“Jelgava” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Latvia and Estonia


56t°39' / 23°42'

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

Written by: Dov Levin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1988


Project Coordinator

Betsy Thal Gephart

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

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Latvia and Estonia:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Latvia and Estonia,
Edited by Dov Levin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

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.

(pp. 149-159)

Jelgava (German: Mitau; Russian Mitava; called by Jews: Mitoi)

Translated by Barry Marks

District city in Zemgale (Courland) on the Lyelufe River

Population Figures

Year General
Jewish Population
Number Percent
1797-642 males-

*includes Jews in the surrounding areas

To the end of the First World War

History of the city

        In 1265, a German castle was built on the site. Around it a settlement developed, which in 1561 was included in the duchy of Kurland. In the course of time the settlement acquired the status of a city and served as the capital of the duchy. From the end of the 18th century an academy and an opera functioned in the city. In 1795 the city came under the rule of Russia which maintained its status as the capital of the Kurland province. At the beginning of the 19th century, the city had ten thousand residents; the population grew to three and a half times that number by the end of the century. The city's population was heterogeneous –half German and the other half made up of Latvians, Russians, Jews, and Lithuanians. Each of the ethnic groups developed its own network of educational and welfare institutions, which united in 1868 under the auspices of a single municipal “roof organization.” For most of the 19th century Jelgava served as an important commercial crossroads; through it the agricultural products of Kurland, Lithuania, and Vitebsk province traveled to exporters in Riga. In the 1870's after railroad lines were built, which connected the sources of agricultural products directly to the port cities of Libau (see Liepaja) and Riga, Jelgava lost its commercial importance. Many of its residents, including its Jewish merchants, were affected. In the last quarter of the 19th century, local industry began to develop. An urban proletarian class was created and socialist parties were established; in 1904 several of them (including the Jewish Bund) united and set up a branch of the Social Democratic party. In 1905 the Socialists were in the forefront of the revolutionary events in the city, which found their expression in demonstrations, gatherings, strikes, and even in violent activities. In the decade preceding the First World War local population growth continued; on the eve of the war the population reached 45,000. From its beginnings the city was distinguished by its multitude of doctors and medical institutions. On the eve of the First World War there were four hospitals functioning in the city, one of them the Jewish one.

        At the beginning of the First World War, the population of the city was evacuated at the command of the Russian regime.

        During the years 1915 to 1918, Jelgava was occupied by the German Army and at the end of the war it was occupied successively by Bolshevik forces and by brigades of the German Landeswehr. Finally it became part of sovereign Latvia and served as a district city under its current Latvian name.

        Between the two world wars, Jelgava was the fourth largest Latvian city. The composition of the population changed. The proportion of other national groups declined, while the Latvians became the overwhelming majority (75%) of the inhabitants. The city continued to serve as an industrial center. Textile workshops operated in the city as well as factories for the manufacture of sugar, beer, and flour products, all based on the agricultural products of the rural vicinity –mainly flax, grain, and sugar beets. Additionally, in Jelgava there were factories for shingles, wax, rope, and leather products.

Legal status and demographic and economic development of the Jews during the period of the duchy of Kurland

        We don't have reliable information about the beginnings of Jewish settlement in the locality. Near the city, however old Jewish graves were discovered from the fourteenth century, but it is thought that these were graves of Jewish merchants who passed through the area in connection with their business. At the end of the seventeenth century in the period of the duchy of Kurland, Jews were already residing in Jelgava on a permanent basis. The Jewish community of Jelgava is one of the oldest in Kurland. The majority of the early Jews arrived in the city from the surrounding villages and from Lithuania, mainly from the Zamut region. As a result of the clash of interests between the nobles, who benefited from Jewish economic activity, and the urban population, who opposed it, a consistent policy towards the Jews never developed during the entire period of the duchy. Consequently, the legal status of the Jews fluctuated, finding expression in contradictory commands and in orders that were never implemented. At the end of the seventeenth century Jews were permitted to reside in one street in the city known as Judengasse (street of the Jews). In 1710 they received permission to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Three years later an order was promulgated for the expulsion of all of the Jews of Kurland including Jelgava. But the Jews of the city apparently found refuge on the estate of one of the nobles, Baron von Rekke and were able to remain in the area.

        In 1730 new regulations were promulgated which granted some Jews –craftsmen and distillers of brandy – the permission to reside in Kurland. Also, Jews from elsewhere were allowed to come to Kurland in connection with their business and to engage in commerce within its borders. These regulations provided a legal opening for the settlement of Jews in Jelgava. In that same year Jews even received permission to set up a Chevra Kadisha (Burial society) in the city. However, in subsequent years there followed different orders of expulsion, which the Jews circumvented thanks to the assistance of the nobles in the area, who leased homes, apartments, and warehouses to them.

        In 1758 the Jews petitioned the duke to allow them to be legally registered in the city and to conduct their affairs on an equal footing with the other citizens. The local Christian merchants, mainly Germans, vigorously opposed this request and spelled out their opposition in a long and detailed memorandum which they submitted to the duke. In the first part of the memorandum they enumerated the orders for the expulsion of the Jews that had not been carried out. Their conclusion was that the Jews were residing in the city illegally. The central part of the memo was devoted to a hostile description of Jewish economic activity. The essence of their arguments was as follows:

        The Jews buy produce from the farmers –grain, honey, leather, cloth – and pay for it with tobacco and brandy. They export the agricultural products to Lithuania, but with the help of the nobles who furnish them with forged documents they avoid paying taxes. The nobles also lend money to the Jews and fund their businesses. They build taverns and lease them to the Jews, who exploit and corrupt the peasants. The Jews traffic in stolen merchandise, and they also borrow money and then leave the country without repaying the loans. Because of all these things, the memorandum claimed, the Jews have become rich, have drained money from the state, have deprived the local citizens of their livelihood, and have caused the treasury of the duchy to lose revenues. In light of all of the legal and economic reasons spelled out in the memorandum, its authors sought to have the Jews expelled from Jelgava and expressed the hope that then its lawful citizens would be able to bring about the economic flowering of the city.

        As a result of this petition, Duke Karl issued an order on August 8, 1758, to expel the Jews from Jelgava, according to which all Jews had to leave the city within four weeks. Any Jew found in the city after that date would be whipped and then banished. Christians sheltering Jews would be punished. This new edict did not deny foreign Jews the right to pass through the city on business, but in order to limit the time of their stay in the city and to insure that that they would pay taxes, as well as to prevent local Jews from remaining there in the guise of foreign merchants, various measures of supervision and limitation were imposed on Jewish merchants coming from other countries. Among other provisions, they were obligated, upon arriving in the city, to appear before the mayor, to register, and to receive documents that were valid for only a limited number of days; during those days it was permitted for them to reside only in the Judengasse; they had to deposit any merchandise which they were transporting with the authorities and could receive it back when they departed from the city and after they had paid the customs charges. In the end, as with many of the edicts which had preceded this one, it was not implemented, and the Jews continued to reside in the city and its vicinity.

        A change for the better in the situation of the Jews occurred when Prince Biron returned to the throne of the duchy. In 1780 Jews were given permission to reside in the city and to do business within its boundaries without hindrance. Four years later they received permission to build a synagogue. During this time a Jew named Kraslava was given a license to build an inn in the city.

        As a consequence of this leniency the number of Jews in Jelgava grew. The community which numbered a few hundred souls at the beginning of the eighteenth century grew to more than a thousand by its end and became the largest Jewish settlement in Kurland. With the enlargement of the community, economic and social differences were created between the minority of old-timers and the vast majority of residents, who had come more recently. The material situation of the old-timers was generally well-established, as is reflected in the aforementioned memorandum of the Christian merchants. The old-timers were engaged in exporting agricultural products and in internal commerce, in operating taverns, in crafts, and in distilling brandy. Some of them established close economic ties with the nobility.

        “Shtadlanim” (spokesmen and representatives who interceded with the non-Jewish authorities in behalf of Jews) from among the wealthy members of the community used their links to the nobility to improve the status of the Jews. One of them, the merchant David Bamberger, was active in the mid-eighteenth century as a supplier to the Russian Army and received a commendation for his services from the Tsarist regime. Compared to the old-time families, the new Jewish residents were deprived of sources of livelihood and lacking in influence with and ties to the ruling circles. The economic and social differences created clashes of interest between the two groups, which found their expression in the following incident, relating to the Jews' petition for rights.

        On March 13, 1793, the “gabba'im” (Jewish communal officials), Aaron Lipman Levy and Isaac Moses Edes petitioned the Landtag of Kurland in the name of the community of Jelgava, seeking an edict of tolerance and brotherhood toward the Jewish religion. The Landtag referred the petition to a special municipal committee, which in turn asked the Jews themselves to suggest enactments which would guarantee tolerance for their co-religionists. On this basis the Jews submitted a detailed suggestion of a grant of rights. But the proposal was submitted exclusively in the name of the sixty old-time families, whereas the remaining 120 Jewish families were not included in it.

These are the paragraphs of the suggested text:

  1. The number of Jews in each city, town, and village must be limited. The desirable number will be established in relationship to the total population and in relationship to the proportion of Jews in the various classes.
  2. In accord with this principle, the number of Jews in Jelgava – two hundred families- is too high. The optimal number is sixty families. Rights are to be conferred only on these sixty families, for the reason that their ancestors were already residents in this locality and that they will not become a burden on the other residents, whereas the rest of the Jews are compelled to support themselves through charity and are not deserving of status and rights in the city. The rights which these families seek for themselves include:
  3. Permission to freely purchase and build houses in Jelgava.
  4. Freedom in business matters and the rights conferred upon merchants, including permission to open banks.
  5. The granting of a license to the Jewish community to establish a communal body (meaning an official community) similar to the one established by the Jews of Hazenput (see Aizpute). This body will adjudicate internal disputes among the Jews, while leaving the litigants the right to appeal to the municipal council.
  6. The appointment of a representative in the city who will defend the rights of the Jewish merchants.
  7. Jewish children will be permitted to study in the general schools and in the local academy, if they have the means to do so and the appropriate aptitude.
  8. Jews will pay a special protection tax
        Nine representatives of the community signed this document, and the names of the sixty heads of household were appended to it. The municipal council supported the proposal, fixed the amount of the protection tax –two thaler for an adult and one for a child –and passed it on to the Landtag for ratification. But the Landtag never had the opportunity to deliberate on this proposal. Shortly afterward, the duchy of Kurland lost its autonomous status and in 1795 was annexed to the Russian Empire.

The period of Russian rule

        When Jelgava was annexed to Russia, it had the largest Jewish community in Kurland, constituting 70% of the Jews in the province (in 1797, there were 642 Jewish males in Jelgava and 896 in the whole of Kurland) and 20% of the population of the city. Most of them, as we have said, were lacking a clear economic and legal status. After lengthy deliberations on the Jewish question, a law was passed in 1799 which gave the Jews of Kurland the right to settle in their localities, removed economic limitations, and granted them certain civil rights.

        Thus the Jews of Jelgava were turned from more or less tolerated subjects to citizens with rights based on law. As a consequence of this new legislation, the number of Jews in the city grew rapidly and their economic activity was enlarged. Among the Jewish merchants were also some with extensive business such as Ber Zelig Klein and Samuel Kandauer who were appointed in 1810 as purveyors to the Russian court and were given the privilege of wearing a special uniform. In 1827 the Christian merchants and craftsmen made another attempt to harass the Jews. They petitioned the Russian Tsar to limit the number of Jews in Jelgava, but their plea was not answered, and the growth of the Jewish community continued. By 1835 the number of Jews in the city totaled five thousand souls. A substantial part of the growing Jewish community was made up of large and impoverished families, who had a difficult time making a living. In 1840, 115 families, numbering 863 souls (an average of 7.5 per family) left Jelgava to settle in the Kherson province in southern Russia in the framework of a Russian government program. During those years a cholera epidemic struck Jelgava, leaving many dead. As a result of mass emigration (of one sixth of the community) and the losses due to the epidemic, the number of Jews in the city and its surroundings declined and by 1850 had fallen to 755 families (4189 souls).

        The distribution of these 755 families throughout the various branches of the economy in the mid-nineteenth century was as follows: 55 heads of household were registered in the merchant guilds (five of them in the second guild, thirty nine in the third, and one banker), 85 owned houses and land. The economic status of this group was relatively well-established. 48 other families made their living from shops, and twelve additional ones from the taverns and inns which they owned. About 30% of wage –earners -212 families- were engaged in different kinds of crafts as listed here: 45 tailors; 25 seamstresses and salesgirls; 28 hatters; 3 furriers; 38 shoemakers; 18 tinsmiths; 5 locksmiths and engravers; and 6 glaziers; sign painters, watchmakers, and ritual slaughterers – 4 of each; opticians, goldsmiths, carpenters, and painters – 2 of each; coachmen and butchers – 12 of each. More than three hundred families were engaged as middlemen, mostly in the grain business, as horse dealers, and in peddling agricultural products. A small minority, made up of the poorest Jews, worked as porters, wood choppers, water drawers, and unskilled day laborers. The large class of small and mid-level merchants, middlemen, and craftsmen was not monolithic from the economic point of view. Many in this class were in need of loans for their business or personal needs and were exploited by money-lenders. As a result of the coming of the railroads in the 1870's, which affected the city's commercial situation (see above), the livelihood of Jewish middlemen and exporters was taken away. Many wanted to move to the interior of Russia, but the regime did not permit it.

        In the 1890's a world economic crisis affected the grain business. During those years many Latvians began to settle in the city and to compete with the Jews in the sphere of crafts and commerce. As a result of these two processes the economic situation of the Jews in Jelgava became even graver. In 1892, eight hundred families, the majority of the Jews in the community, were in need of assistance from the local Gemilut Chesed (Free Loan Society) funds. Despite these changes the Jews still maintained their central status in the city's commerce and crafts until the outbreak of the First World War.

        During the second half of the nineteenth century, Jewish personalities from Jelgava filled honored communal positions: a Jew was elected to the administration of the Riga-Mitau Rowing Society. Rabbi Shlomo Focher, the community's rabbi, was a member of the municipal council and the banker Leo Leib was appointed to be a board member of the mortgage society. With the political changes that occurred in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jews of Jelgava began to take part in political life. In the elections to the First Imperial Duma (Parliament) that took place in 1906, many Jews tended to support the Latvian parties (and not the German), and the Jewish physician Dr. Rubenstein was elected to the Duma as the representative of one of these parties. In the elections for the Second Imperial Duma in 1912 a Jew by the name of Goldman was a candidate for one of the opposition parties. Despite all of this, discrimination against Jews continued. For example a Jew was brought to trial on charges that he had no legal right of residence in the city. The case reverberated far and wide in the community, and the Jew was eventually cleared of all guilt.

The Kehilla (Jewish communal organization) during the period of the duchy of Kurland

        In 1710, as mentioned, Jews were permitted to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. In 1730 the Duke permitted Jews to set up a cemetery on the land which they had acquired. A Chevra Kadisha (burial society) was founded, which began to keep a written minute book. Three gabba'im (treasurers or communal leaders) –a first, second, and third gabbai- were chosen to head the community; along with them were additional functionaries: a trustee, an auditor, a scribe for the Chevra Kadisha, and its treasurer. Among the other enactments of the community, it was established that only those thirty years of age and older could be accepted as members of the Chevra Kadisha and that the gabba'im and the treasurer must give an account regarding any personal property whose worth exceeded 125 rubles. As the Jewish community grew, the number of gabba'im was increased to seven. Kalman Borkum, a wealthy merchant with ties to the regime and a shtadlan (lobbyist) for the community, served as one of the heads of the community (first treasurer) during this period. In 1784 he built an edifice for the synagogue at his own expense and next door to it a dwelling for the cantor. Later he also built a mikveh (ritual bath). In 1770 a Bikur Cholim society (visiting the sick) began to be active.

        The Jews of Jelgava, who were for the most part merchants, were not distinguished for their knowledge of Torah. Only isolated individuals among the communal leaders mentioned in the Minute Book are cited as knowledgeable in Torah. One such was Shlomo Zalman son of Baruch Stern, mentioned in the years 1730 to 1747 as the “wonderful and distinguished rabbi”. By contrast, the city served as a temporary or permanent place of residence for Jewish maskilim (“enlightened ones” –advocates of rationalism and secular learning) from Germany and Western Europe who imparted an “enlightened” character to the community. Among them were Daniel Kleif from Amsterdam, the author of Arugah K'tanah (Small Garden) (see in reference to him the article on Aizpute), who was accepted into the Chevra Kadisha in 1771, and several physicians; Mordecai Hertz from Berlin, who arrived in 1774 for a lengthy stay with his brother in Jelgava; Judah Halevi son of Mordecai, who wrote many books in German and lived in Jelgava at the end of the eighteenth century, and Dr. Allrich from Prussia, who married the daughter of Kalman Borkum. The German Jew David Friedlander, infamous among German Jews for a letter he wrote to a minister in which he sough to be converted to Christianity, spent some time in Jelgava.

The Kehilla in the period of the Russian regime

Rabbinate and religious institutions

        The Russian law of 1799 conferred on the Jews of Kurland the right to set up religious communities, to build synagogues, to establish cemeteries and kosher slaughterhouses. Thus, the Jewish Kehilla (communal governing body) of Jelgava received official endorsement of its existence. At first, the Kehilla continued to maintain the internal structure which had crystallized during the time of the duchy of Kurland - the offices of gabba'im, trustee, treasurer, and scribe of the Chevra Kadisha. The wealthy members of the community continued to perform important tasks in the kehilla as intermediaries with the outside world and as contributors to various communal institutions.

        At the beginning of the nineteenth century Rabbi Zvi Hirsh son of Dov Ber Charif, one of the officers of the community, was appointed as the community's first rabbinic judge. In 1810 after his death, the official rabbinate of Jelgava was established. Rabbi David Yehezkel son of Yekutiel, who had previously been the rabbi in Zagare, Lithuania, served as the community's first rabbi and head of the rabbinic court during the years 1823 to 1840. The rabbis of the city who were chosen by the community also needed to have the endorsement of the regime. In addition to carrying out their religious duties, they had to administer the registration of the births, marriages, and deaths of the community's members. Also, some of them served as government censors of Hebrew books. After the death of Rabbi David Yehezkel, two candidates competed for the position, his son and Rabbi Israel Friedman, a wealthy officer of the community with a reputation as a great Torah scholar. Rabbi Friedman got the position, and his service as rabbi continued until his death in 1843.

        Communal institutions continued to develop during his tenure: with the rabbi's funds, a second synagogue for the community and a mikveh (ritual bath) for women were built. In 1825 the community began a third Minute Book which included sections copied from the two previous ledgers. In 1826 additional land was acquired through the efforts of the Borkum family (a family of communal leaders) and the area of the local cemetery was enlarged. A separate cemetery was set aside for cholera victims. At the two cemeteries money to cover burial expenses was collected only from the well-to-do. After Rabbi Friedman's death, he was succeeded by Rabbi Eliyahu Jacobson, who had previously been a gabbai of the community and rabbi in Vindau (see Ventspils). He served until his death in 1856.

        With the growth and the material strengthening of the community, the Jews of Jelgava began to seek important personalities to serve in the role of rabbi for the city. From the many candidates for the position, Rabbi Mordecai Uri Samunov, a member of a well-known rabbinical family in Vindau (see Ventspils) was selected. But the devout rabbi was not accepted by all of the circles in the community. Among his other activities, Rabbi Samunov succeeded in convincing the educational authorities to release the Jewish students in general schools from the obligation of attending school on Shabbat. His intervention aroused dissatisfaction among the parents of these students, and they sent their children back to the classroom even on Shabbat. In 1859 after completing three years of service, Rabbi Samunov left the community and returned to his city. During or after his time, Rabbi Reuven Vunderbar, who was known as the historian of the Jews of Kurland, substituted for him in the position of official rabbi for one year from 1858 to 1859. Rabbi Vunderbar was born in Jelgava on September 12, 1812. In 1835, after having received his general and his Jewish education, he took the government examinations and received a teaching degree. In the 1840's he served as teacher and principal in a “reformed” Jewish school in Riga, which was headed by the well-known Maskil (enlightened Jew) Max Lilienthal. When he returned to Jelgava in the 1850's he was active in several different areas: as a teacher of religion in the governmental Jewish school (see below), official translator of Hebrew manuscripts, and, also, as was mentioned, as the substitute for the rabbi. He advocated Enlightenment and opposed Jewish isolationism. Rabbi Vunderbar left behind many writings: instructional books for learning Hebrew and German; a comprehensive four volume work on medicine in the Bible and Talmud; and two studies that serve as basic sources for understanding the history of the Jews in Kurland: “Reflections on the Jewish Families from Kurland who Emigrated to Kherson Province” and “The History of the Jews in Livland and Kurland.” After Rabbi Vunderbar's death in 1868, a monument in his memory was put up in the Great Synagogue in Jelgava. For one year (1859-1860) Rabbi Menachem Mendel Israelson filled the position of official rabbi.

        In addition to the official rabbis the community also employed rabbinic judges who specialized in the areas of law and halacha. Among them we know of the following: Rabbi Ephraim Jacobson, who died in the cholera epidemic of 1831, Rabbi Jacob Trisk, who migrated to the land of Israel in 1844, Rabbi Moses son of Chanoch Feiertag, who died in the plague of 1848, and, at the end of the century, Rabbi Shimon Cohen.

        In 1859, Rabbi Shlomo Focher was appointed as rabbi of Jelgava. He served for the next 34 years. Because of his many-faceted talents and his powerful personality, the rabbi left an outstanding imprint on the life of the community. He was born in Wladislawow in Suwalk province and graduated from the rabbinical seminary in Vienna. Rabbi Focher had an extensive general education and had a perfect command of the German language. He promoted the ideas of the Enlightenment and saw no conflict between fidelity to Judaism and openness to the outside world. Through the spirit of his ideas he led the community forcefully in all domains of life: he expanded the activities of the local charitable institutions and instituted reforms in their procedures and those of the Chevra Kadisha. He instituted secular studies at the local Talmud Torah, took the initiative in providing vocational education for the children of the poor, and introduced aesthetics into the worship services at the synagogue.

        However, his forcefulness and his behavior aroused friction between him and Orthodox circles in the city. Several incidents, in which he was involved, such as the building of the new synagogue, caused actual conflict. At Rabbi Focher's initiative a beautiful new synagogue was built in Jelgava. The Orthodox were of the opinion that the external form of the synagogue bore too close a resemblance to that of a Christian church. At their request, Rabbi Eliyahu Lieder of Zagare, Lithuania issued a ban on praying at that synagogue. And one of the preachers spoke out against the building. Rabbi Focher turned to the provincial authorities, who prohibited the preaching of sermons in the synagogue without his consent. After some changes were made in the building, praying at the new synagogue was permitted.

        With the dedication of this building, the number of synagogues in Jelgava had increased to three: the first synagogue, built, as mentioned, at the end of the eighteenth century, was renovated in 1864 with funds donated by the merchant Friedlieb and from then on bore his name; the synagogue built with a donation from Rabbi Israel Friedman and which was later called “the Zaltzman synagogue”; and the aforementioned synagogue built under Rabbi Focher's inspiration and distinguished by its reformed services. A choir functioned in conjunction with this synagogue, and the building served effectively as a central meeting place for communal ceremonies and events. In addition to the three synagogues, two regular minyans (quorum of worshipers) were active locally.

        Along with Rabbi Focher, who served as the official rabbi, there was an additional office in the community – that of Av Bet Din, head of the religious court. Those who served in this position were: Rabbi Moses Lerenblatt, who after a brief tenure left in 1862 as a result of a quarrel with Rabbi Focher regarding authority; Rabbi Israel Leib Chaimovitz, who served until 1881; Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Rabinovitz, who served until 1889; and from that year on, Rabbi Nachman Idel Lipman Margaliot. Additionally, the community employed paid preachers.

        Rabbi Focher also wrote books and articles in various languages, maintained good ties with the local authorities, and was active in defending Jewish rights. In 1864 he traveled on a mission to Petersburg in behalf of the Jews of Kurland, in order to forward a petition to the Interior Minister to allow them to vote for and be elected to local offices. When the petition was granted, Rabbi Focher was elected to local office by a large majority and was active for the benefit of Jews and Christians alike. In 1883 he composed a memorandum on the situation of Jews in Russia in general and in the Baltic areas in particular. He also published a series of articles against anti-Semitism in the Baltic press and conducted a public debate with an apostate named Gurland. Rabbi Focher was also a gifted orator. He gave sermons and lectured on various topics before a mixed audience of Jews and Christians. In 1883, when he had completed twenty five years of service, Rabbi Focher received a commendation from the Russian regime in appreciation for his communal activity. In 1893 Rabbi Focher left Jelgava to become the rabbi of the capital Riga.

        After Rabbi Focher left Jelgava and because of a dispute between different factions, the city remained for some time without an official rabbi. With the intervention of the provincial governor, Rabbi Nachman Idel Lipman Margaliot, who had already served as the city's spiritual leader, was finally appointed to act also in the position of official rabbi – a post he filled until his death in 1898. Afterwards Rabbi Segal ascended to the position of rabbi and was reelected to a second term in 1901 by the majority of the community. After several years Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Nurock was appointed to the position. He was the father of two of the outstanding personalities of Latvian Jewry: Rabbi Aharon Nurock and Rabbi Mordecai Nurock. Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Nurock's tenure lasted until after the First World War.

        Welfare, social, and educational institutions. The community developed a series of institutions that were distinguished for their improved arrangements. The source of money to maintain these institutions was the korobka (tax on kosher meat) and donations from members of the community. The oldest of the communal institutions was the Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) Society, founded, as mentioned, in 1770 and in existence for more than 150 consecutive years. In 1853 the revenues and expenses of the Society added up to 400 rubles, and in 1879 they totaled 160 rubles. On the eve of the First World War, thanks to the large number of Jewish doctors in the city, the health services of the community were expanded and included an infirmary that provided care and medication free of charge to poor Jews as well as care in exchange for a fee for non-Jews, and a hospital with 25 beds, ten of them set aside for those of lesser means. The Bikur Cholim Society administered the hospital whose staff included two doctors, a male nurse, and six other workers. The hospital's budget was covered from a special fund, from membership dues, donations, and the korobka tax.

        In 1815 the Po'alei Tzedek (Workers of Righteousness) Society was established to support needy craftsmen and in 1829 the Pidyon Sh'vuyim (Redemption of Captives) Society, which supplied kosher food for Jewish prisoners and assisted poor defendants with the payment of their fines. The Women's Association founded in 1840 was active during the entire 19th century in raising money for various charitable purposes and, to further this end, it also branched out into cultural activities. The Association developed especially during the latter half of the century with the encouragement of Rabbi S. Focher. In 1879, its treasury had the respectable sum of 15,000 rubles. The Association also earned the esteem of the local authorities. At an evening party which the group organized in 1867, the governor of the province and his family took part. As a result of the financial crisis of the 1890's, the Association founded a soup kitchen that provided free meals for the poor. Likewise, the Association continued to furnish direct financial assistance to the needy. In addition to these groups the following were active in Jelgava in the 1850's and 1860's: A Jewish Home for the Aged with 150 residents; a Psalms Society; a Hospitality to Wayfarers Society; and a Clothing the Naked Society. Subsequently, some of the Jewish and Catholic educational and welfare institutions in Jelgava united in one central roof organization. With the increase in the number of Jews drafted into the Russian Army, the Society for Supporting Soldiers was founded in 1880. By means of a special kitchen, it supplied kosher food to Jewish soldiers who were staying in the city and its environs. In one month alone during 1886, one hundred soldiers were fed at the Society's kitchen.

        The community's most important financial institutions were the various Gemilut Chesed (Free Loan Society) funds that were established from the beginning of the century and later. The communal leaders invested great efforts to assure that these funds would serve as a tool for economic rehabilitation and not just for providing handouts. In 1884 Rabbi Focher founded a new Gemilut Chesed, based largely on a bequest of 5000 rubles left by one of the local Jews Eight years later the fund extended loans totaling 4875 rubles to 800 families – the majority of Jews in the community, who fell on hard times because of the economic crisis. In Jelgava there also was a charitable endowment fund, whose assets in 1893 amounted to 80,000 rubles, a very large sum.

        From the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a Talmud Torah for poor children in Jelgava, which had fifty to sixty students in 1853. Some of them were apprenticed to craftsmen in order to learn a trade. During those years ten private cheders (Hebrew schools) operated in Jelgava, licensed by the government. A Jewish lawyer from Prussia named Wolf was responsible for the first attempt to set up a modern educational institution. He set up a private school in which three teachers (one of them a Christian) taught under his direction. The school closed after two years for lack of communal support. In 1850 the Russian government set up a government school for Jewish boys – one of five of its kind that were established in Kurland- that was in existence until the First World War. Under Rabbi Focher's influence new arrangements were introduced in the area of traditional education during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Talmud Torah became a “reformed cheder” in 1863.

        With the help of funds received from the municipal council, a vocational school for Jewish girls was founded in 1868. The ongoing expenses of this institution were covered by the Jewish community from the korobka tax. The girls studied Russian, German, arithmetic, religion, and handicrafts. At the beginning of the twentieth century two other private educational institutions that provided general education for Jewish children were operating in the city – one directed by Pinsker and one by Jacobson. On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the city's rabbis gave lessons in Hebrew and sacred texts to adults and young workers.

        A not insignificant number of Jewish children studied at the non-Jewish schools. When this phenomenon became widespread, Rabbi M. A. Samunov, as mentioned, petitioned the Minister of Education to release the Jewish children from the obligation of attending school on Shabbat. With the introduction of the numerus clausus
(anti-Jewish quota) in Tsarist Russia, the number of Jewish students in the secondary schools of Jelgava (including the two most prestigious institutions - the local gymnasia, which conferred on its graduates the right to study at the medical school in Dorpat, Estonia, and the Reali school, whose graduates were entitled to continue their studies at the Riga Polytechnicum) was also limited. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Jewish students from Jelgava were already studying at institutions of higher education in Russia and abroad, a trend that intensified in the latter half of the century. Among the university graduates was the Orientalist Jacob Israelson (born in 1866) who completed his studies at the University of Petersburg and took part in the Beilis trial. The vast majority of Jewish students studied medicine at the Universities of Dorpat, Moscow, and Petersburg. Some of them converted to Christianity.

Political and cultural activity

        New political and intellectual trends began to penetrate Jelgava at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1894 the Chibat Tzion (Love of Zion) Society was founded and gained the support of Rabbi Segal. In 1902 students at the secondary school founded the Young Zionist Association. In those years a large branch of the Bund was also organized in the city. In 1905 it was one of three most important branches in Kurland. It had 100 members and played a central role in the revolutionary events of that year. Alongside the Bund a branch of the Po'alei Zion (Zionist Workers) also developed. At the end of 1911 the cultural association Hazamir, which sponsored literary and musical activities, was established with the approval of the authorities. After a year it was shut down by order of the authorities.

In the First World War

        After the outbreak of the First World War, when the first orders of expulsion of Jews from Kurland were published in 1915, many Jewish refugees began to arrive in Jelgava en route to the interior of Russia. A camp for refugees who were ill was set up adjacent to the city, in which thousands of people were housed. The staff that cared for them was made up of one doctor and an assistant, and the situation of the camp's residents was very difficult. The Jews of Jelgava tried to extend assistance to them, but it was beyond their capabilities. A short time afterwards, an order of expulsion was promulgated for the Jews of Jelgava. As a sign of appreciation for the activities of the Jewish Bikur Cholim Association in aiding wounded Russian soldiers, the authorities permitted the rabbi of the community, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Nurock and several additional Jews to remain in the city. But the rabbi and the other Jews spurned the offer and went into exile with the rest of the community members. In his place of exile in Russia, Rabbi Nurock continued his communal activity for the benefit of the refugees and for the benefit of the Jews in Kurland who had remained in their homes. As a result of the expulsion of the Jews, shortages were created in Jelgava of various wares and of skilled craftsmen. In the course of the war great damage was done to Jewish property: 99 private houses were destroyed and also several of the community members.

        At the end of the war a gradual repatriation of Jews who had been expelled to the interior of Russia began. Because the well-to-do people preferred to settle in the big cities, it was mainly those of lesser means who returned to the city. The economic situation of the Jewish community was difficult. On the eve of the German Army's retreat, the German residents staged a pogrom against the Jews and several were murdered. A number of Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and looted.

Rabbi Mordecai Nurock (1879-1962)
Official rabbi in Jelgava (Mitau)
before the First World War, member
of the Latvian Sejm for the Mizrachi party,
later member of the Knesset and Minister
of Posts of the State of Israel.

Between the two World Wars

Demography, economics, and society

        In the early 1920's after the establishment of independent Latvia, the repatriation process continued, and until 1925 about two thousand Jews (only half of the number of Jews who had resided in the city on the eve of the war) had returned to the city. The proportion of Jews in the general population declined in the 1920's to a mere 7%. The trend of declining population continued during the following decade, largely because of the growth of the non-Jewish population (see table above).

        The main branch of economic activity for the Jews of Jelgava was commerce. 59 of the 285 stores and businesses that operated in the city (about 20%) were owned by Jews. Below are the details of the (economic) distribution:

Branch or type of businessTotalOwned by Jews
Grocery stores622947
Bread and baked goods9333
Butcher shops and meat products12758
Restaurants, coffee houses, and taverns2414
Wine and beer19--
Coffee and spices6233
Other textiles16744
Leather and shoes15640
Writing instruments, books, paper products9111
Agricultural machinery4--
Bicycles and metalware12433
Electronics, optics, musical instruments1119
Medications and cosmetics12867
Oil and fuel7229
Furniture and building materials12325
Grain, hay, and seed171271
Agencies and brokerages9111

        Jewish wholesalers dealt in the export of grain, flax, and other products. In the early 1920's there were 94 Jewish craftsmen. They set up an association called the “Yiddisher Handverker Verein”. Among the professionals were physicians (in the early 1920's, 4 of the 18 physicians in Jelgava were Jewish and in 1935, 8 out of 41), teachers in the Jewish educational institutions, religious functionaries of various kinds, and clerks in businesses and community institutions. Through the influence of the Jewish delegation, Jews were also employed as clerks by the municipality. After the First World War, two brothers from the Hof family (one of the most prominent families of Jewish industrialists in Latvia) established a factory in Jelgava for processing flax. The factory was one of the largest in the country, employing a thousand workers, and most of its products were exported abroad. Within the community was a small group of people of reduced means, who were dependent on the communal welfare institutions.

        The Jews of Jelgava participated in municipal political life. In elections for the municipality they generally voted for the Jewish lists. In the municipal elections of 1922 most of the Jews in the city voted for the united Jewish list. In the 1926 election, three Jews were elected to the municipal council which had 54 members. The Jewish delegation was the swing bloc between the left and the right and made use of its position for the benefit of the Jews of the city. Thanks to their efforts, medical care was provided free of cost at the municipal hospital to poor Jews, educational and welfare institutions of the Jewish community received larger allocations from the municipal council, and as mentioned, Jews were employed as clerks for the municipality. Alongside those Jews who were elected on the Jewish lists, the municipal council also included Jews, who were elected from the general leftist lists. In 1931, in anticipation of general elections, several issues of the newspaper Zemgaler Shtimme were published, which supported the United List of the Jews of Zemgale.

        During the first half of the 1920's an anti-Semitic atmosphere prevailed within some circles in Jelgava. The local newspaper Zemgalitis published many anti-Semitic articles. Members of the local nationalistic club LNK organized a demonstration in 1923 with the help of their members from Riga, in the course of which they called for an economic boycott against the Jews. Three years later the local police arrested thugs who had come from Riga and smashed windows of the local synagogue.

Organization of the community and welfare, educational, and religious institutions

        After the establishment of independent Latvia the Jews of the city, with the active assistance of the Joint, began the work of reconstructing the community. In 1920 a Jewish community council was elected and three of its members (Dr. Hof, Shlosberg, and Chait) participated in the national assembly of Jewish communities in Latvia which took place that year in Riga. The Jelgava delegation was chosen for the national council of Jewish communities, as one of the six largest Jewish communities in Latvia. By 1923 a whole network of welfare, educational, and health institutions was already operating in the city: a Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) committee; a communal bathhouse and pharmacy; an infirmary; a free loan fund; three educational institutions; a special committee to care for returning refugees. At the same time Rabbi Levi Ovtzinsky (see below) was chosen as rabbi of the community, and B. Vasserbach served as its secretary.

        During the following years the existing communal institutions developed, and new ones were established. In 1922 the Free Loan Fund received a grant from the Joint of 100,000 rubles and became a corporate institution called the Jewish Loan and Savings Fund (Yiddishe Lei und Shpor Kasse). The institution developed quickly and fulfilled an important economic role in granting loans on convenient terms to merchants, craftsmen, and others who were in need. In 1926, it was decided to accept as members of the bank Jews from neighboring communities – Doble and Autza. The number of members grew and after four years reached 460. In 1938 the bank processed 1,720 applications for loans.

        In the first half of the 1920's the community's hospital “Bikkur Cholim” renewed its activities. In 1939 a day infirmary connected to the hospital was opened; it employed six physicians. The directors of this institution in the late 1930's were successively Dr. Yaffe, Dr. Levitis, and Dr. Freudenstein. Other Jewish welfare institutions that enjoyed the support of the municipality were the orphanage, which in 1926 had 17 children, the old age home, and the poorhouse. In addition to these, traditional welfare associations were active within the Jewish community –Ma'ot Chittim (“money for wheat” for matzah –i.e. charity to help the poor celebrate Passover) and Malbish Arumim (“clothing the naked”). The Women's Association (Frauen Verein) filled an important role in the realm of welfare, concentrating mainly on granting interest-free loans and direct financial support to the needy. In 1938, this support totaled 3000 lat. Beginning in the late 1930's, a society called Lechem Aniyim (“bread for the poor”) provided assistance for the poor for Passover, helped poor brides, supplied food and train tickets to poor people who were passing through the city, and also took care of getting kosher food for Passover for Jewish soldiers who were staying in Jelgava. A Gemilut Chesed (Free Loan) fund was active in connection with this society, providing loans to shopkeepers and helping craftsmen to obtain the tools of their trade.

        By the beginning of the 1920's there were already active in Jelgava as we mentioned three Jewish educational institutions. They remained active until the outbreak of the Second World War.: the Talmud Torah, which had 75 students in 1922 (60 boys and 15 girls); the folk school founded in 1922, which had five classes and was conducted in a national spirit. A year after its establishment the community acquired the school's building. In 1933, 21 students completed their studies at this institution and, in 1938, 30 students. The third institution was the Hebrew gymnasia. The language of instruction in the gymnasia in the early years was German or Russian. In 1933 ten students began their studies in this institution. From the middle 1930's the gymnasia was under the sponsorship of the Jewish Association for the Dissemination of Enlightenment which had been founded in Jelgava in 1922. The association also extended assistance to the local elementary school. In the 1930's one principal headed both of these institutions – B. Bovshover.

        From the years immediately following World War One until his death during the Nazi occupation, Rabbi Levi Ovtzinsky served as rabbi of the community. His work, “History of the Jews in Kurland” conferred on him the status of one of Latvian Jewry's most important historians. In 1938 his son-in-law Rabbi Levitin was elected to serve alongside him.

        During this period there were four synagogues in the community: (1) the Great Synagogue (die grosse chor shul). A large choir was active there, and it served as a gathering place for important community events. It was headed by a gabbai, a trustee, and a teacher. (2) the Friedlieb Synagogue, which had a regular cantor; (3) the Zaltzman Synagogue; and (4) a Chasidic minyan. From the middle 1930's with the strengthening of the influence of Agudat Israel, religious associations such as Chevra T'hillim (Psalms society), Tikkun S'farim (repair of books), Mishna u'Gemara (Talmud study) and Talmud Torah intensified their activities. In 1939, the rabbis of the city founded a branch of the ultra-Orthodox organization “Machane Israel” (the camp of Israel). In that year repairs were made at the Jewish cemetery. The old communal minute-book was found in the possession of one of the community members. And the local Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) acquired the minute-book and held on to it as an important communal possession.

Parties and youth movements

        The Zionist movement had a strong hold over the Jews of Jelgava. In the beginning of the 1920's various Zionist organizations were active locally: a branch of Ze'irei Zion (Young Men of Zion) and, in conjunction with it, a dramatic ensemble; a branch of Mizrachi that was founded in 1921; a branch of Hechalutz (The Pioneer) which had approximately forty members and also a branch of Hechalutz Ha-tza'ir (Young Pioneer) which also ran a workshop. During those years several pioneers migrated to the land of Israel. In the elections that took place in 1925 most of the Jews of Jelgava voted for Zionist lists: 798 voted for the Mizrachi list and 106 for the Ze'irei Zion list. In that year the first blossoms of Betar sprouted. In 1931 its branch had 41 members, and, a year later, a local hachsharah (preparation for migration to Israel) group was set up in conjunction with it. In the early 1930's local branches of the youth movements Hashomer Hatza'ir, Netzach, and Herzliah were established and ultimately a local hachshara kibbutz named “Nagi'a”(“we will arrive”). In the 1930's two sports associations were active in Jelgava -Hako'ach, which had about 100 members, and a branch of Hapo'el, which was established in 1933. During that period the ranks of the Zionist movement in Jelgava expanded and embraced many of the local Jews.

Results of the elections for the Zionist Congress

CongressYear General
Ze'irei Zion
Revisionists Mizrachi Total

In the Second World War

Soviet rule (1940-1941)

        In this period many changes occurred in the communal and economic life of Jelgava Jewry. In accord with the policies of the new regime, which sought to liquidate the educational, welfare, cultural, and social institutions that operated in the midst of the population, an order was promulgated on August 15, 1940 and signed by the minister of education, according to which the Hebrew gymnasia of Jelgava would be closed and the faculty and administration dismissed. At the end of that year the Chevra Kadisha was also shut down. By means of additional orders the rest of the institutions of the Jews of Jelgava were liquidated one after the other, and branches of the political parties and youth movements were shut down – until all Jewish communal activity was eliminated. Within the context of the nationalization of private businesses, Jewish businesses were also gradually nationalized, mainly the largest of them. This process affected the livelihood of many families. Communists, who emerged from the underground, including Jews, took a key role in the new administration. A young Jew, Zalman Edus, who from his youth had been a member of the Communist underground, was appointed as secretary of the local Komsomol. Other Jews found sources of employment in the communal bureaucracy or in government enterprises.

        In the last week of June, 1941 after the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, Jewish refugees from Lithuania began to arrive in Jelgava. The Soviets, who had set up local units to defend the city, integrated local Jews and Jewish refugees from Lithuania into them. However, in the first week of the war, the Soviets had already evacuated Jelgava and had retreated to the interior of the Soviet Union. Many Jews departed with them. The youngest among them were drafted into the Red Army and participated in the war against the Germans. Prominent among them were Dr. Rudolf Jacobson, a physician who served as head surgeon and who, by the end of the war, had attained the rank of major; a young man by the name of Cohen (“the sharp one”) who was dispatched to operate as a Partisan behind enemy lines in Latvia; a young woman who served as a nurse in the military hospital in Gorky; the aforementioned Zalman Edus, who was appointed Komsomol director for the 123rd brigade of the 201st Latvian Division and was one of the editors of the brigade's battle journal, Latviesu Strelnieks.

Under German occupation

        On June 29, 1941, the German Army occupied Jelgava. After several days had passed, a unit of the German security police of the Einsatzkommando 2 arrived in the city. There were about twenty policemen in the unit, and one of its tasks was to kill Jews. When they arrived the local Latvian auxiliary police, commanded by a Latvian named Vagulans, were already in the city. The German unit stayed in Jelgava about a week, until approximately the middle of July. In the course of the week at least five “aktions” were carried out locally, in which several hundred Jews were slaughtered, including women and children. Both Latvian and German policemen participated in the process of the murder, which was planned in a precise and cold-blooded manner: the Latvians brought the Jewish victims to the valley of killing, where German and Latvian police awaited them. Ten of them were the squad that did the shooting, while the rest guarded the Jews and sealed off the area from curious onlookers. Strong Jewish men were selected to dig the ditches. The victims were ordered to strip off their clothes and hand over any valuables in their possession. Afterwards, they were brought in groups of five to the ditch and shot. Every one of the victims was shot by two riflemen, who aimed for the heart and the head. Those who still showed signs of life were shot with a revolver by a German policeman. When the slaughter was completed, the ditches were covered with dirt. Some of the “aktions” took place on the shooting field (Schiess platz) and some in the forest, 25 kilometers outside of the city. In one of the “aktions”, all of the Jews had already been slaughtered by the Latvian policemen before the Germans arrived at the site. When the whole bloody episode was concluded, the German policemen-murderers and the officers of the Latvian police were honored with a magnificent afternoon caravan and ample servings of alcoholic beverages. Even at the slaughter site itself, alcoholic beverages were at their disposal. At the Jewish hospital in Jelgava, Jewish women were forcibly sterilized. Many of them died in the course of the operations. In addition to this slaughter, many killings were carried out in partnership with the Germans or by the Latvians themselves. Some Jews were set aflame in the synagogues, and some were shot at the Jewish cemetery and at other places. In the first week of September 1941, several hundred mentally ill Jews from Jelgava and Liepaja were killed. Some Jews chose to take their lives with their own hands rather than be murdered by the Germans. Among them were the pharmacist Gitta Rosenberg and her six year old daughter Atidah, who killed themselves by taking a toxic drug.

        By the fall of 1941, the “project” of murder was completed, and no Jews remained in Jelgava or its vicinity. At the beginning of 1942, the German civil governor of Latvia (Drechsler) announced that the Jelgava area was Judenrein (clean of Jews).

        In August 1944, the Red Army occupied the city. Today there is no knowledge of any Jews to be found in Jelgava.

(Esther Hager)


Labor Archive, He-chalutz files (1920-1921)
Central Zionist Archives, Z-4/215-18
AJDC Archives, Countries – Latvia (1920-1923).
Alexander A. Landesco, Report 7.
3345 a Lemums, 1940 g. 5. oktobri.
5343. Lemums, 1940. g. 12 decembri.
Archives of Yad vashem, 10/627 –trial of Alfred Becu and Wilhelm Adelt.
Ovtzinsky, Levi, History of the Settlement of the Jews in Kurland.
Eliav, B., Latvian Jewry.
Bobeh, Mendel, Yidn in Lettland (Jews in Latvia).
Bobeh, Mendel, Chapters in the History of Latvian Jewry.
Di Geshichte fun Bund (History of the Bund).
Gertz, M, Finf un tsvantsik yor Yiddishe Presse in Lettland (25 Years of the Jewish Press in Latvia).
Di Yiddishe Economik (1937).
Levin, Dov, With Back to the Wall.
Mark, Mendel, Di Yiddish Veltliche Shul in Lettland (The Jewish Secular School in Latvia).
Pinkas fun Riger Yiddishe Gesellshaftliche un filantropishe tuer (Register of Riga Jewish social activists and philanthropists).
Aerzte Kurlands.
The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer
Kauffmann, Max, Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands.
Rutkis, J., Latvia; country and people.
Salnais, V., Pilsetu apraksti.
Skujenieka, M., Otra Tautas skaitisana Latvija (1925-1928).

Various publications in Russian

 Yizkor Book Project    JewishGen Home Page  

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
Emerita Yizkor Book Project Manager, Joyce Field
Contact person for this translation Betsy Thal Gephart
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 30 Oct 2003 by LA