Baltic States. Boundaries shown are ca. 2000.

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State in the eastern Baltic region created in 1918 out of formerly Russian territories. Under Swedish rule from 1629 to 1721, when it was annexed to Russia, northern Estonia was part of the Duchy of Estland while southern Estonia was part of Livonia. In 1940, Estonia became a republic in the Soviet Union but was occupied by the German army from 1941 to 1944. It regained its independence in 1991. 

“1926–1936.” Poster in Estonian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Program for an event in honor of the tenth anniversary of Jewish cultural autonomy in Estonia, featuring a choir, speeches by M. E. Klompus and Hirsch Eisenstadt, and the singing of the Estonian national anthem. Printed by Libris, Estonia, 1936. (YIVO)

Individual Jews lived in Reval (Tallinn), Estonia, as early as the fourteenth century, but Jewish communities began to form only in the mid-nineteenth century. These consisted mainly of former soldiers who had served with Russian garrisons in Tallinn, Tartu (Dorpat), and Pärnu (Pernau) and were allowed to establish synagogues and cemeteries in those cities. The authorities granted residence permits to some rabbis and craftsmen from Lithuania, Poland, and Courland. Additionally, Jewish students at the University of Dorpat, who came mainly from outside Estonia, became involved in local community life and played a role, for example, in the founding of both the first Jewish school (1875) and the Academic Society for Jewish Literature and History (1884). At that time, the Jewish population of Estonia numbered about 4,000. The largest group was in Tartu and the second largest in the capital, Tallinn. The Estonian Jewish population was a mixture of Russified former soldiers, Jews from Courland influenced by German culture, and Lithuanian Jews deeply rooted in traditional ways.

Following the establishment of the independent state of Estonia just before the end of World War I, the Jewish population there increased to 4,556 (0.4% of the entire population). Some 250 Jews participated in the Estonian war of independence. According to the census of 1934, 98 percent of Estonia’s Jews lived in cities, mainly Tallinn (2,203), Tartu (920), Valga (262), Pärnu (248), Narva (188), Viljandi (121), and Rakvere (100). About half of the employed Jews were involved in commerce, a third in crafts and industry, and some 10 percent in the liberal professions.

Together with Estonia’s Swedish, German, and Russian minorities, Jews enjoyed a comprehensive cultural autonomy that came into effect in 1925–1926. Roughly three-quarters identified themselves as part of the Jewish autonomous minority; most of the rest listed themselves as Russians. Jewish autonomous institutions were overseen by a cultural committee, the Kultur-Rat, which was headed by Hirsch (Grigori) Eisenstadt. The Council of 1922 included 12 Zionists, 9 Yiddishists, and 6 independents; by 1939, its 27 members were divided into 17 representing the General Zionists, three Socialist Zionists, 4 Yiddishists, 2 representing the Economic Party, and 1 from the Progressive Party.

Jewish communities established local committees to handle such tasks as maintaining local cultural and educational institutions and collecting taxes to complement the state budgets allocated for community needs, including the schools. More than half of the Jewish students attended the three Jewish elementary schools and two Jewish high schools. In some places, supplementary schools were founded for children who were studying at non-Jewish schools. The selection of the language to be used in Jewish schools led to a bitter dispute between Hebraists and Yiddishists. Ultimately, most of the Jewish schools, including the two high schools, were affiliated with the Hebrew-language Tarbut system.

Mr. and Mrs. Maxim Kagan, a Jewish couple, and friends at a festive gathering, Tallinn, 1931. Photograph by Parikas. (YIVO)

Political and cultural organizations included both those under the aegis of the Kultur-lige and the Bund, and those affiliated with various divisions of the Zionist movement. The few Jewish members of the banned Communist Party were active in such legal cultural organizations as the Likht club and others. Student associations—notably Limuvia, Hasmonea, and Ha-Tsefirah—were particularly active.

The establishment of a department or seminar in Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Tartu (Dorpat) in 1934 was a significant step in the advancement of Jewish culture. It was led initially by Lazar Gulkowitsch, and until its closure in 1940, nearly 50 Jewish students had studied in the program, some receiving master’s degrees and doctorates. The noted linguist Paul Ariste, who, though non-Jewish, was a scholar of Yiddish and a collector of Yiddish folklore in Estonia, was also based at the University of Tartu.

Between the wars, numerous periodicals of Jewish interest in Yiddish, Hebrew, and other languages were published in Estonia. In the absence of a local Jewish daily press, Yiddish readers read the newspapers of Latvia as well as the weekly Estonian supplements published by the Jewish daily newspapers of Lithuania.

In the late 1930s, some Estonian nationalist circles, such as members of Vaaps (Veterans of the Estonian War of Independence), were encouraged by Nazi Germany and engaged in disseminating antisemitic propaganda and participating in attacks against local Jews. These and other phenomena shocked and intimidated the Jews of Estonia, who had thus far lived in safety. Nevertheless, the foundations of Jewish autonomy in Estonia remained untouched until the Soviet annexation in 1940.

A small group of Jewish members of the Communist Party was prominent among demonstrators who gathered to welcome the Red Army into Estonia in June 1940, and one of them even raised a red flag atop the town’s fortress. During the sovietization of the Estonian economy, a small segment of the Jewish public—property holders and business owners, merchants and industrialists—sustained most of the damage. Jewish institutions as well as political and cultural organizations were closed, as were all the Jewish schools but two. At the same time, several Jews, among them those who had a Communist or a proletarian background, were appointed to official state positions, including within the internal security organizations.

Boys’ choir in a synagogue, Tallinn, Estonia, 1927. (YIVO)

In June 1941, just before the Nazi invasion, Jewish industrialists and business owners, Zionist activists, Jewish veterans of the Estonian war of independence and others, all regarded as “dangerous social elements,” along with their families—500 people in all—were deported to the Soviet Union. At least 120 Jews (1.1%—three times their percentage within the general population) took part in rearguard military resistance against the invaders. Most of them were killed in action. Mainly because the German conquest of Estonia took almost eight weeks, some 3,000 Jews (75%) managed to leave Estonia, either at their own initiative or as part of organized evacuation groups. Their numbers marked the highest rate of survival in Eastern Europe. About 200 Jews served as officers and enlisted men in the Eighth Estonian Corps of the Red Army.

Of the more than 1,000 Jews who remained in Estonia during the Nazi occupation, at least 929 had been murdered by the end of 1941. Most of their arrests and murders were carried out by the Omakaitse (self-defense) squads and the Estonian police, under the supervision of Einsatzkommando 1A. By January 1942, Estonia was officially listed in German documents as Judenrein.

Postcard with view of the synagogue and (inset) a portrait of one of its oldest congregants, J. A. Jacobson, Tartu, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

In the years 1942 to 1943, more than 20,000 Jews were transported to Estonia in various stages, mostly from the ghettos of Vilna and Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania and elsewhere in Europe. Some of them were murdered upon arrival, while others were kept in dozens of labor camps, the largest of which were Vaivara and Kalevi Liiva.

As the Red Army advanced toward these camps in 1944, thousands of Jews were evacuated and transported by the Nazis to the Stutthof concentration camp inside Germany and to other locations. Only a few hundred survived. When Estonia was liberated in September 1944, about 100 Jewish survivors—mainly Jews who had been transferred to Estonia from other countries—were found there.

A substantial number of the Estonian Jews who had stayed in the USSR as refugees during the war returned to Estonia in 1944–1945 and concentrated mainly in the capital, Tallinn. In the following years, many Soviet Jews arrived from different parts of the USSR. According to the census of 1959, there were 5,436 Jews (0.5%) in Estonia. Of these, 1,000 (19%) cited Yiddish as their mother tongue. Tallinn was by far the largest community, with 3,714 Jews.

Beginning in 1989, LIKOR (the Jewish Cultural Organization) encouraged the establishment of a variety of organizations and institutions including a Maccabi sports club, a day school for first to twelfth graders, and a Sunday school. These were all located in Tallinn in the building where the Jewish gymnasium had been prior to the war. There was also a Russian-language Jewish magazine called Ha-Shaḥar.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, about 1,000 Jews (Estonian-born for the most part) emigrated to Israel and other destinations. Many of the Russian Jews who remained in Estonia studied the local language in order to qualify for full civil rights. In 2000, about 2,500 Jews remained in the country, two-thirds of them in Tallinn, and others in Tartu, Narva, and Kohtla-Järve.

Suggested Reading

Ella Amitan-Wilensky, “Estonian Jewry: A Historical Summary,” in The Jews in Latvia, ed. Mendel Bobe et al., pp. 336–347 (Tel Aviv, 1971); Mark Dworzecki, Maḥanot ha-yehudim be-Estonyah, 1942–1944 (Jerusalem, 1969/70); Nosson Genss, Die Revaler Synagogue: In Zusammenhang mit der Geschichte der Juden in Reval (Tartu, 1933); Mikko Ketola, “Estonians, Baltic Germans, and Their Lutheran Teachings about the Jews, 1919–1945,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 16.1 (2003): 112–126; Nicholas Lane, “Estonia and Its Jews: An Ethical Dilemma,” East European Jewish Affairs 25.1 (1995) 3–16; Dov Levin, “Estonian Jews in the USSR (1941–1945),” Yad Vashem Studies 11 (1976): 273–297; Dov Levin, “Hishtatfut yehudim ba-milḥamot ha-‘atsma’ut shel Estonyah ve-Latviyah,” Ha-‘Avar 22 (1977): 141–154; Dov Levin, ed., Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah (Jerusalem, 1988); Dov Levin, “The Rescue of Jews by the Soviets in WWII: The Case of Estonia,” in The Holocaust, History and Memory: Essays in Honor of Israel Gutman, ed. Shmuel Almog et al., pp. 133–151 (Jerusalem, 2001); Dov Levin, “Estland: Einzigartiges Schicksal,” Shalom 18 (2002): 79–85.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann