "extraordinary" time?

Review from:

Bostonia Magazine Spring 2001 Number 1 issue, page 74.
Reprinted by permission

Max Michelson
(GRS '64,'70) City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga. (University Press of Colorado). Of the roughly 1,500 books on the Holocaust in Mugar Memorial Library, only three are specifically about the destruction of the Jews of Latvia. Michelson's book shows us one reason: it all happened so quickly, and there just weren't many people left to tell the story. Out of a prewar population of some 94,000, only about 5,000 survived even to 1943.

Michelson was born in 1924 into a Jewish family that was somewhere between irreligious and antireligious. Family members looked down on Yiddish and Yiddish speakers and looked up to the riches of German culture. (Michelson grew up speaking German.) The fact of their Jewishness came to the foreground for many of them only after July 1, 1941, when the Germans marched into Riga and gave Latvians the green light to attack Jews. The Nazis tightened the noose quickly, corralling the Jews into a tightly sealed ghetto, from which they could cull residents for "special actions" - mass killings by machine gun in the local woods. The last step was transportation to the concentration camps. Before the end of the year it was largely over. "By the time we realized what was happening," recalls Michelson, "it was too late." His parents and dozens of cousins and friends were among the tens of thousands of victims.

City of Life, City of Death is most valuable when Michelson tells the story not just of the liquidation of Latvia's Jews, but his own sharpening perception as a young man. His flashes of teenage understanding from sixty years ago are terrible in their lucidity. "The murderers loved their work," he realized, and later, "It was incredible that the Nazis might place less importance on the outcome of the war than on the extermination of the Jews. That, however, was exactly the case." - Michael B. Shavelson.

June 2000

I was privileged to read and review the book "History of Latvian Jews" by Josifs Steimanis. - Arlene Beare

Short Biography of the Author

Prof. Steimanis is Jewish, b. ca 1923 in Libau (now Liepaja) but grew up in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) He fled to the USSR in 1941, returned after the war, and has been history professor at Daugavpils Pedagogical University ever since. He has written some 20 books and over 100 articles. He is officially retired but continues to teach some classes, including Jewish history .

The review was printed in: AVOTAYNU, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. XV111,Number 1, Spring 2002.

History of Latvian Jews, by Josifs Steimanis

By Arlene Beare

The  English-language book on Latvian Jewish History, “The Jews in Latvia” (Bobe, 1971), has long been out of print. A recent book by Prof Steimanis, published in 1995 in Latvian and Russian versions of 400 copies each, has now appeared in English translation. The translation was done by Helena Belova, and extensively edited by Prof. Edward Anders, who also added two chapters and expanded or revised many sections.

I found the English easy to read and appreciated the excellent editorial footnotes. Other texts on the History of Russia (Latvia was part of the Russian Empire from the 18th century until 1918) may have numerous references to Jews in the Index but each reference has only a few lines and at best a paragraph.

The first quarter of the book ranges from the late Middle Ages to the end of World War I. Each of the three provinces is covered in a separate chapter, reflecting their initially separate political histories. The second quarter covers the First Latvian Republic (1918-1940), including the Ulmanis dictatorship (1934-1940). It also includes chapters on Jewish political parties, Cultural, Educational and Charitable organisations, Sports clubs, Newspapers and Scientists, Scholars and Artists. Of necessity, these chapters are not confined to independent Latvia, but extend back into the 19th century.

The third quarter deals with the First Soviet Occupation (1940/41), the German Occupation and the Holocaust (1941-1944/45), and the Second Soviet Occupation (1944/45-1991). The first two of these chapters have been considerably revised and expanded by the Editor.

The last quarter comprises a brief chapter on Jewish religious communities, Jewish mentality, and Jewish-Latvian relations, followed by two chapters that were not in the original book. An anonymous report, “The Jews of Latvia 1919-1940” was written in 1941/42 by one or more unidentified Latvian Jews in the USA for some Jewish organization (WJC?, AJDC?). It contains a wealth of statistical tables, along with a discussion of Latvian government policies toward Jews. Prof. Andrew Ezergailis, who was the first to discover this report in US State Department files, has provided some background and critical comments in Chapter 13. Readers are recommended to read Chapter 14 and then the discussion in Chapter 13.

Recurrent themes throughout the centuries and dealt with in the text are the struggles, under different regimes, for residence rights, economic rights, religious freedom, and education, and the struggles against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and deadly threats such as pogroms and the Holocaust. Slow progress alternated with small or large steps backward, caused by whims of rulers or conflicting interests of nobility, burghers, and tradesmen. The ups and downs of Latvian-Jewish relations are also covered. There will always be a difference of opinion depending on which group one belongs to but there is an even handed analysis of the political figures involved.

The Zionist movement started in Russia at the end of the 19th century and many Latvian Jews joined these movements. A number of them such as Rabbi Mordechai Nurok (leader of Mizrachi) emigrated to Israel and were active in the foundation of the State. There is a good analysis of the different parties and their policies and Betar, Mizrachi and Histadrut parties are mentioned.

The Karlis Ulmanis regime from 1934-1940 is discussed from different points of view, given that three different authors have their say in this book. Steimanis has a rather benign view of Ulmanis, and notes that at private festivities, Jews often toasted “the old man”, Ulmanis. But the anonymous authors of Chapter 14 are harshly critical, accusing the Ulmanis government of seeking the economic ruin of Jews. Ezergailis takes the middle ground, criticizing Ulmanis for his suppression of democracy and nationalization policies but defending him against charges of anti-Semitism.

Although there were anti-Semites in his party and government, Ulmanis himself was no anti-Semite. He outlawed Perkonkrusts,the major anti-Semitic organization in Latvia, and threw the leadership into jail. He banned the publication of anti-Semitic literature and allowed Latvia to be used as a transit country for Jews escaping from Nazi Europe. He placed the Jewish school system in the hands of his orthodox friend Mordechai Dubin (Chabad), a move that was greatly resented by liberal Jews, but financial support by the state continued undiminished. His nationalization policy, aimed at increasing the state’s role in the economy, had the greatest impact on Jews, who owned some 48% of all big businesses, but it was also aimed at German, Russian, and even some Latvian businesses.

The Holocaust chapter, as written by the author, himself a Latvian and a Jew, is very descriptive and moving. One cannot read about this period without a surge of emotions that embraces the wanton loss of life and regret for all those living, breathing human beings who were subjected to such inhumanity. The Latvian role in the Holocaust is discussed at length, from callous murderers who killed tens of thousands to hundreds of brave people who tried to save more than four hundred Jews, sometimes paying with their own lives for their good deeds.

Genealogists will find a wealth of Jewish names in the book and this will be of value to many who may find missing relatives mentioned. The book also answers many of the questions posed by Latvian-Jewish researchers about the early Jewish communities and their way of life. The rules of military service are among other interesting subjects that are discussed. Daugavpils, where the author grew up (he was born in Libau now Liepaja) is written about in detail and as Latgale is often neglected in other texts, he gives a great deal of useful and interesting information. The historical details of the secession of Latgale from Vitebsk Province to Latvia in 1918 are clearly elaborated in the text.

There is an extensive Bibliography of 110 references, many of them interesting, including some up to 2001. Most of the literature referred to is in Russian or Latvian, not in English. This has the advantage of including many obscure sources unknown in the West. Anders has also added an 8-page Index that was not in the original book.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to all who are interested in the history of the Jews of Latvia. There is a wealth of information that makes it not only a good and interesting read but also a reference book of value. Students of Russian history will find many interesting facts and historical details that are not found in the other Russian history books. The views expressed will of necessity generate discussion and dissension which  can also be useful for clarification.

(Columbia University Press-East European Monographs, New York, 2002 .220pp. Hard cover. ISBN is 0-88033-493-2.

Regular Price $38/£27 May be bought from Columbia Press at a discounted price.