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Towns and People



(Rīga, Latvia)

560 57' 240 06'

by Mendel Bobe

In an earlier section we described the rapid growth of the Jewish population in Riga from about 400 souls in 1842 to a total of 33,000 in 1913. These seventy years were accompanied by an exceptional development in the economic significance of Riga Jews for the trade of the entire region, leading to open and concealed toleration on the part of the Tsarist authorities towards this Jewish concentration, though it was outside the Pale of Settlement.

Here we shall try to show who these Jews were who took so active a part in stabilizing the position of their community, and this not only with regards to their economic significance but also on account of their unique qualities as a Jewish community first and foremost.

A study of the ways in which the Jews of Riga struck root shows that they mostly belonged to two groups: Those who arrived from the neighbouring Kurland and Lithuania and those who were known by the general name of “Reissishe Idden” who originated from the territory referred to in old Hebrew and Yiddish sources as Reissen, i.e. White Russia. This included the Government Districts of Minsk, Vitebsk, Mohilev and the neighbouring regions.

Here we shall give an account of these two “prototypes” of Riga Jewry.


Jews from Kurland in Riga.

The First Jews to settle in Riga came from Kurland and were also the original nucleus of the “Schutzjuden” or Protected Jews from whom the community developed.

An absence of civic rights in Kurland, a very bad material situation and a shortage of Jewish and general schools, all contributed to bringing about a low cultural level amongst them. At the same time, the surroundings in particular the German environment, had a considerable effect and helped to determine their language, culture and source of education. Nor should it be forgotten that the Jews of Kurland hoped that knowledge of German might lead to a change in the legal position which was one of tolerance alone until 1795 when the territory was ceded to Russia.


Influence of German Culture in Riga

It should be remembered that the Germans founded the city and were

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its only rulers for several hundred years. The upper and ruling classes, even under Polish and Swedish rule, remained German and retained their positions even after the city was conquered in 1710 by Peter the Great.

In his time and during several of the reigns that followed, it was German culture which was imitated and studied and German nobles continued to play a leading part in high Russian administrative offices for many generations. So it was natural that this attitude towards the German language continued unchanged in everything that affected the municipal administration of Riga where all the affairs of the Municipality and its institutions, including the Minutes of Town Council Meetings, Ordinances, Regulations, etc., were recorded and published in German until the end of the 19th century.

With this Germany hegemony the struggle for Jewish rights naturally involved a spiritual adaptation to the ruling climate and primarily to the German language. For Jews from Kurland, no particular difficulty was involved. The German influence on the earliest Jewish residents in Riga can be judged by their family names, e.g. Scheinessohn, Hirschfeld, Loewenstein, Jacobsohn, Blumberg, Friedmann, Blankenstein, Michelsohn, Springenfeld, Lewinsohn, Bamberg, etc.


An exclusive German School.

In 1838 the “Community of Jews from Shlok dwelling in Riga”, which was the official name of the local Jewish community until their presence was officially recognized in 1842, applied to the District Governor to permit the establishment of a Jewish School in the city. They undertook to pay 50 kopeks per head of cattle slaughtered in order to cover the upkeep in addition to the ordinary slaughter tax (korobka).

Permission was received in 1840. Regulations required the school to be headed by a Westernized Jew from abroad. The heads of the Jewish community applied to the learned Dr. Ludwig Philipsohn, founder and editor of the Leipzig “Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums” (General Journal of Judaism) requesting him to recommend a suitable candidate. His choice fell on Dr. Max Lilienthal who served as the first Principal and before long, became known in Russian Jewry as the “Disseminator of Enlightenment” on behalf of the Russian authorities. When the Minister of Education visited the Jewish School in Riga, he found that Lilienthal “was fit to serve as an example for the other schools” which the Tsarist Government was planning in order to bring about a basic reform of Russian Jewry; and he was invited to St. Petersburg to organize Enlightenment among the Jews.

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After Lilienthal left Riga to take up his new post, Dr. Philipsohn once more made a recommendation, this time Dr. Abraham Neumann of Bavaria. In 1854 Dr. Neumann was appointed Crown Rabbi of the Riga Community and only in 1877 was Dr. Adolf Ehrlich of Berlin appointed School Principal. During all these years, in the absence of any official Principal, the school was headed by Wolf Kaplan for three decades. In the community at large, the school indeed was known as Kaplan's but since he was a local Jew, he was not appointed Principal.

The language of instruction at the school was German apart from religious instruction for which Mendelssohn's German translation of the Bible was used. The pupils were also taught arithmetic, geography and natural history. A department for girls was added in 1877. It was only in 1888 that the school was required to use Russian as the language of instruction. In 1893 there were close to 500 pupils.

It should be noted that the teachers included several persons who left their mark on the history of Lativan Jewry. In 1881, the teaching staffs were joined by Leib Fischmann who in due course became a member of the Latvian Seim following independence. The music teacher was the famous Cantor, Baruch Leib Rosowsky.

Apart from the usefulness of the school as the first modern educational institution in Riga, it also served during its earlier years in spreading German culture among the Jews of Riga, in particular within the middle class and workers.


Reissen Jews in Riga

Unlike the Kurland Jews who had been virtually cut off from the original sources of Jewish life for several generations, the Jews of Reissen arrived from the Pale of Settlement and were impregnated with a deeply rooted popular tradition. As already mentioned, they first came to Riga from the Government Districts of Minsk, Vitebsk, Mohilev and the neighbouring north–eastern vicinities of White Russia.

The Reissen Jews, mostly Habad Hassidim, came for the greater part as timber dealers who engaged in the large scale export of wood from inner Russia. They floated rafts made of lopped trees down the River Dvina to the port of Riga.

During the second half of the 19th century, changes came about within Russia which benefitted commerce and export. At this time, Jewish rights of domicile were somewhat eased. Merchants of the First Guild, university graduates and certain kinds of craftsmen were granted a general

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right of residence all over the country. This economic development together with the ameliorations for large scale merchants and others, led to considerable progress in commerce and export, more particularly in the timber trade which was largely in Jewish hands in the Baltic region.

Merchants from various small and large towns of the Pale moved to Riga. Saw mills began to concentrate near the city. Export firms and other businesses fostered trade and industry and considerably increased the number of Jews from the Pale who settled in Riga on account of their business affairs. Between the years 1867–1880 the Jewish population increased from 5254 to 20,013. The greater part of this increase resulted from the timber trade and associated manufactures.

The main source of timber was the forests in the Government districts of Pskov, Vitebsk and Smolensk which lay on the River Dvina or its tributaries. Sections of these forests were prepared for export purposes by local inhabitants under the supervision of travelling Jewish “supervisors” who spent the greater part of the year travelling through the forests and returned home only for festivals and the High Holidays. These supervisors, who were mostly observant Jews, were not only in charge of the preparation and shipment of the wood but were also experts who recognized the best stands of trees and could advise on the sections to be prepared and places where it was worthwhile making purchases from Russian estate owners.

These merchants were not only in charge of the purchase of timber but also brought a special kind of life of their own with them, together with their deep Jewish traditions. They established the “Reissisher Minyan” (the prayer–quorum of Jews from Reissen) in Iliya Street in Riga, a “quorum” which in due course had three synagogues bearing the names of Kapust, Liadi and Lubavitch; these being the names of Jewish towns in which lived and held court various members of the Schneurson Dynasty of Hassidic Rabbis who were descendants of Reb. Schneur Zalman, the founder of what is known as the Habad School of Hassidism. They also established other prayer quorums such as the one which bore the name of Alexander Zisskind Berlin in Weiden Damb Street. These Hassidim and other Jews brought Rabbis and slaughterers of their own together with Jews whose Hassidic spirit served as a counter–weight to the chilly and formalist “anti–Hassidic” Jews of Kurland and Lithuania. It is not impossible that the Habad approach, which is based on “keen intellect and scholarship…whereas other Hassidic groups went by the heart and feelings” (to quote Dr. S.M. Horodetzky in his standard work on “Hassidism and Hassidim”,

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Vol. IV. P. 98) also helped them to reach an understanding with the local Jews who were marked by preferring intellect to emotion. In any case, the merging of these two elements through mutual contact and even more, through family ties to which we shall refer to below, helped bring about the specific character of Riga's Jewry.


Political and Cultural conditions at the end of the 19th century.

Jews from Kurland and Reissen in Riga were to be found on all steps of the ladder in both economic and cultural affairs. They included leading merchants, persons of limited means, university graduates and those who came from Yeshivot and old–fashioned Hebrew classes. Each group had its own style of life, habits and customs and manner of speech.

Among the leading groups of well–to–do merchants, physicians, lawyers, etc., the Kurland influence predominated. German was considered an aristocratic language which, as it was, could secure an entry to the salons of good society. This was sometimes a natural process. Many of those who enjoyed a higher education, particularly graduates of the neighbouring Dorpat University, could barely speak Russian.

In these circles, there was a certain tendency towards assimilation which found expression in external habits and attempts to resemble the non–Jewish environment – a certain weakening of the ties with tradition. There were a few cases of mixed marriages. No cases of conversion to Christianity are known, such as those that were so frequent in Germany during the Enlightenment period.

In the 90's however, the Russification of the region commenced. The schools began to give instruction in Russian at the same time as the lively participation of the Jewish Community in economic life, which also expanded thanks to the development of trade, industry, banking, etc. The influence of Russian culture, the literature of which was reaching its most brilliant epoch at the time, as well as the revolutionary ferment with its own singular literature, all helped the Russian language to spread among the Jews of Riga and produced a bilingual situation in which both German and Russian was spoken.

There was a brief period of improvement from 1859 to 1865. Rights of residence were granted to various groups such as Merchants of the First Guild, persons with university education, etc. This, however, was followed by a reaction which continued until the end of the Tsarist epoch.

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Discriminatory laws were introduced and Jewish intellectuals felt them as a source of burning shame. They included complete exclusion from the higher and lower civil services, overwhelming difficulties in obtaining full admission to the legal profession, and rejection of candidates for professorships in High Schools no matter how outstanding the knowledge and capacities of suitable Jews might be. There was one inflexible rule: Change religion. A brilliant career lay before those who did so. The majority refused. There were some, including famous figures who did not resist temptation.

So it is not surprising that in this situation of complete lack of prospects for a Jewish future in Russia, those who were politically conscious did their best, as far as possible, to prepare the younger generation for life outside Russia; all the more so as the academic numerus clausus made it necessary for all who wished for university education to go abroad. The closes country was Germany, so German culture once again exerted an overriding influence.

World War I was followed by the establishment of the Independent State of Latvia including not only Riga and Kurland, but also Latgale which had been part of the former Pale of Settlement. The new state of affairs brought about vast changes in Jewish national, cultural and other aspects of life, as has been mentioned elsewhere. To begin with, however, the structure of Riga Jewry changed very little. There was the same division into “upper” circles and the ordinary people. Little by little, the influence of the middle classes and workers began to be felt in all aspects of life, thanks to political parties and parliamentary liberty.


Leading Personalities and Families in Riga Jewry *

Among the Jews of Riga, there were individuals and families who were representative of the surroundings from which they came, together with their cultural backgrounds.

Some of them conducted large scale businesses, were outstanding professional figures and scholar who dedicated themselves not only to their vocations but also to communal requirements. They organized and established

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public institutions without which it would be hard to imagine the development of the local Jewish Community.

Here we shall describe a few of them, concentrating on persons who commenced their public careers before World War I when there was, as yet, no framework for communal leaders and workers who were professionally engaged in this field. Some of these continued their activities in Independent Latvia as well.


Leib Shalit

He was one of the first timber merchants who came to Riga. He engaged in large–scale activities within his field and was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in the city having large estates in several North Russian provinces.

He headed the Riga Community and was particularly concerned with Zionist activities. As one of the first Hovevei Zion in Riga, he went to the Hovevei Zion Conference in Kattowiz in 1884. When the Hibbat Zion Movement received official Tsarist recognition in the form of the “Odessa Committee” in 1890, he was put in charge of Livonia and Kurland districts.

When the land on which Hadera was established in 1890 was purchased with the aid of the three Hovevei Zion groups of Vilna, Kovno and Riga, it was necessary to complete the transaction swiftly but the settlers did not have the necessary resources. Leib Shalit, together with Jacob Hindin of whom more will be told, provided the money needed for purchasing the remaining 2,000 dunams.

In 1897, L. Shalit was a delegate to the first Zionist Congress in Basel and was appointed a director of the Jewish Colonial Trust. Throughout these years, he continued to be active, travelling to Conventions of Russian Zionists, etc.

In local Riga activities, he collaborated with Paul Mintz, of whom more will be said below. The two, established a branch of the “Society for the Dissemination of Culture” for which an official permit was received in 1898. The Riga branch had the second largest budget in the whole of Russia.

L. Shalit passed away in 1906.


Zeev (Wulf) Luntz.

One of the first Hovevei Zion in Riga, he was one of the leading merchants of the city. He attended the Kattowitz Conference in 1884 and

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Proposed that support should be given to the Bilu Group, pointing out how important educated young people would be for the development of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel. He also spoke at the end of the Conference.

He participated in the Second Hovevei Zion Conference held in Druskenik in 1887 and at the Third Conference held in Vilna in 1889 on behalf of the Riga Hovevei Zion. He supported the Maskilim (enlightened and semi–secularist) in the dispute which took place there between the Orthodox Rabbis and the moderately unorthodox.

In his Riga activities, he belonged to the group that organized the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment. In 1915, he was a member of the Committee for the Relief of Jews expelled from Kurland and was one of the ten “hostages” who guaranteed the faithfulness of Riga Jews to the Government with their persons, property and homes.


Jacob Hindin

He came from the town of Velizh in the Vitebsk Government district. He owned forests in the Pskov district and an alcohol factory until the introduction of the Russian government monopoly. One of his sons, Zalman, was a shareholder in the ships that sailed on the river Dvina together with Lipmann Rachmilevitch. A second marriage made him the brother–in–law of Rabbi Samuel Mohilever who persuaded him to take an interest in the resettlement of Eretz Israel. He purchased the Hedera lands referred to above for his son–in–law Shneur Zvi Shneurson of Dvinsk, who was one of the first settlers in Hedera and who descendants still live there.

An indication of the pride and independence of this group, who lived in magnificent dwellings judging by the current standards, in towns where they dwelt before moving to Riga and who often had the local authorities at their service, can be judged by the following story as told by Jacob Hindin's grandson, J.L. Schneurson of Hedera in his reminiscences “Mipi Rishonim”. (Tel–Aviv, 1964).

“Some years before the War, my grandfather Jacob Hindin came to Eretz Israel to visit us. While he was in Hedera, Baron Edmond de Rothschild also visited the country. The Hedera settlers decided to send a delegation to him and selected two men for this purpose: Shaktzer and my grandfather, Hindin….”

“The Baron spoke to them in an Alsatian German. He was accustomed to having people come to him for help, and naturally asked them at once what they needed. But they answered him that they did not need any help…

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At all and had merely come to pay him a courtesy visit on behalf of the settlement. Baron Edmond then said that he was a Baron and could help them. TO which Hindin answered: “we ourselves are little Barons and do not need any help”: “Hereaus!” (Get out!) Cried Baron Edmond and sent them away.

“The Baron was very angry indeed and nobody dared to mention the name of Hedera in his presence for a long time….only after years had passed and thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hillel Yaffe and Rabbi Zadoc–Kahn of Paris, did he finally agree to help in draining the Hedera swamps…..”

J.L. Shneurson goes on to tell how Jacob Hindin transferred 267 dunams of swamp from his own private estate in the name of the Baron. In due course, a forest was planted there. He also gave 50 dunams of his property for planting a citrus grove in the name of his brother–in–law, Rabbi Samuel Mohilever. This was the site of the present–day kibbutz, Gan Shmuel. In his will, Jacob Hinden left 120,000 roubles for charity and other purposes to be expended at the discretion of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.


The Brothers Isaiah and Shlomo Zalman Berlin.

They also came from Velizh and were among the best–known timber merchants and manufacturers of Riga. The forest they owned, the saw–mills they established, the numbers of their employees and the scale of their exports, made them leading figures.

Isaiah Berlin was married to the daughter of Menahem Nahum Schneurson of Niezn, a great–granddaughter of Rabbi Schneur Zalman the founder of Habad Hassidim. The leading officials employed by the Berlin brothers were well–known house holders in Riga. They were all Hassidim and in close touch with the Hassidic Rabbi of the Schneurson stock. Such were Alexander Zisskind Berlin, who has already been mentioned in connection with the Minyan bearing his name; Zalman Isaac Volshonok, his brother Avigdor Volshonok who was chairman of the Riga Agudat Israel in Independent Latvia, and others.

A fund of 300,000 roubles in the name of Isaiah Berlin was created – a very great amount in those days – in order to build a hospital in Riga. However, most of the money was expended to support war refugees during World War I.

Isaiah Berlin had no children so he adopted the Zuckerman family who were also of the Rabbi's kin. Mendel Berlin, the son of the adopted

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son Dov was a partner in the Berlin and Luria Factory – one of the largest timber export enterprises in the city.

The son of Mendel Berlin is Professor, Sir Isaiah Berlin, the famous English historian and scholar. The two sons of Shlomo Zalman Berlin – Beinush and Leib – were also among the ten Riga “hostages” during World War I.


Shlomo Shalit

He came from the small town of Ula in the province of Vitebsk and had six sons and four daughters. Three sons established the Emolip Firm, the name being derived from the initials of their own names – Elijah, Mordechai and Lipmann. This was one of the largest enterprises engaged in bringing timber from the heart of Russia and exporting it abroad. At their saw–mills in Riga and the vicinity, they employed Jews from the Pale of Settlement who had no right of residence in the city. The police knew of this and turned it into a regular source of income by arresting the “illegals” every Sabbath. The sons of Shlomo Shalit used to spend much time bribing all ranks of police and in all kinds of ways.

Another son, Zalman Shalit, set up the Berlin–Shalit partnership together with Meir Berlin, son of Alexander Zisskind, for wood–sawing and export. They were both Zionists and generous and established a special fund to support householders who had lost their money, rabbis who needed medical attention, etc.

Meir Berlin participated in the all–Russian Zionist Conference at Helsingfors, Finland in 1906.

Zalman Shalit, his brother–in–law Dr. M. Pines who wrote a history of Yiddish literature in French, and his partner Meir Berlin, helped to establish the paper “Die Iddishe Stimme” (The Jewish Voice) in Riga. This paper was organized on the initiative of the Hebrew writer, Yehuda Leib Kantor, who was serving as Crown Rabbi of Riga in 1910. The Shalit family also contributed the ground for erection of the “Jewish Club” at the corner of Dzirnava and Skoliaya Streets.

The son Tuvia Shalit was one of the “hostages” taken by the Russian authorities during World War I.

Elijah Shalit took part in the Kovno Conference of 1909 and was a member of the Relief Committee established in 1915 in aid of the Kurland refugees who were expelled to inner Russia by the Russian army.


Eliezer Ettingen

Eliezer Ettingen was born in Velizh in 1870 in a family where communal

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Activities were a tradition. His father had been accustomed to proceed to St. Petersburg for the affairs of his town. He himself studied in Berne and together with the Yiddish publicist, Hayyim Zhitlovsky, established a national Jewish Student's Organization. From the time he moved to Riga, he headed a large firm for the distribution of mineral oil known as the Mazut Company under the Tsar and subsequently as the Shell Company.

After the first Zionist Congress, he was one of the founders of the first Zionist Society in Riga and in 1898, was delegate at the Russian Zionist Conference held in Warsaw. Fifty years later, he published his reminiscences together with the minutes of the Conference in the official Zionist weekly, “Haolam” (30.09.48). This is one of the few documents available for students of the Conference in question.

He participated in all Congresses from the second one onwards. He was elected a member of the General Zionist Council at the 18th Congress held in Prague and was chairman of the General Zionists in Riga until he proceeded to Eretz Israel in 1935. His years of active membership and leadership of the Zionist Movement earned him the status of a “Virilist” i.e. he was co–opted as a Member of the Zionist General Council in view of his ample activities and experience.

Zionist activities did not prevent him from taking an active part in the variegated local Jewish public life. He was among the founders of the first Yiddish paper in Riga – the “Iddishe Stimme”. He was chairman of the Hakoah Sports Society and a committee member of the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment for 35 years. At the time of the expulsion of Kurland Jews in 1915, he was one of the heads of the Committee in Aid of Refugees. After World War II, he headed the “Association of Latvian and Esthonian Jews in Israel”. To his last day, he actively participated in helping Jewish refugees from Soviet Latvia as well as newcomers from Latvia to Israel.

It is nothing less than proper to give a brief account of Eliezer Ettingen's personality. In his external appearance, he was every inch the “grand seigneur”. He seemed like an ancient oak, firm and deeply rooted, venerable and honourable. He enjoyed life and knew when to take the lead with a spacious gesture, when to support and aid. He dealt dedicatedly and responsibly with issues great and small. He would welcome refugees at the quayside during the Expulsion of 1915, and waited on the stairs at the home of the District Governor in order to persuade him to send the consignments of refugees to Jewish regions in order to facilitate their absorption. He would

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Do what had to be done to provide a tombstone for a veteran Zionist or find work for an immigrant from Latvia who was left without a livelihood…. He passed away in Tel–Aviv in 1956, replete with years and good deeds.


The Mintz Family

The Mintz family was an old and aristocratic one with a pedigree going back at least seventeen generations to the learned rabbinical Mintz family of Padua in the early 16th century and included a long series of outstanding rabbinical authorities and famous scholars. (For further information, see the Hebrew genealogical work “Dast Kedoshim” by I.T. Eisenstadt with supplements by Samuel Winer, St. Petersubrg, 1897/8).

The family headed by Yehiel Michel Mintz left Dvinsk in 1880 for Riga. They included five sons, several of whom established outstanding professional reputations and were dedicated to communal activities. These were: Prof. Saul (Samuel Feivel) Mintz, Prof. Vladimir (Zeev Wolf) Mintz and Eng. Dr. Nahum Mintz.

The Mintz family actually lived in Riga as a first–generation group that left the Pale of Settlement (Dvinsk having been part of the Vitebsk Government District in 1880). It could serve as an example of the influence of German on the Jews of the region even before they came to the primarily German city. Their behaviour, their external appearance, the language used at home and the education of the children were all dominated by German culture. Old Riga residents were certain that they must have been residing in Riga or Kurland for many generations.


Professor Paul Mintz.

The best–known of the brothers on account of his communal activities, Paul Mintz was born in 1868. In 1890 he graduated with distinction from the Legal Faculty of the St. Petersburg University. In 1892 he received the degree of Master of Law at the Dorpat University. In 1904 he was admitted as an Advocate, which, in those days, involved considerable difficulties, together with lawyers Schlossberg and Vinaver, who subsequently became famous in Russian Jewry. He engaged in communal activities together with his professional work as an advocate, scholar and later as a lecturer at Riga University.

As a young man, he aimed to set up a nucleus of communal workers who would organise the communal institutions which were missing in Riga, while at the same time, help to lead the community as far as necessary

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and possible towards expanding and defending their civic rights. The group he established attended the “Herren Abende” or “Gentlemen's evenings” which in due course became a sort of unofficial club of leading communal figures and were attended by persons from Kurland and Reissen alike. Members included: Leib Shalit, Zeev Luntz, Paul Mintz, Nahum Mintz, Dr. Max Scheinfeld, Eliezer Ettingen, Dr. Abraham Salkind, Advocate Joshua (Zhano) Tron and others. It is indeed a pity that all the names connected with this institution have not been preserved. It functioned not only under Russian rule but also in the early days of Independent Latvia.

These Gentlemen's Evenings led to the establishment of the Riga branch of the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment which, in 1906, set up the Riga Craft School. It also guided the Jewish voters in the elections to the Russian parliamentary institution known as the Duma, which met from 1906–1917. Here it should be mentioned that the Jews supported the Latvian candidate rather than the German. In due course, the Latvians repaid this Jewish support fittingly by joining the Germans and exterminating Riga Jewry during the years 1941–1944.

At the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Kurland in 1915, Paul Mintz headed the Public Committee to aid the expelled and he was one of the ten hostages demanded by the Russian authorities in order to refrain from expelling the Jews of Riga.

During the German occupation in World War I, he lived in Moscow where he continued his scholarly work. In 1919 he returned to Riga and went to Germany when the city was occupied by the Red Army.

Following the Latvian declaration of Independence, Karl Ulmanis who headed the government during the greater part of the existence of Independent Latvia, invited him to return to Riga. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly and joined the government as State Comptroller and being the only Jew to serve as a Minister.

From the foundation of the University of Latvia he lectured there as Professor of Criminology, writing works on this subject which were translated into Latvian. He headed the committee that prepared the Latvian Criminal Code and represented the Latvian Government at international legal conferences.

In the beginnings of Latvian independence when hopes of national autonomy had not yet faded, the Central Committee of Jewish Communities set up a committee which he headed in order to prepare the Statute of Autonomy to be presented to the Seim. He was a member of the Jewish Agency for Baltic countries, chairman of the National Democrat Party,

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wrote for the party paper “Narodnoya Misl”, chairman of the Jewish Lawyer's Association, etc.

When Latvia was annexed to Soviet Russia in 1940, he was exiled to Siberia together with his wife and son. A few months later, he was arrested and kept in the Thaishet concentration camp. All efforts made by public figures in the U.S.A. to obtain his liberation were in vain. In 1941, he died in Siberia.


Professor Vladimir (Wolf) Mintz.

The brother of Paul Mintz, he had a well–earned reputation as one of the best surgeons in Moscow and Riga. He was born in Dvinsk in 1872. After the family moved to Riga in 1880, he completed school there and entered Dorpat University from which he graduated in medicine in 1893 and was appointed Surgical Assistant. In Berlin, he studied with the famous surgeon Israel. In 1897, he went to Moscow where he became known through his scientific and surgical studies. At an all–Russian Medical Conference held in Moscow in 1916, he demonstrated the removal of foreign bodies from the lungs which was a medical novelty at the time. He was secretary of the Surgical Association of Russia and was also a member of the International Surgical Organization, besides being an editor of the Russian “Surgical Journal” together with Prof. N.A. Sokolow. In 1917 he was appointed Professor at the University of Moscow.

In 1918, after Lenin had been attacked and shot by the Social Revolutionary Kaplan, he was called to attend to him, operated and saved his life. The Lenin Museum in Moscow exhibits the Bulletins reporting Lenin's condition and improvement in health which are signed among other by V. Mintz.

With the aid of Lenin, he was allowed to return to Riga where he was in charge of the Surgical Department of the Jewish Bikkur Holim Hospital which he finally headed. He lectured at the Riga University where he occupied the Chair in Surgery from 1940.

After Riga was taken by the Nazi, he passed through the entire Nazi inferno beginning with the Riga Ghetto where he organized a kind of hospital and dedicated himself entirely to relief work. The Riga Ghetto was followed by the Kaiserwald Concentration Camp. Finally, after all kinds of vicissitudes, he was sent to Buchenwald where he found his death in a mass grave.

Mintz was a Zionist and dreamt of working at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Physicians and students who worked with him or studied

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under him still speak of his dedicated kindness to patients and students.

His reputation has not diminished and he is still referred to in Latvian and Russian literature as the surgeon who saved the life of Lenin. In 1970, a biography was published in Riga in Russian entitled: “Professor Mintz” by Drs. B. Altshuler and D. Cherfass.


Nahum Mintz.

The brother of Paul and Vladimir Mints was born in Dvinsk in 1867. He proceeded to Riga with his family in 1880. After leaving the secondary school, he entered the Riga Polytechnic in the Faculty of chemistry. Following his graduation, he became the assistant to Prof. Bischoff in 1890, received his doctorate at Leipzig University, returned to Riga and once again entered the Polytechnic as an assistant. He was offered a high scientific post provided he change his religion. He declined the offer and that ended his scientific career.

Apart from his professional qualifications as a chemist, he knew many languages and was widely cultured in many fields. He worked in various private enterprises and married the daughter of Leib Shalit.

In his communal activities, he took a considerable part in the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment, particularly in organizing the Craft School which was established in 1906 and which he helped to re–establish after World War I. He was a committee member of the Jewish Club, a member of the Board of Directors of the Northern Bank, etc.


Dr. Max Scheinfeld.

Unlike many Latvian public figures, most of whose activities were local in character, the work of Dr. Max Scheinfeld was conducted in institutions and organizations which aimed to improve the condition of Russian Jewry as a whole.

Dr. M. Scheinfeld was a psychiatrist, born in Mitau in 1861 and graduated from Dorpat University. In 1897 he opened a Hospital for Mental Diseases in Riga and became known as one of the outstanding specialists of Russia. He also published studies in his profession and gained a wide reputation as a person not concerned with making money and who attended poor patients free of charge.

In spite of his professional activities, he also dedicated himself to communal work. In Riga, he helped to establish the Bikkur Holim Hospital. He played an even more important role in Jewish institutions that were established from 1905 onwards.

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In 1905, Jewish communal workers from all parts of Russia met in Vilna and established the “Society for achieving Equal Rights for the Jewish People in Russia”. Dr. Scheinfeld was present and was elected a member of the Central Committee, dedicating himself to the new task. Those were fateful years for Russian Jewry. They included pogroms, elections to the first and second Dumas, steps to prevent the exclusion of the Jews from the voters' lists and to direct elections along the desired channels, etc. Several Conferences of the Society were held during 1906 and 1906. However, it split over various differences of opinion in 1907 and was dissolved.

In 1909, after the disappointment resulting from the election of only two Jewish Members to the Duma (one from the Kovno District and the other from Kurland), the increasing reaction and a steady worsening of the Jewish position, an attempt was made to revive communal life through a conference that was held in Kovno. Doctor Max Scheinfeld was the representative of Riga Jewry. The conference adopted a number of resolutions regarding organization of the communities, social work, steps to improve the situation of craftsmen, etc., but these resolution had no real effect on account of the general political situation.

In 1912, Dr. Scheinfeld was murdered by one of his patients.

Apart from the individuals and families mentioned above, there were a large number of others. Mention can be made here of: Abraham Rabinowitz, Hayyim Leib Risker, Zelig Brusowansky, Jacob Hurwitz, Zalman Meir Lipschitz, Koppel Lewinson, Kahaner, Mendel Lulov, Jonah Ettinger, Feitel Cohen, L. Zalmansohn S.M. Yaffe, A. Leibovitz and sons and Hermann Cohen and brothers. Some of these headed large firms for import and export of timber; they owned sawmills, exported skins and fells, engaged in banking business, etc.

The following owned some of the largest business houses in Riga: Mortiz Feitelberg, G. Scheinfeld, Aaronstamm, Louis Tall and others. These dealt in clothing, metal products, paper and writing utensils, draperies, etc., on a very large scale and were known far beyond the city limits.

Mention has been made here only of those about whom it has been possible to obtain details. Many others of equal importance must undoubtedly be missing.


The Average Riga Jew.

It is the way of history to record and write at length about persons who occupied leading positions and directed the development of the community

[Page 259]

Thanks to their own special qualities. In order to avoid giving a wrong impression, it should be noted that apart from the “Upper Classes” to whom reference has been made, Riga contained extensive Jewish groups from Kurland, Lithuania and Reissen. They lived largely in the suburbs and included all kinds of toiling craftsmen: tailors, hand–sewers, shoemakers and small shop–keepers. They all spoke Yiddish and most of them were observant Jews who filled the many synagogues of the city. Then there was a younger generation of “free” Jews who listened to new winds of thought, were swayed by ideological currents calling for changes in the established order and a transformation in the civic and national life of the Jewish people.

Although Riga was not part of the Pale of Settlement, it was sensitive to all the currents which originated in the Jewish centres of Russia. The Zionist Movement and the Bund, the synthesis of national life with the advancement of the working class in all their varied and separate groups and parties, found their echo and enthusiastic supporters who were prepared to take action and sacrifice themselves.

National and Political currents: Zionism, the Bund, and the Jewish Self–Defence.

In 1884, there was a Hovevei Zion nucleus in Riga. Its members included Leib Shalit and Wolf Luntz to whom reference has already been made, David Schwarzbard and Aaron Pumpiansky – a Hebrew writer and journalist who was Crown Rabbi of Riga for twenty years. The secretary was Wolf Kaplan who has been mentioned elsewhere as the principal of the first modern Jewish School in Riga. He also used to contribute to the Hebrew press and wrote poetry under the pen–name “Zaken”.

In 1890, the Jews of Riga began to take active steps in connection with Eretz Israel. A society of twelve members, together with similar societies in Vilna and Kovno, acquired part of the Hedera lands. In 1891, people went to settle there, drained swamps, caught malaria and no small number lost their lives in regaining the land for settlement.

After the 1897 Zionist Congress which Leib Shalit attended as a delegate from Riga, the “Zion” Society was established headed by Eliezer Ettingen, advocate Z. Tron, Dr. A. Salkind and others. In 1898 E. Ettingen was a delegate at the Russian Zionist Conference in Warsaw while in 1902, M. Nurock was delegate at the Minsk Conference. There were delegates from Riga at all congresses from the beginning onwards.

In 1904, a group of young men organized the “Shoharei Zion” Society

[Page 260]

which took an active part in the Helsingfors Conference. In 1906, the temporarily illegal Zionist activity was conducted in the guise of the “Ivriya” Club.

The Zeirei Zion Party was established in Riga in 1912 and sent Zeev Levenberg as its delegate to the 11th Congress in 1919.

Revolutionary propaganda was already being conducted in 1899–1900 among Jewish and Christian workers including tinsmiths, tailors, hat–makers and female dress–makers. When the “General Association of Jewish Workers in Russia, Poland and Lithuania” known in brief as the Bund was organized in 1897, those worker groups joined it.

Throughout the years of ferment between 1900–1906, there were constant demonstrations, strikes, attacks on editorial offices of reactionary papers, etc. in Riga where an active propaganda circle functioned in the Polytechnic. This led to the expulsion of students including future leaders such as Abraham Braun (Sergei), Z. Latzki–Bertholdy – one of the founders of the Zionist Socialists (S.S.) and others.

Arrests and on occasion cruel and degrading punishments led to the organization of a terrorist group of “Organized Vengeance” headed by Abraham Braun and Lazar Aronstamm. Riga distinguished itself before and during the 1905 Revolution when a number of the most important political strikes of Tsarist Russia took place in the city.

The first Conference at which it was decided that the Bund and the Social Democrat Movement should cooperate was held there. The demonstrations and strikes organized by a Joint Committee of the Bund and the Latvian Social Democrats were conducted on a particularly large scale. In Latvia, the 1905 Revolution acquired a unique character through the participation of the Latvian peasants who saw this as an opportunity to revenge themselves on the German Barons whose ancestors had robbed them of their land long generations before. During the period of the reaction, punitive expeditions were sent out and wrought havoc among those who had revolted.

The reaction of 1908 and subsequent years brought about a decline in the work of the Bund whose strength was also considerably reduced by emigration. A new policy found expression through legal work in the communities, the establishment of economic organizations, developing the Cooperative Movement, etc.

A nucleus of the Bund remained in Riga and conducted lively activities in Independent Latvia after World War I.

[Page 261]

Towns & People

The movements which developed as a synthesis of Zionism and Social Democracy, namely the Poalei Zion Movement and its offshoots, the Zionist Socialist (S.S.) Movement and the “Seimovtsi Movement” also found a place in Riga.

All these movements, from the Bund to the Zionist Socialists, etc., took as active part in the Jewish Self–Defence which came into being after the Kishinev Pogrom. This Self–Defence body showed its value in 1905 when Jews were attacked on the outskirts of Riga. Thanks to its existence and presence, much loss was prevented and many lives were saved.

World War I brought all these party activities to a standstill. Many of them reawakened to an even more intensive life in Independent Latvia.

In all the above descriptions, our aim has been to indicate the various components which, taken together, helped to shape that outstanding community known throughout the Jewish world as “Riga Jewry”.


* details of some of the biographies given below were received from: Mrs. Edith Cohen–Mintz; Mrs. Deborah Kamenetzky (the L. Shalit and Mintz families); Mrs. Lili Mizrah–Brill (S. Shalit); and Mr. Michael Piratinsky (the Hindin family). Mr. Piratinsky also engaged in the import/export of timber through Riga. Return


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