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

57°13' / 21°40'

Translation of “Piltene” 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 205-207).


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[Pages 205-207]

Piltene

(German: Pilten)

Translated by Martha Lev-Zion (z”l)

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

City in the jurisdiction of Courland

 

Population Figures

Year Total
Population
Jewish
Population
Percentage
1818 634 351 55
1881 1,830 721 53
1897 1,509 629 42
1910 1,355 359 27
1920 893 34 4
1925 919 59 6
1930 788 53 7
1935 737 45 6

 

Up to the End of World War I

History of the City

In the beginning of the 13th century, the government of the Germanic Orders (Crusaders) was in place. In a later period of that government, the area of Piltene enjoyed a semi-independent standing, and the town Piltene was utilized as the seat of the area Bishop (the Hagmon). In the year 1559, the town and the area passed to the government of Magnus the Dane, and in the year 1585, to the government of Poland. In the beginning of the 18th century, there were 5 streets and 120 houses in the town. At the end of the century, Piltene was annexed to Tsarist Russia. During the 19th century, the population of the city tripled. But, by the end of the century, there began a constant reduction in the number of residents. Between the two World Wars, the population ratio in Piltene was about half the number of residents who lived there on the eve of the First World War. Excluding some flour mills, there were no industrial factories in the place.

 

Development of Jewish Settlement

The Jewish settlement of Piltene is one of the oldest in Courland. According to one version, Jews clung to the town or its surroundings in the 10th to the 17th centuries. In the same period, it will be recalled, Piltene enjoyed a special status, and following that, there was no general prohibition on Jews' settling in Courland. In any event, there is no doubt that during the Polish government, at the beginning of the 18th century, there already existed a Jewish settlement in the city. The first direct witness to this was in the year 1708, and it was expressly stated that there was in place a synagogue, almost certainly the first of the synagogues of Courland. In those years, the city was destroyed in the Swedish-Polish wars, and it is possible that a portion of the Piltene Jews moved to the neighboring Hassenpoth (Aizpute). In the year 1759, Piltene is recalled as one of the Courlander cities that allowed Jewish settlers. In the year 1782, the Jews of the city and the Church province in which the city was included Kirvenshpileh [koof-yod-bet-noon-shin-peh-yod-lamed (segol)-heh], owed a total of 76 Thaler protection tax. That sum was 12 percent of the general protection tax of the Jews in the entire district.

After the annexation to Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, there were 351 Jewish souls - more than half the city's population. In the eighties the Jews even had a representative on the city council.

From the end of the 19th century forward, there began a constant tendency of absolute and relative reduction in the number of Jews in the locality. On the eve of the First World War, they were only about one quarter of the residents of the city (see the above table). Many Piltene Jews settled in the neighboring port city of Windau (Ventspils), which quickly developed at the end of the 19th century and enjoyed a general flowering. Piltene Jews contributed a great deal to the growth and development of the Windau community. Important people such as the Rabbi Ephraim Semonov and the medical doctor Dr. Yitzhak Feitelberg, who were active in Windau, were born in Piltene The livelihood of Piltene Jews was mainly in commerce - and thus in the industries of resin wine, innkeeping, and tailoring. Among the Jewish doctors who worked in Piltene, particularly well-known were: Dr. Herman Fiertag (1884-1890), and Dr. Hugo Fierberg (1892-1895).

In the year 1915, after the outbreak of WWI, the Jews of Piltene were expelled from the town. During the war, five Jewish public buildings and twenty-three private Jewish homes were damaged.

 

Jewish Institutions

As was noted, the Jewish settlement of Piltene had already established a synagogue at the beginning of the 18th century. In the beginning of 1805, the writing of the Pinkas [notebook/register] was begun. In the same year, there was already active in place a hevra kiddisha [burial society] and it had its own rabbi. It is possible that Uriah Hirsch was the rabbi, as his name appears at the head of the list of signatures on the pinkas. The pinkas was preserved and one can glean from it the order of the community, its institutions and its regulations, as they existed at least at the beginning of the 19th century. These institutions included:

Community Assembly: This was composed of Jewish citizens of the city and representatives of the settlements in the surrounding area. It convened once a year during the intermediate days of Passover. Its major task was to choose community leaders of various rank, receive an annual accounting hearing from them and accept decisions related to new members of the Assembly. (Exceptionally, it was permitted in the first half of the founding year of the Community Assembly, to add new members outside the framework of the annual meeting because representatives in the settlements had a difficult time getting to the city.) Decisions of the Assembly were by majority vote. Members of the Assembly who were unable to get to the meeting had the right to voice their opinion via another member, and decisions were binding. Should the need arise, the leaders were required to convene an assembly outside the regular yearly timeframe. The members of the Community Assembly were responsible for payment of the community taxes just like every other Jew. Those who lived in the surrounding settlements were required to pray during ha-yamim ha-noraim [high holy days] at the synagogue of Piltene, and not establish then-own minyanim [prayer quorums], unless special permission was received from the leaders. Everyone was required to keep the secrets of the Assembly discussions.

Community Leaders: 3 leaders [parnassim], 2 gabaiim, and one trustee, were chosen from the citizens of Piltene and not from residents of the surrounding areas. Every year, the Community Assembly chose three arbitrators by ballot box, and they chose the leaders. The area of the leaders' responsibility included all community business, including taxes, synagogue, rabbinical appointments, supervision of observance of regulations, and so forth. The most important among them were the parnassim, each of whom served in his turn as the "monthly leader". Among other responsibilities, the leaders had to give a yearly accounting at the end of their term on the revenues and expenses of the community in front of the Community Assembly, and should the need arise, convene the Assembly outside of its permanent timeframe. Whoever disobeyed their rule could expect punishment. In the community, there also labored estimators, who assessed the amount of tax each individual had to pay, and the shamash [beadle/sexton] of the synagogue, who fulfilled various missions from the community.

Internal taxes and regulations: In addition to the taxes collected by the governments, the community levied an array of taxes and payments for the sake of financing internal community needs: a tax on new clothing, the collection responsibility for which fell on the shoulders of the tailor who estimated 2% of the value of the clothing; a tax on spirits, the collection of which fell to the merchant who estimated 1% of the sale. If the merchants sold at one time, spirits above a certain amount (100 Shtaf) they would charge a tax only on the first 100 Shtaf. Merchants who came from outside of the city had to pay a tax of 2.5% on their sales. In order to prevent tax evasion, innkeepers were required to report to the leader on outside merchants lodged at their inn, and it was within the power of the leader to reduce by up to a third the amount of tax. Musicians and entertainers at weddings (musical instruments) were required to pay to the rabbi three goldens [gold coins?] for every wedding they participated in. These payments were part of the rabbi's income. In the Register of Piltene, compulsory donations to the yishivah are also recorded, which the shamash was responsible for collecting. It is not clear if the payment was fixed or a one-time charge, and if it was taken for the needs of a yeshivah which existed in Piltene, or for the sake of the Volozhin Yeshivah which was established at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the additional sources of community income was the "mitzvot" which were sold on the Sabbath in the synagogue (going up to the Torah and such). In order to assure payment, the shamash sold the "mitzvot" in return for forfeit only.

Among the regulations written in the Register was one regulation which required that beggars arriving in Piltene, in order to get around the doorways, should stay in the city only 3 days; and they received that only after receiving special written permission from the gabai. Wandering preachers and hazzanim [cantors] were not allowed to pass in front of the ark and could not preach in the local synagogue without the knowledge of the rabbi.

Rabbis: As was noted above, the rabbinate of Piltene was established at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the first rabbis of the city was the Rabbi Eliahu ben Meir, who was for many years prior to that, the rabbi of Lithuania. He was known among the Jews by the name of "Eliahu the Great" and around him were embroidered stories of miracles and various legends, which described his humility and his involvement with the simple folk. Among other stories, it was said of him that he used to go around the open markets of Courland dressed in a sheep's wool overcoat and would check the measurements and the weights of the Jewish merchants. Rabbi Eliahu died in 1815 and according to some versions, held office in Piltene only half a year before he died. In his place came the Rabbi Eliahu ben Yosef, who began as a teacher-instructor.

On the list of signatories of the Community Register [pinkas ha-kahal] in the year 1805, is also found the name of the Rabbi Reuven Yehoshua Zelig Ashkenazi. In spite of the feet that he is not recalled as a rabbi of the city, there existed the tradition in his family that he was the Rabbi of Piltene in the first quarter of the 19th century. According to the same tradition, the Rav Ashkenazi would not agree to accept a rabbinical salary. He continued to live in the area of his father-in-law next to Piltene and ran the town only on occasion. Later, there sat on the seat of the rabbinate in the city, in succession. the Rabbi Dov-Bar Hirsch - until his death in the year 1850; the Rabbi Yosef Hertzberg, who served as a teacher [moreh tzedek] until 1855; the Rabbi Menachem-Mendel Izralson - a native of Piltene, who was publicized as a preacher, and his signature as censor of the government, is found on many books - until the year 1859; the Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Bernstein, who held office as Rabbi and Av beit-din [Judge of the rabbinical court] until 1891. In that year the Rabbi Yisrael Litvin, offspring of the Hashl'a [Hebrew acronym HSHL'H], born in Slonim in Greater Lithuania and educated in its yeshivot, began the leadership as rav demata [town rabbi]. He left many writings on the subjects of halacha [law], discourses and explanations to the Torah. His leadership continued until the expulsion of the Jews from the town in the First World War.

During the 19th century the majority of the Jews of Piltene were religiously orthodox and their children attended the traditional educational institutions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a local school for Jewish youth, directed by Y. Zaba, was active.

 

To the End of the Second World War

The majority of the community of Jews did not return to Piltene at the end of the war. The number of Jews in the city at that period reached only a few tens of souls (see the chart). At the beginning of the twenties, the "Joint" held out financial aid to the tiny community and budgeted 20,000 rubles to the coffers of the local free loan charity [gmilot chesed]. In Piltene there was no rabbi and most of the time, evidently, there was no teacher for children. Even so, the Jews of the city formed their own synagogue and donated generously to the Zionist funds: in the year 1926, 20,000 rubles were collected for the funds of the Keren HaYesod and the Keren Ha-Kayemit. In the same year, a Jewish representative was elected to the city council, which had 12 members.

In the period of Soviet rule (1940-1941), economic and social changes were applied to the tiny Jewish settlement of Piltene, similar to those that took place in all of Latvia. We have not received full details about the German conquest. Quite probably most of the city's Jews were killed in the second half of the year 1941, within the framework of the systematic extermination of Latvian Jewry.

 


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