“Aizpute” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Latvia and Estonia
(Aizpute, Latvia)

56°43' / 21°36'

Translation of “Aizpute” chapter
from Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia v'Estonia

Written by: Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1988


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Acknowledgments

Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia and Estonia:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Latvia and Estonia,
Edited by Dov Levin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (Pages 54-59)


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[Pages 54-59]

Aizpute

(in German: Hasenpoth. In Yiddish: Hozenpot)

Translated by Jasha Viskanzi

Translation first published in Latvia SIG, vol. 3, no. 4, December 1998

A regional town in Courland.

 

Population Figures

Year Total
Population
Jewish
Population
Percentage
1797   209
males
 
1800 1,469 678 46
1835   1,599  
1863 3,150 1,622 52
1881 3,690 1,455 39
1897 3,340 1,170 35
1920 2,680 586 22
1925 3,346 629 19
1930 3,435 572 17
1935 3,418 534 16

 

Until the End of World War I

History of the Town

The town of Aizpute sprung from an ancient Courlandish castle. In 1295 Aizpute passed over to the rule of the German Order, and in 1378 it was granted the status and rights of a town. The town was the capital of the Piltene District and an important commercial center.

For a long time, the District of Piltene and its capital, Aizpute, were independent enclaves within Courland. In the beginning Piltene was the private estate of the ruling Bishop of Courland. Afterwards, it was sold to the Danes, and in 1585 the district passed over to the direct rule of the Polish king while the other districts of Courland were autonomic dukedoms under the auspices of Poland.

Throughout the changes in government, the German citizens of Aizpute maintained their municipal rights: they had a mayor, council and court, and the municipal authorities collected taxes from the inhabitants. In the 17th Century, Aizpute was the largest commercial center in Courland, and it served amongst other things for the export of wheat to Holland. In 1795, Aizpute together with all of Courland passed over to Russian rule. In 1819, its administrative-legal status was put on a par with that of the rest of the Courland region, and Aizpute and the district lost their special character.

At the outset of World War I, Aizpute was conquered by the German army, and at the end, by the Bolsheviks.

 

The Establishment of the Community, the Demographic and Economic Development and Legal Status

Due to the special legal status of the Piltene District, the Jewish settlement in the district preceded those settlements in other parts of Courland. It is estimated that the first Jews arrived there in the 17th Century, following an invitation from the Bishop of Courland, who wanted to raise its economic value, and they also settled in the surrounding area of Aizpute. Most probably they only settled in the town itself during the period of Polish rule. The laws that were imposed upon the Jewish settlements in the towns of Courland did not apply in the District of Piltene, which was mentioned as being under the direct rule of the Polish King. Following an agreement that was made at the end of the 17th Century between the King of Poland and the aristocracy of the District of Piltene, attempts were made to equate the status of the Jews there to that of the Jews in the remaining dukedoms of Courland. Various taxes were imposed upon them and expulsion orders were issued against them. However, the orders were in fact not carried out or they were only partially carried-out. Proof of this is that there was a house of prayer in the district in 1708. In the first half of the 18th Century, the Jews raised a tax to the municipal authorities, and thus their right to settle in the town was in fact recognized. The first document in which Aizpute Jews are mentioned is dated the 21st of July, 1740. It states that the Jewish synagogue taxes (Jüdischecapellagelder) will be equally divided between the mayor and the municipal court.

In 1750, the orders for the expulsion of the Jews were invalidated, and they were granted the right to legal settlement. It was determined that the Jews would raise an annual protection tax for the district aristocracy (one thousand Albert Florins, equivalent in that year to 330 Talers). Every Jew was liable to pay the tax according to his income. The poor were exempt from the payment. On the 9th of September, 1751, a permit was obtained for the construction of a synagogue, and permission was given to purchase a plot of land for this purpose. Jews were also granted the right to establish a community, according to that prevalent in Poland and Latvia. Thus, the first Jewish community in Courland was officially established. The Jews had a few rights in the town: they paid municipal taxes, they enjoyed freedom to trade and they were registered in the merchant's guilds.

During the second half of the 18th Century, the Jewish community of Aizpute was the most important in the District of Piltene, and it had a special status towards the rest of the Jews in the District. In 1750, two Jews from Aizpute - Yeshayahu and Zvi Cohen were appointed as appraisers to assess the amount of protection tax to be paid by every Jew living in their District. They were also guarantors for the collection of the tax. For this purpose, they were accorded penal authority: to impose fines and take mortgages. One year later, it was determined that the Jews of the District must purchase etrogim (citrons) for the sukkahs only in Aizpute, and that all Jews residing up to a distance of five miles from the town must celebrate in the town itself. In 1760, the two above-mentioned guarantors were also given the right to collect taxes from the Jewish merchants of Mitau (Jelgava) coming to trade in the District. In later years, despite the fact that the method of taxation was changed and the collection of the protection tax was transferred to local Jewish organizations throughout the District, the special status of the Aizpute community was preserved also due to their economic importance. In 1782, for example, the Jews of Aizpute and its surroundings raised close to half the protection tax raised by the Jews in the entire District (278 out of 604 Talers). When they were behind in the tax payment, the President of the Court of Aizpute issued a proclamation in 1788 to the Jews of the District to make up the deficit. In 1783, it was prescribed that all the Jewish merchants in the District must be registered in the merchant's guilds of Aizpute. After the annexation to Russia in 1796, this right was also extended to Jewish merchants of Courland who wished to do so. In that same year, 33 merchants were registered: 8 in the First Guild, 2 in the Second Guild, and 23 in the Third Merchant's Guild.

The Jews of Aizpute were entitled to vote for the local municipal institutions, but not to be elected to them. Nevertheless, in 1799, one of the prominent members of the community, by the name of Pinchas Eichel, filled a public position in the municipal court. After 1819, the Russian government authorities equated the status of the Jews of Aizpute with the status of the rest of the Jews of Courland (see introduction).

At the end of the 18th Century, the Jewish community numbered several hundred people: In 1782, 140 heads of households and 40 young men were registered in the book Hevrat Kadisha [Burial Society], and in 1797 the community numbered 209 males. In the first half of the 19th Century, the Jewish community grew rapidly and became the majority of the town's population. Most of them came from Lithuania, primarily from the Zamut belt, and some of them, including the first settlers of the town, from the trading towns of Eastern Prussia-- Hamburg, Danzig and other towns. In 1840, a large part of the community-- 96 families, totaling 618 people- left Aizpute emigrating to the Kharkov region in southern Russia within the framework of the settlement program initiated by the government. Following this event and due to a cholera epidemic that swept the town in 1848, the number of Jews declined. Nonetheless, in 1863 the Jews still comprised half the town's population.

The economic status of the community was strong. The Jews took an increasingly large part in the town's commercial sectors: In 1800 the Jews constituted 30 percent of the total number of those registered in the town's merchants (14 out of 42 merchants), and in 1805 their percentage rose to about 58 percent (15 out of the 26 merchants were Jews). During the next thirty years, the number of Jews in merchants' guilds grew considerably, and in 1835 reached 180. Their position was generally well off, and amongst them were also the very wealthy. For example, in 1792, a Jewish merchant recorded in his will the value of his assets, which was dozens of times greater than the annual protection tax of all the Jews of the Piltene District. At the same time, there were broad classes of poor and impoverished Jews. Many of them were amongst the many immigrants who left, as mentioned, to settle in the Kharkov region with the hope of improving their economic position. In the last third of the 19th Century, there was a gradual decline in the number of Jews and their relative percentage in the town. Towards the end of the Century, they comprised only 35 percent of the total population.

During World War I, not all the Jews of Aizpute were expelled due to the rapid entry of the Germans to the town, but many left due to hardships of the war. In the course of the war, 26 private buildings and 5 public buildings belonging to Jews were destroyed.

 

Public Life and Its Institutions

In the first years of the establishment of the community, the Jews of Aizpute required the Rabbis of the town of Shkud in Lithuania, and in 1760, Rabbi Aharon Levi Horowitz of Shkud served as rabbi of both communities. In following decades there was already a well-organized community in the town with a developed system of institutions that also served the Jews in the surrounding area. There was an independent rabbinate and rabbinical court, which existed after the aforementioned rabbi moved to Aizpute already in 1770; a public assembly, which elected a Gabbai [synagogue treasurer] once a year; Hevrat Kadisha [burial society], synagogue, bath house, charitable trust and other various societies such as Talmud Torah, Bikur Holim [Charity for the Sick] and Hevrat Mishniot. Since 1763, they began to keep a community ledger, which was written in German with Hebrew letters. The ledger was arranged in an orderly and methodical manner. Each member had a page on which his debts and payments were recorded. In 1782 as mentioned, 140 heads of households, 40 young men and 21 Jews from the vicinity were registered. The Gabbais were in charge of the writing of the register, the community institutions and management of expenses and income, which also included the collection of taxes and salary payments. They had to submit a monthly report on their activities. In 1782, for example, it was recorded in the ledger that the community collected in that year 2,155 Gulden. This sum included taxes to the authorities -- 1,026 Gulden for protection tax to the aristocracy and 168 Gulden for municipal tax (the poor were exempt from these taxes) -- and the following taxes for community purposes: “Korovka” tax -- 550 Gulden, donations to the synagogue (going up to the Torah, etc.) -- 365 Gulden and payments to the charity fund, which were collected by the Shammash [orderly] who visited homes twice a week -- 46 Gulden. A large part of the community's expenses was allocated to the Rabbi. In that year (1782), the rabbi's salary totaled 525 Gulden -- the sum of the entire Korovka tax, and the Jews in the surrounding area also participated. Another important source of income was the personal donations. In 1792, for instance, one of the gentlemen bequeathed a sum of 750 Talers, more than three times the annual protection tax for the community's various needs. In 1861, the town had three synagogues and two minyanim [small prayer houses].

The economic position of the community and the marked influence of the German culture in the town, attracted Jewish doctors and intellectuals at the turn of the 18th Century. Amongst them was Daniel Kleif Ben-Haim of Amsterdam, the composer of the essay “A Small Flowerbed”. He lived in Aizpute for about ten years, and took part in community life. It was here that he published (in 1777) the first edition of his essay; the two Eichel brothers of Copenhagen - the aforementioned Pinchas Eichel, who served as the legal advisor to the municipal court and was the son-in-law of one of the richest and most prominent members of the community, and Yitzhak Aharon Eichel, who translated into German several Hebrew essays, such as the prayer book and the Book of Ecclesiastes; Dr. David Avramson, a native of Danzig, who wrote a medical book in German; Dr. Aharon Solomon Tobias, a physician and surgeon from Poland, who resided in Aizpute until his death in 1782, leaving behind medical journals; Dr. Avraham Brennerdet, who studied medicine in London, and after several years of activity in Aizpute, filled important medical positions in Russia and was awarded the title of Court Advisor.

The Rabbinate of Aizpute was traditional-orthodox, and among its rabbis were the above-mentioned Rabbi Horowitz, who left the town after several years of office and moved to serve as the Rabbi of Berlin; Rabbi Yosef Ben-Menachem, who dealt in kabbala [mysticism] and served in the town from 1779; his son-in-law, Rabbi Yechiel Michal Ben-Arie, was at first a dayan [religious judge] and was afterwards appointed to the position of rabbi which he held until his death in 1835; Rabbi Yehoshua Zelig Hacohen served in the Rabbinate of Aizpute from around 1839 to 1852. This rabbi was first a merchant and an estate owner in Piltene, and afterwards studied with Rabbi Haim from Woloczin. He died in Jerusalem in 1853; Rabbi Itzhak Zeev Aronowitz, who was before that the rabbi of Laukova in Lithuania, served in Aizpute in 1852 until his death in 1876; Rabbi Avraham Heller held his position until 1881 after which he moved to Libau (Liepaja). His essay, "Beautiful Landscape", including discourses and rabbinical commentaries, was printed in 1907; Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Yaacovson, a native of Talson (Talsi), who leaned towards Zionism, served from 1904 until his immigration to Eretz Israel in 1913. In Eretz Israel [Land of Israel], he was a teacher in the Herzlia High School and afterwards the founder of the Yeshiva [Religious academy] in Tel-Aviv.

At the turn of the 19th Century, in addition to the traditional Talmudic hederim [religious schools], there were two schools for Jewish youth: a Russian government school and a private school under the management of J. Pos. In the decade preceding World War I, Rabbi Moshe Yaacovson was active in spreading the Zionist concept and the Hebrew language. Under his influence, secular studies and the modern Hebrew language were introduced into the local Talmud Torah, and books and newspapers from Eretz Israel were brought to the town.

During World War I, the Zionist spirit grew stronger in the community: they began to collect donations for the settlement in Eretz Israel; they publicly celebrated the Balfour Declaration and in 1917 the first Zionist Association was founded under the name “Kadima”, which organized the majority of the local youth into its ranks.

 

Between the Two World Wars

Demography and Economy

After the war, only about half the Jews were left in the town. A few more dozens of Jews returned to the town by 1925 within the framework of the repatriation, and from this year onwards the absolute number and the relative percentage of the Jews in the town declined steadily.

The economic situation of the Jews of Aizpute during this period was well off. A Joint Report dated 1920 stated that only 10 percent of the Jews are poor, 80 percent have sources of income and an additional 10 percent are wealthy. The Jews' two main economic branches were commerce and trades, which based their living on the affluent and developed agricultural surroundings. The Jews engaged in all branches of trade - among them were tailors, hat makers, furriers, shoemakers, sewers, watchmakers, tinmen, locksmiths, painters and butchers. Their share in commerce was particularly noticeable. In 1935, their percentage in some of the town's commercial branches was as follows:

 

Type of Business Total Jewish %
Grocery 25 18 72
Bakeries and Bread Shops 7 2 29
Produce and Agricultural Goods 7 4 57
Meat Products 12 7 58
Beverages 6 1 7
Taverns, Restaurants and Cafeterias 11 2 18
Paper and Writing Utensils 2 1 50
Kerosene, Coal and Oils 3 3 100
Bicycles and Sewing Machines 4 2 50
Pharmacies 2 2 100
Iron Tools 2 2 100
Clothing and Textiles 14 11 78
Shoes and Leather 7 4 57
Hairdressers 9 2 22
Miscellaneous 5 3 60

 

Most of the Jews had small businesses, where they worked by themselves or were assisted by family members; the minority employed several clerks, shopkeepers or laborers. Among the 21 large factories and workshops in Aizpute which employed more than 5 workers, only 4 were owned by Jews: a factory for light beverages and lumber mills. There was also a small group of Jews in Aizpute who had liberal professions: four out of the seven physicians in the town, one lawyer out of three that engaged in this profession in Aizpute, three dentists and a handful of teachers in Jewish educational institutions. Because of the small number of large factors and the shortage of employment, many of the youths left the town.

Jews were elected to the town council and several of them served during different periods in the position of deputy mayor. In 1926, for example, among the 20 town council members, three were Jews. In the twenties the relations between the Jews and their neighbors were sound. During the thirties, the general escalation of anti-Semitism was also felt in Aizpute, which was expressed, amongst other things, in assaults on Jewish students in the Latvian high schools and attempts to encroach upon the Jews' economic status.

 

Community Institutions

After the war, the Jews of Aizpute organized as a religious community, and the traditional Korovka tax was the main source of the community's income. Rabbi Mordechai Norok was sent to the national convention of Jewish communities in Latvia, which was held in 1920, as a representative of the community. In order to assist in the battle against typhus and other epidemics from which the town suffered in the post-war period, the community operated an old bathhouse and reached a special settlement with the local Christian pharmacist regarding sale of medications to Jews. During this period, the community also supervised the local welfare association, which was maintained on member's taxes, totaling 130 members. A Hospice for the Poor Association also operated in the town to accommodate poor wayfarers.

In 1922, with the aid of a grant from the Joint in the sum of 62 million Lat, a cooperative bank called "Savings and Loan Fund" was established. Representatives of the bank participated in conventions of the Jewish credit funds, which were held in Riga.

With time, other welfare associations were founded, such as Bikur Holim [charity for the sick] and the Women's Association, which organized various events for charitable purposes and also played a social and cultural role in the community. In addition, charity funds were also founded, such as the butchers' Charity Banquets and the tradesmen's Charity Workers. There was a synagogue and yeshiva in the town. Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev Shitz served in the beginning as rabbi, and in the thirties-- the son-in-law of Rabbi Haim Zaiman Zvi Sharel. From the mid-thirties, the influence of the religious party Agudat Israel in the community increased. At the end of the decade, Y. Feldman served as head of the community and was also a member of the town council. He participated in all the community's philanthropic organizations. In 1938, the fiscal balance of the community was 4,107 Lat in respect of expenses and 4,809 Lat in respect of income.

Aizpute had a Jewish elementary school in which about 100 students studied - there were four classes in 1920 and six classes in 1926. In the 1933-34 school year, the number of students dropped to 90. The language of study was German in the beginning. Judaism and Hebrew language were taught twice a week. Under the influence of a group of the Hebrew teachers in the school, they began to gradually pass over to teaching in Hebrew, and in the 1927-1928 school year, the name of the institution was officially changed to the “First Hebrew Elementary School”. The prevailing influence of Agudat Israe” in the second half of the thirties was also reflected in the field of education. In 1939, a Talmud Torah was established for afternoon studies for the school students.

 

Political and Cultural Activity

After the war, the Haskala [Education/Enlightenment] Association was founded in order to spread the Hebrew language and the Zionist concept, and its members founded a Hebrew library in 1919-1920. They organized the youth to raise donations for the Keren Kayamet Le Israel [Jewish National Fund], and under their influence as mentioned, the Jewish school became a Hebrew school. Zionist teachers and representatives, who arrived in Aizpute in the early twenties, also contributed to strengthening the Zionist influence. Amongst them were Eliyahu Carmel of the illegal HeHalutz in the Soviet Union and Yaakov Maimon-Wesserman, the author of the first Hebrew stenography book, who served as a Hebrew teacher in the school, organizing evening Hebrew classes in which 50 students studied and tried unsuccessfully in 1920 to found a branch of HeHalutz in the town. The opening of the Hebrew University was publicly celebrated in the Aizpute Synagogue. The Association for Culture was founded in the mid-twenties in the spirit of Zionism, and a dramatic group was established in the thirties, part of whose income aided pioneers to immigrate to Eretz Israel.

The first Organization of Jewish Youth was founded in 1923 as a sports association of the Jewish School students. It was organized by the gym teacher (not Jewish), and she later on joined the National Organization of Latvian Scouts. In 1924-26, a branch of the Maccabi Organization was founded in Aizpute. This was a national Jewish sport association that also engaged in cultural activity and maintained an orchestra. In 1928, a branch of Shomer Hatsir was founded with about 50 members in the thirties. They worked a small plot of land that they received from the community. About twenty of them immigrated to Eretz Israel. In 1930, a branch of Beitar was founded, numbering 28 members in 1931 and 20 members in 1932. Its ranks grew slightly in later years. In 1933, a Hapoel convention was held in Courland.

The activity of the Bund was sparse in Aizpute: several young people, mostly among the students, were members of the Communist part. In addition, the Zionist parties were active in the town, primarily the Socialist Zionists, the General Zionists and the Revisionists (Hetzhar). Zionists were elected to the town council and a few of them served as deputy mayors (e.g., Hirshhorn on behalf of the Socialist Zionists and Moses Hugo on behalf of the General Zionists).

In the first half of the thirties, the Zionist influence in Aizpute increased considerably, and half of all the Jews in the town - 221 persons - took part in the elections to the 1933 Zionist Congress.

The results were as follows:

 

Congress Year General
Zionists
Jewish
Zionist
Youth-
Social
Zionists
Revisionists Mizrachi Total
Votes
14th 1925 75 -- -- -- 75
15th 1927 2 -- 27 5 34
16th 1929 -- 27 18 3 58
17th 1931 1 98 31 4 134
18th 1933 10 155 46 10 221

 

In the second half of the thirties, the Zionist activity in the town dwindled as a result of the immigration to Eretz Israel and an increasing shortage in immigration permits. There was also a decline in Maccabi activity, and the soccer teams and orchestra that it established were broken up. Applications of Jewish athletes for acceptance to Latvian sports associations were rejected. In contrast, the activity of Agudat Israel intensified, and in 1939 a women's branch of Agudat Israel called Batya was founded in Aizpute, with the assistance of activity from Liepaj.

 

During World War II

The Soviet Rule (1940-1941)

During this period most of the businesses were nationalized and the public life of the Jews was gradually obliterated. On the 5th of October 1940, a decision was made to close Maccabi. An official liquidator was appointed and the branch was obliged to conclude the liquidation process within four months of the day of the official publication of the decision. Hevrat Kadisha [Burial Society] was closed following a decision of the 12th of December, 1940. In the wake of similar decision, the remainder of the cultural, religious, educational, economic and political organizations, including the local parties and youth movements, were closed one after another, or the nature of their activity was changed. Many Jews, especially the left wing, tried to adjust and fit in with the institutions of the new regime, particularly in the economic and political area. A Jew by the name of Michael Blum was appointed to the position of deputy mayor in 1941.

Several days after war broke out, the roads leading out of Aizpute were still open, particularly the main north-east axis that ran through Kuldiga and Tukums to Riga, but many Jews hesitated and couldn't decide whether to escape or to remain. Others, mostly the men, were hastily recruited to the "Worker's Guard" and were confined to the town, among them were also those that tried to leave town and were returned by order of the Soviet authorities. The severe shortage in transportation vehicles also made departure difficult. Some of the Jews that managed to leave the town were captured by the advancing German Army. Among them was a small group that reached Riga and was caught there. They met the same fate that the rest of the Jews met later on. Within the framework of the official evacuation to the Soviet Union, only a few dozen Jews managed to leave, some on their own initiative and some had positions and connections with the Soviet institutions. But most of the Jews remained behind.

 

Under Nazi Rule

At the end of June or at the beginning of July, 1941, the German Army entered Aizpute. There were over 400 Jews in the town. They were obliged to do forced labor, wear yellow patches and the remainder of the decrees of the Nazi regime was imposed upon them. On July 24th, 1941, 39 Jews were shot to death near the Fedoras cemetery. On Monday, the 6th of Heshvan, 5720 (October 27, 1941), the Jewish community of Aizpute was annihilated.

The planning of the genocide and its execution was ordered by the German Security Police of Liepaja, as the town of Aizpute was under its area of authority. The municipal forest - at a distance of 3 km from the town, near the Kalvini railway station - was fixed as the site of the execution. Three pits were dug at this spot of a total area of 100 square meters. In preparation for the slaughter, the local Latvian police concentrated the Jews in the synagogue.

They were allowed to take with them packages on the false pretense that they were about to be transferred to another place. On the morning of the Aktion, German Security Policemen (10-15 men) arrived from Liepaja to the scene of the murder, accompanied by a Latvian firing squad of about 20 men, which was under their command. Ten trucks were round up by the synagogue, some of which arrived specially from Liepaja. The local police loaded 10-20 persons on each truck, and took them to the site of the killing that was already surrounded by armed local police. The Jews were unloaded from the trucks, marched several hundred meters to a meadow on the outskirts of the forest. The Germans awaited them there, and they searched their bodies for money and valuables. The Jews were ordered to set down their packages, lie on the ground and wait. The victims were taken to pits in groups of 10 -- men, women, children and babies in the arms of their mothers -- and they were shot by a Latvian firing squad. Every two marksmen aimed their weapons at a distance of 5 meters at another victim. The Aktion lasted a few hours, and at the end all the packages of the murdered were transferred to the local police station. On the 3rd of November, 1941, the German Security Police of Liepaja reported the execution of 386 Jews in Aizpute, and at the entrance to the town a sign was erected stating Judenfrei [free of Jews]. Two Jewish women found a hiding place with a Latvian farmer, but they were discovered after a few months. The women were murdered and the farmer was arrested. Another Jew found shelter with a Latvian woman until the end of the war, and he apparently is the sole survivor out of all the Jews of Aizpute that remained under Nazi occupation.

After the war, Jews returned from Russia to Aizpute, and a few of them were shot by Latvian adversaries of the Soviet regime.

In 1973 a tomb was erected in the town with the inscription: “In Memory of the Victims of Fascism”.

 


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