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Forward

“The Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel have decided to publish a collection of essays dedicated to the memory of our martyrs who were exterminated in World War II and in this way, to show how much World Jewry and we ourselves lost by the annihilation of this community which numbered almost one hundred thousand souls.

“The essays should give a description of normal Jewish life in Latvia, the struggles of Latvian Jewry as a national unit, its cultural, social and economic existence including organizations, institutions, political parties, etc., from the beginnings of Latvian independence until the end came in the Ghettos.

“The essays should be written, as far as possible, by people who took part in public life, on subjects connected with their former communal or professional activities.

“As most local Jewish archives perished during the war, these essays will be of historical value for future generations and will, at the same time, serve as a fitting memorial to a Jewish community that has been almost entirely exterminated”.

The above passage is taken from a circular letter sent in connection with the publication of the Hebrew memorial volume on “Latvian Jewry”, and it also exactly defines the purpose of the present volume, namely – to perpetuate the memory of Latvian Jewry.

“Latvian Jewry” appeared in 1953 and contains a wealth of material on the political, cultural and economic life of the Jews of Latvia during Latvian independence, as well as the memories of surviving participants on the early days of public life before the establishment of the Latvian State.

Thanks to the Association's initiative, another work entitled: “Chapters in the History of Latvian Jewry” by M. Bobe was published in 1965. This dealt with the Jews residing in the territories which united as 20th century Latvia from the 16th century until the Declaration of Independence in 1918.

The above volumes give an almost complete account of Latvian Jewry. Since they are written in Hebrew, however, they cannot meet the requirements of those Latvian Jews – their number is not inconsiderable – who live

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outside Israel, particularly in the U.S.A., England and South Africa. These are unable, even if they so desire, to tell their children the history of their immediate ancestors in the country of their origin.

We have therefore decided to publish the present volume on “The Jews in Latvia” in English. We have tried to give a detailed historical account of public and cultural life, of various towns and communities, of people who made their mark in Latvia and abroad and, finally, a description of the annihilation of Latvian Jewry.

A detailed bibliography is included so that those interested can study the history in detail.

We hope that for Latvian Jewry and their offspring, dispersed in different countries of the Exile, the accounts in this book will bridge the gap in their knowledge of the past and will be received with appreciation.

We wish to thank all persons and institutions who gave us kind and attentive assistance in preparing this work.

Our deepest thanks and appreciation are expressed to those who participated in preparing the material, writing the articles, editing and publishing them.

Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel


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Introduction

by Dr. S. Levenberg

During my innumerable visits to Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora, I have encountered many Jews of Latvian origin. The majority of them, especially those of the younger generation, know little about their own background. The purpose of this volume is to describe the history of Latvian Jewry – a story of creativity, struggle, suffering and destruction during World War II. Let the remnant of a great community learn something about their ancestry. “And thou shall relate to thy son…”

Latvian Jewry consisted of various elements: The Jews of Kurland, Livonia and Latgale. Each of these groups had its own history. They became one unit after the establishment of the independent Latvian Republic (1918-1940). During the Nazi period, the community was almost totally wiped out. Only those who emigrated, escaped or were deported make up the handful who survived the Holocaust. It is their moral duty to preserve the cultural heritage of the historic community from which they sprang. Its chequered story, stretching over hundreds of years, has been vividly painted in this volume by Mendel Bobe, a veteran Zionist leader and author of the fascinating Hebrew book: “Chapters in the History of Latvian Jewry (1561-1918)” published in 1965.

Latvian Jewry always maintained its special characteristics. Influenced by German and Russian culture and its contacts with the majority of the population, it remained intensely Jewish in spirit and aspiration. When the idea of a Jewish National Renaissance was first voiced, it found an immediate echo among the Jews of Riga, Kurland and Latgale.

In the 80's of the last century, Hovevei Zion groups were formed in Riga, Libau, Dvinsk, Kreizburg and other cities. Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg (1817-1889), the religious leader of the Bausk Jewish community, played an outstanding part in spreading the idea of Jewish national revival. Two delegates from Latvia were present at the First Conference of the Hovevei Zion held in Kattowitz (1884).

Leib Shalit of Riga and S. Zaks of Dvinsk were delegates at the First Zionist Congress (1897). Soon afterwards, a group called “Zion” was established on the initiative of A.M. Teiz, a shoemaker by profession.

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Among its members, it had two personalities who played a leading part in the history of Latvian and World Zionism: Lazar Ettingen and Yoshua Tron, both of whom died in Israel. Another outstanding Jewish figure was Dr. Nissan Katznelson of Libau, a close collaborator of Theodore Herzl and a member of the First Russian Duma.

Latvian Jewry was represented at the Second Conference of Russian Zionists in Minsk (1902). The delegate from Mitau was Rabbi Mordechai Nurok who was, for a number of decades, an outstanding leader of the community, a Member of Parliament, a prominent figure in World Jewry and later in Israel's public life. He was a National Religious Party Knesset member, a member of the Government for a time and a candidate for the high office of President.

A delegation of Latvian Zionists took part in the famous Helsinki Conference (1906). It included Meir Berlin, a Jewish public figure from Riga.

After the collapse of the First Russian Revolution (1905) and the victory of the reactionary forces, Zionist activities became illegal but thanks to the ingenuity of a number of people, the work was carried on and younger elements joined the Movement.

The first Latvian Zionists were nationally-minded people who followed the religious way of life. Later on, some felt an affinity with “Mizrahi”, others were General Zionists. But gradually, social ideas began to play their part in the Movement.

In 1897, a Zionist Socialist Students' Circle was established in Riga. Dvinsk emerged as an important centre of the Poalei Zion. The party adopted a revolutionary programme. A few years later, in 1901, a group of Zeirei Zion was formed in the same city and laid stress on personal ties with the Yishuv in Palestine. In 1912, a similar group was formed in Riga. Its leaders were Zeev Levenberg who was a delegate at the 11th Zionist Congress (1913) and Yerahmiel Vinnik, who later became a leading journalist and a well-known figure in the Labour Zionist Movement. The former went on Aliya, the second died in a Siberian labour camp during World War II.

In spite of difficulties encountered from the Tsarist authorities and the hardships and deportations of World War I, Zionist work was never interrupted. It came to new life after the overthrow of the Imperial Regime, (March 1917), and especially with the establishment of the Independent Latvian Republic (November 1918). This new and glorious chapter in the history of Diaspora Zionism is described in the present

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volume by Itzhak Maor (Meirson), a highly respected leader of the Zionist Socialist Party, who is now one of the foremost intellectuals of the Kibbutz Movement. In addition, a picture of Jewish traditional and religious life is given in the special article written by Abraham Godin.

During this period, Latvia became an important centre of Jewish life, as depicted in this volume by the essays of the late Professor Mattatyahu Laserson, scholar, lawyer, journalist and parliamentarian who in due course became Professor at Columbia University; and Z. Michaeli (Michelson), a renowned Jewish educationalist both in Latvia and Israel, a leader of the “Zeirei Zion” and a founder-member of Hashahar – the Zionist Socialist Students' Organization. The Jewish part in Latvia's economic life is described by the late Professor Dr. B. Sieff, scholar and journalist who settled in Palestine and played an important part in the initial stages of the Tel-Aviv University.

Jews of Latvian origin made a notable contribution to Eretz Israel. Some of them left their mark on the old Yishuv, especially in Jerusalem; others settled in the country in pre-Herzl days. In 1891, a group of Jews from Riga were among the founders of Hedera. They faced great difficulties and suffered from many diseases. Some died at an early age but the remainder stood the test of pioneers. In 1901, a group of “Zeirei Zion” members from Dvinsk settled in Palestine.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was one of the outstanding personalities which the small Kurland city of Bausk gave to the Yishuv. He arrived in Jaffa during the summer of 1904 and later served as the Chief Rabbi of Ashkenazic Jewry in Eretz Israel (1919-1935).

Pioneers (halutzim) from Latvia made a vital contribution to the development of the kibbutz movement. The collective settlements which they helped to establish on sound foundations include: Afikim; Ashdot Yaakov; Kfar Blum; Kfar Giladi; Shfaim; Geva; Kvutzat Kinneret; Mishmarot; Ein Gev; Ein Harod; Genossar and Glil-Yam. Their members have distinguished themselves in various fields including the Hagana and the Israel Defence Forces.

Jews from Latvia also played an important part in setting up commercial and industrial undertakings and in the leadership of the Israel Manufacturers' Association (Zalman Susaieff, Marc Moshevitz). They have made a valuable contribution to Government service, municipal life and Israel's diplomacy.

The following is a partial list of outstanding Latvian Jews who have taken or are taking a leading part in the life of Israel:

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Members of the Knesset: Rabbi M. Nurok, Z. Susaieff, Dr. Ben-Zion Harel, Raphael Bash, Isser Harel, Zalman Shuval, Dov Milman, Benzion Keshet.

Judges: Leah Ogen, Eleazar Selikson, Boris Rapoport.

University Professors: Yeshayahu Leibovitz, Benjamin Akzin, Yehoshua Leibovitz.
Editors and Journalists: Arye Dissentchik, Shabbetai Daniel (Dan-Yahia), Elhanan Kramer.

Medical Services: Ephraim Sinai. Sport: Baruch Bag, Emmanual Gil.

According to incomplete statistical data of the Jewish Agency, 4547 Latvian Jews settled in Palestine during the years 1919-1941. Of these, 503 went on Aliya during 1920-1924; 2253 during 1925-1934; 1715 during 1935-1939; 76 during 1940-1941. It is important to bear in mind the difficulty of obtaining Immigration Certificates prior to the State of Israel.

A second centre of Jewish emigration from Latvia was the United States. 2207 left during the years 1923-1936. The number would have been far greater had it not been for the limited American immigration quota.

The Jewish population of Latvia, about 100,000 souls in all, took full advantage of the democratic regime established in 1918 and created a network of institutions which became a model for many other Jewish communities. The Zionists met with great opposition from the Labour “Bund” and the extreme orthodox “Agudat Israel” but became the leading force in the community. They established a wide network of Hebrew schools, cultural institutions, clubs, youth and student bodies as well as Yiddish newspapers and journals. The Zionists also took an active part in Parliamentary and municipal elections. An influential figure in Latvian Jewish life was the late Dr. Jacob Hellman – a dynamic Zionist figure, scholar, journalist and man of action, who made a deep impact on the Jewish community. While leader of the Labour wing in the Zionist Movement, he deeply influenced the general development of Jewish life. A well-known figure at international Jewish gatherings, he spent his final years in Poland as editor of the Yiddish daily “Unser Wort”and in Argentine where, as representative of the World Jewish Congress, he became an outstanding figure in South American Jewry.

There was close cooperation between Latvian Zionists in many fields, but there were also divisions on political and social issues.

The large majority of the General Zionists were supporters of Dr. Chaim Weizmann. One of their younger leaders was Boris Gurevitch (now Guriel) former Archivist of the Weizmann Institute.

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Riga was the cradle of the Revisionist Movement led by Dr. Jacob Hoffman who died in Israel. A lecture by Zeev Jabotinsky in the Russian language led to the formation of “Brit Trumpeldor”, the first offshoot of the new world movement (1923). Among its founders were Aaron Propes who has played a great part in the development of Israel's tourist industry; Arye Dissentchik, now editor of “Maariv”, Moshe Gold, later head of the “Betar” in Israel and Benjamin Eliav, now one of the leading Israeli Labour intellectuals – a journalist, scholar and expert on Soviet affairs.

In 1933, the last time Zionist Congress elections were held in Latvia, there were 22,536 shekel holders. A total of 19,474 voters elected 8 delegates: 3 Labour Zionists, 2 Revisionists, 2 General Zionists and 1 Mizrahi.

Each Jewish community in Latvia had its own special characteristics. The cultural back ground of those born in Riga, Kurland or Latgale was different in many ways. Even within the various Latvian regions, each city had something of its own and produced a special type of Jew. Some were closer to Russian culture, others to the German way of life. Some used the Latvian language, others did not. But the large majority of Latvian Jews understood Yiddish and many knew Hebrew. Some Jewish communities of Latvia are described in the accompanying pages by M. Amir (M. Bliach), a well-known public figure in Dvinsk, head of the Zionist Socialist Party, a noted journalist and lecturer and by Dr. Shaul Lipschitz – former Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Commerce and Industry – now a prominent businessman and Chairman of the Association of Jews from Latvia and Estonia.

For a number of years, Latvia served as an important transit centre for Aliya from the Soviet Union. It also had famous Hachshara (training) farms of its own for halutzim. Visits by Hayim Nahman Bialik, Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson, Hayy!im Arlosoroff, Zalman Shazar, Zeev Jabotinsky, Rabbi Meir Berlim (Bar-Ilan), Leib Jaffe and many other writers and personalities were memorable occasions.

The Fascist coup d'état in Latvia (May 1934) came as a serious blow to the Zionist Movement. All public activities came under strict supervision on the part of the Government. Zionist work, in a greatly restricted form, took on a semi-legal or illegal character. The following report from the “Zeirei Zion – Z.S.” to the XIXth Zionist Congress gives a picture of the situation.

“The recent revolution deprived the party of all its fruitful work in the past and rendered all further activity impossible. During the first few weeks of the revolution, many leading members of the party
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were arrested, which ruined the whole organization. About 30 members were taken to concentration camps and detained for six months and were released on condition that they left for Palestine. All the members who occupied positions as teachers, even those in Jewish autonomous schools or as employees of the Sick Fund, have been dismissed from their posts without any reason being given, without getting any compensation and without having any prospects of employment elsewhere. The material position of those members is therefore very precarious and there is no solution for them except to immigrate to Palestine. The only domain of activity left to the members of the party, though in a restricted form, is the training of halutzim and all that directly relates to emigration to Palestine”.
The General Zionists tried to carry on their activities but encountered great difficulties. In 1934, Professor S. Brodetsky, a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, came from London and interceded with the authorities but the practical results were small.

Latvian Jews played an important part in the history of the general Labour Movement. Dr. Robert Feinberg of Mitau took part in the German revolution of 1848. He was deported and sent to Siberia where he died in 1860. In the year 1889, Jewish radical circles engaged in illegal activities that already existed in Riga and Dvinsk. Jewish revolutionaries took part in the organization of various strikes and celebrations of May Day “Labour Festival”. At the beginning of the present century, Latvia became an important centre of the “Bund” whose members took an active part in preparing the first Russian Revolution (1905).

A number of Jewish revolutionaries from Latvia made a name for themselves in various fields. Among them were Abraham Braun (“Sergei”), Raphael Abramovitch – a leader of both the “Bund” and the Russian Social Democratic party, Dr. Itzhak Nahman Steinberg – a leader of the Social Revolutionary Party and “Commissar of Justice” in the first Lenin Government (1917-18), W. Latzky-Bertholdy – a leader of the Zionist Socialists (S.S.) and Volks-Partei in Russia and later a prominent figure in both Latvian and World Jewry (he died in Palestine). A number of leaders of the American Jewish Labour Movement were also of Latvian origin.

The “Bund” had deep roots in Latvia especially in Latgale. After 1918, the Party developed an intensive activity in many fields. It had a representative in the Parliament – Dr. Noah Maisel – and a number of members in the municipalities; it was also active in the Trade Union Movement. It helped and fostered a number of Yiddish schools and cultural institutions,

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including the Riga “Peretz Club”. The “Bund” fought against the Zionist Movement and the Hebrew education system.

There were other non-Zionist groups. Among them were the National Democratic Party led by Jacob Landau, head of the Jewish Department in the Ministry of Education; L. Fishman, a member of the Constituent Assembly; and Professor P. Mintz. Its programme was similar to that of the “American Jewish Committee” and the “Anglo-Jewish Association”.

The strongest anti-Zionist force in Latvia was “Agudat Israel” led by Mordechai Dubin and Shimon Wittenberg. Both were members of Parliament. Dubin, who died in the Soviet Union, was immensely popular because of his readiness to help people irrespective of party and his close contacts in Government circles. Right-wing in his political views, his great influence was due not to his ideology but to his warm Jewish heart, Hassidic upbringing and care of individual Jews who were in constant need of help. These qualities made Dubin into a unique personality in Latvian Jewry and a powerful opponent during Parliamentary elections when the Jewish voter had to choose between the “Shtadlan” (intercessor) and the various political leaders. After the Ulmanis coup d'état and the victory of reactionary forces (May 1934), Dubin's influence increased, to the great disadvantage of the Jewish illegal Socialist parties and the General Zionist groups. This was a period of decline in Jewish public life, the beginning of the tragedy which reached its climax with the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet occupation and the Nazi invasion.

The extermination of Latvian Jewry is described in this book by Max Kaufman, one of the few survivors and author of “Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands” (Munchen 1947) and who now resides in the U.S.A.

The fate of Latvian Jewry is clearly illustrated by one figure mentioned in Gerald Reitlinger's authoritative study “The Final Solution” (London 1968). He states that at the very least, 24,000 Jews from Riga were murdered. He adds that after the mass extermination on November 30th 1941 and December 8th, 1941, only 4,500 men and 300 women remained from the Riga Jewish community. Most of them did not live to see the Day of Liberation. Latvian Fascists played a leading part in the murder campaign against the Jewish population. One of the victims was Simon Dubnow, the famous Jewish historian.

According to the census of 1935, there were 93,479 Jews in Latvia or 4.7% of the total population. During the subsequent five years, their number declined on account of emigration and low natural increase. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews were deported to the Soviet Union during the Plebiscite

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of July 14-21, 1940 sponsored by the Communist authorities and some Jews fled to Russia prior to the Nazi invasion on June 22nd, 1941.

Some of the Latvian Jews in the Soviet Union perished during the war, others survived in the Asian Republics to which they were deported and in other parts of the U.S.S.R. A few of the remnant found their way back to Latvia after the defeat of Germany.

Of those who survived the Nazi occupation and the various concentration camps – their number was small – some managed to reach Eretz Israel. Others now reside in many parts of the world.

A new phenomenon is those Jews from Latvia who in recent years have managed to obtain exit visas for Israel. Among those Jews who have raised their voices in the Soviet Union, demanding the right of emigration to their homeland, the voices of Riga speak the language of faith and heroism. These men of courage continue the great tradition of Latvian Jewry.

London, October 1970

 

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