History of the Jews in Latvia
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The Jewish community reestablished itself in the 18th century, mainly through an influx from Prussia, and came to play a principal role in the economic life of Latvia.
Under an independent Latvia, Jews formed political parties and participated as members of parliament.
The Jewish community flourished.
Jewish parents had the right to send their children to schools using Hebrew as the language of instruction, as part of a significant network of minority schools.
World War II ended the prominence of the Jewish Community.
Under Stalin, Jews, who formed only 5% of the population, constituted 12% of the deportees.
In comparison, the Holocaust killed 90% of Latvia's Jewish population.
Today's Jewish community traces its roots to survivors of the Holocaust, Jews who fled to the USSR to escape the Nazi invasion and later returned, and mostly to Jews newly immigrated to Latvia from the Soviet Union.
The Latvian Jewish community today is small but active.
The nucleus of Latvian Jewry was formed by the Jews of Livonia and Courland, the two principalities on the coast of the Baltic Sea which were incorporated within the Russian Empire during the 18th century.
Both these provinces were situated outside the Pale of Settlement, and so only those Jews who could prove that they had lived there legally before the provinces became part of Russia were authorized to reside in the region.
Nevertheless, the Jewish population of the Baltic region gradually increased because, from time to time, additional Jews who enjoyed special "privileges", such as university graduates, those engaged in "useful" professions, etc., received authorization to settle there.
In the middle of the 19th century, there were about 9,000 Jews in the province of Livonia.
By 1897 the Jewish population had already increased to 26,793 (3.5% of the population), about three-quarters of whom lived in Riga.
In Courland there were 22,734 Jews in the middle of the 19th century, while according to the 1897 Imperial Russian Census, some 51,072 Jews (7.6% of the population) lived there.
The Jews of Courland formed a special group within Russian Jewry.
During World War I when the Russian armies retreated from Courland (April 1915), the Russian military authorities expelled thousands of Jews to the provinces of the interior.
A considerable number later returned to Latvia as repatriates after the independent republic was established.
Three districts of the province of Vitebsk, in which most of the population was Latvian, Latgallia (Latvian: Latgale), including the large community of Daugavpils (Dvinsk), were joined to Courland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale) and Livonia (Vidzeme), and the independent Latvian Republic was established (November 1918).
Ulmanis was proclaimed a president of the nation.
His government inclined to be neutral.
Jewish population in the Latvian Republic
Before World War I there were about 190,000 Jews in the territories of Latvia (7.4% of the total population).
During the war years, many of them were expelled to the interior of Russia, while others escaped from the war zone.
In 1920 the Jews of Latvia numbered 79,644 (5% of the population).
After the signing of the peace treaty between the Latvian Republic and the Soviet Union on August 11, 1920, repatriates began to return from Russia; these included a considerable number of Jewish refugees.
In this time, there were 40,000 Jews in Riga alone.
By 1925 the Jewish population had increased to 95,675, the largest number of Jews during the period of Latvia’s existence as an independent state.
After that year the number of Jews gradually decreased, and in 1935 had declined to 93,479 (4.8% of the total).
The causes of this decline were emigration by part of the younger generation and a decline in the natural increase through limiting the family to one or two children by the majority.
Between 1925 and 1935 over 6,000 Jews left Latvia (the overwhelming majority of them for the Mandatory Palestine which was soon to be declared the State of Israel), while the natural increase only partly replaced these departures.
The largest communities were Riga with 43,672 Jews (11.3% of the total) in 1935, Daugavpils with 11,106 (25%), and Liepāja with 7,379 (13%).
After the establishment of the republic, a severe crisis overtook the young state.
The government had not yet consolidated itself and the country had become impoverished as a result of World War I and the struggle for independence which Latvia had conducted for several years (1918–20) against both Germany and the Soviet Union.
With the cessation of hostilities, Latvia found itself retarded in both the administrative and economic spheres.
Among other difficulties, there was running inflation.
Jews made a large contribution to the rebuilding of the state from the ruins of the war and its consequences.
However, once the Jews had made their contribution, the authorities began to force them out of their economic positions and to deprive them of their sources of livelihood.
Although, in theory, there were no discriminatory laws against the Jews in democratic Latvia and they enjoyed equality of rights, in practice the economic policy of the government was intended to restrict their activities.
This was also reflected in the area of credit.
The Jews of Latvia developed a ramified network of loan banks for the granting of credit with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA).
However, the Jewish banks and cooperative societies were discriminated against in the sphere of public credit and the state bank was in practice closed to them.
These societies nevertheless functioned on sound foundations.
Their initial capital was relatively larger than that of the non-Jewish cooperative societies.
In 1931 over 15,000 members were organized within the Jewisherion societies.
About one half of the Jews of Latvia engaged in commerce, the overwhelming majority of them in medium and small trade.
About 29% of the Jewish population was occupied in industry and about 7% in the liberal professions.
There were no Jews in the governmental administration.
The economic situation of the majority of Latvia’s Jews became difficult.
Large numbers were ousted from their economic position and lost their livelihood as a result of government policy and most of them were thrust into small trade, peddling, and bartering in various goods at the second-hand clothes markets in the suburbs of Riga and the provincial towns.
The decline in their status was due to three principal causes: the government assumed the monopoly of the grain trade, thus removing large numbers of Jews from this branch of trade, without accepting them as salaried workers or providing them with any other kind of employment; the Latvian cooperatives enjoyed wide governmental support and functioned in privileged conditions in comparison to the Jewish enterprises; and Jews had difficulty in obtaining credit.
In addition to the above, the Jewish population was subjected to a heavy burden of taxes.
Public and political life
Latvian Jewry continued the communal and popular traditions of Russian Jewry, of which it formed a part until 1918.
On the other hand, it was also influenced by the culture of West European Jewry, being situated within its proximity (i.e., East Prussia).
From the socio-economic point of view the Jews of Latvia did not form one group, and there were considerable social differences between them.
They engaged in a variety of occupations and professions: there were large, medium, and small merchants, industrialists, and different categories of craftsmen, workers, salesmen, clerks, teachers, and members of the liberal professions such as physicians, lawyers, and engineers.
All these factors—economic and spiritual—were practically reflected in public life: in the national Jewish sphere and in the general political life of the state.
The Jewish population was also represented in the Latvian parliament.
In the National Council which was formed during the first year of Latvian independence and existed until April 1920, there were also representatives of the national minorities, including seven Jews, among them Paul Mintz (later chairman of the Jewish National Democratic Party), who acted as state comptroller (1919–21), and Mordecai Dubin (Agudas Israel).
On May 1, 1920, the Constituent Assembly, which was elected by a relatively democratic vote, was convened.
The number of Jewish delegates in the four parliaments which were elected in Latvia until the coup d’état of 1934 was as follows: six in the first (1922–25), five in the second (1925–28) and the third (1928–31), and three in the fourth (1931–34).
Among the regular deputies were Mordecai Dubin (Agudas Israel), Mordechai Nurock (Mizrachi, later a member of the Knesset in Israel after the country was established in 1948), Matityahu Max Laserson (Zionist Party), and Noah Meisel (Bund).
The last two were not reelected to the fourth parliament.
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Culture and education
On December 8, 1919, the general bill on schools was passed by the National Council; this coincided with the bill on the cultural autonomy of the minorities.
In the Ministry of Education, there were special departments for the minorities.
The engineer Jacob Landau headed the Jewish department.
In addition to these, there were also Russian and German schools for Jewish children, chosen in accordance with the language of their families and wishes of their parents.
These were, however, later excluded from the Jewish department because, by decision of the Ministry of Education, only the Hebrew and Yiddish schools were included within the scope of Jewish autonomy.
In 1933 there were ninety-eight Jewish elementary schools with approximately 12,000 pupils and 742 teachers, eighteen secondary schools with approximately 2,000 pupils and 286 teachers, and four vocational schools with 300 pupils and thirty-seven teachers.
There were also government pedagogic institutes for teachers in Hebrew and Yiddish, courses for kindergarten teachers, popular universities, a popular Jewish music academy, evening schools for working youth, a Yiddish theater, and cultural clubs.
There was a Jewish press reflecting a variety of trends.
After the Ulmanis coup d’état of May 15, 1934, restrictions were placed on the autonomy of minorities' "cultures and minorities" education as well as education in native language.
This was part of a wider move to standardize Latvian usage in schooling and professional and governmental sectors.
As a result, Jewish schools continue to operate while secular Yiddish schools were closed.
This resulted in the works of eminent Jewish authors such as the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik (Latvian: Haims Nahmans Bjaliks) and historian Simon Dubnow (Latvian: Šimons Dubnovs) being removed from the Jewish curriculum.
Notably, Dubnow was among the Jews who fled from Germany to Latvia for safety in 1938.
(Latvia continued to take in refugees until the fall of 1938.)
All political parties and organizations were also abolished.
Of Jewish groups, only Agudat Israel continued to operate.
Jewish social life did, however, retain its vitality.
Owing in part to the restrictions imposed on minorities including Jews, the influence of religion and Zionism increased, motivating some to return to the future Israel.
This also increased the influence of the banned Social Democrats, while the Jewish intelligentsia gravitated toward Zionism.
World War II
Soviet occupation, 1940–1941
After first extracting Latvian agreement under duress—Stalin personally threatened the Latvian foreign minister, in Moscow, during negotiations—to the stationing of Soviet troops on Latvian soil, the Soviet Union invaded Latvia on June 16, 1940.
Jewish civic and political leaders began to be arrested in August 1940.
The first to be arrested were the Zionist leaders Favid Varhaftig and Mahanud Alperin.
The leadership of Betar were deported.
In 1941, the Soviets arrested M. Noruk, M. Dubin and other Jewish civic leaders, Zionists, conservatives, and right wing socialists.
Their arrest orders were approved by S. Shustin.
When the Soviets executed the first round of mass Baltic deportations, on the night of June 13–14, 1941, thousands of Latvian Jews were deported along with Latvians.
Of all the ethnic groups so deported, Jews suffered proportionately more than any other, and were deported to especially harsh conditions.
Records have been preserved of the deportations of 1,212 Jewish Latvian citizens (12.5% of those deported to the far reaches of the USSR) but the actual number of Jews deported was certainly larger, on the order of 5,000 to 6,000 during the first Soviet occupation.
The deportations of Jewish civic leaders and rabbis, members of parliament, and the professional and merchant class only a week before Nazi Germany invaded the Baltics left the Jewish community ill-prepared to organize in the face of the invasion and immediately ensuing Holocaust.
Those deported included Constitutional Convention members I. Rabinovičs and I. Berzs, 1st and 3rd Saiema deputy and head of the Bund N. Maizels as well as other Jewish members of parliament.
Approximately half died as the consequence of their deportation, some deported more than once—M.
Dubins died after being deported a second time in 1956.
It is estimated that of the 2,100,000 Jews who came under Soviet control as a result of Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact dividing Eastern Europe, about 1,900,000—more than one out of two —were deported to Siberia and central Asia.
German occupation of Latvia, 1941–1944
Latvia was occupied by the Germans during the first weeks of the German-Soviet war in July 1941.
At the end of July 1941 the Germans replaced the military with a civil administration.
One of its first acts was the promulgation of a series of anti-Jewish ordinances.
A subordinate civil administration composed of local collaborationist elements was also established, to which Latvian general councillors were appointed.
Their nominal head was Oskars Dankers, a former Latvian army general.
In mid-June 1941, on the eve of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, 14,000 citizens of Latvia, including several thousand Jews, were deported by the Soviet authorities to Siberia and other parts of Soviet Asia as politically undesirable elements.
During the Nazi attack of Latvia a considerable number of Jews also succeeded in fleeing to the interior of the Soviet Union; it is estimated that some 75,000 Latvian Jews fell into Nazi hands.
Survivor accounts sometimes describe how, even before the Nazi administration began persecuting the Latvian Jews, they had suffered from antisemitic excesses at the hands of the Latvian activists, although there is some disagreement amongst Jewish historians as to the extent of this phenomenon.
Latvian-American Holocaust historian Andrew (Andrievs) Ezergailis argues that there was no "interregnum" period at all in most parts of Latvia, when Latvian activists could have engaged in the persecution of Jews on their own initiative.
The Einsatzgruppen ("task forces") played a leading role in the destruction of Latvian Jews, according to information given in their own reports, especially in the report of SS-Brigadeführer (General) Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, whose unit operated on the northern Russian front and in the occupied Baltic republics.
His account covers the period from the end of June up to October 15, 1941.
Nevertheless, the Latvian Arajs Kommando played a leading role in the atrocities committed in the Riga ghetto in conjunction with the Rumbula massacre on November 30, 1941.
One of the most notorious members of the group was Herberts Cukurs.
After the war, surviving witnesses reported that Cukurs had been present during the ghetto clearance and fired into the mass of Jewish civilians.
According to another account Cukurs also participated in the Burning of the Riga synagogues.
According to Bernard Press in his book The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, Cukurs burned the synagogue on Stabu Street
At the instigation of the Einsatzgruppe, the Latvian auxiliary police carried out a pogrom against the Jews in Riga.
All synagogues were destroyed and 400 Jews were killed.
According to Stahlecker's report, the number of Jews killed in mass executions by Einsatzgruppe A by the end of October 1941 in Riga, Jelgava (Mitau), Liepāja (Libau), Valmiera (Wolmar), and Daugavpils (Dvinsk) totaled 30,025, and by the end of December 1941, 35,238 Latvian Jews had been killed; 2,500 Jews remained in the Riga Ghetto and 950 in the Daugavpils ghetto.
Some 15,000 "Reich Jews" were settled in several streets of the liquidated "greater Riga ghetto".
In 1942 about 800 Jews from Kaunas Ghetto (in Lithuania) were brought to Riga and some of them participated in the underground organization in the Riga ghetto.
The German occupying power in Latvia also kept Jews in "barracks camps", i.e., near their places of forced labor.
A considerable number of such camps were located in the Riga area and other localities.
The Salaspils concentration camp, set up at the end of 1941, contained thousands of people, including many Latvian and foreign Jews.
Conditions in this camp, one of the worst in Latvia, led to heavy loss of life among the inmates.
The Kaiserwald concentration camp, established in the summer of 1943, contained the Jewish survivors from the ghettos of Riga, Daugavpils, Liepāja, and other places, as well as non-Jews.
At the end of September 1943 Jews from the liquidated Vilna Ghetto (in Lithuania) were also taken to Kaiserwald.
When the Soviet victories in the summer of 1944 forced a German retreat from the Baltic states, the surviving inmates of the Kaiserwald camp were deported by the Germans to Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, and from there were sent to various other camps.
German retreat and Soviet re-occupation, 1944
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History of the Jews in Latvia.