« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 285]

Men and Deeds

by Menahem Beth

Various personalities who were active in one field or another in Latvia or, who achieved fame beyond her borders, have been referred to in the essays of this volume. There were certain sections such as the account of Riga in which the persons described constituted an inseparable part of Jewish life. Indeed, it would have been impossible to give an account of Riga Jewry without them.

In other cases, the city or region merely served as their place of origin and their activities often took them far from their birthplace.

We feel it necessary to include them in this volume too in order that Latvian Jewry should bear her outstanding sons in mind. Since there is not enough space to supply comprehensive details, the list of sources provided will enable those interested to learn more about them.

 

I

In a basically historical work like the present volume, it is natural to begin with the historians who dedicated themselves to the bygone days of Latvian Jewry. The person who is rightly considered to be the first to devote himself to this was Reuben Joseph Wunderbar (1817-1868), born in Mitau.

In the home of his parents, who were of restricted means, he received a traditional education acquiring his secular education by himself. In 1835 he passed examinations, received his Master's Degree, began teaching in schools in Riga and worked as a translator on behalf of the Government and also served for some time as Crown Rabbi of Mitau.

His publications covered a wide range of subjects: text-books, an abbreviated version of the “Shulban Arukh”, essays on Jewish customs, etc. Two of his works are still of value to scholars. These are: “Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin”, Riga and Leipzig, 1850-1860. As Wunderbar was not a physician, there is considerable significance in the estimate of Professor Joshua Leibowitz, authority on the history of Jewish medicine, who has written:

“….The book of R.J. Wunderbar is a foundation and cornerstone for all research into the history of Jewish medicine…”
[Page 286]

The second volume is his History of the Jews of Livonia and Kurland, “Geschichte der Juden in die Provinzen Liv und Kurland”, Mitau 1853. This was the first work written on Latvian Jewry and was based on original documents, manuscripts and rare volumes; and it was published “in the hope that the Jews, particularly the local residents, will learn the events that took place in the lives of their forefathers from this work, together with their sufferings and rejoicing”.

The purpose of the volume was to stress the need for closer ties between the Jews and their environment and neighbours by breaking down barriers, primarily through the use of the German language, productivisation and stressing the “benefit” that the Jews brought to the country. This, of course, reflected the approach of the earlier Haskala (Enlightenment) period of which Wunderbar was an outstanding representative.

The great Synagogue of Mitau contained a special tablet in his memory.

55 years after the publication of Wunderbar's work, the historian Rabbi Levi Ovchinsky published his Hebrew study: “Toldot Yeshivat Hayehudim be-Kurland” (History of Jewish Residence in Kurland), Piotrokow 1908. A second edition was published in the same place in 1911 while in 1928; a third Yiddish edition appeared in Riga with supplementary passages, under the title: “Die Geschichte fun die Idden Lettlands”.

Rabbi L. Ovchinsky came from a small town in the Vilna district. He had literary talents and in particular, a great affection for historical studies. After moving from one place to another, he was elected Rabbi of Alt-Autz in 1897. From there, he went to serve as Rabbi in Mitau. He and his family met their deaths in the Holocaust during World War II.

Apart from the above work, he published other biographical books entitled: “Nahalat Avot” and “Hadrat Zvi”. His historical work on Kurland is of importance not on account of the historical events recorded by the author which, incidentally, are not always given in consecutive fashion. Sometimes, indeed, there is no link between one section and the next so that a blurred picture is obtained.

…. Yet the author won his special place among the historians of Latvian Jewry thanks to the second part of the book: The history of the Rabbis and Communities of Kurland. Here he reveals his considerable talents and remarkable memory. He gives full details of each separate community on the basis of Pinkassim (communal registers and minute books), lists of the Hevrot Kadisha (Burial Societies) and other documents. He records

[Page 287]

The foundation and institutions of each Congregation and above all, its personalities, rabbis and wardens…

However, these two historians, Wunderbar and Ovchinsky did not possess the full documentary basis for preparing a complete history of Latvian Jewry. This was left to the historian, Dr. Isaac Jaffe.

Dr. Jaffe combined the qualities of the active communal worker and the historical student. In 1896 after receiving his medical degree at Dorpat University, he began playing his part in communal life in Riga. He was a member of the “Gentlemen's Evenings” organized by Professor Paul Mintz, a member of the Zionist Movement and member of the Extended Jewish Agency for the Baltic countries, and for several years headed the Health Department of the Riga Municipality.

After the rise of Independent Latvia, most of the Jewish communities of the country organized a Convention which elected a Council with a Central Committee known as the “Tse Vaad”. This was headed by Dr. Jaffe as long as it existed and he dedicated himself to its daily activities together with the Joint Distribution Committee of America which supplied the resources for the rehabilitation of Latvian Jewry after World War I. Dr. Jaffe displayed his energy and initiative, particularly in organizing a network of Cooperative Banks.

From 1925 onwards, he headed the large Jewish “Bikkur Holim” Hospital in Riga. Following the Russian occupation in 1940, he was dismissed and his subsequent fate is unknown. Dr. Jaffe was not only a physician and a communal worker. His special position in Latvian Jewry is due even more to his historical work, consisting of a collection of original documents on the history of his Community which he published under the title: “Regesten und Urkunden zur Geschichte der Juden in Riga und Kurland”, Riga 1910-11-12. (Register entries and documents towards the History of Jews in Riga and Kurland).

His sources came from the Archives of the Riga Town Council and its institutions, the Proceedings of the Society for the History and Antiquities of the Baltic Lands (an institution established by the Baltic Germans which functioned successfully for many years), books published prior to his own, evidence in Court cases, etc. All these sources are presented in their original languages, in chronological order and with references together with summary translations where the originals are in Latin. Each document is arranged in chronological order with its serial number from 1536 to 1740. The whole work follows the style of the “Register and Inscriptions” published in St. Petersburg by the Jewish Ethnographical Society.

[Page 288]

Following this work, Dr. Jaffe continued to publish documents in historical journals such as “Perezitoya”, “Evreiskaya Starina” and also in the daily press. Dr. Isaac Jaffe laid the foundation for modern historical writing of Latvian Jewry.

In this section, it is not fitting to ignore and overlook the historian Anton Buchholz, a Baltic German anti-Semite who did not conceal his animosity towards the entry and presence of Jews in Riga. His work: “Geschichte der Juden in Riga, biz zur Begruendung der Rigischen Hebraeer Gemeinde im J. 1842” (History of the Jews in Riga until the establishment of the Riga Hebrew Community in 1842) was published by the German Society for the study of the Antiquities of the Baltic lands in 1899.

With characteristic German thoroughness and precision, he based his work on original documents, most of which are quoted in the originals on the reports of the Riga City Council, the Archives of the District Governor, etc. Were it not for this work, nothing would be known of a series of documents connected with the early years of the Riga community as far back as the 16th century. The book is justly regarded as the best one ever written on the Jews of Riga and this, as already stressed, in spite of the anti-Semitic spirit which finds expression at various points of the volume.

(Most of the details on the above-mentioned historians have been taken from the Hebrew “Perakim Be-toldot Yahadut Latvia” or “Chapters in the History of Latvian Jewry”. M. Bobe, Tel-Aviv, 1965).

 

II

The last decade or so of absolute Tsarist rule in Russia saw the establishment of a Parliamentary-style institution known as the “Duma”. In spite of its restricted powers, it provided a platform from which deputies and public representatives enjoying parliamentary immunity could propose laws, raise political questions and defend their positions. In the prevailing condition of lack of equal rights, the Jewish deputies had an incomparably important function to play. Now that more than half a century has gone by, it may be admitted that the practical value of their achievements has proved to be virtually nil. Yet, at the time the Jewish deputies were elected, the Jewish community of Russia had great hopes that they could succeed in bringing about a change in their miserable political status.

As a result of the election system employed in Kurland, like the adjacent Kovno District, was one of the regions that sent Jewish deputies to all

[Page 289]

four Dumas which met between the years 1906-1917. The situation of these delegates, isolated amid hostile political groupings, was by no means easy. Now that some fifty to sixty years have passed, only a handful of people can remember them, but they deserve to be placed on record.

The 1st Duma which opened in 1906 had 12 Jewish deputies including Dr. Nissan Katzenelson of Libau, an outstanding personality in the early days of the Zionist Movement and in the communal affairs of Russian Jewry.

Nissan Katzenelson was born in Bobruisk in 1862 and studied at the Berlin University. After completing his studies he settled in Libau where he became a banker. At the Third Zionist Congress (1899) he was appointed a director of the Jewish Colonial Trust and in 1905; he became chairman of the bank's Board of Directors. He was a close friend of Dr. Theodore Herzl. When the latter went to St. Petersburg to meet the Russian Minister Plehve, he chose Dr. Katzenelson to accompany him. Plehve subsequently received Dr. Katzenelson a second time.

In the political life of Russian Jewry, he played an active part in the “Society for obtaining equal rights for the Jewish people” which was established at a convention of Jewish leaders held in Vilna in 1905; and he also attended a meeting of similar body in 1909 in Kovno where he was elected one of the Presidents of the Conference. In 1906 as mentioned, Katzenelson was elected to the First Duma which held its sessions for less than three months before being dispersed by order of the Tsar. The reason was that its composition was too left-wing. “It strayed into a field which did not belong to it” according to the Order.

As a protest against this measure by the government, a large section of the deputies met at Vyborg in Finland and issued a proclamation against the closing of the Duma calling for passive resistance against the government. Katzenelson and the other Jewish Deputies signed this proclamation. All the signatories were arrested including him and after his release; he was deprived of the right to be elected again. Following the (Kerensky) Revolution in spring 1917, he was a member of the Council for the preparation of an all-Russian Jewish conference. He spent his final years in Libau where he helped in the restoration of the Jewish community after the War and died there in 1923.

Only three Jews were elected to the Second Duma. Among them was Jacob Shapira, a timber merchant and exporter of Windau. He was a person of wide culture, wealthy and philanthropic who held Zionist views. The

[Page 290]

Second Duma lasted from 20th February to 3rd June 1907 and was dispersed because it was even more radical than the First Duma.

J. Shapira settled in England where he was killed during the bombing in London in World War II.

Two Jews were elected to the Third Duma. Advocate Naphtali Friedman of Kovno and Lazar Nisselovitch of Kurland.

Nisselovitz was born in Bausk. After completing his studies at the Legal Faculty of the St. Petersburg University in 1880, he worked in the Ministry of Finance and at the same time, wrote a series of studies dealing with financial problems connected with Russian industry.

In 1882 he left the Government service and set up in private practice as a lawyer. At the Duma, he joined the Constitutional Democrats or “Kadets”, first stating in advance that he would be completely independent in all matters connected with Jewish questions; although the said party did not view this condition with favour. Nisselovitz was elected as an expert to several committees including the Finance committee. He also lectured to the Duma on legal matters.

The two Jewish deputies, isolated amid a largely hostile group where the Jewish people and its representatives were subjected to plentiful abuse, had a very difficult and exhausting function to exercise. Although they were not among the outstanding leaders of Russian Jewry, they acquitted themselves honourably of their duties.

Advocate N. Friedman, a wise and pleasant person and suited to parliamentary activities by his profession, was a gentle and unwarlike man by temperament. As a result, the name of Nisselovitz appeared as the Jewish spokesman in the Duma during most of the debates. While the Third Duma was in session matters of Jewish interest were particularly plentiful. The period 1907-1912 was a gloomy one for Russian Jewry. The reactionaries held boundless sway and their arrows were directed primarily against the Jews.

It is enough to mention several events which set Russia in a commotion during this period. Stolypin, the Prime Minister, was assassinated by the Jew Dimitri Bogrov. A ritual murder charge was brought against Mendel Beiliss. As a result, questions and interpellations were presented in the Duma and charges and libels that were the fruit of a venomous Anti-Semitism beyond all previous experience were regularly heard. There were also systematic administrative persecutions aiming to restrict rights of residence. In the Duma, an attempt was made to abolish Jewish military service

[Page 291]

on the excuse that the Jews in any case tried to evade this, etc. In brief, the atmosphere was thick with Jew hatred which Deputies Friedman and Nisselovitch had to face and withstand.

One of the most important measures taken by Nisselovitch in the Third Duma was the proposal he submitted at a Plenary Session in February 1911 calling for the abolition of the Pale of Settlement. Together with Friedman, he had previously succeeded in obtaining the signatures of 166 Deputies in support of this motion. Although the proposal was referred to the Committee without any time limit being set for deliberations, the motion as such was regarded as a limited triumph of which Nisselovitch was proud. However, the constant tension and excitement ruined his health. He refused to stand for election to the Fourth Duma and passed away in 1913.

The Latvians were a progressive minority who at the time had common interests with the Jews. They agreed to establish common Latvian-Jewish blocs and all three of the first Dumas had both a Latvian and a Jewish Deputy from Kurland.

At the elections to the Fourth Duma, however, the Latvians demanded the right to return both Deputies. In spite of the fact that in other Provinces the Jews voted for progressive candidates without gaining any Deputy of their own, the Jews of Kurland insisted on being represented by a Jewish Deputy. In the absence of any other choice, they made an agreement with the German electors who preferred to support a moderate Jewish candidate rather than a second progressive Latvian.

As a result, Dr. Ezekiel Gurevitch was elected to the Fourth Duma. He was a physician resident in Jakobstadt born in 1861 and had studied medicine at Dorpat University.

Dr. E. Gurevitch was not an experienced man of affairs but held his own in worthy fashion. Special mention should be made of his appearances in the Duma plenum during 1913 in connection with the restrictions imposed on the higher education of young Jews by Kasso, Minister of Education and a Jew-hater; as well as in connection with the budget of the Ministry of Education. In his speeches Gurevitch firmly and politely opposed all the persecution and complained about the unsatisfactory economic condition of Russian Jewry.

The events that took place after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 proved that there was no change in the attitude towards the Jews. They were now doubly persecuted by the High Command in the vicinity of the Front where they were charged with treason and were subjected to mass expulsion. In the heart of Russia itself, the authorities distributed

[Page 292]

official circulars charging the Jews with raising prices and trying to destroy the crops.

The Jewish deputies protested at the measures taken by the Military Authorities against the Jews in the battle zone but without achieving any results whatsoever.

Deputy Gurevitch presented a Jewish delegation headed by Rabbi Mordechai Nurock to the Prime Minister in connection with the expulsion of the Jews from the vicinity of the Front in the year 1915.

Nothing is known about the fate of Dr. Gurevitch after the 1917 Revolution.

 

III

To turn now to another field of political and communal activity: It should be borne in mind that this period of the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was an epoch in which National and Socialist Movements came to life. It saw World War I, the Russian Revolution and its various side effects, the emergence of new states based on national self-determination and accompanied by high hopes and great disappointments. It saw the rise of Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. All of these developments were reflected in the public activities of the period.

The yearnings of the Love of Zion Movement found an echo in many hearts but only a few people sought the ways and means of shaping and implementing this ideal. One of the first to advance toward this end was Zeev (Vassily) Berman.

He was born in Mitau in 1862. His father was a Maskil (modernist Jew who supported the development of Hebrew as the unifying Jewish secular language) who opened a school in Mitau. Together with his family he later moved to St. Petersburg where he also headed a school and published the weekly “Russki Yevrei” (Russian Jew) between 1884 and 1897. His son Vassily published his first poem in its pages. He proceeded to the Faculty of Laws at the St. Petersburg University and after completing his studies, began to practise law.

The Pogroms of the early 80's caused him to turn to the Hibbat Zion Movement which his father opposed. Zeev Berman attended the First Hovevei Zion Conference in Kattowitz in 1884 and played a considerable part in obtaining official Government recognition for the so-called “Odessa Committee” in the early 90's.

[Page 293]

He was among the first to base the return to Zion on scientific foundations. As the secretary of the ICA (Jewish Colonization Association) he visited several European countries in 1893 in order to study the Migration Problem and reached the conclusion that migration was an inevitable process in the life of the Jewish nation.

Together with others who held similar views, he published two Russian volumes entitled: “Palestine” and “Zion” which made a great impression and exerted considerable influence in their own time. He published numerous essays and engaged in written and spoken propaganda proving to be an enthusiastic orator. He also edited a bibliography of Eretz Israel literature, visiting that country in 1889. The institutions of the Hibbat Zion Movement hoped to put his range of knowledge and personal qualities to productive use but he developed tuberculosis and died in Cairo in 1894. (Yevreiskaya Encyclopedia IV).

Rabbi Mordechai Nurock enjoyed length of days and participated in all the ups and downs of the period. He was a member of the rabbinical family Lichtenstein of Tokum, moved with his father – a rabbi – to Mitau and acted on his behalf during his life-time, taking his place after he passed away.

His communal activities began under Tsarist rule in Kurland which was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The rabbi not infrequently had to defend and protect Jews who established themselves there without right of residence. When the Jews of Kurland were expelled in 1915, he spoke for the refugees before the highest Government authorities. As representative of the Mizrahi Movement, he played a lively part in the outstanding Jewish Community of Moscow until he returned to Latvia in 1921. From that time, he engaged in parliamentary activity as a deputy in the Latvian Seim serving from the First to the Fourth without interruption until the Fascist coup d'état in 1934.

Apart from his Seim activities, he attended all Zionist Congresses on behalf of the Mizrahi. He was also a member of Inter-Parliamentary Congresses and Conventions of the Organization of Minorities. He took part in the establishment of the World Jewish Congress, etc. and was a key figure in all these institutions.

Following the Russian occupation of Latvia in 1941, he was arrested and imprisoned for 14 months on a charge of Zionist activities. After his release, he was sent to Tashkent and in 1945 left Russia proceeding to Sweden and Norway where he was received by the King. From there, he

[Page 294]

went to New York where he played an active part in mobilizing support for the United Nations Resolution of 29th November, 1947 calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.

In 1948, he came to Israel and was elected to the Knesset of which he remained a member until his death. As a veteran parliamentarian, one of the very few in the Knesset, he was of considerable assistance in establishing parliamentary procedures. For some time, he was Minister of Posts and was proposed as President of Israel. Throughout this period, he visited all countries of the world on behalf of the Jewish National Institutions and exerted an outstanding influence wherever he came thanks to his aristocratic presence and effective and straightforward speeches. He was Chairman of a number of Israeli institutions and contributed regularly to the press both in Israel and abroad.

He engaged in the full range of communal and political activities and enjoyed fame and renown but had no personal happiness. While in prison in Soviet Russia, his wife and two sons were killed in the Riga Ghetto. He never established a home again.

The following passage is taken from an essay in a volume dedicated to his memory entitled: “Zecher Mordechai”, published by the Rabbi Kook Foundation, Jerusalem 5727:

“For the survivors of Latvian Jewry in Israel and elsewhere, the person of Rabbi Nurock was a link with the period when the communities of Kurland and Livonia began to blossom, and led by way of the road of suffering and the Holocaust to a new life in the State of Israel. His departure marks the end of a generation. No leader has come to replace him”.
In Kurland, there were no Yeshivot to which orthodox parents could send their sons to study Torah and so they were sent to neighbouring Lithuania. In this way, Jacob Hellman (Talsen 1880 – Buenos Aires 1950) was sent from home at the age of 14 to study at the Yeshivot of Slobodka, Mir, etc. He found his way to Zionism and secularism and proceeded to Germany in 1897. There he matriculated in spite of great poverty, studied philosophy at Marburg University and received his Ph.D at Berne in 1910.

He was a supporter of the Uganda proposal and left the Zionist Movement as a result. In the years 1904-1906 he took an active part in the illegal Russian Social Revolutionary Party. He settled in Riga in 1912 and moved to Moscow during World War I. In 1919, he returned to

[Page 295]

Riga where he joined the Zeirei Zion party by which he was elected to the Latvian Constituent Assembly.

His journalistic career had commenced at the end of the 19th century with contributions to the Hebrew journal “Hamelitz”. In Riga, he was one of the founders in 1919 of “Dos Folk” but resigned at once on matters of principle. He was one of the editors of the Zeirei Zion journals; “Der Weg” and “Unser Weg”, returning in due course to “Dos Folk”. In 1927 he became one of the editors of “Frimorgen” with which he worked until the daily was closed after the fascist coup d'état in 1934.

During the 20's he was one of the leaders of Zeirei Zion – Hitahdut in Berlin, and was sent on missions to several countries. After the “Frimorgen” was closed, he moved to Warsaw where he participated in “Dos Neie Vort”. Following a brief visit to Eretz Israel in 1939, he proceeded to Argentine as representative of the World Jewish Congress.

In Buenos Aires he contributed to the “Yiddishe Zeitung” and “Die Neie Zeitung”. His essays were collected in the volume “Jerusalem” published by the Buenos Aires community in which he won affection and high esteem. The book was published in Hebrew in 1957 with a biography written by Baruch Zuckerman. He died in Buenos Aires in 1950 and in 1952 his remains were transferred to Israel and interred in Jerusalem.

Dr. Jacob Hellman, an outstanding public figure in Latvian Jewry, is frequently mentioned in the Hebrew volume on Latvian Jewry (Yahadut Latvia), Tel-Aviv 1953. A detailed account of his work as a journalist, who participated in the Jewish press of several countries, will be found in the Yiddish “Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature”.

Dr. Hellman was an original thinker who did not always accept the usual line of thought. A devoted friend and comrade, he was aggressive towards his opponents. Enthusiastic and tempestuous, keen and sharp, swift thinking, he was equipped with a thorough Jewish cultural foundation and an extensive European education. He had considerable communal experience and was honoured by admirers and opponents.

Professor Max Matatiahu Laserson was one of the most important Kurland Jews to participate in general political and Jewish communal activities in Latvia.

Temperamentally, he was a scholar who was concerned primarily with his favourite field: Theory of Law, International Law, Philosophy of Law,

[Page 296]

etc. In other circumstances, he would certainly have achieved an outstanding international reputation in his own range of studies.

However, the times in which he lived and the situation of the Jews transformed him into a leading protagonist of his people using his far-reaching knowledge and intellect not only in the directions he himself would have preferred but far more frequently in the struggle to improve the Jewish situation in Latvia, or at least, to prevent that situation from becoming worse.

Max Larserson was born in Mitau in 1887 and studied law at St. Petersburg University from which he graduated in 1910. He received the degree of Magister for his work after graduation. This was promptly followed by a series of studies on legal aspects in the literary works of Tolstoi and others. Thanks to these monographs, he was granted the status of “Privatdozent” (Lecturer) at the St. Petersburg University.

Following the February Revolution of 1917, he worked in the Minorities Department of the Kerensky Government returning to Latvia after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. He joined the Zeirei Zion party by which he was returned to the First, Second and Third Seims. It is unnecessary here to deal with his parliamentary activities which are adequately illustrated in his essay, included in this volume, on “The Jews and the Latvian Parliament”.

During his activities in Latvia he published inter alia: “The Development of the Latvian Constitution”, “State Law in Latvia” and a major study on “The General Theory of Law”.

His works on Jewish themes included: “The Theory of Natural Law according to Jewish Literary and Legal Sources”; “Jewish Law”; “Spinoza as a Philosopher of Law and State”, etc.

His active participation in Minority Congresses was accompanied by studies such as: “State, Sovereignty and Minority”; “The Law of Minorities in the Baltic States”, etc.

Several of his studies were connected with the idea of establishing the State of Israel long before it came into being. These included: “The Mandate, the Constitution and the Legislative Council”; “How a new State is established”; and “Thoughts on a Jewish Constitution”.

After the seizure of power by Ulmanis, Laserson was sent to the Libau concentration camp. After his release, he left Latvia and came to what was then Palestine. However, he did not strike root there although he was one of the founders of the Tel-Aviv High School for Law and Economics. There was no adequate field for his talents and learning, nor

[Page 297]

did he gain the attention of those who might have been able to help him to find a suitable place in the limited academic spheres of the time.

He proceeded to the United States lecturing en route at the Paris and London Universities and elsewhere. In the U.S. he found a suitable academic position. He lectured at Columbia University, New York first as a Guest Professor and later as a permanent member of the academic staff. His final works were connected with Russian foreign policy. He published “Russia and the Western World”, “The Influence of America on Russia”, etc.

“Mr. Laserson displayed his erudition in more than one field. To be sure, the subjects that were closest to him – those in which he engaged and which he taught – were the Philosophy of Law and the Theory of the State; but he had an ample range of knowledge in various other fields of science and art. He was a connoisseur of painting and architecture and had a fine artistic taste. He was closely acquainted with the general history of Europe and America in particular. He was familiar with world literature, much of which he knew in the original since he had an absolute mastery of many languages. His scholarly and publicist work was marked by fresh and original thinking, testifying to his wide knowledge and exceptional memory. His pedagogical talent was outstanding. He knew how to express his ideas in a lively and literate fashion but at the same time, he would lecture so simply that the reader or listener absorbed the ideas and thoughts without any difficulty, and the ideas seemed to be his own. Laserson was an experienced orator and publicist”.
The above quotation is taken from an essay published in the Hebrew volume on “Latvian Jewry”, Tel-Aviv 1953 and was signed E. S-n. It was written by the Tel-Aviv Chief Magistrate, Dr. Eleazar Selikson who had been Professor Laserson's assistant in Latvia. The essay in question gives a detailed survey of most of Laserson's work and a selective list of essays, etc. Those cited above have been taken from it. Professor Laserson passed away in New York in 1950 at the age of 63.

We were associated in party activities for many years. I also met him in Eretz Israel before he left for the U.S. and during his brief visit to his son in Tel-Aviv, and we corresponded regularly. “I am happy as a scholar” – but there was a tinge of melancholy in the happiness.

At all times and under all circumstances, rising or falling, succeeding or failing, he was always a good companion, of fine spirit and rare culture.

[Page 298]

Dr. Jacob Hoffman was identical with the Revisionist Movement and Betar in the eyes of Latvian Jewry. He was born in Yelizavetgrad, Russia in 1891 and studied in Berlin and Dorpat where he graduated as a physician. He served as a doctor in World War I, was wounded and received a medal. In Russia, he dedicated himself to communal work among victims of the War. He settled in Riga in 1920.

While still a student, he joined the Zionist Movement and was among the founders of “Hehaver” and a Congress Delegate from the 11th Congress onward. After V. Jabotinsky visited Riga in 1923, the first branch of the Revisionist Movement was established there under the chairmanship of Dr. Hoffman. From them on, he was dedicated to that Movement until the end of his life and he left the World Zionist Organization together with Jabotinsky.

The Revisionist Movement gathered some of the most enthusiastic young people in the Latvian Zionist Movement who established the “Hashmonia” Student Society and the “Brit Trumpeldor” or Betar Youth Movement. The latter dedicated itself to Halutz training at a special farm and to maritime training on a ship called “Theodore Herzl” which was given to them by the industrialist Rudolf Kaplan. For some time, the Revisionist Movement also had its own afternoon paper – “Oventpost” which was closed in 1934 after the fascist seizure of power.

Dr. Hoffman headed all these activities and movements in addition to his professional activities. For some time, he was chairman of the Medical Society and also headed the Jewish National Fund in Latvia.

The World Headquarters of Betar was in Latvia until the end of 1930 when Hoffman moved to Paris at Jabotinsky's suggestion and undertook the organization of the Revisionist Movement. In 1934, he came to Eretz Israel but did not find a proper field for his energies in spite of his extensive activities abroad. During the war he was cut-off from part of his family who lost their lives in the Riga ghetto. He suffered from heart disease and passed away in 1944 at the age of 53.

The following description of him will be found in the Hebrew “Latvian Jewry”, p.426.

“….He held office and took an active part simultaneously; and wherever he was, he dedicated all his soul and all his might to the matter at hand. Every day he would be consumed by his fervent ideals and energetic activity. Yet, every morning, a new Hoffman would be born, bubbling over with fresh energy. If he was a friend, his friendship was boundless. If he was a rival and an opponent, he was a relentless one.
[Page 299]
Yet always, in every manifestation, he remained the same one hundred percent, entire human being who never fought anybody behind his back or tried to trick or mislead anybody. He loved open warfare….”
In the days of Independent Latvia, those who heard the speeches of Yerahmiel Vinnik with their pure Yiddish, or read his essays in “Dos Folk”, “Der Weg, “Unser Weg” etc., found it hard to imagine that he came from a family in which German had been the language in daily use.

He was a poetic, romantic soul. He knew most of Lermontov's poems by heart and he wrote Russian poems which made a great impression on his younger companions. While still a schoolboy, a friend told him of a group of youngsters who dreamt of a distant country which might become their homeland one day, and he was at once drawn to all the yearnings of Redemption, to the romance, the far-off ideal, the poesy of the thought. From that, it was but a step to the whirlpool of party propaganda and the exploitation of his natural capacities. His gift for enthusiastic oratory and his effective pen found their place in the Zionist Movement and its parties.

Y. Vinnik was born in Riga in 1895. He attended the Real School and began to study medicine in Dorpat. But World War I and its effects, the establishment of independent Latvia, the condition of the Jewish community and the place of the Zeirei Zion Party within it (he had been a member from the beginning) upset all his plans. He began to study at the Faculty of Laws of the Riga University but never found the time or leisure to graduate.

He had a hand in establishing the greater part of the Jewish press of Latvia. He was a founder and editor of the “Iddishe Folkstimme” which was closed down because of the war. He was on the editorial staff of “Dos Folk” which he left in 1925 because of differences of opinion with his colleagues. He was one of the editors of “Der Weg” and “Unser Weg” which did not last long and he edited “Der Ruf” of which only a few issues appeared. He also edited the afternoon paper “Oventpost” which passed into other hands, and also contributed sometimes to the “Frimorgen”.

For several years, Y. Vinnik was a member of the Riga Municipal Council, the most important function in the country after membership of the Seim. Wherever he appeared, in the press, the Municipal Council or the Jewish Communal Council of Riga, he would fight for the principles of his party; and he was particularly outstanding in the struggle to secure equal rights for Hebrew as a language of instruction in schools. During the final years

[Page 300]

before the Fascist seizure of power, he was on the staff of the Jewish Sick Fund.

“Those who knew Yerahmiel Vinnik will remember him first and foremost as an active communal worker. Every else – his private life, his livelihood, his studies – were all secondary to that. Whenever his private life clashed with his public duties, the latter would win. It might almost be said that his public life ruined his private life”. (Latvian Jewry, p.433).

When the Russians entered Riga in 1941, he was arrested and sent to a camp in Solikamsk where he was compelled to engage in hard labour in the notorious “Chertiozh” section. He died of exhaustion in 1942.

Dr. Benjamin Sieff was born in Lithuania in 1879 and came to Latvia in 1918. His important work as an economist and his achievements for Jewish economic institutions while he lived in Latvia entitle him to be regarded as one of the most active Jewish communal workers of Independent Latvia.

After studying at a Lithuanian Yeshiva, he proceeded to Germany and France where he studied philosophy, economics and languages. From 1904, he worked in St. Petersburg, Russia where he was employed by large banks. He also edited an economic section in the press and published a series of books on financial problems.

In 1918 he moved to Riga where he became the economic editor of the Russian paper “Sevodnia” and published a number of studies on financial matters connected with the Latvian economy.

He was intimately associated with Jewish public affairs. His essay in this volume; “Jews in the Economic Life of Latvia” indicates his share in organizing Jewish economic institutions. He worked together with the Jewish deputies in the Seim – a fact of considerable importance because he was an economic adviser of the Ministry of Finance. He was likewise a member of the All-Latvian Society of Writers and Journalists.

When a boycott was proclaimed against German goods, he took an active part in organizing it and went abroad on behalf of the Boycott Committee in order to coordinate activities with other Jewish bodies elsewhere.

After the fascist seizure of power, he proceeded to Eretz Israel where he founded the Tel-Aviv High School for Law and Economics together with Professor Laserson and others. He lectured at this institution and published a number of studies on local economics besides translating leading economic works into Hebrew.

[Page 301]

He passed away in Tel-Aviv in 1947. In the Hebrew “Latvian Jewry”, Tel-Aviv 1953 there is a detailed account of his life and works.

 

IV

The common factor in the last section was the fact that all those described belonged to various sections of the Zionist Movement.

Below will be found an account of protagonists of various other approaches who played their part in the public and communal life of Latvian Jewry.

In this work frequent mention has been made of the Seim deputies Mordechai Dubin and Simeon Wittenberg, both representatives of the Agudat Israel. Any description of Jewish personalities in Latvia must give an account of them for they were among the most outstanding figures of the community and defended Latvian Jewry after their fashion. Although certain groups did not accept their political approach, it did correspond to their own point of view and, in their opinion; it offered the most certain method of helping the largest possible number of Jews.

Mordechai Dubin, a member of the Habad Hassidic Movement and a merchant, most of whose time and energy was dedicated to Shtadlanut, would also have accepted this definition. Incidentally, all the Jewish Deputies found it necessary to “help” and intercede for those who came to them as far as possible. In the case of Dubin, however, this was his main function on account of his position, status and connections. In the morning when he came to pray at the “Bazar Berg” Minyan (prayer group) his clients were already waiting for him. From there he would accompany them to public institutions where he would “arrange” matters.

Whether passport, permit or release from arrest, there was nothing that Dubin could not arrange. Such at least was the general belief, and as a rule, people were right. Everything he did was done without considering whether the person asking for help was his supporter or an opponent. It was a Jew who was asking for help and that was what mattered. His popularity among the Jewish public was unbounded.

Dubin was a member of the National Council, the Constituent Assembly and all Four Seims. As a matter of principle, he supported the right-wing groups claiming that the left-wingers, the social democrats, etc., would support the Jews anyway in accordance with their party principles, and since it was often necessary to obtain the help of the anti-Semitic groups, they

[Page 302]

had to be supported… True, he did his best to justify his approach. He often said that it was impossible to rely on either the left-wing or the right-wing, but the latter should be and could be bribed in the Jewish interest. He also polemicized frequently with either Jewish Deputies because they supported left-wing coalition all of which has been described elsewhere in this volume.

Simeon Wittenberg, a leader of “The Young Agudat Israel” entered the Fourth Seim. He was a gifted man who had graduated from the Faculty of Laws and who made an outstanding impression during his brief term in the Seim as a person of ample knowledge in the fields of economics and financial policy. However, the Fourth Seim was dispersed upon the Ulmanis seizure of power and the heavy clouds of approaching Fascism also had their effects after the Nazis came to power in Germany. During this period, the Aguda deputies also changed their approach but the wheels of history could not be turned back by post factum speeches.

During the period between the Ulmanis coup d'état (15th May 1934) and the Russian entry into Latvia (17th June 1940) the Aguda constituted the representative Jewish Institution. Their paper “Haint” which was controlled by Wittenberg and Yehuda Leib Samunov was the only organ of expression. After the Jewish Department in the Ministry of Culture was abolished, the Aguda made use of its authority in order to liquidate secular education in the Jewish Schools.

Upon the Russian occupation, Dubin was arrested and sent to inner Russia. He was released before long but since he continued to take part in Jewish affairs, he was arrested again and finally incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Till the end of his days, he continued to be a strictly observant Jew. It is reported that he died in 1956 in central Russia.

Like all other Riga Jews, Simeon Wittenberg was imprisoned in the ghetto after the German occupation. He displayed exceptional courage and resourcefulness in organizing the Jews together with a vast devotion and self-sacrifice on behalf of the sufferers. He died of exhaustion in the Buchenwald camp in 1945.

Both lost their families in the Riga ghetto.

The Jewish workers of Latgale provided the Jewish radical representatives in the Seim. These were Professor Max Laserson, who has already been described, and Dr. Noah Maisel, representative of the Bund.

Noah Maisel was born in the small town of Nesveth in the Minsk Government district in 1891-2 and graduated as a physician at the Dorpat University.

[Page 303]

During World War I he was in Dvinsk and in 1919, when the Bolsheviks held the city, he was in charge of the department dealing with the transfer of refugees and prisoners of war. Dvinsk was occupied by the “Right” Poles who handed it over to Independent Latvia. Maisel remained in Dvinsk and became a Latvian citizen.

He came from a well-to-do home. During his school years he was influenced by Bund theories and when Dvinsk began to recover after having been ruined during the War, he helped to establish a local Bund organization. To begin with, this number but a handful but as the population grew and after ties had been established with Riga where there was a large Bundist centre, Dvinsk became an important Bund centre as well, for Latgale provided a suitable terrain for the development of this party.

The Bund had considerable influence in Dvinsk. Maisel was a member of the Jewish Community Council and the Municipality. At the election to the First Seim, he was elected on the Latgale list of Social Democrats. He continued to belong to this fraction even though a separate list for the Bund emerged in due course.

Dr. Maisel abandoned the medical profession, dedicating himself exclusively to communal activity. In order to be more effective in this field, he studied at the Riga University and graduated from the Faculty of Law. He was also deputy in the Second and Third Seims.

He would make thorough preparation for every public appearance, both in the Seim and elsewhere and was a keen and enthusiastic orator and polemicist. He exploited these qualities effectively against opponents both in the struggle for Yiddish against Hebrew in the Municipal and State schools and against Jewish and non-Jewish reactionary deputies alike.

He was a spokesman on matters of citizenship, a matter of the utmost importance for many Jewish residents of Latvia who were classed as aliens on account of surviving Tsarist laws. A new Citizenship Law was passed with the support of the left-wing coalition in 1927. He participated in the Bund press, writing in the “Neie Zeit” and in the “Latgalskaya Misl”, the organ of the social democrats in Latgale.

Following the Ulmanis seizure of power, he was imprisoned in the Libau Camp but did not sign and undertaking to refrain from political activities. After the dissolution of the Camp, he was therefore kept in detention until July 1935.

He proceeded to the U.S. in 1937 on behalf of YIVO (the Yiddishe Wissenschaftliche Institute) and conducted a successful campaign on behalf of the Institution. But he did not wish to become a professional campaigner

[Page 304]

and he supported, until he mastered the English language and could find his proper place in public life. He, therefore, resolved to return to Latvia and refresh his medical knowledge.

In 1941, he was arrested by the Russians. His fate is not known, but he is said to have been exiled to northern Siberia where he died in 1956.

“strange is the way in which a child of wealthy Jews could be transformed into the spokesman of the Jewish poor in poverty-stricken Latgale… We knew little about his personal life…. He was not an ascetic. He liked good clothes and was always a European in the full sense of the world not only in his behaviour but in every detail of his appearance. Incidentally, he had a deep knowledge and vast understanding of music”.

(the above is taken from the appreciation by his comrade and friend, Isaac Levin-Shatzkes in the Hebrew “Latvian Jewry” entitled: “Noah Maisel, the Communal Spokesman of the Bund in Latvia”).

Zeev Latzky-Bertholdy was driven from place to place for many years by the events of his time and of his own personal life. It is true that according to his official papers he was a citizen of Latvia, received his education in Riga and for many years was a journalist there. Yet, it is hard to assign him to any specific Jewish popular group. He was a general Jewish leader who worked in many countries, changed his opinions, was linked to several Movements yet consistently supported every tendency which, in the given circumstances, seemed to offer a constructive future for the Jewish masses, particularly those who lived in Russia. On account of these qualities, he deserves to be mentioned among Latvian Jewish personalities.

Zeev Latzky was born in Kiev during the pogrom of 1881. The pogroms caused his parents to move to Riga where he was educated, graduated from the secondary school and entered the Riga Polytechnic from which he was expelled in 1901 on account of his political activities.

He then moved to Berlin and under the influence of Nahman Syrkin, began to sympathise with Zionist Socialism. On his return to Russia, he became a founder of the “S.S. Zionist Socialist Party” and worked in the underground helping to organize a Jewish self-defence movement. He was arrested several times and during the period of Russian reaction between 1906 and 1912, was in Germany and Austria. There he engaged in journalism, dedicating himself to investigating Zionist Socialist principles and working out a joint platform for the Zionist Socialist parties.

In 1907, he appeared in Stuttgart on behalf of his Party in order to

[Page 305]

persuade the International then meeting there to admit it to membership. In 1908, he proceeded to New York in connection with Migration affairs. On the eve of World War I, he returned to Russia where he worked with the ORT and IKOPO in providing for Jews that had been expelled from their homes owing to hostilities.

In the Revolution year 1917, he took an active part in organizing Russian Jewry and bringing about a general Jewish Convention. During this period, he decided to leave the “S.S.” Party and was among those who renewed the activities of the “Folkpartei”.

While organizing the General Jewish Convention, he returned to Kiev, the city of his birth which had become the capital of “Independent Ukraine” at the time of the partially-realized Jewish national autonomy in the Ukraine. This is not the place to describe the tempestuous, hopeful and disappointing period which ended with the terrifying Ukrainian pogroms that accompanied the first five years of Bolshevik Russia. Latzky took an active part in all events and for a short while served as Minister of Jewish Affairs in Ukraine.

The liquidation of Independent Ukraine and the course of events within Russia compelled Latzky to leave in 1921. He returned to Latvia as a refugee but proceeded to Germany at one and helped to establish the “World Committee in aid of Refugees”. During the years 1923-1925, Latzky twice visited South America to investigate the possibilities of immigration for victims of War.

In 1925, he returned to Riga where he worked in “Dos Folk” and was afterwards one of the editors of “Frimorgen” until 1934 when the paper was closed after the Fascist putsch.

While in Latvia, he once again drew close to Zionism. He became a member of the League for Labour Eretz Israel, a non-Zionist Member of the Jewish Agency for the Baltic Countries and, unlike the majority of “Folkists”, he supported equal rights for Hebrew as a language of instruction.

In 1935, the cycle of his wanderings came to an end when he proceeded to Eretz Israel. He joined Mapai (the Eretz Israel Labour Party) but this period was a brief one as he died in 1940 when less than sixty years of age.

As a journalist and publicist, Latzky published many essays on political and general events in the daily press of Riga, Warsaw and elsewhere and finally in Eretz Israel. He published several booklets: “The Pogroms of Denikin” on the massacres of the Jews in Ukraine after World War I; “Die Einwanderung in die Yiddishe Yishuvim in Darom

[Page 306]

America” (Immigration among the Jewish Centres of South America) based on his missions to those countries; “On the position of the Jews in Eastern European and the up building of Eretz Israel”.

Some of his essays and studies were collected in his book: “Erdgeist” (Spirit of the Earth) which he first published in Kiev in 1918 and reissued in Riga in 1932 with several more essays. In this work, he based his opinions first and foremost on the “Socialist Territorialism” which was and remained his ideological basis. It also contained essays on art, literature, painting, sculpture, music, theatre, etc.

In spite of his “practical activities” in political parties, in the Jewish self-defence, in provisions for refugees and the expelled and in spite of his share in public activities and politics, he remained a thinker for whom abstract ideas, traditional romanticism and mysticism I literature, painting and the theatre were closest to his heart.

Zalman Levitas was one of the important Folkists of Riga. He was born in Zhagar, Lithuania in 1876 and lived for many years in Warsaw where he established the “Yavneh” Publishing House which issued books in Hebrew and then began to publish in Yiddish. Under the pressure of the Polish authorities, he left Warsaw and came to Riga.

There he became a merchant and took an active part in communal activities. In 1910, he was one of the founders of the daily “Die Iddishe Stimme” (The Jewish Voice). Within the Jewish community, he organized a census of the Jewish population of the city and prepared all the necessary statistics. In 1918 he was one of the groups that initiated the opening of Yiddish schools and helped to found the Yiddishist paper (“Letzte Neies” (Last News) in 1925.

He was chairman of the ORT Executive in Latvia from the time the Society was established. He was also a member of the ORT Executive in Berlin. His fate under the Nazi is unknown.

Abraham Braun-Sergei was born in 1881 to a well-to-do family in Riga, a family in which communal activity was tradition. In 1900 when he was a student at the Riga Polytechnic, he joined the Bund. As a result of illegal political activities, he was expelled from the Polytechnic in 1901 and thenceforward, dedicated himself entirely to underground political work. He was a brilliant propagandist and speaker, engaged in his activities in several cities and was repeatedly imprisoned. After the persecution

[Page 307]

of the Revolutionaries in 1902-1903, there was a tendency on their part to engage in terrorist activities as “organized revenge” against the regime. Braun was one of the heads of the Organization in Riga where he had the conspiratorial name of “Sergei”.

In 1906-1907, he attended conferences and gatherings of the Bund in Berne and Lemberg. His party sent him to South Africa. After the 1917 Revolution, he was active in the Central Committee in Minsk. He protested against Bolshevik methods but denounced every sign of counter-revolution. At the 8th Conference of the Bund in 1917, he was elected to the Central Committee.

He returned to Riga in 1921 where the Latvian Government suspected him of being a Bolshevik representative. He was arrested and sentenced to death but was released thanks to the intervention of Social Democrats in other countries. He worked in his party during the years that followed and was one of the editors of “Dos Folk” for a short time. Following the Fascist seizure of power in 1934, he was arrested and detained in the Libau Concentration Camp. After his release, he had to leave Latvia. He spent several years in Estonia and proceeded to New York in 1938. He wrote in “Der Freind” but his main occupation was as lecturer for the “Arbeiter Ring” (Workers' Circle). He prepared a return to Europe in 1940 but died of a heart attack at his farewell party.

Although Sergei-Braun was always dedicated to his party, he did not follow the beaten track but offered an approach of his own to all questions, both political and literary. His main gift was his power of speech. His lectures were always creative achievements which were fashioned and developed while actually lecturing. His persuasive powers, his pleasant and attractive personality, his original way of thinking all helped to establish a bond of close sympathy between him and his enchanted audience.

Isaac Levin-Shatzkes was one of those public figures who combined journalism with communal activities. He was born in Dvinsk in 1892 and passed his matriculation examinations at Vitebsk in 1914. Between 1915 and 1919, he served in the Russian army, was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. After his release, he was recruited in the Red Army.

He joined the Bund in 1912 and from 1920 was active in Dvinsk once it became part of Independent Latvia. He was a member of his Party's Central Committee, member of the Municipal Council, Secretary of the Jewish

[Page 308]

Community Committee, Chairman of the Trade Unions of Latgale and member of the Sick Fund Executive.

He began his journalistic career in Russia in 1913 and commenced writing Yiddish from 1921 after which he participated in the entire Bund press; “Unser Wort”, “Nele Zeit”, etc. He was also a regular contributor to “Dos Folk” and “Frimorgen” and edited the Russian journal “Latgalskaya Misl” which appeared in Dvinsk.

After the Fascist seizure of power in 1934, he was detained in the Libau concentration camp and was sent to prison. In 1936 he arrived in New York where he became secretary to the “Yiddishe Sozialistishe Verband” (Jewish Socialist Society) in the U.S. and editor of the “Wecker” (Awakener). He contributed to a number of journals including “Die Zukunft” (The Future) and “Der Freind” (The Friend) and was an active member of the “Allwelkliche Yiddishe Kultur Congress” (World Jewish Cultural Congress), “ZIKA”, etc.

He passed away in New York in 1963. A number of essays were dedicated to his memory in the 1st January, 1964 issue of “Der Wecker”.

 

V

As can be seen in earlier sections, it is sometimes hard to decide precisely where the communal worker ends and the journalist begins and vice versa. But in dealing with Michel Kitai, there is no doubt whatsoever that he was a journalist, pure and simple; although his history shows that he connected with several parties. For him, however, this was purely incidental.

M. Kitai was born in Riga in 1886. As his family had no right of domicile there, some of them moved to Zhager in neighbouring Lithuania. After finished his Jewish studies in the Heder, he went back to his father in Riga, where he worked for a watchmaker. It is hard to know whether he intended to adopt that profession or did so to obtain the right of residence which was available for craftsmen working at their own craft.

He joined the “Dovrei Ivrit” (Hebrew Speakers) circle, went on to the Bund and later entered the S.S. movement. All this came to an end when he was arrested and spent 1907 in prison. After his release, he went abroad for a year and worked as a harness-maker on his return.

He printed his first poem in “Die Iddishe Stimme” in 1910. Thereafter, he wandered from town to town and paper to paper on account of the current conditions – war, papers that shut down, etc. In 1912, Kitai

[Page 309]

was in Vilna writing for “Der Tog”, “Vilner Wochenblatt” and “Friend”. In 1913 he was in Berditchev working for “Die Folksstimme”. He spent almost five consecutive years in Odessa. Here he wrote in “Unser Leben” and was secretary to the Committee of the “Vereinigte”.

During the war years he was in Kieve, Yekaterinoslav, Hommel and Moscow. He returned to Latvia in 1921 and settled down in Riga where he began to work for “Dos Folk”. A few years later, he left the paper together with a group of other journalists on account of the changeable policies of the editor. Together with Mikhail Yo, of whom more will be told below, he began to publish humorous journals from time to time and was the secretary of the “Arbeiter Helmé Publishing House (a cover name of the Communist movement in Latvia) under the management of M. Shatz-Anin. Later, in 1926, he worked for the journals of the Zeirei Zion: “Der Weg” and Unser Weg”, “Letze Neies” – a strictly Yiddishist paper, and in the daily “Frimorgen”.

The latter journal was closed in 1934 after the Fascist seizure of power in Latvia. During the following years, Kitai was in Poland as one of the editors of “Literarishe Bletter” (literary pages). During 1938, he published his book on “Unser Shreiber and Kinstler” (Our Writers and Artists) in Warsaw. His wanderings from place to place, his meetings and acquaintanceship with writers, journalists and artists gave Kitai plenty of material. In the introduction to his book he wrote: “With few exceptions the author has written on the basis of personal knowledge, impressions and memories. What he writes on some of them is a synthesis of their work…”

The descriptions in the book are the fruit of his feuilletons and criticisms of the theatre and painting. With an observant eye, like a watcher from the side, he drew attention to what was specific and characteristic, noting weaknesses and also describing the valuable and beautiful elements in the artist's work.

This bohemian of the Latvian Jewish press was a quiet and modest person. He had a brother in Copenhagen whom he used to visit from time to time. He died in 1942 entirely alone at a hospital in Samarkand.

M. Gertz, the pseudonym of Gershon Movshovitz, may rightly be considered as the historian of the Jewish press in Latvia on account of his Yiddish: “Twenty-five Years of the Yiddish Press in Letland”, which appeared in Riga in 1933.

In this book, he gives a lively account, in fluent Yiddish, of all the papers that had appeared during the years before Independent Latvia,

[Page 310]

from the “National-Zeitung” of 1907 and “Die Iddish Stimme” of 1910 and of all the newspapers, pamphlets, one-time publications, etc, which appeared until the year his book was published.

M. Gertz was born in 1892 in the Kovno Government district and was brought to Riga at the age of seven. He studied in the traditional Hadarim and at the Lithuanian Yeshivot Mir and Slobodica – which was a centre of the “Mussar” pietistic group. At the age of 19, he went to Vilna where he published his first feuilleton in the weekly “Vilner Wochenblatt”.

He spent the wars years 1914-1918 in Riga and central Russia. In 1919 he returned to Riga where he stayed until the War Front approached the city in World War II. From 1940 in lived in Russia returning to Riga in 1945, living there until 1950. He was arrested and exiled to the Teitchet Camp in Siberia from where he returned to Riga in 1956, passing away in 1958.

It may be said that M.Gertz displayed very extensive fluctuations in his journalist ideologies, ranging all the way from communism to the Aguda.

Riga was under communist rule from January to May 1919. The authorities published a daily paper; “Der Roiter Ernest” (The Red Truth) which was full of articles calling for the class war and against Jewish religious functionaries and the bourgeoisie. M. Gertz actively participated in this journal.

In 1920 he began to write for the daily “Dos Folk” which was notorious in the Latvian Jewish press for its lack of consistent policy. In the book referred to above, M. Gertz described this journal as follows: “…left-wing today, right-wing tomorrow, Zionist and pro-Hebrew today, Yiddishist and Socialist soon after, an Orthodox paper today and free-thinking tomorrow…..”

A number of journalists like J. Hellman and J. Vinnik left the paper almost immediately. At the end of 1922, it was abandoned by a whole group of journalists including M. Kitai, M. Razumny, M. Yo, J. Levin-Shatzkes, etc. They combined to publish a sheet entitled: “Die Gele Presse” (The Yellow Press). M. Gertz was not among them. He left “Dos Folk” in 1925 and together with several of those already mentioned published a one-time paper: “Unser Folk” (Our People). Immediately after, this group of journalists including himself began to negotiate with the publishers of the popular Russian daily: “Savodnia” (Today) for the establishment of a new Yiddish daily: “Frimorgen” (Early Morning) which began to appear in January 1927.

[Page 311]

While writing for “Dos Folk» he also took a hand in editing humorous publications, children's books, etc. He worked for “Frimorgen” as long as it appeared and was also the editor of the afternoon paper “Batog” (In the Daytime) which appeared in 1932. He likewise wrote for journals abroad including the New York “Morgen Journal”, the Warsaw “Literarishe Bletter”, “Hazonim Velt”, etc.

Apart from his book on the history of the local Jewish press, he also wrote a book “Mussamikes” describing life as lived amid the followers of the Mussar Movement with whom he had studied in Slobodka. In 1940 when he was in Russia, he wrote for the Soviet press. After his return to Riga he planned to publish essays on the sufferings in the Ghetto. Indeed, he described this period in “Fun Grub” (From the Grave). Subsequently he published: “Neigebornener Yid” (The new-born Jew), “Noch mein Mamen” (After my Mother), “Mishz Alexandrovitch” (about the singer of that name) and other works.

Some of these have been issued in print while others remain in manuscript.

On the last page of his book on the Yiddish Press, M. Gertz-Movshovitch publishes the photograph of a bespectacled man with a small beard which bears the text: “Jacob Zhagorsky, the unwearyingly collector of printed Yiddish in Letland”.

Who did not know this man with his battered briefcase under his arm, who collected contributions for the Keren Hayasod in Riga? Yet, very few indeed knew that in spite of his most modest opportunities, Zhagorsky devoted himself day and night to the collection of printed Yiddish material.

He was born in Riga in 1880 and was one of the founders of the Linat Hatzedek Maternity Hospital and the Hachnassat Kallah Society for providing poor brides with dowries. He also helped establish the Aleph Society of Journalists and Writers, etc. But his main concern was this collection which filled every corner of the rooms in his little apartment. He also held a one-time exhibition of his treasures. Only after boundless entreaty was he finally given a room at the Craft School where he could house his collection in fitting style.

It was with good reason that M. Gertz included the photograph and the words beneath it. The Collection must unquestionably have been very useful in writing his book.

As for the fate of Jacob Zhagorsky and his collection, one can only

[Page 312]

guess that they went the same way all those thousands who perished or were exterminated in the Riga Ghetto during the years of the Holocaust.

In the theatrical and artistic, journalist and communal circles of Riga during the days of Independent Latvia, there was a particularly noticeable young man of stocky, medium height with a mop of reddish blond hair and an almost dreamy expression on his face. This was the painter Mikhail Yo. It is possible that some Riga old-timers in Israel still have a few of his paintings which could once be purchased at a reasonable price.

Meir Jaffe who signed his articles and paintings with the name Mikhail Yo, was born in Vitebsk in 1895. When young he came to Riga and underwent many vicissitudes, poverty and privation. He worked for a watchmaker, helped as a house painter, sang in the choir of the famous Cantor Rosovsky and while still a boy, joined an amateur dramatic group. He printed an essay in a local Russian daily, began to paint and whatever he did, he displayed ample energy and originality.

During World War I he was conscripted, fought in battle, was wounded, underwent treatment in a military hospital and finally returned to Riga.

The lively Jewish life of Independent Latvia provided his many sided talents with ample fields for activity. He painted pictures, illustrated books or prepared scenery and costumes for the Yiddish theatrical troupes which frequently came to Riga from Vilna and elsewhere and stayed there for entire theatrical seasons. He was also a theatrical critic.

I still remember his essays on the first performances of “Habimah”after I left Russia. Those performances were held in the largest theatre of Riga.

Yet, whatever he earned from his many sided labours did not give him the opportunity of expanding his horizon, of going out into the wide world, of seeing and studying all that lay beyond the frontiers of Latvia and Russia. He had a great desire to do something in this direction which is so vital for any painter but without success. On one occasion he suggested an idea of his to me: “Let the Zionists, the Eretz Israel Office or some other institution place at his disposal the means for going abroad and visiting Eretz Israel and he would return the money from the sale of pictures he would paint there”.

Now it is necessary to realize what the situation was in Riga at that time. When Halutzim had received certificates permitting them to immigrate to Eretz Israel, it was necessary to go virtually from door-to-door in order to raise

[Page 313]

their fares by ship. In such circumstances, it is obvious that no money was available for such a “fantastic” proposition as hat suggested by Michail Yo. I do not wish to say that at the time were no people in Riga who would have been capable of finding the money for this but imagination and willingness were also necessary…

Yo was not a party man. His efforts and interests were exclusively artistic. It was in the field of the arts that he sought achievement and perfection and he demanded equally high standards from others.

“….He offered sharp criticism, consistently and without any sentiment in order to lead to a better theatre and he combined a fine artistic sense with a thoroughly healthy instinct”.
In the 30's, he held an exhibition consisting of more than 80 pictures, oil paintings, theatrical scenery and book decorations. Most of them were on Jewish themes such as the Vilna Ghetto, market women, porters, etc.
“….Yo never aimed at a specifically Jewish art and it may be that the harsh impression left by most of his works is the outcome of a difficult childhood and his bitter memories of the War”.
The above two quotations are taken from Michel Kitai's book to which we referred to in the previous section.

During World War II, Yo was in Russia where he worked for a Moscow publishing firm. After the War he returned to Riga. Like many others, part of his family had been killed in the Holocaust while he himself suffered from heart disease.

He published children's' stories with illustrations and a monograph on the painter Isaac Levitan. Towards the end of his life, he planned to issue illustrations for folksongs but never lived to do it.

“….Within him, he bore a yearning for loftier and more beautiful worlds… He always marched ahead with a straight back, obstinately fighting throughout his life against all that was in bad taste or petty-bourgeois, against niggardliness of heart or thought. He did not follow the beaten track but unweariedly sought for whatever was quintessential in the acts, in literature and in life”.
His friend and companion, Mark Rasumny commemorated him in those words in the Warsaw Yiddish paper: “Folkstimme” after he passed away in Riga in 1960.

 

VI

The name of Israel Hayyim Taviov was at a certain period one to conjure

[Page 314]

with among students and teachers of Hebrew and readers of the Hebrew press and literature throughout the whole of Russia and far beyond.

He was born in a small Lithuanian town in 1858 and Lithuanian Jews therefore regard him as one of their fraternity. However, at the age of 2 he was brought to Riga where he grew to maturity and received his education. Apart from a few years spent in Vilna as one of the editors of the Hebrew journal “Hazman” (The Times”, and the period of World War I which he spent in Moscow, he lived and died in Riga. The Riga environment which differed so much from the towns and cities of the Pale of Settlement, exerted considerable influence on his character and education – on this point all his biographers are agreed – and he therefore deserves to be included among the personalities of Latvian Jewry.

His was a wide-ranging culture combined with philological interests, dedication to study and desire to expand his range of knowledge which continued all his life long. These expanded his horizons and prepared him for literary activities in various fields: the daily press to which he contributed feuilletons and political surveys; pedagogics and text-books; studies and researches in general and Talmudic philology and translations of the choicest works in European literature.

Those of his works which appeared in book form included: “Otzar Hamilim Ufitgamim” (Treasury of worlds and epigrams-; “Otzar Hashirah Vehamelitza (Treasury of poetry and rhetoric); and a “Mivhar Hasafrut” (Anthology of Hebrew Literature). The more important of his studies were collected and published after his death such as: “Kitvei I.H. Taviov” (Works of I.H.T). Berlin 1923. Among his translations into Hebrew, mention should be made of the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon from German; “Ephraim Kuh” from the German of Berthold Auerbach. “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain; “The Pickwick Paper, part I by Charles Dickens and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde.

I.H. Taviov was a keen and zealous protagonist of Hebrew and campaigned by all the means at his disposal against the spread of Yiddish. A study of the man and his works was published by M. Bobe in “Heavar” 16, 1969.

He died in Riga in 1920.

Taviov's whole personality was marked by his keen opposition to the spread of Yiddish but Latvian Jewry also produced two of the most important students and architects of the scientific study of Yiddish, namely: Max (Meir) Weinreich and his son Uriel Weinreich.

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Latvia     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max G. Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2018 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 16 Aug 2014 by MGH