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Four Hundred Years of the Jews in Latvia
(A Historical Survey)

Mendel Bobe

First evidence of Jews in Latvia may be found in the ledger of a merchant from Riga in the year 1536 who recorded: “From the Jew Jacob, received for sale and also sold to him…” Their end came with the transfer of the remains of the Kaiser Wald Concentration Camp to Germany in 1944. Hence the reckoning of four hundred years.

The districts of which Latvia consisted are referred to below by the names in use from the days of the Teutonic-Livonian Order in the 16th century to the times of Tsarist Russia and the establishment of independent Latvia in 1918.

  1. Livonia with the regions of Riga, walk, Wenden and Wolmar constituting part of the Tsarist Russian province of Liflandia. Under Latvia, the district was known as Vidzeme.
  2. Kurland, corresponding entirely to the Kurlandia province of the Russian regime and divided into Kurseme and Zemgale under Latvia.
  3. Latgale, with the districts of Lucin, Rezekne and Dvinsk of the Tsarist Russian province of Vitebsk. The name Latgale was also in use during Latvian independence.
  4. these three districts had been settled in early days by tribes which developed into the Latvian nation. Historical developments brought the country under the rule of various peoples, different civilizations left their imprint on the local population and, as a result, the country was divided into the districts mentioned each with its own history. In the course of the present survey, we shall refer to historical events which affected on or another region more particularly.

Each district had its own history and correspondingly, the attitude to Jewish settlement was also not uniform. In accordance with the legal position in most districts, as we shall see, the Jews were regarded as undesired aliens and the prohibitions and restrictions applied to them were, as a rule, similar to those imposed on the Jews of Western Europe before the Emancipation. Some of these laws and regulations were in fact copied from Western patterns, but in each district, the developments varied according to local conditions. To know the course of Jewish settlement in Latvia, it must be studied separately for each district; and accordingly, Jewish history

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in Latvia should be divided into three periods:

  1. The period of Poland, Sweden and the Duchy of Kurland
  2. The period of Tsarist Russia and
  3. The period of Latvian independence.


I. Poland, Sweden and the Duchy Of Kurland

  1. The legal status of the Jews
  2. Livonia – Riga
  3. Kurland
    1. The district of Pilten
    2. The Duchy of Kurland
    3. Tax-farming
    4. Expulsions and fines
    5. Fixed payments for residence permits
    6. The persecutions of 1760 and the end of the Duchy of Kurland.


Legal Status of the Jews

Before Jews made their way into Latvia, the entire country was under the rule of German Christian Knightly Orders. First the Order of the Knights of the Sword (“Schwertritter”), later the Teutonic Order known in the Baltic countries as the Livonian Order. The Orders imposed a total ban on the presence of Jews in their territories, with a few rare exceptions. The situation changed in 1561, however, when the rule of the Orders came to an end and the country was taken over by Poland – Livonia and Latgale directly, and Kurland as an independent duchy, with Gotthard Kettler, last Grand Master of the Livonian Order, as first Duke.

Once the rule of Poland commenced, Jews began to enter Latvia. In Polish Lithuania, on the southern borders of Kurland, there had actually been a considerable Jewish population ever since the 13th century. However, the instrument by which the Order submitted to Poland contained the provision that it should be forbidden to Jews in Livonia to engage in commerce or act as tax and excise farmers. The local authorities interpreted this to mean that Jews were not permitted to live in the country at all. Hence their initial presence was at best illicit. Jews entering the territory were regarded as aliens without rights of residence and the cities and nobles exploited the situation by levying all kinds of imposts, fines, licence fees and the like even when they had special entry permits in orders to visit fairs, accompany goods in transit, etc.

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This legal situation lasted for hundreds of years continuing under the rule of Sweden which held Livonia for nearly a hundred years. Even after the country was taken over by Russia, the legal situation was not regularised simultaneously or in all places. Nor were the taxes and imposts levied in a uniform fashion. Some old ones were abolished and new were introduced, all according to the current attitude towards the Jews who situation, and the measure of injustice with which they were treated, remained constant.


Livonia – Riga

The focus of attraction for the Jews was always the port city of Riga which handled most of the regional export trade with its large area and numerous populations. It was the seat of the Grand Master of the Livonian Order and the Russian provincial governor hundreds of years later. In due course it was to become the capital of independent Latvia. The Jewish population in the rest of Livonia always remained small and insignificant.

The Jews of Riga experienced long generations of oppression and suffering. The German burghers, who administered the city for hundreds of years and were always the dominant element, exploited the Jews without restraint though they were well aware of the important part that they played in the city's development. Indeed, they did all they could not to recognize even the most elementary rights of the local Jewish population. As late as 1903, when the Russians proposed to include Riga in the Pale of Settlement where Jews were free to reside, trade, work and move from place to place, the German citizens protested and Riga stayed outside the Pale. It is enough to remark that while the Jews appeared in the second half of the 16th century, the Jewish community of Riga was not granted legal status until 1842, when the number of Jews registered as enjoying the right of domicile was no more than 409 in all. In 1913, on the eve of World War I, some seventy years later, their total number was more than 33,000.

the conditions, under which the Jews who came to Riga had to live, are shown by the following taxes and restrictions to which they were subjected:

A. Every Jew arriving in Riga had to pay a Convoy Tax (Geleit) of one guilder for the right to trade within the city limits. In official documents in the 1611, the tax mentioned as having been levied since time immemorial, meaning that it must have been in force for a great many years. The charge originated from the protection (Geleit) provided during the 12th and 13th centuries to groups of merchants or individuals as pro

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tection against brigands in certain parts of Germany. When conditions changed and the convoy or “Geleit” was no longer necessary, the fee levied for it was converted into a frontier due payable to the local ruler when passing from one region to another. For Jews, who were regarded as aliens, the fee remained in force as a permanent impost under the name of “Geleitzoll” or “Judengeleit”. Regions under German or associated rule, like the territory held by the Livonian Order, adopted the custom. This charge continued to be levied in Riga under Poland (1581-1621) and Sweden (1621-1710). When the Russians entered Riga in 1710 they found it still in force. In 1723, Jewish merchants from Poland complained that it had been raised from one guilder to three thaler – two for the mayor and one for the town beadle. This complaint, like many others, had no effect. When the provincial Governor inquired about its legal basis, the Civic Council replied that it was an ancient municipal privilege and formed part of the salaries of the mayor and civic functionaries. The Jews, the Council explained, were wont to resort to all manner of pretexts to avoid paying the tax, whose purpose was that “these people, notorious for their rapacity, who are of no benefit to the community but, on the contrary, are harmful to commerce, shall not be desirous to make their way into this place or settle therein”. The charge, levied by the City Council with no statutory basis, purely customary and never approved by higher authority, remained in force until 1766, when Catherine the Second abolished it as an illegal tax.

B. In 1621, Riga was taken by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus. The Swedes of the 17th century did not allow Jews to set foot in their country. Nevertheless, the share of the Jews in Riga's commerce increased markedly under their rule and so, accordingly, did the number of Jews arriving and departing. No particular friction between the Jews and the civic authorities seems to be noted under the Swedes. Not inconceivably, the absence of complaints was an outcome of the very considerable economic prosperity of the period in which the Jews played a major part. For all that, under the Swedes, a “Juden-Herberge” or “Jews' Shelter” was established for the first time as the only place where Jews were permitted to lodge while staying in the city. The date when this institution, which was run by non-Jews, was actually founded, is not known. It is mentioned in documents from 1666 onwards, and we have the regulations for its management. From these, we learn that the purpose of the Inn's establishment was to tighten control for the prevention of customs evasion, particularly the excise on the manufacture of brandy which was largely in Jewish hands, and to ensure that the Jews did not trade with “aliens” but

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only with local residents. The rate for lodging was ten marks (shillings) a week/person, and 3 groshen a night for a horse. Complaints of poor accommodation at the Inn were of no avail, and requests by merchants for permission to stay elsewhere were not granted. There were cases of riotous behaviour on the part of the “Judenwirt” (Jews' host). On one occasion, the City Council decided to reprimand him and in another case, when he had beaten a Jewish lodger, he was sentenced to eight days in jail or a fine of ten thaler. In 1685, the Inn was moved to another more suitable place. The degree to which conditions had improved may be judged by the fact that the Council itself passed a rule against lodging more than 2 persons in one room. In 1689 the rates were raised. In the same year, the Judenwirt petitioned the Council to compel any Jew who came to the city to stay at the Jews' Shelter or else come to terms with him. This was aimed at Jews who came to Riga by raft along the river Dvina. These rafts were extremely important for the city's trade. They were mostly constructed of timber, destined for export and were loaded with goods from Poland and the inland provinces of Russia. This trade was mostly in the hands of Jews who were accustomed to sleep on board to guard their merchandise. The Council did not grant the Judenwirt's petition, for the privilege permitting the Jews to stay with their merchandise had been confirmed by the king of Sweden (1690). During the “Northern War” the Shelter was destroyed (in 1700 or 1701). For the next 20 years, there were no special lodgings for Jews in Riga. Incidentally, an application made by a Jew for permission to open a hostel for Jews was rejected on the grounds that he would not be strict enough in observing Customs Regulations.

Riga came under Russian rule in 1710. The city's articles of capitulation stipulated that all its privileges were to remain in force, which meant that all restrictions applying to Jews remained unchanged. Following repeated applications by the Merchants' and Artisans' Guilds, which waged unceasing war against Jewish penetration for fear of commercial competition, a non-Jewish resident was licenced in 1724 for 50 years, to establish and run a hostelry for Jews. The Regulations were similar to those of 1666 but, the tariff was far higher than it had been, and a special fee was charged for storing barrels of brandy. Moreover, a payment of half a guilder a week was imposed on Jews arriving on rafts even if they did not lodge at the Hostel. The reason for the introduction of the new payment was that the privilege granted under the Swedes had expired. In the course

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of time, however, the payment was remitted for those who could find no place at the hostelry.

The situation remained unchanged until 1742 when the Jews were expelled from the entire Russian Empire by order of the Empress Elizabeth. The city fathers made great efforts to ensure that Riga should not be included in the decree, thereby revealing the hypocrisy of their constant complaints about the “damage” done by the Jews to the Christian population. But in vain: Riga and Livonia were emptied of Jews.

Not until 1764 were a few Jews – three in number – permitted to live in Riga by order of the Empress Catherine the Second, so as to 'organize' Jewish migration to Southern Russia. The 'New Russia” where they were to help develop commerce, agriculture and crafts. Migration to Southern Russia soon became a convenient excuse under which Jews began to travel to and from Riga. The City Council took an unfavourable view of Jewish visitors and protested. When the Provincial Governor asked for instructions with regard to the Council's complaint, the ruling was received from higher authority that no obstacle should be placed in the way of the new arrivals, but their stay in the city should not exceed six weeks. Since Jews were thus allowed to stay in Riga, on the other hand, the city was entitled not to permit them to take up permanent residence; the question of the Jews' Shelter came up again. It was re-established in 1764 in the Johanispforte suburb. The rates were approved by the council together with the “three merchants from New Russia”, referred to above; and all Jews were ordered to move to the shelter within eight days. By January 1765, the “three merchants” had received permission to dwell outside the Shelter with their families, assistants, clerks and servants: 36 persons in all. These were the first nucleus of “Schutzjuden” (protected Jews) in contrast to all the others who were regarded as aliens – allowed only to live at the Shelter and required to limit their stay in the city to six weeks.

In 1785, an order was issued under which settlement in the region adjoining the Baltic Coast, including the towns of Shlok, Dubeln, etc., was also permitted to persons coming from abroad “without distinction of race or religion”. Since the region was only fifteen miles or so from Riga, this order provided a measure of relief for the Jews of Riga, nearly all of whom registered in the town of Shlok and in dealing with the authorities, styled themselves “the community of Jews of Shlok dwelling in Riga”.

Thus, notwithstanding all restrictions and prohibitions, the number of Jews who came to Riga grew steadily as the result of several factors: the opportunity of establishing residence in Shlok; the gradual extension of per-

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mission for foreigners to stay in Riga for more than a few days; and in due course, the War of 1811, which prevented a number of merchants from leaving the city and led to the opening of two new Shelters in 1813, when it was laid down that the persons in charge had to be chosen from the “Schutzjuden”. This was despite the objections of the City Council which demanded that the revenue from this source should go to citizens. The regulations provided that a tariff was to be established for lodging, board, stabling of horses and vehicles. In 1822, new regulations for the stay of Jews in the city were issued and the number of Shelters was increased to five: One for traders in the city; two in the Moscow suburb and two across the River Dvina. The hostelries only came to an end around the time when the Jews of Riga were allowed to set up an official community in 1842.

From the time a Jewish community was established in Riga, information is available about customary Jewish institutions such as membership fees for the Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society) and contributions to the synagogue. The first meeting of the Hevra Kadisha took place in 1756. Membership fees ranged from half a thaler to five thalers and the fine for failure to observe the Society's Regulations was 5 thalers. Regulations issued by the City Council of Riga in 1783 on the duties of the “Elder” of the community and synagogue arrangements; show that a fee of five farthings was charged for the use of the ethrog (citron) during the Sukkot Festival. The synagogue also derived an income from the sale of wine for Kiddush and of aliyot (the rights of “ascending” to the reading of the Torah).



As a result of historical developments, Kurland consisted of two separate political entities. This division also exerted a certain effect on the settlement and treatment of Jews in the region. The Livonian Order distributed its lands among the bishops and knights who became vassals of the Order. The ties between the Order and its vassals were actually rather loose and each vassal soon came to regard himself as an independent ruler and his estate as hereditary. That land is a national asset which cannot be transferred to foreign elements was a conception that played no part in the thinking of the rulers of those days; and so it came about that the Bishop of Kurland, who held the province of Piltzen, including the districts of Grobin and Hasenpoth and part of the district of Indau, decided because of the precarious condition of the Order, to sell his estate to the King of Denmark while there was still time. The sale was affected in 1559.

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King Ferdinand of Denmark presented Pilten to his brother, Duke Magnus of Holstein. Without recapitulating all the complications which arose from this situation, it is enough to note that after almost 26 years of dispute and occasional fighting between Duke Magnus, the local nobles, Duke Gotthard Kettler of Kurland and the King of Poland, the province was sold to Poland in 1585. The outcome was that while Kurland was an independent Duchy under the protection of Poland, Pilten was a kind of enclave under the direct rule of the King of Poland. This state of affairs had its effect on local laws and practice regarding the Jews. Even before the district was sold to Denmark, the Bishop of Pilten had seen fit to improve the condition of his estate by allowing wealthy Jews to settle and contribute to the region's economic development. To the no small benefit of the episcopal purse, as the historian Wunderbar hints.

Since Pilten lies near the sea, it is believed that Jewish merchants also settled there from Prussia since it was generally held that people could live there undisturbed, buy property and acquire citizenship. All this was possible because of the peculiar status of the province which was not under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Kurland and so not subject to the prohibition of 1561 against the entry of Jews agreed to by Poland. It is therefore necessary to consider the development of taxes and imposts separately for the two regions: Pilten, where the treatment of the Jews was determined by the Polish Sejm and the Duchy of Kurland, which was ruled by the duke and the local nobility.


a. The Province of Pilten

Nothing is known about special taxes or imposts on the local Jews before the year 1717. It is possible that the close connection between the duke and the Pilten nobility resulting from the “Treaty of Union” which they signed in 1635 affected the situation of the Jews of Pilten adversely, for from that year, the discriminatory laws and imposts in the two regions ran somewhat parallel. In 1717, a charge of 2 thalers a year was imposed on every resident and was doubled in 1719. Between 1727 and 1738, four decrees of expulsion were issued against the Jews of Pilten: In 1727, 1730, 1731 and 1738. As a result, part of the Jews left, others remained or some returned, otherwise there would have been no need for new decrees. In 1750, the Polish Sejm decided to grant residence rights to Jews in the region against payment of 1000 Albert florins or about 330 thaler which is comparable with the 400 thaler demanded in or before 1719 from the Jews of Kurland. The collection of the payment was entrusted to guarantors.

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Upon demand by the latter, the Jews would come to the district capital Hasenpoth for individual assessment. The levy was subsequently divided by parishes and according to the number of Jews in each parish. The guarantors were also given the right to collect the convoy tax from the Jews of Mitau, who resided in the Duchy of Kurland, just as the Jews of Pilten had to pay convoy tax when they came to Mitau. In 1733, the annual levy was set at 400 thaler. In addition, merchants were required to pay 40 thaler cash, quarterly, to the municipal treasury (apparently in Hasenpoth).

A Sejm decree of 1783 ordered: “the preservation of the civic and general rights of the Jews since they pay all taxes in accordance with the law”. The Jews of Hasenpoth were permitted to build a synagogue and establish a community. When the region was annexed by Russia in 1795, the Jews of Pilten retained the right to register as merchants in the guild of Hasenpoth and to vote – but not to stand – for municipal office. In 1817, administrative practice in Pilten was brought in line with the remainder of Kurland and, thereafter, the rights of the Jews in Pilten and Kurland were identical.


b. The Duchy of Kurland

In the Duchy of Kurland, the attitude to the Jews was one of open hostility, insult and contempt for aliens who had made their way into the country against the wishes of the local owners. Here and there, a measure of tolerance could be felt. This was not uniform but dictated by class interests. The townsfolk, merchants and artisans regarded the Jews as competitors even when their numbers were small. The aristocracy, as we shall see, were interested in their presence. This interest was primarily one of commercial relations: The Jews acted as agents (“Hofjuden”) selling agricultural produce of the landowners and importing commodities that were not manufactured locally. The gentry also derived an income from fees for residence permits, fines, etc., paid by the Jews.

The burghers, noblemen and bishops were all represented in the Diet (Landtag), a parliamentary body whose decrees required ducal ratification. The duke himself did not refrain from exploiting the Jews and profiting from their presence, and when in financial straits, sometimes even farmed out the state resources to them.


c. Tax-Farming

In 1652, for instance, when the ducal exchequer was in a precarious

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Situation, Jews were allowed to lease the collection of taxes and rents for several years. The nobility was opposed to the duke's transaction and that year's Diet passed a resolution to the effect that “eight days after the coming Easter, the right of the Jews to collect Customs duties shall expire and, henceforward and forever, they shall not be entitled to lease the collection of Customs and rents in this land or to engage in any commerce whatsoever…”. The Resolution was not implemented. The duke was neither able nor willing to dispossess the Jews of their rights in this transaction; but the moral harm caused was considerable and, similar Resolutions were passed by the Diets of 1698 and 1699. Nevertheless, the Jews in the villages engaged in peddling, leased inns and brandy distilleries and acted as brokers. In the capital Mitau, they lived in a special quarter – the “Judengasse” or “Jews' Lane”. In 1710, they were allowed to buy a plot of land for a cemetery.


d. Expulsions and Fines

In 1713, the duke issued an Order to expel the Jews from Mitau and elsewhere. This seems to have been possible in Mitau but in the villages and at the courts of noblemen, it proved difficult because it was by no means easy to locate them and also because the landowners gave them shelter. At the end of the year, the Order was therefore followed by another, imposing a fine of one thaler per day on those Jews who had not left the country.

In 1714, the Order was repeated in such a form as to leave no doubt of the intention of converting the fine into a permanent source of revenue. The wording of the order was: “…Notwithstanding, the instructions in respect of their expulsion by reason of their activities which cause harm to the towns and villages, the Jews continue to be present in the country contrary to the law. Steps shall therefore be taken to assure that all Jews leave within six weeks from this day and, if any Jew be found within the borders of the Duchy after that date, he shall be imprisoned and be released only upon payment of one thaler for each day… Likewise, this amount shall be levied upon all those who are present in the Duchy from the beginning of this year. Payment on behalf of those who have left shall be made by the Jews who remain – the sum of one thaler a day shall be collected immediately, before the expiry of the term of six weeks…”.

The fact that the fine was to be levied retroactively and the joint responsibility for those who left without paying, clearly show that the real purpose of the Order was the revenue to be obtained from the fines.

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In the opinion of the historian Wunderbar, neither the expulsion nor the collection of the fine was strictly observed. Insofar as the fine was paid, it was regarded as payment for permission to remain.


e. Fixed Payments for Residence Permits.

A fixed payment of 400 thalers is first mentioned in a decree of the Diet of 1719 even though the wording encourages the conclusion that the decree merely repeats an earlier one: “Jews shall be entitled to stay against a payment of 400 thalers. Since the amount has not been paid, local officials shall be required to secure its payment… collecting officials shall be accompanied by a Jew competent to determine who can pay and how much”. This payment of 400 thalers a year, known as “Schutgeld” (protection money), went to the landowners and continued to be paid for twenty years until 1739.

Most of the Diets between 1719 and 1735 dealt with the Jews and the annual payment of the 400 thaler. At first, it may be assumed that the communities assumed the obligation of payment in succession but payments were belated and only partial. Cases are known of rabbis appealing to community members who were in arrears to pay in time so as to avert the danger of expulsion from their brethren.

The delay in payment resulted in the accumulation of a debt amounting to no less than 2000 thaler. In 1732 the sworn assessors Abraham Joel and Leiser Salomon were appointed from among the Jews and charged with determining the amount payable by each individual. The order provided that any Jew who could not produce a tax receipt would be fined 10 thaler, and if the receipt was not forthcoming within 28 weeks, after publication of the order, his property would be confiscated for the benefit of the nobleman on whose lands he would be apprehended. The assessors were exempt from payment and received 10 thaler each. Any nobleman who concealed a Jew and caused non–payment of the fee would be liable to a fine of 500 thaler.

The system of appointing assessors from among the Jews themselves did not always yield the envisaged results. Jews failed to pay because they were unwilling or unable to do so and there were cases in which assessors were charged with defalcations while some of them requested to be released from their onerous duties.

In 1730 the Diet passed a decree confirming earlier enactments requiring Jews to leave but at the same time providing that all those who were craftsmen, distillers of brandy or the like, who did not harm the local

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population, were allowed to stay. Likewise, those who came for purposes of trade would be permitted to enter though not to take up permanent residence. The decree permitted Jews who exercised a trade to stay permanently and it is also thought that they were not required to pay their share of the 400 thaler fee. This resulted in an unusual “increase” in the number of Jews engaged in the trades concerned which in turn caused the Diet of 1733 to decree that, contrary to ancient laws and the decree of earlier Diets, this Diet was unanimously resolved in ridding the country of all Jews including goldsmiths, artisans, tradesmen, brandy distillers and others; and this time, not by announcements but by actions in which the nobles would also cooperate. However, working out ways and means of implementation would have meant extending the Diet session so the matter was postponed until the next session in order that the Jews would have an opportunity of preparing and collecting what was owed to them. Here was an ambiguous attitude to the Jews. On the one hand there was the desire to get rid of them and on the other, the realization of the advantages they presented; a conflict of interest between the burghers who wished to be free of competitors and the nobles who derived revenue from them and found them so useful as brokers that they sometimes helped Jews to obtain documents enabling them to transfer goods abroad so as to exempt them from Customs duties. The result was the postponement of a final solution from one session to the next. One has the impression that some of the expulsion decrees were passed only to appease the townspeople who wished to be rid of the Jews at all costs.

The Residence Permits seem to have ceased on account of the absence of the ruling duke: for Duke Biron who was connected with the Russian government had been arrested and sent to Siberia and Kurland remained to all intents without any duke until 1758.


f. The Persecutions of 1760 and the End of the Duchy of Kurland.

Decrees of expulsion were, as we have seen, issued in 1727,1733,1739,1740 and 1754. Some of these were not carried out at all, others only in part. A change for the worse occurred with the decree issued in 1760 by Duke Charles, son of King of Poland, on whom the Duchy was conferred to while Duke Biron was in exile in Siberia. Under this decree, all Jews were required to leave Kurland within six weeks. Those found in the country contrary to the law were to be whipped and expelled from the towns. All those who claimed that they were strangers and had come only for trade, were required to register with the mayor and obtain a licence for

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a limited number of days according to the nature of their business. Residents of Pilten coming on the business of noblemen in their district had to pay a “sechser” (about 30–40 farthings) and were also confined to special lodgings. The authorities were very strict in carrying out this order and many Jews undoubtedly had to leave the country.

The situation improved when Duke Biron returned in 1792 and ousted Duke Charles with the aid of the Russians. Under his son, Duke Peter, the Jews were able to live unmolested. During the final years of the Duchy's existence, several solutions were proposed for the Jewish problem. The Jews of Mitau themselves suggested that the number of Jews be reduced in accordance with the absorptive capacity of each separate place. If this proposal had been adopted, recently arrived Jews would presumably have been the main sufferers. The proposal of the Mitau Jews was referred to a Commission which in turn suggested the grant of residence permits to Jews against payment of protection fees to the amount of 2 thaler per person for adults and 1 thaler per child. The proposal was not discussed at the last Diet and, in 1795, the Duchy ceased to exist as a result of the Third partition of Poland.


II. The Tsarist Epoch

  1. The official Russian attitude towards the Jews.
  2. The Jews of Riga and Kurland outside the “Pale of Settlement”.
  3. The Jewish share in Baltic Commerce and Industry.
  4. Jewish Citizenship in Riga and Kurland.
  5. Movement from the Pale of Settlement to Riga and Kurland.
  6. Double Taxation of the Jews.
  7. The Meat Tax (Korobka) in Riga.
  8. The Riga Jews offer to increase the Meat Tax for the upkeep of Schools.
  9. The law abolishing the Kehillot (semi–autonomous Jewish Communities).
  10. End of the 19th and 20th centuries.
  11. Latgale.
  12. The First World War. The Expulsion from Kurland; the German Occupation of Latvia; the Russian Revolution.
Note: the term “Pale of Settlement” is frequently used in this volume. It was the name used for those provinces in Western Russia, the Ukraine.

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White Russia, Lithuania and Russian Poland in which Jews were permitted rights of domicile, employment and trade, namely:

Vilna, Kovno, Grodno, Minsk, Vitebsk, Mohilev, Volhynia, Podolia, Kiev (not including the city of Kiev), Chernigov, Poltava, Bessarabia, Kherson (not including the city of Nikolaiev), Yekaterinoslav, Tauris (Crimea), Warsaw, Kalish, Kielce, Lomza, Lublin, Piotrokov, Plotsk, Radom, Suwalki, Siedlce.

The residence of Jews was prohibited outside these provinces apart from certain exceptions which were the subject of special legislation.

The Pale of Settlement comprehended 4% of the territory of Russia and contained 94% of the Jewish population.


The Official Russian Attitude towards the Jews

The Russian epoch does not commence from any specific date that marked a change in Government. In actual fact, Latvia came under Russian rule in several stages. Thus, Riga was taken over in 1710; Latgale in 1772 and Kurland in 1795. Hence the term “Russian” is used rather to mark a period of special laws applying to all the Jews under Russian rule, and, apart from certain exceptional provisions described below, to the Latvian Districts as well.

It is true that the previous section dealing with the Jews of Riga refers to the refusal of right of domicile – the special “Hostels” of the Jews, etc., under Russian rule as well as earlier. This, however, was a survival from the Swedish regime. The Russians did not intervene in what was regarded as the exclusive concern of the City of Riga.

The relations between Russia and its Jewish population and the course taken by anti–Semitism within the Russian Empire where most of the Jews of the world were concentrated during the 19th Century, have a long history of their own and this is not the place to deal with it. However, certain facts should be mentioned. The dominant Russian Orthodox (Pravoslav) Church, like other, was not prepared to tolerate any other religion within the boundaries of Russia. Only thanks to the support of Peter the Great (1689–1725) were Protestants permitted to conduct religious services and ceremonies. The Jews suffered from a particularly restrictive attitude on account of the repeated emergence of certain heretical Old–Testament and Judaizing sects within Russia proper, which the official Church regarded as endangering its own existence. The influence of the Church on the benighted and ignorant population as a whole, was overwhelming and the reiterated sermons about “the Enemies of Jesus”

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Was one of the main reasons for those anti–Semitic excesses which took place in the course of several centuries. Thus, in 1563, Ivan the Terrible ordered that the Jews residing in the city of Polotzk which he had captured were to be drowned in the River Dvina. In the Peace Treaty concluded between Poland and Russia in 1686, it was stipulated that Jewish subjects of Poland were prohibited from entering Moscow. In 1742, the Empress Elizabeth issued an Order of expulsion against all Jews in Russia except those prepared to adopt Christianity. When the city of Riga submitted that consideration should be given to the losses that would ensue for the merchants of the city through that expulsion, the Empress wrote with her own hand: “I do not wish to obtain any benefit or profit from the enemies of Jesus Christ”.

Russia was brought face to face with the full dimensions of the Jewish problem after the Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795 when close to a million Jews came under its rule and extermination or expulsion could not be engaged. The method adopted by the authorities was to reduce the Jews to the level of second–class citizens and make use of discriminatory legislation in order to degrade them and diminish their possibilities of making a living.

The attitude was not consistent or uniform and fluctuated in both directions. From time to time, the approach became tolerant and liberal with the aim of making the Jews more or less equal to other sections of the population in the hope that this would facilitate their assimilation and ultimate absorption. When this method met with difficulties and the ties with Jewish faith and tradition were found to be more powerful that the authorities had assumed, compulsory measures were initiated together with openly displayed official animosity accompanied by incitement and riots through which the term “Pogrom” has obtained international currency.

Furthermore, the supreme authority remained autocratic in the very end, relying on the clergy, a corrupt leadership and a secret police who viewed the Jews as a revolutionary element opposed to the Government.

As a result, there was a steady multiplication of special laws and regulations restricting the freedom of the individual Jews were permitted the right of domicile and freedom of movement only within the “Pale” referred to in the note at the commencement of this section. Even within the Pale, they were allowed to reside in large cities and country towns, not in the villages – with a handful of exceptions. Jews were absolutely prohibited from obtaining Government employment and were not allowed to stand for election to municipal office or hold officer rank in the army. There were

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numerous clauses restrictions on secondary or university education. This state of inequality lasted for more than a century and a quarter.

The above paragraphs most certainly do not exhaust the restrictive conditions under which the Jews of Russia lived. At the same time, it is instructive to list a few of the prohibitions and restrictions on Jewish rights of residence in the region, and the specific Jewish taxes.


The Jews of Riga and Kurland outside of the Pale Settlement

Between 1794 and 1804, there was an exacerbation of the conditions under which Jews could live, work, trade and move from place to place within the Pale Settlement.

In our survey, there is a clear distinction between the “Latgale” region, which was annexed to the Polotzk–Vitebsk Government District and included in the Pale, and Livonia–Riga and Kurland. Until the end of the Tsarist period, the two latter districts remained outside the Pale of Settlement. The presence of Jews there was regarded as exceptional and the outcome of special historical circumstances; and this quite often found expression in an amelioration of the laws and regulations current towards the Jews in other parts of Russia.

In the 1897 Census, there were 80,753 Jews in Livonia and Kurland: i.e. 40% of all Jews living outside “the Pale” within European Russia. What was the reason for this special attitude towards the Jews of Riga and Kurland?


The Jewish Share in Baltic Commerce and Industry

In spite of the obstacles placed in their way by the Russian Government, the latter could not ignore the fact that thanks to the Jews, the Russian Baltic had become a very important region for imports and exports through the ports of Riga, Libau and Windau. At the start of the 20th century, indeed, 10% of all Russian exports passed through Riga. The Jewish share in this export was 33% although they were no more than 6–7% of the population. The Jews handled the greater part of the exports in cereals, timber, flax and eggs. They also controlled a quite considerable part of the saw mills, tanneries, etc. A similar state of affairs was to be found at the Port of Libau. In both places, the Jews supplied the necessary capital for large–scale and variegated commercial activities, opening banks, credit societies, etc.

The economic development also explains the attitude towards Jewish

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Merchants of the Third Guild who under the Law of 1865 were permitted to visit Riga for commercial purposes, whereas, the Law of 1835, had granted this permission to Jewish Merchants of the First and Second Guilds only.

The local Jewish population grew simultaneously with the expansion of the businesses and industries in Jewish hands. Clerks and assistants were employed by the exporters and merchants. Most of the clothing stores were in Jewish possession, together with the factories and workshops for manufacturing the clothes, in which the majority of the workers, male and female alike were Jews. The Jewish population in turn supported all kinds of craftsmen and members of the free professions; lawyers, physicians, etc.

On the eve of World War I, there were 33,600 Jews in Riga and the estimate for Kurland was 68,000. These totals were the fruit of many years of toil and resulted from the combination of the special opportunities afforded by the Baltic Seacoast and Jewish initiative and energy.

It should be admitted, however, that this state of affairs would have been impossible without an attitude that was in some measure sympathetic on the part of the higher authorities in St.Petersburg. The local and provincial authorities, on the other hand, were largely influenced by the resident German population which was vigorously opposed to the expansion of the Jews. More than once, indeed, the Jews were aided by the higher authorities in spite of the opposition by the provincial governors and the municipalities.

The central authorities supported the local Jews for yet another reason. The historical past influenced the latter and made them carriers of German culture. Under the influence of Russian schools, press, etc., however, the Jews had in the course of time become a Russifying element in the region and constituted a counter–weight to the century–old German culture of Riga.


Jewish Citizenship in Riga and Kurland

In the account of Livonia, details were given of the difficulties met with by the Jews until 1842 when the Riga Kehilla (community) was granted a permanent or legal status. Here, a brief account is offered of the development of Jewish rights of domicile, work and livelihood in Kurland after the latter had been annexed by Russia. This development had a certain influence on the grant of rights to Riga Jewry and also on the subsequent attitude towards Jews who lived in the two gubernatorial regions affected.

The question arose in 1797, two years after annexation, in connection

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With the need to collect an exemption levy from the Jews for not being called to compulsory military service. (Only in 1827 were Jews made liable to serve in the army and before that time, they paid a charge of 500 roubles in cash for each person who would otherwise have been conscripted). The total amount of roubles owing under this head was 13,743 – a considerable amount in those days when the total Jewish population of Kurland was 4531. The provincial Governor asked the St. Petersburg authorities how this amount was to be collected from a virtually nomad group who had no legal status and were very poor for the greater part.

The Senate inquired as to the legal status of the Jews of Kurland and the Governor, not uninfluenced by German circles, sent a negative report detailing the illegality of their presence for generations with the exception of a handful of Jews in Pilten who enjoyed citizenship. There was no firm basis of any kind for the livelihood of the majority, he stated. With the exception of a handful of merchants in Mitau, they were mostly on the move, peddling in villages and there was no hope of transforming them into productive citizens. To sum up, they should be treated as aliens and the majority should be expelled from the Province.

The Senate was not impressed by the report and its reply stated inter alia:”… .It can be seen from the documents that in actual fact the Jews have been in that region for more than 200 years and it is, therefore, impossible to regard them as furtive arrivals. The Provincial Authorities are hereby required to prepare regulations for Jews similar to those in other provinces of the State”.

In 1799 a law was passed permitting Jews to be registered with the status of merchants or city–dwellers in the cities, to reside in the Province, to engage in trade and handicrafts, to establish communities, open slaughter houses and cemeteries. In virtue of this law, the Jews of Kurland became subjects with civil rights. In 1804 the Code for the “Committee for Regulations affecting the Jews” was issued and defined the provinces included in the Pale of Settlement. Kurland was not among them and this led to a confirmation of the view that only those Jews who had been registered locally in 1799 and their offspring were entitled to reside in Kurland and enjoy citizenship there. Several attempts were made over the years to expel those Jews from Kurland who had entered illegally. In 1835 a new Code was published interpreting that of 1804 and containing two sections which at last defined the status of the Jews in both Kurland and Riga. This interpretation of the law remained in force until the end of the Tsarist period and it enabled the Jews of Riga as well to register in the city.

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The provisions of the 1835 Law were as follows:

  1. In the Province of Kurland permanent residence was allowed to Jews who had dwelt there together with their families and had been registered locally at the time of the last previous Census of population.
  2. The restrictions applied in the Province of Kurland were also applicable in the Province of Livonia, in the city of Riga and in the town of Shlok.

    In accordance with the latter provision, the Jews of Riga submitted an application for registration in the city. The Provincial Governor, to be sure, had certain doubts as to whether the correct interpretation of the law actually did permit the Jews of Riga to benefit from it. The German Guilds of Merchants and Craftsmen were opposed and the Riga City Council therefore expressed opposition as well.

    Although a special law confirming the right of the Jews of Riga to be registered in the city was approved by the Emperor in 1841, the Guilds did not despair. In 1841, 1844 and 1845 they appealed to the Senate and bargained about the number of Jews to be registered. And, whereas 517 persons were approved by the Police in 1842, a total of 409 were finally permitted to settle and establish an independent community. Right of domicile was restricted in practice to the city of Riga and the town of Shlok where the Jews had been granted rights as early as 1785. Apart from these places, Livonia remained “beyond the Pale” even to the Jews of Riga.


Movement from the Pale of Settlement to Riga and Kurland

The difficult situation within the Pale of Settlement and the ampler opportunities of livelihood within Russia, caused Jews to leave their homes and settle in places where their presence was legally prohibited. The part played by Jews in the economic life of Riga and Kurland caused both to attract many Jews from the provinces near the Baltic. Thanks to a tolerant attitude on the part of the Authorities and to some degree, the “kindness” of the Police, Jews dwelt there for decades without being registered.1

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In 1880, a special Circular was actually issued specifying that no action should be taken against Jews who were living outside the Pale. This tolerant attitude came to an end in 1893 when Jews who had no right of residence were expelled from the inner provinces of Russia. In certain places the law was carried out to the very letter while elsewhere, it was deferred “pending further instructions”. Only in the Provinces of Livonia and Kurland was this inhuman practice completely abrogated. The Jews who had lived there in the 80's became permanent residents.

After describing the hardships undergone by the Jews of Riga and Kurland until they received permanent permission to reside in those regions, we turn to another field in which Jews were also differentiated from other inhabitants. This is the field of taxation which included several taxes that were payable exclusively by Jews.


Double Taxation of the Jews

In 1794 a Law was published requiring Jews registered in the categories of merchants or town–dwellers to pay a double tax compared with taxes levied on Christians of the same class. The law provided that Jews who did not accept this law were permitted to leave the boundaries of the Russian Empire following payment of this double tax for a period of three years. When Jews were given their legal status in Kurland in 1799, the law provided for the levying of double taxes as described above together with the alternative of refusing to accept the double taxation and emigrating from Russia.

The main taxes levied at this period were: A poll tax of 4 roubles payable by town–dwellers (instead of 2 roubles payable by Christians) and 2% of the capital declared by merchants upon registration in their specific class (instead of 1% payable by Christians). In addition, the taxes for upkeep of the Posts were doubled to 24 kopeks per person against 12 kopeks payable by Christians. It is held by some that the double tax was imposed with the aim of putting pressure on the Jews to proceed to become farmers in South Russia (where Jewish colonies had been planned and were being set up). These double taxes were abolished in the years 1805–1807.


The Meat Tax (Korobka) in Riga

The Meat Tax was a specific charged levied on every unit that was slaughtered in accordance with the laws of Kashrut. It had been introduced by the Jews themselves during the 17th century in several East

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European communities, as can be seen in a surviving report dated 1650 to be found in the Pinkas or Register of the semi–autonomous “Council of Lithuania”. This tax was intended to meet a series of specific Jewish requirements deriving from conditions that were then current such as aid for refugees from the widespread anti–Jewish “Chmelnitzky Massacres” of 1648, and payment of debts owed to the Catholic Clergy who had lent money to the Jews.2 In the course of time, other debts accrued to the Government for arrears in tax payments particularly by those of limited means: – for the upkeep of synagogues and their functionaries; aid to the sick and, at times, rental payments to landed gentry or municipalities for the use of their lands.

In Riga, the meat tax or Korobka (the Russian translation of the Hebrew tern for “Charity Box”) was introduced in the year 1809. The needs of the community had previously been covered through the Charity Box in the Synagogue. It should be noted that in the year 1811, before the community had been authorised, the Jews of Riga amounted to 736 in all according to official figures. However, the number of Jews in the city increased steadily, and it was, therefore, decided to introduce the tax on meat. This meant that the slaughterer had to increase his charge for the slaughter of each head of cattle from 20 to 30 marks and handed the additional 10 marks to the Head of the community. Both private and official slaughterers were required to impose this levy. The amount was agreed upon with the City Council on the understanding that the meat tax would serve to cover the cost of synagogue upkeep and to support the needy. The slaughterer of the Hassidim in the city refused to comply with the demands of the Head of the community until the City Council required him to behave like other slaughterers.

During the early years of Russian rule, the Government did not interfere

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with the Slaughter Tax which was viewed as an internal affair of the Jewish Communities.

In the course of time, however, the importance of the tax and the necessity to define precise purpose became evident. In 1839 a general Law on the Tax was promulgated and applied to “all the provinces in which Jews customarily reside”. The first paragraph of the law specified that the “Slaughter Tax” belongs to the Jewish Societies namely – to the communities.

Its purpose was to provide help and ease the burden of debts weighing on the community; to pay off taxes and imposts and upkeep charges and to provide for the requirements of charity, general education and social welfare. The sources of income which had to be met by all communities were “the General Tax” levied on the ritual slaughterer of each unit of cattle or poultry and the sale of kosher meat. This was a kind of indirect tax. In addition, there was an auxiliary tax – a direct tax so to say, consisting of percentages charged or agreed payments made on Jewish trade; income from houses and store–houses belonging to Jews, preparation of Jewish clothing, legacies, bath–houses and ritual baths (Mikveh). The “General Tax” was legally imposed everywhere while the “Auxiliary Tax” was levied whenever found to be required, in consultation and agreement with the local Community, if and when the general tax was found to be insufficient to cover the budgeted outlay.

Income and expenditure were supervised by the Municipalities, offices of the Provincial Governor and the higher institutions of the State Ministry of Finance. Unused surpluses from any community in the province were collected and handed over to the supervisory authorities being regarded as supplementary income.


Riga Jews offer to increase the Meat Tax for the upkeep of Schools

In 1838 the “Community of Jews of Shlok residing in Riga” – the official name of the Jewish Community in the city until its existence was recognized in 1842 – applied to the Provincial Governor for permission to establish a school in the city. To cover the upkeep and maintenance of the school, the Community proposed the introduction of a special payment amounting to 50 kopeks on each head of cattle in addition to the regular slaughter tax.

The proposal was approved by the Minister of Culture and was endorsed by the Tsar. Here we shall not go into details about the opposition

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shown by the City Council to this new Jewish institution which was established in spite of the constant resistance of the Municipality and the Guilds to all Jewish expansion. It seems reasonable to assume that the steps to obtain permission were taken over their heads and without their knowledge. The school was opened in 1840 with German as the language of tuition. It contained two classes and its curriculum included languages, arithmetic, geography, history and religious studies based on the Bible as translated into German by Moses Mendelsohn. In accordance with the authorisation, the school had to be headed by a Jew from abroad with the requisite higher education and the person appointed was Dr. Max Lilienthal.

(In due course, he took charge of the Governmental educational measures for Russian Jewry in accordance with the theories of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment Movement during 1840–1844 on behalf of the Russian Government).

The Riga School was one of the first four “modern” Jewish schools of Russia.

The additional meat tax which the Jews of Riga proposed of their own free will had a certain effect on the development of the Korobka taxes. Historians point out that this was first introduced as a tax for the upkeep of schools. A few years later, it was included in the Korobka group of tax laws in the form of a “Sabbath Candles Tax”.

The Jews of Riga were exempt from this “Candle Tax” because they had introduced it of their own free will for the upkeep of their school.

The authorities viewed all extraordinary expenditures from the supplementary reserves of the Korobka with suspicion. In the year 1899 the “Society for the Dissemination of the Haskala” in Riga decided to set up a school for handicrafts. The budget for the building and the necessary tools and implements was estimated at around 75,000 roubles in all, but in actual fact, the institution cost came to 141,000 roubles in all. Prior to its erection, application was made to the “Supplementary Fund” of the Province for an allocation of 40,000 roubles for this purpose. Although the erection of new schools was one of the purposes of the Korobka, the authorities refused to approve the amount requested claiming that the Society would not have the necessary resources for building and maintaining the school. Only thanks to the intervention of Baron J.G. Guenzburg, head of the Central Committee of the Society for the Dissemination of Haskala in St. Petersburg and on his personal responsibility, did they consent to allocate the amount requested from said source.

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The Law Abolishing the Kehillot

On 19th December, 1844, two laws were published simultaneously. One abolished the Kehillot or Communities, and the other was a new law regulating the slaughter taxes (Korobka) which remained in force until the end of the Tsarist regime in Russia.

The principal change in the new Slaughter Tax Law was the omission of the provision that the slaughter tax was the property of the “Jewish Societies”, i.e. the Communities. The other changes, with the exception of the “Candle Tax” referred to above, were in essence “technical” but had the operative effect that the greater part of the tax was a heavy burden on the poorer section of the Jewish population.

This is not the place to consider the reasons for abolishing communal autonomy. Maybe it was the intention of providing the Jews administratively speaking with what was ostensibly the same status as the other inhabitants of the country. Alternatively, the intention may have been to destroy the only institution which sustained an independent Jewish way of life with the aim of encouraging assimilation and the disappearance of the Jews among the rest of the population.

This ambiguous policy towards the Jews became evident when the new laws made it clearer than ever that the Government did not intend to relinquish any fiscal demands in respect of either the direct taxes which had hitherto been collected through the communities or such special taxes as the Slaughter Tax. Special officials were designated to collect the direct taxes and constituted a miserable relic of the former communities. Other appointees who retained special powers included the “Recruit Kidnappers” whose function was to secure the Jewish quota for military conscription. The latter was a painful episode marked with boundless suffering which overshadowed the lives of Russian Jews for 30 years (1827–1856).

The only institution of which the Jews continued to retain control was the synagogue. Together with the wardens of all kinds of charitable institutions, this served to maintain the restricted and unofficial autonomy. Legal status was also given to the “Associations of Jews” in each place. For in spite of all the distortions and perversions of Russian legislation pertaining to the Jews, it was impossible to ignore the local Jewish representatives in respect of certain functions such as: consultation regarding the budget of the Korobka; requests for use of surpluses deriving from these monies; appointment of rabbis; provision for the old and sick; etc. These functions of the “Associations of Jews” which retained legal status in spite of the abolition of the Kehillot, were also supported by the Senate,

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which was the highest authorities in the State for the interpretation of legislation.

In any case, both the law for abolition of the Kehillot and the new Slaughter Tax Law specified that these provisions did not apply to Jews residing in Riga and the Jews of the towns of Kurland who enjoyed special rights.

As far as Riga was concerned, the community – as seen in the previous section – obtained its legal status only in the years 1842–1845. Further to the law abolishing the Kehillot, Directives were issued in 1863 specifying that the Jews of Riga and Kurland were to elect 3–5 representatives constituting a body to be known as the “Kahal” who would deal with all matters affecting taxes and dues payable by the Jews in those places. The Kehillot in Riga and Kurland were finally abolished in 1893.


End of 19th and early 20th centuries

Thanks to the branches of commerce, particularly import and export, which were in Jewish hands as described above, there was a group of well–t–do persons within Latvian Jewry. Among them were great magnates and a relatively not inconsiderable proportion of persons with university training such as physicians, lawyers, etc., whose economic situation was satisfactory. However, there were also numerous persons of limited means including workers, clerks, craftsmen and small shopkeepers among whom a fairly large proportion needed assistance in respect of education, economics and social welfare.

To the credit of Latvian Jewry, it should be said that in spite of the difficulties in obtaining permits to set up public bodies of any kind, the Jews of Riga and Kurland succeeded in establishing a number of cultural, economic and relief institutions.

In 1898 a branch of the Society for Dissemination of the Haskala (Enlightenment) was opened in Riga. This was the third branch in Russia and had the largest budget apart from the headquarters in St. Petersburg. The Riga society established a school for handicrafts with evening courses and a large library. Mention has already been made of the Community school set up in 1840 and known as the Kaplan School. In addition, another school was established called the Stoppel School together with a network of model hadarim (Hebrew Classes) which were the equivalent of a school system. A “percentage norm” for Jews in secondary and high schools had been introduced in 1871. In order to surmount the difficulties resulting,

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private schools were opened both in Riga and in Kurland. Close on 200 Jewish students at the Riga Polytechnic added considerably to the intellectual coloration of the Jews in the city.

The communities of Riga and the towns of Kurland were regarded as lively centres not only economically but also in respect of their communal initiative. The “Ivria” Club in Riga was a centre of Zionist activities and also the Jewish club for the well–t–do. The left–wing circle found their place in the “Carmel” Club.

There were all kinds of charitable and social aid societies such as those for visiting the sick, providing hospitalisation and aiding orphans; an Orphanage, a People's Kitchen, etc.

The first Riga synagogue was built in 1850. In the course of time, several more were added in the centre of the city and the suburbs. The most outstanding was the Great Synagogue of Riga in Gogol Street where the well–known Cantor, Baruch Leib Rosowsky, officiated and gave the first inspiration to the famous singers Joseph Schwartz and Hermann Jadlowker.

Kurland sent Jewish representatives to all the four Russian Dumas which met between 1906 and 1917. This was thanks to the political blocs established with Latvian and German minorities.3

The Deputy elected to the First Duma was the well–known Zionist leader, Dr. Nissan Katzenelson, who was a resident of Libau. Jacob Shapiro, a merchant and exporter who resided in Windau, was elected to the second and the advocate lazar Nisselovitch of Bausk, who was so outstanding and energetic, a protagonist of Jewish rights and planned to submit a law for the abolition of the Pale of Settlement, was elected to the third. Dr. Ezekiel Gurevitch, a physician in the city of Jacobstadt, was elected to the fourth Duma.

Outstanding rabbis officiated in several cities in Kurland including members of the following rabbinical families: Rabbiner (Bausk, Schoenberg); Samunov (Mitau, Windau); Lichtenstein (Tukum); Nurock (Mitau); etc. The Rabbis of Riga included Rabbi Jacob Elijah Rivlin, Moshe Shapira and his son–in–law, Menahem Mendel Avin.

In Riga, attempts were made to issue a Russian monthly and a Yiddish daily.

In 1881, Aaron Pumpiansky who served as Crown Rabbi of the Riga Community, published a monthly called “Yevreiskiya Zapiski” (Jewish Comments) with twelve issues in all. The first Yiddish organ was the

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“National–Zeitung” of which only eleven issues appeared. The second paper was established on the initiative of the writer and publicist, Judah Leib Kantor, who served as Crown Rabbi4 in Libau in the years 1890–1904 and exercised a similar function in Riga from 1909 until his death in 1915. The name of the Journal was “Die Iddishe Stimme” (the Jewish Voice) which appeared in 1910 and was edited by Dr. A. Eliashiv, better known by his penname: “Baal Machshavot” (the Penseur). This was an organ of high standing. However, it had few local readers as most of the local Jews read the German or Russian press while the authorities did not view a Jewish journal with favour and there was a lack of funds. After fifty–one issues, the journal ceased publication.



Livonia, including Riga and Kurland, is correctly regarded as the original nucleus of Latvian Jewry both on account of the numbers who concentrated there and also because of their national economic importance. In addition, these regions had a distinctive history of their own as has already been recorded.

The fate of Latgale, the third region of Latvia, was entirely different. After the liquidation of the Livonian Order in 1561, the region passed to Poland which governed it for more than 200 years until 1772. It was retained as a separate administrative unit under the name “Inflantia”. Jews appeared there in the second half of the 17th century following the Chmelnitsky Massacres and Cossack Raids of 1648–1653.

The Census of 1766 recorded that in the region there were 2996 Jews who paid a poll–tax of 3 zloty per person. This number did not include children. In 1772, following the First Partition of Poland, the region passed under Russian rule. It may be assumed that at the time there were about 5000 Jewish residents. The territory was annexed to the Province of Polotzk–Vitebsk and was included in the Pale of Settlement.

As a result, the Jews of what was subsequently Latgale experienced the same hardships as all other Jews within the Pale. They were registered in the class of merchants or townsfolk and were expelled from villages in 1786 and 1808 which led to their excessive concentration in the cities. They were also subjected to double taxation as long as this existed. They had to pay the Korobka and Candle Tax and face all the other restrictions to

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which the Jews of Russia were subjected. Unlike Riga and Kurland, which were developing and expanding economically, the economic position of Latgale was a regressive one. Apart from several small factories and a few merchants who made their living by trading in timber and cereals, most of the Jewish population were workers, craftsmen and employees in branches of clothing, footwear, etc. Most of the workshops were very small. According to the data of the Jewish Colonial Association (ICA) in 1893, some 18.5% of all the Jewish families in the Province of Vitebsk were in need of social aid. On the eve of World War I, there were close to 80,000 Jews in the region, whose numbers had declined to 31,000 by the end of the war and subsequently continued to fall.


The First World War

Latvian Jewry experienced a severe crisis in August 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. Libau and the western part of Kurland was occupied by the Germans during the first days of hostilities. In Riga, steps were taken to evacuate the factories, educational institutions, etc. Some of the inhabitants abandoned their homes and migrated to the centre of Russia.

In order to account for the military defeats, the Russian authorities invented stories of Jewish treachery. It was claimed that the Jews had signalled to the German Forces, provided hiding–places for German soldiers who attacked the Russians from the rear, etc., thus bringing about the collapse of the Russian army. The purpose of these stories was to divert public attention from the incapacity of the commanders and from the corruption that was rife in upper military and civilian circles.

Incitement grew more severe and was followed by the expulsion of Jews from a zone extending 50 verts behind the Front. At the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915, mass expulsions of Jews began from the Western Provinces including Kurland.

The Expulsion Order for Kurland was issued on 27–28 April, 1915. Almost 40,000 Jews including old people, women and children were cruelly and indiscriminately expelled.

The Expulsion was completed on 5th May. Only a small amount of belongings might be taken. There was a complete ruination of property and the liquidation of every branch of economic life.

A Relief Committee was set up in Riga through which the expelled people passed. It was headed by the Communal Workers: Paul Mintza, E. Ettingen, W. Luntz, E. Shalit, B. Mayer, Mendel Lulov, M. Magidson, etc.

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With the aid of the Jewish “Committee for the Relief of Victims of the War” (IKOPO) which was set up in the larger Russian centres, all possible aid was provided. The exiles and their possessions were received and they were temporarily housed in schools, synagogues, etc. Warm food was provided with medical aid and legal assistance in special cases. Most of those expelled were directed to various provinces in the heart of Russia.

The expulsion from Kurland marked the end of the longest established section of Latvian Jewry. For generations the communities of that territory had lived in various towns and large villages: Mitau, Pilten, Talsen, Hazenpat, Sasmaken, Tsabeln, Guldingen, etc. The provincial surroundings, the influence of German culture of the Romanic period, the meticulous conservation in religious practices and traditions – all these created a unique Jewish type. Their dispersion throughout Russia ended their special life and practices. Few of them returned to their former homes after the War.

Kurland was occupied by the Germans as early as 1915 though they took Riga only in 1917.

The attitude of the German authorities was quite fair. There was no unfavourable discrimination in life and work. The Germans regarded the Jews, most of who spoke German, as a group who could help in implanting the German language particularly as there were more Jews than Germans in Riga. The authorities planned to set up a “Baltic Duchy” in the region and to settle Germans from East Prussia. The army occupying Kurland established a local “Landeswehr” (reserve) Force for which locally–born members of the Baltic German gentry were recruited.

The February 1917 Russian Revolution took place and was followed by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October of that year. A rift emerged between the Allied Powers in the West and Soviet Russia. Under the impact of the events within the country and the German attack along the entire Front between the Baltic and the Black Sea, the Soviet rulers signed the Peace Treaty of Brest–Litovsk on 22nd February, 1918. This incidentally provided that Latvia should also pass under German rule.

However, war continued in the West and the victories of the Allied Powers led to the surrender of Germany. A German Republic was proclaimed in November 1918.

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III. The Latvian Republic

  1. Declaration of Independence. Struggle against foreign powers.
  2. Minorities in Latvia.
  3. Number of Jews; urban and rural distribution, occupations.
  4. Reconstruction activities after the War by the “Joint” and the “Central Committee” of the Communities.
  5. Press.
  6. Jews in the Legislative Institutions; Parties, Youth and Sport movements.
  7. The Jewish fraction in the Seims; Special Jewish problems.
  8. Jews in economic life.
  9. Cultural autonomy.
  10. Decline and Holocaust.


Declaration of independence, struggle against Foreign Powers

Following the collapse of Germany, the Treaty of Brest–Litovsk was declared invalid by both the Allied Powers and Russia on 13th November, 1918. The Russian Army began to move on Latvia by way of Latgale in order to conquer the country and restore it to Russian rule.

The German army fell apart but still held out in Kurland under the command of General Von der Glotz who was supported by the Landeswehr Units. Behind this army stood the Western Powers.

It was a period of political instability with the Russians attacking from the East and a German army still present in Kurland. At this time, on 18th November, 1918 a National Council attended by representatives of Latvian political parties, proclaimed Latvia a sovereign and independent state.

It should be remembered that at the time, the West supported the principle of national self–determination for small nations. This also provided the moral and ideological backing for the creation of a “Cordon Sanitaire” west of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (i.e. the former Russia) by the establishment of the States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

A new epoch began for the Jews of Latvia under the rule of the Latvian majority.

The Provisional Latvian Government headed by Karl Ulmanis took its first steps and began by setting up a Government Military Organisation.

The Bolshevik army was advancing and its Latvian representatives, Stutzka and Danishevsky, proclaimed the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Latvia. This led to cooperation between the army of the Provisional

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Government, the Germans in Kurland and the Landswehr. All their combined efforts, however, could not prevent the occupation of Riga by the Red Army on 3rd June, 1919. The Provisional Government and the National Council had to withdraw to Libau under the protection of the British Forces which supported the struggle against the Bolsheviks.

The Stutzka Government took its seat in Riga and promptly began to introduce harsh reforms in all fields of life. This was a difficult period for the entire population including the Jews. Almost from the first day until 22nd May, 1922 a Yiddish newspaper was published called “Der Roiter Emes” (The Red Truth) containing the Orders and Ordinances of the Bolshevik Government. Most articles were dedicated to attacks on the bourgeoisie and the “Jewish clerics”.

Joint efforts by the Government forces and the German army in Kurland led to the reoccupation of most of the urban centres of the country. The Red Army was compelled to withdraw from Riga on 22nd May, 1919.

Even before the Provisional Government returned to Riga, there was an internal revolt of the German army and the Landeswehr in Libau headed by the Latvian Pastor, Andrei Niedra, who set up a rival Government. With the aid of the Estonian army, the Latvian Government succeeded in supressing the Niedra coup d'état and on 3rd June, 1919 the Government returned to Riga.

This was not the end of the struggle for power. In October 1919, a new army was organised from the remains of the German forces and Russian prisoners of war under the command of Bermondt–Avaloff, a former Russian army officer who began to advance in the direction of Riga. After many efforts and with the aid of the British Marines, the Government succeeded in repulsing this attack as well.

Latvia was only freed in 1920 from foreign armies both in the East and West. On 1st May, 1920 the Legislative Assembly called the Satversmes Sapulce, met and on 27th May adopted Basic Laws.


Minorities in Latvia

The Latvians constituted between 73–75% of the population in the country. Thus a quarter of the population consisted of minorities and at times, when Governments were being formed, they often turned the scale. The largest minority consisted of Russians (12%), Jews (5%) followed by Germans, Poles, etc.

The establishment of the State of Latvia came about at a period when, as mentioned, there was a general recognition of the principle of self–

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Determination for small nationalities. It was only logical that the youthful State, which had been established in accordance with that principle, should adopt a positive attitude towards its own minorities. In addition the necessity for obtaining their support during the struggle for power which marked the years 1918–20, and the wish to appear at the League of Nations as a State without chauvinist tendencies, had the effect that, from the very first, the Provisional Government recognized the national rights of the minorities. The latter were invited to send their representatives to the Legislative Institutions of the State; they were to participate in the National Council and the Provisional Government, and their civil and national rights were to be secured by the basic laws of the country.

At the session of the Provisional Council held on 4th December, 1918, three Jewish delegates were co–opted. They included Aaron Papiermeister and Samuel Henkin. Participants in the Libau sessions of the Council included: Isaac Rabinovitch; J. Bann and J. Himmelfarb – all three representatives of the “Bund”; Ydel Mark, representative of the “Volkspartei”; and Max Goldberg of the non–party Association.

On 13th July after the Government returned to Riga, the following composition of the Jewish representation was published: “Simeon Zacharovitz and Isaac Berz, the “Bund”; Advocate Philip Latzky; Poalci Zion; Prof. Paul Mintz and Leib Fishman, National Democrats; Advocate Z. Tron, General Zionists and Mordechai Dubin, Agudat Israel”.

Prof. P. Mintz entered the Government as State Comptroller and was replaced on the Council by Eng. Jacob Landau.

The Provisional Government's wanderings from place to place, the temporary occupation, etc., led to the addition as required of additional Jewish representatives including: Dr. Julius Eliasberg and Dr. L. Gribeshok.

The State gradually established itself and was recognized by the Great Powers. The support of the minorities was no longer quite so necessary in the struggle against external enemies and a more independent line towards the League of Nations could be adopted. The influence of the minorities began to diminish and earlier promises were forgotten. The first Government was the only one which contained representatives of the minorities – Prof. Paul Mintz for the Jews and certain German representatives.

At the end of the period of the Constituent Assembly, all the Jewish delegates voted against the Government established in July 1922 for the following reasons:

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No facilities were provided for Jewish refugees to return to Latvia. Anti–Semitic pamphlets were being printed at the Government press. Matters of citizenship and property rights were not being justly or fairly treated, etc.

The attitude towards the minorities grew worse with the increasingly chauvinist tendencies that market the final years of the State as will be told below.

The struggles affecting a series of specific Jewish questions continued during the entire period of Independent Latvia and the change for the worse will be illustrated by various characteristic instances.


Number of Jews. Urban and rural distribution. Occupations

In 1914 on the eve of World War I, there were between 185,000–190,000 Jews in Latvia.

The expulsion from Kurland in 1915, the abandonment of homes in other parts of Latvia on account of transfer of enterprises and higher educational institutions to the heart of Russia – flight because of conquest, etc., reduced the total population including that of the Jews.

The first Census held in Independent Latvia during 1920 gave the number of Jews to be 19,644 – a decline of 58% as compared with one of 47.5% for the total population. The return of the refugees to their former homes together with natural increase raised the number of Jews to a total of 95,675 by 1925.

This was followed by a decline to 94,388 in 1930 and to 93,479 in 1935. The proportion of Jews in the total population fell from 5.19% in 1925 to 4.79% by 1935.

The reduction in the number of Jews was an outcome of several processes. The younger generation left Latvia, proceeding inter alia to Eretz Israel while natural increase declined from 5.75% in 1925 to 2.32% in 1935. (The birth rate fell from 4.25% to 3.75% and the death rate rose from 3.5% to 4.1%).

Occupations were typical for the countries of the Diaspora at the period and derived from the distribution of the Jewish population in town and country. The Jews were the highest proportion among town–dwellers amounting to 92.5% of their total number. In the country, there were only 7.41% to be found.

As a result, 48.6% of Jews were engaged in trade and 28.7% in industry – the highest proportions compared with the general population.

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In industry, they were largely small craftsmen or clerks in factories and only then came an actual industrial proletariat. In the free profession consisting of physicians, lawyers, engineers, etc., they were 7.3% while in agriculture 1.1% – the lowest proportion in the whole country. The Riga community grew steadily as shown by the following figures:
1920:   24,725 Jews
1925:   39,459 Jews
1930:   42,323 Jews
1935:   43,672 Jews

The growth came about on account of the provincial towns and villages which were emptied of their Jewish inhabitants. Riga attracted them by her size, her connections, the number of Jews who played a leading part in her economic life and the possibilities of finding a living there;


Reconstruction activities; the Joint and Central Committee of the Communities

Both those who remained where they were during the War and those who returned to Latvia following the close of hostilities were largely in very serious economic straits and assistance was urgently necessary from the outside. The American Joint Distribution Committee (The Joint) which opened an office in Riga found a wide field of activities. Its aid by the provision of both commodities and constructive help was provided through the Central Committee of the Communities, which was elected twice – in 1919 and 1921. The Communities organised themselves in most of the cities and, although they had no legal basis, the Government Institutions recognized them de facto.

From the beginning, the Communities were envisaged as the nucleus for achieving National Autonomy. At a committee of the Central Committee of the Communities headed by Professor P. Mintz, regulations for autonomy were prepared for submission to the Seim. Owing to the political situation, however, this dream of autonomy was not fulfilled. That part of the Constitution which included the proposed national autonomy of minorities was not approved by the Seim.

The Central Committee of the Communities was headed by Dr. Isaac Jaffe, Dr. Jacob Hellman and Rabbi Mordechai Nurock. In 1922 Mordechai Dubin was elected in place of Dr. Hellman.

The Central Committee was supported by various sub–committees through which the Joint conducted its activities. These were the Committees for

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Aid to Orphans; re–establishment of Vocational Schools in Riga and Dvinsk; establishment of a network of cooperative banks; establishment of a Bikkur Holim Hospital in Riga, etc.

The Joint correctly regarded its functions as provisional. Once the institutions were established, it handed them over to local public bodies. The Hospital was taken over by the Bikkur Holim Society; the Trade Schools by the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment, etc. The Cooperative Banks established an association of their own. Insofar as they received aid from the Joint, they were under the supervision of its European Centre in Paris.

All these institutions continued to function normally. As they came to be withdrawn from the supervision and influence of the Central Committee of the Communities, however, the latter lost its content and functions and had to liquidate. This meant the elimination of an institution which might otherwise have been the central administrative body of the communities, and the focal point of Jewish communal life in Latvia.

In Independent Latvia all the Jewish social institutions which had existed before the War renewed their activities: e.g. the Orphanage, People's Kitchen, etc. The one exception, apart from the Bikkur Holim Hospital founded by Ulrich Milman and restored with the aid of the Joint as already mentioned, was the Linat Hatzedek Maternity Hospital set up in Riga by the Philanthropist, A. Sobolovitch. In speaking of medical and social assistance, mention must be made of OZE, the Jewish Health Society which had branches in most towns of Latvia. It specialized more particularly in providing care and treatment for children of school age including medical examinations and supervision, treatment in dental clinics, provision of playing fields, etc.



The new communal life, the challenges faced by the Jewish Community within the new State, its internal reorganisation and external political stand, all required suitable forums where the problems of the day could be discussed and brought to public attention. That, however, was possible only if there was an independent Jewish journal which was not easy to establish.

We have already described the attempts made in this direction under Russian rule. Mention should again be made of the main difficulty that had to be faced: Most of the local Jews were under the influence of the German and Russian cultures and did not feel that a Yiddish journal was a necessity.

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Steps therefore had to be taken not only to set up a Yiddish paper but also to create the reading public which would find it of interest and take steps to ensure its existence.

It can be said that the Jewish press in Independent Latvia was established by public bodies only and any journal that did not maintain a satisfactory communal level was bound to fail. The public was wide–awake, critical and unforgiving.

Most of the journals established by public movements were marked by the energy and self–sacrifice of the founders and staff. However, they could not always succeed in concealing their shortcomings namely; an inadequate reading public and insufficient working capital.

Below, we give an account of the more important papers: Iddishe Folks Stimme, Dr. J. Hellman. Professor A. Guliak, J. Vinnik, I.M. Movshovitch Gertz, published the Journal in July 1919 with the financial support of Nahum Moskovsky.

Apart from various slight changes, it was concerned with the same problems as the journals which appeared later. The struggle for civil rights, national and cultural autonomy, equality of the Hebrew and Yiddish languages with other languages in schools, support for the constructive Movements of the Jewish people, etc.

The journal was of high standard and apart from local journalists, outstanding writers from abroad also contributed. Yet, the number of readers did not exceed 300. There were financial difficulties and the attack of the armies of Bermondt–Avaloff broke up the normal course of life in Riga. The paper had to close after publishing 75 issues.

Dos Folk. This journal continued to appear for seven years. It was the first to gain an appreciable reading public in Latvia and also in Lithuania a few years later. Its rise and fall was characteristic of Jewish communal life in the country.

“Dos Folk” was established as a communal journal, the initial capital being contributed by Abraham Becker and Jacob Hoff. The editors were Dr. J. Hellman, I. Vinnik and M.Vovshoviach–Gertz and most of the journalists and communal workers in the country, participated in it. From the very beginning, however, there were disagreements with regard to its ideological line and these continued almost the whole time of its existence. In due course, it passed from public control to the private ownership of Messrs. T. Eidus and Z. Uhrmacher.

T. Eidus, a gifted journalist and former member of the Bund, regarded

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the journal as a source of livelihood, while his partner had no interest in either literature or public affairs.

Dr. Hellman left the paper within a month of its first appearance. J. Vinnik left it in 1921, returned in 1924 and a year later withdrew for good. In 1922, the paper was left by a number of writers who published an organ called “Di Gelle Presse” (the Yellow Press) protesting against the ideological chopping and changing of the journal, the absence of a consistent policy, etc. “…left today, right tomorrow, Zionist and in favour of Hebrew today, Yiddishist and Socialist a little later, a pious newspaper today and heretical tomorrow…”.

All this led to the establishment of new journals about which more will be told below and which had a clear–cut communal and ideological character. “Dos Folk”, whose chief merit was a creation of a Yiddish reading public, had some 6,000 readers. On Fridays, it appeared with 6–8 pages. It passed through various transformations, the editorship was transferred to well–known communal workers, it was closed and then reappeared with the active help of the Agudat Israel but finally had to close for good in July 1927.

Der Weg, Unser Weg. These journals came into being because of the struggle for an ideological press. The founders were the Zeirei Zion Party which played a leading part in the establishment of journals worthy of the name. The editors and chief co–workers were: Dr. J. Hellman, J. Vinnik, etc., who belonged to this party. Special mention should be made of the self–sacrifice of Mr. Arie Tagger who invested his capital in the undertaking.

“Der Weg” appeared between September 1922 and April 1923 when it had to stop because of lack of funds. However, on 17th April of the same year, it appeared again under the name “Unser Weg” and was supported by the General Zionists headed by E. Ettingen. The paper developed well having ample and varied contents and achieving a circulation of 4,000 copies. But this time as well, there was not enough working capital and it finally had to close down in February 1924.

Letzte Neies. This was a purely Yiddishist paper whose chief editor was Z. Kalmanovitch. It last for four months, from 30th January to 29th May, 1925. This was a paper of high public standards but was dogmatically anti–Zionist. The founders and staff invested great efforts in this paper too but their devotion and self–sacrifice could not prevent it from closing down.

Frimorgen. The above three journals, to be sure, were unable to maintain themselves permanently; but they did affect the position of “Dos Folk”

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as the only paper and prepared the way for the appearance of “Frimorgen”.

This was published by Dr. Polack and V. Brams who put out the Russian daily “Sevodnia” – one of the best– selling papers in Latvia and abroad. They also published a Russian evening paper and one in Latvian. After they acquired a large printing press, it was only natural that they should add a Jewish paper to the others. “Frimorgen” began to appear in January 1926.

To begin with, the publisher also included the Communal leaders: Advocate M. Finkelstein, Dr. L. Gribeshok and Dr. Dubinsky. From 1929 onwards, however, the sole owners were Dr. Polack and Brams.

To begin with, the Chief Editor was J.Stupnitzky. After “Dos Folk” was closed down; Z. Latzky–Bertholdy and Dr. J. Hellman joined the staff and became chief editors when Stupnitzky left.

The practical commercial sense of the owners was opposed to any specific party line but the paper always maintained a high communal standard. It was rich and colourful in content and responded to everything that happened in Jewish affairs both in Latvia and abroad. Ample space was given to the new life which was assuming shape in the Land of Israel.

In 1932 the “Ovent–Post” began to appear and after a time, passed into the hands of the Revisionist Party under the editorship of Messrs. A. Dissentchik and D. Wahrhaftig.

The publishers of “Frimorgen” also began to issue an afternoon paper that year called “Batog” and edited by Mr. Gertz.

From time–to–time, single–issue papers appeared or the weeklies of various parties: “Der Ruf” of the Zeirei Zion – Zionistim Sozialistim (corresponding to Mapai in Israel); “Die Arbeter Stimme” of the Bund; “Dos Iddishe Folk” of the General Zionists, etc.

The “Arbeter Heim” and “Kultur Liga” were the organisations of the Communists and their left–wing fellow–travellers. From time–to–time they also issued broadsheets and newspapers such as the “Neie Tseit”, of which 40 issues appeared in 1924 before it was closed down by the authorities; “Arbeter Velt” which appeared in 1927–28; and a number of other publications.

The entire liberal and political press was closed down on 15th May, 1934 when the Fascist coup d'état took place in Latvia.

A daily Yiddish paper, “Heint” then appeared details of which are given in the chapter on “The Decline”.

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Jews in the Legislative Institutions and Parties

Under the Russians, the following Jewish parties, all functioning without official authorisation, were to be found: The Bund, The General Zionists and rather later, the Zeirei Zion Party.

In the conditions of freedom that followed the establishment of the new republic, additional movements came into being. These were the Agudat Israel, the Mizrahi and the National Democrats. The previous parties steadily increased their activities. Though they did not all have a considerable number of registered members, it can be said that several outstanding personalities represented each movement and their popularity could be judged by the number of voters who supported them.

The following are the numbers of the representatives of the Jewish population in the Constituent Assembly and the four Seims which met between 1st May, 1920 and 15th May, 1934 when the Fascist coup d'état took place. They indicate the forces within the community that shaped public opinion and led Latvian Jewry.

Party Representatives:

Constituent Assembly   The S e i m s
  1 2 3 4
Agudat Israel 1   2 2 1 2
National Democrats 2   1
General Zionists 1  
Mizrahi 1   1 1 2 1
Zeirei Zion – Z.S. 1   1 1 1
Bund 2   1 1 1
Total 8   6 5 5 3

There were 150 members in the Constituent Assembly and 100 Delegates in each of the Seims. In spite of the party divisions among the Jews, their representation was about 5%, corresponding to their proportion in the general population. In the Fourth, final Seim, their number fell to three for reasons which were partly coincidental in character. These included the fact that they were a hundred or even less votes short – the splitting of forces and a tendency to support the right–wing candidates.

The National Democrats and the General Zionists both vanished from the scene in the early years of the State. The National Democrats represented the well–t–d– upper–middle class group which was largely influenced by German culture and was more assimilationist than the rest of the Jewish population. They were never a properly organized movement

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and were characterised largely by their outstanding leaders such as Professor Paul Mintz, Eng. Jacob Landau, the teacher and educator Leib Fishman, etc. They were all familiar within the Jewish community for many years and were, therefore, chosen as suitable representatives when the Republic of Latvia was established.

To some degree, this description also applies to the General Zionists. Communal workers like E. Ettingen, Advocate Z. Tron, Dr. A. Salkind, Dr. H. Wasserman, etc., were also among the outstanding figures of Jewish public life.

However, in the new period that accompanied the development of communal post–war activities, they were superseded by new parties and men. Parties with an organised membership, which functioned all year round and not merely before elections, were left–wing in character – the Zeirei Zion – Z.S. and the Bund. The representative of the Z.Z. – Z.S. in the Constituent Assembly was Dr. Jacob Hellman, while during the first three Seims, it was Professor Matatyahu Max Laserson. The Bund representatives at the Constituent Assembly were included in the Social Democrat list and were Isaac (Julius) Rabinovitz and Eng. Isaac Berz. The Bund put up a list of its own for each of the Seims where its representative was Dr. Noah Maisel. The Bund representative belonged to the Latvian Social Democrat faction and collaborated with the other Jewish delegates only in respect of specific and fundamental matters of exclusively Jewish concern.

The representatives of the Misrahi were the brothers Aaron Ber and Mordechai Nurock who belonged to an old rabbinical family of Tukum and Mitau. Their roots had been set for many generations. Rabbi Mordechai Nurock, the personification of the Mizrahi Movement in Latvia, was the more active of the two and exerted a great influence not only in Latvia but also in World Jewry and finally, in the State of Israel as well.

As for the Agudat Israel, its establishment and activities turned on its representative, Mordechai Dubin, a dedicated Jew, heart and soul, who worked for the needy of all sections and classes. He can be described as a Shtadlan (intercessor) par excellence, at home with the authorities. He exploited all opportunities and methods in order to aid any Jews who needed his help. He was exceedingly popular. During the first two Seims, his party companion was Reuben Wittenberg of Dvinsk who was, however, no more than his shadow. In the final Seim, however, his companion was Simon Wittenberg, a trained lawyer, teacher and educator who was a rising force and made a great impression when he spoke on general political matters.

The Aguda had a failure in the third Seim. Only Dubin was elected

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As their second candidate, who stood for election in Latgale, did not receive the necessary number of votes. In the elections to the 4th Seim, the impression was gained that Dubin's seat was also in danger. As a result, the Jewish masses, who remembered all his good deeds, voted for him while in Latgale where representatives of the Z.Z. – Z.S. and of the Bund also stood for election – several hundred votes were missing so that the left-wing delegates were defeated.

As already remarked, there was a right-wing trend among the public in general on account of the world political situation although the Jews at least should have seen clearly that the only hope for preserving democracy was by strengthening the Left. In Kurland, the splitting of the Jewish vote also had its effect on account of an additional candidate who was put up by the well-to-do groups so that Aaron Nurock was defeated. As a result, there were only three Jews in the 4th Seim: M. Dubin, S. Wittenberg and Moredechai Nurock.


Other Parties, Youth and Sport Movements

One of the parties which were not represented in the Legislative institutions but which had quite a considerable periphery, particularly in Zionist circles, was the Revisionist Party which was headed by Dr. Jacob Hoffman and founded after Z. Jabotinsky visited Riga in 1923. Its main strength lay in its associated youth movements, the Hashmonai Student Corporation and Betar – a pioneer organization with institutions providing Hachshara (training for Eretz Israel) including maritime training.

There were also small groups of right-wing and left-wing Poalei Zion. The latter cooperated with the communists in the Kultur Liga.

In addition, there was a section of “Grossmanists” or a supporter of the Jewish State Party from the early 30's headed by Nahum Moskovsky. Some outstanding persons belonged to the “Folkspartei” including a number who were fervent Yiddishists. The group found expression particularly in the disputes about schools conducted in Hebrew. However, some of the members, including the communal worker and journalist, Z. Latsky-Bertholdy, also enthusiastically supported Hebrew.

Most of the parties had their own youth movements. The Bund had the Bund Youth and the “Zukunft” Students Organisation. The Z.Z. – Z.S. had the Shomer Hatzair, Noar Borochov, Gordonia and the Hashahar Student Societies.

The Maccabi Sports Club was established in 1918 with branches in most cities in Latvia and its activities covered all branches of sport. There

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Were also sports movements with a political tinge such as the Peretz Sports Society of the Bund. In 1932, the Latvian Maccabi participated in the first Eretz Israel Maccabiad. Most of the participants from Latvia did not return home but remained in Eretz Israel as illegal immigrants.


The Jewish fraction in the Seims. Special Jewish problems

No fraction of Jewish delegates with a common discipline, such as was to be found elsewhere in Eastern Europe, came into existence in the Latvian Seim. This was because of political and class differences.

In accordance with the Bund tradition, the Bund representatives belonged to the Social Democrats. Mr. Laserson, the representative of the Tseirei Zion, agreed to join the Jewish block provided that he was not to be bound by majority decisions on social questions. The other members of the block who represented the Aguda and the National Democrats (the latter took part in the first Seim) supported right–wing governments. The representatives of the Mizrahi were progressive in tendency and supported the left–wing coalition Government, the only one of its kind in Democratic Latvia which functioned during the term of the second Seim.

Only in the external defence of specific Jewish interest was there a common front on the part of all Jewish delegates to the Seim.

The Aguda did not agree to the setting–up of a Council called “Beirat” (advice) by the delegates to include representatives of all parties and professions such as economists who were not represented in the Seim. Maybe the reason was the fear that the decisions of the majority of the proposed Council, who were largely indifferent on religious matters, would be morally binding on them even if they were opposed and did not accept its discipline for reasons of religious conscience.

One of the most important problems faced by the Jews of Latvia was that of citizenship.

Under the National Council, a law was passed according to which a Latvian citizen was deemed to be any former subject of one–time Russia …. Residing within the territorial frontiers of Latvia who originated from the provinces included within the frontiers of Latvia …. or places which had belonged to those provinces according to the laws that had been current in Russia until 1st August, 1914.

The term “had belonged” could be interpreted as “entered in the local registers”. However, the greater part of Latvia except Latgale had been

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outside the Pale and there were many Jews who had not been entered in the local registers but who had resided there on the basis of administrative regulations such as, for example: the instructions of the Russian Ministry dated 1880 not to expel Jews who had proceeded there in spite of prohibitions; or the subsequent regulations of 1893 which authorised their presence in the Provinces of Livonia and Kurland. These persons were described as “Achtsiker” (persons with the right to reside according to the Regulations of 1880) and were treated as residents in all respects. Similarly, according to a circular of the Prime Minister Stolypin dated 1907, an Order was issued not to expel those who had entered the region illegally before August 1st, 1906.

On the basis of these administrative orders, such Jews were residents but they had not always been entered in municipal or other registries. This left room for various interpretations and applications of pressure on the part of the Authorities.

The struggle to change the law lasted eight years. Only in 1927 when a leftist coalition was in power did it prove possible to pass a supplement to the law providing: “The citizens of the State included all former Russian citizens who have been residing within the frontiers of Latvia since 1st January, 1925 and who resided there for six months prior to 1st August, 1914 …. Who resided permanently in Latvia prior to the year 1881 or any descendants of such persons”.

The most important achievement of Independent Latvia was the Agrarian Reform – the restoration of the land to its original Latvian owners who had been deprived of it hundreds of years earlier by the conquering German knights.

The distribution of land was by no means easy and, unfortunately, some Jews were among those who suffered most from it. Redistribution commenced in villages and small towns where Jews had been residing on the basis of agreements with the Local Council or, as in Latgale, in accordance with “Tsins” rights i.e. the hereditary right to lease land belonging to others in return for a regular payment. Thus, “Tsins” was actually the renting of land without any restrictions on the period of rental. As a result of World War I, with its accompanying expulsions and displacements, the original documents were sometimes lost. When the land was redistributed, the local authorities supported by the relevant Committee in the Seim, were in a position to reject the claims of the Jews and give preference to all kinds of claimants. The Jewish representative on

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The Committee had a difficult, unremittent struggle to safeguard the rights of such Jewish lessees and prevent them from being deprived of their rights and compelled to leave the places where they and their ancestors had been living for many generations.

Naturally these were specific Jewish problems in respect of economics, culture, etc. The Jewish representatives in the Seim played a very active part in connection with these as is told in the coming sections.


The Jews in economic life

Earlier sections of this essay have drawn attention to the important part played by the Jews of Latvia in expanding local trade and industry. This process which began under Russian rule also continued to some degree in Independent Latvia. Although the extensive hinterland with its ample supplies of raw materials was no longer available, there were, nevertheless, certain economic fields where the Jews had their tradition, experience and connections both inside and outside the country.

From the very commencement of the State, it became clear that in order to stabilize Latvian currency, increased exports were necessary for the purpose of increasing the arrival of stable foreign currency from abroad.

The Jews had ample experience of exports particularly the export of timber and flax. They also played a big part in industry even though industrial plants had been evacuated during the War and their equipment transferred to Russia while what remained behind was pillaged. In the timber, match–making, beer, tobacco, textiles, overshoes, conserves and other industries, the Jews were the first to establish or re–establish factories and plants.

The Jews were also the representatives and agents of international companies which supplied petroleum products and coal.

In order to obtain the resources needed for the economic branches in which they were engaged, the Jews re–established or founded a number of banks such as: The Libau Bank, the Northern Bank, the Riga International Bank, etc. They succeeded in attracting foreign capital for these institutions. In order to promote small–scale industry and commerce, a number of Cooperative Banks were established with the aid of the Joint and with an Own Capital that was far greater than that of the Cooperatives established by the Latvians, Germans and the Russians.

In the economic structure of the Jews, the percentage engaged in trade and industry and making their living from these sources was greater than among the rest of the population.

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The whole range of Jewish economic activity was unquestionable benefit for the country as a whole. It brought in foreign currency by means of exports; provided employment for factory workers and secured capital and credit abroad through the banks. Yet, in spite of this, the Government took all kinds of steps to restrict their activities with the aim of protecting chauvinist interests and Latvian groups and associations.

Thus, from the very beginning of the State, a Government monopoly for the export of flax was introduced. This led to such great losses that the monopoly was cancelled in 1921.

  Latvian Jewish
Own capital 14.8 22.9
Deposits 22.9 65.0
Loans 57.3 3.8
Various 5.0 8.3

The main source for loans granted to the Cooperatives was the State Bank which supplied 57.3% to Latvian Cooperatives as against 3.8% to Jewish Cooperatives.

All the complaints and efforts made by the Jewish Seim members to secure a place for a Jew on the Board of Directors of the State Bank proved useless.

The Latvians also begrudged the development of the large Jewish banks. In 1929, the “Darmstaedter” Bank in Germany suspended payment. There was a wave of distrust such as appears in such cases among depositors who engaged in a run on the banks to withdraw their deposits which could have shaken the entire economy. The Darmstaedter Bank was connected with the Libau Bank.

In such cases, it is the practice of State Banks to come to the aid of private banks and advance them the necessary resources until the emergency is over – the private depositors regain confidence and replace their deposits. That was the way the Lithuanian Central Bank behaved, for example.

The Latvian financial authorities were of another mind. They felt the time had come to clip the wings of Jewish banking. The National Bank refused to provide the necessary assistance to the affected banks. As a result, the state of emergency also spread to Latvian Banks, which likewise

[Page 66]

had to suspend payments. A general moratorium was proclaimed and led to economic difficulties in all branches of trade and industry.

The Jews suffered in particular during this period. While the other sections of the population could divert their unemployed to agriculture, this was impossible for the Jews whose share in agricultural activities was negligible.

Among the Jews, there were 3,500 craftsmen, or close on 9,000 souls with their families, constituting 10% of Latvian Jewry.

In order to meet competition and improve their economic condition, the craftsmen established their own special organisation and also published a monthly called “Der Handwerker”. They set up their own Cooperatives for loans and the purchase of raw materials.

Particularly fruitful activities were carried out among the craftsmen by the ORT Society which had branches in Riga, Dvinsk and Libau. The Society organised Girls' School which taught sewing and millinery. It ran evening classes for adults and in Dvinsk and Libau, had Vocational Training Schools for locksmiths, carpenters and electricians. The Society also supported craftsmen by providing machines through a fund established thanks to contributions by kinsfolk and philanthropists abroad. In Riga, it set up the “Mavera” – an auxiliary society for the purpose of acquiring foreign machinery which was supplied to craftsmen at reasonable prices.


Cultural Autonomy

The most important achievement of the minorities in Latvia was the Law of Cultural Autonomy, an exceedingly democratic piece of legislation which served as a model for its period.

The Law which was passed while the National Council was still in session, laid down general provisions such as: free education in elementary schools; the requirement of the study of the Latvian language; inclusion of local history and geography in the syllabus; rights and duties of the teachers; relations between the cultural institutions of the minorities and the central authorities of the Ministry of Culture, etc.

Administration of the educational institutions of minorities was entrusted to special departments of each minority. The law provided that the state and municipalities were to allocate to the minority schools such sums as were required in proportion to the number of pupils belonging to the given minority in each place.

The Jewish Culture Department or the Jewish Department as it was

[Page 67]

generally called, was administered throughout its existence by Eng. Jacob Landau, two assistants, inspectors, a secretariat, etc. Besides the administration, there was a Public Council consisting of representatives of the legislative bodies and Teachers' Associations: The centre for Yiddish School organizations; the Hamoreh Federation of Hebrew Teachers and the Moriah Federation of Orthodox Teachers.

As a result of the history of Latvian Jewry, there were three linguistic trends:

Supporters of Yiddish headed by the Bund Party. This trend was naturally comprehensible to a large part of the Jewish population. Yiddish was their mother tongue and their vernacular. It attracted all those who regarded the Yiddish language as the one that linked and would continue to link World Jewry and its literature.

The Zionists supported Hebrew which they regarded as a security for the hopes of the Jewish National Revival in Eretz Israel.

A large part of the public who had grown up under the influence of German and Russian, took steps to ensure that their children studied European languages that had a present and an actual future. They were not apprehensive regarding the assimilation of the younger generation which would inevitably follow education of that kind.

This autonomy made it possible to direct the education and culture of the younger generation and to encourage those aspirations which were held to be desirable. As a result, it was the subject–matter of severe struggles within the Jewish community. An active part was played by the political parties and their representatives in the Seim and the Municipalities, the teachers and educators, Jewish leaders and public opinion as a whole. At the same time, this struggle helped to shape the Jewish consciousness of the Jews in general and young Jews in particular, crystallizing points of view and deepening an awareness of the value of both Yiddish and Hebrew.

The first registration of children took place in 1918 and was conducted by a Committee on which Yiddishist teachers were represented. As a result, Yiddish was recorded as the “mother tongue”. Yiddish schools were the first to be opened. In 1921 there was a conference of Yiddish teachers which laid down the principles of secularist education in the Yiddish schools and an organisation was established under the name “Tsentrale Iddishe Shul organisatzia in Lettland” (Central Yiddish School Organisation of Latvia).

The Hebrew language was first introduced at the Kaplan and Stoppel

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Jewish Community Schools in Riga. Since the Community did not have the resources for maintaining them, they were transferred to the Municipal School system.

In 1921 the “Society for the Advancement of Knowledge and Art” was founded in Riga and headed by the veteran Zionist, Dr. Hermann Wasserman. Much of the development of the Hebrew language in Riga may be credited to him. The Society founded the Hebrew Gymnasium (secondary school) in the city together with a popular Music Conservatory headed by the composer Solomon Rosowsky, a Hebrew kindergarten, etc. The “Ivrit” Teachers Society was founded in 1919 and became the “Hamoreh” Hebrew Teachers' Federation in 1922 with the aim of organising modern schools in which the language of instruction would be Hebrew.

In 1925 an all–Latvian Teachers' Conference was held and adopted the proposal of the Yiddishist Teachers to support Yiddish as the Jewish vernacular and to introduce an amendment to the law whereby the language of instruction in all Jewish schools supported by the State and the Municipalities would be Yiddish.

This resolution served as a warning to Hamoreh. In 1926, when Z. Michaeli (Michelson) was elected chairman, the Hamoreh Federation began to take political steps against the Yiddishist attacks. A party struggle commenced between the Bund and its supporters on the one hand and the Zionists on the other and support was mobilized by both sides.

The first step was taken by “Hamoreh” which entered the all–Latvian Teachers' Federation. The Latvians agreed to accept “Hamoreh” into their organization in spite of the epithets: “Reactionary gang”, “Anti–Pedagogues”, etc., which the Bund used in plenty to vilify it before the Latvians.

A Latvian Teachers' Conference was held in 1926. “Hamoreh” increased its membership, organised public meetings and issued a journal in Latvian whose contributors included, among others: M. Laserson, member of the Seim, J. Vinnik, Z. Latzky–Bertholdy (a member of the Folkspartei who nevertheless supported Hebrew), etc.

They also appealed to the Latvian national poet, J. Reinis, who afterward visited Eretz Israel and was then serving as Minister of Culture, to support the Hebrew language. All this was done in order to modify the resolution calling for priority to Yiddish in the schools.

Laserson delivered an address presenting the scholarly and practical foundations of living Hebrew. He was attacked by Dr. N. Maisel, the

[Page 69]

Bund representative who disparaged the Zionists as a reactionary group and Hebrew as a clerical language. Then came the Latvian poetess Aspasia who enthusiastically supported Hebrew as the language of the Bible and the Halutzim (pioneers) in Eretz Israel.

A resolution was passed to defer the implementation of the resolution adopted at the previous Conference.

The struggle continued both in local government bodies and at the Seim. This was the period of the left–wing coalition which was supported by both M. Laserson and M. Nurock. Speeches were delivered at plenary sessions of the Seim. The opposition hoped that the dissatisfaction of the Zionists regarding the language of instruction in Jewish schools would make it possible to break the left– wing coalition. In the Cultural Committee of the Seim, however, the Social Democrats, despite the dissenting vote of the Bund, supported the formula submitted by Laserson providing for the equal rights of the two languages in the Jewish schools maintained by the Government and local authorities. The actual language of instruction, whether Hebrew or Yiddish, in the existent schools and those to be opened, was left to the decision of the parents. On occasion, as a result, there ensued quite a struggle between the protagonists of the two languages.

Elementary education was compulsory but not secondary education which in addition was not free. However, the Government supported secondary education and took the numerical ratio of the minorities into consideration. The amounts lacking for the upkeep of the schools were provided by the local Jewish population and by tuition fees. There were secondary schools in Riga, Libau, Dvinsk, Rezekne, Mitau, Windau and Litzin. Some were governmental, others municipal or public and some were private. Their languages of instruction were Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and German.

Traditional education was provided by the “Reformed Hadarim” which was included in the Elementary school system and was continued in the “Tushia” secondary schools supported by Mizrahi circles. The Agudat Israel maintained its own “Torah ve–derech Eretz” system of elementary and secondary schools.

There were also vocational training schools in Riga, Dvinsk and Libau. In order to regularise the connection between schools and any given educational system, regulations were issued in due course according to which any school containing at least 60% of pupils belonging to a recognized minority was under the cultural administration of that minority.

The decline in the birth rate during World War I and the decline in the Jewish birth rate during the period of Latvian independence

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(amounting to 26% in the years 1925–1936) had the result that the number of Jewish pupils in elementary schools was 12,402 and was no more than 12,235 in 1935–36.

The following was the distribution of Jewish school children by languages of instruction at schools:

Years Hebrew
& Yiddish
Russian German Latvian Total
1922–3 8,872 1,898 1,252 390 12,412
1935–6 10,562 18 100 1,551 12,231

The changes between the two periods were due to the influence of nationalist trends and cultural autonomy, as well as the law that the children of the minorities were required to attend their own minority schools or those of the Government, i.e. the Latvian schools.

The number of pupils at the Secondary Schools showed the following development:

Language of Instruction
Years Hebrew
& Yiddish
Russian German Latvian Total
1922–3 1,241 2,032 494 101 3,868
1935–6 1,577 27 19 704 2,327

The steep decline of some 40% in the number of pupils was the result of the emigration of part of the adolescent youth primarily to Eretz Israel. Official figures show that between 1920 and 1941, some 4,547 persons emigrated from Latvia to Eretz Israel. These figures are known to be far from correct particularly insofar as they refer to Halutz immigration.

The decline was also largely due to the fact that secondary education was a privilege but not a duty, and the tuition fees were often beyond the capacities of those with restricted resources among the Jewish population.

The number of Jewish students in Higher Educational Institutions also display the same characteristics:

  Years 1920/25 % 1935/6 %
Law & Economics 62 11 159 30
Chemistry, Nature 319 60 247 50
Medicine 140 25 31 6
Agriculture 20 3 23 4
Philology, Philosophy 4 1 50 10
Total: 545 100 510 100

[Page 71]

Thus the number of students had undergone a decline. Their distribution by Faculty had been affected by considerations of subsequent earning power as well as the difficulty of obtaining admission to certain Faculties, particularly Medicine. The great increase in Philology and Philosophy was due to lack of choice and the hope of subsequently transferring to other fields of study.

In the High Schools for Arts, the number of Jewish students was as follows:

The Conservatory of Music Academy of Art & Sculpture
1925 25 students 1926/7 8 students
1930 48 students 1930/1 14 students
1934 52 students 1934/5 6 students

At the Conservatory the number of Jewish students fluctuated between 8% and 17%. In the Academy, they were 3% of all students. At the time, the Jews were about 5% of the population.

At the High School of Economics, the number of Jewish students was:

In 1933/4 89 Jews or 15.5%
In 1934/5 58 Jews or 11.6%


The Decline and the Holocaust

As remarked, attempts were made here and there to undermine the rights of the Jewish Community in Latvia. In spite of this, Latvian Jewry was a lively national entity in all respects: Education and culture, economics and finance. It had its own charitable and social welfare institutions, political parties of every kind with their youth, clubs, sports associations, press, etc.

However, the developments of the 30's in Europe, the right–wing revolt in Lithuania and the frequent visits of the Prime Minister to Germany, brought a cloud over the general situation and led to an increase in the extremist national trends which derived from the deeply rooted chauvinism of a large part of the Latvian people. A National Socialist journal was published called “Ugunkrust” and semi–military organisations called the “Perkonkrust” were set up.

The democratic forces grew steadily weaker. The Social Democrat Party declined from 30 and 31 delegates at the first and second Seims to 25 in the third and 20 in the fourth Seim. Finally, the two votes of the ZZ–ZS and Bund representatives were also lacking. The Communist delegates of set purpose refrained from participating in any activity that was liable to weaken the reactionary forces in the Seim.

The end of the third Seim and the period of the fourth, which was

[Page 72]

the last, were marked by an undermining of the country's democratic foundations as, for instance, by the misuse of the Government authority to legislate while the Seim was not in session. Thus the Health Insurance Law, a fundamental factor in the life of the workers, was revised to the advantage of employers. Restrictions were introduced on freedom of meeting and association. Proposals were made for the direct election of the President by the people instead of appointment by the Seim and for ministers to be responsible not only to the Seim but also to the President. It was also proposed to set up a new Constituent Assembly without the participation of the Minorities.

The weakening of democracy and strengthening of chauvinism helped to speed up the decline of Latvian Jewry. This decline had several stages each of them more tragic than the one before.

On 15th May, 1934 Karl Ulmanis, Prime Minister, carried out a Fascist coup d'état which passed without bloodshed. There were none who opposed this step against democratic freedom in the country. The Seim was dispersed, the left–wing parties were shut down and the social democrat fraction in the Seim together with the heads of the left–wing parties, including ZZ–ZS and the Bund, were sent to a concentration camp in Libau.

The Jewish political parties liquidated included the Zionist parties, ZZ–ZS, the Bund and their associated youth movements. The Eretz Israel office was allowed to function together with the Hehalutz movement which changed its name to “Olim” (emigrants). The authorities did not interfere with those who wished to leave the country.

Cultural autonomy was liquidated. The Jewish schools were entrusted to the Agudat Israel which was regarded as a supporter of the new regime. A new teaching system was introduced according to the programme of the Aguda which provided for study with covered heads, etc.

The existent press was closed down and replaced by the “Heint” administered by the leaders of the Aguda. The lack of freedom of expression, the need to accept the official line, the absence of public criticism – all had the effect that the paper was very poor in both content and appearance.

In the economic field, the aim of the authorities was to restrict Jewish activities by introducing a Permit System in all branches of trade and industry. Jewish owners of large factories were compelled to sell them to Latvians. The employment of domestics under a certain age was prohibited,

[Page 73]

provisions of work depended on residence in a given place for a certain number of years, etc.

The second stage in the decline of Latvian Jewry was marked by the Soviet occupation.

Under the Ribbentrop–Molotov Agreement of 1939, Latvia was included in the sphere of Russian influence. In October 1939, bases in various parts of the country were placed at the disposal of the Russians and on 17th July, 1940, the Russians took over the country.

With the Soviet annexation of Latvia, all parties were liquidated. Economic enterprises were nationalised, education became secularised and the language of instruction in Jewish schools was Yiddish. Zionists and leaders of other parties were persecuted. M. Nurock and M. Duba were arrested and exiled together with many others including Revisionists, ZZ–ZS, Mizrahi, etc.

A few days after the German attack commenced in June 1941, a mass evacuation of Jews began. It is estimated that 10,000 persons were exiled to various places in Siberia and central Asia. Many of them met their deaths from sickness and starvation in concentration camps. Only a few remained alive.

The fate of these exiles was bitter. Often they were sent with little children to northern Sibera under very severe climatic conditions and were engaged in the hardest possible labour. Yet, it must be admitted that some of them were saved from the Nazi thanks to the evacuation and in due course, after investigations, purges, etc., were permitted to return to their original homes.

The German–Russian War began on 21st June, 1941. On 29th June, the Germans occupied Libau and Dvinsk. On 1st July, the Germans took Riga and the final, tragic stage of the history of Latvian Jewry began.

The Nazi found dedicated assistants for their murderous activities in the Latvian population. In spite of the common sufferings of the Latvians and the Jews under the German Barons in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the common front they had established during the revolutionary years at the start of the 20th century against the Tsarist regime, there were savage Jew–haters among the Latvians who revealed themselves under the Nazi.

Latvia was regarded as a place where “there were convenient conditions for extermination”, according to the evidence of the Chief of the

[Page 74]

Gestapo in that country. (It is also estimated that some 16,000 Jews from other lands were transferred there).

During the early days and even before the Germans had issued detailed instructions, the Latvian Anti–Semites very energetically commenced exterminating the Jewish inhabitants thus helping to solve the Jewish question by their own efforts. They themselves murdered the Jews in most of the smaller towns of Kurland and Latgale. Some of the survivors were transferred to the Ghetto in Dvinsk. Within a few days of the German occupation, “Judenrein” (cleared of Jews) notice boards were to be found at the entry to many small towns.

Ghettoes were set up in Libau, Dvinsk and Riga. However, their establishment was preceded by mass slaughter on the part of special groups of Latvian “Perkonkrust”, Jewish property was pillaged and synagogues were set on fire. In Riga, only one synagogue remained. It could not be put to torch without endangering the surrounding buildings.

On 27th July, some 4,000 persons were slaughtered in Libau. In August, the Jews were ordered to wear the yellow badge and “actions” were resumed from time to time. By summer 1942, 800 persons remained in the Ghetto. In October 1942, the Ghetto was liquidated and survivors were transferred to the Kaiserwald Camp near Riga.

At Dvinsk, the Ghetto was established in July 1941 within the surviving fortifications of the one–time Dvinsk citadel and Jews from the small towns of Latgale, who had not already been liquidated, were also transferred there. In all, there were some 15,000 persons in this Ghetto, living in dreadfully overcrowded conditions. Old people, sick and ailing and women were taken out of the town and killed in order to “ease” the congestion. In November, there was an “action” which lasted for three days and left a total of some 1,000 persons. In October, their number was reduced to 350 who were also transferred to the Kaiserwald Camp.

During the first few days of the German occupation, some 8,000 persons were murdered in Riga by Latvian volunteers. An Order was published requiring the yellow badge to be worn and requiring Jews to walk in the gutters. In October, the Ghetto was established with more than 30,000 inhabitants. During the ten days, from 30th November to 9th December, 1941, some 27,000 persons were taken from the Ghetto to the forest near Rumbuli and were shot in front of mass graves that had already been dug. A total of about 4,500 persons remained in what was called the “small Ghetto” and were mostly employed on outside work. Jews from Germany and Austria were brought to fill the places left vacant in the older Ghetto

[Page 75]

Which was then called the “Reichsjuden Ghetto” and existed until November 1943. Part of the inmates were transferred to Treblinka and died in the gas chambers.

The rest were transferred to the Kaiserwald Camp, the inmates of which were regarded as criminals. Every prisoner had a number and a badge. The regime was one of terrorisation and starvation reigned supreme, many perishing of sheet exhaustion. When the Russians approached in August 1944, most of the Kaiserwald Camp inmates were taken to Danzig and from there to Stutthof, being driven from one camp to another. About 1,000 in all survived until the liberation.

In Riga itself, a few score survived in all kinds of hiding places. A handful of Latvians had the moral strength to risk their own lives and safeguard them and the places where they hid. The names and deeds of these rare persons have not yet been placed on record.

It is a sacred duty to record, among the martyrs of the Riga Ghetto, those who took steps to organise resistance, to store arms, to train themselves and to accumulate medicines and food for the rebels.

Eng. Ovsei Okum of Dvinsk and Advocate Jacob Joelson of Riga were among those who preached resistance and took the earliest steps. They were joined by some members of the “Ordnungsdienst” (Ghetto police), Isaac Bag and the teacher Elijah Latt, Eng. M. Michelson, the locksmith Botvinkin and others. With the assistance of Fisher, head of the group that worked in the “Pulverturm” warehouse which contained the weapons that the Germans had taken as spoils of war, they set out to steal machine–guns, hand grenades and sub–machine guns and transfer them to the Ghetto in the boxes in which food was taken every morning to the groups outside the Ghetto and which were brought back empty in the evening. A hiding place for the weapons was found in a bunker, a store–house was set up containing food, medicines, mattresses and water; and a cellar was occupied near an engineering workshop whose noise covered the sounds of the shots of those who were undergoing training.

There was a debate in the Camp as to whether to remain on the spot and forcibly oppose the liquidation of the Ghetto or to escape and join the Partisans. In October 1942, eleven men made their way eastward by lorry in order to join the Partisans. They ran into a Gestapo ambush which opened fire on them. The Jews returned fire. Some were killed; others escaped into the neighbouring forest. This was a warning to the Nazi that the Jews had arms. Fisher, head of the group working at the Pulver–

[Page 76]

Turm, was arrested soon after. All members of the Ordnungsdienst were summoned to the Kommandatura (headquarters) and accused of betraying their trust, since they had not heard of the escape of persons bearing weapons. When they left the Kommandatura, and it was clear that they were about to be liquidated, they attacked their guards. Fire was opened and 41 men were killed on the spot. As a result, the autonomous administration of the Small Ghetto was liquidated and it was made part of the larger Ghetto where the Jews of the Reich were held.

Activities recommenced sometime later. Cells were organised, each consisting of ten active members of the underground and disassembled arms were again smuggled in. Moshe Glaser was particularly active in obtaining supplies from army stores. A mishap came about again when Damski, one of the survivors of the liquidated Ordnungsdienst was found in hiding. Once again there were arrests and investigations of a kind that is unnecessary to describe. The persons who had helped Damski to find a hiding place were discovered and three men were killed including Willi Cohen and S. Machtus who were active in the underground. In due course, the Gestapo set hands on another survivor of the Ordnungsdienst, Moshe Israelovitch. After prolonged examination, he revealed the hiding place of the arms, foodstuffs, etc., prepared by the underground. Following this, dozens of persons were arrested, including many active members of the Resistance movement.

The arms cache was discovered when a young man of Riga, named Hayim Freidberg, was arrested. He succeeded in getting away as soon as he was detained. However, an order was issued that if he returned, no harm would be done to him and the entire Ghetto feared that there might be a new action if he did not return. He appeared on the scene after taking poison. What caused him to return is not known. A physician summoned by the Gestapo succeeded in preventing his death. After two days of questioning, the Gestapo came to the arms bunker. Everybody who had any connection with the affair was liquidated. It is to be assumed that the bunker contained a list of members of the Underground.

That was the end of the resistance in the Riga Ghetto. Although no active steps were taken by it, the Underground movement shows the firm intentions and resolution of activists in the Ghettoes, particularly among the younger generation, under conditions of absolute destitution and in the absence of all hope of rescue. They set out to protect their honour and not be destroyed like sheep led to the slaughter.

[Page 77]

The final destruction of Latvian Jewry marks the end of four hundred years of history.

However, in accordance with Jewish tradition, it is customary not to close with words of reproof and sorrow.

It should be noted that Riga, the centre of Latvian Jewry, once again has a Jewish population consisting of tens of thousands.

Only a few formerly belonged to Latvian Jewry. Most of them come from various places in all parts of Russia.

Will they also have a history of their own? Only time can tell.

  1. The Law of 1865 permitting craftsmen to reside outside the Pale included an appendix: A Memorandum by the Governor of the Livonian and Kurland Provinces in which he reported to the superior authorities concerning Jews who had entered the said Provinces in contravention of the law but who were tolerated there on account of their ties with their co–religionists who were so important for foreign trade at Baltic Ports. Return
  2. Historians of the Korobka Tax have collected facts showing that very few of these debts derived from actual cash loans received from and repayable to the Catholic Clergy. However, the communities did undertake certain obligations in order to obviate various kinds of false charges and libels which might otherwise have brought calamity upon them. Such obligations were also undertaken in lieu of participation in public religious disputes between Christians and Jews, which the Catholic Clergy were always anxious to arrange. Debts of this kind weighed on the Communities for centuries and there was no hope of being rid of them. As a rule, only interest was paid and the money for this purpose was taken from the tax on the slaughter of meat. As a result, a number of Catholic Monasteries were maintained by money extracted from Jews by force and cunning. Return
  3. A similar state of affairs was to be found only in the Kovno Province. Return
  4. The Crown Rabbi was officially appointed in the larger Jewish communities of Russia to keep the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths and to act on behalf of the community in its official relations with the Russian Government. Return

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