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Estonian Jewry
A Historical Summary

by Ella Amitan-Wilensky

Dedicated to the memory of my parents, Joseph Michael and Rachel Wilensky
who were murdered by the Nazi in Estonia at the end of 1941.


Before the Twentieth Century

The State of Estonia was founded in 1919 and consisted of the former Russian Government District of Estonia and half of the one-time Government District of Livonia. At the height of its development, the Jewish community of this small country numbered some 5,000 or 0,4% of the total population which amounted to rather more than 1,125,000. In spite of their scanty numbers compared with the Jewish population of Latvia and Lithuania, the Jews of Estonia, however, constituted a kind of multum in parvo.

The first Jews in Estonia were the Kantonists: Jewish boys who were kidnapped from their homes while still children in order to serve in the Russian army for 25 years (from the time they reached military age). They underwent terrible persecutions on the part of those to whom they were entrusted in order to “persuade” them to convert to Christianity. Only a small proportion of the boys succeeded in remaining true to the fate of their fathers. Most of them converted or perished.

In addition to the Kantonists, Jewish soldiers known as “Nikolai's soldiers” (so called after Tsar Nikolai I) served in the garrisons of Reval (Tallinn), Dorpat (Tartu) and Pernau from about the time of the Crimean War. At the end of their period of military service, which might also last up to 25 years, these Nikolai's soldiers were allowed to marry and establish families which were maintained by the Russian army. They and their offspring were permitted to live in any of the cities of Russia outside the Pale of Settlement, and they constituted the foundation of many communities which came into being in Estonia.

Thus, the basis of the modern Jewish communities goes back to the middle of the 19th century. However, the names of individual Jews are found in the Archives of Reval as early as the 14th century. Nor was it a matter of chance that the names of individual Jews were recorded in these archives during the 14th and 15th centuries.

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The Reval District was for a long period, the property of the Danish Crown which treated Jews in a more humane fashion than the Knights of the Livonian Order; who then ruled the Baltic countries and mercilessly persecuted not only occasional Jews but every Christian who was not a Roman Catholic.

With regard to the Kantonists, it should be mentioned that most of the boys who were taken to Russian army camps in Estonia, were themselves Estonians. The number of Jews was smaller while Russians proper were very few indeed. David Epstein, a Kantonist who reached Estonia in a group of several thousand Jewish boys, relates that not more than 50 of them remained Jews. They others converted to Christianity or died while they were still children.

As mentioned, many Jewish Kantonists converted to Christianity because they could not withstand the cruel persecution of their army chiefs. When the first group of Kantonist boys, who had numbered several thousand, arrived in Reval in 1828, about 50 Jews were left. The others had converted or died but the authorities still suspected that many of the Jews had converted only in appearance and were continuing to observe Jewish practices in secret. Ordinances providing for this contingency were published as early as 1786. Every Jew who changed his faith and became a Christian had to proclaim the fact publicly in Church. An Order was also published that in cases involving Jewish converts, Jews might be brought as witnesses only if there were not enough Christian witnesses. In Reval, 110 Jews converted to Christianity during the year 1844.

Sweden ruled Estonia from 1621 to 1710. In accordance with an Ordinance published in September 1621, the presence of Jews was not to be tolerated in the country and being considered as harmful to the local inhabitants. Even earlier in 1595, the King of Poland who then ruled over southern Estonia issued an Order forbidding Scots (who were then beginning to make their way into Muscovite and neighbouring territories) and Jews to reside in the regions of Dorpat, Pernau and Wenden. However, the local authorities did not act in accordance with this Order and so an even stricter one was issued in 1598. This prohibited the presence of Dutchmen, Scots and Jews in the aforesaid regions.

The fact that this prohibition was issued serves to indicate that by the end of the 16th century there were already Jewish pedlars in no small numbers to be found in northern Livonia (south Estonia). This is also shown by an Order of the Commissioners for the King of Poland

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Dated 1598, prohibiting Scots and various other pedlars, Jews and vagabonds of whatever kind to be present, as remarked, in the Land of Livonia unless they were provided with authorisations from the cities of Riga, Dorpat or Pernau. The Order also specifies that the presence of all these pedlars and wanderers was not to be tolerated and they were not to be provided with lodgings or refuge because they harmed the local merchants.

At the end of the 17th century when trade between Sweden and Poland was on the increase, Jews played an important part as middle-men and were under the protection of the authorities having the status of what were known as “Schutz-Juden” (protected Jews). In the protocols of the Municipal Archives of Reval (the present day Tallinn) we find the formula of an oath that was especially composed for Jews. The following is a special formula quoted in connection with the oath to be taken by the Jew Elias Salomon in 1783 when he and the Christian craftsman, Hornschach, were authorized by the Russian Government to prepare seals for the latter. The two craftsmen were ordered to take oath that they would not abuse the privilege granted to them. However, the Christian took a brief oath whereas the Jews Salomon swore at full length:

“Adonai who created Heaven and earth, Thou who didst create me and all mankind, I, Elias Salomon call upon Thee by Thy Holy and all-powerful Name to confirm these my trued words: That apart from the seals which I shall prepare in accordance with the royal authorization granted to me, I shall prepare no other specimens of the said ware, I shall not abuse this authorization and I shall not prepare similar specimens of seals like these either by myself or at the hand of others… so help me God. And if I act deceitfully and misuse my authorization – then let me be accursed forever, may the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah consume me, and may all the curses written in the Torah be fulfilled in me…. And may the Lord of Truth never stand any more at my right hand….”
As late as 1830 the Jew, Ber Gottlieb, had to take a similar oath in Reval. His oath contained additional curses such as: “let the earth swallow me up as it swallowed the followers of Korah, etc.”

Early in the 18th century, the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, conquered the Baltic countries and from 1710 until her Proclamation of Independence, more than 200 years later, Estonia belonged to Russia. Peter the Great granted many Jews the right of residence in Estonia

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since he needed them for commercial and building purposes. These were “Schutz-Juden” whose presence depended on the goodwill of the rulers. However, the Tsarina Elisabeth, his daughter, treated the Jews cruelly and according to a Decree which she issued in December 1742, Jews were forbidden to dwell within the boundaries of Russia and were all to be expelled. This Decree was carried out to the full and Jews were expelled from Estonia as well.

Greater comprehension as to the part played by the Jews in the development of trade and industry was shown by the Empress Catherine the Great in whose reign Jews returned to Estonia although illegally for the greater part. The Archives of the Reval Municipality towards the end of the 18th century contain letters from Jewish merchants living in the cities of Shklov and Mohilev who had close trade relations with the Christian wholesalers of Reval. These Jewish merchants sometimes even had branches in Leipzig and London and frequently visited the cities of Estonia, thanks to special permits. Even if these visits were occasionally against the law, the police officials preferred to disregard them on account of the great benefits which the city enjoyed thanks to this trade with the Jews.

The general population of Estonia, particularly in the villages, adopted a friendly attitude towards Jews and not infrequently helped them to conceal themselves from the authorities. It should be noted that the Christians of Estonia were less anti-Semitic than their Latvian and Polish neighbours. This may be possibly due in part to the influence of their other neighbours, the peoples of Scandinavia. And this in turn may help to account for the relatively considerable number of mixed marriages between Jews and Estonia girls during the 20th century.

And so we come to the 19th century during which the Jewish communities of the country were founded and firmly established. An Order issued by the Military Commander of Estlandia District in 1807 shows that he permitted Jewish gold and silversmiths, whose residence period in Estonia had expired, to remain in the territory until the annual fairs had been held. The Estonia villagers told legends and tales about the bravery of Jewish pedlars or merchants who forcibly resisted the confiscation of their property and their expulsion from the country.

In the 19th century during the reigns of Nikolai I, Alexander II and Alexander III, three different types of Jewish communities came into being in the country. The first consisted of the offspring and descendants of the Kantonists and Nikolai's Soldiers who were mostly craftsmen and very largely destitute of Jewish learning in spite of their religious fervour.

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The second came Jews from Kurland who moved to Estonia and were marked by their devotion to German culture and speech. Third were Jews who came from Lithuania, from the Pale of Settlement and from Latgale. These were mostly Jewish scholars and despite the fact that most of them were poverty-stricken, they showed a certain contempt for the well-to-do but unlettered offspring of the Jewish soldiers. This lack of homogeneity among the local Jewish communities continued in the 20th century as well.

During the 1830's, Jewish patients from the Pale of Settlement were given special permission to come for treatment to the hospitals of Dorpat which had an excellent medical reputation. Later, many Jewish students from the Pale of Settlement and inner Russia also came to this famous University city. The first Jewish student known in Dorpat was a certain Alexander Wulfius who was there in 1840. After he graduated in law, he converted to Christianity and remained in Dorpat permanently. At the same time, he maintained his friendship with Jews and helped those of the city considerably in their communal and cultural affairs. He also made large-scale contributions towards the community. It is interesting that he was popular and highly respected by both Jews and Christians.

During the second half of the 19th century, as remarked, there was an increase in the number of Jews in Estonia. Apart from merchants and hawkers, there were now many craftsmen, including shoemakers, tailors, tinsmiths and above all, shingle-makers. These craftsmen came from Lithuania, Poland and Kurland. Like the hawkers and pedlars, they found that they could make an easier living in Estonia than in their former dwelling place, although they had no right of domicile. In 1865, Tsar Alexander II granted the right of residence in the Baltic Provinces to Jewish craftsmen who were engaged in their specific occupations. However, in accordance with an Order dated 1842, those Jews who had the right of residence in Estonia were forbidden to employ Christian workmen. Thus we read that in 1859, the Jewess Hannah Meirovitch of Reval was accused of employing a Christian female help to work in her home and was sentenced to pay a fine of 5 roubles for every 24 hours of such employment. The total fine was 450 roubles which she had to pay to the Municipal Treasury. If she was unable to pay this amount she was to receive 55 strokes of the rod (!) from the Police.

The German merchants of Dorpat also displayed their hostility towards Jewish pedlars and hawkers. In 1841, they applied to the Mayor to forbid Jewish pedlars to engage in trade since the activities of the Jews unfavourably affected the material condition and standing of the German

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merchants which was declining in any case. They also proposed that peddling should be prohibited for Russians and Estonians as well.

Alexander II granted rights of residence in Estonia and the whole of Russia under the Order of 1865 not only to craftsmen but also to the families and descendants of Nikolai's Soldiers, to merchants of the First Guild and to university graduates. In 1856 there were already some 60 families of Nikolai's soldiers in Reval and some 10 such families in Dorpat. These may be regarded as the pioneers of the Jewish community in Estonia.

Nikolai's soldiers, who included several scholars with rabbinical diplomats, were in Reval by order of the army. Almost completely unknown to the general Jewish public, they established a small synagogue and a Jewish cemetery during the 40's. In order to find the necessary money with which to erect a fence around the cemetery, the soldiers sold their rations of bread and food.

In the 80's the Nikolai soldiers, whose numbers in Reval had reached almost 800, resolved to have a Torah Scroll written from their own resources. For this purpose, they invited a special Torah scribe to the city. The military authorities approved of this measure and the traditional ending of the Scroll was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance.

At the meeting of the Reval City Council, the local Jewish corset-maker, Jacob Kuklinsky who represented the soldiers belonging to the local community, announced that they had selected a certain Semyon Cohen to be the representative of their community. This Kuklinsky is met with again on account of a denunciation against him brought by a convert to the effect that the said Kuklinsky had spoken contemptuously against the Christian faith and against Jesus when he tried to persuade three Jews not to change their faith.

In December 1870, the Ministry of Interior issued a permit for the erection of a Synagogue in Reval for Jewish civilians residing in the city. As remarked above, there was already one synagogue for the soldiers but it was far from the centre of town and stood near the military barracks. In any case, both synagogues together were too small to contain all those who came to pray. In 1882, the foundation stone of a large, spacious and handsome synagogue was laid and it was officially dedicated a few years later.

At this time, the position of Reval Jews was satisfactory, particularly after 1876 when Jews were permitted to purchase real estate.

A “heder” (old-style Hebrew school) was set up by a Hebrew teacher among the Nikolai soldiers in Reval and teachers also taught general sub-

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jects there. During the 70's this became a Jewish elementary school for children of Jews of restricted means. Wealthy Jews, however, used to send their children to Christian schools.


The Twentieth Century

Jewish National Cultural Autonomy

On 12th February, 1925, the Estonian Republic Parliament passed a law providing cultural autonomy for all National Minorities in the country including the Jews with permission to use the national language of the minority for all cultural activities. Even Jews of neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia never achieved such full autonomy, for which the only requirement was that the minority should consist of not less than 3,000 residents of the country. As a result, the Jews of Estonia were placed on an equal footing with Russian, German and Swedish minorities. The statement issued by the Estonian Government informing the Jews of their full cultural autonomy was issued at the celebration of the first decade of the country's independence and was published in both Hebrew and Yiddish. This document which can be found in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem is sui generis, being the first and only one of its kinds issued during the two millennia of exile in which official use was made of both Hebrew, the national language, and Yiddish, the Jewish vernacular.

The institutions of Jewish cultural autonomy began to function in 1926 and included the following:

  1. A Kultur-rat or Cultural Council of 27 members who were elected for three years.
  2. A Kultur Verwaltung or Cultural Administration of 7 members who were elected by and from the members of the Cultural Council.
  3. Local Committees which were concerned with rates and taxes and schools.

The income of autonomous institutions derived from rates levied on the members, subsidies granted by the Government and municipalities and other sources. Elections to the Cultural Council were general, direct and secret.

The question of the language of instruction in the Jewish schools led to sharp differences of opinion until a compromise was reached whereby the two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, were given equal rights as languages of tuition.

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Towns & People

In 1926, a Society was established for Jewish schools. In Tallinn it founded a Yiddish kindergarten and an elementary school. Later the Jewish schools in Taline united and provided parallel classes in both Hebrew and Yiddish.

In 1932, there were 204 Jewish children attending secondary schools of who 115 studied in Hebrew or Yiddish classes, 19 in Estonian schools, 25 in Russian schools and 45 in German schools.

Details about the Jewish school in Dorpat, which was founded as early as 1875, will be found below.

The cultural autonomy introduced fresh vitality in the Jewish Community of Estonia where there were soon a large number of cultural, education, sport and entertainment societies – a number that was indeed surprising when the size of the local Jewish population is taken into consideration. Naturally most was done in the two major cities Reval (Tallinn) and Dorpat (Tartu) which competed with one another for the hegemony over the Jews of the country. Reval was the largest city and the capital with a wealthy Jewish community while Dorpat prided itself on its University, Jewish students and student institutions.

A few statistics on the Jews of the country between the two World Wars are given here. According to the official population census of 1922, there were 4566 Jews in the country constituting 0,4% of the total population. Almost all of them lived in tows, practically half in the two major cities Reval (Tallinn) where there were 1203 Jews and in Dorpat (Tartu) which contained 920 Jews. They constituted about 1,3% of the urban population. There was not a single Jewish representative in the Estonian Parliament.

In 1934, a total of 1688 Jews were active in economic life. Of these, 514 were engaged in trade; 409 as clerks or in services; 249 in various crafts; 233 as workers; 158 as members of the free professions; 26 landlords and 16 Jewish religious functionaries. Most of the Jews had small or medium-sized shops.

Of the 249 Jewish craftsmen, 77 were tailors; 40 furriers; 39 tinsmiths; 33 leather-cutters for shoes and 16 technicians. There were no shoemakers among them. Most of the craftsmen worked alone without any helpers.

Jewish physicians constituted 8.9% of all those in the country. In 1932, there were 85 Jewish physicians of whom 65 were men and 20 women. They did not all engage in their profession. In fact, no more than a few did so as there was no need for so large a number of Jewish physicians to whom Christian patients hardly came. As a result, they worked in

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the businesses of their parents and in many Jewish shops one might be served by a “Herr Doktor”.

In Reval, Dorpat and Narva there were Jewish Cooperative banks. In 1936 all three of them together had 610 members. There were also Jewish industrial plants in the country of which the largest, ETK, manufactured paints and cosmetics.

The following is a list of some of the many Jewish institutions to be found in Reval (Tallinn) in the year 1928:

A religious communal administration; Managements of the Jewish National Cultural Autonomy; The Public Jewish Society; The Bialik Literary and Dramatic Society founded in 1928; The Zionist Organization; The Maccabi Sports Association; The Charity Society; The Burial Society; The Society for the Study of the “Ein Yaakov” (a work containing all the non-legal sections of the Talmud); The Hanoar Pupils' Zionist Organization, etc.

Between the years 1871 and 1925, the number of Jews in the city rose from 412 to 2352.

There was no Yiddish daily but the Lithuanian journals “Yiddishe Stimme” and “Dos Wort” used to publish a weekly supplement dedicated to Estonian Jewry.


The Dorpat Community

Reference has already been made to the friendly competition between the communities of Reval and Dorpat. The latter was given vitality by its Jewish University students and the Institutions they established.

Until the introduction of the numerous clausus in secondary and high schools of Russia in the year 1887, the University of Dorpat was a centre of attraction for Jewish students who numbered 235 in 1886.


Juedische Studenten Kasse (Jewish Students' Fund)

The University of Dorpat was more liberal and easy-going towards Jews than other Russian Universities. Life was relatively cheap, it was close to Jewish centres and at the end of the 19th century, and the language used was German which did not constitute an obstacle for Yiddish-speaking students. The Medical Faculty was of a very high standard and as a result, the University attracted Yeshiva students from Volozhin and other centres of Talmudic studies. Most of these had no means of their own and in order to ease their studies at the University, the “Juedische Studenten Kass” was founded in 1875. Its original name was “Unterstuetsungkasse fuer unbemittelte Studierende in Dorpat” (Fund for

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The support of Persons without means that are studying in Dorpat). At its first meeting, the Fund had 22 members. It received a monthly grant from the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment. Each member paid his membership fees each semester.


The Jewish Elementary School in Dorpat

Besides providing support for Jewish students without means, the Fund played an active part in the life of the community. As long ago as the 70's of the last century, Jewish students began to teach, free of charge, poor Jewish children in Dorpat whose parents did not have the means to send their children to the general school. A certain Eliezer Perkin applied to the Ministry of Culture for the establishment of a Jewish School in Dorpat and a favourable reply was received. However, the community was too poor to satisfy the Ministry's condition of paying 300 roubles a year to the Government, in return for which the latter would open the school for the children. So the students came to the aid of the community. Several public-spirited Jewish students called a general meeting attended by communal representatives at which it was decided to establish an elementary school with two shifts. The girls would learn in the morning from 8 to 1p.m. while the boys who attended Heder in the morning would go to school from 2 to 6 p.m. The course of studies included: Russian, German, arithmetic, geography and Jewish history. The students undertook to teach free of charge while well-to-do householders undertook to provide the money to hire premises, buy books, instruments, etc. And so the Jewish school came to be. It should be noted that the members of the Students' Fund paid, not only their membership fees, but also a certain sum in support of the school which they administered until 1907.

In addition to clubs, large libraries and various groups and societies, Dorpat also had an institution which crowned its communal activities. This was the “Akademischer Verein fuer Juedische Geschichte und Literatur” (Academic Union for Jewish History and Literature) which was founded in 1884 on the initiative of a number of students including Dr. J. Bernstein-Cohen. The Society was established in order to foster comradeship among its members and even more, to permit the thorough-going study of Jewish History and Literature, spread Jewish culture among the masses and make them nationally conscious. The Society had a considerable influence on the cultural level of the community. Its meetings and lectures were open to the general public, were very popular and always attracted a large audience. The lecturers included the Hebrew poet,

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Saul Tschernichovsky who called Dorpat “The Heidelberg of Russia”, Dr. Alexander Goldstein and other notable personalities. Many former members now live in Israel as physicians, teachers, clerks, workers and kibbutz members. In Israel, there are also two women writers born in Dorpat who were members of these societies. These are the poetess Ella AMitan-Wilensky and the writer Ida Priver-Bakst.

All one-time members of the Society remember it affectionately as part of their youth. On occasion, they have met together in Israel to celebrate its anniversaries. At the beginning of the 20th century, the meetings and lectures were held in the home of the Gens family, six of whose seven children were university graduates and members.

It is possible that the Society was originally intended to be a Jewish version of the numerous Christian Student Corporations of Dorpat, but it turned into a small scale spiritual centre for the Jews of the city and far beyond. It also had a large library.

In 1926, there were 188 Jewish students at the Dorpat University. From 1934 onwards, the University maintained as part of its Faculty of Philosophy a special Chair for Jewish subjects (history and philosophy) headed by Dr. L. Gulkowitz who had formerly been Professor of Philosophy in Leipzig. This was possibly the only University in Eastern Europe which had a special department for Jewish scholarship.

In 1934 the number of Jewish students declined to 94.

Apart from institutions connected with the student body, the Dorpat Community also maintained the Societies, etc., that are usually to be found in Jewish communities such as the Synagogue, Burial Society, Charitable Society, etc. Of these, the most important included: The Religious Community; The Autonomous Cultural Administration; the Academic Society for Jewish Literature and History; Three Student Societies – one exclusively for women, one assimilationist in trend and the third consisting of Zionist supporters of Jabotinsky; The Zionist Organization; Democratic Club; Maternity Home; Society for visiting the sick; Societies for the study of the Mishna and Ein Yaakov; Friends of the Yiddish Language founded by Payensohn and J. Gens; Society for the expansion of Jewish Scholarship at the Dorpat University; Hehalutz; Dorpat Society of Jewish Youth for History and Literature founded by the students Leo Wilensky and Jacob Gens.

The Jewish population of Dorpat rose from 616 in 1879 to 920 in 1934.


The Zionist Movement

The Movement engaged in widespread activities, chiefly in Reval and

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Dorpat. During the Hovevei Zion period in 1890, a Society was established in Dorpat with the aim of providing material support for settlement in Eretz Israel. Membership grew from year to year and by the middle of the 90's, it sent an annual sum of 100 roubles towards Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel – a by no means small amount for such a small community in those days. “Hehaver” was a lively and active Zionist Society in which Leo Wilensky and Jacob Gens played a considerable part.

In 1917, a special Children's' Library was established in Dorpat in memory of the well-known communal worker, Dr. J. Eiges and received about 250 books from the Library of the Literary and Historical Society.

The Zionist families of Dorpat included: Uswansy; Baksht; Wilensky; Gens; Zalmanowitz; Kruskal and Rubin in Reval. Some of their children came to Eretz Israel. In the guest room of my parents' home the portraits of Herzl and Nordau were hung besides the portraits of Tsar Nikolai II and his family.

The Jews of Estonia were relatively fortunate as about 4,000 of them were evacuated to central Russia during 1941 before the German occupation. Some 1000 remained behind and were exterminated.

In the present Soviet Estonian Republic, there are now close to 4,000 Jews once again.


A special Bibliography on the Jews of Estonia will be found in the General Bibliography.


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