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History Of Latvia and Courland

By: Paul Cheifitz
JewishGen Research Coordinator for Latvia

This history is derived from a few sources including a "Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Latvia and Estonia" by Arlene Beare (published by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain) but mainly edited from the presentation made by Prof Ruvin Ferber at the 21st International Conference of Jewish Genealogy held in London in July 2001. Prof Ferber is the Chairman of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia in Riga.

Prior to the arrival of Jews in Latvia the country was ruled by German Knightly Orders (1201-1561). They imposed a total ban on the presence of Jews(1306). Neighbouring Polish Lithuania had a considerable Jewish population from the 13thC.

In 1561 Poland took Livonia and Latgale but Kurland was an independent Duchy. The history of the Jews from then on was different in the 3 Provinces and as they were ruled by different people each had a different Jewish History.

Present day Latvia is divided into 4 regions.

Kurzeme in the north west and Zemgale in the south west were previously named Kurland(Courland).Largest towns were Libau and Mitau. Vidzeme has Riga as the Capital and extends North east bordering Estonia. Previously Livonia (Liflandia under Russia) Included Walk,Wenden and Wolmar. Latgale was Latgalia and was Vitebsk Gubernia under Russia. Largest towns were Rezekne and Dvinsk

From 1562-1795 was a semi-independent duchy linked to Poland but with a prevailing German influence. The local Jewry was closer to German Jewish than to Lithuanian Jewish.

The Order insisted that it should be forbidden for Jews to engage in commerce or act as farmers, which was interpreted by local authorities as a ban to living in the country at all. This resulted in regarding Jews as aliens, and nobles exploited the situation by levying all kinds of residence restrictions, license fees, etc. for hundreds of years under the rule of Poland (1561), Sweden  (1621) and Russia (1710). There was a rather modern Jewish community from 1840.

(Poland 1562); came under Russian regime in 1772 after 1st Partition of Poland (remember: every part once belonged to Poland). Latgalia was included into the Pale of Settlement that was established in 1804. Latgalia was the home of Yiddish speaking Jewish communities (Jewish intelligentsia spoke Russian) identical to those in Lithuania-Byelorussia.



(Zemgale and Kurzeme in Modern Latvia. Courland was Kurland in German and Kurlandia in Russian)

This is the most ancient Jewish community in Latvia.  Courland was never  part of the Pale of Settlement. From an early stage it consisted of two separate political entities.

The Province of Piltene (Pilten) included districts of Grobin and Hasenpoth and part of Windau district. It is more or less common to consider that the first Jews arrived in Piltene around 1571 under protection of Duke Magnuss, who obtained Piltene as a gift from his brother the King of Denmark to whom Pilten province was sold in 1559 along with the districts of Grobini (Grobin), Hasenpoth (now Aizpute) and part of Windau (now Ventspils)district. When Piltene district was sold to the Polish king Stefan Batory in 1685, Polish legislation was extended upon the Jews of Piltene region and its neighborhood. The outcome was that while Courland was an independent Duchy under protection of Poland, Piltene was an enclave under direct  ruling of the King of Poland. Even before selling to Denmark, the Bishop of Pilten allowed wealthy Jews to settle and contribute to the region’s development. Since Pilten lies near the sea, Jewish merchants probably settled there from Prussia. Politically Pilten was ruled directly by Poland while Courland Duchy (capital in Mitau) – by local nobility. The reason for the special interest in Piltene province is obvious-all season sea ports such as Libau (now Liepaja) and Windau were of utmost trade importance, even competing with Riga port which did  not operate in winter. In Pilten there were no taxes imposed on Jews until 1717 (a charge of 2 talers). Then there were decrees of expulsion btween 1727 and 1738 which  never worked (as distinct from 1492, Spain).  In 1708 the first synagogue was permitted to be built in Aizpute (Hasenpoth)

Jews became permanent inhabitants of Courland in the 18th century. Especially favorable was the ruling of Duke Ernst Johann Biron (1737-1747, then 1762-1769, the favourite of Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna), who even nominated a Jew Louis Lipmann to be his chief financial advisor. In the 18th century a lot of skilful Jewish workers and artisans (construction workers, roof-makers, inlay workers, tailors) arrived in Courland from Germany, as well as a number of medical doctors, the latter forming a core of Jewish intelligentsia, actively confirming and bearing the ideas of Jewish enlightenment – haskala. One of the founders of haskala movement in Courland was the medical doctor and philosopher Marcus Hertz (1743 - 1803). The German way of life (milieu) dominated in Courland, having a great impact on the Jews. It is important to stress that mostly German (and not Yiddish) language was the spoken language of the  Jewish community and continued until World War II.

Courland became part of Russia in 1795. The Russian Emperor Paul, under the pressure of haskala Jews, promulgated in 1799 a law according to which Jews in Courland obtained legal status as permanent inhabitants while subjected to double taxation. This allowed the possibility of taking  part in local government elections and  stimulated integration of Jews into German society in Courland gubernia. There were in Courland gubernia in 1852, 23,743 Jews and 4,189 in Jelgava(Mitau)-22% of the inhabitants. In 1780 – first Jewish school in Mitau (3 teachers).

Courland Jews in the 19th century.   Laws for Jews were passed in 1799, 1804, 1835. In 1835 a new Code was published allowing permanent residence to the Jews living there with their families and  registered locally according to the last census of the population. The same rules were applied to the Jews in the city of Riga and the town of Shlok
Jews paid 500 rubles per person to avoid conscription into Russian army.

In 1844 Kehillot were officially abolished and finally in 1893  Jews moved to Courland and Livonia (Riga) from the difficulties in the Pale. More than 40% were involved in artisan/industrial professions, while 35% were involved in trade.  Libau port had a special role in Trade. By WWI ca. 25% of all industrial enterprises in Libau belonged to Jews.


Culture / Education

In 1850 – 5 secular Jewish schools supported by State (Libau, Mitau, Goldingen, Tukums), also religious schools (talmud torahs) In 1897 – 7 state schools (boys), 22 private and 142 religious. In 1853 – a book of first Jewish historian Reuven Wunderbahr. By the end of the 19th century German language was prevailing, but also literature in Yiddish and Hebrew. Two great rabbis in Bauska (Boisk):  Mordehai Eliasberg and Rav Kook.


(Latvian:Latgale, German:Lettgallen, Russian:Latgalia)

A quite contrasting Jewry settled and developed in Latgalia, the southwestern part of the country. Latgalian Jewry was very similar to the Jewry from Lithuanian-Byelorussian region, Lithuanian and Polish kingdoms. After liquidation of Livonian Order (1561), Poland overtook the province and governed it (under the name Inflantia) until 1772. No exact data on first Jews, most probably they arrived from Poland in early 17thC after pogroms in 1605-39 (Vilna, Sandomir, Brest, etc.). A considerable number of Jews arrived in Latgalia in the mid 17th century escaping from the pogroms and massacres of Bogdan Chmelnitsky and Cossack Raids (1648-1653) in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. These Jews were Yiddish speaking and Orthodox, living in a self-governing community – kahal. The Census of 1766 recorded 2, 996 Jews in the region (not including children). Many Jews were peddlers.

In 1772, after the First Partition of Poland, the Latgalian province with ca. 5,000 Jews belonged to Russia. In 1784 about 3,700 Jews lived in Latgalia. The three Latgalian districts of Ludza (Lucin), Rezekne (Rezhica) and Daugavpils (Dvinsk, Dinaburg) were after 1802 - Vitebsk province (gubernia), within the Pale of Settlement. Jews were expelled from rural places to towns and subjected to double taxation.  From 1804 Jews were allowed to live only in cities and small towns (shtetlach). As distinct from Courland and Riga, the economy of Latgalia was poor (it was located to the east. Also far from the Baltic Sea and close to Russia). In spite of poverty they maintained the traditional way of life and had many children  maintaining the growth of the Jewish population which was up to 11, 000 in Latgalia in 1847. Under Czar Nicholas I (1825-1856) there was obligatory conscription into the Russian army, followed by the cantonist tragedy, especially when the special powers  of Recruit Kidnappers were established.

Jews in Latgale in 19th century:







Kraslava†, Preili, Dagda
Livani, Gostini, Vishki



Varaklyani, Malta






* capital from end 19 c

† religious center from 18 c.

By end 19 c. 39% Jews in Daugavpils . Matches factory of S. Zaks – 600 workers, I. Senderzon tobacco production – 60, rest – smaller. About 30% - in trade.

Traditional Yiddish.  Neighbors (co-citizens) – Poles, Byelorussians, Russian, ethnic “Latgalians” with peculiar dialect. Elements of joint folklore (classical Latvian writer Rudolf Blaumanis). Area of “East European” Orthodoxy, with very minor influence of haskala. Influence of hasidism (Rogachover Gaon Iosif Rosin) vs. mitnagdim (Rav Meir Simha).



(Latvian Vidzeme, German Livland, Russian Livonia)

Vidzeme (Livonia), including Riga is the central part of Latvia. North of the Daugava River bordered by Estonia in the north and by the Gulf of Riga in the west. Vidzeme (Riga) along with Courland is original nucleus of Latvian Jewry. Riga was always the most attractive focus of Jewish activities. The first houses for Jews in Riga were built in 1638, however Jews were not allowed to settle in Riga on a permanent basis.In 1710 Riga was conquered by Russian troops (Count Sheremetev), and the articles of capitulation contained all the restrictions regarding Jews because of the fear of economic/trade competition, mainly from Germans. In 1724 a non-Jewish resident was licensed to run a hostelry for Jews.

In 1724 Jews were expelled from the Russian Empire (Empress Elizabeth). Riga and Livonia were emptied of Jews. Only by January 1764 the few Jews (three!) were officially allowed to stay in the “Jew’s Shelter”. The official meeting of Hevra Kaddisha (Jewish Burial Society) took place in 1765. In 1785 Catherine the Great allowed Jews (and in fact people of any religion) to settle near the Baltic Coast in Sloka (Shlok), about 35 km from Riga, as well as in Dobele (Dubeln). More shelters were developed and there was a growing  Jewish. population.In 1841 the Russian Senate allowed Jews already there to live officially in Riga.

In the middle of 19th century there were about 4,500 Jews in Vidzeme, including Riga.Livonia had been outside the Pale but that did not prevent the establishment of an important Jewish community in Riga.This community was the most modern in the Empire (along with Odessa), with marked acculturation. In 1832 the community of “Jews of Shlok residing in Riga” applied for a Jewish school in Riga.Thus, one of the first (modern!) Jewish  schools (Kaplan school) was established in 1840 in Riga, with German as the language of tuition.

The first Riga synagogue was built in 1850. Later, the most outstanding was the Great Synagogue in Gogol street (Cantors Baruh Leib Rosowsky, later –  Hermann Jadlowker). Riga was a lively political center (Club Ivria for Zionists, Carmel for left-wingers, etc.)


While Riga and Courland  communities shared several Western-type Jewish characteristics, they were much more Jewish than in Germany, Hungary, and even Czech lands, being at the same time rather new and thus far from great centers of Jewish learning in Lithuania. And even the rather modest acculturation was halted, at least temporary, by the emergence of the  independent Latvian State with a consequent decline of both Russian and German influence.

There were 21,963 Jews in Riga in 1893 and 33,600 in 1914.


The independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on November 18, 1918, and Jews, for the first time, were granted  civil rights to their full extent. 11 Jews became members of People’s Council (later Saeima) of Latvia, while a lawyer Paul Mintz was a member of Karlis Ulmanis government (1919-1921). 1,000 Jews took part in the liberation war in 1918-1921 (11 -Three Stars medal), and the monument to the fallen Jewish soldiers can be seen presently at the Jewish cemetery in Shmerli.

 In 1919 a special law established a Jewish section in the Ministry of Education aimed to direct a network of state-paid Jewish sschools, which brought into existence the unique environment for Jewish national education in Yiddish in Hebrew. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Jewish children attended Jewish schools (with studies in Hebrew – 31%, Yiddish – 48%, German – 14%, Russian – 7% in 1928-1929 ).

Jewish schools:





Spoken language (1925) :

Yiddish (NY)









During 1920 – 1935 the number of Jews in the cities of Latvia increased from 24,000 to 44,000. According to official statistics, Latvian Jews numbered 95,675, or 5.2% of the total population in 1925, and 41% Jews lived in Riga, where over one fourth of all commercial and industrial enterprises were owned by Jews.

Inter-war Latvia, as well as in the other two Baltic States, was a comparatively pleasant place for Jews to live in. The right-wing takeover by Karlis Ulmanis regime in 1934 was not accompanied by anti-Jewish violence, however the new government made efforts to “nationalize” the economy, with negative consequences for Jews. Jewish community life was interrupted by Soviet occupation in 1940, followed by the tragedy of Holocaust.


June 17, 1940

Latvia occupied by 100,000 Soviet army troops

June 1940 - June 1941

Soviets ended Jewish community life in Latvia

June 13/14, 1941

Soviet deportation of 20,000 citizens (including Jews)

June 23, 1941

First massacres of Jews under German occupation

July 4, 1941

Burnt Gogol Synagogue; Latvian State Holocaust Memorial Day

End of November 1941

First action in Riga Ghetto (Rumbula)

November 3, 1943

Liquidation of Riga Ghetto


Liquidation of Kaiserwald concentration camp

Ca. 15, 000 (?) from ca. 93,000(?) Jews escaped to Russia

There is a difference of opinion as to how many Latvian Jews perished:








In Yad Vashem – there are only 17,000 names

(Editor note: Prof Ferber is the Chairman of a wonderful Holocaust Project that will document the names of the Jews of Latvia that perished in the Holocaust. A completely new method of determing the names of those that have perished has been devised and this should give a far more accurate database than exists at present.)



a traditional minority in multicultural society

In 1989 First Jewish school in FSU (Former Soviet Union) opened in Riga

In 1989 Latvian Society of Jewish Culture (Skolas street building)

In 1991 March First in FSU flights to Tel Aviv (LATPASS Airlines)

Later Religious school, kindergarten, Jewish Hospital Bikur Holim, Maccabi, restitution of property.

Now there are ca. 9,000 Jews in Latvia (ca. 95% in Riga)


1 Mendel Bobe Four hundred years of the Jews in Latvia. A Historical Survey. In: The Jews in Latvia (Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 21-77).

2 Leo Dribins Ebreji. In: Mazakumtautbu vsture Latvij (King Boduen Foundation and Zvaigzne ABC, Rga, 1998, p. 175-198).

3 Dovs Levins Ebreju vsture Latvij. (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1988 and Apgde Vaga, Rga, 1999).

4 T. Aleksejeva Die Juden in Herzogtum Kurland Aus: Das Herzogtum Kurland 1561-1795 (Verlag Nordostdeutsches Kulturwerk, Lueneburg, 1993, S. 153-168). T. Aleksejeva Some aspects of Hebrew history in the Duchy of Courland (1561-1795). In: Historical minorities in Latvia (Riga, 1994, 2/3, p. 4-22).

5 Aivars Stranga. Ebreji un diktatras Baltij 1926-1940 (Rga, 1997).

6 Ezra Mendelson The Jews of East Central Europe between the world wars. (Latvia and Estonia, p. 242-254, Indiana University Press, Bloomington).

7 Josifs Šteimans Latgales ebreju vstures historiogrfija (Latgales Kultras centra izdevniecba, Rzekne, 2000).

Last Update: 02/20/2019   Avraham Groll
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